JFK Lawsuit Tests Washington’s Culture of Secrecy
Monday, December 08, 2008 at 9:10 am
Last month dozens of public interest groups welcomed the election of Barack Obama with a call to reverse eight years of secrecy and restore openness in the executive branch.
It won’t be easy. While the non-profit National Security Archive and other groups are seeking an executive order to revitalize the Freedom of Information Act, the culture of secrecy in Washington runs deep, thwarting even the most powerful open government laws.
For example, lawyers for the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Justice Department are expected to file a motion in federal court in Washington Tuesday seeking to block release of CIA records related to the assassination of President Kennedy. These 45-year-old records have been deemed too sensitive to share with the American people.
With the support of a diverse group of JFK authors, I sued the CIA for these records in December 2003. Five years later, the CIA is still spending taxpayer money to block their release, saying dozens of documents cannot be released in any form–for reasons of national security.
Such extreme claims have proven the norm since September 11. A month after the terror attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memorandum that greatly weakened FOIA. In 2002 federal agencies went so far as to seek re-classification of records at the JFK Presidential Library that had already been publicly released.
The public interest groups are calling on Obama to issue a new executive order on FOIA creating a presumption of disclosure and a policy of releasing information without litigation.
But FOIA enforcement ultimately depends on political will as much as regulatory language and that can be difficult to summon even in a case like the JFK story where public interest endures and
The CIA records I seek are supposed to be governed by the JFK Records Act, which was approved unanimously by Congress in 1992, in response to Oliver Stone’s hit movie “JFK.” The law, one of the strongest open government laws ever enacted, mandates in no uncertain terms that all government records related to JFK’s assassination must be released “immediately.” That word, as interpreted by the CIA means, “not just yet and maybe never.”
The records concern a decorated, now-deceased undercover CIA officer, named George Joannides. As I wrote for Playboy.com last year, Joannides’ assets in the Cuban exile movement had contact with accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald before Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas on November 22, 1963. At the time, Joannides served in Miami as the chief of the agency’s so-called “psychological warfare” operations aimed to bring about Castro’s overthrow.
In 1978, Joannides resurfaced out of retirement to serve as the CIA’s liaison to the House Select Committee on Assassinations. He did not disclose his activities in 1963 to investigators, prompting the committee’s general counsel G. Robert Blakey to tell the Washington Post in 2005, “the CIA set me up.”
Joannides, who died in 1990, received the CIA’s Career Intelligence Medal in 1981, according to citation declassified earlier this year. He was lauded for “exceptional achievement” in his 28-year career.
Federal judge John Tunheim, who chaired a civilian review board that declassified thousands of long secret JFK records in the 1990s, says the CIA denied the panel’s staff and members full access to the records. “There is no question we were mislead on Joannides for a long time,” Tunheim told The Washington Independent last spring. Tunheim said all the disputed records should be made public as soon as possible.
“I think the JFK story is still incomplete,” said Anna Nelson, another former member of the JFK review board who is now the historian in residence at American University. “While we may never get all the answers, we ought to do all we can to complete it. That means opening documents. The CIA is being foolishly recalcitrant.”
The CIA has spurned requests from the National Archives to review the Joannides files. A spokeswoman for Archivist Allen Weinstein said, “The National Archives has not been given an opportunity to review any CIA records related to this issue because of the pending litigation.”
Last December, a three-judge appellate court panel ordered the CIA to explain why 17 monthly reports that Joannides was supposed to file about his secret operations in 1962-64 are missing from CIA archives. A year later, the Agency has yet to comply with the court’s directive.
The CIA will file its latest motion in the lawsuit with Judge Richard Leon. A ruling in the case is expected next year.
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