Britan Latell, for four decades the CIA’s ranking authority on all matters Castro and Cuban, has ripped the shroud off the circumstances behind one of the more flagrant instances of journalistic malpractice ever in the Washington media.
The victim was David Atlee Phillips, who retired in 1975 as chief of the agency’s Western Hemisphere Division after a much-decorated 25-year career as an operations officer.
The event was an 80,000-word cover story in the magazine’s November 1980 issue titled, “Who Killed JFK?” The piece suggested that Phillips, posing as an FBI agent named “Maurice Bishop,” had met with Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas just before the murder. The article mentioned Oswald about 100 times, Phillips more than 300 times. There were four photographs of Phillips and two reproductions of a sketch said to be “Bishop.” Readers were invited to compare the drawings with Phillips‘ photos. It was written by Gaeton Fonzi, a freelance journalist who had worked briefly for a House committee studying the assassination. His sources were Cuban exiles of dubious credibility.
A similar accusation had been leveled at Phillips earlier in 1980 in a book published in Britain. Mr. Limpert knew that the charge infuriated Phillips, who wrote to Mr. Limpert that he must delay delivery of an assigned article because he was “agitated” by the false charges in the book.
No matter, Mr. Limpert said, take your time. He invited Phillips and his wife to his home for dinner in mid-October. (My wife and I also were there. I had met Phillips in Mexico City in the 1960s when I was reporting from Mexico and Guatemala.) When Phillips retired and sought a second career as a writer, I introduced him to Mr. Limpert and other editors.) That convivial evening, Mr. Limpert uttered not a word about the vicious article he was about to publish about his guest several days later.
Mr. Limpert would claim later that it was not necessary for him to speak with Phillips because Mr. Fonzi had done so. Not quite accurate. Mr. Fonzi had spoken briefly with Phillips when he had worked for the House committee, which had declined to publish his study. Hence he had turned to Washingtonian. He did not interview Phillips again. Neither he nor Mr. Limpert gave Phillips an opportunity to rebut the charges.
Now comes Mr. Latell, whose book is based on extensive interviews with high-level Cuban defectors. The smear campaign, he writes, likely was in retaliation for a disinformation campaign Phillips had run while in charge of anti-Cuban covert operations in the Mexico City station beginning in mid-1963.
One audacious operation (AMROD) was intended to “stir dissension in the Cuban leadership and sow discord between Havana and its Soviet patrons.” A key target was Joaquin Ordoqui, a deputy defense minister and a founding member of the pre-revolution Communist Party. Ordoqui was “especially close” to the Kremlin, then in disfavor with Castro after supposedly betraying him during the 1962 missile crisis.
According to Mr. Latell, “In April 1963, counterfeit documents falsely attributed to a disaffected CIA agent in Mexico were passed to a Cuban embassy official. … The documents made it appear that Ordoqui was a CIA agent and that he had handed over sensitive military information in the run-up to the missile crisis.”
Ordoqui was “too closely connected to the Kremlin to be put against the execution wall,” but he did fall from favor and was arrested. A protege was shot “as a surrogate of Ordoqui.”
Unbeknownst to the CIA, Castro’s agents had infiltrated the group supposedly working against him, and the dictator knew who ran the disinformation campaign. Based on his analysis and his interviews with defectors, Mr. Latell writes that it seems “likely” the Cubans launched a “long-running disinformation campaign against Phillips … a maliciously calculated case of Cuban retribution.”
Castro had a dual purpose in smearing Phillips. Revenge surely was one motive. More important, by accusing the CIA of complicity in the JFK murder, he deflected attention from his own possible involvement. Mr. Latell makes a circumstantial - but to me, convincing - argument that Castro was aware of Oswald’s intention to kill JFK and that his henchmen encouraged Oswald.
As has been established, Oswald visited the Cuban Embassy in Mexico in the autumn of 1963 seeking a visa, which was denied. But Cuban intelligence agents who debriefed him were convinced that he was a fervent believer in Castro. As Mr. Latell writes, unable to go to Cuba, “Oswald would have to be satisfied doing the revolution’s work in Texas … to do more than merely hand out ‘Viva Fidel’ leaflets. A common practice for Cuban intelligence in such deceptions, or false flag operations, is known as “dandole cuerda,” or “winding him up.”