Operation Northwoods was a proposed false flag operation against American citizens that originated within the US Department of Defense of the United States government in 1962. The proposals called for CIA operatives to both stage and actually commit acts of violent terrorism against American military and civilian targets, blaming them on the Cuban government, and using it to justify a war against Cuba. The possibilities detailed in the document included the remote control of civilian aircraft which would be secretly repainted as US Air Force planes, the possible assassination of Cuban immigrants, sinking boats of Cuban refugees on the high seas, blowing up a U.S. ship, and orchestrating terrorism in U.S. cities. The attacks on Americans were not supposed to be violent, while the attacks on Cuban refugee boats were supposed to be “real or simulated”, with the maximum extent of wounding them for media publicity. The proposals were rejected by President John F. Kennedy.
Fidel Castro had taken power in Cuba in 1959 and began allowing communists into the new Cuban government, nationalizing U.S. businesses and improving relations with the Soviet Union, arousing the concern of the U.S. military due to the Cold War. The operation proposed creating public support for a war against Cuba by blaming it for terrorist acts that would actually be perpetrated by the U.S. government. To this end, Operation Northwoods proposals recommended hijackings and bombings followed by the introduction of phony evidence that would implicate the Cuban government. It stated:
The desired result from the execution of this plan would be to place the United States in the apparent position of suffering defensible grievances from a rash and irresponsible government of Cuba and to develop an international image of a Cuban threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere.
Several other proposals were included within Operation Northwoods, including real or simulated actions against various U.S. military and civilian targets. The operation recommended developing a “Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington”, which involved the bombing of civilian targets themselves, which was to be blamed on the “irresponsible” Cuban government to paint a false image of Fidel Castro and misinform the American public.
The plan was drafted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed by Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer and sent to the Secretary of Defense. Although part of the US government’s anti-communist Cuban Project, Operation Northwoods was never officially accepted; it was authorized by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but then rejected by President Kennedy. None of the false flag operations became active under the auspices of the Operation Northwoods proposals.
Origins and public release
The main Operations Northwoods proposal was presented in a document titled “Justification for U.S. Military Intervention in Cuba (TS),” a top secret collection of draft memoranda written by the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). The document was presented by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on 13 March 1962 as a preliminary submission for planning purposes. The Joint Chiefs recommended that both the covert and overt aspects of any such operation be assigned to them. The previously secret document was originally made public on 18 November 1997, by the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board, a U.S. federal agency overseeing the release of government records related to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. A total of 1,521 pages of once-secret military records covering 1962 to 1964 were concomitantly declassified by said Review Board.
“Appendix to Enclosure A” and “Annex to Appendix to Enclosure A” of the Northwoods document were first published online by the National Security Archive on 6 November 1998 in a joint venture with CNN as part of its 1998 Cold War television documentary series—specifically, as a documentation supplement to “Episode 10: Cuba,” which aired on 29 November 1998. “Annex to Appendix to Enclosure A” is the section of the document which contains the proposals to stage false flag terrorist attacks.
The Northwoods document was published online in a more complete form, including cover memoranda, by the National Security Archive on 30 April 2001.
In response to a request for pretexts for military intervention by the Chief of Operations of the Cuba Project, Brig. Gen. Edward Lansdale, the document listed methods, including false flag provocations, and outlined plans, that the authors believed would garner public and international support for U.S. military intervention in Cuba. According to the documents, the plan called for several steps to be taken in an attempt to provoke Cuba into an action against the United States, then blame it for “hostilities” carried out by the U.S. against its own military base at Guantanamo; these would be followed by executing offensive operations there against tactical Cuban civilian targets and military emplacements, leading to “large scale United States military operations”:
- Since it would seem desirable to use legitimate provocation as the basis for U.S. military intervention in Cuba, a cover and deception plan, to include requisite preliminary actions such as had been developed in response to Task 33 c, could be executed as an initial effort to provoke Cuban reactions. Harassment plus deceptive actions to convince the Cubans of imminent invasion would be emphasized. Our military posture throughout execution of the plan will allow a rapid change from exercise to intervention if Cuban response justifies.
- A series of well coordinated incidents will be planned to take place in and around Guantanamo to give genuine appearance of being done by hostile Cuban forces.
- United States would respond by executing offensive operations to secure water and power supplies, destroying artillery and mortar emplacements which threaten the base.
- Commence large scale United States military operations.
U.S. Military Wanted to Provoke War With Cuba
In the early 1960s, America’s top military leaders reportedly drafted plans to kill innocent people and commit acts of terrorism in U.S. cities to create public support for a war against Cuba.
Code named Operation Northwoods, the plans reportedly included the possible assassination of Cuban émigrés, sinking boats of Cuban refugees on the high seas, hijacking planes, blowing up a U.S. ship, and even orchestrating violent terrorism in U.S. cities.
The plans were developed as ways to trick the American public and the international community into supporting a war to oust Cuba’s then new leader, communist Fidel Castro.
America’s top military brass even contemplated causing U.S. military casualties, writing: “We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba,” and, “casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation.”
Details of the plans are described in Body of Secrets (Doubleday), a new book by investigative reporter James Bamford about the history of America’s largest spy agency, the National Security Agency. However, the plans were not connected to the agency, he notes.
The plans had the written approval of all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and were presented to President Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara, in March 1962. But they apparently were rejected by the civilian leadership and have gone undisclosed for nearly 40 years.
“These were Joint Chiefs of Staff documents. The reason these were held secret for so long is the Joint Chiefs never wanted to give these up because they were so embarrassing,” Bamford told ABCNEWS.com.
“The whole point of a democracy is to have leaders responding to the public will, and here this is the complete reverse, the military trying to trick the American people into a war that they want but that nobody else wants.”
Gunning for War
The documents show “the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up and approved plans for what may be the most corrupt plan ever created by the U.S. government,” writes Bamford.
The Joint Chiefs even proposed using the potential death of astronaut John Glenn during the first attempt to put an American into orbit as a false pretext for war with Cuba, the documents show.
Should the rocket explode and kill Glenn, they wrote, “the objective is to provide irrevocable proof … that the fault lies with the Communists et all Cuba [sic].”
The plans were motivated by an intense desire among senior military leaders to depose Castro, who seized power in 1959 to become the first communist leader in the Western Hemisphere — only 90 miles from U.S. shores.
The earlier CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles had been a disastrous failure, in which the military was not allowed to provide firepower.The military leaders now wanted a shot at it.
“The whole thing was so bizarre,” says Bamford, noting public and international support would be needed for an invasion, but apparently neither the American public, nor the Cuban public, wanted to see U.S. troops deployed to drive out Castro.
Reflecting this, the U.S. plan called for establishing prolonged military — not democratic — control over the island nation after the invasion.
“That’s what we’re supposed to be freeing them from,” Bamford says. “The only way we would have succeeded is by doing exactly what the Russians were doing all over the world, by imposing a government by tyranny, basically what we were accusing Castro himself of doing.”
‘Over the Edge’
The Joint Chiefs at the time were headed by Eisenhower appointee Army Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer, who, with the signed plans in hand made a pitch to McNamara on March 13, 1962, recommending Operation Northwoods be run by the military.
Whether the Joint Chiefs’ plans were rejected by McNamara in the meeting is not clear. But three days later, President Kennedy told Lemnitzer directly there was virtually no possibility of ever using overt force to take Cuba, Bamford reports. Within months, Lemnitzer would be denied another term as chairman and transferred to another job.
The secret plans came at a time when there was distrust in the military leadership about their civilian leadership, with leaders in the Kennedy administration viewed as too liberal, insufficiently experienced and soft on communism. At the same time, however, there real were concerns in American society about their military overstepping its bounds.
There were reports U.S. military leaders had encouraged their subordinates to vote conservative during the election.
And at least two popular books were published focusing on a right-wing military leadership pushing the limits against government policy of the day.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee published its own report on right-wing extremism in the military, warning a “considerable danger” in the “education and propaganda activities of military personnel” had been uncovered. The committee even called for an examination of any ties between Lemnitzer and right-wing groups. But Congress didn’t get wind of Northwoods, says Bamford.
“Although no one in Congress could have known at the time,” he writes, “Lemnitzer and the Joint Chiefs had quietly slipped over the edge.”
Even after Lemnitzer was gone, he writes, the Joint Chiefs continued to plan “pretext” operations at least through 1963.
One idea was to create a war between Cuba and another Latin American country so that the United States could intervene. Another was to pay someone in the Castro government to attack U.S. forces at the Guantanamo naval base — an act, which Bamford notes, would have amounted to treason. And another was to fly low level U-2 flights over Cuba, with the intention of having one shot down as a pretext for a war.
“There really was a worry at the time about the military going off crazy and they did, but they never succeeded, but it wasn’t for lack of trying,” he says.
After 40 Years
Ironically, the documents came to light, says Bamford, in part because of the 1992 Oliver Stone film JFK, which examined the possibility of a conspiracy behind the assassination of President Kennedy.
As public interest in the assassination swelled after JFK’s release, Congress passed a law designed to increase the public’s access to government records related to the assassination.
The author says a friend on the board tipped him off to the documents.
Afraid of a congressional investigation, Lemnitzer had ordered all Joint Chiefs documents related to the Bay of Pigs destroyed, says Bamford. But somehow, these remained.
“The scary thing is none of this stuff comes out until 40 years after,” says Bamford.
Related Operation Mongoose proposals
General Edward Lansdale, commander of the anti-Cuban Operation Mongoose project
In addition to Operation Northwoods, under the Operation Mongoose program the U.S. Department of Defense had a number of similar proposals for actions to be taken against the Cuban regime of Fidel Castro.
Twelve of these proposals come from a 2 February 1962 memorandum entitled “Possible Actions to Provoke, Harass or Disrupt Cuba,” written by Brig. Gen. William H. Craig and submitted to Brig. Gen. Edward Lansdale, the commander of the Operation Mongoose project.
The memorandum outlines Operation Bingo, a false flag plan to “create an incident which has the appearance of an attack on U.S. facilities (GMO) in Cuba, thus providing an excuse for use of U.S. military might to overthrow the current government of Cuba.”
