Longform

Revelation 19.63

When Fidel Castro's Revolutionary Armed Forces routed the U.S.-backed Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs fiasco 40 years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy took full responsibility for the defeat. But the contrition of the young commander in chief, while popular with the American people, played poorly among the tens of thousands of Cubans living here in Miami. Many believed the liberal chief executive's refusal to send planes to support the men scrambling for cover at Playa Girón was a failure of nerve, if not a betrayal. And to this day a certain embittered distrust of Washington, born four decades ago, runs deep in Cuban Miami, erupting whenever the federal government (in the person of Janet Reno or farm-belt Republicans in Congress) pursues policies contrary to the agenda of the first generation of el exilio.

But the truth is that whatever the disappointment of the Bay of Pigs, Miami's Cuban exiles have never lacked for support at the highest levels of the U.S. government. From the beginning their anti-Castro cause was taken up by senior leaders of the Central Intelligence Agency, who encouraged their ambitions to destroy the Cuban regime. For 38 years one of the most powerful of those leaders has guarded a secret about the events leading up to Kennedy's violent death, a secret potentially damaging to the exile cause as well as to the agency itself.

The man is Richard Helms, former director of the CIA. Now retired and living in the swank Foxhall section of Washington, D.C., the 89-year-old Helms declined interview requests for this story, the basic facts of which have emerged from recently declassified JFK files.

Through four intensive investigations of the Kennedy assassination, Helms withheld information about a loyal CIA officer in Miami -- a dapper, multilingual lawyer and father of three -- who guided and monitored the Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil (the Revolutionary Student Directorate, or DRE). His name was George Joannides, and his charges in the DRE were among the most notoriously outspoken and militant anti-Castro Cuban exiles in the early Sixties. For several weeks in the summer of 1963, those same exiles tailed, came to blows with, and harassed Lee Harvey Oswald, who just a few months later changed the course of U.S. history.

Helms never told the Warren Commission -- the presidential panel set up after Kennedy's death to investigate the assassination -- about his officer's relationship with the exile group. He never disclosed that the CIA was funding the DRE when it had contact with Oswald, who was agitating on Castro's behalf in New Orleans in August 1963. A skillful bureaucrat, Helms withheld files on Oswald's pro-Castro activities from an in-house investigation of the accused assassin (and when the veteran officer in charge of that probe protested, Helms relieved him of his duties).

Helms stonewalled again in 1978, when Congress created the House Select Committee on Assassinations to re-examine Kennedy's murder. Once more the CIA kept every detail of Joannides's mission in Miami under wraps. Worse still, in veiled contempt of that inquiry, the CIA assigned to Joannides himself the job of deflecting sensitive inquiries from the committee's investigators.



As recently as 1998, the agency still disavowed any knowledge of Joannides's actions in Miami. John Tunheim, now a federal judge in Minneapolis, chaired the federal Assassination Records Review Board, which between 1994 and 1998 opened more than four million pages of long-secret documents -- including a thin file on Joannides. Yet even then the CIA was claiming that no one in the agency had had any contact with the DRE throughout 1963. The Joannides story, Tunheim says today, "shows that the CIA wasn't interested in the truth about the assassination."

Journalist and author Gerald Posner, whose 1993 best seller Case Closed argued that the DRE's harassment of Oswald was a "humiliation" that propelled him on his way to shoot the president, says he finds the Joannides piece of the JFK puzzle to be "obviously important" and suggests that the CIA is "covering up its own incompetence." In his view the agency's "intransigence, lying, and dissembling are once again contributing to suspicions of conspiracy."

G. Robert Blakey, who served as general counsel for theHouse Select Committee on Assassinations, says the agency's silence compromised that investigation. "If I had known then what Joannides was doing in 1963, I would have demanded that the agency take him off the job [of responding to committee inquiries]," he asserts. "I would have sat him down and interviewed him. Under oath."


The story begins on November 6, 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis had just come to an end the week before, when Kennedy accepted the Soviet Union's decision to withdraw all its missiles from the island. The fear of nuclear war that had lasted for thirteen anxious days was easing.

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Jefferson Morley