A BRIEF HISTORY OF COPA
There at the conception, I can accurately describe the origins and early history of COPA – the Coalition on Political Assassination.
Having a profound interest in the assassination of President Kennedy, and disenchanted with the sealing of the records of the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), I co-founded the Committee for an Open Archives (COA) with my old college mate John Judge.
We had attended the University of Dayton, Ohio together, and after focusing my History and Latin American Studies research on Cuba and the Bay of Pigs, I began to notice the common attributes and same players involved in the assassination of President Kennedy and Watergate. With John Judge and many others, we had lobbied Congress to reinvestigate the assassination, but were annoyed when the HSCA locked their records away for 50 years in 1978.
There were many conferences on the assassination over the years and decades, and a number of significant organizations that led to the HSCA investigation, including one founded by Mark Lane and another Assassination Information Bureau out of Boston, which opened a DC office for awhile.
But with the impending release of Oliver Stone’s movie "JFK" and a new flurry of books on the subject, the most popular conferences were held in Dallas, the most significant organized by Gary Shaw at the Omni Hotel. Shaw may have had a hand in the establishment of the Assassination Information Center (AIC), which ran out of storefront mall in the West End district behind the Texas School Book Depository (TSBD).
After Shaw’s original conference, a professional conference company from Texas organized and presented two, may three conferences under the title ASK. During the second conference, at which there were some conflicts between the organizers and researchers and presenters. It was then suggested that instead of paying a commercial, for-profit firm to attend conferences, so they can make money off of us, we considered forming our own researcher-oriented organization and hold our own conferences.
On the last day of the three day conference, those who expressed obvious dissatisfaction with the way the ASK conferences were run were invited to a special lunch meeting at the West End Pub. About a dozen or so people attended, and put some tables together so business could be discussed while we had lunch.
John Newman, Bill Turner, John Craig, myself and others discussed the vision of what a new organization of assassination researchers would be like and what it could accomplish. After much discussion, John Newman gave an inspiring speech and endorsement, emphasizing that with the passage of the JFK Act of 1992 and the establishment of the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), such an organization would necessarily be based in Washington D.C., where the expected Congressional hearings would be held, the National Archives (NARA) were located, and where all the future action would be. "We need researchers with boots on the ground in Washington," is the way Newman put it.
That’s about all that was decided at the first meeting in Dallas, but word quickly spread through the ASK participants and lists of names and contact numbers were passed around and collected.
The first meetings in Washington D.C. were held over the course of a two-day, Saturday-Sunday weekend at the Quaker Meeting House on Capitol Hill, as arranged by John Judge. This group of about two dozen, invited individuals, sat facing each other around tables arranged in a square.
Dr. Cyril Wecht, if I remember correctly, chaired the first meetings, asking everyone to take turns introducing themselves, their name, where they were from and interest in the organization and why it should be formed.
This group, primarily professionals – lawyers, doctors, academics, with research into political assassinations being the primary bond between them, laid the groundwork for the formation of the organization.
From New Jersey I drove to DC with Bob Danello, a Cherry Hill, N.J. police lieutenant who had previously joined the Committee for an Open Archive (COA) and had a keen interest in the assassination of JFK, the Cuban angles in particular.
I sat next to Professor Peter Dale Scott, who I met for the first time. Also present were others who I would come to know well over the next decade or so – Jim Lesar of the Assassinations Archives Research Center (AARC), FOIA attorney Dan Alcorn, Bill Davis, of the Christic Institute and John Newman, among others.
The first meeting, on Saturday, included two guys from Philadelphia, one of whom was invited and the other a hanger on, who began to disrupt the meeting by agitating other participants, espousing divisions of opinion, expressing opinions on every topic and monopolizing the discussion. John Judge made sure those who disrupted the first session were not at the second, and things ran a lot more smoothly.
I went to lunch on the first day of the meetings with Bill Davis, who I knew was a Catholic Jesuit priest and with the Christic Institute, a radical, pro-active organization that had filed a RICO suit against those involved in the Iran-Contra scandal with Dan Sheehan.
Most of the participants on both days walked around the corner from the Quaker Meeting House to a row of bars and restaurants, and settled on The Hawk & the Dove, where we took up most of the tables in a back room, continuing the discussions from the meeting.
As the least known and most quiet participant, my most notable contribution was in the last session on the second day, when someone finally asked if there any other items that need to be considered, and I said that we still had to come up with a name for the organization.
Sitting next to Scott, I had scribbled a series of acronymns, trying to find one that made sense and was easy to say. At first "political assassination" was all I had to work with but after awhile it came down to Committee on Political Assassination or Coalition on Political Assassination – COPA. Which I passed to Scott to have him make the suggestion.
A few months later another major, two day, series of weekend meetings were held at a hotel in DC’s Chinatown, where further details of COPA were ironed out. There were probably close to a hundred people at this series of meetings, which included a number of important individuals who were not at previous meetings, like Jim DiEugenio of Citizens for Truth in the Kennedy Assassination (CTKA), a California based group of researchers.
