A diverse group of authors and legal experts have announced their support for a lawsuit that demands the release of secret CIA records related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
At issue in the suit, filed Tuesday in Washington, are records on the unexplained role of a Miami-based undercover CIA agent named George Joannides in the months prior to Kennedy’s murder on Nov. 22, 1963. The authors supporting the suit include anti-conspiracist Gerald Posner, author of the 1993 book “Case Closed,” and Norman Mailer and Don DeLillo, two leading novelists who have explored the mysteries surrounding accused JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Also backing the lawsuit are legal experts G. Robert Blakey, the former chief counsel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which in the late 1970s investigated Kennedy’s death, and John Tunheim, a federal judge who chaired the Assassination Records Review Board of the mid-1990s.
The authors and experts differ on who was responsible for the president’s murder, but all agree that the CIA must now come clean about Joannides, a career spy who died in 1990.
In 1963 Joannides served as chief of the CIA’s anti-Castro “psychological warfare” operations in Miami. According to declassified CIA records corroborated by interviews, Joannides secretly financed exiled Cuban agents who collected intelligence on Lee Harvey Oswald three months before Kennedy was killed. Fifteen years later, Joannides was called out of retirement by the CIA to serve as the agency’s liaison to the House committee looking into Kennedy’s assassination. While working with the committee, the spy withheld information about his own actions in 1963 from the congressional investigators he was supposed to be assisting. It wasn’t until 2001, 38 years after Kennedy’s death, that Joannides’ support for the Cuban exiles, who clashed with Oswald and monitored him, came to light.
“[Joannides'] behavior was criminal,” said Blakey, the former House committee counsel who was deceived by the CIA agent. “He obstructed our investigation.”
“The agency is stonewalling,” said Posner, whose bestselling book supported the Warren Commission’s finding that Oswald, alone and unaided, killed Kennedy. “It’s a perfect example of why the public has so little trust in the CIA’s willingness to be truthful.”
Anthony Summers, a former BBC journalist and the author of “Not in Your Lifetime,” a bestseller that presents strong evidence of a JFK conspiracy, sees the Joannides case as “new evidence of CIA subterfuge — perhaps the most blatant such evidence.”
“The agency should come completely clean,” said Tunheim, the federal judge in Minnesota who oversaw the panel that declassified 4 million pages of once-secret JFK records.
Tom Crispell, spokesman for the CIA, insisted that the agency is “absolutely not stonewalling.” While declining to answer questions about Joannides’ actions in 1963 and 1978, Crispell said the CIA has made public “all known records” about Joannides that are relevant to the Kennedy assassination story.
The lawsuit, which Washington lawyer Jim Lesar filed on my behalf this week, calls for the agency to release all records on Joannides, who died in 1990. Joannides’ story first came to light in a story I wrote about him for the Miami New Times in April 2001. Posner picked up on the story in a piece for Newsweek last month. Leading newspapers in Greece advanced the story with front-page coverage on the 40th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, examining “the shadowy role of a Greek-American CIA agent,” namely, Joannides.
In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, a group of 13 writers who have published both pro- and anti-conspiracy works about JFK’s death — including Posner, Mailer, DeLillo, Blakey and Summers, as well as Nixon White House speechwriter Richard Whalen — signed an open letter calling on the CIA and the Defense Department to release all records on Joannides. The deceased spy’s story is “highly relevant” to the assassination, according to Judge Tunheim.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
George Efthyron Joannides was a dapper, multilingual CIA man from New York City. The son of a prominent Greek-American journalist, he had dabbled in journalism and law before joining the CIA in 1951. After a decade of service in Athens, he came to the attention of then deputy CIA director Richard Helms. In 1962, Helms took over the agency’s clandestine efforts to overthrow Castro. He sent Joannides, 41 at the time, to oversee a staff of 24 and a budget of $2.4 million (equivalent to $15 million today) dedicated to mounting covert operations designed to confuse and subvert the Cuban communists.
Chief among the spy’s specific duties in mid-1963 was the handling of the Cuban Student Directorate (DRE), one of the biggest and most active CIA-backed groups in Miami. Once upon a time the DRE was as well known to North American newspaper readers as the Iraqi National Congress is today. With 2,500 supporters and flattering coverage in Life magazine and the right-wing press, the young men of the directorate were at the forefront of the fight to eliminate Fidel Castro.
