The Last Investigation
Over 50 years, the magazine has done a few stories that earned attention outside its South Florida market. All were written by Gaeton Fonzi. Even as the magazine was fighting its way out of the turmoil of its failed Treasure Coast foray, he contributed several pieces of historic value. One was the previously mentioned three-part profile of Ken Burnstine, a flamboyant Ivy League-educated developer turned drug runner. But in a historic sense, that dramatic story pales in comparison with Fonzi’s 1980 book-length account of his five years working for two government committees, which had reopened the investigation into the murder of President John F. Kennedy. Years later, those stories turned into a book, which is a must-read today for anyone interested in the crime of the last century. In 2008, while fighting an illness that claimed him three years ago, Fonzi recounted how a Florida social-lifestyle magazine happened to run such a historic story. –Bernard McCormick
The title of my book, The Last Investigation, was meant to convey an element of cynicism and more than a touch of irony. It referred to the just-completed inquiry into JFK’s murder by the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations. I worked for the Committee for almost two years as a staff investigator, and later as an investigative team leader. Prior, I had been an investigator on the staff of U.S. Sen. Richard Schweiker, who headed a JFK assassination subcommittee of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
How The Last Investigation got published in South Florida, in Gold Coast magazine, and how I became an official investigator for the U.S. government, parallels the evolving interest in the Kennedy assassination by two magazine journalists out of Philadelphia: myself and Bernard McCormick, my former Gold Coast partner and now editor and publisher.
Being in Philadelphia was the key because it was home of two individuals of pivotal importance in the history of Kennedy assassination research. Arlen Specter and Vince Salandria. Specter, at this writing running for his fifth term as U.S. senator, then a young and ambitious assistant district attorney, became a junior counsel on the Warren Commission and is credited with authoring the now fabled “single-bullet theory” – the contention critical to the Commission’s conclusion that a lone gunman killed JFK. Salandria was a little-known school board lawyer who developed an intense suspicion about the workings of the Warren Commission long before it issued its report. He didn’t like the secret meetings or the rumors it leaked about designating “a lone nut” named Lee Harvey Oswald as the assassin who reportedly killed to gain attention, yet kept insisting he was innocent and “a patsy.”
McCormick and I were working for Philadelphia magazine at the time and heard about a young lawyer giving talks to civic groups and writing pieces in local legal journals contending that the Single-Bullet Theory was hogwash and that the Warren Commission Report was basically a fraud the U.S. government was fostering on the American people. We thought Salandria was likely some kind of lone nut.
But when McCormick and I met Salandria, a small fellow, soft-spoken and intensely earnest, we were stunned that he could support his sensational assertions with the Warren Commission’s own evidence. Salandria gave me a copy of the Commission’s thick report, as well as its 26 volumes of accompanying evidence. McCormick and I, interrupting our regular summer assignment of evaluating the latest flock of classless beach birds at Wildwood by the Sea, studied the report. It quickly became apparent that Salandria’s claims might be valid. There were blatant contradictions between the Commission’s conclusions and the evidence in key areas. Not gray or minor differences, but stark black and white discrepancies.
I couldn’t believe the prestigious members of the Warren Commission would permit so many obvious misrepresentations of facts. Why hadn’t the national news media jumped on this story? I didn’t realize then that even the big media boys had screwed up, lured and then trapped into a defensive position on the JFK murder that would last for years and still exists to this day. The Commission had cleverly withheld release of its 26 volumes of evidence until more than two months after the release of its report. A lengthy The New York Times editorial, for instance, lavishly endorsed the Report’s conclusions without having available any supporting or contradicting evidence.
At any rate, at the time I thought Specter would clear it all up for me. A number of reporters had interviewed Specter when he had returned from Washington and had asked him about the report. Specter, a former Yale Law debate team captain, exuded confidence and authority in claiming that the Warren Commission did the most thorough investigation in the history of mankind. He exuberantly defended the report’s lone gunman conclusion and the “single-bullet theory.” Yet from their questions it was obvious that few reporters, if any, had even read the 888-page Commission Report and likely not one had even touched the 26 volumes of evidence. I would be the first journalist to confront Specter with the details.
I had known and admired Specter as a young assistant DA, had even worked with him on a story about his courageous battle with the corrupt local Teamsters union. He was not only exceptionally articulate, but always forthright and candid. But that day in Philadelphia and in the days of follow-up interviews, I found another Specter. He hemmed and hawed and mumbled in his attempt to explain critical points, he was evasive and anything but forthright, often stammeringly frustrated in his inability to provide rationale explanations.
