In the long ago research for my book NEXUS, I first came across anecdotal remarks, made during the Church Committee inquiry into CIA and assassination, that during the Eisenhower era assassination was actually such a standard practice that there was a structured process for projects intended to neutralize or eliminate political targets – organized to the extent that there was a “Health Alteration Committee”.
Actually, in spite of what you might read in the popular media, there is no indication that such a committee ever existed. It’s not that the CIA didn’t frequently pursue assassination, it was just never that well organized, or managed. That has become more clear as new research has revealed more detailed about specific assassination efforts of the 1950’s and early 1960s.
I’ve been doing a bit more research into CIA assassinations as it relates to multiple CIA attempts against Fidel Castro during the first Cuba Project – efforts which were so poorly managed that the individuals in charge (Richard Bissell and Tracy Barnes) appear to have thought they were going to be successful right up to the time of the actual amphibious landings in Cuba. John Newman is also publishing new work on Cuba, as well as producing extreme detail about the CIA’s assassination efforts against Patrice Lumumba in the Congo.
It was John’s recent work that led me to realize how deeply Richard Bissell was involved in a whole series of assassination efforts during 1960 and 1961. I’ve wondered why he appears to have done such a poor job with the Cuba Project, but one of the factors was that he was also juggling two different (highly challenging) assassination projects, both using resources which were new to the CIA. It’s not that the CIA had not worked assassinations before, but they normally took advantage of indigenous regime opponents, simply enabling them with poison or weapons.
Going after Castro was tough enough, Bissell actually had to read several people into the effort just to get money out of the Cuba Project budget, under operational control of Jake Esterline. And the sniper attack plans against Castro aborted simply because the CIA had such poor maritime resources for the project that the privately owned boat being used to infiltrate the shooter suffered engine problems and was taken out of action.
In the Congo, Bissell ended up going to Staff D to look for foreign assets and both the officers he approached turned him down, saying assassination was not part of their job. He ended up almost entirely relying on the Congo Chief of Station, who was less than enthusiastic about the plan to poison Lumumba using CIA assets sent in from Europe. He was much more inclined towards the traditional approach of encouraging local surrogates to kill Lumumba themselves, which in the end was what actually happened.
All of which tends to explain something some of us have wondered about for some time – why William Harvey was called in and asked to create a new Executive Action program for international political assassinations. And why it was put under Staff D. The basic answer is that up to that point it time CIA assassination efforts had been individually crafted, largely personalized under the direction of Richard Bissell and Tracy Barnes. Harvey was ordered to create something which would be much more professional, more structured, more covert, and with global reach. As we know from his own notes, he was not all that excited about the concept even though he did pursue it as directed. Of course in the end he did no better against Fidel Castro than Bissell had done – even as a committee of only one.