stripping away the blackouts of history

Unredacted Episode 8: Transcript of Interview with Jefferson Morley and David Talbot

Jefferson Morley is a journalist with Washington Post Online who has written about the JFK assassination case, and David Talbot is founder of salon.com and author of Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years. They investigated the allegations made in a November 2006 BBC Newsnight piece, and discuss here the results of that investigation.

Go to this Unredacted episode's main page to listen to the interview and for additional resources.

REX: Hello, this is Rex Bradford, and we’re here with the Mary Ferrell Foundation’s “Unredacted” show, and we’re talking this morning with David Talbot, author of “Brothers,” and Jefferson Morley, a Washington Post Online writer, about their investigation of a BBC story that played last fall. Welcome, Jeff and David.

JEFF: Thank you.

DAVID: Hi.

REX: Why don’t I have one of you fill us in basically on the story. You investigated a story that was shown on BBC last fall and then printed in The Guardian, I believe, and maybe one of you could summarize what that story is before we get into the investigation that you did.

JEFF: Want to take that, David?

DAVID: Why don’t you go ahead?

JEFF: OK. So, we looked at the BBC story to try and figure out - was it true? Were these three CIA officers at the Ambassador Hotel at that time?

REX: Now, this is during the night of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, right?

JEFF: Right. Correct. So it - was it possible that they were there? These were obviously key CIA officers known - interesting biographies of all of them - and so we set out to find out “were they there” - as the BBC had asserted. After interviewing a lot of people who knew these men at all through different stages of their life - after finding new photographs - we concluded that the BBC story was mistaken. Those three CIA officers were not at the scene of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. We’re pretty sure of that.

REX: OK. Now, this is Gordon Campbell, David Morales, and George Joannides - who you’ve written about separately. What -

DAVID: I think we should clarify that actually. It’s not strictly correct to say that we know all three of them weren’t there. What we know, based on our research, is the three people pictured in the BBC documentary were not the three CIA officials they were alleged to be.

We do believe, from our own research, as well as other early reporting, that at least one of these CIA officials - David Morales - might have been in Los Angeles at the time of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, and might have been involved in that assassination, based on what he himself told people. But, there’s no photographic evidence - at least that we came across, or the BBC supplied - no accurate photographic evidence that Morales was the man at the Ambassador as pictured in the BBC documentary.

REX: Now, the story was based on photo and film IDs from people who had worked with these folks before, right?

JEFF: Right. And what we did in our investigation was we found a lot more people than the BBC had spoken to. In the case of Joannides, probably 10 or 12 people who knew him. In the case of Morales, we found close family members to comment. So, we canvassed the subject of “were the photographs of the men the men who their family and friends knew?” The weight of that evidence wasn’t totally clear cut, but the weight of that evidence suggested that those men are not pictured in the photographs.

REX: Now, was it a different story in each of the three cases? Maybe we could talk a bit about each one?

DAVID: I’m sorry, Rex, but we also found new photos, supplied to us from the people who were close to were close to these individuals, that I think made it very clear that it wasn’t them. I think that particularly in the case of Morales, the new photos were definitive. These are the first new photos that we’ve had of David Morales, supplied to us directly by the family.

And by the way, the family members that I interviewed - two daughters of Morales - I found were very credible, were not trying to protect the reputation of their father. In fact, one of the daughters was very withering in her assessment of her father and her memories of her father as a very brutal man, and seemed to accept that her father might well have been involved in the assassination of certainly JFK, and maybe Bobby Kennedy.

But, she, on the other hand, rejected the photo that was presented, or these video images that were presented in the BBC documentary as her father, and said this wasn’t him. Then she supplied us with photos of her father that were taken around this time, 1968 or shortly thereafter, and clearly, the man in these photos - these family photographs - was not the man pictured in the BBC documentary.

JEFF: That’s a good point too, Rex, this is also the first public photo - we obtained the first photo - of George Joannides that’s ever been published in the course of this investigation, and he’s a figure of interest in his own right in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, so we brought to light some new information about him as well.

REX: We’re going to be publishing a piece written by the two of you on this topic and including those photographs as well. I’m curious how you - when you went into this story - did you find what you expected? Did you have any idea what was going to happen when you began investigating?

JEFF: Well, the reason that I took - that I took on the investigation - was because I felt like the BBC had presented some pretty credible witnesses - Ed Lopez of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, Wayne Smith - these are people whose judgement is - they have good record, they’re not buying into something, or that had no agenda.