I remember asking Specter one very critical question about the bullet holes in the back of Kennedy’s jacket and shirt. The “single-bullet theory” hinged on, among other factors, the bullet emerging from Kennedy’s throat and tumbling on to do all the damage to Gov. John Connally’s chest, wrist and thigh. And yet here, I showed Specter, is a photo from the volumes of evidence revealing that Kennedy’s jacket and shirt had bullet holes at least six inches down his back and well below where the bullet emerged from his throat. If Oswald was supposedly firing from behind and above the President, wouldn’t the entrance wound, I asked Specter, be above the exit wound? Specter fumbled some more, and then realizing that was an inadequate explanation, he sat down at his desk, shook his head and softly said, “I don’t remember.”
I came away from my two long sessions with Specter numb with disbelief. He had not eased my concerns about the Warren Commission Report, he had magnified them.
Philadelphia titled the article “The Warren Commission, The Truth and Arlen Specter.” It garnered the attention of what began as a small core of ordinary citizens who, like Salandria, had been paying attention and were concerned that their government was not being truthful. As they began probing deeper into the Warren Report’s evidence, these independent researchers began spreading the word, holding forums, giving speeches and publishing their findings in whatever publication that would print them, however esoteric and obscure.
I did several follow-up articles and each one developed more information that made the Warren Commission appear to be a scandalous cover-up of the crime of the century. More than a decade later, then U.S. Sen. Richard Schweiker (R-Pa) began to listen to the slowly rising grumble of the Warren Commission critics. As a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Schweiker was shocked to learn that CIA Director Allen Dulles had withheld from the Warren Commission crucial revelations about the CIA’s plots to kill Fidel Castro. He decided to do some initial research into the JFK case on his own. Tracing Lee Harvey Oswald’s activities, he concluded that “the fingerprints of intelligence” were all over them. Schweiker got Intelligence Committee Chairman Frank Church’s permission to form a subcommittee to review the Kennedy case.
I had never met Schweiker but he remembered my story about Specter in Philadelphia magazine. He also learned I had moved to South Florida and that’s what interested him. His subcommittee had been assigned a few investigators from the committee’s operations, but Schweiker was getting concerned that, guided by CIA-provided documents, they were focusing too narrowly on pro-Castro elements as possible suspects in Kennedy’s murder. And Schweiker felt that the involvement of anti-Castro Cubans was just as or even more likely. To probe that possibility he needed a man on the street in Little Havana. One day his top assistant called and asked if I could “check out a few things” in Miami for the Senator. It would only take a couple of weeks, he said.
We were still at it more than a year later when Schweiker was forced to shut down his subcommittee because its parent Select Intelligence Committee was expiring. But by that time we had gotten lucky and stumbled upon a secret door. Cracked open a bit, the door revealed a world the government had long denied existed – an operative link between the most militant anti-Castro groups and the Central Intelligence Agency. Every one of these groups despised President Kennedy, blaming him for the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion and considered him “a coward and traitor” for making a deal with Nikita Khrushchev to end the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now, we discovered, the most deadly terrorist actions of the most militant of these groups, was directed by a CIA agent and that agent was linked directly to Lee Harvey Oswald.
Prior to being forced to wrap up his subcommittee’s investigation, Sen. Schweiker presented the Intelligence Committee the evidence and the key informant we had developed in Miami. The committee reviewed the evidence, questioned the informant, classified the information and declared it had neither time nor funds to continue pursuing the new revelations. To Schweiker’s disappointment, the most significant evidence developed in his subcommittee investigation never made it into the Committee’s final report.
Over the years, and with continuing revelations coming forth from citizen researchers, the public had begun to accept the fact that the Warren Commission had not performed a valid investigation, had instead distorted and covered up evidence and had lied to the American people. Was Lee Harvey Oswald the lone assassin or was there a conspiracy? The public was confused, but beginning to lean sharply toward the latter. The citizen researchers turned their increasing public support into a measure of political clout. Finally, in 1976, Congress was pushed to establish a House Select Committee to “conduct a full and complete investigation” of the circumstances surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. Shortly afterwards, I was asked to join the committee’s staff by its first chief counsel, Richard Sprague, another former Philadelphia prosecutor with a reputation as tough, uncompromising and scrupulously honest. Finally, I thought, there was going to be a complete and valid investigation.
By the end of my tenure and the life of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, I was more disillusioned than ever and convinced that, when its report was issued, the American people were once again going to be deceived. I wrote The Last Investigation that appeared in Gold Coast magazine to explain what really happened inside the committee, to reveal distorted priorities, the manipulations and political machinations that derailed any legitimate effort to disclose the truth of JFK’s assassination.
