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  • Writer's pictureFred Litwin

A Reply to Jefferson Morley regarding Operation Northwoods

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

I am delighted to see that Jefferson Morley is a regular reader of my blog. He recently posted a lengthy reply to my blog post on Operation Northwoods, which responded to his unpersuasive case for its relevance.

Morley has been convinced, for a long time, that the George Joannides personnel file may have information on a supposed operation involving Lee Harvey Oswald. He is now convinced that these documents "may relate" to Northwoods.

As I will show below, the ARRB reviewed these files and they understood perfectly Joannides' role in working with the DRE back in 1963. Their reviewer found nothing in those documents that was related to the JFK assassination.

Here is my response to Morley:

  1. The Kennedys and Cuba

Morley cannot understand why my blog post did not mention the revived Operation Northwoods document of May 1, 1963. The explanation is in the last paragraph of my post:

Operation Mongoose was ended after the Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962. However, John and Robert Kennedy still wanted to get rid of Castro. But that's for another post.

Morley also takes exception to my description of JFK's war against Castro:

From the start Litwin overstates his case. JFK’s desire to get rid of Castro was not exactly “rabid.” It did not extend to “the use of U.S. military force,” much less to the Pentagon’s plans for staging a violent incident in the United States and blaming it on Castro.

As I showed in my last post, even RFK talked about possibly staging a violent provocation and blaming it on Castro. Here is an excerpt from a meeting held at the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis:

RFK: . . . one other thing is whether, uh, we should also think of, uh, uh, whether there is some other way we can get involved in this through, uh, Guantanamo Bay, or something, er, or whether there's some ship that, you know, sink the Maine again or something.

I think the word 'rabid' is correct, and the Kennedys continued their efforts to topple Castro well after the end of Operation Mongoose in late 1962. Morley mentions a crackdown on Cuban-exile groups:

Litwin notes correctly that the authors of Operation Northwoods stressed such extreme measures were only needed if "covert efforts to foster an internal Cuban rebellion are unsuccessful.” By the spring of 1963, the Kennedy White House was cracking down on Miami-based exiles staging independent attacks on Cuban targets that amounted to little more than international piracy. It was obvious to the chiefs that JFK’s policy of fostering an internal rebellion was failing.
That’s why they revived the Northwoods concept in this March 25 [sic; actually May 1], 1963, memo, which Litwin’s account inexplicably fails to mention.

Yes, the Kennedy administration was cracking down on the exiles. But that was only because they wanted to handle the activities themselves. And yes, the Chiefs were prescient in understanding that an internal rebellion was not going to happen. And so, they dusted off an old plan.

But let's have a detailed chronological look at the documentary record of what was going on in the Kennedy White House in 1962 - 1963, before and after that May 1st memo. One major point is that both RFK and JFK were apparently pushing to get rid of Castro; they weren't being pushed.

Many people believe that President Kennedy made an unequivocal commitment not to invade Cuba after the Cuban Missile Crisis. That is not the case. Here is a note from a meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council on November 21, 1962:

The President agreed that we could abandon insistence on ground inspection, but he felt that the proposed no-invasion assurances were too hard. He said our objective is to preserve our right to invade Cuba in the event of civil war, if there were guerrilla activities in other Latin American countries or if offensive weapons were reintroduced into Cuba. We do not want to build up Castro by means of a no-invasion guarantee.

A significant uprising in Cuba or Cuban guerilla activities in other countries could offer a pretext for an invasion. This is perhaps why so many of the approved plans called for activities to encourage a revolt.

RFK raised the issue of commando-type raids on Cuba and then "urged, in any case, that CIA survey all possibilities for aggressive action in Cuba over the next six months, assuming that the Agency could be given a free rein to proceed."

All possibilities?

Does Morley really think that General Lyman Lemnitzer never heard that kind of language from the Kennedys? Oh, I am sorry, Lemnitzer was no longer Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was Maxwell Taylor.