In August 1963, the DRE’s large and effective network of chapters in North America first picked up on a leftist adventurer named Lee Harvey Oswald. According to a CIA memo found at the JFK Library, Joannides was giving $25,000 a month (about $147,000 in today’s dollars) to the DRE at the time when the group’s New Orleans delegation decided to collect intelligence on and publish propaganda about Oswald, a Castro supporter who had once lived in the Soviet Union.
The DRE acted after Oswald had seemingly attempted to infiltrate the group. On Aug. 5, 1963, he approached the DRE’s delegation in New Orleans offering to train its anti-Castro fighters in military tactics. Then, a few days later, he inexplicably turned up handing out pro-Castro pamphlets on a street corner. DRE members accosted him, resulting in a confrontation that was broken up by the police. The DRE’s local delegate, Carlos Bringuier, challenged Oswald to a debate on a local radio program, then sent a tape of the program to the DRE’s Miami headquarters. The group also issued a press release calling for a congressional investigation of Oswald — then still an entirely obscure figure.
Joannides’ attitude toward all this activity is unknown, even though CIA officers working with Cuban exile groups were required to file monthly reports on their protégés. Joannides’ action reports from 1963 are missing from CIA archives, the agency’s Office of Historic Review has claimed.
Three months later, when Oswald was arrested in Dallas for the assassination, the DRE leaders in Miami immediately called Joannides. They then launched their second publicity offensive on Oswald in three months — only now the former Marine was world famous.
The anti-communist activists called the New York Times and other news organizations, telling the story of Oswald’s seemingly pro-Castro ways. Thus it was that the DRE, a CIA-funded organization, helped shape news coverage suggesting that Kennedy had been killed by a Castro supporter.
George Joannides, in short, was a spy working near the epicenter of world history. In Washington, there were suspicions of conspiracy, even fears of war with Cuba or the Soviet Union. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy initially suspected CIA-backed Cubans were behind his brother’s murder.
In Dallas, Oswald denied the charges. “I’m just a patsy,” he shouted to reporters at the Dallas City Jail.
The next day in Havana, Fidel Castro mobilized his armed forces and denounced the DRE’s story as a CIA provocation designed to justify an invasion of Cuba. The revelation of Joannides’ work with the DRE lends belated credence to Castro’s charge.
Then the assassin was assassinated. On the morning of Nov. 24, 1963, as the national television audience watched Oswald being transferred to a more secure jail, Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner connected to organized crime, whose best friend was a Havana casino operator embittered by Castro’s rise to power, stepped out of the crowd and shot Oswald dead.
In Miami, Joannides continued to work with the DRE. He received a copy of the tape the group had made of Oswald’s pro-Castro remarks. In the DRE’s newspaper, paid for with CIA funds, the student leaders promoted the conspiratorial scenario that Oswald and Castro were “the presumed assassins.” They instructed their chapters in South America to promote the Oswald-Castro connection in their local media.
Five days after the assassination the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), meeting in executive session, decided it wanted to take testimony from three DRE leaders. At the same time, Joannides was giving two of the anti-Castro activists CIA funds to get out of the country. They went to Central America. A week later, the DRE’s HUAC appearance was canceled.
After Kennedy was killed, Joannides’ patron, Helms, shielded the Joannides mission to Miami from review. He did not disclose to the Warren Commission that Joannides’ exiled Cuban agents had had pre-assassination contact with Oswald.
The available record shows that Joannides received high praise from his superiors for his work in 1963. His job evaluation for that year made no mention of Oswald or the Kennedy assassination, but the CIA’s Miami station chief Ted Shackley specifically cited Joannides’ handling of the propaganda efforts of the Cuban Student Directorate in awarding him the highest possible grades. Shackley concluded that Joannides had proven he could “translate policy directives into meaningful action programs.”
Joannides went on to serve in Athens, where according to recent Greek press reports, he played a role in the political machinations that led to the CIA-backed military coup in 1967. He also served in Saigon during the Vietnam War, then returned to Washington, where he retired to a modest home in Potomac, Md.
In 1978, Joannides suddenly reappeared in the JFK assassination story. His return is what especially intrigues scholars of the assassination.
