- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 23, 2005

THE CASTRO OBSESSION: U.S. COVERT OPERATIONS AGAINST CUBA, 1959-1965

By Don Bohning

Potomac, $29.95, 336 pages

REVIEWED BY JOSEPH

C. GOULDEN

For decades a thick haze of hagiography has shrouded the reputation of the Kennedy brothers, with friendly biographers such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., unwilling to address darker sides of the administration. A striking example is Cuba. For years I heard veteran CIA officers decry being assigned blame for assorted schemes to depose dictator Fidel Castro, ranging from organizing the Bay of Pigs invasion to an ongoing campaign of sabotage and propaganda intended to destabilize his regime. To be truthful, I believed these people, for many were close friends who had no particular reason to dissemble. But what was lacking was the documentary proof essential to a writer. Samuel Halpern, who had a long and distinguished career in CIA’s Clandestine Services (he died a year ago), once lamented to me, “You are not going to find the ‘smoking gun’ piece of paper about Kennedy involvement. They were pretty lousy at the game of intelligence, both of them, but they did recognize the need for deniability,” that is, to put nothing on paper that could lead back to them, instead issuing cryptic orders through friends of demonstrated discretion.

Now the Kennedy veil on Cuba has been pierced by the longtime Miami Herald reporter and editor Don Bohning in “The Castro Obsession,” a work that is sure to infuriate the remaining Kennedy true believers still among us. Forget everything else you might have read about Cuba and the Kennedys: Mr. Bohning has done the seminal book on the subject, drawing heavily on CIA documents — declassified, ironically, as part of the revelation of government files pertaining to the JFK assassination. (I suspect that CIA cheerfully tossed in the Cuban stuff as a means of correcting the historical record.)

The very day after the Bay of Pigs failure — a disaster caused in large part by the president’s withdrawal of promised air support — Bob Kennedy wrote a memo to JFK urging a new campaign to deal with Mr. Castro. The national security apparatus moved quickly, with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara asking the Joint Chiefs of Staff to “develop a plan for the overthrow of the Castro government by the application of US military might.” Distrustful of CIA, the White House put the operation under the tutelage of Brig. Gen. Edward Lansdale, who had run counterinsurgency operations in the Philippines and Vietnam. The cryptonym chosen was Operation MONGOOSE (although CIA officer Richard Helms would comment wryly that MONGOOSE never quite lived up to its dictionary definition as “an agile mammal”).

Sam Halpern was assigned as deputy director of CIA’s Caribbean Desk in late 1961, just as Lansdale was gearing up. Thus he had an insider’s view of what drove the administration. In one of many damning indictments related by Mr. Bohning — and which make his book a wicked delight to read — Halpern years later questioned what made the President and his brother “so full of hysteria, paranoia and obsession about Cuba … . It seems to me to be something more to this other … than they got bloody noses at the Bay of Pigs … . I mean, to make Cuba the number-one priority of the agency, at the expense of everything else, then to put Bobby in charge of the operations — and this — this boy, really, this hot-tempered boy — to try and run it and do the personal bidding of his brother. Unbelievable.” At one early meeting, Bob Kennedy declared that Cuba “carries the top priority in no uncertain terms in the United States Government — all else is secondary — no time, money, effort or manpower is to be spared.”

What appalled veterans such as Halpern, Helms, and officers such as Ted Shackley, who eventually ran CIA’s vast Miami station, JMWAVE, was that Lansdale insisted on planning covert operations without first doing the essential first step of gathering intelligence on what could likely be done inside Cuba. Consequently, writes Mr. Bohning, although some of the schemes were “creative, others [were] obviously unrealistic, unachievable, and even idiotic.” In the latter category certainly fell an episode related by Thomas A. Parrott: That word would be spread of a “second coming of Christ, who was anti-Castro,” and that an American submarine would send aloft star shells off the coast of Cuba — “elimination by illumination,” agency wags called the idea. Another screwball scheme coming from the Pentagon called for “airdropping [into Cuba] valid Pan American or KLM one-way airline tickets good for passage to Mexico City, Caracas, etc… . ” This supposedly would create “unrest and dissension” among the Cuban people. Oh, perhaps. What must be kept in mind as one reads this Marx brothers scenarios is that the media have widely blamed them on CIA, and not the Pentagon. Mr. Bohning sets the record straight.

With an estimated annual budget of $50 million (in 1960s dollars) Shackley ran the largest CIA facility outside of headquarters at Langley, with 300 to 400 officers assigned to Miami alone. The main office was a secluded building on the University of Miami campus, under the cover of “Zenith Technical Enterprises, Inc.” Other properties, according to Mr. Bohning, included “marinas, hunting camps, merchant shipping, airlines, a motel, leasing and transportation firms, exile-operated publishing outfits.” JMWAVE “ran the third largest navy in the Caribbean, after the United States and Cuba.” Shackley estimated that up to 15,000 Cuban exiles worked for the agency, to one degree or another.

Looming over this mammoth enterprise was the hot tempered Bob Kennedy, who seemed to delight in savaging career Agency officers. What frustrated field men were his contradictions. On the one hand, he berated them for not being more aggressive in pushing his pet sabotage schemes. But when the Agency succeeded in one operation — the blowing up of a culvert or transformer, “a minor thing,” according to Halperin, Kennedy was livid about the ensuing publicity. He rang Bill Havey, a Miami operative. According to Halpern, “Bill gets chewed out by Bobby Kennedy on the phone. Harvey tells the attorney general that people are going to talk about it, it’s going to be on the radio, it’s going to be on television … .” Intelligence gathering can be done quietly. But “boom and bang means publicity, and you better be ready for it.”

That such a massive campaign could be kept secret was laughable on its face. MONGOOSE relied heavily on Cuban exiles in the Miami area, dedicated patriots, to be sure, but congenitally unable to keep anything secret. Even more cruelly, the campaign gave Castro public justification for making Cuba an even more repressive state. And Latin Americans who could have been reflexively anti-Castro jeered at the United States’ failure to rid the hemisphere of a man who was essentially a tin pot dictator.

And, finally, in Mr. Bohning’s view the Kennedy scheme contributed “to the Soviet decision to install offensive missiles on the island and [spawned] a cadre of Cuban exile terrorists perpetuating murder and mayhem in excess of their relatively small numbers.” In sum, a true mess. And in December 1963, a few weeks after JFK’s murder, a CIA National Intelligence Estimate stated Castro was stronger than ever, in terms of public support. Four decades later,Castro still thumbs his nose at the United States, and the Kennedy-led anti-Castro efforts left a permanent stain on our relations with the rest of the hemisphere.

Joseph C. Goulden’s 18th book, “The Money Lawyers,” will be published in December.


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