The Plots to Kill Castro
in the June 2000 issue of GEORGE

by Edward Jay Epstein

November 22, 1963: Even as the open limousine carrying President John F. Kennedy was moving into the cross-hairs of an assassin aiming a rifle with telescopic sights in Dallas, a high-ranking CIA official in Paris, representing himself as the emissary of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was delivering to a Cuban assassin the weapons to kill Castro.

The assassin was Major Rolando Cubela, a close associate of Castro's who worked without portfolio in the Havana government. He had contacted the CIA and volunteered to eliminate Castro, asking specifically for "a high-powered rifle with telescopic sights that could be used to kill Castro from a distance." The CIA official was Desmond FitzGerald, chief of the Special Affairs Section (SAS), the covert unit responsible for orchestrating the overthrow of Castro. He was accompanied at the meeting by Cubela's CIA case officer. They gave Cubela a fountain pen with a hidden needle, capable of injecting lethal Blackleaf 40 toxin into a victim without his knowledge. FitzGerald explained that the rifle with telescopic sights would be delivered to Cubela inside Cuba.

But the CIA's counterintelligence staff, under the legendary James Jesus Angleton, had had concerns about Cubela's provenance prior to November 22nd, the counterintelligence officer working under FitzGerald, had warned that the operation was "insecure." And in September, only hours after Cubela had first broached, in Brazil, the idea of assassinating the Cuban leader, Castro had given an extraordinary interview to an American reporter in Havana, saying he knew the American government was behind plots to kill him and ominously warning he would "answer in kind" any attempts. So in the parallax universe of deception, it was a distinct possibility that Cubela was an agent provocateur, testing the CIA on behalf of Castro. If so, in working with Cubela, FitzGerald had inadvertently given Castro evidence of the involvement of the highest echelon of American government in the assassination plots.

As we now know, Castro's fear of American assassination plots was well founded. Subsequent investigations by the CIA's Inspector General (1967) and the Church Committee (1975) uncovered at least eight separate murder plots against Castro, beginning in the summer of 1960, the halcyon days of the Eisenhower Administration. Initially, when 32-year old Fidel Castro had won power in Cuba in 1959 and toured America in triumph, there was hope in Washington that he was a democratic reformer. But by mid-1960, after he had nationalized foreign property in Cuba, U.S. intelligence concluded that he was a Communist, allied with Moscow in the Cold War. At the CIA, planning for an American-led invasion of Cuba was already underway.

As part of its contingency planning, the CIA assigned Colonel Sheffield Edwards, thedirector of its office of security, to arrange less expensive ways of getting rid of Castro by assassination. Edwards approached an ex-FBI agent, Robert Maheu, who had worked with him in the past on CIA counterespionage investigations, including black bag break-ins, unauthorized wiretaps, and other covert operations. He told Maheu there was $150,000 available for Castro's assassination. Maheu suggested John Roselli, a Mafioso who recruited his two mob bosses, Sam Giancana from Chicago and Santo Traficante from New Orleans. The advantage to employing the Mafia for this sensitive mission, aside from the mob's contacts in the Cuban underworld, was providing the CIA with credible cover. If the assassins were killed or captured, it would seem plausible to the public that the Mafia had ordered the "hit" because Castro had taken away its brothels, casinos, and other enterprises in Havana. In return, by cooperating with the CIA, the three Mafiosi got protection against FBI investigations into their domestic criminal enterprises.

Rosselli proposed a simple plan: through its underworld connections in Cuba, the Mafia would recruit a Cuban in Castro's entourage, such as a waiter or bodyguard, who would poison Castro. The CIA's Technical Services Division, informally known as its "workshop," was given the job of producing and testing on monkeys an untraceable poison. It came up with a botulinus toxin that the CIA's Office of Medical Services then injected into Castro's favorite brand cigars. It also produced simpler botulinus toxin pills that could be dissolved in his food or drink. But the deputized Mafia contacts failed to deliver any of the poisons to Castro. As Rosselli explained to the CIA, the first poisoner had been discharged from Castro's employ before he could kill him, while a back-up agent got "cold feet."

While the Mafia continued its unsuccessful machinations, John F. Kennedy became President and, in April 1961, launched the Bay of Pigs invasion, an attack on a swamp in Cuba by CIA-trained Cuban exiles that ended in disaster. Furious at this humiliating failure, Kennedy summoned Richard Bissell, the head of the CIA's covert operations, to the Cabinet Room and chided him for "sitting on his ass and not doing anything about getting rid of Castro and the Castro regime" (as Bissell recalled). Richard Helms, who succeeded Bissell, also felt "white heat," as he put it, from the Kennedys to get rid of Castro.

By then, the Kennedys had set up their own covert structure for dealing with the Castro problem the Special Group Augmented, which Attorney General Robert Kennedy and General Maxwell Taylor effectively ran and which, in November 1961, launched a secret war against the Castro regime, codenamed Operation Mongoose. Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara, who was not a formal member of this group but attended meetings, later testified: "We were hysterical about Castro at about the time of the Bay of Pigs and thereafter. And there was pressure from JFK and RFK to do something about Castro." It was a "no holds barred" enterprise, as Helms termed it, for which the Special Group Augmented assigned such "planning tasks" as using biological and chemical warfare against Cuban sugar workers; employing Cuban gangsters to kill Cuban police officials, Soviet bloc technicians, and other targeted people; using agents to sabotage mines; and, in what was called Operation Bounty, paying cash bonuses of up to $100,000 for the murder or abduction of government officials.

It was in this heightened atmosphere that the Richard Bissell turned to a super-secret, codenamed ZR/RIFLE, which was meant to give the CIA to on-demand "executive action" capacity that could be used against defectors and, as a "last resort," could be used to assassinate foreign leaders. The head of this program was William "Two Gun" Harvey, who had proved himself a dedicated hands-on cold warrior as the CIA station chief in Berlin in 1960. For the Castro assignment, he was instructed by Bissell to work through Rosselli, who was still believed to have underworld agents inside Cuba, and finally put ZR/RIFLE to the test by killing Castro.

Harvey had a serious security problem, however, with Rosselli's two associates, Maheu and Giancana. They had invited the unwanted attention of the FBI by citing their CIA connection to block an unrelated criminal investigation into a wiretap Giancana had planted in a girlfriend's hotel room in Las Vegas. Through this intervention, J. Edgar Hoover learned about their "dirty business" in Havana. Compromising this sensitive operation even further, Hoover also found out that another girlfriend of Giancana's named Judith Campbell Exner was also a girlfriend of President Kennedy's during this period. Hoover then briefed Attorney General Kennedy on the Mafia-CIA liaison as well as the more personal liaison between Exner and the President. And on April 10, 1962, Hoover wrote a memo for the files that Kennedy told him that the CIA had briefed him that it had retained Maheu to offer Giancana "$150,000 to hire some gunmen to go into Cuba and to kill Castro." Although this maneuver by Hoover greatly vitiated the possibility of total deniability for the Attorney General, it mentioned only Maheu and Giancana, not Rosselli. So the plan could proceed.


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