Editor’s note: As President Obama begins his historic visit to Cuba, we are posting some of Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer’s past writings about the U.S.’ relations with and actions toward Cuba. This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 11, 1997.
You don’t need to rely on Seymour Hersh’s racy new book, “The Dark Side of Camelot,” to know that John F. Kennedy’s administration tried to assassinate Fidel Castro by using Mafia hit men. Denials by former Kennedy aides, led by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and speech writer Ted Sorensen, are simply wrong.
The entire nefarious business is documented in excruciating detail in “Report on Plots to Assassinate Fidel Castro,” a 133-page memorandum prepared in 1967 by CIA Inspector General J.S. Earman for Director Richard Helms. The supersecret report was so hot that after Helms read it, he instructed Earman: “Destroy all notes and other source materials” and “Destroy the one burn copy retained temporarily by the inspector general.” This left only one “ribbon copy” kept by the inspector general for “personal EYES ONLY safekeeping.”
Fortunately, that one copy survived; after lengthy lawsuits it was finally declassified in 1993. When Hersh came under attack last week for his new book, I dug out my copy of the CIA report, and there’s no question he got this point right.
I don’t know if Hersh is correct in his assertion that Chicago gangster Sam Giancana stole the 1960 election for Kennedy or that the president shared sexual intimacies with Giancana’s lady friend. But the CIA report makes it quite clear that during the Kennedy years, Giancana was a key player in the effort to overthrow Castro and that the president’s brother, the country’s top law enforcement official, knew all about it.
Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy was told about the Mafia’s assassination plot on May 7, 1962, by CIA agents who, according to the report, “briefed him all the way.” Castro’s revolution had wiped out organized crime’s Havana gambling empire and the revengeful mob was eager to return. But Castro had also nationalized other U.S.-owned businesses, incurring the enmity of American policymakers and thereby making an alliance with the Mafia seem all the more opportune.
Later, in his fateful candidacy for the presidency in 1968, Robert Kennedy would question the logic of unremitting U.S. hostility toward Cuba. But back when he was in his brother’s administration, the get-Castro mentality was all-pervasive. Even after being informed of the use of well-known mobsters in the plot to kill Castro, Robert Kennedy did not object except to wryly request of his CIA briefers that “I trust that if you ever try to do business with organized crime again—with gangsters—you will let the attorney general know before you do it.”
The efforts to kill Castro continued with the clear blessings of the administration. On Aug. 10, 1962, Secretary of State Dean Rusk convened a meeting of what was called the “special group” and, according to the CIA report, “[Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara broached the subject of liquidation of Cuban leaders. The discussion resulted in a Project Mongoose action memorandum prepared by [CIA operative] Edward Lansdale.”
Mongoose was the name of a general sabotage campaign against Cuba that, according to the memoir of a subsequent CIA director, William Colby, included the “sabotage of Cuban factories and rail lines” as well as “spreading nonlethal chemicals in sugar fields to sicken cane cutters.” Efforts to kill Castro with poisoned cigars, infected saccharine pills and explosives fit right in.
True, U.S. planning to kill Castro began during the Eisenhower administration, but it hadn’t amounted to much until the Kennedyites added their special macho zeal. As the CIA report states: “We cannot overemphasize the extent to which responsible agency officers felt themselves subject to the Kennedy administration’s severe pressures to do something about Castro and his regime.” The pressure “to do something” put the knights of Camelot in cahoots with the lords of crime whom Castro had booted out.
That was 35 years ago, but the arrogance of our Cuba policy has not changed. Only now the policy is so ossified that a president who was merely a teenager when his idol Kennedy initiated this policy of fitful revenge is held captive to its inherited inanity.
Last week, President Clinton sanctimoniously justified the continued isolation of Cuba despite his warm welcome for the leader of communist China. Clinton said that the embargo against Cuba must continue until Cuba could prove that “it can turn into a modern state.” Perhaps it isn’t too late for the Cubans to do a joint venture on gambling casinos with the mob to prove just how modern they are.