The Gold Coast article and subsequently the book, documented the frustrations and planted obstructions blocking staffers’ access to key witnesses and documents. Blocked by whom? To some extent by the Committee’s own Congressional members who, for political expediencies, had voted to form the committee but saw no residual political gain in being involved in a Kennedy assassination investigation. They wanted it ended as quickly as possible. These were the committee members who forced Chief Counsel Sprague out when he dared to confront the CIA’s power. And that’s why the new Chief Counsel, Robert Blakey, a former federal prosecutor, forthrightly told staffers at our first meeting: “We have two priorities: One is to get the report finished on deadline and the second is to do it within our budget.” Taken aback, I asked, “What about finding the truth about the Kennedy assassination?” Blakey’s reply: “Oh, sure, we’ll do that too.”
We didn’t do that too. Instead the committee’s investigation was sabotaged at almost every important point along the way. And, for whatever assumptions that may come from it, the most disabling roadblocks were set up by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Chief Counsel Bob Blakey never believed it. Blakey had previously worked in Washington and had experience running Congressional committees. He thought he could sweet talk the Agency into complete cooperation. He ignored the lesson Sprague had learned when he refused to sign the CIA Secrecy Oath in return for access to its documents. “Why should I sign an agreement with an agency that might be a subject in my investigation?” Sprague had asked. Almost immediately, Sprague began to feel the heat. Critical barrages were fired at him from Capitol Hill and members of his own committee took potshots. A budget battle was the ostensible issue and, to keep the Committee alive, Sprague resigned. Sprague later admitted, “I had no problems in Washington until I bucked the CIA.”
Blakey believed he could handle the CIA. He sat down with its top bosses and negotiated and re-negotiated “agreements” that would eventually provide committee researchers access to all its files. Of course, all the Committee’s staffers who wanted access to the files had to first sign the CIA Secrecy Oath. Blakey saw no problem with that.
Blakey always returned from Langley beaming with pride at his skillful handling of the CIA. And on the surface it appeared that Blakey was successful. Even the Agency’s liaisons, wing-tipped bureaucrats who handled committee staff requests for documents, became unusually friendly and smilingly cooperative. And if it were necessary to research documents at CIA’s headquarters, committee staffers were greeted with an organized efficiency.
That attitude didn’t last long. Yet Blakey continued to maintain his faith in the CIA’s professed total cooperation even in the face of his researchers’ increasing number of complaints. Despite the unprecedented pact Blakey had made with their top-level bosses, the CIA’s operative-level staffers were claiming that more and more requested documents were “unable to be found,” or were “missing for some reason,” or were “inadvertently” destroyed in routine file purges. Still Blakey refused to be cynical. “Maybe they’re telling the truth,” he said. “Would the CIA lie to me?”
And yet now, a couple of decades later, there is hard evidence that the Agency did lie to Blakey – and to Congress and the American people. And that evidence also reveals the deceit and shocking arrogance with which the Agency handled those who tried to penetrate its fiefdom. A defining example that recently came to light:
When Kennedy made a deal to avert a nuclear war stemming from the Cuban Missile Crisis, among his stipulations to Khrushchev was that, in return for removal of the missiles, he would shut down a secret guerilla war the anti-Castro Cubans and the CIA were waging against Castro. Kennedy had quietly supported this secret war and the CIA was providing money and covert advisers to dozens of the groups. Directed by the CIA’s JM/WAVE station in South Miami, the groups conducted very successful, almost nightly missions into Cuba, destroying both military and civilian targets, burning government buildings, planting bombs in large department stores and committing general acts of terrorism.
But the Missile Crisis was a cathartic awakening for Kennedy. He suddenly realized he had helped bring the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. His subsequent speeches reflect a more conciliatory approach in dealing with the Soviet Union. He also planned withdrawing troops from Vietnam and, to augment his promise to Khrushchev that the U.S. would not invade Cuba, he ordered the CIA to completely shut down the secret military operations of the anti-Castro Cuban groups. There are those who believe that in issuing directives to augment his enlightened policy, JFK was signing his own death warrant.
In probing this area of their investigation, the Assassinations Committee staffers focused on a small number of anti-Castro Cuban groups that were the most active and militant. The largest was the Student Revolutionary Directorate, called the DRE from its Spanish acronym. What made the DRE more significant than others was that, within hours of the assassination, rumors and reports flew out of the DRE’s branch in New Orleans that Lee Harvey Oswald had tried to infiltrate the group. Its leaders, however, claimed they had quickly seen through his guise and later caught him handing out pro-Castro pamphlets to the public. That led to a street brawl, which got Oswald arrested briefly by the police and that, in turn, led to his appearance on a local talk radio program defending his Marxist beliefs.
