Part 6: Dick Helms' Man in Miami
George E. Joannides is a new and important character in the Kennedy assassination story.
The new records suggested George Joannides was one such SAS operative. The reason for his interest? The bulk of the available evidence indicates that Joannides in late 1963 was running a psychological warfare operation designed to link Lee Harvey Oswald to the Castro government without disclosing the CIA's hand.
George E. Joannides (pronounced "Joe-uh-NEE-deez") is a new and important character in the Kennedy assassination story. In 1963, he was 40 years old, a rising protégé of Tom Karamessines. He was an 11-year veteran of the clandestine service. He was highly regarded for his skills in political action, propaganda and psychological warfare operations. A dapper, witty man, Joannides presented himself publicly as a Defense Department lawyer. In fact, in 1963 he was Dick Helms' man in Miami.
His personnel file showed that he served in 1963 as the chief of the Psychological Warfare branch of the CIA's station in Miami. He had a staff of 24 and a budget of $1.5 million. He also was in charge of handling the anti-Castro student group that Oswald had tried to infiltrate in August 1963. They called themselves the Cuban Student Directorate and it was Joannides's job to guide and monitor them. Under CIA program named AMSPELL, he was giving $25,000 a month to Luis Fernandez Rocha, the Directorate's leader in Miami. That funding supported the Directorate's chapters in New Orleans and other cities.
Fernandez Rocha, now a doctor in Miami, recalls a close but stormy relationship with the CIA man whom he knew only as "Howard." The records of the Directorate, now in the University of Miami archives, support Fernandez Rocha's memories. They show that "Howard" worked closely with the Directorate on a wide variety of issues. He bought them an air conditioner and reviewed their military plans. He was aware of their efforts to buy guns. He briefed them on how to answer questions from the press and paid for their travels. Joannides was certainly responsible for knowing if a Castro supporter was trying to infiltrate their ranks.
Then came November 22, 1963. On a political trip to Dallas, Kennedy died in a hail of gunfire. Ninety minutes later, a suspect, Lee Oswald, was arrested. Not long after that Joannides received a call from the Cuban students saying they knew all about the accused assassin. He told them not to go public until he could check with Washington. They went public anyway. As the American nation reeled from the shock of Kennedy's violent death, the Cuban students in his pay embarked on a wide-ranging and effective media blitz to link Fidel Castro to Kennedy's death.
In the span of a couple of hours in the evening of November 22, one leader of the Cuban Student Directorate called Paul Bethel, an influential former State Department official active in efforts to liberate Cuba. Another Cuban student called conservative spokeswoman Clare Booth Luce and told her the Directorate knew for a fact that Oswald was part of a Cuban government hit team operating out of Mexico City. A third told a New York Times reporter that the accused assassin was a Castro supporter.
The next day, November 23, 1963, the Cuban students put their suspicions in writing. They wrote up a seven-page brief on Oswald's pro-Castro ways. They also published a special edition of the Directorate's monthly publication. It was a four-page broadsheet with photos of Oswald and Castro together under the banner headline "The Presumed Assassins." This was probably the very first conspiratorial explanation of Kennedy's death to reach public print--and the mysterious George Joannides of the CIA paid it for.
The goal of this operation, say the former Cuban students who carried it out, was to destabilize the Cuban government and create public pressure for a U.S. attack on the island.
Fidel Castro feared the gambit might work. He put his armed forces on high alert. In a long, brooding speech on Cuban TV on the night of November 23, 1963, the Cuban leader denounced the exiled students' effort to link him to the assassination, charging it was a CIA provocation.
Until now, historians and journalists have had little reason to credit Castro's charge. The revelation of Joannides's mission to Miami lends credence to--but does not prove--the longstanding view of the Cuban intelligence agency, the Diregencia General de Inteligencia. Cuban officials have long contended that the Cuban Student Directorate's effort to link Oswald to Castro was part of a deliberate CIA plan to exploit the assassination to justify a U.S. invasion of Cuba. That allegation, it now seems, has some merit. George Joannides was a CIA officer who helped perpetrate the provocation.
Not surprisingly, George Joannides took his secrets to the grave. According to his Washington Post obituary, Joannides died in a Houston hospital in March 1990.
When I asked the CIA for comment on his career, I was told that the agency has no knowledge of his actions in 1963. The chief of the CIA's Historic Review Program, James R. Oliver, even denied that Joannides worked with the Cuban Student Directorate in 1963. He acknowledged that the cover name "Howard" appears on CIA records about the Directorate but said "there is no other evidence to suggest that 'Howard' was an identity for Joannides." Oliver concluded with a remarkable profession of ignorance. "We have insufficient evidence as to who or what the word 'Howard' represented," he wrote in a letter to me.
This is the CIA's official position on George Joannides. It is untrue.
