Unredacted Episode 2: Transcript of Interview with Jefferson Morley and Jim Lesar
Jefferson Morley is a Washington Post columnist and plaintiff in a lawsuit against the CIA, demanding the release of records pertaining to CIA officer George Joannides. Jim Lesar is the lawyer handling Morley's suit, and is a leading Freedom of Information Act attorney. He is also President of the Assassination Archives and Research Center in Washington. This interview was conducted on 22 Mar 2006 by Tyler Weaver.
TYLER: Hi there, and welcome to the second episode of Unredacted. My name's Tyler Weaver, I'm the producer and co-host of the show. If you're a returning listener, welcome back, and if this is your first time tuning in, welcome. For our first-time listeners, I'm going to give you a brief rundown of the show. In a nutshell, the goal of the show is to strip away some of the blackouts in history, and to dig for the truth behind the Kennedy assassination. To do that, we've got the help of some of the leading authors and historians in the field.
So, as I said, my name's Tyler, and my co-host is Rex Bradford, but for this time out I'm going to be flying solo, and I'm bringing you an interview that I conducted in March of this year with Jeff Morley of the Washington Post Online and Jim Lesar, one of the country's most prominent FOIA attorneys as well as the president of the AARC. The focus of the interview is their lawsuit against the CIA for release of documents on George Joannides. We cover everything from the background of their investigation, to the lawsuit itself, to current developments in the suit, as well as a big picture look at some of the public and mass media perceptions of the Kennedy assassination story.
So, if this is your first time tuning in - welcome, and I hope I give you a good show to come in on, and if you're a returning listener, welcome back and enjoy.
TYLER: The Oscars have come and gone, and award season is at a close, except for one - the National Security Archive's Rosemary Award, which in mid-March was granted to the CIA giving the agency the distinction of being the worst federal agency in complying with the Freedom of Information Act. We're pleased to bring you two people who can fully attest to how much they deserve that award - Jeff Morley, a staff writer at the Washington Post Online, and Jim Lesar, an attorney dealing in FOIA litigation and the president of the AARC, so guys, welcome.
JEFF: Thank you.
JIM: Thank you.
TYLER: So right now, you're currently in a lawsuit with the CIA for release of documents pertaining to George Joannides. Jeff, would you mind giving us a background on who Joannides was and -
JEFF: Um, George Joannides was a career CIA officer who died in 1991. I learned as a result of records from - released by the JFK Review Board in the 1990s that he had a very interesting role in the events of 1963. I pursued the story through reporting, Freedom of Information Act request - which got nowhere - so, in 2003, with Jim Lesar's help, I filed suit in Federal court for the CIA's records on Joannides' activities in 1963, and subsequently. We have made some progress in there, but the CIA is not being at all cooperative.
Joannides is important in the history of the Kennedy assassination because he was the case officer who handled the Cuban exile group that had extensive contact with the accused assassin - Lee Harvey Oswald - before the assassination. And this close collaborative relationship that he had with these Cuban exiles was never disclosed to any of the investigations of - of the events of 1963. Not to the Warren Commission, not to Jim Garrison, not to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, not to the Church Committee, and indeed the CIA as late as 1995 - 1997 - was still trying to conceal from the JFK Review Board the facts of what Joannides had been doing in the summer of 1963. So, we are attempting to pierce a veil that has been dropped over this man for the past forty years.
TYLER: Can you actually talk to me about the um - his ties with the HSCA? What he doing with them?
JEFF: Well, what makes George Joannides especially interesting is that he has very interesting roles in the Kennedy assassination story - not once, but twice - in 1963 he had these contact - he was running agents who had contact with Oswald. Fifteen years later, he is called out of retirement and is asked to serve as the agency's liason to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which had - was investigating the very Cuban exiles whom he handled and funded, guided and monitored and - in 1978, in facing face-to-face questions from House Select Committee investigators, Joannides covered up his activities in 1963.
JEFF: So, not only was he present at the time, but he was deeply involved in preventing an investigation of his own actvities fifteen years earlier. That's what makes his story so important.
TYLER: And you had actually told Bob Blakey this after you discovered it, correct?
