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The BBC's Flawed RFK Story

by Jefferson Morley and David Talbot

On November 20, 2006 -- the day that would have been Robert Kennedy's eighty-first birthday -- the BBC program Newsnight aired a startling report alleging that three CIA operatives were caught on camera at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the night of Kennedy's assassination. The story suggested that they were involved in his killing. The BBC broadcast, produced by filmmaker Shane O'Sullivan, identified the three CIA operatives as George Joannides, David Morales and Gordon Campbell. All three were known to have worked for the Agency in Miami in the early 1960s when the White House ordered up a massive, not-so-secret effort to overthrow Fidel Castro's communist government in Cuba.

The report was wholly mistaken.

O'Sullivan's report -- entitled "Did the CIA Kill Bobby Kennedy?" -- was not a screed. It presented conflicting testimony about the identities of the three men who were photographed and filmed that night. Some former associates said the men were indeed Joannides, Morales, and Campbell [1], while others disputed this. Despite the mixed evidence, O'Sullivan concluded, "My gut feeling is that these three senior CIA operatives were behind the assassination of Robert Kennedy." The CIA, he told the BBC audience, "owes the public an explanation before the truth behind the Robert Kennedy assassination is lost to history."

Newsnight's producers and eminent host, Jeremy Paxman, found the report convincing enough to share with their viewers. The Guardian ran a print version. But British writer Mel Ayton raised questions about the BBC's identification of Morales. We conducted an in-depth investigation of the now deceased

intelligence officers and found no evidence that the three men were at the Ambassador Hotel. New evidence and photographs of the men named in the BBC report provide strong evidence that O'Sullivan and the British broadcast giant erred.

We spent six weeks interviewing dozens of people from Washington DC to Florida to California and Arizona who knew Joannides, Morales and Campbell at different times in their lives. We spoke with former CIA colleagues, retired State Department officials, personal friends and family members.

Death Certificate for Gordon Campbell
Death Certificate
for Gordon Campbell.

Alleged picture of Gordon Campbell captured at Ambassador Hotel in June 1968
Alleged picture of Gordon Campbell captured at Ambassador Hotel in June 1968.

Gordon Campbell, it turns out, was not the deputy station chief in the CIA's Miami operation, as O'Sullivan reported. He was a yachtsman and Army colonel who served as a contract agent helping the agency ferry anti-Castro guerrillas across the straits of Florida, according to Rudy Enders, a retired CIA officer, and two other people who knew him. He could not have been at the scene of Bobby's Kennedy's assassination on June 5, 1968 because he died in 1962.

"I was right there when he died," said Enders in a telephone interview. "He was getting a drink at the drinking fountain in Zenith Technical Services [the cover name for the CIA's offices] in Miami. He stood up and started shaking and he collapsed and we tried to revive him. We gave him mouth to mouth to resuscitation and it just didn't work. It was a real bad heart attack." Campbell's death certificate, which identified him as a "maritime adviser," states he passed away on Sept. 19, 1962.

When asked about this, O'Sullivan suggested that the man caught on camera might have expropriated the dead man's name as an alias, since taking false names was a common practice among CIA covert operatives.

The BBC report also was apparently wrong about David Morales, a swaggering paramilitary expert known for his counterintelligence network in Cuban Miami and for his hatred of both John and Bobby Kennedy. Family members insisted that the man caught on TV news cameras at the Ambassador was not Morales, pointing out that the man in the news footage looked more like a light-skinned African-American than a Mexican-American. The man said to be Morales appears only in the background of video footage from a TV camera on the other side of the hotel ballroom. The image is both small and blurred making reproduction, comparison and indentification difficult. New photos of Morales, taken in the late 1960s and early 1970s, shows a distinctly different-looking man than the one in the Ambassador footage, with grayer hair and the strong Indian features that gave Morales his nickname, "El Indio."

Morales, Viet Nam 1969-1971
Morales, Viet Nam 1969-1971. (enlarge)

Morales, Peru 1966-1967
Morales, Peru 1966-1967. (enlarge)

Morales, Viet Nam 1969-1971
Morales, Viet Nam 1969-1971. (enlarge)

Morales, who died in 1978, is a legitimate figure of interest in the Kennedy assassination story. Morales' former lawyer, Robert Walton, has said in unpaid interviews that his client boasted of involvement in the assassinations of both Kennedys. Even admiring former CIA colleagues and friends acknowledge Morales was involved in the roughest of assignments, such as the notorious Operation Phoenix program in South Vietnam which targeted suspected communists for capture, torture and execution. In his recently published posthumous memoir, American Spy, legendary CIA operative Howard Hunt called Morales a "cold-blooded killer" who was "possibly completely amoral." The CIA declined to provide Morales' travel records for June 1968, but there is no evidence he was at the Ambassador Hotel.

