Did the CIA use Cuban exiles in plot involving Oswald? Questions remain as Biden withholds JFK records

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Almost six decades after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination while he was riding in a motorcade in downtown Dallas, questions linger about who else, besides Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused gunman, might have been involved in what a 1979 congressional investigation report called a “conspiracy” to kill the American president.

Fueling speculation and conspiracy theories anew, the CIA again vetoed the publication Thursday of thousands of documents related to the assassination, which President Joe Biden had vowed to release.

In a White House memorandum, Biden said that 70 percent of the about 16,000 documents that had previously been issued with redactions by the National Archives were released in full Thursday. The rest, about 4,400 documents, will remain classified at least until next year “to protect against an identifiable harm to the military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or the conduct of foreign relations that is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure,” the memorandum says.

Some are so sensitive that they might even remain outside the public eye for longer, despite a 1992 law mandating full disclosure, the presidential memo suggests.

“Any information that agencies propose for continued postponement of public release beyond June 30, 2023, shall be limited to the absolute minimum under the statutory standard,” the memo notes.

But what could possibly be so sensitive so many years later?

Beyond the disclosure of CIA procedures and tactics, researchers believe there is a trove of documents that could be highly embarrassing for the agency.

Most of the 44 documents related to George Joannides, the chief of the psychological warfare branch of the CIA’s Miami station at the time, are among those that remain classified, experts at the Mary Ferrell Foundation, an online depository of JFK records, said Thursday.

Jefferson Morley, a JFK assassination expert and author and vice president of the Mary Ferrell Foundation, believes Joannides ran an operation that involved Oswald and some Cuban exiles three months before the Dallas tragedy.

If not pointing to Joannides’ involvement in the conspiracy to kill Kennedy himself, at the very least researchers believe those withheld documents would confirm that Oswald was a well-known subject to the U.S. intelligence community, an acknowledgment that the CIA still denies, while also shedding more light on his encounters with Cuban exiles.

The CIA appointed Joannides as the contact point for the House’s Select Committee on Assassinations that completed its investigation into the Dallas events in 1978, without informing the committee of Joannides’ past experience handling the very same Cuban exile groups members of Congress were investigating.

“Is there a “smoking gun? Is there one piece of paper that proves a conspiracy? No .... But there IS smoking gun proof that CIA had an operational interest in Oswald while JFK was alive,” Morley tweeted early Thursday. Last October, the Mary Ferrell Foundation sued the Biden administration, asking for the release of all remaining documents.

In a press conference after the publication of the new trove of documents, Morley questioned if the CIA was acting “in good faith” by denying the public the complete records. Members of the foundation told reporters that, at first glance, many documents appeared to be published with similar redactions to past versions.

“It’s damage control, throwing a bone,” Morley said. “This charade of continuing non-disclosure in the face of a very clear law, the CIA doesn’t have the benefit of the doubt anymore.”

The CIA disputed claims it is unreasonably withholding records.

“CIA believes all substantive information known to be directly related to Oswald has been released,” the agency said in a statement. “The few remaining redactions protect CIA employee names, sources, locations, and CIA tradecraft.”

The agency also said that the claim that it has not disclosed a set of documents about Oswald that were part of Joannides’ files in the JFK Collection at the National Archives “is false.”

“We believe all CIA records substantively related to Mr. Joannides were previously released, with only minor redactions, such as CIA employees’ names and locations,” the statement says.

To pollster and JFK researcher Fernand Amandi, who conducted a recent poll asking Americans if they wanted to see the records released — most said yes — whatever is in the remaining files is of such nature that it has pushed the CIA “to break the law.”

“What the CIA has determined is the following: It is better to expose themselves to public criticism and literally act against what U.S. law says, that it is preferable to do that than having to deal with what can be published,” Amandi said.

The role of Cuban exiles

Some Cuban exiles who were part of this history were also hoping a full disclosure of Joannides’ record would help them understand what role, if any, they played in this alleged conspiracy.

Jose Antonio Lanuza, 83, a former member of the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil, or Revolutionary Student Directorate, a Cuban exile anti-Castro organization active in the 1960s, told the Herald he was hoping the remaining documents would confirm a long-held suspicion that he, and other Directorate members, were used by Joannides, the organization’s case handler in Miami, to create and later spread the fake narrative that Oswald was a pro-Castro sympathizer, providing a handy motive for the assassination.

The events involving Directorate members and Oswald are well documented.

According to Lanuza and several other accounts and historical records, Oswald, a former U.S. Marine with the implausible story of having defected to the Soviet Union and later returned to the United States with little consequence, approached one of the Directorate members, New Orleans store owner Carlos Bringuier, in August 1963. Oswald offered to help the organization fight Fidel Castro. But shortly after, Bringuier found Oswald at a spot close to his store handing out leaflets from Fair Play for Cuba, a pro-Castro organization. A brawl ensued, and both men were arrested. Bringuier and Oswald later debated on a radio show in which Oswald stated his Marxist beliefs, Lanuza said.

And when Oswald was publicly identified as JFK’s assassin three months later, Lanuza, the Directorate’s liaison with the media, immediately told the story of the pro-Castro American who had killed the president.

“I think [the CIA] built this legend,” Lanuza said. “Why? Because when it became known that he had killed Kennedy, an idiot named José Antonio Lanuza, that’s me, suddenly his memory would tell him, hey, I know this guy, this is Castro sympathizer.”

Lanuza, who was based in Miami at the time, said he gathered all the evidence he had about Oswald that Bringuier had forwarded to him (a Navy manual Oswald handed as proof of his credentials, the radio show recording and a handwritten letter by Oswald offering his services, which is now lost) to make the case to Luis Fernandez Rocha, the Directorate top secretary, that Oswald was an agent for Castro.

Rocha, who is now deceased, contacted the organization’s CIA handler, a man named “Howard” whom researchers later identified as Joannides. The CIA agent had one instruction: “Don’t give the press anything; wait an hour.”

“I did not wait for the hour. At exactly 50 minutes, I was sitting with two phones calling journalists,” Lanuza recalled. “I left them a message saying: President John Kennedy was assassinated by a pro-Castro agent in the United States, a member of Fair Play for Cuba. And I spent more than two hours on the phone.”

Other members of the Directorate repeated that message publicly at the time.

Morley has also advanced a version of this theory, but he told reporters last week that he believes Joannides may have used Oswald to undermine the work of Fair Play for Cuba.

But whatever the nature of the CIA’s “operational interest in Oswald,” Morley said Thursday, “we don’t know. That’s why we need the documents.”

McClatchy DC reporters Michael Wilner and Ben Wieder contributed to this report.