JEFF: Yes. As the agency's liason to the HSCA, Joannides had a lot of contact with Blakey and other senior investigators on the HSCA. It wasn't until I went to Blakey in 2001 and told him, "did you know what this guy Joannides was doing in 1963?" And I'll never forget what Blakey said. He said "oh, he didn't have anything to do with what was going on in 1963." And I said, "think again, Bob. Here are the records. He was right there on the scene. He was very directly involved." So, um, that came as quite a surprise to Blakey, and prompted him to retract his previous statements that the CIA had cooperated with his investigation. Blakey now says that the - in his words - that "the CIA set me up." So, Joannides was able to compromise the Congressional investigation of the Kennedy assassination, and that's a - we still don't know the full dimensions of that story.
TYLER: Jim, question for you. What was the draw for you to this case? Of this case, sorry.
JIM: Well, I think what Jeff has uncovered is of exceptionally great importance, in terms of both the historical record, and in terms of trying to get any further official action on the case. Fundamentally what you have here is the corruption of a Congressional investigation on a matter of utmost national security - the assassination of a President of the United States. Congress, and - when you destroy the integrity of a Congressional probe, it is a direct affront to Democratic rule. In addition to that, we have the fact that the CIA has not only compromised the Kennedy assassination investigation done by Congress, but it has thoroughly undermined the legislation that Congress passed to try and provide the American people with the ability to get at the answers that have bothered them for so long about the assassination. In 1992, Congress passed the JFK Act which was designed to get all of the records relevant to the assassination out and into the open as soon as possible. Here we find that - with regards to some very pivotal questions - that did not happen. Not only did it not happen before the Assassination Records Review Board went out of existence, but the CIA is not abiding with an agreement that it signed with the National Archives and the Assassination Records Review Board that it would continue to process records under the standards of the JFK Act, even after the Review Board's demise.
JIM: So, those are exceptionally important issues, and they need to be addressed and need to be resolved judicially, and if the judiciary is not equal to the task of dealing with them, then we need to go back to Congress and get some action.
TYLER: I want to kind of step back from the lawsuit and go, I guess - back in time. We'll definitely come back to it, but Jeff, what I'm curious about on your end - the Washington Post is kind of - I guess in mainstream media - considered to be more of a liberal newspaper, as opposed to the New York Times, or something like that, yet, you've weathered quite a storm because of all this. I'm curious if you can talk about the climate of the Post, going back to the Jane Roman story even?
JEFF: Well, I don't want to talk about individual discussions -
TYLER: Of course not.
JEFF: - that go on. Um... this is a very sensitive and difficult subject for the Washington Post to handle. It's a sensitive and difficult question for the entire country as the inability of our institutions to resolve it to anybody's satisfaction shows, and all of those problems that exist in the Congress, in the news media in general are found in very concentrated form in the Post. There's a feeling in the newsroom that the assassination story is a black hole, that it will just consume time and resources of the newspaper without - to no end that will satisfy readers.
JEFF: I don't think that's true, and I have argued to the contrary that the assassination story has lacked basic journalism and the problem is not to succumb to fantasies of smoking guns or changing peoples' minds, but to incrementally advance what we know and can say with certainty. We don't - the assassination story, because of its drama, because of the sudden, shocking nature of it - tends to devolve into, you know, questions of whether there was a conspiracy? Well, you know, we don't look at our coverage of 9/11 or Iraqi weapons of mass destruction through such a sort of tiny, narrow lens. I try and say that what we should be looking at is: was there an intelligence failure around the Kennedy assassination? Conspiracy is a legal term - it's appropriate to discussions among prosecutors. Intelligence failure is more of a policy analysis term and I think that's what's needed around the assassination story - to take away that loaded question and to look at the fact pattern a little more dispassionately, and then we'll be able to make some progress in saying definitively what happened. I don't have a theory of the assassination, I don't - my reporting doesn't seek to vindicate one. My reporting seeks to fill out the fact pattern and then to say "what can we tell from that pattern?" So, I think there's a you, you know, there's a reluctance to do that at the paper. There's a feeling that it won't lead anywhere. There's a feeling that we'll never know. To me, that's journalistic defeatism.