So, there was genuine interest, and as to what we would find, I really didn’t know. I - to me - I had problems with the whole methodology of photo identification as a course of investigation, is an inherently subjective thing, so that gave me pause. But I was genuinely serious, and not at all sure what we were going to find. I did find it hard to believe that the CIA officers would have been there, but, you know, not impossible. So, I wasn’t surprised that we were able to develop more evidence beyond the photo identification, I think that’s what we really accomplished here was to really broaden the base of evidence around this question. So we got some valuable information about Morales and Joannides, and I think we showed that this particular assertion about their role in the events of 1968 were not correct.

DAVID: And I think the first thing that we came across that began to - in our minds - to discredit this story was the allegations against Gordon Campbell who was a Miami-based official who was allegedly one of the figures in the photographs at the Ambassador Hotel, and Jeff found evidence - and Jeff, you can elaborate on this - that it definitely wasn’t Gordon Campbell, in fact the real Gordon Campbell had died in 1962 in Miami.

JEFF: Yeah, and I found colleagues of his who described how he had died and their stories were corroborated by his death certificate and by other interviews with former agency people. So, when one piece of a story falls away in such a dramatic fashion, that’s got to make you question, you know - does the rest of it hold together? And so, I think, for us, that was the first sign that - we had to do the reporting - but it seemed like the story wasn’t hanging together.

DAVID: And then, on the other side, it did seem - from some of our earlier reporting - that George Joannides might have been the man actually in the photo based on some interviews that we did, and in fact one key interview with a CIA official - a high-ranking CIA official, now retired - who had known Joannides, and I think at that point, Jeff and I thought, well, this might well have been Joannides. But then the other evidence began to accumulate on the other side, and in fact, the CIA official who first identified him this way looked at some of his own photos - and he in fact supplied us with a couple of those photos - and he changed his mind, and said, “no, upon further reflection, it wasn’t him.” So, there was a bit of murkiness around Joannides, I think Dan Hardway - who of course, had worked with Ed Lopez on the House Assassinations Committee - he thought it might have been Joannides as well, and so I think that was another credible figure to us. So there were definitely some - while I believe it was decisively not Morales, and obviously decisive that it was not Gordon Campbell, who was dead - there was some murkiness around Joannides. It was more difficult - I think you’d agree Jeff -

JEFF: Yes.

DAVID: - to find good photographs of Joannides for awhile. We finally did find these two shots of Joannides taken while he was in Saigon, stationed there in the late sixties, I believe early seventies -

REX: I think ’73. Now, Lopez and Hardway, of course, worked with him about 10 years after 1968. I’m curious - it sounds like in addition to the BBC sources, you found your own that ID’ed him as well. So did it come down to just adding up plus and minus columns, or were there other reasons to decide that Joannides probably was not there?

JEFF: For me, there was the weight of the evidence, and I was particularly swayed, or put special credibility in people who knew Joannides at around the time that picture was taken in 1968, and had known him before that and had had a personal relationship with him, so that their feel for “is this somebody that I recognize?” would be very strong.

Ed and Dan spent a lot of time with Joannides, but it wasn’t the same kind of personal time over years that really makes you recognize somebody. Those were also people who had no sympathy for him personally, or for the CIA. These were people who were in the government, but not in the CIA, and so I felt that they had a little more disinterested position than people in the family, people in the CIA.

So, for me, it was the strength of certain witnesses who just seemed to me to be the most credible, and have the most knowledge, and that’s what made the difference for me Joannides. But, the art of photo identification is very difficult, and it’s very hard to say for sure that that’s not somebody.

REX: No -

DAVID: (unclear)

REX: Let me ask -

DAVID: No - go ahead Rex.

REX: I was just going to follow up and ask - I believe you asked for CIA’s travel records on at least one or more of these men, but they were declined. Is that right?

JEFF: Yes. While we were doing this, we said - we put in an expedited Freedom of Information Act request to the CIA asking for the travel records to clear it up. The CIA did not provide those.

DAVID: And we should say - I think that Jeff would agree with me on this - that George Joannides and David Morales still remain figures of suspicion, certainly in the assassination of President Kennedy if not the Robert Kennedy assassination. The CIA continues to stonewall on these agents and not release documents that the public has a right to, and the press.

So, the case is not closed. It’s just that the BBC failed to provide a convincing case, and certainly convincing photographic evidence that these CIA officials were involved in the Ambassador Hotel.

