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CIA Lawyers to Face JFK Questions

The Central Intelligence Agency will quietly defend its refusal to release a batch of top-secret files related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in a Washington courtroom tomorrow.

Amid all the headlines about the discovery of a cache of previously unknown JFK material in Dallas, agency lawyers will make their first response to a court order to explain the secrecy surrounding a career CIA undercover officer allegedly involved in the events that led that to the murder of the president on Nov. 22, 1963.

For four years, the agency has been battling in federal court to block my Freedom of Information Act request seeking disclosure of the secret operations of a deceased CIA officer named George Joannides. He is a shadowy figure in the complex story of JFK’s assassination. At the time of the Dallas tragedy, Joannides was serving as chief of the CIA’s Miami-based "psychological warfare" operations against Cuban leader Fidel Castro. In December, a three-judge panel in the D.C. Court of Appeals threw out the many of the agency’s decades-old claims of secrecy around Joannides.

Circuit Judge Judith Rogers and two colleagues ordered the CIA to search its operational files for more material on Joannides. They also ordered the agency to explain why 17 reports on Joannides’ secret operations in 1962, 1963 and 1964, are missing from CIA archives. In legal briefs, agency officials have claimed that more than 30 documents about Joannides’s actions in the 1960s and 1970s cannot be made public in any form– for reasons of "national security."

Joannides’ curious connection to the JFK assassination story was unknown until 2001. Declassified CIA records revealed that Joannides had guided and monitored a Cuban exile student group that publicly denounced the pro-Castro activities of Lee Harvey Oswald in August 1963. Three months later, Oswald shot Kennedy dead from an office buildings. Joannides’ agents in Cuban Miami shaped the first day press coverage of JFK’s assassination by generating evidence of Oswald’s support for Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The Joannides files could shed light on the question of whether CIA officers overlooked, underestimated or manipulated Oswald as he made his way to Dallas.

The disputed files could prove more significant to the JFK case than the much-publicized files of Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade, made public last week. Those files mostly concern Wade’s case against Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who murdered Oswald in police custody before he could be brought to trial. Thanks to the Dallas Morning News, the Wade files can now be viewed online.

By contrast, the complete Joannides file has never been public. What remains unknown is the extent of Joannides’ control over his agents in the Cuban exile community who sought to link Oswald to Fidel Castro. The day after JFK was killed the Cuban communist leader scorned the reports that Oswald was a supporter of his revolution and suggested that the CIA was behind the charge. The available records show that Castro was right: CIA funds did help publicize the allegation.

Joannides, who received a CIA medal in 1981, was never questioned by JFK assassination investigators. A resident of Potomac, Md,, he died in 1990. His Washington Post obituary described him as a "Defense Department Lawyer."

To date, all efforts to pierce the veil of secrecy around Joannides’ actions in 1963 have been thwarted. The agency has ignored an open letter from two dozen leading JFK scholars calling on the CIA to release the records.Last year, the National Archives requested access to the records without success. And the agency’s public affairs officers agency refuse to answer any questions about Joannides.

"Joannides’ service as case officer of the Cuban exile group which dealt with Oswald make his files highly relevant and in need of public release," said Rex Bradford, senior analyst at MaryFerrell.org, the largest online archive of declasssified JFK assassination records. "The files are clearly within the scope of the JFK Records Act which remains in effect despite the CIA’s failure to recognize the fact."

The JFK Records Act, passed in 1992 after Oliver Stone’s controversial movie, mandates the "immediate" public release of all JFK-related records.

Judge Richard Leon will preside over the hearing in the DC Federal Courthouse on Wednesday morning.

(The Fund for Investigative Journalism provided support for the reporting in this article. A fuller account of Joannides’ role in the events of 1963 is found in my forthcoming book "Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA," now available on Amazon.com. I have also written about Joannides for Playboy.com. See "The Man Who Didn’t Talk.")

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