JEFF: People will be interested. I've never - while I have not gotten every story that I wanted - JFK story - that I wanted to publish in the Washington Post, I've never had anybody say "you don't know what you're talking about" or "I don't think that's a story," or "that's not interesting." In my latest round of - I updated a senior Post reporter on my JFK reporting and he said, you know, "Good work, keep it up," you know? So, I think people - that's the state of the debate in the paper. It's not what I would ideally like but, you know, I'm here and pitching away. I think when this case - when our case - produces new documents, which I think it's going to do, I think we're - we're not talking about "there might be a document out there that might be - that might have something in it." We are now at the point where here's a document that we know exists, and we just need to have it declassified. I think when we get those documents declassified, people are going to say, "there's a hell of a story here." I'm still confident of that.
TYLER: So, I mean, getting into the whole Joannides, the Roman thing, was the pursuit of a good story? A good story, and an interesting one that could further this, correct?
TYLER: Yeah, OK. Jim, this is actually a question for you. If we could take kind of an even broader look - not just at the media in Washington, but in Washington D.C. in general. The sort of attitudes towards this subject. I mean, you've lived there for a number of years. I wonder if you can comment on that?
JIM: Well, I think there's tremendous interest in the subject. That's - there's no question about that. There's a - maybe it's lessened among the younger generation because to them it's history. They're not really familiar with the history, except maybe through a movie or two. But there is still tremendous interest among all sectors in Washington DC in the subject. You can't - it just can't be avoided. There is a feeling - particularly prevalent in the news media, and in the political circles - there's an avoidance - a reluctance to deal with it. And I think Bob Blakey once had a phrase - he said, "this is a tar baby." I think that is - some of that is involved in political and journalistic circles. They don't know how to deal with it, they think it's too complicated, and to give them a measure of agreement - that it has become burdened with a proliferation of wild conspiracy theories, and a lot - some of the media has tended to seize on that, and that has detracted from the more serious pursuits of the better researchers and writers. But there is still - there's still a latent interest there that I think is still very strong, but nobody knows how to deal with it.
TYLER: How would you suggest to deal with it?
JIM: Well, I think that there's several things that can be done. First of all, we need to press for new legislation with Congress because of the problems that Jeff and other researchers are having getting access to documents that Congress clearly intended us to have access to. The Assassination Records Review Board wasn't able to do everything that it could have or should have done, in part for reasons of budget and time and in part because this subject presents a moving target because you learn new things and that opens up new avenues and makes new things relevant. But it's becoming increasingly clear that there were gaps in the Review Board's work, and that the CIA withheld important materials. We need to be able to get at them, and since the Review Board is out of existence, there's no mechanism - we're back to square one - where we were before the JFK Act, using the Freedom of Information Act, which is inadequate to the task. And that in fact was the premise of the JFK Act - that it was passed because of the failure of the Freedom of Information Act to be able to function. There's in fact a rather dramatic story in that connection. When Congress began to consider the legislation in the wake of Oliver Stone's movie JFK, the General Counsel for the Governmental Affairs Committee came to my office, and said, "Jim, we had a Committee meeting on a proposed new legislation to cover Kennedy assassination records, and the senators kept raising the question, 'look, what - we've already got the Freedom of Information Act. Why do we need a new act?'" So I said, "Well, Steve, come here." I took him out into the hallway, and I have a huge black binder with a thousand pages of a list of CIA documents that were the subject of a FOIA lawsuit, and this was their Vaughn Index. And you went through it, and page after page after page, there are documents listed and next to each one it says, "Denied. Denied. Denied." He said, "Jim, can I take this with me?" and I said, "Sure, take it." And he took it to the next meeting of the Senate Committee, and said "here's the answer to your question."
JIM: (laughs) So, uh - but basically now, we're back to square one and it's conceivable that Jeff Morley's lawsuit will play the same sort of function that the twenty-some odd years of litigation under FOIA that I handled before the JFK Act had in setting the stage for new legistlation. So, that's one thing that needs to be done is new legislation on access to government records. And then I think there are possibly some other things. I've given some thought to them. I haven't had time to sit down and work them out thoroughly, but I think that it's certainly possible perhaps, to go to some of the agencies, and demand investigation. I think one thing we might consider doing is going to the CIA Inspector General and say, "Here's what we know about the Joannides situation. We'd like you to investigate this. This seems to be a thorough violation of your agreement with the House Select Committee on Assassinations." So there are things that I think can be done, and need to be done.
