A series of complex, ruthless and at times outlandish plots were considered by the U.S. government in the 1960s in an effort to overthrow the communist regime of Fidel Castro, newly declassified files show.
New details about the U.S. military’s vast anti-Castro operations leading up to and following the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of president John F. Kennedy were part of a cache of documents published Thursday by the National Archives.
The Cuba operations, labeled different names over time, were designed to trigger a revolt by Cubans against the country’s communist regime by using propaganda and other means to blame sabotage and terror on Castro, documents show.
Military leaders suggested, among other things: using plastic bombs to sink a boat of Cuban refugees; using biological weapons to disrupt the country’s sugar crop; blowing up copper mines and bridges; offering bounties to Cuban citizens in exchange for killing or kidnapping communist leaders; and recruiting “gangster elements” to execute Cuban military and police officers.
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Most of the proposals were drawn up by the CIA and the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to oust Castro or as a pretext for launching a military invasion of Cuba. Kennedy was appraised of some of the details, documents show, but he eventually put the plans on hold in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
While the files provided more nuggets on the scope of U.S. operations proposed against Cuba and Castro, experts said the documents released Thursday reveal very little new information about Kennedy’s assassination or the possible conspiracy theories that have elevated it to one of the most scrutinized events in American history.
The declassification of the investigative trove was to be released Thursday to comply with a 1992 law, but after a long day of negotiating with intelligence agencies who wanted to keep them secret, President Donald Trump sent out a memo announcing that only a fraction of the documents would be made public. Citing national security concerns, he said the rest will be withheld for six months for further review.
“The real news in this is that the vast bulk of these documents are still being withheld,” said Rex Bradford of the Mary Ferrell Foundation, which catalogs documents and publications connected to Kennedy’s assassination. “Only about three percent of the documents were released, which is outrageous considering they’ve known for 25 years that this was mandated.”
Other experts said that withholding the documents would only fuel more conspiracy theories, since the files that were released raise more questions than they answer.
“It’s part of our American lore. Even history teachers were convinced at one time that there was a conspiracy because it was sold as history,” said Joseph Uscinski, University of Miami associate professor of political science who co-authored the book “American Conspiracy Theories.’’
“There are all sorts of weird details the government wanted to keep secret for various reasons, not all for nefarious reasons,’’ he said. “But it’s sort of shameful that we had to wait this long for this to come out, and the government is still keeping it secret.”
One highly anticipated document, 151 pages of testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee by CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton, was not released. Some researchers thought it might solve one of the biggest puzzles about Kennedy’s presumed assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald: why, six weeks before Kennedy’s assassination, he traveled to Mexico City and visited the embassies of Cuba and the Soviet Union seeking visas to travel there.
The trip has fueled theories that either Cuba, the Soviets — or both — were behind Kennedy’s death. U.S. investigators have maintained that Oswald, a former U.S. Marine who defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, was the lone gunman who shot Kennedy as the president was traveling in a motorcade through the city of Dallas.
In 1964, a commission headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded that Oswald acted alone, basing its conclusion on investigations by the FBI, Dallas police and the U.S. Secret Service. Despite the evidence gathered by the commission, many Americans believe that Oswald did not act alone.
The documents released Thursday show that after various plans by the CIA to kill Castro failed or were deemed untenable, president Kennedy and other military leaders considered offering bounties to Cuban citizens of up to $100,000 for killing or kidnapping communist leaders.
Castro, who took over military and political control of Cuba in 1959, was seen as threat to democracy both in the U.S. and Latin America. Even though the Pentagon’s aim was to get rid of Castro, they only planned to offer a two-cent bounty on his head.
Documents released by the National Archives in previous years have revealed some of the more preposterous ideas to kill Castro, including giving him a scuba-diving suit tainted with a fatal bacteria.
While not giving up on assassinating Castro, a group of CIA and Pentagon officials began drawing up clandestine plans to depose him and overthrow his government by sowing terror in Miami — using Cuban exiles but blaming the Castro government — and in Cuba by disrupting its economy and sabotaging its infrastructure.
“The terror campaign could be pointed at Cuban refugees seeking haven in the United States. We could sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida [real or simulated.] We could foster attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States … Exploding a few plastic bombs in carefully chosen spots,” one proposal said.
It’s not clear which, if any, of the operations were successful. At one meeting just weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. military officials discussed the “meager results’’ of prior sabotage campaigns and suggested advancing “Operation Mongoose,”’ also known as “The Cuban Project,” which involved more aggressive guerrilla warfare by Cuban exiles.
On Oct. 26, 1962, as Kennedy was dealing with the missile crisis, the CIA dispatched several teams of Cuban exiles, armed with explosives, to the island by small craft and submarines, one report said.
But on that same day, Kennedy suddenly ordered a halt to the campaign.
Two-cent reward for... Castro
In a Jan. 30, 1962 memo, the U.S. government proposed creating "Operation Bounty," which would grant rewards for the delivery — alive or dead — of known communists.
Officials hoped this would persuade Cuban citizens to overthrow the communist regime and create distrust and disunity among communists on the island. Rewards would range from just two cents to $1 million.
In order to collect, people would have to send conclusive proof of death and the dead person’s party membership card. Leaflets with potential targets would be distributed by airplane.
U.S. officials considered destroying Cuban crops through biological agents that would appear to be natural. One adviser said he had no worries about sabotaging the crops so long as it could be completely covered up and not traced back to the U.S.
Could the U.S. government's attempts to kill Castro lead the Cuban dictator to arrange for Kennedy's assassination? The CIA asks this very question in a report, calling the thought “haunting.”
In one instance, a Cuban operative met with CIA officials in Miami to hatch a plan to slip Castro poisoned pills. Later, the pills were given to another exile who said they could “accomplish the job.”
$150,000 for the death of a dictator
In a March 6, 1967 memo, the FBI director writes that the CIA hired an agent to ask Chicago mob boss Sam “Momo” Giancana, to order a hit on Castro in 1962. The CIA offered $150,000 for the job, which adjusted for inflation, is the equivalent of about $1.2 million today.
After learning of these plans, Attorney General Robert Kennedy told the CIA not to do this again without telling the Department of Justice, noting that Giancana could hold the hit as leverage against prosecutors investigating the mob.
'Sink a boatload of Cubans'
In a list of strategies to discredit Castro, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff suggested mounting a terror campaign in the Miami area or Washington D.C.
Ideas to sink the refugees included “exploding a few plastic bombs in carefully chosen spots.”
Did Cuba pay Lee Harvey Oswald?
Nicaraguan communist Gilberto Alvarado told the U.S. government that two months before Kennedy's assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald left the Cuban embassy in Mexico City with $6,500. Alvarado said he had been in the city to receive false documents so he could go to Cuba for sabotage training. “We consider his reliability to be questionable although he has not be wholly discredited,” the CIA wrote in a report about Alvarado, noting that the agency was only aware of him going to the Cuban Embassy after Sept. 25, 1963.
What would happen if Castro died?
In October 1961, the CIA chartered a paper exploring this idea. The paper notes that if Castro died, the notion that the Cuban people would rise suddenly up and end communism was “wishful thinking.”
“Fidel Castro is the one who has always had the magic hold on the people, been able to hypnotize them with his speeches and it is to Fidel that the urban and rural poor have always looked at as a kind of ‘Great White Father,’ a symbol of invocation that is looked to, to right the wrongs done to them,” it said.
In order to avoid this martyrdom, his death must be in a manner that damages his character, the FBI said, and his death must be public and irrefutable.