The Plots to Kill Castro

by Edward Jay Epstein

As a first step, later that April, Harvey ordered Rosselli to break off all contacts with Maheu and Giancana. Then he gave Rosselli four new lethal pills which "would work anywhere and at any time with anything." Rosselli, who was to use his putative Cuban agents to slip a pill into Fidel Castro's beverage, volunteered that he would use the others pill on Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, and Che Guevara, his revolutionary colleague. He also asked Harvey for a cache of rifles, pistols, radios, and explosives for a three-man Cuban team that he claimed was now preparing to penetrate Castro's bodyguards. Harvey personally drove the cache in a U-Haul truck to a parking lot in Miami, where it was picked up by Rosselli's men. Despite this bravado, the ZR/RIFLE phase of the assassination plans did not fare any better than the earlier plots. The pills again failed to reach their target, and the weaponry disappeared.

That November, as part of the deal by Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to remove the Soviet missiles that ended the confrontation, which almost ignited a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, Kennedy pledged not to invade or infiltrate Cuba, and Operation Mongoose was nominally ended. There was also a change in nomenclature and personnel. The name of the CIA unit responsible for covert actions against Cuba was changed from JM WAVE to the Special Affairs Section, and Harvey was replaced in early 1963 by Desmond Fitzsgerald. The mafia connection was also dispensed with Harvey telling Rosseli the operation was over.

Desmond FitzGerald, a socially adept veteran of the clandestine cold war, whose rugged good looks and name led many people in Washington to mistakenly believe he was a distant relative of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, ran things very differently from Harvey . He preferred the technological ingenuity of CIA's workshop to underworld hitmen. After it was established from Castro's psychological profile that he was avid diver and sea shell collector, hehad the division build a booby-trapped seashell that would explode if someone tried to remove it from the ocean floor. The idea was to place it where Castro frequently swam underwater in the hope that he would see it and attempt to bring it to the surface. If so, he would be blown up, and it would appear he had been killed by a derelict mine. It would leave no witnesses, and unlike hitmen, no assassin that could be captured. And if he ignored it, nothing would be lost. The workshop, however, decided that the construction of a lethal sea-shell that would not explode accidentally or be lost was technically too difficult. The CIA went back to the drawing board.

The next idea out of the workshop was a killer gift for Castro a wet suit whose breathing apparatus was impregnated with tubercle bacilli and other deadly germs. The concept was that the bacilli and other evidence would be destroyed by the seawater, and the Cubans would not be able to determine how Castro contracted tuberculosis. Again, this device would leave no witnesses. The problem was to find a means of delivering it. At the time, James Donovan, an American lawyer, was negotiating the release of the Cuban exiles captured in the Bay of Pigs disaster. Castro had apparently let Donovan know that he would like a wet suit. The CIA's idea was that somehow Donovan, who was not privy to its machinations, would give the contaminated suit to Castro. But before it could be delivered, Donovan, acting on his own, coincidentally gave Castro a pristine wet suit. The plan then had to be aborted.

All along, the Kennedy administration had been struggling to find a means to get rid of Castro by one means or another, and even though Kennedy had pledged to cease its attacks on Cuba to end the missile crises, Robert Kennedy continued to press the CIA for tangible results. Richard Helms testified that Robert Kennedy frequently bypassed the chain of command and directly called FitzGerald (as he had previously called Harbey). The pressure described by Helms was relentless. So when Major Roland Cubela came to Brazil with a Cuban delegation and, on September 7, 1963, made contact with a CIA officer and volunteered to kill Fidel Castro, it was an offer Fitzgerald was in no position to refuse.

Cubela was already known to the CIA. In late March 1961, when the planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion was moving into high gear, he had approached the CIA and offered to defect, but little came of that initial contact. The CIA knew he had the access for the mission. He was a personal friend of Castro's and saw him in the privacy of his office as well as at government functions. He also had experience as an assassin. Before Castro came to power in 1959, Cubela had killed Batista's chief of military intelligence, Blanco Rico, on behalf of Castro. To be sure, the SAS' counterintelligence chief had concluded that Cubela was "insecure." Nevertheless, Fitzsgerald decided the rewards outweighed the risks.

