As mentioned in previous posts, much of my current research and writing time is being spent on a forthcoming new book dealing with the concept of “deniability” in covert actions, particularly operations which involve military elements. While the book will be a broad look at the topic, the fundamentals are illustrated through a deep dive into the 1960/61 Cuba Project of the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations.
It’s all fascinating for anyone interested in the CIA, in the relations between the CIA and the military, and of course anyone interested in JFK and Cuba – which has entered the history books almost entirely in regard to the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. That is a shame since historically the Bay of Pigs activity reflects only about three months of a CIA project which had been in progress for over a year – and as a sanctioned covert action it actually failed as of November, 1960, under Eisenhower. For the full story of that failure you need to research a couple of thousand pages of documents yourself, or wait for the book…
For the moment, I’m posting primarily to present two basic points. First, the operation at the Bay of Pigs was not at all what the CIA had promised Kennedy that it would be – they violated a number of the basic directives they had been given. When I say that I’m talking about the project’s senior officers, Bissell and his aide Barnes. The military officers inside the project, Esterline and Hawkins, had no idea what Bissell had promised nor any real hope that the plan would actually succeed – and had told Bissell so in person well before the operation actually launched.
The second point is that, despite what you may have read, JFK did authorize a considerable amount of air support during the three days of the operation itself, in fact he extended a number of authorities which overrode the basic rules of the mission. It turned out not be enough, in one instance due to a major US Navy blunder having nothing to do with either Kennedy or the CIA. However for an overview, the following are the mission parameters – and the compromises which JFK allowed in an effort to save the operation as it began to be overwhelmed on the beachhead:
Operational Ground Rules:
President Kennedy’s demand for political deniability was clear and consistent from the very first meetings between his new administration and the CIA. It was reasserted in his final directives and the rules of engagement for the Zapata Plan. The Cuban brigade was to be landed at night, all landing craft and brigade ships were to be at sea and outside Cuban territorial waters by daylight.
The Navy was authorized to provide screening for the brigade ships at sea and to protect the force outside the limit of territorial waters by engaging with and diverting Cuban aircraft or boats. Only in the event that U.S. forces were fired upon were they allowed to return fire. No American citizens were to participate in the landings, and no American’s were to participate in brigade air combat strikes or combat air patrols. Neither were American’s to participate in air transport or re-supply of the brigade.
Waivers issued during combat:
American’s were allowed to stay directly involved in in the operations, literally assuming command of the LCI’s and the landing craft – no effort was made to order CIA officers Lynch and Robertson out of combat (sent into the landing without headquarters knowledge) or to alter their unauthorized roles.
An American civilian commanded one LCI and other civilians, commercial seamen, crewed both LCI’s at the beachhead, all remained with the craft throughout the operation although none actually crewed the craft’s machine guns as did Lynch and Robertson.
American’s were allowed to fly in operations in support of the beachhead, both in supply missions and in successful B-26 ground strikes against Cuban forces on Day 2, as well as in a second – fatal – series of planned ground strikes on Day 3.
United States Air Force transports were authorized to conduct air drops into the beachhead – only failing to do so due to lack of preparation and logistics issues.
Brigade aircraft were authorized and did use napalm from American military stocks in air strikes, something which confirmed American sponsorship.
American jet aircraft were authorized to fly combat air support for the Day 2 B-26 air strikes and did so successfully.
American jet aircraft were authorized to fly combat air support for the Day 3 B-26 air strikes and failed to carry out their mission.
American destroyers were sent directly off the beach to probe the landing area in advance of a U.S. Navy evacuation mission. They took on Cuban artillery fire while doing so – but did not return fire.
Essentially the only escalation which President Kennedy did not authorize was the actual use of American jet aircraft to destroy the Cuban Air Force or directly attack the Cuban Army/Militia. Which of course would have been an overt act of war, without Congressional authorization.