By Andrew Kreig
A prominent researcher on secrets remaining from the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy argued Feb. 25 in federal court for legal fees required to win his 2003 request to the CIA for documents under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Jefferson Morley, an author and blogger at Salon and the website JFK Facts, asked three federal appeals court judges in Washington, DC to overturn a lower court ruling that blocked compensation. The judge and the CIA argued that the CIA documents were neither new nor important. Morley countered by noting the number of news articles based on the disclosures, including a New York Times article in 2009.
The appellate panel reserved decision. The case is yet-another test of whether agencies can grind down researchers in near-endless and expensive litigation despite congressional intent with the 1974 FOIA to open public records under reasonable conditions.
The day’s developments on the fifth floor of the federal courthouse in the District of Columbia were part of a long process, and thus did not constitute major news. Instead, this is one of our occasional treatments of day-to-day life in the justice system. In this case, the problem is the needless delay and expense in releasing information to a professional researcher about the murdered president, shown at right with his two deceased brothers.
Morley, a former Washington Post reporter, made a request in 2003 to the CIA for records pertaining to CIA officer George Joannides, whose identity had been secret for half a century. He had served as the CIA’s case officer for 17 months beginning in November1962 to the Cuban Students Directorate (DRE), a CIA-funded front group for young people hostile to Cuba’s government. The group was in contact with alleged JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, according to Morley’s request.
Morley believes that the actions of Joannides, who died in 1990 at the age of 68, are important to independent researchers. “I know there’s a story here,” Morley told New York Times reporter Scott Shane in 2009. “The confirmation is that the CIA treats these documents as extremely sensitive.” The CIA ultimately provided many documents. A federal judge in 2011 disallowed legal fees for Morley, a position the CIA has adopted.
James Lesar, a specialist in FOIA litigation, argued for Morley in court. Staff for U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen represented the CIA. The decision will be from Circuit Court Judges Stephen Williams and Brett Kavanaugh, and District Judge Harry Edwards.
In a related dispute, the National Archives announced last year that it will not release 1,171 top-secret CIA documents related to the assassination of President Kennedy in time for the 5Oth anniversary of JFK’s death in November 2013. Morley has taken a lead role in trying to make the documents visible.
“Is the government holding back crucial JFK documents,” asked Russ Baker in a WhoWhatWhy piece in Salon. The answer, unfortunately, is yes, Morley says.
Gary Stern, general counsel for the National Archives and Record Administration, said the Archives would not release the records. Stern noted that the CIA claims that “substantial logistical requirements” prevented their disclosure this year in time for the 50th anniversary of the killing.