Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro

When it came to trying to eliminate Fidel Castro, the Central Intelligence Agency spared no effort across a quarter of a century. In 1975, former CIA director William Colby admitted to the US Senate’s Church Committee investigating CIA abuses that the agency had tried and failed to kill Castro several times, but, Colby claimed, not nearly as often as its critics alleged.

“It wasn’t for lack of trying,” Colby observed. “Castro gave McGovern in 1975 a list of the attempts made on his life – there were about thirty by that time – as he said, by the CIA. McGovern gave it to me and I looked through it and checked it off against our records and said we could account for about five or six. The others – I can understand Castro’s feeling about them because they were all ex-Bay of Pigs people or something like that, so he thinks they’re all CIA. Once you get into one of them, then bingo! – you get blamed for all the rest. We didn’t have any connections with the rest of them, but we’d never convince Castro of that.”

Five or six assassination plots is a sobering number, especially if you happen to be the intended target of these “executive actions.” But even here Colby was dissembling. He certainly had the opportunity to consult a secret 1967 report on the plots against Castro by the CIA’s Inspector General John S. Earman, and approved by Richard Helms. The CIA had in fact hatched attempts on the Cuban leader even prior to the revolution. One of the first occurred in 1958, when Eutimio Rojas, a member of the Cuban guerrillas, was hired to kill Castro as he slept at a camp in the Sierra Maestra.

On February 2, 1959, Cuban security guards arrested Allan Robert Nye, an American, in a hotel room facing the presidential palace. Nye had in his possession a high-powered rifle equipped with a telescopic scope, and had been contracted to shoot Castro as he arrived at
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550-e1477943826411the palace. A month later Rolando Masferrer, a former leader of Batista’s death squads, turned up at a Miami meeting with American mobsters and a CIA officer. There this deadly conglomerate planned another scenario to kill Castro outside the presidential palace.

The agency tried to devise a way to saturate the radio studio where Castro broadcast his speeches with an aerosol form of LSD and other “psychic energizers.” Another plan called for dousing Castro’s favorite kind of cigars with psychoactive drugs. The doped cigars were kept in the safe of Jake Easterline, who headed the anti-Cuba task force in the pre–Bay of Pigs days, while he tried to find a way to deliver them to Castro without risking “serious blowback” to the Agency. The ingredients for both of these schemes were developed in the labs of Sydney Gottlieb. In 1967, Gottlieb told Inspector General Earman of another scheme in which he was asked to impregnate some cigars for Castro with lethal poisons.

During Castro’s trip to New York for an appearance at the United Nations in 1960, CIA agents attempted to pull off what is referred to as the “depilatory action.” The plan was to place thallium salts in Castro’s shoes and on his night table in the hope that the poisons would make the leader’s beard fall off. In high doses, thallium can cause paralysis or death. This scheme collapsed at the last minute.

By August 1960, the elimination of Castro had become a top priority for the leadership of the CIA. Allen Dulles and his deputy Richard Bissell paid Johnny Roselli, a Hollywood mobster and buddy of Frank Sinatra, $150,000 to arrange a hit on Castro. Roselli swiftly brought two more Mafia dons in on the plot: Sam Giancana, the Chicago gangster; and Santos Trafficante, the overseer of the Lansky/Luciano operations in Havana.

Initially, the CIA recommended a gangland style hit in which Castro would be gunned down in a hail of machine-gun fire. But Giancana suggested a more subtle approach, a poison pill that could be slipped into Castro’s food or drink. Six deadly botulinum pills – “the size of saccharin tablets” – were cooked up in the CIA’s TSD labs, concealed in a hollow pencil and delivered to Roselli. On February 13, 1961, only a month after JFK’s inauguration, Trafficante took the botulinum pills to Havana and gave them to his man inside the Cuban government, Jorgé Orta, who worked on Castro’s executive staff and owed the mobsters large gambling debts.

