The CIA has started its release of hundreds of documents revealing illegal activities during the Cold War, the so-called “family jewels” that cast the agency in its poorest light yet. Not only does this release demonstrate violations of the laws forbidding domestic spying by Langley, it also shows how inept the agency was at times. The multiple attempts at assassinating Fidel Castro are a case in point:
The CIA recruited a former FBI agent to approach two of America’s most-wanted mobsters and gave them poison pills meant for Fidel Castro during his first year in power, according to newly declassified papers released Tuesday. …
The documents show that in August 1960, the CIA recruited ex-FBI agent Robert Maheu, then a top aide to Howard Hughes in Las Vegas, to approach mobster Johnny Roselli and pass himself off as the representative of international corporations that wanted Castro killed because of their lost gambling operations.
At the time, the bearded rebels had just outlawed gambling and destroyed the world-famous casinos American mobsters had operated in Havana.
Roselli introduced Maheu to “Sam Gold” and “Joe.” Both were mobsters on the U.S. government’s 10-most wanted list: Momo Giancana, Al Capone’s successor in Chicago; and Santos Trafficante, one of the most powerful mobsters in Batista’s Cuba. The agency gave the reputed mobsters six poison pills, and they tried unsuccessfully for several months to have several people put them in Castro’s food.
The best that can be said about this idiotic notion was that the CIA eventually got the poison pills back. Otherwise, this had to be one of the most inane and self-defeating plots ever cooked up by any federal agency. Remember that this is just a couple of years after Appalachin, when the FBI finally had to admit that the Mafia existed. These men, Sam Giancana and Trafficante, ruled various parts of the US through murder and intimidation. (Trafficante controlled the Gulf Coast region of the US, not just Cuba.) They weren’t benevolent despots, but men who corrupted government officials, ran drugs, and pimped for a living.
And why did the CIA essentially hire these guys? To commit an assassination that was illegal, on behalf of a government that wouldn’t dirty its hands by operating aboveboard to stop Castro themselves. Even a year afterwards, when Kennedy authorized the Bay of Pigs invasion, he changed his mind at the last moment and aborted the air cover necessary for the mission, stranding thousands of brave Cubans and leaving them at the mercy of Castro.
If it wasn’t true, it would be a comedy. In fact, even part of the truth serves as a bitter comedy. Giancana got his payback from the CIA by having the agency bug his girlfriend, singer Phyllis McGuire, to see if she was having a sexual affair with comedian Dan Rowan. Momo turned the CIA into a grubby private detective service.
Other documents show that the CIA had few scruples about violating its charter and spying on Americans, and that it didn’t start with Richard Nixon:
Historians have generally concluded that far from being a rogue agency, the C.I.A. was following orders from the White House or top officials. In 1967, for instance, President Lyndon B. Johnson became convinced that the American antiwar movement was controlled and financed by Communist governments, and he ordered the C.I.A. to produce evidence. …
The C.I.A. undertook a domestic surveillance operation code-named Chaos that went on for almost seven years under Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Mr. Helms created a Special Operations Group to conduct the spying. A squad of C.I.A. officers grew their hair long, learned the jargon of the New Left, and went off to infiltrate peace groups in the United States and Europe.
The agency compiled a computer index of 300,000 names of American people and organizations, and extensive files on 7,200 citizens. It began working in secret with police departments all over the United States.
Why is this so bad? I imagine that some will argue that the nation was at risk for Communist infiltration at the time, and that we needed a strong defense against it. I won’t dispute that at all. However, that clearly fell under the jurisdiction of the FBI at the time, not the CIA, and for very good reasons. The FBI has to follow certain rules in gathering information on American citizens inside the US in order to protect our civil rights, whereas the CIA has no such restrictions on its operations. We don’t impose those restrictions on their operations because they’re not supposed to be spying on Americans inside the US.
That didn’t stop them during this period, and even more egregiously, it didn’t stop Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon from ordering them to do it. The poltical class didn’t just fail to stop the abuses, they encouraged them. That’s rather disappointing, to say the least, and a point to consider when we think about limits on power, even during wartime.