TYLER: Alr -
JEFF: Tyler, I think that - I mean, I don't think that it's more complicated than just doing research and writing good stories. I mean, that's what I do, and that can be done. There's an unfortunate tendency in this subject for, you know, bad journalism and bad scholarship to drive out good. But the only solution to that is to master the material and tell the story as it appears in the documents. And we have this huge body of new records that came out in the 1990s, and that - you know, I think people are just beginning to absorb now, and I think that telling the story of what's there can really, you know, advance this thing.
JIM: I would agree with that. I think there's no doubt that we're just beginning to plumb what's available at the National Archives.
TYLER: This is kind of heading back into the lawsuit. Jeff, I'm kind of curious as to what - I mean, you had said that you were initially after a good story. What was really the turning point for you that took it from wanting to tell a good story into the lawsuit?
JEFF: Umm.. the way this thing started was I had noticed that in some CIA records that were released in 1995 that there was - made reference to a man named "Howard," and he seemed to have a relationship with this Cuban exile group - the Revolutionary Student Directorate. There were memos to and from Howard, and I had always been interested in that group because their representative in New Orleans, Carlos Bringuier, had had this very public series of confrontations with Oswald just three months before the assassination. I always thought that it was striking that Bringuier had written a press release calling for a congressional investigation of Oswald, who in August of 1963 was of course thoroughly obscure, and had done very little to deserve a congressional investigation. So, I thought, "Howard might know something about that." So, I asked the JFK Review Board to ask the CIA "who was Howard?" and they put that question to them in some memos and got back a deceptive answer, but eventually, they did some research on their own - the JFK Review Board did - and they uncovered George Joannides' personnel file, which showed that he in fact was the case officer for that group, and that he was "Howard." Those documents finally reached the National Archives a couple of months after the JFK Review Board went out of existence in September of 1998, but when they did appear there, I immediately went and got them. When I got them, what the Review Board had declassified was personnel evaluations - his annual fitness reports - for 1963, and they had thrown one in there from 1978, and that document showed that he had been the liason to the HSCA. And that's really when the story took off, because I had never expected that.
JEFF: I was very interested in what he knew about 1963, but the fact that he reappeared in the story 15 years later was just electrifying. That's when I knew we had a story, because that was beyond - I mean, that was extremely suspicious, and it was - it was nothing that I had theorized about, expected, thought about in any way, shape or form. It was a complete surprise, and very interesting. And since that day, the CIA has virtually never made - to me or anybody else - an accurate statement about George Joannides. They do not want to talk about this.
TYLER: And this - this led to the lawsuit, to get -
JEFF: Well, initially I tried a variety of approaches. One was just to tell the story, which I published a version of the story in the Miami New Times newspaper in 2001. I continued to pursue reporting. I pursued informally through letters to the CIA General Counsel requests for clarification. I continued to work on the story and, you know, after a while, I just realized that wasn't going anywhere, and I needed to step up my efforts, and we needed to really force them to respond, to get the power of the law behind us - simple persuasion and reporting wasn't going to get any results. So, in the summer of 2003, I filed the Freedom of Information Act request just to see what would come of it, and got back the answer that they had already released all of their records on George Joannides - a false - misrepresentation of the facts. So then, that's when I decided we had to go to court.
TYLER: Um, this is open to both Jeff - you, and Jim. If you can kind of just give a, you know, a timeline of the case. What's happened since the filing of the FOIA?
JIM: Well -
JEFF: Can I...
JEFF: ...take this Jim? And maybe you can add...
