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The George Polk Case
CIA Has Lost Records on CBS Reporter Murdered in Greece in 1948,
And Destroyed FOIA File on Case

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 226
Edited by William Burr

Posted - August 10, 2007

For more information contact:
William Burr - 202/994-7000

The original, unredacted version of this memorandum concerning James L. Kellis, an intelligence officer who worked for the Lippman Committee, was among those destroyed by CIA in "accordance with approved [NARA] records schedules."

Related posting

National Security Archive
Wins George Polk Award
for Journalism

 

 


Washington D.C., August 10, 2007 - The Central Intelligence Agency has lost documents concerning its investigation of the mysterious 1948 murder of CBS reporter George Polk, and destroyed its file on FOIA requests for Polk documents, according to a letter from Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein. In June 2006, the Archive asked the CIA and the National Archives to investigate the possibility that the CIA had lost or destroyed records on the Polk case.

Polk, a CBS reporter based in Greece at the height of its left-right civil war, was murdered by unknown assailants in 1948. At the request of members of the Polk family, the National Security Archive had asked the CIA to re-review CIA documents on the Polk case that had been released during the 1990s. The CIA found a number of documents for re-review but in December 2005 informed the Archive that nine of the documents, including memoranda to the Agency's director, had been destroyed. According to CIA Information and Privacy Coordinator Scott Koch's letter, "The original documents had been destroyed in accordance with approved National Archives and Records Administration records schedules." It was the CIA's response that prompted National Security Archive director Thomas S. Blanton to write letters to the Archivist of the United States and the Inspector General of the Central Intelligence Agency asking them to investigate the destruction of documents on the Polk case.

Last week, Dr. Weinstein informed the National Security Archive that the CIA is "unable to locate the original documents or information about their disposition." As the letter explains, the CIA FOIA case file had been destroyed in accordance with the records schedule; what has gone missing are the original file copies of the Polk-related documents (and whatever collection to which they belonged). That the CIA has determined that the documents cannot be found (and may well have been destroyed) raises troubling questions about CIA's historical records preservation policies. Why is the CIA losing what should have been permanent records? If the Polk documents were part of a larger system of records that was destroyed, what other historically significant records no longer exist? That the FOIA file which contained copies of the now-missing documents had also been destroyed also raises questions about this standard practice at federal agencies.

The National Security Archive won the George Polk Award in April 2000 for "piercing the self-serving veils of government secrecy."


Electronic Briefing Book
The George Polk Case
The Problematic Status of the CIA's Documentary Record
By William Burr

The Central Intelligence Agency has destroyed or otherwise lost documents concerning the mysterious murder of CBS reporter George Polk. According to a letter from Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein, the CIA is "unable to locate the original documents or information about their disposition." Dr. Weinstein's letter responded to a request by the National Security Archive for in investigation of a statement by CIA Information and Privacy Coordinator Scott Koch, who wrote in a December 2005 letter that "The original documents had been destroyed in accordance with approved National Archives and Records Administration records schedules."

The murder of George Polk is one of the enduring mysteries of the early Cold War. An enterprising journalist who dug deeply into any story that he covered, George Polk's reporting on the Greek civil war brought him into contact with partisans on all sides, left and right, but also exposed him to political attacks and death threats. On May 8, 1948, he disappeared from Salonika where he was allegedly trying to establish contacts with the leader of the Communist guerillas. Over a week later, on May 16, Polk's body was found in Salonika Bay. (Note 1)

George Polk's violent end produced dismay and outrage not least among U.S. journalists who, doubtful about the Greek government's impartiality, pressed the Truman administration to conduct an investigation. When the State Department refused to sponsor an inquiry, prominent journalists led by the famous columnist Walter Lippmann organized a committee to monitor the Greek government's investigation, bringing in former Office of Strategic Services (OSS) director William Donovan to help. Determined to pin the murders on the Communist left, the Greek government prosecuted two Communists, Adam Mouzenides, who had been killed before Polk's death (!), and Evangelos Vasvanas, who was in exile. Two others were charged with complicity in the murder: Gregory Staktopoulus, a Salonika journalist with a checkered past, and his mother, Anna. For many the case was weak and the guilty verdicts, reached in April 1949, dubious. The Lippmann Committee's tacit endorsement of the judicial outcome led critics to argue that it was hamstrung by its reliance on "official channels."