JFK himself said that the "CIA should examine exactly what might be accomplished in the field of sabotage during the next six months."

In an April 18, 1963 memo, the new coordinator of Cuban Affairs (who replaced Lansdale), Sterling Cottrell, offered a new covert policy towards Cuba:

Other proposals were on the table:

9. The President stated his belief that it was necessary to raise the pressure somewhat in Cuba. He felt that we could hardly continue to carry out a mild policy in Cuba at the time the Communists are carrying out an aggressive policy in Laos. He thus approved certain U-2 flights over Cuba. These flights and other activities against Cuba, however, will be delayed until the anticipated release by Cuba of prisoners on April 22. The President requested recommendations on April 22 for additional efforts which can be taken in Cuba.

As mentioned above, JFK had approved U-2 flights over Cuba, and now RFK is talking about "measures" that could be taken if one is shot down. Were they not looking for a pretext to invade Cuba?

Robert Kennedy wanted action:

The Attorney General, who entered the meeting in the middle of Mr. FitzGerald’s briefing, said the U.S. must do something against Castro, even though we do not believe our actions would bring him down.

On June 8 1963, the CIA presented a "Proposed Covert and Integrated Program of Action toward Cuba to the Standing Group."

They were targeting four segments of the Cuban economy: electric power, petroleum refineries, railroad and highway transportation, and production and manufacturing. The memo notes that "Raids will be conducted from outside Cuba, using Cuban agents under CIA control. Missions will be staged from a U. S. key."

And here is their recommendation:

This is the milieu in which the JCS operated.

In fact, the Pentagon renewed its demand for a Cuban pretext operation in March 1963. Litwin, usually an assiduous researcher, seems to have overlooked this May 1, 1963 Pentagon document, which tells the story.

A demand? I can find no language in the Pentagon documents which refer to a 'demand.'

Also note that nowhere in this document is there any notion that a violent incident would be staged on U.S. soil as alleged by Morley.

The Joint Chiefs kept similar language in the 1963 proposal. They knew that this plan would involve many agencies of the U. S. government and not just the military:

Other agencies of the United States government would be needed to implement the plan. The JCS once again wanted to forward this plan to the Special Group for consideration.

Aa I said earlier, Maxwell Taylor was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He was very close to JFK. Is there any way he would countenance a rogue operation from the Joint Chiefs? This contingency plan was dependent on cooperation from a variety of branches of government.

Clause 5 takes an engineered major incident off the table, but notes that "fabricated provocations, either alone or in conjunction with a contrived revolt, should be developed by appropriate governmental agencies."

The Department of Defense wasn't wedded to a Northwoods-style plan. In fact, the Department of Defense and the State Department worked on a joint plan:

To sum up, in 1962, General Lansdale, head of Operation Mongoose, asked the JCS for a "description of pretexts which would provide justification" for an intervention in Cuba, and they responded with Operation Northwoods.

They put in a proviso in to their plan: it was only needed if "covert efforts to foster an internal Cuban rebellion are unsuccessful.

Operation Mongoose ended in October 1962, but the effort to get rid of Castro did not. There was a lot of interest in fomenting an internal Cuba rebellion, but the JCS, once again, realized that wasn't going to happen, developed a plan involving pretexts. It didn't go anywhere, and I doubt it was ever presented to the Special Group.

In any case, General Maxwell Taylor was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and a close ally of JFK. I somehow think that JFK knew exactly what was going on.

2. Operation Northwoods and the JFK assassination

But what about Operation Northwoods and the JFK assassination?

Morley writes:

There’s absolutely no connection between Northwoods and November 22, Litwin insists. But Litwin’s errors and omissions not only call into question his conclusion. They actually help illuminate the connections between Northwoods and the events of November 1963.

Did I say anything vaguely like that in my post on Operation Northwoods?

Of course not.

But what is the connection? Even Morley says, " the full story of Operation Northwoods and Kennedy's assassination is still murky."