Along with the pills, Trafficante also delivered a box of cigars soaked in botulinum toxin, which kills within hours. The cigars were prepared by Dr. Edward Gunn, chief of the CIA’s medical division. Gunn kept one of the cigars in his safe as a souvenir. He tested it for the Inspector General in 1967 and found it to have retained 94 percent of its original level of toxicity. The cigar was so deadly, Gunn said, that it need only be touched, not smoked, in order to kill its victim.

Trafficante later reported back that the pills and cigars weren’t given to Castro because “Orta got cold feet.”

In April, Roselli approached his CIA handlers with a new plan, demands for $50,000, and a new batch of pills. This time the operation would be carried out by Trafficante’s friend Dr. Manuel Antonio de Varona, leader of the anti-Castro Democratic Revolutionary Front. Verona and Trafficante had met through Edward K. Moss, the Washington, D.C. political fundraiser and influence peddler. Moss was pushing the cause of the Cuban exiles on the Hill, and he was sleeping with Julia Cellini, sister of the notorious Cellini brothers, Eddie and Dino, who were executives in Meyer Lansky’s gambling operations in the Caribbean. Varona smuggled the botulinum pills to a waitress at a restaurant frequented by Castro. But, according to CIA man Sheffield Edwards, the scheme failed when the Cuban leader suddenly “ceased to visit that particular restaurant.”

These mobsters are often referred to in CIA documents as the Havana gambling syndicate, after the casino hotels they ran there during the Batista regime. But the Mafia dons were also involved in a much more lucrative venture – drugs. Havana had become the key transfer point into the United States for much of the heroin produced by Lucky Luciano and by the Corsican syndicates in Marseilles. Lansky, who was Luciano’s money man in the States, offered to put out a $1 million contract on Castro’s head shortly after the revolution.

Over the next year, in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs disaster, the CIA targeted Castro through its Executive Action Capability program, code-named ZR/RIFLE. This operation was headed by William “the Pear” Harvey, a former FBI man whom some suspected of being J. Edgar Hoover’s mole inside the CIA. Harvey, one of the real characters of the “Agency’s formative years, was known for wearing his pistols to work at the office, slumbering through staff meetings and for his special animus toward Robert Kennedy, who he called “that little fucker.”

It was in late 1961 that Sam Giancana approached his CIA contact, a D.C.-based private detective named Robert Maheu, with a personal problem – he suspected his girlfriend, Phyllis McGuire, one of the McGuire Sisters singing group, of having an affair in Las Vegas with comedian Dan Rowan, of Rowan and Martin. In return for his assistance in the Castro assassination plots, Giancana wanted the Agency to bug Rowan’s Vegas hotel room. Rowan’s phone was duly wiretapped, but the recording device was discovered by a hotel maid, who informed the police. The Vegas police turned the matter over to the FBI, which wanted to prosecute Giancana for wiretapping. Ultimately, Robert Kennedy had to be told of the affair in order to call off the FBI.

Years later, Richard Bissell, the CIA’s deputy director for plans and architect of the Bay of Pigs disaster, said he regretted some of the Cuban ventures. Bissell told Bill Moyers, “I think we should not have involved ourselves with the Mafia. I think an organization that does so is losing control of its information. I think we should have been afraid that we would open ourselves to blackmail.” Moyers asked Bissell if it was only the association with the mobsters that troubled him, not the capability of the CIA to assassinate foreign leaders. Bissell replied: “Correct.”

Robert Kennedy, for one, didn’t share Bissell’s squeamishness. Kennedy, who was obsessed with the elimination of Castro, told Allen Dulles that he didn’t care if the Agency employed the Mob for the hit as long as they kept him fully briefed. Robert Kennedy would go to his grave defending the Agency. “What you’re not aware of is what role the CIA plays in the government,” RFK told Jack Newfield of the Village Voice shortly before his assassination. “During the 1950s, for example, many of the liberals who were forced out of other departments found a sanctuary, an enclave, in the CIA. So some of the best people in Washington, and around the country, began to collect there. One result of that was the CIA developed a very healthy view of Communism, especially compared to State and some other departments. They were very sympathetic, for example, to nationalist, and even socialist governments and movements. And I think now the CIA is becoming much more realistic, and critical, about the war, than other departments, or even the people in the White House. So it is not so black and white as you make.”