The CIA's own records are proof that Joannides was 'Howard.' Luis Fernandez Rocha and other veterans of the Cuban Student Directorate, now well-established professional men in Miami, told me of their frequent meetings with a CIA man named "Howard" in 1963. The records of the Directorate at the University of Miami library document the group's almost daily dealings with "Howard" in 1963. The former leaders of the Directorate described the CIA man's New York accent, his well-tailored suits, his Mediterranean features, his legal training, and other characteristics of George Joannides. The 1963 Miami phone book and members of the Joannides family confirm that Joannides lived in Miami at the time. And his CIA personnel file specifies that he had responsibility for the largest anti-Castro student group in Miami, which was the Cuban Student Directorate.
Yet the CIA's position is that George Joannides a.k.a "Howard" wasn't in Miami in 1963, did not handle the agency's contacts with Cuban Student Directorate, and may not have even been an actual person.
Whatever the reason for such odd obfuscation, the revelation of George Joannides's existence and activities in 1963 gives empirical substance to Jane Roman's analysis that certain operatives on the Special Affairs Staff were interested in Lee Harvey Oswald before the assassination. "There had to be a reason" for SAS to withhold information about Oswald, she said. The simplest and most plausible explanation is that George Joannides was one of those operatives and that he and his superiors sought to protect the "sources and methods" of a covert operation involving Lee Harvey Oswald in the fall of 1963.
According to a CIA memo to the Kennedy White House, the CIA “guided and monitored” the Cuban Student Directorate in mid-1963.
Such a conclusion is not indisputable. There is no direct documentary evidence stating that Joannides ran such an operation. But the lack of such evidence is not dispositive.
First, it was Joannides's job to make sure that his actions could not be traced to the U.S. government. He was, judging from his job evaluations in 1963, very good at his job.
Second, Joannides was well-known for his attention to paperwork. Very little of that paperwork has ever come to light. Running a group like the Cuban Student Directorate required monthly reports to CIA headquarters. The CIA has declassified these reports for the years 1960 to 1966. Only in the 17 months that Joannides worked with the group, December 1962 to April 1964, are the monthly reports missing from CIA archives.
Third, and most importantly, CIA officials called Joannides out of retirement in 1978 to serve as the agency’s liaison to the House Select Committee on Assassinations. He could have shared what he knew about Oswald’s Cuban activities with investigators. He did not. G. Robert Blakey, a law professor who served as the HSCA’s general counsel and worked closely with Joannides says the CIA man never let on that the anti-Castro Cubans who tangled with Oswald fifteen years before were in his pay. Why refrain from stating such a pertinent fact if not to protect a sensitive operation?
While the details of Joannides's motivations in 1963 remain concealed, the results of his actions are well documented. According to a CIA memo to the Kennedy White House, the CIA “guided and monitored” the Cuban Student Directorate in mid-1963. Declassified CIA cables show that “Howard” demanded that the group clear their public statements with him. In his job evaluation from the summer of 1963, Joannides was credited having established control over the group. He dispensed funds from the AMSPELL budget, which the Directorate’s leaders in Miami and New Orleans used to publicly identify Oswald as a supporter of theCastro government in August 1963. AMSPELL funds were also used within hours of the Kennedy's death to link Oswald to Castro.
The results of his expenditures, it must be said, were consistent with U.S. policy. The former Directorate leaders say their purpose in launching a propaganda blitz against Oswald was to discredit the Castro regime and create public pressure for a U.S. attack on Cuba.
At the time, the group was funded and authorized to carry out the agency's desires. Indeed, the group's propaganda chief, Juan Manuel Salvat, now a respected Miami book publisher, had operational approval as a CIA agent, according to his CIA file.
Joannides kept his hand in all of this secret, which was consistent with his duty to protect "sources and methods" (and with Roman's observation that SAS was keeping information about Oswald "under their tight control.") Joannides certainly knew of the Directorate's contacts with Oswald within hours of Kennedy's death, if not earlier, yet did not report his knowledge in written documents. Such records might have been turned over to law enforcement and thus exposed the agency's operations to public view.
To be sure, other interpretations are possible. Perhaps the Cuban students, while funded by the CIA for the purposes of political action, intelligence collection and propaganda, engaged in all of these activities against Lee Harvey Oswald but did so independently, without knowledge of or prompting from anyone at the agency.
The former leaders of the Directorate tend to this point of view. They stress that memories are hazy after 40 years and their allies at the CIA certainly did not keep them fully informed about anything. They were, they admit, impetuous and inexperienced young men while “Howard” was an older man of considerable experience and clout sent by the highest levels of the U.S. government. Of course, they worked with him while reserving the right to take indepedent action. Idealistic, if sometimes immature, they acted as Cuban patriots. They did not have to be told to dislike Lee Harvey Oswald’s pro-Castro politics or to resent his attempted infiltration of their group. After Oswald was arrested for killing Kennedy, they had every reason to use his politics to discredit Castro and create pressure on him.