JEFF: So, we filed the case in December of 2003. There were various motions back and forth about they couldn't possibly produce any records very quickly - Jim may disagree - I don't think that was too - the next significant development was a year later in December 2004, they provided us with about 150 pages from Joannides' administrative and personnel file, nothing - no operational records, but a lot of records about his assignments and personnel records. There was a lot of interesting information in there, and about four documents that I think are highly significant and point to what was important about what he was doing in 1963. Since then, we have obtained a Vaughn Index which identified the documents we were not given. 33 documents withheld in full, and we now have some understanding of what those are, and there a couple of documents in there that are clearly relevant and significant as well. So, now we are contesting the adequacy of the search which produced those documents because they did not search all the places they are required to by law and that we requested in the original FOIA request. So, we are now seeking to get that - to get a real search done, while the CIA seeks to get the case thrown out.
TYLER: Just - I don't know if you can talk about this, but what were some of the things you were able to gleam out of what was missing?
JEFF: Well, one thing that I had always wondered about Joannides was: did he work in New Orleans? Did he go to New Orleans? OK, he was based in Miami where the Revolutionary Student Directorate had its main headquarters, but the confrontation between the Directorate's members and Oswald took place in New Orleans. So, one question was: did Joannides ever go there? And the records that we obtained show that he did. There are two travel expense forms in there that show that he traveled to New Orleans in April and May of 1964. Those dates are highly relevant because members of the Warren Commission were in New Orleans in both those months interviewing members of the DRE about their confrontation with Oswald. So, this raises the possibility that Joannides coached or tampered with DRE witnesses in the course of the Warren investigation. That's a - I'm not saying that happened, but the possibility is now there. Before, I could never say that George Joannides was in New Orleans around this affair, and now that's been established as fact. The second thing that I think is very interesting is in 1981 - long after all this was over - Joannides received a Career Intelligence Medal. This is a pretty - it's not the highest award you can get in the agency, it's the second highest award. It's a lot more than a gold watch. It's not a pro forma send-off. This award is reserved for people who have had pretty outstanding careers. What did George Joannides do in 1963 and 1978 that was so praiseworthy? This was not a man who wound up being a division chief or a - he did not rise high in the hierarchy. He was a career officer and had a lot of different assignments - but what was it about what he did that was considered so praiseworthy that he would get this? There's a five-page citation that goes with that medal, and that citation is being withheld in full. So, that's another thing that I think - that citation, I think, may shed light on this whole story. Those are documents that we know exist, and are being improperly withheld right now.
TYLER: Improperly withheld. Umm.. when we had spoken in November, you had mentioned that Joannides had died in... '91 was it?
TYLER: Can you - and something that he had taken his story to the grave basically. He - his cover story, rather. What was his - the obituary? You said that you had looked that up.
JEFF: Uh, yeah. George Joannides was a good spy. He took his cover story to the grave. In his obituary that appeared in the Post in March of 1991, he is listed as "George Joannides - Defense Department lawyer." He never was a lawyer for the Defense Department. That was his cover story, and he maintained it (laughs) ...
JEFF: ... even after he was dead. So, that's a dedicated spy for you. (laughs).
TYLER: .. sounds definitely deserving of that "second highest medal" that he got there.
TYLER: Jim, I was wondering if you could kind of chime in with the - you know, this is near the end of March of 2006. I'm wondering if you could comment on the most current developments in the case?
JIM: Well, the - currently both sides have moved for summary judgement, claiming that they're entitled - we - the CIA claims that it's entitled to get rid of the lawsuit, that they've provided everything that they have to provide, that they don't have to do any more searches, and that's the end of the case. We are claiming that they have to do further searches and that they have unlawfully withheld information that should have been disclosed, and further, we are claiming that they should have processed the records under the standards of the JFK Act, in accordance with the memorandum of understanding that they entered into with the National Archives and the Review Board just before the Review Board went out of existence. I filed our motion - I think it was on March the sixth - and a couple of days ago, I got a call from the government attorney asking for - saying that they were going to move for an additional three weeks extension to reply, and I consented to that. So in another three weeks, we will have their response to what we filed.
TYLER: What are - and this open to both of you - what are you viewing you chances of success at at this point?
TYLER: Don't want to jinx anything, but ...
JIM: (laughs) Well, it's difficult to say. It's - a lot depends on the judge. If it gets serious attention, I would think we have a substantial chance of getting further searches ordered and that some of the documents that have been withheld - particularly the Career Intelligence document - that we might get those released. But, ultimately, I'm more inclined to place my faith in the court of appeals. I think before we get any substantial relief, we'll probably have to go through the court of appeals.