Let me say, by the way, speaking of interested - you know, having an interest in the story one way or another - Jeff and I undertook this investigation for “The New Yorker” magazine, and we had probably had more resources at our disposal because of that than reporters had had in this case for a long time. We were able to criss-cross the country and interview many people; go to many different cities and so on. Two reporters - it’s rare that two reporters had been put on this story, I think, in many years with the backing of a major publication. And, in a sense, it was against our own interests - financial interests - to come to the conclusion that we did. Because once we did, there really was no story there, and the story - “The New Yorker” declined to publish that story. We were of course given a kill fee and so on, but we had failed to basically deliver the goods, in a sense, because we couldn’t corroborate the BBC story. So, I think it’s frankly to my and Jeff’s credit, that despite that, we came to the conclusions that I think any serious reporter would come to. The evidence simply wasn’t there to back the BBC story.

REX: You mentioned talking to daughters of David Morales. I’m curious if either from them, or any of the other people you talked to, if new stories about these men came to light that would be worth sharing?

DAVID: Well, yes. I talked to two daughters of David Morales, both of whom live in California, and including - as I said - the eldest daughter - who I think that because she was the eldest daughter, had a lot of interesting perspective on her father. I think some of the things that came out in that interview - how brutal of a man he was, how physically brutal he was to the mother, an intimidating presence in the family. His other - almost slavish - loyalty to the Agency. How he would do anything he was told - as she said - the fact the she believed, because of that, that he might have - and because of how he associated with criminal elements of the underworld for the Agency - that she found it quite plausible that he might have been involved. In fact, her two sons, who are now grown up, as she was raising them, she felt she had to talk to them about this, because they would hear about this, and she found - she felt that she had to tell them that it was quite possible their grandfather had been involved. So, I found it was interesting to flesh him out as a real-life person by interviewing the family members.

I also talked to Rocky Carbajal, who has, of course, been interviewed elsewhere - a long time friend, a childhood friend of David Morales - I interviewed him down in Arizona where he lives - and he too, I think, gave another interesting perspective on Morales as someone who was very patriotic and very reactionary in his views, and a real Kennedy hater, and someone who felt that if he hadn’t been involved in the death of the Kennedys, they certainly deserved to die, given their actions in office, and particularly the Bay of Pigs.

So again, the venom - the kind of anti-Kennedy venom - that was, you know, very strong in these circles - in certain circles of the Agency - really came across in these interviews.

JEFF: As for Joannides, we did not learn anything about his role in the events of 1963 or in the House Select Committee on Assassinations. But we do get clearly - we have a deeper understanding of certainly someone who was very trusted by senior CIA leadership for the most sensitive missions, deeply involved in political action - bribing politicians, primarily in Vietnam and in Greece. So, we have a deeper picture of Joannides, the undercover operations officer, which as we learn more about ’63, will be more and more relevant.

REX: On the subject of Joannides, I’m curious if you want to take a moment, Jeff, to give the status of your lawsuit for Joannides records, and also I believe you have a website up about this now too?

JEFF: Yeah. We are back in court. We have been seeking - we meaning my attorney, Jim Lesar and I - have been seeking these documents for about three and a half years. We lost the first round in last September when Judge Richard Leon - a Bush appointee - dismissed our case. We have filed an appeal pointing out that the judge failed to apply the Freedom of Information Act law appropriately, that the CIA’s search for these documents was inadequate, that the CIA has excessively classified information that should not be classified. So, we have filed our appeal, and the CIA will be responding later this month, and we’ll go to oral arguments in the fall, but we feel - we feel that we’ve got a very strong case. The JFK Records Act is quite clear - the government has to release all its JFK records, these are clearly - what George Joannides was doing in 1963 is clearly related to the assassination story, no matter how you interpret it.

We just feel that the appellate court is going to look at this and decide that it’s in the public interest that these records come out, and I think that we will - that will happen this year.

REX: OK, good luck with that. David, your book “Brothers” has been out for a few months now. Any regrets for wading into this minefield?

DAVID: (laughs) Well, it’s certainly a labyrinth that there’s no end to, and I’m sure that this going to be a part of my life for the rest of my life - this story - no matter what I go on to do. It’s an endless mystery that, you know, may never be completely resolved in our lifetime, but no - I thought it was important to at least shed light on one particular aspect of this story - Bobby Kennedy’s own thoughts and conclusions about what happened in Dallas, and what he was doing to uncover the truth about that crime. And so, I’m very happy that I was able to at least fill in that very small corner of the story.

REX: Ok, well, I thank you both very much for shedding more light on this BBC story, and we will see it online shortly.

JEFF: Thank you, Rex.

DAVID: Thank you Rex.

REX: Ok, bye bye.

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