A Retired CIA Officer Speaks Candidly About Lee Harvey Oswald
By Jefferson Morley

Long-secret CIA records show that operations officer George Joannides paid for the first JFK conspiracy theory, designed to link Lee Harvey Oswald to the government of Fidel Castro.

1. Introduction
2. The Interview
3. ‘A keen interest in Oswald’
4. The Dead End
5. The ‘Scelso Deposition’: What John Witten Said
6. Dick Helms’ Man in Miami

Click here to read the transcript of the interview with CIA Counterintelligence officer Jane Roman.

Dick Helms’ Man in Miami

Still more vindication came in November 1998. Without fanfare, the CIA declassified the personnel file of a previously unknown operations officer on the Special Affairs Staff named George Joannides. Jane Roman had said that in late 1963 certain people in the CIA’s anti-Castro operation were showing “a keen interest in Oswald held very closely on the need to know basis.”  Skeptics of my story could rightly ask, “Like who?”

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. The son of a well-known Greek-American newspaper columnist in New York City, he went to law school and joined the CIA in 1951. Joannides, fluent in Greek and French, was sent to the Athens station. By 1963, he was 40 years old, a rising protégé of Tom Karamessines. 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 a CIA program code named AMSPELL, he was giving $25,000 a month to Luis Fernandez Rocha and Juan Salvat, the Directorate’s leaders in Miami. That funding supported the Directorate’s chapters in New Orleans and other cities.

Fernandez Rocha and Salvat, who still live in Miami, confirm the story. Fenandez Rocha is a doctor. Salvat owns a publishing house. Both recall a close but stormy relationship with George Joannides whom they knew only as “Howard.” The records of the Directorate, now in the University of Miami archives, support their memories. The group’s archives 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, Salvat and Fernandez Rocha and other Cuban students embarked on a wide-ranging and effective media blitz to link Fidel Castro to Kennedy’s death.


DRE propaganda work for the CIA: In this memo, Cuban exile students in the Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil tell CIA contact "Howard,"-the cover name used by George Joannides-- how they want to reorganize their propaganda efforts. The DRE was keeping the CIA apprised of its work in the propaganda field in the summer of 1963.

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 Fernandez Rocha and Salvat, was to destabilize the Cuban government and create public pressure for a U.S. attack on the island. They say they acted on their own.

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’ mission to Miami lends credence to—but does not prove--the longstanding view of Fidel Castro and his intelligence service who have long believed that the effort of the Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil to link Oswald to Castro was part of a deliberate plan by rogue CIA operatives to exploit the assassination and provoke a U.S. invasion of Cuba.  That allegation, it now seems, has some merit. George Joannides was a CIA officer who helped perpetrate the post-assassination propaganda. 

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, wrote me a letter denying that Joannides had worked with the Cuban Student Directorate in 1963. He acknowledged that Joannides’s 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.”

“We have insufficient evidence as to who or what the word ‘Howard’ represented,” he wrote in a remarkable profession of ignorance.

This is the CIA’s official position on George Joannides. It is untrue.

DRE press release on Oswald: In August 1963, as George Joannides took over as chief of Psychological Warfare branch in Miami, the DRE delegation in New Orleans had a series of encounters with a pro-Castro, ex-Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald. The New Orleans delegation, supported by CIA funds, put out this press release calling for an investigation of Oswald.


The CIA’s own records are proof that Joannides was ‘Howard.’ Luis Fernandez Rocha, Juan Salvat 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” was not 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 obfuscations, 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.

Roman had said, “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.

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 was called out of retirement in 1978 to serve as the agency’s liaison to the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Fifteen years after the fact, he could have shared what he knew about Oswald’s Cuban activities with investigators. He did not. G. Robert Blakey, a former federal prosecutor 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 had been his assets. Why refrain from stating such a pertinent fact if not to protect a sensitive operation? Blakey told me that if he had known Joannides’ role in 1963, he would have required him to testify under oath.

“He was a material witness to events related to the assassination,” Blakey says.

While the details of Joannides’s motivations remain concealed, the results of his actions in 1963 are well documented. According to a Kennedy White House memo, 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 the Castro 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 Manual Salvat had operational approval as a CIA agent, according to the agency’s records.

Joannides kept his hand in all of this secret. 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.  His actions were consistent with his duty to protect “sources and methods” and with Jane Roman’s observation that SAS was keeping information about Oswald “under their tight control.”

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 George Joannides or anyone else at agency.


Joannides receives a tape of Oswald: On November 22, 1963, Joannides learned that his assets in the Cuban Student Directorate (DRE) had collected intelligence on Lee Harvey Oswald, accused killer of Kennedy. The DRE leaders sent Joannides (a.k.a. "Howard") a tape of remarks Oswald had made on a New Orleans radio station.

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 act on their own. 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, 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.