The question of whether CIA veteran George Joannides appeared in the photographs taken at the Ambassador Hotel on June 4, 1968 was more disputed. Joannides, who died in 1990, is a sensitive subject for the Agency. His story only emerged in 2001 from newly released JFK files. As chief of the psychological warfare operations in Miami in 1963, Joannides distributed up to $25,000 a month to an anti-Castro student group that became entangled with Lee Harvey Oswald’s murky drama before he was arrested for killing Kennedy. Agency lawyers are battling in federal court to block the release of records of Joannides’ secret operations 44 years ago. Disclosure, they say, would harm U.S. national security. (For more on this lawsuit, visit the Morley v. CIA Web site).

Alleged picture of George Joannides captured at Ambassador Hotel in June 1968
Alleged picture of George Joannides captured at Ambassador Hotel in June 1968. (enlarge)

George Joannides in South Vietnam, June 1973
George Joannides in South Vietnam, June 1973. (enlarge)

George Joannides in South Vietnam, June 1973
George Joannides in South Vietnam, June 1973. (enlarge)

Several people who had worked with Joannides over the years said the man in the Ambassador Hotel photograph was identical to the man they knew. But other former colleagues disagreed, as did relatives and close friends. Helen Charles, widow of Greek Embassy spokesman George Charles who was one of Joannides' closest personal friends in Washington for four decades, said the man in the BBC photo was not Joannides. "That's not George," said Mitzi Natsios, widow of a fellow Greek-American CIA colleague who knew Joannides well. Robert and Louise Keeley, a retired State Department officer and his wife, who worked and socialized with Joannides in Greece in 1965-68, also said they did not recognize the man depicted in the BBC report. "That is not my uncle, I can tell you that," said Timothy Kalaris, a nephew of Joannides who lives in the Washington area. "I don't know how anybody who ever knew him could say that's him." Photographs of Joannides, whose picture has never been published before, show him at a June 1973 CIA party in Saigon where he served as chief of political action operations. Joannides wears glasses as did the man in the BBC report but he has a more pointed jaw, larger ears, a different hairline, and a more olive complexion. The CIA also declined to release Joannides’ travel records. Most likely he was in Athens in June 1968.

The BBC story illustrates the Gresham's Law that governs journalism about the Kennedy brothers' assassinations. Just as economists note that bad currency tends to drive out good, so in times of media hyperbole do bad JFK stories tend to drive out good ones. Titillating charges like the BBC's erroneous report have replaced serious coverage of the still mysterious crime, despite the release of much more significant evidence in recent years, Thousands of once-secret government documents are shedding new light on explosive tensions within the Kennedy administration over Cuba and other Cold War flashpoints. The American people remain deeply interested and yet profoundly confused about why their president was gunned down in broad daylight. The troubling story of John F. Kennedy's murder still does not cohere. Nor does it go away.

The flawed BBC report not only raises questions about editorial standards at the world's largest news organization. It also clouds the path of legitimate inquiry into the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy.

[Editor's note: For more information, see an Unredacted interview with Morley and Talbot about their investigation. In addition to audio and a transcript of the interview, the page contains links to the original BBC Newsnight story. It also features a reply to this piece by Shane O'Sullivan, creator of the BBC piece, and an article by Mel Ayton referred to above].

[1] Shane O'Sullivan's story used these sources for positive identifications:

  • Wayne Smith, retired State Department official, said that the man in the BBC Ambassador Hotel footage was Morales.
  • David Rabern, identified as a CIA operations officer, also said Morales appears in the footage.
  • Brad Ayers, former Special Forces trainer, said a bald man in a series of still photos taken at the Ambassador on the night of June 4, 1968 was Gordon Campbell.
  • Ed Lopez, a civil liberties lawyer in New York who served as an investigator for the HSCA, said another man in the Ambassador still photos was George Joannides.

Jefferson Morley is a staff writer at washingtonpost.com and author of the forthcoming biography of Win Scott, the CIA’s top man in Mexico in the 1960s. David Talbot is the founder of Salon and the author of Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.

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