So, what is the relationship? Morley tries to come up with something:

“Not only did the disclosure of Operation Northwoods in 1997 reveal the conspiratorial and anti-democratic mentality that prevailed at the highest levels of the CIA and the Pentagon in November 1963,” I recently wrote. “Northwoods also bore a passing resemblance to the events of November 22. Within hours of Kennedy’s murder, CIA’s assets in the AMSPELL network sought to blame the crime on Cuba by linking Oswald to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.”

But didn't Oswald link himself to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC)? To Morley, Oswald has no agency; he must have been directed to the FPCC.

Morley's argument of a connection between Northwoods and the assassination rests on timing:

The Northwoods paper served as a formal JCS policy guidance on Cuba from May to September 1963.
That’s when U.S. military and intelligence agencies initiated the “coordinated program” to create a pretext for a U.S. invasion.
And that’s when the CIA apparatus started to focus attention on an obscure supporter of Fidel Castro, an itinerant leftist named Lee Harvey Oswald.

What CIA apparatus focused its attention on Oswald? Of course, it was Oswald's visit to the Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico City that triggered CIA attention. Why does Morley drag the CIA into the JCS Northwoods plan?

And, of course, Morley brings in his favorite target, George Joannides:

During the four months that Northwoods was JCS policy, an undercover officer in Miami, George Joannides was responsible for guiding and monitoring the AMSPELL network, which had a series of encounters with Oswald in which they collected intelligence, engaged in political action, and generated propaganda about his pro-Castro ways for New Orleans newspaper, radio, and TV outlets.

Joannides oversaw the DRE in Florida. The encounters with Oswald in New Orleans were with Carlos Bringuier, and it was he who reported this back to DRE in Florida. He didn't need orders from Joannides to confront Oswald or to debate him on radio -- he did that all on his own.

Morley writes:

Litwin argues the CIA didn’t intend for its assets in the AMSPELL program to do what they did. It was just a lone anti-Castro activist taking on the lone nut, he writes.

I should have written that it was largely the result of the pre-assassination work of one man, Carlos Bringuier. As Morley must certainly know, all of DRE's information about Lee Harvey Oswald came from Carlos Bringuier.

Here is an article from the December 10, 1963, issue of the Charleston, South Carolina News & Courier:

It was completely in character for Carlos Bringuier to blame the assassination on Castro. He didn't need orders.

Was the "press relief" part of the undisclosed Oswald operation? Did the CIA have to instruct Bringuier to issue this statement?

And right after the assassination, Bringuier continued as would be expected.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune from November 24, 1963:

Morley believes that "a covert CIA program - AMSPELL - shaped the first-day coverage." But wouldn't it have been natural for Bringuier and other anti-Castro Cuban leaders to blame Castro?

And Morley seems to understand this. Here is a quote from his 2008 book, Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA: (page 175)

All the former DRE leaders emphasized that they did not take orders from the CIA, and there is good reason to take them at their word. In 1963, they were passionate young anticommunists who feared their homeland was in danger of slipping under one-party control forever. They did not need a CIA man from Washington to tell them to take against a public supporter of Castro like Oswald.

Morley claims that Jose Antonio Lanuza and Carlos Bringuier were "both assets to the CIA." But Bringuier never saw a penny from DRE funds and his only contact with the CIA was with the Domestic Contact Service in New Orleans.

And even then, Bringuier's contact with the DCS was in 1967 in reference to Jim Garrison's ridiculous JFK investigation.

Morley believes that it was the CIA that was significantly responsible for first-day coverage of the assassination:

In short, Litwin (like CIA defenders in mainstream news organizations) prefers to avoid the strong evidence that a covert CIA program — AMSPELL — shaped the first-day coverage of Kennedy’s assassination by generating headlines about the “pro-Cuban gunman.”

It was Oswald and his actions that were responsible for the first-day coverage.

