Buried deep in the hundreds of historical documents the CIA declassified Tuesday is a memo that reveals for the first time that the Kennedy administration’s CIA director, Allen Dulles, personally approved a plot to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro.
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The documents are among almost 700 pages of papers that reveal new details about the CIA’s plots to assassinate foreign leaders. In addition to Castro, proposed targets included Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator.
Ever since reports of the CIA’s interest in assassinating Castro began to emerge more than 35 years ago, one question has remained unanswered: Were the plots the off-the-book work of lower-level CIA operatives, or did they have the blessing of Dulles and other agency leaders?
The final report of the special Senate subcommittee headed by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, to investigate CIA abuses was never able to reach a conclusion. But the documents released Tuesday state unequivocally that “the DCI [Director of Central Intelligence — i.e., Dulles] was briefed and gave his approval.”
According to a five-page memo in Tuesday’s release, the plotting began in the final months of the Eisenhower administration, under the leadership of Richard Bissell, the agency’s director for plans. The operation used a go-between, Robert Maheu, a former FBI agent who did work as a private investigator for the CIA.
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In September 1960, Maheu traveled to New York to meet Johnny Roselli, a high-ranking Mafia official who controlled ice-making machines in Las Vegas. Maheu told Roselli a cover story: that he represented several large international business firms that were suffering catastrophic financial losses in Cuba. And they were willing to pay $150,000 to arrange for Castro’s “removal.”
Roselli didn’t want to get involved, but he introduced Maheu to Sam Giancana, boss of the Chicago mob, and Santos Trafficant, the head of the mob’s Cuban operations, both of them members of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.
Concerned about the messiness and unreliability of firearms, Giancana suggested poisoning Castro with a pill in his food. The CIA accordingly provided six pills that it described as “of high lethal content.” They were given to Juan Orta, “a Cuban official who had been receiving kick-back payments from the gambling interests, who still had access to Castro, and was in a financial bind.”
According to the memo, Orta made several unsuccessful attempts and developed cold feet. A second, unnamed would-be assassin also wasn’t able to do the job. So a second plot was hatched, through a Cuban exile leader. But it was abandoned after the failed Bay of Pigs operation in 1961.
The documents also reveal that at the height of negotiations over his involvement in the Castro plot, Giancana asked Maheu for help in finding out whether his girlfriend, Phyllis McGuire, a member of the singing McGuire Sisters, was having an affair with Dan Rowan, half of the Rowan & Martin comedy team.
The CIA sent a technician to bug Rowan’s Las Vegas hotel room, the CIA memo says. But the technician was arrested by Clark County sheriff’s deputies. He placed a telephone call to Maheu in the presence of sheriff’s officials, potentially endangering the entire Castro plot.
The Justice Department announced its intention to prosecute Maheu and the technician, leading the CIA’s director of security to intervene with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
The prosecution was dropped.
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