By 1963, Robert Kennedy’s friend Desmond Fitzgerald had taken over the Cuba operations from Harvey. Fitzgerald wasted little time in going after Castro. One of Fitzgerald’s first schemes was to have James Donovan, then negotiating the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners, unwittingly deliver as a gift to Castro expensive scuba-diving gear. Sid Gottlieb treated the lining of the suit with a Madura fungus and implanted tubercle bacilli – a lethal concoction. At the same time Fitzgerald had been reading up on deep sea clams and had asked Gottlieb’s lab to rig some exceptionally attractive specimens with high explosives. The clams would then be dropped in an area were Castro frequently dived and rigged to explode when lifted.

In November 1963, the CIA’s Desmond Fitzgerald was in Paris to meet Rolando Cubela, an anti-Castro Cuban who is referred to in CIA documents as AM-LASH. Fitzgerald portrayed himself as an emissary of Robert Kennedy and asked Cubela for help in killing Castro. On November 22, Cubela was given a ballpoint pen rigged as a syringe filled with deadly Blackleaf-40, a high-powered insecticide composed of 40 percent nicotine sulfate. As the Inspector General’s report dryly notes, “It is likely that at the very moment President Kennedy was shot a CIA agent was meeting with a Cuban agent in Paris and giving him an assassination device for use against Castro.”

Fidel Castro was not the only target. There were also repeated attempts to assassinate his brother Raúl and Che Guevara. The CIA’s J. C. King pleaded with Allen Dulles to adopt a plan that would kill Fidel, Raúl and Che at the same time, “as a package.” Ultimately, Che, whom the Agency chased around the globe, was tracked down in the jungles of Bolivia. Present at his execution in 1967 was the CIA’s Félix Rodríguez, an old Cuba hand who would later become a central figure in the Contras’ drugs-and-weapons operations at Ilopango air base in El Salvador.

(This was adapted from Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press)

The Metamorphosis

On Thanksgiving night, tripping on tryptophans, I surrendered to a troubled sleep aswirl with strange dreams, and awakened the next morning transformed, like Gregor Samsa, into a cockroach. Well, not a cockroach exactly. But an insect more vile and almost universally feared, the notorious Putin pest (Blattodea venenatorum putinesca).

“What has happened to me?,” I wondered, staring at the flood of emails swelling my inbox with the heading: “Are you Really a Russian agent?” Even the dog looked at me with suspicion, curious, I guess, if he needed a taste-tester for the Spot’s Stew “wild salmon” nuggets I’d just filled his bowl with. Had the tasty morsels been drift-netted from a toxic Siberian river?

What had happened was that the Washington Post had just published a scurrilous piece by a heretofore obscure technology reporter named Craig Timberg, alleging without the faintest evidence that Russian intelligence was using more than 200 independent news sites to pump out pro-Putin and anti-Clinton propaganda during the election campaign.

Under the breathless headline, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say,” Timberg concocted his story based on allegations from a vaporous group called ProporNot, run by nameless individuals of unknown origin, whom Timberg (cribbing from the Bob Woodward stylesheet) agreed to quote as anonymous sources.

ProporNot’s catalogue of supposed Putin-controlled outlets reeks of the McCarthyite smears of the Red Scare era. The blacklist includes some of the most esteemed alternative news sites on the web, including Anti-war.com, Black Agenda Report, Truthdig, Naked Capitalism, Consortium News, Truthout, and, yes, CounterPunch, among many others. (ProporNot has since removed CounterPunch from their blacklist following our demand that they do so and issue a retraction. Their site now claims, falsely again, that we engaged in “constructive conversation” with them, which is a curious way to describe a threat to sue them, a threat which we fully intend to follow through on, hopefully in concert with other media outlets they’ve defamed.)