It also includes Operation Dirty Trick, another false flag plot to blame Castro if the 1962 Mercury manned space flight carrying John Glenn crashed, saying: “The objective is to provide irrevocable proof that, should the MERCURY manned orbit flight fail, the fault lies with the Communists et al. Cuba.” It continues, “This to be accomplished by manufacturing various pieces of evidence which would prove electronic interference on the part of the Cubans.”
Even after General Lemnitzer lost his job as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Joint Chiefs still planned false-flag pretext operations at least into 1963. A different U.S. Department of Defense policy paper created in 1963 discussed a plan to make it appear that Cuba had attacked a member of the Organization of American States (OAS) so that the United States could retaliate. The U.S. Department of Defense document says of one of the scenarios, “A contrived ‘Cuban’ attack on an OAS member could be set up, and the attacked state could be urged to take measures of self-defense and request assistance from the U.S. and OAS.”
The plan expressed confidence that by this action, “the U.S. could almost certainly obtain the necessary two-thirds support among OAS members for collective action against Cuba.”
Included in the nations the Joint Chiefs suggested as targets for covert attacks were Jamaica and Trinidad-Tobago. Since both were members of the British Commonwealth, the Joint Chiefs hoped that by secretly attacking them and then falsely blaming Cuba, the United States could incite the people of the United Kingdom into supporting a war against Castro. As the U.S. Department of Defense report noted:
Any of the contrived situations described above are inherently, extremely risky in our democratic system in which security can be maintained, after the fact, with very great difficulty. If the decision should be made to set up a contrived situation it should be one in which participation by U.S. personnel is limited only to the most highly trusted covert personnel. This suggests the infeasibility of the use of military units for any aspect of the contrived situation.”
The U.S. Department of Defense report even suggested covertly paying a person in Castro’s government to stage a false flag attack against the United States: “The only area remaining for consideration then would be to bribe one of Castro’s subordinate commanders to initiate an attack on the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo.”
In June 1963 President Kennedy gave his memorable speech at American University, offering an olive branch to the Soviet Union in the form of a unilateral Partial Nuclear Test Ban proposal
Kennedy rejected the Northwoods proposal. A JCS/Pentagon document, a memo by Lansdale entitled MEETING WITH THE PRESIDENT, 16 MARCH 1962, reads: “General Lemnitzer commented that the military had contingency plans for U.S. intervention. Also it had plans for creating plausible pretexts to use force, with the pretext either attacks on U.S. aircraft or a Cuban action in Latin America for which we could retaliate. The President said bluntly that we were not discussing the use of military force, that General Lemnitzer might find the U.S. so engaged in Berlin or elsewhere that he couldn’t use the contemplated 4 divisions in Cuba.” The proposal was sent for approval to the secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, but was not implemented.
Following presentation of the Northwoods plan, Kennedy removed Lemnitzer as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, although he became Supreme Allied Commander of NATO in January 1963. U.S. military leaders began to perceive Kennedy as going soft on Cuba, and the President became increasingly unpopular with the military. A rift had already reared during Kennedy’s disagreements with the service chiefs over the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and flared up again with his June 10, 1963 announcement of a unilateral U.S. Test Ban Treaty.
Physical documentation on Operation Northwoods became declassified through the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. This act declassified a total of four million documents, including Operation Northwoods, and was made available through the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. However, public knowledge of Operation Northwoods did not come until 2001 with the release of a book by the author James Bamford titled Body of Secrets.
On 3 August 2001, the National Assembly of People’s Power of Cuba (the main legislative body of the Republic of Cuba) issued a statement referring to Operation Northwoods and Operation Mongoose wherein it condemned such U.S. government plans.
The Cuban Project, also known as Operation Mongoose, was an extensive campaign of terrorist attacks against civilians and covert operations carried out by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in Cuba. It was officially authorized on November 30, 1961 by US President John F. Kennedy. The name Operation Mongoose had been agreed at a prior White House meeting on November 4, 1961. The operation was run out of JM/WAVE, a major secret United States covert operations and intelligence gathering station established a year earlier in Miami, Florida, and led by United States Air Force General Edward Lansdale on the military side and William King Harvey at the CIA and went into effect after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Operation Mongoose was a secret program against Cuba aimed at removing the Communists from power, which was a prime focus of the Kennedy administration. A document from the United States Department of State confirms that the project aimed to “help Cuba overthrow the Communist regime”, including its leader Fidel Castro, and it aimed “for a revolt which can take place in Cuba by October 1962”. US policymakers also wanted to see “a new government with which the United States can live in peace”.
Fidel Castro’s rise to power had been watched by the CIA since 1948. As he rose to power, the CIA became increasingly concerned with his actions and political views. In the late 1950s, the CIA began gathering more intelligence on Castro, suspecting that he was a communist. The organization could not initially discover hard evidence that Castro was a communist. However, the CIA remained concerned with how Castro’s government took pro-communist stances. CIA intelligence concluded that Castro’s close confidants, Ernesto Che Guevara and Raul Castro Ruz, both had communist tendencies. General C. P. Cabell noted in November 1959 that while Castro was not a communist he allowed free opportunity to the communist party in Cuba to grow and spread its message. Nonetheless, by December plans were already being tossed around between high ranking US Foreign Policy Officials that called for overthrowing the Castro government. An official report from the CIA states that, by March 1960, the United States had already decided that Fidel Castro must be displaced. Due to the United States’ fear of repercussions from the United Nations, the plan was kept at the highest level of secrecy, and as thus, “plausible deniability” was made a key focal point in American clandestine service policy.
Formal authorization for action
The government formally authorized the operation on March 17, 1960, when President Eisenhower signed off on a CIA paper titled “A Program of Covert Action Against the Castro Regime.” A declassified report by the Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick details the history of the operation, and states that the presidential order gave the agency authorization to create an organization of exiled Cubans to manage opposition programs, begin a “propaganda offensive” to draw support for the movement, create an intelligence gathering network inside Cuba, and to “develop a paramilitary force to be introduced into Cuba to organize, train and lead resistance groups against the Castro regime. The propaganda offensive employed the use of radio broadcasts and leaflets to be passed around. This measure was solely aimed at propagating support for the provisional government. The CIA’s budget estimation for this covert operation was approximately $4.4 million. The paper signed by Eisenhower was also the sole report issued by the government throughout the entire project. This highlights the U.S. Government’s secrecy in carrying out the operation as well as its policy of plausible deniability. This program required the agency to work around the clock and collect a large amount of detail-specific information, as well as to cooperate with other agencies. To secure the needed financial backing, the “Bender Group” was developed as an organization that would provide American businessmen a secret avenue through which to trade with Cuban groups. On May 11, 1960, the Bender Group came to an agreement with group called Frente Revolucionario Democratico (FRD). Propaganda activities included using print and radio mediums to broadcast anti-Castro messages. These programs were launched all over Latin America. Large amounts of real estate were purchased by the agency for use in this operation. A base of operations was established in Miami on May 25, by using a “New York career and development firm” and “a Department of Defense contract” as covers. A communications station was also established on June 15 by using an Army operation as a cover. The agency also obtained safe houses all over Miami for different “operational purposes.” The CIA also acquired properties in different US cities and abroad for various reasons.
From March through August 1960, the CIA had plans aimed at undermining Castro and his appeal to the public by sabotaging his speeches. The schemes thought up were aimed at discrediting Castro by influencing his behavior and by changing his appearance. One plan discussed was to spray his broadcast studio with a compound similar to LSD, but was scrapped because the compound was too unreliable. Another plot was to lace a box of Castro’s cigars with a chemical known to cause temporary disorientation. The CIA’s plans to undermine Castro’s public image went so far as to even line his shoes with thallium salts which would cause his beard to fall out. The plan was to lace his shoes with the salts while he was on a trip outside Cuba. He was expected to leave his shoes outside his hotel room to be polished, at which point the salts would be administered. The plan was abandoned because Castro cancelled the trip.
The United States’ opposition to Castro was based on the U.S. government’s position that coercion inside Cuba was severe and that the government was serving as a model for radical-nationalist movements elsewhere in the Americas. A month after the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the CIA proposed a program of sabotage and terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets in Cuba. In November 1961, Robert Kennedy and Richard Goodwin suggested to President Kennedy that the U.S. government begin this campaign, and it was authorized by the President. They believed that a centralized effort led by senior officials from the White House and other government agencies to remove Fidel Castro and overthrow the Cuban government was the best course of action. Following a meeting in the White House on November 3, 1961, this initiative became known as Operation Mongoose and would be led by Air Force Brigadier General Edward Lansdale on the military side and William King Harvey at the CIA.
Other agencies were brought in to assist with the planning and execution of Operation Mongoose. After Eisenhower’s decision, it is noted in an official history of the invasion of the Bay of Pigs that “immediately following the Eisenhower decision to promote the anti-Castro program, there was a considerable degree of cooperation between the CIA and other of the concerned agencies – the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and others.” Representatives from the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA were assigned larger roles in implementing the operation’s activities, while representatives from the US Information Agency and the Department of Justice were also called on occasionally to assist with the operation. As the operation’s leader, Brigadier General Lansdale received briefings and updates from these agencies and reported directly to a group of high-ranking government officials, known as Special Group-Augmented (SG-A). Under Eisenhower, four major forms of action were to be taken to aid anti-communist opposition in Cuba at the time. These were to: (1) provide a powerful propaganda offensive against the regime, (2) perfect a covert intelligence network within Cuba, (3) develop paramilitary forces outside of Cuba and (4) get the necessary logistical support for covert military operations on the island. At this stage, it was still not clear that these efforts would end up leading to the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Some of the outlined goals of the operations included intelligence collection and the generation of a nucleus for a popular Cuban movement, along with exploiting the potential of the underworld in Cuban cities and enlisting the cooperation of the Church to bring the women of Cuba into actions that would undermine the Communist control system. The Departments of State, Defense, and Justice were responsible for a combination of these objectives. Kennedy and the rest of SG-A hoped to dispose of the Castro regime and bring change to Cuba’s political system.