The Warren Commission used that DRE-generated incident to bolster its portrait of Oswald as a pro-Castro fanatic. However, over the years researchers burst that balloon of disinformation, producing evidence that the pamphlets originated with a CIA front and Oswald was likely a willing role player. By the time the Assassinations committee began probing the DRE, emerging evidence had forced the Agency to retreat from its stance of non-involvement with any anti-Castro Cuban group. It admitted it played an “advisory” role with a few of the groups and, yes, the DRE among them. The Committee researchers immediately requested all documents and records of the agency’s contacts with the DRE. They also asked the CIA to locate and produce the DRE’s control officer so that he could answer questions under oath.
Chief Counsel Blakey had brought some of his researchers’ complaints to the attention of the Agency. The latter suggested a “new point of contact” for the committee, an expert the Agency would bring out of retirement to “facilitate” the researchers’ requests. His name was George Joannides.
Joannides was a tall, patrician-looking man who wore tailored suits and a dour demeanor around the Committee’s offices. It soon became apparent that instead of facilitating document requests he was more and more dancing around, delaying and blocking them. More, Joannides said, he could not find any records indicating the name of the DRE’s control officer or documents revealing his operational activities with the group. Nor did he find any records revealing Oswald’s contacts with members of the DRE.
But, Joannides said, he would continue looking for the agency’s DRE files as well as any records which would help him identify and locate the agency’s control officer, the one man who would have the most information about the DRE and its contact with Lee Harvey Oswald.
The tenure of the House Select Committee expired before the CIA ever responded to its DRE document requests. Congressional committees come and go, the CIA is a perpetual institution. The Agency chose to simply “wait out” the committee’s life. By law, the CIA’s legal mandate is to function as the Administration’s intelligence advisory and support entity in a duly elected democratic government. In fact, the CIA has evolved into an independent institution, its ultimate priority survival. Refusing to comply with dictates issued by elected representatives of the American people reveals its disdain for the basic values of a democratic society. The Assassinations Committee’s relationship with the CIA regarding the DRE indicates, in itself, what a renegade institution the Agency had become. Through the lies and deceptions of Joannides, the CIA was able to control and stifle the Committee’s efforts to pursue the truth about an important – perhaps pivotally crucial – aspect of President Kennedy’s assassination.
The CIA never informed the committee that Joannides was more than a clerkish Agency expert in “facilitating” document requests. When Kennedy was assassinated he was chief of Miami station JM/WAVE’s “psychological warfare” branch. He worked with the agency’s legendary psych war guru, David Atlee Phillips, who concocted many of the Oswald-as-pro-Castro misinformation rumors planted immediately after the assassination. Phillips, who got the CIA’s equivalent of the Medal of Honor, was later promoted to Chief of the Western Hemisphere Division, the agency’s highest staff level. However, as a young covert operative in the early ’60s, he went by the name of Maurice Bishop and planned at least two Castro assassination plots with another militant Miami group, Alpha 66, headed by Antonio Veciana, a former bank accountant. It was Veciana who saw “Bishop” meeting with Oswald in Dallas weeks before Kennedy’s murder.
Phillips had also been instrumental in helping members of the Student Directorate regroup in Miami after they were forced to flee Havana. Once reorganized and strengthened, the DRE was deemed by the Agency to be worthy of a high degree of both advisory and monetary support. The control agent the CIA assigned to the DRE soon began handing DRE’s leaders a monthly contribution that would reach, in current dollars, $1.5 million a year.
Some 20 years later we finally learned the name of the CIA’s control agent assigned to the DRE. It was George Joannides. The man he said he could not locate in CIA files was himself. Revelations about Joannides and the CIA’s sabotaging the Assassination Committee’s investigation were uncovered by former Washington Post reporter Jeff Morley, who discovered Joannides’ personnel file in newly released National Archives documents. The Post never ran his story, the Kennedy assassination being history and the details too esoteric.
Chief Counsel Blakey, now a professor at Notre Dame Law, no longer believes he was right in trusting the CIA. In fact, he now accuses the agency of “obstruction of justice.” Several years ago there was a petition circulated asking that still-classified CIA documents in the National Archives pertaining to the assassination be released. Among those who signed was Blakey. The man who trusted the Agency had lived to rue the day.