Nation & World

Former Miami Herald editor's ties to CIA confirmed, but still unclear, in latest JFK docs

Pres. John F. Kennedy greeted Fort Worth law enforcement crowd control officers who are on horseback in front of Hotel Texas, 11/22/1963.
Pres. John F. Kennedy greeted Fort Worth law enforcement crowd control officers who are on horseback in front of Hotel Texas, 11/22/1963. Star-Telegram

The roughly 5 million documents that make up the (mostly) released JFK assassination files revealed many secrets.

But some of the material tantalizes without providing full answers.

That includes documents mentioning legendary Miami Herald reporter and editor Don Bohning, a longtime Latin America expert whose colorful career was punctuated by coups, expulsions and a close relationship with CIA sources.

How close? That's the vexing question.

CIA documents partially declassified last year and further declassified last week by the National Archives confirm a relationship between the agency and Bohning that had been public in some form since at least 2005.

Don Bohning

One declassified document shows the CIA had granted Provisional Security Approval to Bohning on Aug. 21, 1967, and Covert Security Approval on Nov. 14 of the same year.

Dated June 14, 1968, the document says Bohning had the agency approvals so he could be used “as a confidential informant with natural access to information about news companies and personalities.”

It’s unclear, however, whether that reflected a deep relationship, or whether Bohning even knew about it. Bohning's widow, Geraldine, declined to comment.

The document also said Bohning was given the cryptonym AMCARBON-3, and elsewhere noted that Bohning “was not to be used operationally nor given clandestine training or assignments.” The AM was code for Cuba and CARBON appears to be a designation for journalists.

Another JFK assassination document, dating to June 1964, also revealed that the person who went by the cryptonym AMCARBON-1 was Bohning’s colleague at the Herald, Alvin Burt.

The documents, declassified further over the past year to reveal more detail, show Burt actively passing information to the CIA about exile-group infiltration plans in Cuba.

None of this would have come to light but for New Orleans District Attorney James Garrison, who in 1966 began investigating alleged links to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Garrison’s probe ended with the 1969 arrest and trial of local businessman Clay Shaw, who was quickly acquitted by a jury.

But Garrison’s view that JFK killer Lee Harvey Oswald was part of a larger conspiracy was memorialized in the 1991 Oliver Stone movie JFK. That film led to a federal law a year later ordering all JFK assassination documents declassified by Oct. 27, 2017.

After a six-month delay last year, the release was supposed to be completed April 26 — but President Donald J. Trump again extended the deadline, this time until 2021.

Bohning, who died in 2015 at the age of 82, actually penned a book on the era called The Castro Obsession: U.S. Covert Operations Against Cuba 1959-1965. But that's not how he enters the complex CIA tale.

Garrison’s investigation sought information from the CIA about people who had a relationship with CIA leaders in Miami, an operation known internally as JMWAVE. The documents show that a Garrison investigator, using an alias, tried to get information from Bohning in 1968 about the past activities of Rolando Masferrer, an anti-Castro plotter in Miami who had met with President Kennedy and had trained to overthrow the Cuban regime. Masferrer died years later in a 1975 Miami car bombing thought to be tied to rivalries between exile groups.

There are just three documents in the massive JFK assassination files that name Bohning; anything else that may exist is elsewhere in the labyrinth of CIA archives.

The Miami office of the CIA, once the largest in the world, worked to destabilize and, it hoped, overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba. It also sought to check Soviet expansionism across the Americas, a chess match of competing ideologies that characterized the Cold War.

“He discussed it with me one time, and I know it is a long time ago,” said Bernard Diederich, 92, who for almost five decades covered the Americas for Time magazine.

Interviewed by phone from Haiti, Diederich said Bohning told him of being instructed by his boss at the Herald to meet with a CIA agent, but said that he was neither an asset nor an employee. That’s different than Al Burt, whom Diederich described as “thick and steady” with the CIA.

Not that sharing information with the CIA would have been unusual in the day.

“To be in the know those days, you didn’t get it out of the ambassador, you got it out of the CIA,” said Diederich, who said he was often on the losing end because he was a New Zealander and not courted with the same gusto as American journalists.

One person to whom Bohning confided his CIA ties was Brian Latell, who in the early 1990's was the CIA's national intelligence officer for Latin America. The two met in 2006, after Latell had retired, and became fast friends.