President Kennedy, the Attorney General, CIA Director John McCone, Richard Goodwin, and Brigadier General Lansdale met on November 21, 1961, to discuss plans for Operation Mongoose. Robert Kennedy stressed the importance of immediate dynamic action to discredit the Castro regime in Cuba. He remained disappointed from the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion just a few months prior. By the end of November, President Kennedy had finalized details for Operation Mongoose. Lansdale remained in charge of the operation, and access to knowledge of Operation Mongoose remained strictly confidential and limited. As was common throughout the Kennedy presidency, decision making would be centralized and housed within the secret Special Group (SG-A). At this time, Operation Mongoose was underway.
The U.S. Defense Department‘s Joint Chiefs of Staff saw the project’s ultimate objective to be to provide adequate justification for U.S. military intervention in Cuba. They requested that the Secretary of Defense assign them responsibility for the project, but Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy retained effective control.
On January 8, 1960 General Cabell, the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence (DDCI), held a joint briefing on Cuba for the Department of State and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During this meeting Colonel L. K. White had mentioned that Fidel Castro was going to need to be dealt with. At this time the DDCI also discussed the need to increase covert and semi-covert programs aimed at Castro. These programs included psychological warfare, political action, economic action, and para-military action. By the 18th of January, the DDCI had come up with various Cuban operations.
Later it was discussed that a separate branch should be created to handle everything about the anti-Castro movement. The White House division organized Branch 4 (WH/4)as the new task force to run Cuban Operations. The task force included 40 personnel, with 18 at headquarters, 20 at the Havana station, and two at Santiago base. The state department was concerned that if Castro were overthrown, then the people to come after him would be worse than him – primarily Che Guevara and Raul Castro. So they proposed a way of getting a better leader that they approved of in his place. The CIA began to worry that their involvement with the anti-Castro movement would lead to an anti-US movement. On March 14 of 1960, Dulles presented a “General Covert Action Plan for Cuba” that would focus only on the Cuban problems. Guerrilla capacity in the anti-Castro groups both in and out of Cuba was discussed.
Richard Bissell, Deputy Director for Plans, asked Sheffield Edwards, Director of Security, if Edwards could establish contact with the U.S. gambling syndicate that was active in Cuba. The objective clearly was the assassination of Castro although Edwards claims that there was a studied avoidance of the term in his conversation with Bissell. Bissell recalls that the idea originated with J.C. King, then Chief of WH Division, although King now recalls having had only limited knowledge of such a plan and at a much later date – about mid-1962.
The Anti-Castro Revolutionary Council, consisting of a group of Cubans, released a press statement at a conference in New York City on March 22, 1961. The press statement announced the unification of forces against Castro and outlining the platform of their mission. The objectives consisted of overthrowing the “Communist tyranny which enslaves the people of Cuba.” The press statement listed the prerogatives for agrarian policy, economic policy, systems of law, education reform, military structure, etc. It was a comprehensive plan. The press statement was implemented as another propaganda tool that the CIA felt could further their mission.
There were prerequisites for those recruited and enlisted by the CIA: they must be pro-Western, anti-Communist, politically neutral and capable of gathering other Cuban support. Specific goals were identified for Cubans on-boarded to the Cuban Opposition Front, the principal goal is to restore the 1940 Cuban constitution. The Cuban Opposition Front’s purpose can be summarized as 1) to act as a beacon to attract other anti-Castro groups, 2) to serve as a scapegoat in case covert operations were discovered, and 3) to act as a potential replacement to Castro after his fall. For the Cuban Operation, the CIA made a list of potential guerilla fighters within the Cuban provinces. There were seven groups consisting each of anywhere between 180 and over 4,000 possible defectors. They consisted of political prisoners and guerillas that the CIA believed could be convinced to enlist in the operations against Castro. In response to the Soviet Union’s increasing amount of weaponry as well as a growing influence of the Communist Party in Cuba, as early as June 1960, there were 500 Cuban exiles being trained as paramilitary members in order to execute the Bay of Pigs invasion, with some of those exiles being trained in Panama. Due to a recent declassification of thousands of pages from the CIA in 2011 (50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs Invasion), it is now known that the CIA task force in charge of the paramilitary assault knew the operation could not succeed without becoming an open invasion supported by the U.S. military. According to Peter Kornbluh, this was the most important revelation of the declassification of the official history of the CIA.
On April 12, 1961 the CIA prepared a full report on the Cuban Operation that outlined its orientation and concept. The plot against Castro would be characterized by the appearance of a “growing and increasingly effective internal resistance, helped by the activities of defeated Cuban aircraft and by the infiltration of weapons and small groups of men.” (Cuban Operation) The report further emphasized particular steps to be taken to achieve the appearance of internal revolution. Miro Cardona would give public statements accentuating that the U.S. Government was not involved and that any operations were performed by Cubans.
Just days later on April 16, there were initially 11 targets that were scheduled to be attacked. The list of targets later was narrowed down to 4. These 4 included the San Antonio Air Base, the Campo Liberated Air Base, and finally the naval bases located at Batabanó and Nueva Gerona. Additionally, the number of B-26 crafts to be used in the strike was reduced from 15 to 5, which ultimately limited the US air coverage. The CIA’s Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation notes that limited air cover left the Brigade air force open to attacks by Castro’s forces. The document states that “There is no doubt that if there had been more JMATE aircraft and more aircrews, constant air cover would have been possible.” Both Kennedys ignored the fact that limited air strikes would prevent the Brigade air force from being effective because of the risk of counterattack by the Cuban air force. A White House staffer was quoted as saying, “…the plan was to destroy Castro’s air force on the ground before the battle began and then provide air support, with an anti-Castro “Air Force” consisting of some two dozen surplus planes flown by Cuban exiles. That plan failed.” On the 18 April there was an air transport scheduled from the USAF and that was the best day for the Brigade B-26’s mobilization to occur. During this strike there were no aircraft lost and there was a successful strike made on the Castro column moving from Playa Larga to Playa Giron. The Official History of this operation notes that there were several uncertainties as to the outcomes of various operations between April 17–19, 1961, including the number and identities of casualties of both pilots and Cuban civilians, as well as a question over the possible use of napalm by Acting Chief of the US Air section Garfield Thorsrud’s aircraft on April 17, 1961. The Official History notes that the use of napalm had not been officially approved until the next day, April 18, 1961. 10 days later TIDE dropped 5 B-26 bombs.
Mongoose was led by Edward Lansdale at the Defense Department and William King Harvey at the CIA. Lansdale was chosen due to his experience with counter-insurgency in the Philippines during the Hukbalahap Rebellion, as well as because of his experience supporting Vietnam‘s Diem regime. Samuel Halpern, a CIA co-organizer, conveyed the breadth of involvement: “CIA and the US Army and military forces and Department of Commerce, and Immigration, Treasury, God knows who else – everybody was in Mongoose. It was a government-wide operation run out of Bobby Kennedy’s office with Ed Lansdale as the mastermind.”
During the planning of “OPERATION MONGOOSE” a March 1962 CIA Memorandum sought a brief, but precise description of pretexts which the Joint Chiefs of Staff considered would provide justification for American military intervention in Cuba. The formerly classified memorandum depicts the way in which the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff sought a reason to invade the island of Cuba that would be acceptable to the American people. The document states, “such a plan would enable a logical build-up of incidents to be combined with other seemingly unrelated events to camouflage the ultimate objective and create the necessary impression of Cuban rashness and irresponsibility on a large scale, directed at other countries as well as the United States.” It proceeds to state, “The desired resultant from the execution of this plan would be to place the United States in the apparent position of suffering defensible grievances from a rash and irresponsible government of Cuba and to develop an international image of a Cuban threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere.” Another significant consideration was that any US military intervention in Cuba should not involve the Soviet Union. Given that Cuba was not a part of the Warsaw pact, and there had yet to be any significant evidence of a connection between Cuba and the Soviet Union, military intervention was believed to be able to take place without major consequences from the Soviet Union still.
There were 32 tasks or plans (just as there were 33 living species of mongooses accepted at the time) considered under the Cuban Project, some of which were carried out. The plans varied in efficacy and intention, from propagandistic purposes for effective disruption of the Cuban government and economy. Plans included the use of U.S. Army Special Forces, destruction of Cuban sugar crops, and mining of harbors.
There was a meeting of the Special Group (Augmented) in Secretary of State David Rusk’s conference room on August 10, 1962 at which Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara broached the subject of the liquidation of Cuban leaders. The discussion resulted in a Project MONGOOSE action memorandum prepared by Edwards Landsdale.
On October 4, 1962, a Special Group on Operation Mongoose met to discuss proceedings. The Attorney General, Mr. Johnson, and General Lansdale were there amongst others. While they discussed some self-interests in acquiring Cuban waters for mining rights, planning military contingency plans, and attacking Guantanamo, these beliefs and ideas were not shared by all participants. By the end of the meeting, they determined four main objectives. (1) They needed more intelligence on Cuba to determine how to proceed. This would likely involve further probes by the CIA into Cuba. (2) They needed to increase the amount of sabotage their agents were involved in. The line “there should be considerably more sabotage” is underlined. (3) That regulations and restrictions needed to be realized so that the CIA as an agency and their operation agents could take some shortcuts in training and preparations. (4) That the CIA would do anything they could to dispose of Castro and stop the spread of communism into the Western Hemisphere. The 4th point reads: “All efforts should be made to develop new and imaginative approaches to the possibility of getting rid of the Castro regime.”
On October 26, 1962, Castro wrote a letter to Khrushchev outlining his beliefs pertaining to what would happen in the act of aggression, and told him to rest assured that Cuba would resist and act with opposing forces of aggression.
