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November 21, 2006

Bobby Black Ops

I once shook Bobby Kennedy's hand. In April, 1968, the Pennsylvania primary brought Kennedy's campaign to the Penn campus, where I was an undergrad. Standing in a slow-moving open convertible, he reached out to the crowd of students and others lining 34th Street in West Philly. I was able to grasp his hand and look into his face, very briefly, and it was a moment I still remember vividly.

Two things struck me at the time. One was that the back of Kennedy's hand was all scratched up from all the people who'd been grabbing his hand over the course of the campaign. People responded to him like he was a rock star. More striking, though, was the look in Kennedy's eyes. He looked cornered, haunted, scared to death. I was shocked. It had been less than five years since his brother's assassination, just a couple of weeks since Martin Luther King's, so he had good reason. Still, it wasn't something I'd expected to see. A month and a half later, Kennedy himself was assassinated.

Yesterday, on what would have been Kennedy's 81st birthday, filmmaker Shane O'Sullivan published an article on possible involvement of CIA operatives in the assassination. Excerpts from the Guardian:

[David Sanchez] Morales was a legendary figure in CIA covert operations. According to close associate Tom Clines, if you saw Morales walking down the street in a Latin American capital, you knew a coup was about to happen. When the subject of the Kennedys came up in a late-night session with friends in 1973, Morales launched into a tirade that finished: "I was in Dallas when we got the son of a bitch and I was in Los Angeles when we got the little bastard." [...]

Working from a Cuban photograph of Morales from 1959, I viewed news coverage of the [RFK] assassination to see if I could spot the man the Cubans called El Gordo — The Fat One. Fifteen minutes in, there he was, standing at the back of the ballroom, in the moments between the end of Kennedy's speech and the shooting. Thirty minutes later, there he was again, casually floating around the darkened ballroom while an associate with a pencil moustache took notes.

The source of early research on Morales was Bradley Ayers, a retired US army captain who had been seconded to JM-Wave, the CIA's Miami base in 1963, to work closely with chief of operations Morales on training Cuban exiles to run sabotage raids on Castro. I tracked Ayers down to a small town in Wisconsin and emailed him stills of Morales and another guy I found suspicious — a man who is pictured entering the ballroom from the direction of the pantry moments after the shooting, clutching a small container to his body, and being waved towards an exit by a Latin associate.

Ayers' response was instant. He was 95% sure that the first figure was Morales and equally sure that the other man was Gordon Campbell, who worked alongside Morales at JM-Wave in 1963 and was Ayers' case officer shortly before the JFK assassination.

I put my script aside and flew to the US to interview key witnesses for a documentary on the unfolding story. In person, Ayers positively identified Morales and Campbell and introduced me to David Rabern, a freelance operative who was part of the Bay of Pigs invasion force in 1961 and was at the Ambassador hotel that night. He did not know Morales and Campbell by name but saw them talking to each other out in the lobby before the shooting and assumed they were Kennedy's security people. He also saw Campbell around police stations three or four times in the year before Robert Kennedy was shot.

This was odd. The CIA had no domestic jurisdiction and Morales was stationed in Laos in 1968. With no secret service protection for presidential candidates in those days, Kennedy was guarded by unarmed Olympic decathlete champion Rafer Johnson and football tackler Rosey Grier — no match for an expert assassination team.

Trawling through microfilm of the police investigation, I found further photographs of Campbell with a third figure, standing centre-stage in the Ambassador hotel hours before the shooting. He looked Greek, and I suspected he might be George Joannides, chief of psychological warfare operations at JM-Wave. Joannides was called out of retirement in 1978 to act as the CIA liaison to the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) investigating the death of John F Kennedy.

Ed Lopez, now a respected lawyer at Cornell University, came into close contact with Joannides when he was a young law student working for the committee. We visit him and show him the photograph and he is 99% sure it is Joannides. When I tell him where it was taken, he is not surprised: "If these guys decided you were bad, they acted on it."

We move to Washington to meet Wayne Smith, a state department official for 25 years who knew Morales well at the US embassy in Havana in 1959-60. When we show him the video in the ballroom, his response is instant: "That's him, that's Morales." He remembers Morales at a cocktail party in Buenos Aires in 1975, saying Kennedy got what was coming to him. Is there a benign explanation for his presence? For Kennedy's security, maybe? Smith laughs. Morales is the last person you would want to protect Bobby Kennedy, he says. He hated the Kennedys, blaming their lack of air support for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. [...]

Morales died of a heart attack in 1978, weeks before he was to be called before the HSCA. Joannides died in 1990. Campbell may still be out there somewhere, in his early 80s. Given the positive identifications we have gathered on these three, the CIA and the Los Angeles Police Department need to explain what they were doing there. [Emphasis added]

O'Sullivan's documentary was aired last night on BBC2. The BBC website has some video and photos, but they're available only to viewers in the UK. If you're in the UK, please consider uploading to YouTube, or email images and clips to me. People here in the US need to see this material.

Posted by Jonathan at November 21, 2006 01:46 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb