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In his executive order strengthening the Freedom of Information Act, President Obama declared that the law should "be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails." Many have applauded Obama's intentions but whether his beautiful words can actually reverse extreme claims of secrecy has yet to be determined.
Case in point: my lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency for a batch of records on a decorated undercover officer named George Joannides. In December 2003, I sued the agency under the FOIA for the files of Joannides, a psychological warfare specialist who played not one, but two interesting roles in the story of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 22, 1963.
As I explained in this 2007 article for Playboy.com, Joannides was "the man who didn't talk." As chief of the psychological warfare operations in Miami in 1963, he failed to report on a series of heated public encounters between accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and members of a CIA-sponsored Cuban exile group that he guided and monitored to the tune of $51,000 a month. Within hours of JFK's murder, members of the group shaped first day coverage of the assassination by giving reporters evidence that Kennedy's killer was a communist. The CIA did not disclose Joannides' financial relationship with Oswald's anti-Castro antagonists to the Warren Commission.
In 1978, Joannides was called out of retirement to serve as the CIA's liaison to the congressional JFK investigators. He said nothing about his undercover mission in 1963, even when asked for records about Oswald's contacts with his intelligence-gathering network. G. Robert Blakey, the Notre Dame law professor and former federal prosecutor who ran the probe, says Joannides' actions constituted obstruction of Congress, a felony. Joannides died in 1990 having never been questioned by JFK investigators. His Washington Post obituary described him only as a "Defense Department lawyer."
The story of Joannides' deceptions only came into the public record in 2001 when I broke the story in the Miami New Times. In 2003, I reported in Salon.com that a diverse group of leading JFK scholars had called for release of the Joannides files, an appeal that the agency spurned. In court CIA lawyers initially claimed they didn't even have to search for Joannides documents, a position that a three-judge appellate court unanimously rejected in 2007.
Along the way, the lawsuit has yielded more evidence that Joannides' superiors approved of his assassination cover-up. In 2005 the CIA admitted that Joannides had received the Distinguished Intelligence Medal for "exceptional achievement" in July 1981, three years after he misled Congress. In a court filing last December, Delores Nelson, the agency's top information officer, acknowledged for the first time that Joannides served in an "undercover" capacity while working with the congressional JFK investigators in 1978.
Photo: In July 1981, retired CIA undercover officer George Joannides (left) received the Distinguished Intelligence Medal for "exceptional achievement" from deputy CIA director Bobby Ray Inman. Among Joannides' achievements were concealing from JFK investigatiors his role in guiding and monitoring a Cuban exile group that gathered intelligence and generated propaganda about accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald before President Kennedy was killed. (Credit: CIA)
The fact that the CIA ran an undercover operation on U.S. soil amidst a congressional inquiry into a presidential assassination is startling--and more than a little relevant to the current debate about whether the CIA should be investigated for abusive interrogation practices. Not surprisingly, the agency wants to keep the Joannides story buried.
The CIA now acknowledges that it possesses 295 documents on Joannides' actions in 1963 and 1978. Agency officials insist they cannot release the records in any form, allegedly for reasons of national security. Bear in mind that all of these documents concern events that happened 30 to 45 years ago. Nonetheless, the Agency lawyers claim--with straight faces--that the release of a single word of any of them would endanger public safety in 2009.
It was exactly this sort of brazen assertion that Obama targeted in his FOIA order, declaring "the Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears."
In February my attorney, Jim Lesar, asked the agency's lawyer, Brad Peterson, to reconsider the Agency's position in light of the president's order. Peterson refused. I actually thought the CIA might follow White House orders when it came to records related to the murder of a sitting president. Silly me.
I should note that Peterson was within the law in refusing my request. The boilerplate language attached to the Obama's executive order states that it does not apply to ongoing litigation, only to government actions from that point on.
But in March Attorney General Eric Holder issued a directive to the heads of executive departments and agencies, including the CIA, about the implementation of Obama's order. Holder declared that the new guidelines reaffirmed Obama's "commitment to accountability and transparency," and were "meant to underscore that commitment and to ensure that it is realized in practice [Emphasis added]. " In practice, however, the CIA holds to its preposterous position that release of the antique Joannides files will endanger the American people.
In April, Melanie Pustay, director of the Justice Department's Office of Information Policy, followed up on Holder's directive with a memo stating that all government agencies "must review all aspects of their approach to transparency and incorporate these principles into all decisions they make [emphasis added] involving the FOIA to ensure that the presumption of disclosure is fully realized in practice." More fine words but in reality, "all decisions" didn't include the Agency's decision to continue stonewalling on Joannides.
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