Operation Northwoods was a plan proposed in 1962, which was signed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and presented to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for approval, that intended to use false flag operations to justify intervention in Cuba. Among courses of action considered were real and simulated attacks on US or foreign soil which would be blamed on the Cuban government. These would have involved attacking or reporting fake attacks on Cuban exiles, damaging U.S. bases and ships, “Cuban” aircraft attacking Central American countries such as Haiti or the Dominican Republic, having shipments of arms found on nearby beaches, faking a Cuban military plane destroying an American civilian aircraft, and the possible development of other false-flag terror campaign on U.S. soil. The operation was rejected by Kennedy and never carried out. By 1962 it was shown that other nations were funding Castro’s revolution.
The Cuban Project played a significant role in the events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The Project’s six-phase schedule was presented by Edward Lansdale on February 20, 1962; it was overseen by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. President Kennedy was briefed on the operation’s guidelines on March 16, 1962. Lansdale outlined the coordinated program of political, psychological, military, sabotage, and intelligence operations as well as assassination attempts on key political leaders. Each month since his presentation, a different method was in place to destabilize the communist regime. Some of these plans included the publication of Anti-Castro political propaganda, armaments for militant opposition groups, the establishment of guerrilla bases throughout the country, and preparations for an October military intervention in Cuba. Many individual plans were devised by the CIA to assassinate Castro. However, none were successful.
CIA covert operations and intelligence gathering station JM/WAVE in Miami was established as the operations center for Task Force W, the CIA’s unit dedicated to Operation Mongoose. Agency activities were also based at the Caribbean Admission Center at Opa-Locka, Florida, and even at one point enlisted the aid of the Mafia (who were eager to regain their Cuban casino operations) to plot an assassination attempt against Castro; William Harvey was one of the CIA case officers who directly dealt with mafioso John Roselli. The mafioso John Roselli was introduced to the CIA by former FBI Agent Robert Mahue. Mahue had known Roselli since the 1950s and was aware of his connection to the gambling syndicate. Under the alias “John Rawlson,” Roselli was tasked with recruiting Cubans from Florida to help in the assassination of Castro.
Historian Stephen Rabe writes that “scholars have understandably focused on…the Bay of Pigs invasion, the US campaign of terrorism and sabotage known as Operation Mongoose, the assassination plots against Fidel Castro, and, of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Less attention has been given to the state of US-Cuban relations in the aftermath of the missile crisis.” Rabe writes that reports from the Church Committee reveal that from June 1963 onward, the Kennedy administration intensified its war against Cuba while the CIA integrated propaganda, “economic denial,” and sabotage to attack the Cuban state as well as specific targets within. One example cited is an incident where CIA agents, seeking to assassinate Castro, provided a Cuban official, Rolando Cubela Secades, with a ballpoint pen rigged with a poisonous hypodermic needle. At this time, the CIA received authorization for 13 major operations in Cuba, including attacks on an electric power plant, an oil refinery, and a sugar mill. Rabe has argued that the “Kennedy administration… showed no interest in Castro’s repeated request that the United States cease its campaign of sabotage and terrorism against Cuba. Kennedy did not pursue a dual-track policy toward Cuba… The United States would entertain only proposals of surrender.” Rabe further documents how “Exile groups, such as Alpha 66 and the Second Front of Escambray, staged hit-and-run raids on the island… on ships transporting goods…purchased arms in the United States and launched…attacks from the Bahamas.”
Harvard Historian Jorge Domínguez states that Operation Mongoose’s scope included sabotage actions against a railway bridge, petroleum storage facilities, a molasses storage container, a petroleum refinery, a power plant, a sawmill, and a floating crane. Domínguez states that “only once in [the] thousand pages of documentation did a US official raise something that resembled a faint moral objection to US government-sponsored terrorism.” Actions were subsequently carried out against a petroleum refinery, a power plant, a sawmill, and a floating crane in a Cuban harbor to undermine the Cuban economy.
The Cuban Project was originally designed to culminate in October 1962 with an “open revolt and overthrow of the Communist regime.” This was at the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis, wherein the U.S. and the USSR came alarmingly close to nuclear war over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, verified by low flying aircraft on photographic missions and ground surveillance photography. The operation was suspended on October 30, 1962, but 3 of 10 six-man sabotage teams had already been deployed to Cuba.
Dominguez writes that Kennedy put a hold on Mongoose’s actions as the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated (as pictures of Soviet nuclear weapons stationed on the north shore of Cuba were obtained by American intelligence via satellite reconnaissance), but “returned to its policy of sponsoring terrorism against Cuba as the confrontation with the Soviet Union lessened.” However, Noam Chomsky has argued that “terrorist operations continued through the tensest moments of the missile crisis”, remarking that “they were formally canceled on October 30, several days after the Kennedy and Khrushchev agreement, but went on nonetheless”. Accordingly, “the Executive Committee of the National Security Council recommended various courses of action, “including ‘using selected Cuban exiles to sabotage key Cuban installations in such a manner that the action could plausibly be attributed to Cubans in Cuba’ as well as ‘sabotaging Cuban cargo and shipping, and Soviet Bloc cargo and shipping to Cuba.”
Operation Mongoose consisted of a program of covert action, including sabotage, psychological warfare, intelligence collection, and the creation of an internal revolution against the communist government. The U.S. still lacked the capability of effectively getting information to the majority of the Cuban people. They had a trade embargo, denial of bunkering facilities, increased port security, and control procedure on transshipment, technical data, and customs inspection. The U.S. also used diplomatic means to frustrate Cuban trade negotiations in Israel, Jordan, Iran, Greece, and possibly Japan. From the outset, Lansdale and fellow members of the SG-A identified internal support for an anti-Castro movement to be the most important aspect of the operation. American organization and support for anti-Castro forces in Cuba was seen as key, which expanded American involvement from what had mostly been economic and military assistance of rebel forces. Therefore, Lansdale hoped to organize an effort within the operation, led by the CIA, to covertly build support for a popular movement within Cuba. This was a major challenge. It was difficult to identify anti-Castro forces within Cuba and there lacked a groundswell of popular support that Cuban insurgents could tap into. Within the first few months, an internal review of Operation Mongoose cited the CIA’s limited capabilities to gather hard intelligence and conduct covert operations in Cuba. By January 1962, the CIA had failed to recruit suitable Cuban operatives that could infiltrate the Castro regime. The CIA and Lansdale estimated that they required 30 Cuban operatives. Lansdale criticized the CIA effort to ramp up their activities to meet Operation Mongoose’s expedient timelines. Robert McCone of the CIA complained that Lansdale’s timeline was too accelerated and that it would be difficult to achieve the tasks demanded in such a short timeframe.
In February, Lansdale offered a comprehensive review of all Operation Mongoose activities to date. His tone was urgent, stating that “time is running against us. The Cuban people feel helpless and are losing hope fast. They need symbols of inside resistance and of outside interest soon. They need something they can join with the hope of starting to work surely towards overthrowing the regime.” He asked for a ramp-up of efforts from all agencies and departments to expedite the execution of the Cuban Project. He laid out a six-part plan targeting the overthrow of the Castro government in October 1962.
In March 1962, a key intelligence report, written by the CIA, was produced for Lansdale. It showed that although roughly only a quarter of the Cuban population stood behind the Castro regime, the rest of the population was both disaffected and passive. The report writes that the passive majority of Cubans had “resigned to acceptance of the present regime as the effect government in being.” The conclusion was that an internal revolt within Cuba was unlikely.
The lack of progress and promise of success through the first couple of months of the operation strained relationships within the SG-A. McCone criticized the handling of the operation, believing that “national policy was too cautious” and suggested a US military effort to train more guerrillas, and large-scale amphibious landing military exercises were conducted off the coast of North Carolina in April, 1962.
By July, the operation still showed little progress. Phase I of Operation Mongoose drew to a close. The Special Group provided plans on March 14, 1962, for the first phase of the operation until the end of July 1962. There were four main objectives for Phase 1; a. was to gather hard intelligence on the target area, b. Undertake all other political, economic, and covert actions short of creating a revolt in Cuba or the need for U.S. armed intervention, c. Be consistent with U.S. overt policy and be in the position to pull away with a minimum loss of assets in U.S. prestige, d. Continue JCS planning and essential preliminary actions for a decisive U.S. capability for intervention. During Phase I the Punta del Este conference was a major U.S. political action to isolate Castro and neutralize his influence in the Hemisphere. President Kennedy’s successful visit to Mexico was another major U.S. political action with an impact upon the operation but was not directly tied to the operation. Two political operations were performed in Phase I: counter Castro-Communist propaganda exploitation of May Day and to arouse strong Hemisphere reaction to Cuban military suppression of the hunger demonstration at Cardenas in June. Another key interest for Operation Mongoose was the Cuban refugees as it was thought they wanted to overthrow the Communist regime in Havana and recapture their homeland. The refugees were given open U.S. assistance to remain in the country, yet were involved in covert actions in a limited way. Policy limitations of audibility and visibility were taken into consideration for the handling and use of the refugee potential. As Phase 1 drew to a close Phase II projected plan was written up and considered four possibilities. The first option was to cancel operational plans and treat Cuba as a Bloc nation and protect Hemisphere from it. The next possibility was to exert all possible diplomatic, economic, psychological, and other pressures to overthrow the Castro-Communist regime without overt employment of U.S. military. Another possibility was to help the Cubans overthrow the Castro-Communist regime with a step-by-step phase to ensure success including the use of military force if required. The last possibility was to use a provocation and overthrow the Castro-Communist regime by U.S. military force. In his July review, Lansdale recommended a more aggressive short-term plan of action. He believed that time was of the essence, especially given intensified Soviet military build-up in Cuba. New plans were drawn to recruit more Cubans to infiltrate the Castro regime, to interrupt Cuban radio and television broadcasts, and to deploy commando sabotage units.
However, by late August, the Soviet military build-up in Cuba disgruntled the Kennedy administration. The fear of open military retaliation against the United States and Berlin for the US covert operations in Cuba slowed down the operation. By October, as the Cuban Missile Crisis heated up, President Kennedy demanded the cessation of Operation Mongoose. Operation Mongoose formally ceased its activities at the end of 1962.
The CIA allegedly recruited Mob bosses Sam Giancana, Santo Trafficante and other mobsters to assassinate Fidel Castro.
In April 1967, the Inspector General issued a report on the various plots conceived to assassinate Fidel Castro. The report separates plots out into several time frames starting with “prior to August 1960” and ending with “Late 1962 until well into 1963”. While confirmed, the assassination plots are an “imperfect history”, and due to the “sensitivity of the operations being discussed”, “no official records were kept regarding planning, authorizations, or the implementation of such plots”. A key form of documentation used to construct the timeline of plots was oral testimony collected years after the plots were originally planned.
Prior to August 1960
The Inspector General report details “at least three, and perhaps four, schemes that were under consideration” during a time range between March and August 1960. It is speculated that all of the schemes considered at this time could have been in the planning process at the same time. The first plan in this time frame involved an attack on the radio station Castro used to “broadcast his speeches with an aerosol spray of a chemical that produced reactions similar to those of lysergic acid (LSD)”. Nothing came of this plot, because the chemical could not be relied on to produce the intended effects.
Jake Esterline claimed that a box of cigars, which was treated with chemicals, was also considered in the plot to assassinate Castro. The scheme was that the chemical would produce “temporary personality disorientation”, and having “Castro smoke one before making a speech” would result in Castro making a “public spectacle of himself.” Esterline later admitted that even though he couldn’t exactly recall what the cigars were intended to do, he didn’t believe they were lethal. The lethality of the cigars is contradicted by Sidney Gottlieb who “remembers the scheme…being concerned with killing”. The CIA even tried to embarrass Castro by attempting to sneak thallium salts, a potent depilatory, into Castro’s shoes, causing “his beard, eyebrows, and pubic hair to fall out”. The idea for this plan revolved around “destroying Castro’s image as ‘The Beard’”. The only person with memory of this plot, only identified by the alias , concluded “that Castro did not make the intended trip, and the scheme fell through”.
A 2011 declassified CIA volume titled “Air Operations, March 1960–April 1961” from the comprehensive “Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation,” made the indication that “it was clear from the outset that air operations would play a key role in the CIA program to oust the Cuban leader.” By the summer of 1960, the JMATE, a unit under the direct command of Richard M. Bissell and the DPD, strove to acquire “aircraft for infiltration, propaganda, and supply drops to dissent groups within Cuba.” By July 1960, it became clear that “tactical air operations with combat aircraft would play a major role in JMATE plans.”.
August 1960 to April 1961
In August 1960, the CIA initiated the first phase of a plan entitled “Gambling Syndicate”. Richard Bissell had CIA contact Robert Maheu pull in Johnny Roselli, a member of the syndicate of Las Vegas. Maheu, disguised as a personal relations executive for a company suffering severe financial losses in Cuba due to Castro’s actions, offered Roselli $150,000 for the successful assassination of Castro. Roselli provided involved a co-conspirator, “Sam Gold”, later to be identified as Chicago gangster Sam Giancana and “Joe, the courier”, identified later as Santos Trafficante, the Cosa Nostra chieftain of Cuba.
Additionally, Dr. Edward Gunn recalled receiving a box of cigars that he was tasked with poisoning; however, the cigars were destroyed by Gunn in 1963.
Several schemes, in regard to the best way to deliver the syndicate poison, that were considered during this time included “(1) something highly toxic… to be administered with a pin… (2) bacterial material in liquid form; (3) bacterial treatment of a cigarette or cigar; and (4) a handkerchief treated with bacteria”. According to Bissell, the most viable option presented was bacterial liquids. The final product, however, was solid botulin pills that would dissolve in liquid.
Roselli, along with associate “Sam Gold”, used their connection to coerce Cuban official Juan Orta to perform the assassination through his gambling bills. Orta, after being provided several pills of “high lethal content”, reportedly attempted the assassination multiple times but eventually pulled out after getting “cold feet”. The Inspector General’s report asserts that Orta had lost his access to Castro prior to him receiving the pills and thus could not complete the task. Roselli did find another officer, Dr. Anthony Verona, to perform the assassination.
April 1961 to late 1961
The plan to assassinate Castro by poison pill was canceled after the Bay of Pigs; Furthermore, the Inspector General’s report speculates that this attempt failed because Castro no longer visited the restaurant where the pill was supposed to be administered to him.
The second phase of the Gambling Syndicate operation began in May 1961 with Project ZRRIFLE, which was headed by Harvey. Harvey was responsible for eight assassination attempts on Castro but none of these attempts were proficient at accomplishing any foreign policy objectives. This portion of the scheme contained “an Executive Action Capability (assassination of foreign leader), a general stand-by capability to carry out assassinations when required”. Project ZRRIFLE main purpose was to spot potential agents and research assassination techniques that might be used. Project ZRRIFLE and the agency’s operations in Cuba funneled into on program in November 1961 when Harvey became the head of the task force for Cuba.
Late 1961 to late 1962
Conflicting accounts in the Inspector General’s report of how later events during this time period played out make it difficult to discern the path of how the Cuba task force handled its operations. However, there was a consensus that Roselli again became involved with the agency along with Verona.
Late 1962 until well into 1963
As the months of 1962 went by, Verona constructed a team of three men to strike at Castro; however, the plans were cancelled twice with the Inspector General’s report citing “’conditions inside’… then the October missile crisis threw plans awry”. The conclusion Harvey drew to this is that “the three militia never did leave for Cuba”. The connections between Roselli and the CIA fell apart once Harvey had been notified that Roselli was on the FBI’s watch list.
In his 1987 Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Raymond L. Garthoff wrote that, “By November 8 the United States had begun perceptibly to stiffen its insistence” on various issues not resolved by the October 28 Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement, “including what the Soviets could only see as an effort to backpedal on what was, for them, the key question remaining: American assurances not to attack Cuba. On that date, a Cuban covert action sabotage team dispatched from the United States successfully blew up a Cuban industrial facility.” Garthoff said that sabotage had been planned before the October 28 agreement and was beyond recall when the Kennedy administration realized it was still in progress, However, “To the Soviets, this was probably seen as a subtle American reminder of its ability to harass and attempt to subvert the Castro regime.” Chomsky says this sabotage killed “four hundred workers, according to a Cuban government letter to the UN secretary general.
That certainly may be Garthoff’s view, but such direct provocations of the Cubans and Soviets ran at odds with both JFK’s Missile Crisis-defusing pledge to remove US Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, and efforts made towards rapprochement with Castro in the aftermath of the crisis. The missile swap had been seen by many as an even trade that saved face for both sides when considering the capabilities of each to deliver a serious strike to the other. Kennedy had subsequently sought dialogue with Castro to reverse the two nations’ acrimonious relationship. As a result of the CIA’s continued defiance, tensions between the President and the Agency, festering since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, continued to escalate.
In early 1963, The CIA devised a plot to provide Castro with a diving suit contaminated with fungus and “contaminating the breathing apparatus with tubercle bacilli”. The plan was never implemented but it is speculated that a diving suit had been purchased with the intention of giving it to Castro.
Various other methods of assassination that had been thought of by the CIA included exploding seashells, having a former lover slip him poison pills, and exposing him to various other poisoned items such as a fountain pen and even ice cream. Along plans to assassinate Castro was one to eliminate Rolando Cubela, a Cuban revolutionary hero. The plot for Cubela began as an operation to recruit someone close to Castro to launch a coup.
The US Senate’s Church Committee of 1975 stated that it had confirmed at least eight separate CIA run plots to assassinate Castro. Fabian Escalante, who was long tasked with protecting the life of Castro, contends that there have been 638 separate CIA assassination schemes or attempts on Castro’s life.
Because the assassination of Castro seemed to be an important goal of the Kennedy administration, a myth has been created in American history that Kennedy was obsessed with the idea of killing Castro. However, this is not true. An article entitled “Castro Assassination Plots” states, “CIA plots to kill Castro began before John Kennedy won the presidency and they continued after he was dead.”. In a report written by the CIA’s inspector general in 1967, he admits that this is the reason behind the fanciful nature of many of the assassination attempts. He also said he warned that assassinating Castro would not necessarily destabilize the government in the manner that is desired. He didn’t think the assassination of Castro would do much to free Cuba from communist control. He mentions that people became too focused on the idea of killing Castro when “getting rid of Castro” doesn’t have to mean killing him. Due to this micro-focus, broader, more complex plans with greater chances of success were not made.
Many assassination ideas were floated by the CIA during Operation Mongoose. The most infamous was the CIA’s alleged plot to capitalize on Castro’s well-known love of cigars by slipping into his supply a very real and lethal “exploding cigar.” While numerous sources state the exploding cigar plot as fact, at least one source asserts it to be simply a myth, and another dismisses it as mere supermarket tabloid fodder. Another suggests that the story does have its origins in the CIA, but that it was never seriously proposed by them as a plot. Rather, the plot was made up by the CIA as an intentionally “silly” idea to feed to those questioning them about their plans for Castro, in order to deflect scrutiny from more serious areas of inquiry.
Another attempt at Castro’s life was by way of a fountain pen loaded with the poison Black Leaf 40 and passed to a Cuban asset in Paris the day of President Kennedy’s assassination, November 22, 1963. Notably, the evidence also indicates that these two events occurred simultaneously, in the same moment. Rolando Cubela, the potential assassin, contests this account, saying Black Leaf 40 was not in the pen. U.S. Intelligence later responded to say that Black Leaf 40 was merely a suggestion, but Cubela thought that there were other poisons that would be much more effective. Overall he was unimpressed with the device. The inventor understood that Cubelo rejected the device altogether.
After Operation Mongoose was ended the Kennedy Administration made some attempts to mend relations with the Cuban government. As some documents released by the National Security Archive reveal, this happened fairly soon after the project ended. One document comes in the form of an options paper from a Latin American specialist about how to fix relations. The document begins by suggesting that, through the CIA’s attempts to assassinate Castro and topple the government, they had “been looking seriously only at one side of the coin” and that they could try the reverse side and try “quietly enticing Castro over to us.” The document goes on to push for further studies into how exactly they would go about improving relations. The document also states the two possible outcomes that would come along with a better relationship with Cuba. The document states, “In the short run, we would probably be able to neutralize at least two of our main worries about Castro: the reintroduction of offensive missiles and Cuban subversion. In the long run, we would be able to work on eliminating Castro at our leisure and from a good vantage point.” The effort to mend the relationships would be framed heavily by the negative relations formed due to Operation Mongoose.
One issue that caused distrust between the relations of US-supported Cubans and the Agency was a “shaky” front due to no real agreement among the Cubans and the Agency. “The Cuban leaders wanted something to say about the course of paramilitary operations” according to an inspection done by Inspector General Pfeiffer. Questions arose within this inspection that included, “If the project had been better conceived, better organized, better staffed and better managed, would that precise issue ever had to be presented for Presidential decision at all?” Further investigation proved that the 1,500 men would not have been enough from the start against Castro’s large military forces, as well as Agencies’ lack of “top-flight handling,” which altogether led to the complete failure of Operation Mongoose as well as the Bay of Pigs invasion.
A commission led by General Maxwell Taylor, known as the Taylor Committee, investigated the failures of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The objective was to find out who was responsible for the disaster. In one of his volumes of an internal report written between 1974 and 1984, CIA Chief Historian Jack Pfeiffer criticized the Taylor Committee’s investigation, as it held the CIA primarily responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. At the end of the fourth volume, Pfeiffer laments that Taylor had a hand in perpetuating the idea that “President Kennedy was a white knight misled by overconfident, if not mischievous, CIA activists.”
In 1975, a Senate committee lead by Senator Frank Church (Idaho-Democrat), investigating alleged abuses perpetrated by the United States intelligence community, issued the first in a total of fourteen reports entitled “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders.” The Church Committee traced documented plots against Castro to have originated in 1962. The documents cited the contact had by the CIA with American mafioso and contract killer, John Roselli. Roselli, a firebrand, salivated to eliminate Castro to return Cuba back to the “good old days.” Another even more bizarre plot involved a Cuban revolutionary hero by the name of Rolando Cubela, code-named AMLASH by the CIA. The CIA sought Cubela’s participation in an assassination operation. In the fall of 1963, Desmond Fitzgerald, a high-ranking official once under the tutelage of Frank Wisner and a good friend of future CIA Director William Colby, who had served in CIA stations across the Far East during the 1950s, pursued Cubela’s clandestine services. In their meetings, Fitzgerald duplicitously presented himself as US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s personal representative. Some scholars saw this plan-of-attack as a “carrot and stick” approach of Kennedy in dealing with Castro. Other historians, however, see these efforts by the CIA as the means to undermine President John F. Kennedy’s peace initiative toward Castro. Some revisionist historians claim attempts to eliminate Castro represented a facet of a “Kennedy obsession” purportedly unshared by the rest of Washington. This notion has since been easily dispelled for two reasons: 1) Castro was not the only target of political assassination on Kennedy’s agenda and 2) CIA plots to kill Castro existed both before and after Kennedy’s presidential tenure.
The Cuban Project, as with the earlier Bay of Pigs invasion, is widely acknowledged as an American policy failure against Cuba. According to Noam Chomsky, it had a budget of $50 million per year, employing 2,500 people including about 500 Americans, and remained secret for 14 years, from 1961 to 1975. It was revealed in part by the Church Commission in the U.S. Senate and part “by good investigative journalism.” He said that “it is possible that the operation is still ongoing 1989, but it certainly lasted throughout all the ’70s.”
In the Oliver Stone film JFK, Operation Mongoose is portrayed in flashback sequences as a training ground where, among others, Lee Harvey Oswald becomes versed in anti-Castro militia tactics.
Washington, DC, October 3, 2019 – When the Soviet Union put nuclear missiles in Cuba nearly 60 years ago, American officials refused to believe that at least one Soviet motivation was the defense of Cuba. But declassified U.S. documents published in the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) confirm a series of sometimes frenetic covert operations ordered by the Kennedy White House and run by the CIA in those years to overthrow the Castro regime that in hindsight make Moscow’s (and Havana’s) concerns about defending the island much more credible.
Documents in the recently published DNSA collection, many of them first uncovered by the National Security Archive’s Cuba Project, detail the discussions of highest-level decision groups such as the 5412 Committee and the Special Group (Augmented), the ramping up of covert operations after the April 1961 failure at the Bay of Pigs, the specific CIA and Pentagon plans for infiltrations, sabotage, espionage, and regime change, and the ultimate winding down of the program after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The evidence describes what Archive Senior Fellow John Prados terms the “disturbing” obsession of the Kennedy brothers with Cuba, and the disbursement of millions of dollars of CIA funds on raids by Cuban exiles.
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President Kennedy’s anger after the Bay of Pigs, where he considered he had been inadequately advised during the months before the abortive invasion, has long served to disguise the pursuit of continued covert operations against Cuba. The investigations and reviews Kennedy ordered were the visible feature of his administration’s policy. There is a body of literature on Operation Mongoose, the next big anti-Cuba effort, but the available record has been incomplete and limited. Declassified documents now permit us to present Operation Mongoose in much more complete detail. The documents explain not only the command guidance for the Cuba operation, they show how and why the United States eventually backed away from Mongoose.
Most people who know of Mongoose associate it with Air Force officer Edward G. Lansdale, who became involved as the Pentagon’s task force leader in November 1961. This leaves out the important fact that operations against Cuba continued throughout the period. The day after Castro’s troops rounded up the last of the CIA’s Cuban exile brigade, April 20, the CIA had a commando unit of 35 exiles, a dozen agents or radio operators ready to infiltrate, 170 recruits who had not left the United States, and 26 agents in Cuba, most in the Havana region, with whom the agency still had contact. The black propaganda unit “Radio Swan” continued its broadcasts, while CIA programming got air time across Latin America and even on several Florida stations.
President Kennedy personally briefed his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, on April 22, admitting problems with the CIA operation. That same day, at a National Security Council (NSC) meeting, the president’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, fiercely criticized advice given to the president prior to the invasion. On May 6 the NSC “agreed that U.S. policy toward Cuba should aim at the downfall of Castro,” with President Kennedy ordering the CIA to make a detailed study of possible Cuban weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The deputy director of plans of the CIA (that is, the senior leader for covert operations) held a follow-up meeting May 9 where he discussed supporting Cuban exile groups’ independent operations against the Cuban government. The first CIA plan for its own operations would be submitted on May 19. On May 24 CIA Director Allen W. Dulles discussed, in general, covert operations approvals by the interagency 5412 Special Group, and learned that senior CIA officials Richard M. Bissell and C. Tracy Barnes were to meet that very day with White House aide Richard N. Goodwin to discuss a 5412-type operation against Cuba.
The Cuban exiles came up again at a 5412 Group meeting on June 8, when Director Dulles sought guidance on what support to give to exile political groups, which it was subsidizing at a level of $90,000 per month ($773,000 in 2019 dollars). The next day an internal CIA memorandum discussed these requirements but went beyond that to consider base facilities for Cuban operations, sabotage schools, and acquisition of a new mother ship to facilitate missions. Presidential adviser Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. took a dim view of the CIA plan in a memorandum to White House colleague Goodwin on July 8. Schlesinger saw the CIA as recruiting exiles to suit its own “operational convenience” rather than figures who could build the political strength to oust Castro, thus favoring “mercenaries” and “reactionaries” associated with the former dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Batista, discriminating “against those groups most eager to control their own operations.” Despite these criticisms the CIA plan would be presented to the 5412 Group on July 20, providing a $13.8 million budget for Fiscal Year 1962 ($117.8 million in 2019). Langley trimmed that amount slightly, then State Department officials cut it to $5.3 million before sending the paper to President Kennedy. The text received minor revisions prior to forwarding to higher authority, with the secret warriors standing by for the result.
The Kennedy administration had been quick to set up a Cuba Task Force—with strong representation from CIA’s Directorate of Plans—and on August 31 that unit decided to adopt a public posture of ignoring Castro while attacking civilian targets inside Cuba: “our covert activities would now be directed toward the destruction of targets important to the [Cuban] economy”. Refineries and plants using U.S. equipment were mentioned specifically. While acting through Cuban revolutionary groups with potential for real resistance to Castro, the task force “will do all we can to identify and suggest targets whose destruction will have the maximum economic impact.” The memorandum showed no concern for international law or the unspoken nature of these operations as terrorist attacks. On October 5 the White House issued National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 100, requiring a plan for what to do if Castro were removed from leadership, and the 5412 Group executive secretary asked CIA’s Tracy Barnes for an up-to-date report on program status, which the agency delivered a week later. Agency planners anticipated beginning infiltration operations plus possible sabotage within 30 to 60 days. In the meantime, perhaps pursuant to NSAM-100, JFK himself had a conversation with journalist Tad Szulc in which the president startlingly asked Szulc’s opinion of the idea of Kennedy ordering Castro’s assassination.
All of this took place before November 1, when Richard Goodwin wrote to Kennedy recommending a “command operation,” a program conducted from an even higher level than the CIA. President Kennedy accepted Goodwin’s advice, and on November 30 issued orders creating a new Cuba-oriented unit of the 5412 Group, the Special Group (Augmented), as well as the “command operation” itself. This became the basic directive for Operation Mongoose. The order also specified that Edward Lansdale would lead the project from his post at the Pentagon.
With Edward Lansdale’s prodding, activities began to accelerate. An initial meeting of the Special Group (Augmented) [SG (A)] took place on December 1. Bobby Kennedy took the lead, asserting a role he would continue through the operation. He emphasized that President Kennedy wanted higher priority given to Cuba and that the Special Group would be in charge with Lansdale as chief of operations. The meeting instructed Lansdale to prepare a plan. The SG (A) further set up a Caribbean Survey Group composed of the action officers of each of the participating agencies, to specify the roles each agency would play in the operation as it unfolded. A Lansdale memo to Brigadier General William Craig is representative of the initial planning.