The First JFK Conspiracy. On November 23, 1963, the leaders of the Cuban Student Directorate (DRE) published a special four page edition of their newspaper suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald had shot President Kennedy at the behest of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. This is the very first JFK conspiracy to reach public prints-and it was paid for by CIA man George Joannides.


On a practical level though, the agency’s responsibility for the first JFK conspiracy theory 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.

In any case, George 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 clueless suit 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 --and not investigate the claims of a Castro-Oswald connection--out of sheer embarrassment about the ridiculousness of the charge. In this view, the Cuban students were out of control, George Joannides was out of his league, Fidel Castro was above suspicion, and the CIA was honestly surprised by the exiles’s conspiracy mongering. 

Perhaps the biggest problem with such a scenario is that the CIA flatly rejects it. In the official story, George Joannides had no contact at all with Cuban Student Directorate in 1963. He wasn’t there, and that CIA personnel have no knowledge of or connection to the first JFK conspiracy theory.  This denial of reality is, 40 years after the fact,  bizarre. It lends credibility to the Cuban communist interpretation of 1963—that a rogue faction killed JFK and the CIA still has something to hide. Yet the agency stands by it.

In fact, all of he evidence suggests that George Joannides did his job in 1963 as his CIA bosses wanted. He was paid to mount covert operations--and he did. In the fall of 1963, he was, in all likelihood, working on an authorized psychological warfare operation involving the Cuban Student Directorate and Lee Harvey Oswald. The purpose of this operation seems to have been to expose Oswald’s pro-Castro ways, the better to advance the U.S. policy of overthrowing Castro’s 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.

There is no evidence that George Joannides or the Cuban students whom he supported 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. But his emergence, thirty five years after the fact, as a material witness to the JFK assassination story is remarkable, especially considering that his name appeared nowhere in the findings of five official investigations or in hundreds of books about the JFK assassination.  Whatever George Joannides did in 1963 it certainly had the approval of his boss, the late Dick Helms. Because the CIA denies knowing anything about Joannides’ actions in 1963, the exact nature 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 (and what John Whitten wasn’t allowed to see after Kennedy was killed.) George Joannides was, in all probability, part of a faction in the Special Affairs Staff that was holding information about Lee Harvey Oswald tightly under their control.

To my mind, the revelation of his existence and activities corroborated Jane Roman’s 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.

And that’s where my story ends. I have no “smoking gun” about who killed Kennedy. I have no JFK conspiracy theory. If you insist that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shot on November 22, 1963, I would say you are probably right. If you insist there was a plot by a faction in the Special Affairs Staff to provoke an invasion of Cuba in late 1963, I would say you might well be right. With the CIA still withholding evidence, the issue is hard to judge.

Certainly, the records of George Joannides’ activities in late 1963 meet the legal definition of “assassination related” records, as defined in the 1992 JFK Assassination Records Act. In August 1963 Joannides’ paid assets in the Cuban Student Directorate had knowledge of and contact with Oswald; in November 1963 these assets attempted to use their knowledge to exploit the president’s death to advance the anti-Castro cause. Yet virtually nothing is known about his actions in those months.

What everybody from Oliver Stone to Ben Bradlee to Arlen Specter can agree on is that the CIA should account for the actions of George Joannides in 1963. As long as it does not, the agency is violating of the spirit and the letter of the JFK Assassination Records Act and  the JFK conspiracy question remains open.

As for Jane Roman, I am certain that she did not know what the men from SAS were doing with Oswald in the fall of 1963 nor the nature of George Joannides’s peculiar mission to Miami.  She knew a lot but she did not know the complex depths of the story of the CIA and Oswald. Like many in the nation’s capital, she did not want to know. That is why I can understand and sympathize with her feelings of vexation about my article and her desire to repudiate its implications.

The CIA’s own records, even the very incomplete paper trail that John Newman and I possessed in 1994, forced conclusions that she, a loyal, blameless insider preferred not to contemplate: That certain CIA officers in the anti-Castro operation hid the nature of their interest in Lee Harvey Oswald before and after President Kennedy was killed. Their actions may well have had the effect of insulating Oswald from scrutiny on his way to Dealey Plaza. They certainly prevented a real investigation into the causes of Kennedy’s death. Theirs was the intelligence failure at the heart of the November 22 tragedy, and Jane Roman was an honest, if unwilling, witness to it.

There lay the story that I pursued in the spirit of Ben Bradlee’s challenge, the story for which I was willing to sacrifice the family jewels. Of course, I failed. I didn’t get a big front page story. But I did get a nice little yarn that nobody outside (and few inside) the CIA ever knew: the story of the CIA man who paid for the first JFK conspiracy theory. It may not be a blockbuster, hold the presses type scoop, but, as we say in the journalism trade, it “incrementally” advances the story of the Kennedy assassination. And I didn’t lose any gonads along the way.

Thank you, Ben Bradlee.

--Washington, DC
January 15, 2002