A year after Polk's death Long Island University memorialized Polk by establishing the George Polk Awards in Journalism, one of the most esteemed prizes in the profession. The Awards helped keep the Polk case in the public eye but it remained a mystery. During the decades that followed, historians and journalists reviewed old and new theories of the case: that Polk's murderers were communists, rightists, the British, the CIA, or, in a more recent view, smugglers and black marketers. By the late 1970s, after the Freedom of Information Act acquired stronger teeth, it became possible to go after U.S. government documents. The Central Intelligence Agency released some material and so did the State Department. Later the Department released to the National Archives the dossier on the Polk case compiled by the U.S. consul at Salonika. During the late 1980s and the years that followed, major books on the Polk case drew upon the newly declassified information. The documents, however, contained no smoking guns and the murder remains unsolved.

One persistent investigator has been motivated by a deeply personal interest. George Polk's younger brother, William R. Polk, who later became an historian and State Department official, attended the trial, was dissatisfied with its outcome, and has tried to unearth information on the case ever since. During the early 1990s, Mr. Polk filed, with the assistance of the law firm White & Case, a FOIA request with the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA responded with a "no records" determination which the law firm White & Case appealed, but to no avail. In the meantime, Ms. Kati Marton, who wrote a book on the Polk case provided William R. Polk with CIA documents that she obtained. Mr. Polk, seeking to do a book on his brother's life, sought further review of the documents, many of which were heavily excised. To assist him, in February 2003, the National Security Archive filed a FOIA request asking the Agency to re-review the documents that it had produced during the 1990s. Archive staffers assumed that with the passage of even more time since George Polk's murder it might be possible for the CIA to release more information on the case.

In December 2005, the CIA responded with a letter from Information and Privacy Coordinator Scott Koch announcing its decision. It released no additional information despite the passage of time. The Archive filed an administrative appeal in January 2006, so it is conceivable that more information may be released. What was especially troubling about Koch's letter was not so much the reaffirmation of the denials from the 1990s, but the revelation that some of the original records that had been reviewed for Marton's FOIA case had been destroyed in "accordance with approved [NARA] records schedules." The Archive found this startling because, despite their heavy excisions, most of the documents appear to have been substantive and worthy candidates for permanent record status. They include memoranda to the Director of Central Intelligence about the Polk case and documents concerning James L. Kellis, an intelligence officer who worked for the Lippman Committee [see part A below for the remnants of the missing/destroyed items].

After the Archive filed its appeal, Archive director Thomas S. Blanton Archive took another step in June 2006 and asked the Archivist of the United States and the CIA's inspector general to investigate the missing documents. This week, Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein reported the investigation's conclusions: the CIA FOIA case file had been destroyed under routine records disposition schedules. Moreover, the Agency could not locate the original file copies of the documents that had been used for the FOIA case or find information "about their disposition."

The possibility that Agency documents about the Polk case cannot be found and may no longer exist raises troubling questions about CIA's historical records preservation policies. Why has the CIA lost, presumably destroyed, documents that presumably would be prime candidates for permanent record status? Why is the Agency unable to find information about the disposition of these documents? Why were some records on Polk lost and others preserved? If the missing Polk documents were part of a larger system of records that also has been lost, what other historically significant records on CIA history no longer exist?

The records schedule that Archivist Weinstein mentions-- GRS 14 --concerns, in part, "files created in response to requests for information under the FOIA, consisting of the original request, a copy of the reply thereto, and all related supporting files which may include the official file copy of requested record or copy thereof." Item 11 (a) (3) (a) of the schedule relates to FOIA cases where information was denied but the decision was not appealed. Under the rules, agencies may destroy the files 6 years after the date of the reply. The destruction of FOIA files is routine practice at federal agencies, but the practice is questionable; in this instance, destruction of the file meant that copies of the now-missing original documents and, presumably, information about their original file location, were destroyed. Now that electronic record keeping enables Agency to preserve records in ways that takes up far less space, such FOIA files should be preserved.