General Lansdale felt the CIA’s project had been misguided, focused on armed raids rather than actions to implant a popular movement that could overthrow Castro. He wanted the agency to use its fleet of seven boats on infiltration and exfiltration missions, attempting to build intelligence nets and resistance groups in Cuba. Lansdale saw potential for using the underworld, the Church, women, labor, students and other groups as part of the operation. The Special Group (Augmented) accepted the concept, on January 11, 1962 ordering the chief of operations to prepare detailed plans. Lansdale responded on January 18 with a more detailed elaboration of his plan, which, while not going much beyond the creation of an operational staff, did lay out 32 “tasks,” with deadlines, for assorted agencies to plan for and bring to his staff. Half the tasks were allotted solely or jointly to the CIA. Langley promised to have plans for sabotage, psychological warfare and labor action ready by February 15.
These measures resulted in a detailed plan which General Lansdale put forward on February 20. This elaborate schema divided Mongoose into six “phases” to last into October 1962, moving to guerrilla operations around August and open revolt in the final phase. Like an escalation ladder the phases started with intelligence gathering, then more strenuous actions. Dozens of individual elements were involved, comprising eight different action subplans. Some were to insert pathfinder agents or establish a clandestine headquarters, or work slow-downs, even sabotage. The SG (A) thought the Lansdale plan a good start. The next day Robert F. Kennedy convened the Lansdale staff plus CIA Deputy Director Marshall S. Carter. The president’s brother told the group that the Cuba covert operation had become the highest priority of the United States.
Mongoose might have been a priority but there was still a matter of capability. The CIA’s little fleet of boats might infiltrate a few people but it was not up to a massive campaign. The two big “Landing Craft Infantry” (LCIs) that had participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion were renamed, given a new corporate cover, and added to the Mongoose fleet. The agency’s station in Miami, JM/WAVE, expanded rapidly. Robert Davis headed the station at first, followed by Albert L. Cox. William K. Harvey led the CIA’s operational task force. An interrogation center at Opa Locka, Florida, at first promised for mid-February, opened a month late. Harvey had doubts on his station chief’s performance. He sent Theodore Shackley, an officer who had previously worked with Harvey in Berlin, to Miami to look at what JM/WAVE might need. Harvey then engineered Shackley’s appointment as chief of operations in Miami, and Shackley later replaced Cox as station chief.
On March 12, 1962, Team Cobra infiltrated the Cuban province Pinar del Rio. Mariano Pinto Rodríguez and Luis Puig Tabares set up shop at Cienfuegos, where Rodríguez had been a public prosecutor and Tabares the Belgian consul. The CIA used Belgian diplomatic pouches to smuggle spy gear into Cuba for the Cobra operatives. This became the most successful Mongoose infiltration, creating a network of almost 100 agents, operating through the second half of 1963, and even creating a supply line for an armed group (the Cuban government called them “bandits”) in Las Villas province.
In June the spy team AM/Torrid went into Oriente. Cuban state security officer Fabián Escalante records that the team left Key West on May 28 and landed in Oriente on June 4 on the beach of Playa Arroyo la Costa. Led by Joaquín Escandón Ranedo, the team included Pedro A. Cameron Pérez, Luis Nodarse, Radamés Iribar Martinéz and Rafael Bonno Ortíz. Escandón exfiltrated on June 12 to report to JM/WAVE. In August the others were recalled too. Escalante frames this action as preparation to form a guerrilla force, and reports the CIA promised the Torrid team enough weapons to arm 5,000 partisans. In November, Cameron Pérez and another operative returned to the same area of Oriente.
But the sense remained that the ground had not been prepared for the rapid-fire operation Lansdale envisioned. Other complaints came from Lansdale’s Mongoose staff at the Pentagon or from the CIA officers laboring on the project. The armed services were slow to provide promised assistance. The high command, the Special Group (Augmented), chaired by General Maxwell D. Taylor, imposed conditions that straight-jacketed field operations. The permissions, the standing orders, the Special Group’s own delays, all hampered the project. Thomas Parrott, the SG (A)’s executive secretary, told Richard Helms, who was CIA’s point man for Cuba operations, that Taylor was a “dead hand” on the switch.
On March 14, 1962, Mongoose was modified. Instead of six phases succeeding one another, it would now focus on gathering intelligence in an initial phase, and then get SG (A) approval to move ahead. The Lansdale schedule was simply too ambitious. The CIA needed to expedite its preparations for intensified activity. President Kennedy sat with the SG (A) two days later and pronounced himself satisfied with the revised plan. Colonel Lansdale was restive under the restrictions. He, Harvey, Shackley, and others deplored the level of detail the high command demanded. At the end of the month the State Department actually brought an array of leaders of Cuban exile political groups to the White House, where they met with national security adviser McGeorge Bundy. The Cuban exiles were gratified at U.S. government backing, and happy with their CIA money, but they, too, were unhappy with the lack of action.
This remained the situation into late July, when Washington authorities stepped back to review the achievements of Phase I. Lansdale, author of the review, took pride in that Mongoose had become the largest U.S. intelligence effort inside a communist state in the world. The report however made it clear that there was little to show for all the resources spent on psychological warfare efforts had had mixed results and the two political actions undertaken so far had failed. On infiltration, the CIA expected 11 teams to have been inserted by the end of July—but 19 maritime missions had aborted. Agency operations had planted four supply caches in Cuba and completed a single 1,500-pound supply mission. CIA had plans for sabotage but any carried out so far had been sparked by the Cuban exiles directly, not the agency. Lansdale expressed concern that time was running out for accomplishing the main goal of overthrowing Fidel Castro.
The Mongoose chief of operations, in addition to his review, used agency submissions to assemble a new contingency plan, issued at the end of July 1962. The new plan assumed an open revolt in Cuba and a U.S. decision for military intervention. While of no operational significance, the Lansdale plan illustrated the impatience of the secret warriors. Leaders met in the JCS Operations Room on August 8 and 9, and at the State Department on August 10. The issues built to a peak at the August 10 SG (A) meeting. This session included discussion of liquidating Fidel Castro, reportedly raised by Robert McNamara.
At Langley William Harvey prepared a new operational “Plan B+,” also known as “Stepped Up Course B” or “Alternate Course B” (Document 14), containing the most detailed action program yet proposed. The Special Group (Augmented) considered the plans, asking for revisions. On August 16 the SG (A) met to discuss the latest proposals, on the 20th President Kennedy approved them. The revised plan anticipated increasing CIA personnel involved to over 600, conducting training at several Army-run sites, five submarine missions a month, increasing to ten in 1963, and a robust infiltration schedule with sabotage missions included. On August 23 Kennedy issued NSAM-181, prefiguring what became the Cuban Missile Crisis. The directive also provided that Mongoose Plan B should be developed with all possible speed.
The secret warriors were in mid-process when they were stunned by outside events. One of the options General Lansdale had included in his July review was to support Cuban exile groups to fight Castro independently of the CIA operation. On August 24 the exiles showed themselves perfectly capable of independent action. Knowing that Soviet and Czech advisers to Castro lived at a Havana hotel, the Student Revolutionary Directorate (DRE) decided to raid on a Friday night, when the advisers often partied there. Jose Basulto of the DRE bought a camera at a pawnshop to record the action, and a half dozen exiles crammed a speedboat with a couple of .50-caliber machine guns, a 20mm cannon, and a recoilless rifle. Manuel Salvat led the raid, which took place late at night. The boat entered Havana harbor past Morro Castle and turned west toward Miramar. Salvat pulled up about 200 yards from the target. At 11:20 PM they began a cannonade that lasted for seven minutes. The DRE had already booked a spokesman onto a New York radio station to claim credit. In the stormy Washington aftermath the agency’s case officer to the DRE, Ross Crozier, would be moved to another assignment.
DRE’s raid, so to speak, put a marker in the sand. The basic dilemma from the beginning of U.S. operations against Castro was the question of whether to pursue Castro with a CIA operation—that is a U.S. covert action—or with a Cuban exile operation in which the United States gave assistance but did not call the shots. The Cuban groups morphed on a regular basis as their internal politics and personal interests affected the leadership. After the Havana hotel raid, for example, some of the more militant exiles formed a new group they called Alpha-66. Former leaders of Assault Brigade 2506, back from Castro’s prisons, told CIA in June 1963 that they favored a massive U.S. military intervention to overthrow Castro. But starting with the DRE raid in 1962 more Cuban exile groups, including additional splinter factions, began taking the field independently regardless of CIA instructions.
Special Group (Augmented), the Lansdale staff, CIA director John McCone and William Harvey’s Task Force W all redoubled efforts to create a feasible operations plan against Cuba.
Lansdale looked at Harvey’s Alternate Course B, with its set of covert operations tasks. On September 4 he put in a memorandum that expressed doubts about policy problems, listing them by Harvey’s numbers. State Department lawyer Abram Chayes contributed a paper which objected strenuously to efforts to sabotage the Cuban sugar crop with chemical agents. Fortunately this idea was dropped. Just before a Special Group (Augmented) meeting a couple of days later, executive secretary Thomas Parrott wrote to Mac Bundy regarding Lansdale’s doubts, concurring in them, and adding a few more numbered items to the problem list. At the SG (A) meeting the principals went ahead to discuss the CIA operational tasks by number. Many of the covert tasks mentioned as policy problems were acceptable to the SG (A) members. The contemplated measures ranged up the spectrum to the use of chemical and biological weapons.
Despite the tough talk, actual operations continued to lag. Bobby Kennedy pushed again at an SG (A) session on October 4, telling the group that his brother the president worried about the meager results from Mongoose. William Harvey then sent Lansdale an options and target list. Harvey proposed striking maritime targets for the first time, even mining ports. Hit-and-run strikes might include Soviet Bloc ships. A target list of thirty-three facilities inside Cuba, from public works to broadcast communications to port facilities, aimed to cripple the Cuban economy. Marshall Carter sent the SG (A) a paper proposing eight potential covert attacks, including a grenade strike on the Chinese embassy in Havana.
