Inside the Department of Dirty Tricks

"We're not in the Boy Scouts," Richard Helms was fond of saying when he ran the Central Intelligence Agency. He was correct, of course. Boy Scouts do not ordinarily bribe foreign politicians, invade other countries with secret armies, spread lies, conduct medical experiments, build stocks of poison, pass machine guns to people who plan to turn them on their leaders, or plot to kill men such as Lumumba or Castro or others who displeased Washington. The CIA did these things, and more, over a long span of years. On whose orders? This is a question a Pulitzer prizewinning writer addresses in an adaptation from his forthcoming book about Helms and the Agency, The Man Who Kept the Secrets.

3. A Case History: Cuba

THE Bay of Pigs marked the beginning, not the end, of John F. Kennedy's determination to get rid of Castro, the moment when Fidel Castro ceased to be merely an enemy inherited from Eisenhower. Kennedy's mandate to General Maxwell Taylor in April 1961 was, not to fix the blame for the failure of the invasion, but to find out why it hadn't worked, so the next plan would.

Knowing of Kennedy's growing obsession with unconventional warfare, Taylor proposed a broad, government-wide effort to combat insurgencies from Vietnam to Latin America. The result, after Taylor joined the White House full time as the military representative of the President on July 4, 1961, was establishment of the Counter-Insurgency (CI) Group, which began to meet on a regular basis with Taylor as chairman early that fall.

The first order of business for the CI Group was Cuba. The CIA was heavily involved in both Laos and Vietnam at the same time, but the covert operations launched against North Vietnam, beginning in the fall of 1961 under the Saigon station chief, William Colby, were on the back burner. Cuba was where the Kennedys wanted immediate results. A second committee, the Special Group Augmented (SGA), was established to oversee Operation Mongoose, run by then Colonel Edward G. Lansdale, a counterinsurgency specialist with experience in both the Philippines and Vietnam, where he had helped Ngo Dinh Diem to consolidate his control over the country. No Kennedy program received less publicity than Mongoose, or more personal attention from the Kennedys, and in particular from Robert.

The importance of the undertaking did not take long to establish. In the early stages of Mongoose, a CIA officer working on the operation, Sam Halpern, asked Lawrence Houston, the CIA's general counsel, if the operation was even legal. He pointed out that the Bay of Pigs landing had been organized outside the United States at least partly in order to avoid violating the Neutrality Acts, which prohibited the launching of attacks on foreign targets from American soil. Now Mongoose was being geared up in Miami; wasn't this against the law? Houston said the answer was no: if the President says it's okay, and if the attorney general says it's okay, then it's okay.

The CIA officers in charge of the Cuban branch set up by Helms were appalled by the magnitude of the task. "With what?" they asked. "We haven't got any assets. We don't even know what's going on in Cuba."

Despite the White House pressure, the SGA and Mongoose proceeded sluggishly. Lansdale's original plan had called for an escalating effort to create an opposition to Castro inside Cuba, followed by insurgency and a general uprising. Lansdale spoke of a march on Havana in October 1962, and he meant march—a triumphal entry like Castro's just three years earlier. But Lansdale's plan was a fantasy. The CIA managed to get agents onto the island and to recruit others in rural areas, but what they told Lansdale was bleak: there would be no general uprising.

After the first few months of covert operations, Mongoose gradually shifted its emphasis from resistance-building to sabotage, paramilitary raids, efforts to disrupt the Cuban economy by contaminating sugar exports, circulating counterfeit money and ration books, and the like. "We want boom and bang on the island," Lansdale said. Robert Kennedy took a particular interest in efforts to sabotage the Matahambre copper mines in western Cuba, on one occasion even calling repeatedly to learn if the agents had left yet Had they landed? Had they reached the mines? Had they destroyed them successfully? Kennedy, like Lansdale, wanted boom and bang, and a number of CIA officers on the operational level grew to know his voice as he called to find out how they were coming along and to press them forward. The Matahambre copper mines were never destroyed, despite the launching of three separate full-scale raids, but other attacks on sugar refineries, oil storage facilities, and the like were more successful. Still, they fell far short of wrecking the Cuban economy, even in its weakened state following the dislocations of revolution, and the paramilitary program held little promise of Castro's overthrow.

There is a certain opaque quality to all of the CIA's plans to eliminate Castro. The invasion force that landed at the Bay of Pigs was too big to hide and too small to defeat Castro's huge army and militia. Mongoose in 1962 never got much beyond an intelligence-gathering effort, and while it succeeded in raising the level of "boom and bang on the island" in 1963, noise was hardly enough to do the job. Lansdale's scenario for a triumphal march into Havana was illusory. Desmond FitzGerald took over in 1963, but a lot of people who worked for FitzGerald never quite grasped how his plans were supposed to work either. FitzGerald was adamant. "You don't know what you're talking about," he told one of them. They were going to get Castro.

But Lee Harvey Oswald got Kennedy first. After the President's murder in Dallas on November 22, 1963, the Cuban operation began to wither away. The last exile groups, boats, and maintenance facilities in Florida were not abandoned until 1965, but Lyndon Johnson never gave his full attention to the Cuban "problem."