One of the Directorate’s former leaders, Tony Lanusa, now a Miami businessman, says he called “Howard” within minutes of the news of Oswald’s arrest on November 22, 1963. He recalls telling the CIA man that the group wanted to go public with what they knew about the accused assassin. “Howard” told them to hold off until he could contact Washington for guidance. They went ahead anyway. Citing Lanusa’s very credible account, one could argue that the Cuban Student Directorate’s propaganda linking Oswald and Castro was not the agency’s responsibility.
On a practical level though, the agency's responsibility for the first JFK conspiracy is beyond dispute. By the admission of its own former leaders, the Cuban Student Directorate was totally dependent on CIA funding in 1963. Without the money provided by Joannides there would have been no delegation of Cuban students in New Orleans with the time to confront Oswald. There would have been no money for their press release to the local papers calling for an investigation of his pro-Castro ways. There would have been no tape recording of his remarks on a local radio station. There would have been no money for the Directorate's phone calls to Clare Booth Luce and the New York Times on the night of November 22, 1963. There would have been no money for the broadsheet with photos of Oswald and Castro, and perhaps no post-assassination war scare. The fact that the Directorate's leaders felt obliged to call Joannides on November 22, 1963 is mostly evidence of how seriously they took his guidance.
Joannides was not displeased with the Directorate's conspiracy mongering. The FBI checked out the Directorate's claims about Oswald. The CIA apparently did not. None of the Cuban student leaders say they heard from Joannides after November 22, 1963, except for Luis Fernandez Rocha who says the CIA man offered some friendly advice: go back to school. The anti-Castro cause was doomed. That sounds more like a spook shutting down an operation, than a man surprised to learn that his paid agents had been talking to Lee Harvey Oswald behind his back.
Nor is there any evidence that Helms and Karamessines were unhappy that Joannides's boys in Miami had linked the accused assassin to Castro. The agency continued to fund the Directorate after the Kennedy assassination; Joannides received the highest possible job evaluation for his work in 1963.
Nonetheless, one might still concoct a scenario in which the independent-minded Cuban students had a series of encounters with the obscure Lee Harvey Oswald that somehow escaped the notice of the usually vigilant George Joannides (but not the FBI or CIA headquarters). One could further hypothesize that, when President Kennedy was killed and the overzealous Cuban students attempted to link the accused presidential assassin to Castro, Joannides and his superiors chose to bury the whole affair out of embarrassment. In this view, the Cuban students were out of control, George Joannides was out of his league, Fidel Castro was above suspicion, and the agency was honestly surprised by the results.
The CIA rejects any such interpretation. In the official story, George Joannides had no contact at all with Cuban Student Directorate in 1963. He wasn't there. Agency personnel have no knowledge of or connection to the first JFK conspiracy theory. This denial of reality is, 40 years after the fact, bizarre and perhaps revealing. It makes the Cuban communist interpretation of 1963--that the Kennedy assassination was a provocation by a CIA faction--relatively more credible. Yet the agency stands by it.
In fact, George Joannides did his job in 1963 as his CIA bosses wanted. He was paid to mount covert operations, and he did. In all likelihood, he was working on an authorized psychological warfare operation involving the Cuban Student Directorate and Oswald in the fall of 1963. The purpose of this operation seems to have been to denounce Oswald's pro-Castro ways, the better to advance the U.S. policy of overthrowing the Castro government. Joannides and his bosses did what they conceived of as their professional duty by protecting the agency's sources and methods both before and after Oswald was arrested for killing Kennedy. Joannides’s stonewalling of the HSCA in the late 1970s was part of the same effort.
In any case, his actions emerge as the most likely explanation for what Jane Roman saw in the Oswald paper trail. George Joannides was part of the SAS faction that was holding information about Oswald tightly under their control.
There is no evidence that Joannides or the Cuban students had anything to do with the gunfire in Dealey Plaza.
No one can insinuate that George Joannides was a co-conspirator in a plot to kill President Kennedy. His friends and family recall him as an ethical, funny, warm, and patriotic person, and I have no reason to doubt them. Whatever he did in 1963 it certainly had the approval of the late Dick Helms and Tom Karamessines. Because the CIA denies knowing anything about his actions in 1963, the exact nature of some of his professional activities awaits decisive clarification.
In any case, his actions emerge as the most likely explanation for what Jane Roman saw in the Oswald paper trail. George Joannides was part of the SAS faction that was holding information about Oswald tightly under their control. To my mind, the revelation of his existence and activities corroborated her analysis and confirmed the importance that I attached to it. But the CIA's evasions make definitive conclusions premature.
I felt vindicated. But I'd been stonewalled.
|Part 7: The End of the Paper Trail|