Working With The Mob: Your Government Dollars At Work

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.

7 thoughts on “Working With The Mob: Your Government Dollars At Work”

  1. Captain, you’re actually surprised that the CIA was in bed with the Mafia in the Kennedy years? I’m a little startled…

  2. Cap’n, Mal is exactly right.
    Once a government decides that it must have a spying function to survive in a nasty world, there is no way it can be conducted by the pristine rules of 7th grade civics. No matter how hard we try, we will never succeed in the effort to limit the practice of duplicity to virtuous ends. Sooner or later, someone will define “virtuous” in decidedly disagreeable terms and the practices of duplicity will be turned inward. The entire notion of keeping secrets is based on the idea that those in power can govern “for” the people without telling the people the truth. It is inherently elitist and constantly tends to separate the the governors from the governed, and build a culture of deceit among the governing class and contempt for the people. This is the very heart of the great conundrum of democratic government; no country can survive in a hostile world without spying, but the very act of spying and keeping secrets plants the seeds of that same democratic country’s eventual failure.

  3. Seems to me that all you are describing is the early attempts to get around “the wall” between foreign and domestic intelligence-gathering, which the DHS now has supposedly, finally breached. I’ll probably lose my ACLU membership for saying it, but if an American citizen is acting as an agent of a foreign power, I want SOMEBODY spying on them, and they shouldn’t have to be too delicate about it.

  4. An interesting aside about Dan Rowan. When I lived in South Florida in the early ’80s, it was known in the area that Rowan was living as a recluse on a boat that remained well offshore most of the time. Periodically he’d come to shore for supplies, and the media would try to get interviews with him. He always refused. He didn’t like having his photo taken, and he had grown a heavy beard and bore little resemblence to his appearance in the “Laugh-In” days. There was a lot of speculation at the time as to why he was so reclusive; the best answer anyone could come up with was that he was just sick and tired of being a public persona.
    In light of this new information, maybe there was more to it. Given the bit above about Giancana and McGuire, it would have been reasonable for Rowan to fear for his life.

  5. So much of this is old news.
    1. Johnny Roselli was a well known mob “fixer” and Chicago’s man in Vegas. Maheu knew who both Roselli and Giancana were.Maheu knew Vegas and who ran it
    2. Giancana and Trafficante were not on the 10 most wanted list. They traveled around freely and openly
    3. Giancana was successor to Paul “the Waiter” Ricca not Al Capone
    4. Roselli laughed off the episode. He claimed they took the govt. money and did nothing

  6. Hey! Wait a second! I thought all this domestic spying/illegal, corrupt activity started with the Bushitler administration? You mean Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Ashcroft didn’t invent this stuff? That’ll teach me to get my news from the StarTribune!

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