In March 1964, Desmond FitzGerald, by then the new Western Hemisphere division chief, visited the CIA station in Buenos Aires. There he told some of his officers, "If Jack Kennedy had lived, I can assure you we would have gotten rid of Castro by last Christmas. Unfortunately, the new President isn't as gung-ho on fighting Castro as Kennedy was.

Christmas, 1963. What could have "gotten rid of Castro" by Christmas of 1963?

There was a lot of talk about language at the meetings of the Church Committee. CIA officers testified that phrases such as "getting rid of Castro" were only figures of speech; they just wanted him out of the way, not dead and buried. It was a kind of shorthand, reflecting the determined spirit of the time. Perhaps they talked about "eliminating" Castro, or even "knocking him off," but they intended only to replace or remove him, not literally get rid of him. A handful of former CIA officials—notably Richard Bissell, William Harvey, Justin O'Donnell, Richard Helms—admitted that talk of getting rid of Castro or Lumumba meant just that in one or two instances, but when they really meant "get rid of," they sometimes used a circumlocution or euphemism instead. In particular, they testified, conversations with high government officials, and especially any that might have occurred with the very highest government official, were deliberately opaque, Allusive, and indirect, using "rather general terms," in Bissell's phrase.

In his Church Committee testimony, Helms took Bissell's line. "I think any of us would have found it very difficult to discuss assassinations with a President of the U.S.," Helms told the committee. "I just think we all had the feeling that we're hired out to keep those things out of the Oval Office." He made this point repeatedly—"Nobody wants to embarrass a President of the United States by discussing the assassination of foreign leaders in his presence"; "I don't see how one would have expected that a thing like killing or murdering or assassinating would become a part of a large group of people sitting around a table in the United States government"; "I don't know whether it was in training, experience, tradition, or exactly what one points to, but I think to go up to a Cabinet officer and say, Am I right in assuming that you want me to assassinate Castro? ... is a question it wouldn't have occurred to me to ask." Bissell and Helms both insisted they had never discussed the assassination plots with either the President or the attorney general, but at the same time they were certain they had all the authority they needed, and were in fact trying to do what the Kennedys in particular wanted done. Helms insisted that Robert Kennedy "would not have been unhappy if he [Castro] had disappeared off the scene by whatever means," and, "I was just doing my best to do what I thought I was supposed to do."

The murkiness of the record raised a certain problem for the committee. Either the CIA had undertaken Castro's murder on its own and was indeed, in Church's words, "a rogue elephant rampaging out of control," or Eisenhower and Kennedy had in fact ordered the CIA to attempt the assassination of foreign leaders, which the associates of both Presidents swore they had never done, and would never do. Robert McNamara said he couldn't help the committee on this crucial point. He testified that he didn't remember suggesting Castro's assassination at an SGA meeting on August 10, 1962, although he did remember McCone's telephone call to protest, and he would have to take the committee's word for it that the CIA did, in fact, try to kill Castro. He didn't know about it.

But McNamara was at the same time meticulous in emphasizing that "the CIA was a highly disciplined organization, fully under the control of senior officials of the government....I know of no major action taken by the CIA during the time I was in the government that was not properly authorized .... I just can't understand how it could have happened .... " The dilemma was gingerly circled again and again. Kennedy Administration officials had nothing but praise for the CIA's discipline; they certainly did not want to blame the CIA for this: they did not even want to blame it on a misunderstanding; and yet they knew the Kennedys would never have countenanced any such thing.

The CIA officials involved did not contradict them exactly, but insisted they had the authority, and yet were vague when they tried to explain where the authority came from. More extraordinary still was the restrained way in which the high officials of the CIA and of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations treated each other. There was no acrimonious exchange of accusation of the sort one might have expected. McNamara, typically, did not want to blame the Agency, and Helms, typically, testified he didn't want "to take refuge in saying that I was instructed to specifically murder Castro .... " The claims of both sides were in soft opposition, and the committee was forced to confess softly in the end that while it had no evidence that the CIA had been a rogue elephant rampaging out of control, it also had no evidence that Eisenhower or Kennedy or anyone speaking in one of their names had ordered the CIA to kill Castro. The only indisputable fact was that the CIA did, in fact, try to do so.

The Church Committee reported that it had discovered at least eight separate plots against Castro of varying seriousness, ranging from an attempt to give him a poisoned wet suit for scuba diving to a more determined effort, through agents recruited by the Mafia, to poison his food.

Some of these plots never survived the first serious discussion, but others were pushed forward over a period of years, and although none of them came close to success, it was not for lack of effort.

According to Bissell, the first discussion of killing Castro occurred in the summer of 1960, when planning for the invasion of Cuba had already been under way for at least five months. The early attempts on Castro's life were assigned to the director of security, Colonel Sheffield Edwards, in August 1960. Edwards and another CIA officer approached Robert Maheu, a former FBI agent who had frequently worked for the CIA in the past, and told him the CIA would be willing to pay $150,000 for Castro's assassination. Maheu recommended a Mafia figure named John Rosselli, who agreed to go ahead with the plan, using other Mafia contacts whose gambling interests in Cuba had been confiscated by Castro in 1959. By October, Rosselli had recruited Sam Giancana and Santo Traficante, who in turn began to recruit Cubans who might do the job.

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