I now wear this aspersion as a badge of honor on my new carapace and am tempted to venture outside for a six-legged crawl around the block to proclaim the good news to the neighbors, many of them cowering behind their curtains with their fingers poised above the speed dial for the local exterminator. Of course, I’d feel much prouder about our high ranking on such an exalted list, if I had the slightest admiration for Putin and his Russian project.

Alas, neither of these are true either for me or my co-editor Joshua Frank. Or, I suspect, for the editors and writers of Truthdig, Black Agenda Report, Consortium News, Truthout, Naked Capitalism or many of the other publications whose names appeared on this mysterious blacklist. In fact, after I paged through the blacklist, I searched the CounterPunch archives for any positive profile I’d ever written about the burly autocrat. The closest I came was this little tribute: “Down the River With Vladimir Putin.”

Even so, as editor of CounterPunch, I’ve tried not to allow my own views on Putin’s scatological peculiarities warp our coverage of Russia. We’ve published all kinds of articles on Russia in the past decade: critical, sympathetic, analytical, satirical, quizzical and befuddled. We’ve run many different, often conflicting, articles on Russia’s conflict with Ukraine and Crimea. We’ve run hundreds, maybe a thousand of pieces on Russia’s involvement in Syria. More to the point (and no doubt the reason we achieved our illustrious ranking), we’ve run articles about how in the dangerous geopolitical climate of the last 20 years, Russia has often acted as the last hedge against the US’s belligerent and provocative foreign policy, which has nearly brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

All of this could have been explained to the anonymous creeps behind ProporNot and the Post’s hack Craig Timberg. But neither ever called, emailed, texted, Tweeted, faxed, Skyped or hit me up on Snapchat. I’m not that hard to find. I used to write for the Washington Post from time to time. Timberg could have looked me up in his paper’s own database.

Of course, that’s not the point. The point is to find a new scapegoat to blame for the rapid erosion of US imperial ambitions and the new scapegoat is the old scapegoat: Russia, even though Putin’s Russia bears little resemblance to the Soviet Union of yesteryear.

One of the most insidious aspects of this mad affair is that my very own senator, the Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, seems to have been working in collusion with both ProporNot and the Washington Post (See Pam and Russ Martens’ piece in this weekend’s CounterPunch) to lay the groundwork for a new witch hunt. Wyden, one of the most camera-hungry politicians in Washington, seems itching to play the role of Joe McCarthy and haul all of “Putin’s pests” before some new HUAC committee for a prime-time inquisition.

As for the Post, it has long acted as a service dog for some of the most paranoid Russophobes in American intelligence and politics. Recall that only a few months ago the editorial page of the paper called for the head of Edward Snowden, the source for stories that won the Post the Pulitzer Prize, who the editors now want extracted from Russia to face charges under the Espionage Act, charges that might have him sent to the death house. The thugs at ProporNot, and their co-conspirators at the Post and in the Congress, apparently want those of us on their fabulated hit list investigated for disloyalty by the FBI and Department of Justice, with, I presume, Jeff Beauregard Sessions personally supervising our “enhanced interrogations.”

Winter is indeed coming. In which case, I’m glad to enjoy the protective comfort of my new exoskeleton.


+ Jill Stein: a couple of weeks ago she was portrayed as Putin’s consort by Hillary’s gang, now she’s the Jeanne d’Arc of the liberals.

Sartre argued that elections are a trap. Stein and Co. have provided the latest proof for this theory, one of many. In an election where both major party candidates were despised by most of the eligible voters and more people than ever before were open to third party candidates, the Stein campaign managed to capture a meager one percent of the vote.

Instead of interrogating themselves about why they performed so abysmally in a year that offered much promise for Greens, they immediately launched a campaign for recounts in states Clinton narrowly won, claiming that the election system was somehow compromised, by inexplicable means, to give Trump the win.

Yet even in the highly unlikely event they prove their case, they will still leave us with a system that offered voters only the false choice between Trump and Clinton, a choice nearly half the country sensibly rejected by not voting.

Instead of shilling for Clinton donors, why not make an effort to organize the nearly 50% of the country that already correctly believes the electoral system is rigged against them? 