Cubela had made an extraordinary request that the CIA case officer in Brazil reported to FitzGerald. Cubela, now code-named AM/LASH, wanted to meet personally with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and be assured that the Kennedy Administration was behind the operation. Such a meeting was out of the question, but FitzGerald, ever resourceful, sought an alternative way of satisfying Cubela's demand. With the approval of his superiors in the CIA chain of command, he arranged to meet personally with Cubela and claim to be acting as a special emissary for Robert Kennedy.

The contact plan for the meeting stated: "FitzGerald will represent himself as personal representative of Robert F. Kennedy who traveled to [Paris] for specific purpose of meeting AM/LASH and giving him assurances of full support with the change of the present government." Although FitzGerald would not use his real name, he was physically recognizable from press photographs and identifiable as a social friend of the Kennedys. Top-ranking executives of the CIA usually did not meet operatives themselves that was the function of case officers but in this situation, FitzGerald made an exception. Their first meeting took place on October 29th 1963. FitzGerald explained he had been sent by Robert Kennedy. To further convince the assassin of his bona fides, FitzGerald wrote a "signal" into a Presidential speech, a phrase that described the Castro regime as a "small band of conspirators" that needed to be "removed" which would serve as an unambiguous alert to Cubela when President Kennedy himself delivered those very words, which he did in Miami on November 18th. The next meeting, where FitzGerald would deliver a weapon, was scheduled in Paris.

That meeting took place in a hotel room in Paris in the late afternoon of November 22nd. FitzGerald arrived with Cubela's case officer. He handed over the ingeniously crafted poison pen to Cubela and explained that the longer-range weapon, the rifle with telescopic sights, was en route to Cuba. It was only at the end of that star-crossed rendezvous that FitzGerald learned that his commander-in-chief, and friend, had been gunned down in Dallas by another assassin using a rifle with telescopic sights. So ended the thousand days of the Kennedy Administration, and, with Lyndon Johnson's succession, so ended the CIA's assassination attempts against Castro, all of which turned out to be ineffectual.

How much did Castro know about these plots at the time? The interview in which Castro stated that he knew the American government was attempting to murder Cuban leaders and suggested that, unless they ceased, he would retaliate in kind, took place on September 7, 1963 only hours after his long-time associate Cubela had received, in Brazil, confirmation of the plots from the CIA's willingness to recruit him. Unless the timing was a remarkable coincidence, Castro appears to have known about Cubela supposedly secret liaison with the CIA. And if that was the case, he could also have learned that the CIA was constructing sophisticated weapons to poison him and shipping sniper's rifles to Cuba to shoot him. He could also have known that the Kennedys were sufficiently involved to send a personal representative to reassure the assassin a representative close enough to President Kennedy to write a signal into his speech. Castro would then himself have been delivering a message to the Kennedys with the timing of his extraordinary interview on September 7th.

Cubela's motives entangling the CIA in yet another assassination plot, and attempting to provoke Robert Kennedy to give his personal seal of approval, remain murky. After the plans were called off, Cubela returned to Havana rather than defecting to the U.S. The fact that he was never prosecuted by the Cubans for attempting the assassination he was proposing to the CIA, even though it became public knowledge, suggests he may have been acting on behalf of Castro to determine the involvement of the upper echelons of the American government or even to gain evidence in the form of traceable weapons made in the CIA's work shop. In 1966, Cubela was convicted for post-1964 subversion in Cuba, but unlike more than 500 other Cuban officials who were executed for similar crimes, he was granted clemency when Castro personally intervened on his behalf. After a prison sentence, he was allowed to resettle in Spain in 1977, where he has lived ever since.

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