"I don't remember him ever expressing regrets about it. He felt he was doing his patriotic duty," said Latell, author of the book Castro's Secrets, noting the ties to the agency would have been at the height of the Cold War.

Based on the public documents, Latell did not believe Bohning had an active long-running relationship with the agency.

Colleagues said that Bohning, who became Latin American editor in 1967, never hid the fact that he dined regularly with Jacob D. Esterline, a CIA veteran in Miami who helped lead the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, and who ran the agency’s Miami operations from 1968 to 1972.

“For better or worse . . . his role in the Bay of Pigs remains the event for which he will be most remembered and one that haunted him for the remainder of his life,” Bohning wrote of Esterline in an Oct. 18, 1999, story announcing the CIA man’s passing.

Were the two men just friends or was there a CIA relationship?

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the media and the CIA had a symbiotic relationship, with each learning important information from the other. Miami in those days was full of exiles hoping to turn back the Cuban Revolution. Against that backdrop, newsmen like Bohning mingled with CIA men and the anti-Castro plotters and tried to keep tabs on a murky world.

As new documents about the killing of President John F. Kennedy are released, The New York Times's Peter Baker walks us through who’s who in this American tragedy.

"One has to remember the context of Miami in the 1960s — a city teeming with political intrigue with the largest CIA station in the world, with literally hundreds of locals on the payroll," said Mark Seibel, a former foreign editor for the Herald who got to know Bohning in the 1980s. "It would have been derelict not to have routine contact with CIA officers. I never saw any indication that those contacts skewed Herald coverage and am not aware of any evidence that Don ever passed any information to the CIA."

“Don knew every one of these people and he had lunch with them on a regular basis," recalled Guy Gugliotta, who worked for Bohning before going on to a long career at the Washington Post. "They were a major source for him throughout his career. He knew these people backwards and forward. It was part of his job.”

Author Joan Mellen was among the first to discuss Bohning’s CIA link, devoting a chapter to it in her 2005 book A Farewell to Justice. She interviewed him at the Miami Herald, described him in unflattering terms and said the two of them had a contentious, unpleasant relationship.

“He was AMCARBON-3, there was no doubt about it,” said Mellen, who recently retired after 50 years as an English professor at Temple University. “He pretended to me that what they did was normal, but I was shocked, because to me that wasn’t right.”

Mellen’s book contends that Garrison’s investigation was stymied by intelligence officials, and she is critical of the close relationships reporters in the era such as Bohning had with the CIA field leaders.

While several of Bohning’s colleagues privately confirm he never discussed being a CIA informant with them, the June 14, 1968, document refers to a Source Memo, and noted that Bohning informed the agency he was contacted about Masferrer, the anti-Castro plotter, as part of Garrison’s probe.

One of the multitude of conspiracy theories that have flourished in the nearly 55 years since Kennedy’s assassination has the CIA training Oswald to kill Castro but instead killing Kennedy. A Cuban exile leader in Miami, Antonio Veciana, now old and infirm, insists to this day that he saw Oswald with CIA Latin America veteran David Atlee Phillips, a native Texan from Fort Worth.

Adding fuel to the conspiratorial fire, one of the CIA handlers of Cuban exile groups was George Joannides, who headed the psychological warfare branch out of Miami. One of the exile groups he worked with was later found to have had contact with Oswald before the assassination.

When the House Select Committee on Assassinations began investigating in the late 1970's CIA-backed efforts to kill foreign leaders, Joannides was brought out of retirement to serve as a liaison for the CIA with Congress. Neither Joannides nor the agency disclosed his role in Miami.

One of the documents in the recent release of JFK material is a CIA performance review for Joannides, which praises him effusively for pushing back against what the agency felt were aggressive tactics by congressional lawyers.

Another document from 1975 shows the CIA discussing a front-page April 21, 1975, Miami Herald article in which former longtime agent Frank Sturgis, one of the Watergate burglars, confesses to his part in planning assassinations in Cuba. The internal note requests a public denial that Sturgis ever worked for the ageny_ interesting in today's debate about fake news. But a handwritten answer comes back saying that "no reply necessary we not in (sic) business denying!"

Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall
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