35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Kennedy and Cuba: Operation Mongoose

Operation Mongoose
Published: Oct 3, 2019
Briefing Book #687

Edited by John Prados and Arturo Jimenez-Bacardi

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Exhibits from CIA Document Set III: A Digital National Security Archive collection published through ProQuest

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[1], 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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 (Document 1).

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 (Document 2) 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 (Document 3). 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.[5]

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” (Document 4). 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 (Document 5). 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 (Document 8).

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 (Document 7). 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 (Document 9).

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 (Document 10) 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.[6] 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 (Document 11). 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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10] 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 (Document 12).[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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 (Document 12) 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,[14] 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.[15]

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 (Document 31). 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 (Document 13) 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.[16] At the SG (A) meeting the principals went ahead to discuss the CIA operational tasks by number (Document 15, two versions of the same record). 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 (Document 16). 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 (Document 17).

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 (Document 21).

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 (Document 18). 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.[17] 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 (Document 19). 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 (Document 20), 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 (Document 22). 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.[18] 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 (Document 25). 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 (Document 26) 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.)[19]

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.[20] 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 (Document 27) 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 (Document 28) 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 (Document 29) 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.[21] 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.

 

THE DOCUMENTS


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Document 24
CIA Cable, Field Report, Cuba, “Details on the L-66 Raid on Caibarien,” March 28, 1963.
1963-03-28
Source: JFKL: JFKP: National Security File, Country File, Box 48, Folder, “Cuba, Exiles, 3/63.”

This CIA information telegram describes a raid carried out by members of the L-66 exile group that attacked a Soviet freighter in a Cuban port. “The raiding party entered the port of Caibarién quite openly, with lights on the boat. There were several ships and various small craft in the harbor, which was also lit up. The raiding group at random selected the largest ship and opened fire with rifles and heavier weapons from a distance of about 200 yards. The raiders came alongside the target ship, attached a 20 pound limpet and placed a boat loaded with explosives along the hull of the target. The limpet and boat were joined PRIMACORD. The explosive in the boat was activated by a one and a half minute time delay fuse. After accomplishing this, the raiders retired, but threw grenades on the deck of the vessel as they pulled away. The explosions took place when the raiders were about 250 to 300 yards from the target vessel.” The cable ends by explaining that “L-66 realizes that hit and run raids are not the most effective means of fighting Castro, but considers these raids at least symbolic support to arrested colleagues in Cuba. Most activists are married men, living in Miami, who express intent to move to another country if the U.S. continues to harass them . . . Money is raised mostly in the Miami area and arms are purchased in Europe and the United States.”


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Document 25
CIA, Director John McCone, Memorandum for the Record, “Executive Committee Meeting - 12:30pm – 29 March, 1963,” with attached memorandum by John McCone, “Unauthorized Cuban Raids,” March 29, 1963.
1963-03-29
Source: National Archives, JFK Assassination Records, Document No. 104-10306-10015.

In this memo DCI McCone summarizes the views of members of the Executive Committee, as expressed to President Kennedy, regarding what U.S. policy should be towards hit-and-run raids carried out by exile groups including Second Front of the Escambrey, Alpha 66, and L-66. Secretary Rusk argued that “the United States would be blamed for unauthorized raids, the Soviets would expect that we could stop them and they would immediately take counter actions such as escorting ships, etc. At a minimum, we should act to disassociate ourselves and do all possible not to permit the continuance of unauthorized raids.” Douglas Dillon expresses skepticism that such raids could be stopped given logistical challenges, but is rebuffed by McNamara, who says the military could handle it. RFK proposes to use the justice system and “outlined various steps that could be taken to identify the leadership of the various groups and to either prosecute them or exclude them from the country through immigration procedures.” Vice President Johnson notes that the U.S. would be criticized whether it stopped the raids or not. LBJ recommends that “all actions should be taken to halt the unauthorized raids.”

