Readers of SWHT and Nexus will recall that I go into considerable detail on operation TILT. There are a number reasons for that, one being that TILT may be one of the most solid instances of “rogue” CIA activity at a senior officer level. Its not hard to find individual officers going beyond their orders or even directly disobeying orders – Rip Robertson sinking a ship he was ordered not to attack or going ashore at the Bay of Pigs against direct orders. Paramilitary action officers tend to be action oriented, that’s what makes them what they are.
But with TILT, we have something far beyond that, an action directly against Administration policy and against Presidential directives of the time – very specifically a directive to shut down independent operations of exile groups such as Alpha 66. On a side note, we now know separately that JM/WAVE – Shackley and Morales – had advance knowledge of certain Alpha 66 operations and chose not to block them, a sort of passive disobedience of orders. But TILT went way beyond that.
For those who have not read SWHT or Nexus, a very broad brush picture of the operation involves certain exile connected figures (John Martino chief among them) gaining the attention of first Senator James Eastland (head of the Senate Internal Affairs Committee) and of William Pawley. Pawley in turn took a story to JM/WAVE chief Shackley and then on to one of his close personal friends, Marshall Carter (Deputy Director of the CIA). Pawley himself was also personally close to J.C. King, the long time head of Western Hemisphere CIA operations and had worked with Pawley on both the Guatemala project and in an effort to preserve Batista in Cuba. Indeed Pawley had been close to both President’s Truman and Eisenhower – but was an outspoken critic in speeches and media articles of President Kennedy.
To make a long story short, in the end Pawley committed his own personal yacht to a mission into Cuba, one in which a team of Alpha 66 fighters (led by highly visible media figure Eddie Bayo) would to on shore to extract Russian officers who would then be returned to expose the continuing existence of Russian missiles and nuclear weapons inside Cuba. The mission would receive full CIA support including participation by key field personnel such as Rip Robertson and would be backed up by contract transport aircraft and by radar shadowing from one of the two highly covert CIA mother ships operating missions against Cuba.
The mission itself violated a host of approvals and security rules – one of the most critical being not only that non- Agency cleared exiles comprised the team but that a LIFE photographer was assigned to photograph all elements of the mission and that his photos were never recovered after the fact…..and they included photos of operational CIA personnel. That was a fantastic security violation, but one approved by Carter and allowed to stand by both Shackley and Morales.
OK, so none of this is new to readers of my books – but my new work on deniable warfare has made me aware of just how great a risk was being taken by the personal participation of William Pawley on the mission. These days Pawley is most often mentioned for his work with the WWII Flying Tigers in China, for his business connections in Cuba or for his Latin American ambassadorships.
But – William Pawley was far more than that. For example in 1954 he was selected by President Eisenhower as one of only five men to do a complete assessment of the entire American intelligence system – not just CIA but all the military intelligence groups. The Committees report was Presidential eyes only and contained recommendations that would structure the American intelligence effort for at least a decade. Pawley himself was designated as a secret representative from Eisenhower and the CIA to Batista before the Castro revolution. In short, because of his service and his friendships, Pawley would have been a major window into the entire American intelligence community and its activities through the Bay of Pigs. Yet Pawley was not only allowed to take the TILT mission into Cuban waters but given major CIA support to do so. Beyond the PR impact of his capture or death, surely someone had to have thought about how much of a prize he would be not only to Castro but to the KGB….in the event of his capture and identification, the Russians might well have managed to ensure he was never seen again by anyone except their interrogators.
What would justify such a risk? Well if the mission had succeeded, arrangements were in place for the Russians to be debriefed but turned over to Eastland’s committee. A combination of Eastland and Luce (at LIFE magazine) would have made a political firestorm for JFK. Certainly there would have been calls for his impeachment for being conned by the Russians and Soviets; even if that had not happened, his 1964 campaign would have been derailed over Cuba and national security. And no doubt there would have been new calls for an invasion of Cuba.
All of which probably explains why JFK, RFK, the Special Group authorizing all covert missions into Cuba appear not to have been told about TILT. Indeed the new CIA Cuban affairs head Desmond Fitzgerald only shows up copied on memos after the fact – and we have no idea whether or not he truly knew. Its hard to imagine him not telling JFK then if he did; if he didn’t….well that’s another story.
A search continues to see if we can determine how far up the approvals chain TILT was really visible, even within CIA. It seems worth the effort given the credentials of the people involved and the rather obvious conclusion that the mission was at its core, even if a long shot, an effort to undermine the President, block his re-election and very possible reignite the call for invading Cuba. It is probably not overstating the case to view TILT as a verifiable instance of domestic American regime change (well at least attempted regime change).