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5 decades later, some JFK probe files still sealed
Five decades after President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot and long after official inquiries ended, thousands of pages of investigative documents remain withheld from public view. The contents of these files are partially known — and intriguing — and conspiracy buffs are not the only ones seeking to open them for a closer look.
Some serious researchers believe the off-limits files could shed valuable new light on nagging mysteries of the assassination — including what U.S. intelligence agencies knew about accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald before Nov. 22, 1963.
It turns out that several hundred of the still-classified pages concern a deceased CIA agent, George Joannides, whose activities just before the assassination and, fascinatingly, during a government investigation years later, have tantalized researchers for years.
"This is not about conspiracy, this is about transparency," said Jefferson Morley, a former Washington Post reporter and author embroiled in a decade-long lawsuit against the CIA, seeking release of the closed documents. "I think the CIA should obey the law. I don't think most people think that's a crazy idea."
Morley's effort has been joined by others, including G. Robert Blakey, chief counsel for a House investigation into the JFK assassination in the 1970s. But so far, the Joannides files and thousands more pages primarily from the CIA remain off-limits at a National Archives center in College Park, Md.
Others say the continued sealing of 50-year-old documents raises needless questions in the public's mind and encourages conspiracy theories.
"There is no question that in various ways the CIA obfuscated, but it may be they were covering up operations that were justifiable, benign CIA operations that had absolutely nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination," said Anthony Summers, a British author who has written extensively about the JFK case.
"But after 50 years, there is no reason that I can think of why such operations should still be concealed," Summers said. "By withholding Joannides material, the agency continues to encourage the public to believe they're covering up something more sinister."
To understand the attention to the Joannides files, it's necessary to go back to 1963 and to review what's known about Oswald that put him on the CIA's radar.
It's also important to recall the differing conclusions of the two official investigations of the JFK killing — one denying any conspiracy, the other suspecting one — and how much or how little cooperation investigators received from CIA officials, including Joannides himself.
Oswald was a loner and an enigma even to those closest to him. He was "as difficult to understand as anyone I've studied in 35 years as a professional historian," said David Kaiser, whose 2008 book, "The Road To Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy," drew on tens of thousands of documents released in the 1990s.
Still, plenty was learned about Oswald after the shooting in Dallas. And, it's now clear, he was not unknown to the U.S. government before that.
Assassination investigators learned that Oswald had formed a group in New Orleans in the summer of 1963 that ostensibly supported Cuban leader Fidel Castro (Oswald was the only local member) and had been involved in a street altercation with anti-Castro demonstrators that was captured by a local television station.
Pamphlets Oswald had in his possession bore an address of a local anti-Castro operation connected to a former FBI agent with ties to organized crime, investigators discovered. That and other information has led researchers to believe that Oswald may have been part of a counterintelligence operation to discredit the group he had joined, the Fair Play For Cuba Committee, and that the street scene was a setup.
If so, who would have overseen such an operation?
Declassified documents show that Joannides, while based in Miami, was the CIA case officer for the anti-Castro Student Revolutionary Directorate (DRE), the group involved in the street fracas with Oswald.
What did this all add up to, if anything? Official investigations of the Kennedy assassination were not able to provide complete answers.