In the attached memo, McCone expresses his mixed feelings towards the raids. On the one hand, “Obviously raids of this type will exascerbate [sic] problems with Castro and more particularly the Soviet Union and, from that standpoint, are (un)desirable [‘un’ is added with handwritten notes].” Looking at the bright side, McCone argues that, “successful harassment will create very considerable annoyance, will stimulate internal dissension, will complicate Castro's problems and will have very considerable effect in discrediting Castroism in Latin America. Inability of Castro to deal with these raids might cause the Soviets to question the strength of his position and therefore reappraise their own position in Cuba.” While McCone concedes that it is “impossible to predict the result of such reappraisal,” he nonetheless argues in favor of “tolerating” the raids “while officially disassociating the government from them through denial of both responsibility and control.”


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Document 26
White House, Gordon Chase Memorandum for White House Special Assistant, Ralph A. Dungan, “Exile Groups,” with attached memo by Gordon Chase, April 1, 1963.
1963-04-01
Source: JFKL: JFKP: National Security File, Country File, Box 48, Folder, “Cuba, Exiles, 4/63.”

This memo and its attachment prepared by NSC staff show the continuing struggle that the Kennedy administration faced as it attempted to tamp down the sabotage raids. The first memo by Gordon Chase shows his support for a public relations effort intended to counter the press’ account of the administration’s new policy towards some exile groups: “To correct the press imbalance you referred to, Crimmins would like to have INS brief the newsman, on a background basis attributable to INS, that departure controls are limited to less than thirty people whom we had reason to believe intended to carry out raids in the immediate future.” The other memorandum shows the White House struggling to contain diplomatic and public relations fallout from the March 27 raid by the L-66 group (See Document 22). After the White House realizes that a photographer from Life magazine was on one of the raiding boats and has pictures showing that “the attack originated from the United States,” Chase stresses that “The implication is that we don’t want the pictures published since we said in our March 30 statement that ‘Our preliminary evidence suggests that these raids have not in fact been launched… from the U.S..” Another problem was that the British captured one of the raiding boats, but Washington was in the middle of working out a plan where, “the British will release the 17 men and the boat intact tomorrow afternoon. The boat will be escorted to Bahamian authorities to the three mile limit and will then be picked up by the USCG and escorted back to Miami. John Crimmins is asking the American Consulate General in the Bahamas to urge the British to remove the ammunition from the boat before sending it off. When the boat reaches Miami, INS will detain the aliens for no more than 48 hours. INS and the FBI will question the one American aboard and release him. The boat will be impounded.”


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Document 27
CIA, Chief of Special Affairs Staff, Desmond FitzGerald Memorandum for Director of Central Intelligence, John McCone, “Effects of the Curtailment of Exile Hit and Run Raids,” April 12, 1963.
1963-04-12
Source: National Archives, JFK Assassination Records, Document No. 178-10003-10047.

In this paper for DCI McCone, Desmond FitzGerald summarizes the point of view of different actors on the expected effects of the recent U.S. decision to stop the raids into Cuba by exile groups. The CIA expects Fidel Castro to “have mixed feelings” since “His first will be elation at our having stopped the majority of these raids, but he will soon recognize that we know they have been more spectacular than damaging. Fidel will, we think, recognize that this order will not stop a few determined Cubans just as such an injunction did not deter him in his fight to oust Batista. To a degree Castro will view this order with apprehension. [sic] He will probably wonder what we plan instead.” As for the anti-Castro elements inside Cuba, including U.S. agents, they “will be seriously disheartened.” As far as the exiles themselves, the CIA expected varied reactions. For the “non-activist type” they too would be demoralized, would see U.S. policy as “appeasement,” and some might even leave Miami. For the “activists” they would likely not be deterred and might even “profit by the decree. It will now be a greater honor to engage in operations against Fidel. The double jeopardy arising from the threat of detention by U.S. agents and the chance for martyrdom at the hands of Fidel…,” although the CIA also notes that “the supply of recruits for such hit and run raids may run shallow but not dry.” Finally, the new policy would likely affect exile power centers: “the loci of power will have a tendency to move back to its traditional center: the exiled-monied interests such as the Bosches, Prios, Batistas.”