Let me rephrase that: nearly 50% of registered voters decided that they didn’t have a compelling reason to vote. Why not? That’s the real question and the real promise for a truly independent political movement that wasn’t fixated on general elections.

+ Does the Stein campaign really want us to believe that general elections pitting neoliberals against neofascists have anything to do with opposition to capitalism or racism or environmental destruction?

+ As regards the “reported irregularities” in voting patterns made by “independent election integrity experts” how would you really know how deep and systemic the fraud is unless you also examined states that HRC narrowly lost? Where’s the “control” sample?

+ To date, the Stein campaign has raised more than $7 million to finance the recounts, likely far more than is needed (and $6.65 million more than the annual budget of the Green Party USA). Where will the excess money go? How will it be spent? Not on building up the Green Party, but, according Stein’s website “the surplus will also go toward election integrity efforts and to promote voting system reform.”

+ To rephrase the always timely Juvenal, “Who will audit the auditors?”

+ Stein only got around 1 percent of the vote, thus “irregularities” in Green vote wouldn’t be detectible in exit poll variations. So why not investigation the results from New Hampshire and Minnesota as well for the possibility Green votes had been skimmed, redirected or scotched?  $$$!

+ There’s no legitimacy to a recount that only focuses on states HRC lost. Why should Greens function as a tool for failure of most bloated and well-financed presidential campaign in history?

+ A snipe hunt for vote “fraud” in an election pitting two ultra capitalists against each other misdirects from the political fraud represented by both.

+ The more Greens obsess on “vote fraud” the less time they spend talking about the big con neoliberal Democrats have perpetrated on the working class, the much-needed exposure of which might lead to the future empowerment of the Greens.

+ The biggest question for Greens: why did Stein campaign perform so abysmally in a year that was tailor-made for independent parties, especially in ‘safe’ states like Oregon, California, New York, Washington, Maryland and Vermont? Why did the Stein campaign capture so little of the Sandernista vote?

+ Stein supporters have said that criticizing the recount is “just one more example of the Left cannibalizing the Left.” The thing about cannibalizing the Left is that there are so many vegans and gluten-free members in a very limited population that no matter how many bodies you consume you just never feel satiated.

+ For the Stein campaign to invoke the “Russians hacked the vote” conspiracy in their recount briefs is almost, but not quite, as offensive as the independent socialist from Vermont voting to bomb the independent socialist nation of Serbia….

Let me try to understand their argument. Nearly all of the elites in the US, from the media to Wall Street, from Silicon Valley to the National Security establishment, were firmly for Hillary. Those are the very people most likely and most able to rig an election–if a presidential election could be “rigged”–but somehow the election was rigged for Trump? What about that devious Scott Walker, gov. of Wisconsin, you ask? Well, Walker deplores Trump and almost certainly wanted him to lose so he could run again in 2020. So that leaves…..PUTIN? Really!

+ They raised $7 million plus, but didn’t have enough to pay the $1 million bond required for the Pennsylvania recount. Where did the money go?


+ The story of a populist: son of Master of Universe at Goldman Sach, went to Yale, edited Yale Daily News, inducted into Skull & Bones, elevated to partner at Goldman Sachs, formedown hedge fund, bought failing bank with George Soros, foreclosed on 34,000 homes, moved to Los Angeles, financed movies for Hollywood liberals, nominated to serve as Secretary of Treasury. Just call me Steve, Steve Mnuchin.

+ Net Worth of Trump Cabinet: $35 billion and counting. We’re about to see if Ralph Nader’s novel Only the Super-rich Can Save Us was prophecy or very dark satire….

+ Elizabeth Warren can’t shut up about potential violence under Trump, can’t say a word about ongoing violence at Standing Rock. Perhaps she’s too busy pushing Scott Brown to head the VA.

+ Former McDonald’s executive Jim Delgatti died this week at the age of 98. His creation, a biological weapon called the Big Mac, problem ruined as many lives as the policies of Henry Kissinger.