And supposedly Lanuza saw the conspiracy:

In 1963, Lanuza, then a 24-year-old law student, simply assumed Oswald was guilty. Now a retired schoolteacher, he says the AMSPELL network was used by conspirators seeking to kill JFK and blame Cuba.

Why would Lanuza say they were being used? Lanuza wonders: "who better to show that he was a communist?" But it was Oswald, once again, who showed that he was a communist.

3. Morley Links Northwoods to Dallas

Morley adds "context" to the story by bringing up undercover officer Donald Heath:

Inside the CIA’s Miami station on Nov. 22, 1963, undercover officer Donald Heath recalled his colleagues immediately suspected that the assassination of Kennedy and the arrest of Oswald were a provocation to generate a U.S. invasion. While the White House, FBI, and national press corps were insisting Oswald acted alone, the CIA men in south Florida were not so naive. They didn’t think the conveniently dead Oswald was solely responsible, and they didn’t suspect he acted at Castro’s behest.

The word 'provocation' does not appear in Heath's memo. And there is no basis for Morley's writing about what "they" thought or suspected. Heath was simply asked to investigate leads "possibly linking Castro Cuba or the Cuban exile community" to the assassination. So what?

Morley then marries the Heath memo with Operations Northwoods:

Heath’s memo, read in conjunction with the Northwoods documents, begs a legitimate question: Was the ambush in Dallas an “engineered provocation” designed to blame a spectacular crime on Castro so as to justify a U.S. invasion?
To put the question more precisely: Did AMSPELL case officer Joannides use his agents to generate propaganda about Oswald as part the Pentagon’s “coordinated program to create a pretext for overt U.S. military intervention” in Cuba?

This is an incredible reach. What was the provocation - the assassination of JFK or the so-called propaganda about Oswald?

And was it really an ambush in Dallas? I'd like Morley to flesh this out and tell us what he thinks happened in Dallas. Does he support the debunked acoustics evidence? On what evidence does he base his conclusion that there was an ambush?

Because Morley has no evidence to link Northwoods to Joannides, he must claim only that "there are circumstantial reasons to think so." Here are his four points:

  • Joannides worked under U.S. Army cover in other assignments.

  • He adopted a new cover identity in January 1963 when he took over handling of the AMSPELL program.

  • In June 1963, Joannides was cleared for access to Special Intelligence (SI) gathered by a sensitive CIA wiretapping operation. Researcher Robert Reynolds has found five other examples of SI clearances in the JFK collection. Four of the five were cleared for wiretaps in Mexico City; one was for wiretaps in Havana. Was Joannides cleared for access to the wiretap program (code name LIENVOY) which picked up Oswald’s visit to Cuban and Soviet diplomatic offices in Mexico City a few months later? It is at least possible. Only the CIA knows.

  • The “intelligence methods” and the “cover” that Joannides used while running the AMSPELL program in 1963 and 1964 (and stonewalling Congress in 1978) are still highly classified for reasons of “national security.” Did Joannides have Pentagon cover in 1963? Did his methods include combatting pro-Castro leftists in the United States? The CIA says the answers to these questions are too sensitive to disclose.

These circumstantial elements are weak.

First, the fact that Joannides worked under U.S. cover in other assignments, and that he "adopted a new cover identity in January 1963" doesn't speak to the issue at hand.

Morley makes a big deal out of the fact that in June 1963, Joannides was "cleared for access to Special Intelligence." He wonders if this clearance gave Joannides access to wiretaps from Mexico City that picked up Oswald's visits to the Cuban and Soviet embassies. But many people received SI clearance. Here is a memo dated 18 April 1956 from CIA Director of Security Sheffield Edwards to the CIA Inspector General reporting on a talk he'd had with Admiral Connelly from the Killian Committee: (thanks to Larry Haapanen for the tip)

Edwards writes that "Admiral Connelly had just received a report from Mr. Godel of the Department of Defense on the number of persons in government cleared for Special Intelligence. He was rather shocked by the total figure, which is well over [ ]."