At one of these meetings it was decided to make COPA a coalition of the three existing organizations – the Assassination Archives and Research Center (AARC), the Committee for an Open Archives (COA) and CTKA, with the idea that other non-profits organizations with similar goals and ideals would be included later.
The first Governing Board consisted of Gary Aguilar, MD, Daniel S. Alcorn, Esq., Walter Brown, Ph.D., Jim DiEugenio, James Lesar, Esq., Phil Melanson, Ph.D., John Judge, Janette Rainwatear, Ph.D, Josiah Thompson, Ph.D., Professor Peter Dale Scott and Dr. Cyril Wecht.
The Advisory Board included Gaeton Fonzi, Patrick Fourmy, Robert Groden, Ed Lopez Soto, David Mantick, M.D., Ph.D., Sarah McClendon, Wallace Milan, John Newman, Ph.D., Michael Parenti, Ph.D., Dick Russell, Wayne Smith, Ph.D., Oliver Stone, Robert Tanenbaum, Esq., William Turner, Jack White.
When Peter Dale Scott resigned from the Governing Board, he was replaced by Carol Hewett, Esq., who later went over to LANCER.
There was a lot of enthusiasm in the air with the belated establishment of the Assassinations Records Review Board (ARRB) and of COPA’s new role of citizen overseers of the Review Board, with the first and second COPA national conferences in DC being the best and most significant.
Held at the Washington Sheraton and Omni Shoreham Hotels in consecutive years (1994-1995), the early COPA conferences had committees that reviewed abstracts that were submitted for presentation and a series of speakers that were carefully planned out.
The main speakers addressed hundreds of people in the main ballroom, while other presentations were made by researchers in side rooms, with Judge Tunheim, the head of the ARRB, addressing both DC conferences and recognizing COPA as the primary research organization that was monitoring the work of the Review Board.
Peter Dale Scott, John Newman, John Armstrong, Dick Russell, Bill Turner, Phil Melanson, Cyril Wecht and others who had written or were writing books on the assassination spoke in the main room, while Ed Haslem, Frank Debenedictis, Martin Shackelford, Hal Verb, Carol Hewett and myself gave additional talks or held panel discussions on special subjects in the side rooms.
It was at the second conference at the Omni when I was called over to a side table where Prof. George Michael Evica and Debra Conway were talking. They told me that they were thinking of starting another organization, "to educate the next generation of researchers," and I said that COPA needed more organizations to enlarge the umbrella of groups we worked with and increase our numbers and power. I didn’t realize that Debra would start a privately held for-profit organization JFK LANCER that would end up competing with COPA in holding annual conferences in Dallas for the next decade.
It was at the second COPA meeting when I met personally with Wayne Smith, who I asked about his experiences working in the Havana embassy when Castro came to power. Smith told me that he worked there with David Atlee Phillips, and participated in an amateur acting troupe with Phillips.
It was out of that COPA conference that Wayne Smith began to organize a series of meetings between COPA members and the Cubans, held in Rio and the Bahamas.
[For transcripts of some of these talks see: Cuban Archives ].
One of the most important COPA conferences was held in Dallas at the Hotel Lawrence and Union Station in November 1998, the 35th anniversary of the assassination. While the speakers on the Grassy Knoll were terrific, the news media chose to ignore us, though I did tape record the speeches and typed out a transcript that I later posted on the internet [See: The Event that Didn’t Happen].
COPA was in disarray however, and more and more COPA members were defecting to LANCER, which was holding competing conferences in Dallas at the same time. So with the ARRB dissolving and LANCER taking members and money, and the three COPA organizations being strapped for money – particularly AARB, which has a huge archives that needed storage rent, and CTKA, which published PROBE magazine, there was an effort by some members of the governing board to dissolve COPA.
While I understood the motivations behind the move, I urged those on the governing board – Dr. Gary Aguliar, Jim DiEugenio and Cyril Wecht, to try to keep COPA going because the situation may change in the future and we could never start from the beginning again. By this time John Judge, COPA secretary with no voting power, didn’t care if COPA kept flying or crashed, as he was disscusted with all the work he was putting in and getting only grief – from those who didn’t have enough time to make their presentations, didn’t want to pay for the dinner, felt they were slighted for some reason or another, etc.
Although I thought my arguments to keep COPA going may have made a difference, I later learned that when the move to dissolve COPA was made, COPA attorney Dan Alcorn said that an on-going civil suit with the Department of Defense had been filed under COPA’s name – COPA vs. DOD, for the US Army After Action Reports from Memphis during the assassination of Martin Luther King. They didn’t dissolve COPA at the time because of the suit, which turned out to be pretty significant.
Although the Appeals Court ruled against COPA, the Army ended up leaking the After Action Report (AAR) Summary to a Memphis newspaper, and the negative publicity from the COPA suit is acknowledged as the reason behind the release of the previously secret records. [See: Phil Melanson ].
Phil Melanson, John Judge, Dan Alcorn, Dr. William Pepper and other COPA members took an active role in the Martin Luther King assassination civil trial, which developed evidence of a conspiracy and won in court in Memphis.
Led primarily by John Judge, COPA has continued to hold annual regional conferences in Memphis in April and Los Angeles in June and Dallas in November.