By the late 1970s, the CIA had fallen into political disfavor in Washington. Revelations about Richard Helms’ role in plotting to kill Castro and other foreign leaders had prompted Congress to take another look at the Kennedy assassination. In May 1978 Joannides was called out of retirement by CIA general counsel Scott Breckinridge. His assignment: to serve as the CIA’s liaison to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which had been charged with reopening the investigation into the murders of Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Breckinridge told me in an interview before his death in 2000 that he did not know of Joannides’ 1963 assignment when he chose him for the liaison job.
As he worked with House Assassinations Committee investigators, Joannides again concealed the involvement of his Cuban operatives with Oswald not long before Kennedy’s murder. He withheld all records concerning his relationship with the DRE, even when they were specifically requested, according to a log that he kept. The log is now in the National Archives.
“The fact that the CIA didn’t tell the committee everything in his background suggests that the purpose of his assignment might have been to protect information, not share it,” said Tunheim, the Assassination Records Review Board chair.
Blakey, the Notre Dame law professor who served as the House committee’s chief counsel, now says Joannides was guilty of obstructing Congress. “The law says that anyone who corruptly endeavors to influence, obstruct or impede the exercise of the power of inquiry by [Congress] is guilty of a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. That’s exactly what he did. He did not give us the information that was manifestly relevant.”
The House Assassination Committee’s final report, released in 1979, concluded that Kennedy had been killed by Oswald and other conspirators who could not be identified. In the report, Blakey vouched for the CIA’s cooperation with the congressional inquiry. He now says he was wrong.
When asked if Blakey had misstated any facts about Joannides’ tenure as liaison to the House committee, CIA spokesman Crispell replied, “We are not going to debate Mr. Blakey.”
“The JFK records review board examined the issue of Mr. Joannides’ work with the [committee] in 1998,” he stated.
Tunheim, chair of Assassination Records Review Board from 1994 to 1998, when it issued its final report, disputed Crispell’s assertion. He said the board had merely identified Joannides and declassified a handful of documents from his personnel file.
“We did not consider the matter of his obstructing Congress one way or the other,” he said. “I don’t think we knew enough about Joannides at that point to assess his significance. If the board was in existence now, we would certainly pursue it.”
Blakey says Joannides deceived him, and he remains angry about it 25 years later. “When Congress opened its investigation, we were especially interested in the DRE because they had pre-assassination contact with Oswald,” Blakey said. “That Joannides never told us those were his people just makes me go ballistic. He was a material witness. He shouldn’t have been the liaison. He should have been interviewed under oath.”
Blakey does not believe Joannides was part of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. He speculates that the CIA man learned something about Oswald that was innocent but difficult to explain when Kennedy was killed.
Dan Hardway, a lawyer in North Carolina who worked as one of Blakey’s investigators in 1978, is more suspicious. While attempting to review CIA records relevant to Kennedy’s death, Hardway had regular contact with Joannides. He often complained to Blakey that Joannides was deliberately hindering his efforts. Hardway had several angry confrontations with the uncooperative CIA man — never suspecting Joannides was concealing his own personal knowledge of the events of 1963.
“Now there is no doubt in my mind that Joannides deliberately hid evidence of an assassination conspiracy from us,” Hardway said in a telephone interview.
In Miami, the former leaders of the Cuban Student Directorate who worked with Joannides in 1963 remember him with respect. Forty years ago, they were passionate young freedom fighters striving to save Cuba from communism. Now they are successful businessmen and professionals in Miami. They recall a close but combative relationship with the CIA man they knew as “Howard.”
“He was an impressive man in many ways,” said Luis Fernandez Rocha, a physician who served as the titular leader of the DRE in 1963 and met often with Joannides. “He had clout. He could make decisions on the spot.”
The former DRE leaders deny any knowledge of or role in a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. They differ on whether their CIA handler was aware of the group’s contacts with Lee Harvey Oswald in August 1963.
Bringuier says he did not know Joannides and never spoke to him.
Fernandez Rocha says he “does not recall” talking to the CIA man about the former Marine who attempted to infiltrate the DRE.
Isidro Borja, an engineer who was active in the DRE’s military efforts, says that he is “certain” that “Howard” was aware of the group’s efforts to expose Oswald as a pro-Castro sympathizer in August 1963.
Whatever Joannides knew about Oswald before the assassination, he took the secret to his grave in 1990. But despite the CIA’s denials, assassination researchers suspect that records still locked away at the agency might shed light on the subject.
“It is unfortunate that litigation is necessary to force the Central Intelligence Agency to provide documents and information that the public has a right to know,” said Posner.