The CIA Documents
Note: The following documents are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

The following are the documents that were at issue in the Archive's original FOIA request to CIA. It should be kept in mind that these are only a small portion of the universe of U.S. government documents on the Polk case, many of which are cited in the various books on the subject (e.g., Marton and Vlanton).

A. Excised Releases of Documents That the CIA Cannot Find

Document 1: Memorandum for the Director of Central Intelligence [Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter] from Assistant Director, "Further Information on Polk," 26 May 1948

Document 2: Memorandum for the Director of Central Intelligence from Deputy Assistant Director, subject excised, 1 June 1948

Document 3: Extract and Cross Reference Sheet, 7 June 1948

Document 4: Incoming Message, 5 July 1948

Document 5: Statement by James G. L. Kellis, 3 December 1952

Document 6: Letter, 9 June 1953

Document 7: Official Dispatch, 16 April 1954

Document 8: Memorandum for the Record, "James G. L. Kellis," 6 June 1955

Document 9: Response for Information Concerning the Inquiry by Rep [Excised], 22 August 1977


B. Those Documents Located and Re-reviewed by CIA

Document 1: Cable to [Athens Station], 21 May 1948

Document 2: Cable [from Athens Station], 24 May 1948

Document 3: Cable [from Athens Station], 25 May 1948

Document 4: Cable, 28 May 1948

Document 5: Memorandum for the Director of General Intelligence from Assistant Director, "George Polk," 1 June 1948

Document 6: Cable [from Athens Station], 3 June 1948

Document 7: Cable [from Athens Station], 4 June 1948

Document 8: Memorandum for the Director of Central Intelligence from Assistant Director, "George Polk Murder," 7 June 1948

Document 9: Memorandum for the Director of Central Intelligence from Assistant Director, "George Polk Murder," 8 June 1948

Document 10: CIA Information Report, "Anti-Leftist Activities of [Excised]," 9 June 1948

Document 11: Cable from [Athens Station], 12 June 1948

Document 12: Memorandum for the Director of Central Intelligence from Assistant Director, "George Polk Murder," 14 June 1948

Document 13: Memorandum for the Director of Central Intelligence from Assistant Director, "George Polk Murder," 16 June 1948

Document 14: Cable from [Athens Station], 17 June 1948

Document 15: Cable from [Athens Station], 20 June 1948

Document 16: Cable from [Athens Station], 28 June 1948

Document 17: Cable, 15 (?) August 1948

Document 18: Cable from [Athens Station], 24 August 1948

Document 19: Cable from Headquarters, 30 August 1948

Document 20: Memorandum for the Director of Central Intelligence from Assistant Director, "The Polk Murder Case," 9 September 1948

Document 21: Cable, September 1948?

Document 22: Cable from [Athens Station], 4 October 1948

Document 23: Cable from Headquarters (?), 26 October 1948

Document 24: Cable from [Athens Station], 2 December 1948

Document 25: Memorandum, "Polk Case Series," 2 May 1953

Document 26: Information Note, 4 October 1953

Document 27: Memorandum, 12 March 1954

Document 28: Cable, 24 August 1955

Document 29: Cable from Director, CIA [Allen W. Dulles], 26 September 1956

Document 30: Memorandum to Ambassador [to Greece James] Riddleberger, "Possible Re-emergence of Polk Case," 21 March 1958, with memorandum attached, "The George Polk Murder Case," 21 March 1958


Note

1. For Polk's life and the mystery around his murder, see Kati Marton, The Polk Conspiracy: Murder and Cover-up in the Case of CBS News correspondent George Polk (New York: Times Books, 1992); Edmund Keeley, The Salonika Bay murder: cold war politics and the Polk affair (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1989); Elias Vlanton, with Zak Mettger, Who killed George Polk?: The Press Covers Up a Death in the Family (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1996) (quotation at p. 5).

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