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Document 28
CIA, Chief of Special Affairs Staff, Desmond FitzGerald Memorandum for Director of Central Intelligence John McCone, “Current Status of Cuban Exile Reactions to the Resignation of Dr. Jose MIRO Cardona,” with two memos attached on U.S. support of the Cuban Revolutionary Council, April 13, 1963.
1963-04-13
Source: National Archives, JFK Assassination Records, Document No. 104-10306-10015.

This memo to DCI McCone explains a series of threats made by Dr. Jose Miró Cardona, the head of the Cuban Revolutionary Council—which the U.S. had been funding for years—to resign from the organization and publish sections of his 25-page resignation letter that might include “sensitive and confidential areas.” After explaining the controversy and the politics surrounding Miró Cardona’s actions among the Cuban exile community, FitzGerald points out, “We conclude from the foregoing that Dr. MIRO’s usefulness to the U.S. Government and to the Cuban exile community has come to an end, even if he should reconsider at the last moment his decision to resign.” The attached memo provides a breakdown of the more than $11 million the U.S. government has given the Cuban Revolutionary Council, including a monthly stipend to Miró Cardona, “During the period 1 May 1961 through 31 March 1963 the CRC received $3,000,000 from the U.S. Government for administrative and operational expenses. (Note: This figure does not include Brigade payments which totaled $8,300,000 for this same period.) Dr. Miró Cardona, President of the CRC, receives compensation of $600 a month ($7,200 annually) plus travel and related business expenses.”


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Document 29
Memorandum for the File, “Meeting with the President – 5:30 – 15 Apr 1963 In Palm Beach, Florida,” with attached memorandum for the President on “Donovan Negotiations with Castro,” April 16, 1963.
1963-04-16
Source: National Archives, JFK Assassination Records, Document No. 104-10306-10015.

This memo is a summary of McCone’s meeting with the president where JFK appeared frustrated with Miró Cardona’s actions, “President raised the question of Miro Cardona, stated that Cardona had misrepresented the facts.” While the president had not abandoned his desire to remove Castro, he continued to show skepticism about U.S.-based sabotage operations, “whether active sabotage was good unless it was of a type that could only come from within Cuba." The attached memo is a summary of William Donovan’s trip to Cuba and meetings with Fidel Castro. Donovan reports that Castro, “knew that relations with the United States are necessary and Castro wanted these developed. However, there are certain Cuban Government officials, communists, who are strongly opposed, even more than certain people in the United States. These officials are under close surveillance. They have no great following in Cuba; but if they rebelled at this time, Cuba would be in chaos.”


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Document 30
Bromley Smith, National Security Council, Draft, “A Covert Harrassment/Sabotage Program against Cuba,” April 16, 1963.
1963-04-16
Source: Gerald R. Ford Library: Rockefeller Commission Parallel File, box 6, folder: “Assassination Materials, Miscellaneous (5).”

This comprehensive policy paper by Bromley Smith shows that the Kennedy administration decided to put an end to American restraint and once again committed the CIA to sabotage campaigns against Cuba, “This paper presents a covert Harassment/sabotage program targeted against Cuba; included are those sabotage plans which have previously been approved as well as new proposals.” The paper acknowledges that “While this program will cause a certain amount of economic damage, it will in no sense critically injure the economy or cause the overthrow of Castro.” But it might “create a situation which will delay the consolidation and stabilization of Castro’s revolution…” The paper then summarizes previously approved programs of “subtle” sabotage and makes a series of new proposals, including attacks on shipping by “the placing of explosive devices with suitable time delays on the outside of ships either in Cuban or in non-Cuban ports,” as well as other maritime strikes and attacks on land targets.


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Document 31
CIA, Memorandum of Conversation, Agency Officers Briefing of Meeting with members of the Cuban Brigade, June 25, 1963.
1963-06-25
Source: JFKL, Robert F. Kennedy Files: Attorney General’s Confidential File, Box 209, Folder, “CIA, Richard Helms, 3-6.”