JEFF: Uh, Tyler, I think that if we can get any of the Career Intelligence Medal citation - I think I am now close to being ready to write another article that kind of lays out the advance of this story, and I think when that happens, I think it may be public pressure in conjunction with the court case that prompts somebody at the CIA to say "Hey, it's in our interest to be forthcoming on this one," and for them to turn some material over. So, I think that we - the court case is part of a one-two punch that gets us results in the coming year.
JIM: I think that the reason why I think we have a better shot at the Career Intelligence Medal than other documents is simply because Jeff has been able to come up with some other such documents regarding other CIA officers that have been released, both under the JFK Act and under the Freedom of Information Act. That makes it much more difficult for the Agency to maintain that this one has to be withheld in toto.
TYLER: So, I do want to go on a bit - we're almost finished up here. What are you - Jeff, I mean, currently I have you as working on a biography of Win Scott. Do you care to talk about that at all?
JEFF: Yeah, Win Scott was the CIA station chief in Mexico City in the 1960s, and I'm writing a biography of him with the help of his son. This is not a book about the assassination, although three chapters - because of Oswald's visit to Mexico City - three chapters will touch on Kennedy's Cuba policy and Oswald's visit, and the investigation of the assassination in that period. And, when I talk about just, you know, just mastering the material, this is a book about what really happened - about how a CIA station really works, about what the surveillance of Oswald really was, and again, there's no theory here. This is what the records show, illuminated through a combination of interviews with people who were there and examination of all the records themselves. So, it's really laying bare the real history of that period, of the first 25 years of the CIA - not in a expose or type of fashion. This is really a portrait of a man, an exemplary CIA officer - who incidentally didn't have anything to do with the assassination of President Kennedy, in fact, did his job around the surveillance of Oswald pretty well, although the government's efforts to hide that have, you know, only created suspiscion. So I think that, you know, this is going to lay the foundation. I think the story of George Joannides is something that will be built on that foundation, and that's probably another book down the road a ways.
TYLER: So, we're - like I said - heading towards the end, I just wanted to know if there's - and this out to both of you - if there's anything that you'd like to talk about that that we really haven't, anything you'd just like to add on? It's an open forum for you guys, so please.
JIM: Well, I -
JEFF: Umm -
JIM: I'd just like to say "keep tuned." (laughs)
TYLER: (laughs) Certainly.
JEFF: I gotta say that what Jim has done on this case is really, you know, is really remarkable. The way he's used the law to force - to get the documents that we have gotten so far is really - you know, we have accomplished a lot with this case because of Jim's knowledge of the law. We've got a shot at this thing - at really uncovering the real story here. People say "oh, it can't be done," or "we'll never know," and all that. The progress that we've made in this case so far refutes that decisively. There is a story there and it can be gotten, no matter - despite the government's - despite the government's cover up. We are making progress, thanks to Jim's work.
JIM: I should just add that it's very easy to get discouraged in this because the - it's rough going. It's difficult to make progress, and you get defeated a lot before you get rewards. But, I was encouraged just last night when I picked up on another FOIA case I have - it has nothing to do with the JFK assassination - but it involved an issue that I had lost in the court of appeals several years ago in another case. Suddenly, I find out that the FBI has changed its policy - the one that it won on - it has now changed. It is possible that change will come about even though you lose and lose frequently. Eventually if you persevere, you may get what you were attempting to do.
TYLER: Hi, it's Tyler again, and I just wanted to say thanks to Jeff and Jim for having a little chat with me, and to be sure to tell you that if you're interested in reading more about this case to check out the Mary Ferrell Foundation's Unredacted Episode 2 page, where we have a collection of documents relating to the case, as well as several essays and articles that Jeff's written. Also, we have video footage of an interview that the Foundation conducted with Jeff in November of last year, where he talks in a bit more detail about his investigation into George Joannides.
On the next show, Rex is doing an interview with Josiah Thompson, author of the seminal work Six Seconds in Dallas, so be sure to join us for that, and until then, I just wanted to say on behalf of the entire Foundation, thank you for tuning in, and we'll see you next time on Unredacted.