Special intelligence doesn't just refer to wiretaps but to other forms of signal intelligence.

Would it make any sense to give Joannides access to the Mexico City wiretaps, much less to put his clearance in writing?

4. George Joannides and the ARRB

Morley admits that "a staffer of the Assassinations Records Review Board (ARRB) who saw Joannides' personnel file said it contained nothing on Oswald." This is extremely misleading. Michelle Combs examined the Joannides' personnel file and she also clearly understood exactly who Joannides was. Here is her memo once again:

Combs said that "there is no mention of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in the file and no information relevant to the assassination in the file." Does Morley really believe that Ms. Combs was not capable of understanding what was relevant in Joannides' file?

Morley claims that the CIA has a "record of false statements about the Joannides file." He quotes from a December 6, 2022, letter that Judge Tunheim sent to President Biden in which he said that the CIA has "deliberately misled" the ARRB.

But did Judge Tunheim know the details of the Combs' memo? In March of 2023, I emailed Judge Tunheim and asked him about the memo:

Dear Judge Tunheim: I am the author of the new book, Oliver Stone's Film-Flam: The Demagogue of Dealey Plaza.

There has been a lot of controversy about George Joannides and documents that should or should not be released.

Are you aware of this ARRB document? [I attached the above document]

This document seems to indicate that the ARRB knew exactly who Mr. Joannides was and that his file was examined. Are you familiar with this document?

Here is his reply:

Hi Mr. Litwin,

Thank you for your email. I was not aware of this document, but I was aware that our staff had seen the Joannides personnel file near the end of our operation. My recollection is that staff was told by the CIA that there was nothing of note in the file and that the recommendation was to not order release. Things were moving quickly at the end, and it seems Jeremy Gunn did not see fit to tell us more. John R. Tunheim | District Judge United States District Court District of Minnesota

So, Tunheim was not aware of that document when he sent that letter to President Biden. Tunheim was also unaware of other details about Joannides that were disclosed to the ARRB:

We were told that Joannides was simply the liaison for the CIA with the House Select Committee on Assassinations and nothing more. We returned the file to the Agency. It turned out that this claim was a shadow of the truth. Joannides had earlier overseen the training in Miami of anti-Castro Cubans in advance of the Bay of Pigs, which most certainly was possibly relevant to the assassination.

Morley quoted this paragraph in his post but left out the phrase "in advance of the Bay of Pigs," which was one of Tunheim's errors of fact. The ARRB clearly knew quite a lot about Joannides.

I asked Judge Tunheim for further details, and he replied:

Hi Fred, all I recall is what I was told, likely by Jeremy Gunn — that there was nothing in the Joannides file of interest. Whether Michelle reviewed the file or was told that by the CIA people I don’t know. I do not recall being told of the DRE connection, just that he was the intermediary for the House Select Committee. I have sent an email to several former staff to see if they know how to contact Michelle. John R. Tunheim | District Judge United States District Court District of Minnesota

I do not expect that there is anything of substantive interest in the Joannides personnel file. I do hope the CIA releases the entire file at some point which might stop the endless posts from Jefferson Morley about the "44 documents."

And that would truly be a service to the country.

Thanks to Paul Hoch, Tracy Parnell, Robert Reynolds, Dale Myers, and Larry Haapanen who have done some excellent work on these issues.

Previous Relevant Blog Posts

W. Tracy Parnell is one of the best JFK assassination researchers out there. Here is his look at Jefferson Morley with several important articles.

Operation Northwoods can only understood as being part of the Kennedys war against Cuba and Operation Mongoose.

And a response from me.

There is no evidence that Dr. West petitioned the court to examine Jack Ruby before his trial.

There is absolutely no evidence that Dr. Louis Jolyon West interfered with Jack Ruby's case.

The phrase 'who shot John' does not refer to the JFK assassination.

Jefferson Morley used a fake Oswald handbill in his press conference for the Mary Ferrell Foundation.

An examination of redactions in the JFK collection of documents.


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