In this summary of a five-and-a-half hour session between two CIA officers and a handful of members of the Cuban Brigade, the saboteurs raise a number of concerns with regard to “not only their own personal future but also that of the rank and file of the Brigade.” The rebels are “disheartened” with the training they have been receiving from the U.S. as well as with the plans the Agency has for them, given that “They do not believe that unconventional warfare in itself, including commando type raids, can liberate Cuba, without the use of U.S. forces in the final stages.” The CIA officers counter by explaining the “necessity for building a resistance movement inside, keeping the flame of resistance alive.” They further point out that “one of the best means currently available seemed to be to split the regime through the use of members of the 26th of July Movement who were and are anti-Communist and who now believe that the revolution has been betrayed.”

 

Notes

 

1. The Web page of the Archive’s Cuba Project, directed by Peter Kornbluh and featuring dozens of document postings among other materials, may be viewed here.

2. Even the most recent biography of Lansdale, Max Boot’s The Road Not Taken (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2017, p. 380), gives in to this temptation. Cecil Currey’s biography, Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988,, p. 239) dates Lansdale’s involvement later in November, but repeats the essential chronology. Mark J. White’s documentary history of the Kennedys ranged [tk: ?] against Castro (The Kennedys and Cuba: The Declassified Documentary History. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999, p. 73) has its first document on Mongoose dated November 1, 1961.

3. NSC Action No. 2422, May 5, 1961. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963 (hereafter cited as FRUS), v. 10, Cuba 1961-1962. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1996, p. 482.

4. FRUS 1961-1963, v. 10, pp. 554-560.

5. Memo on Special Group Meeting, July 20, 1961. Ibid., pp. 633-634, 636-637.

6. Chief of Operations, Mongoose, “The Cuba Project,” January 18, 1962. Ibid., pp. 710-718.

7. John Prados, Safe for Democracy. Lanham (MD): Rowland Littlefield/Ivan R. Dee, 2006, p. 301.

8. Fabián Escalante, The Secret War: CIA Covert Operations Against Cuba, 1959-1962. Melbourne (Aust.): Ocean Press, 1995, p. 143-144.

9. Don Bohning, The Castro Obsession: U.S. Covert Operations Against Cuba, 1959-1965. Washington (DC): Potomac Books, 2005, quoted p. 109.

10. The record of this meeting in included in the National Security Archive’s Set III collection as part of the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) through ProQuest, as well as in the Archive’s EBB-667, “Understanding the CIA,” March 4, 2019.

11. A few days earlier Lansdale had also circulated a paper on “What We Hoped to Accomplish in Phase I of Mongoose” (July 19, 1962). The document appears in Set III and our EBB-667, “Understanding the CIA,” op. cit.

12. Prados, Safe for Democracy, 309-310.

13. Documents 363-367. FRUS 1961-1963, v. 10, pp. 893-917. This full documentation, plus additional CIA and State Department commentaries and memoranda, appears in our full “CIA Set III” in the Digital National Security Archive.

14. The hotel has often been cited as the Blanquita. Felix Rodriguez, involved in the Cuban exile movement and a friend of the mission leader, cites it as the Rosita de Hornedo.

15. This account is assembled from Prados, Safe for Democracy, p. 309; Felix I. Rodriguez and John Weisman, Shadow Warrior. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989, p. 111; and Jefferson Morley, Our Man in Mexico City. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008, pp. 130-131, 142-143.

16. Both memoranda form parts of CIA Set III.

17. Prados, Safe for Democracy, p. 312.

18. Complete documentation on these raids is in CIA Set III, part of the DNSA.

19. This detail is from Warren Hinckle and William Turner, The Fish is Red: The Story of the Secret War Against Castro. New York: Harper & Row, 1981, p. 156.

20. Prados, Safe for Democracy, p. 315.

21. This document is in CIA Set III.

22. Fabian Escalante, The Secret War, op. cit., pp. 145-147, 191.