+ By locking up 3 million Mexican immigrants and 750,000 women a year who get abortions, Trump could end the drug war and still save the prison-industrial complex.

+ The Song Remains the Same: Nancy (Net Worth: $48 million) reconsecrated as Democrats’ Minority-Leader-for-Life….Plus ça change, Nancy!

+ Two-thirds of the shallow water coral in the 430-mile-long northern section of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast Australia has died off this year, bleached to death by warming seas. This is, of course, a huge deal for the fate of the planet that will receive 10 seconds of attention between Trump tweets…

+ Not to worry, argues the New York Times. The planet will survive a Trump administration as long as he pursues of an energy strategy that includes nuclear power, fracking natural gas and shale oil extraction.

+ Trump tweeted this week that he thinks flag-burners should be arrested, jailed and stripped of their citizenship, despite the fact that flag-burning is a constitutional right guaranteed to all Americans. Burn a cross get a cabinet post (Sessions), burn a flag get deported to Gitmo….

+ The FDA just approved clinical trials for the use of Ecstasy in the treatment of PTSD. Six more months of Trump and we’ll all be begging for scripts of X….

+ Lt. General Michael Flynn, Trump’s paranoid pick to serve as National Security Advisor (a position that has featured a rich lineage of paranoids), has his own talking wind-up doll, a chattering Islamophobe named Brigette Gabriel. Parental Warning: press a button and  she will spew bigoted bilge on demand until the batteries expire.

+ Give CounterPuncher David Swanson some credit. He tries hard. Scribbles almost every day. But still can’t seem to write news as fake as stories by Judith Miller or Bob Woodward.

+ Back in 2004, Gore Vidal told me and Cockburn that “John Kerry was looking more and more like Lincoln…[pause] after the assassination.” This week long-jawed John was prattling on about the fate of trade deals, like the now dead TPP. Kerry slammed opponents of these job-killing trade pacts for “knee jerk” critiques of his carefully wrought deals. The neoliberals really do believe their own bullshit. Hopefully, they’ll be packing it up with them, as they leave office.

+ Drain the swamp? Giving DC insider Elaine Chow a cabinet post (as Secretary of Transportation) is like putting the Creature from the Black Lagoon in charge of the Army Corps of Engineers. Probably worse.

+ Obama’s approval rating is now at the highest its been since his reelection in 2012. Almost enough to make you think he isn’t all that bummed that Trump won the election after all. Better to have Trump demolish his legacy–what little there is of it–than Hillary.

+ This week, for example, the Peace Prize Prez expanded the use of assassination squads so that Trump doesn’t have to….

+ Last week, he was Josef Goebbles. This week, according to the New York Times, Steve Bannon is merely a “combative populist.” Next week he’ll be a candidate for the Rodney King “Can’t We All Just Get Along” award.

+ Obama’s own administration has now effectively declared war on the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters by sending an eviction notice and warning of dire consequences to those who stay behind. With the exception of Wall St, Obama has repaid almost every sector of his identity politics coalition with either indifference or contempt.

Sound Grammar

Charlie Haden and the Liberation Orchestra: Time/Life (Song for the Whales and Other Beings)
A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service
Sao Paulo Underground: Cantos Invisíveis
Soul Basement: What We Leave Behind (featuring Jay Nemor)
Shuggie Otis: In Session: Great Rhythm and Blues

Booked Up

What I’m reading this week.

Karine Tuil: The Age of Reinvention
Ernesto “Che” Guevara: The Awakening of Latin America
Clancy Sigal: Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal and Raging Egos

The Reason for Banks

Flem Snopes explains banking: “Because remember, he didn’t merely know banks could be looted, he believed, it was a tenet of his very being, that they were constantly looted; that the normal condition of a bank was a steady and decorous embezzlement, its solvency an impregnable illusion. Because that-the looting of them-was the reason for banks, the only reason why anybody would go to the trouble and expense of organising one and keeping it running.”

–from William Faulkner’s The Town. (Thanks to Paul Whalen)

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.