All of this palavering would be overtaken by events. On October 14, even as Mongoose planners fleshed out next steps, an Air Force U-2 high altitude reconnaissance plane took photographs of Soviet medium- and intermediate-range missile sites under construction in Cuba. This intelligence ushered in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Suddenly not only would the intelligence community be drawn off to support President Kennedy’s decisionmaking in the crisis, but American officials took note of a massive Russian military buildup in Cuba, not just missiles but aircraft and thousands of troops. That put a different light on planned Mongoose raids. Much later, historians would learn, the Soviet troops numbered more than 40,000. Faced with a possible nuclear confrontation with the Russians, the president put his efforts into devising a way to head off a war and get Moscow to withdraw their rockets. A concern was that covert CIA attacks on Cuba might well strike the Russians as provocations. Yet, one CIA mission, to attack the copper mine at Matahambre, nonetheless took place during the Missile Crisis. The commando team was not recovered. Later investigation established that a series of missed signals plus the climate of pushing for results had allowed the Matahambre raid, previously postponed, to go forward even as the Missile Crisis unfolded.
The SG (A) grappled with this while the Missile Crisis was in full swing. In a televised national speech on October 22, President Kennedy revealed he knew of the Russian missiles, declared a quarantine of Cuba, and announced other measures designed to back down Moscow. Robert F. Kennedy, who had been among the most aggressive proponents of Mongoose, sobered up in the course of helping his brother head off an even more serious crisis. With potential war looming, it turned out the Mongoose goals had yet to come into focus, as a point paper for SG (A) members observed on October 26. The point paper made clear that, while several teams were on their way to Cuba, CIA had little or no capability to carry out many of the assignments it had been given.
With this uncertainty at the top, JM/WAVE had 20 infiltration teams ready to leave for Cuba. Station chief Shackley warned headquarters his operatives were primed to go. If they did not receive definitive orders in the next days there could be an explosion in Miami. At Langley, Bill Harvey forwarded the message to General Lansdale. The Mongoose chief received this hot potato after three of Shackley’s infiltration teams had already left. Exile Rafael Quintero telephoned Robert Kennedy’s office for assurances. Bobby went to Langley and denounced the Task Force W staff and wrested from them a stand-down. The SG (A) met on October 29. RFK, horrified—the Missile Crisis had just reached a crescendo with the shootdown of a U.S. U-2 spyplane over Cuba combined with a hopeful exchange of messages between President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev—strode into the Special Group session to demand a shutdown of operations. On October 30 Director McCone forwarded President Kennedy’s order to abandon missions against Cuba, including the president’s demand that CIA rein in Cuban exile groups over which it had no direct control.
Agency operatives were restive in the face of the stand-down. In particular they wanted to sustain their prize spies, the teams AM/Torrid, in Oriente province since June 1962; and Cobra, in Pinar del Rio since March. On December 7 CIA operations chief Richard Helms wrote Director McCone warning of the imminent need to recover or resupply these teams, meaning CIA needed a waiver of the Cuba stand down. The Helms request and papers he attached to it are the most explicit CIA claims for the achievements of its Mongoose agents.
Director McCone decided on a shake-up of the Cuba operation. Task Force W would be de-activated, with William Harvey sent to Rome as station chief there. For someone who knew the CIA’s inner workings and had sufficient stature to overawe the field officers he turned to Desmond FitzGerald, head of the agency’s Far East Division. The Cuba operational unit would be retitled the Special Affairs Staff. President Kennedy similarly revamped his Cuba initiative. Project Mongoose would be phased out, as Ed Lansdale acknowledged in January 1963 (Document 23). With its demise the Special Group (Augmented) also disappeared. Kennedy reassigned the Cuba mission to an NSC “Standing Group,” also sometimes called the “ExCom” in the style of the Cuban crisis NSC unit, chaired by security adviser McGeorge Bundy.
One of Desmond FitzGerald’s first initiatives was to go to Miami, where he tried to impose greater discipline. JM/WAVE should control its Cuban émigré groups more tightly, and, meeting the groups themselves, the CIA man argued they should resist taking actions not coordinated with the Americans. FitzGerald encouraged other U.S. authorities—local police, FBI, Customs, Immigration, and so on—to hem in the exiles by stricter enforcement of U.S. laws. The exiles flouted restrictions. An Alpha-66/Second Front of the Escambray joint mission launched a more controversial raid in March 1963. On the 17th their craft attacked the Soviet freighter Lgov in Cuban waters. On the 26th an Alpha-66 splinter group, Lambda-66, attacked the Soviet ship Baku by boat in the Cuban port of Caibarién. In both cases the exiles had spokesmen ready to claim credit—and to assert U.S. laws were no impediment. In the Caibarién attack the raiders brought a Life magazine photographer with them. The Soviet Union filed diplomatic protests in both cases, including noting that the United States had laws prohibiting the very things the Cubans were doing. British authorities apprehended one of the Cuban exile craft and captured some of the participants who were camping on the Bahamian island of Anguilla, where they had accessed a CIA arms cache. Anguilla was British territory.
These attacks triggered a new series of deliberations at the top of the U.S. government and marked a turning point in the anti-Castro program. Secretary of State Dean Rusk declared in a letter and told an NSC meeting on March 29, 1963, that Cuban exiles’ hit-and-run raids had caused incidents that worked to disadvantage U.S. national interests. The United States needed to disassociate itself from the exile groups. Only authorized raids should be conducted. John McCone was prepared to tolerate the raids although he had mixed feelings about them. Within the NSC staff feelings also ran high. Gordon Chase, the staffer responsible for intelligence matters, explained to Latin America adviser Ralph Dungan on April 1 the need for public relations action, since the U.S. government’s initial reaction to news of the Caibarién raid had been to deny it had been mounted from American soil but Life magazine photos could prove that it was. (White House officials did not know that the photographer, Andrew St. George, had become ill and stayed behind at the exile base on Anguilla, and so had not witnessed the actual raid.)
On April 3 President Kennedy gathered the high commanders of the secret war to decide how to proceed. Desmond FitzGerald admitted hit-and-run raids were doing little more than pump up morale among the exiles. Kennedy said he did not mind that, it was the incessant press conferences. McGeorge Bundy noted the old Special Group (Augmented) had decided the raids were not worth the effort. Robert Kennedy wondered whether bigger attacks, using 100-500 men instead of a handful, could accomplish more. The administration’s response, predictably, drove another spike into the Cuba program. The United States issued a statement affirming its observance of laws, which meant a crackdown on the Miami Cubans. President Kennedy, who had previously told the secret warriors that his promise to the Russians, in resolving the Missile Crisis, never to invade Cuba, did not mean there could not be covert operations, now implied to Moscow that CIA activity would be restrained. And Kennedy invited Henry Luce, the Time-Life Corporation publisher, to lunch at the White House.
At the operational level, secret warriors had no doubt about the situation. Operations chief FitzGerald sent a paper to Director McCone on April 12 predicting that anti-Castro elements inside Cuba would be seriously disheartened and there would be demoralization among the Miami Cubans. Some might leave to pursue operations against Castro—in fact former Bay of Pigs leader Manuel Artime Buesa had his first contacts with Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza about hosting a new anti-Castro armed force in his country at exactly this time. Other Miami Cubans might find it an even greater badge of honor to defy the U.S. laws. As for Castro himself, he would feel some relief at a reduced scale of attacks but wonder what else the CIA had up its sleeve.
The anti-Castro covert operations were also impacted by political infighting among the exile groups. A basic umbrella group, the Cuban Revolutionary Council (CRC), became a conflict center and at this time the disputes led to the resignation of José Miró Cardona, who had been a political leader of the anti-Castro Cubans since before the Bay of Pigs. Doing double duty, on April 13, Desmond FitzGerald supplied Director McCone with a paper concluding that Miró Cardona’s usefulness to the U.S. had come to an end. Despite $3 million in CIA support to CRC since May 1961 (about $252 million in 2019), under Cardona it had accomplished little. Succeeding months and years would see Miró Cardona competing with Artime for Latin American leaders’ backing of a new anti-Castro operation.
In this climate of increasing doubt, the CIA proposed a new, integrated sabotage/harassment program aimed at Castro. The 5412 Group, the covert operations approval authority that had predated and subsumed the Special Group (Augmented), discussed the new plan on April 11. Mr. Bundy told the members the plan had more or less been developed at the direction of higher authority. The president sought to get a feel for CIA capabilities and what might be expected from a series of activities. Kennedy did not intend to approve specific operations at this point. The draft plan was the most comprehensive since the Mongoose series of 1962. Director McCone, perhaps hoping to not repeat the same mistakes made during Mongoose, was reluctant to support the plan until Washington had devised a full strategy for Cuba, not only to topple Castro but to get the Soviets out too. On April 15 the CIA director flew to Palm Beach, where President Kennedy was vacationing, to brief current intelligence issues (Document 30). Their conversation included an exchange on the draft plan where McCone repeated his opposition to the operation. Kennedy himself expressed preference for covert operations that came from within Cuba, whereupon Director McCone pointed out that all the operations mentioned in the draft plan were maritime missions from outside Cuba.
From this point on the wheels began to come off the Cuba operation. On April 21, 1963, McGeorge Bundy reacted to 5412 Group demands for a comprehensive strategy with a paper sketching Cuba alternatives. The CIA provided options to the NSC Standing Group on April 30, and the 5412 Group approved a program on May 24. By June 8 Desmond FitzGerald had converted the April draft plan into an integrated action program. It would be approved. Money would be given to Manuel Artime for a new brigade project. A certain number of actual raids were carried out. The White House expressed satisfaction with some in August, and frustration with others in September, when leaks again bedeviled action. Just days before his murder, President Kennedy met with CIA officers to review the Cuba operation and approve the next batch of targets. On December 19 the secret warriors had their first meeting with President Lyndon Baines Johnson on Cuba operations. LBJ opined that sabotage missions with less than a 50 percent chance of success should be cancelled. From May 1964 on, Johnson progressively cut back the Cuba enterprise.
en.wikipedia.org, “Operation Northwoods.” by Wikipedia editors; en.wikipedia.org, “Operation Mongoose.” By wikipedia editors; nsarchive.gwu.edu, “Kennedy and Cuba: Operation Mongoose.”; abcnews.com, “U.S. Military Wanted to Provoke War With Cuba.” By David Ruppe;