I recently participated in a lengthy discussion of the Eisenhower Cuba Project and its second incarnation as an amphibious landing project – which the CIA managed to convince a newly elected president to support, despite his extreme misgivings. In doing so I was struck again by how little of what we have learned about both in recent years has made it into the history both events. To counter that I’m providing the following material from my book In Denial, in yet one more effort to reach out with the real story of JFK and the Bay of Pigs:

The failure of the American organized and equipped Cuban Expeditionary Brigade at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in April, 1961 remains one of the most dramatic public exposures of covert, deniable, regime change efforts by a major geopolitical power. The landing of the Brigade and its failure to establish and hold a beachhead “lodgement” inside Cuba ended with over 1,200 of the 1,500 man unit taken prisoner and sent to prisons, large amounts of American equipment (including tanks, heavy weapons and a variety of landing craft) abandoned and recovered by Cuban forces. It also ended with several volunteer American Air National Guard pilots killed in action over the Cuban beaches.  The failure of the effort was a tragedy for the Cuban expatriate volunteers, a huge psychological victory for the Castro regime and a tremendous shock to the reputation of the Central Intelligence Agency.  

President Dwight Eisenhower had authorized a CIA proposal to oust the Castro government in March, 1960. During his presidency Eisenhower repeatedly turned to the CIA for deniable political interventions when his State Department failed to organize multi-national responses to the perceived threat of new communist/nationalist governments. The CIA had responded with a mix of covert political actions – in Italy and Iran – and increasingly large scale but “deniable” military operations – in Guatemala, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Eisenhower had been impressed by the CIA’s apparent successes and with the emergence of a Soviet nuclear capability, added to the massive conventional armed forces which that nation had determined to maintain following World War II, he had increasingly turned to the CIA to push back against what American perceived as the existential threat to democracy posed by international communism. Cuba had been an area an area of routine CIA activity for a number of years and increasingly of interest to the CIA, the State Department and the Special Group.

The Special group – created as a policy and oversight body to address covert foreign actions – was tasked with ensuring that any such activities would not be publicly revealed, or if they did become visible, could at least be plausibly denied. It was authorized by NSC Directive 5412/2 to conduct policy supervision of any such covert activities.[i] The Special Group included the Under Secretary of State, the Assistant Secretary of Defense, the Director of Central Intelligence, and the President’s advisor on national security matters as well as designated representatives from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While presidents were verbally briefed on Special Group activities by their security advisor, the presidents themselves were not part of the group’s regular meetings – intentionally providing a level of deniability for the President and the administration’s official foreign policy positions.  CIA Director Dulles himself advised the Special Group to preserve that separation, urging them to address planning without the necessity of involving President Eisenhower.[ii]

President Eisenhower had tasked Cuban matters to the Special Group as early as 1958 and it was an ongoing subject of their discussions. The CIA itself had been conducting “foreign influence” programs in Cuba since the mid 1950’s, providing financial support for anti-communist groups and circulating anti-communist propaganda.[iii] As resistance to the pro-American Batista government grew, an abortive effort had been made to persuade President Fulgencio Batista to transfer power to an interim military junta – while at the same time placing CIA agents inside both resistance groups as well as Castro’s military.[iv] That effort escalated in towards the end of 1958 as CIA Western Hemisphere Chief J.C. King initiated plans to identify dissidents who were both anti-Castro and anti-Batista. Two CIA paramilitary officers were sent into Cuba to identify groups and prepare drop zones and in January two three aircraft had been designated and arms loads were rigged for covert supply to resistance groups.[v]

In December 1958, President Eisenhower had become focused on the Cuba issue and Fidel Castro, instructing the Special Group to meet weekly on Cuba. The CIA was increasingly adamant that Cuba under Castro would be a threat and the Special Group began discussion of contingencies ranging from overt military action with American Marines to having the United States formally designate a new interim junta to govern Cuba. In support of such options the U.S. Army began using commercial covers to place officers inside Cuba to collect military intelligence.[vi]

The Cuba operation, formally approved by President Eisenhower on March 17, 1960 had been developed in a CIA study – “A Plan of Covert Action against Cuba” – directed by J.C. King, the head of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere division.  King had headed the Western Hemisphere directorate during the Guatemala project and tasked this new study to Jake Esterline, who had served as Deputy Chief of the earlier Guatemala project.[vii] Easterline had prepared the CIA’s proposal over a period of some 90 days, beginning in January, 1960.  It was initially reviewed by the Special Group on March 14 and submitted to President Eisenhower in a joint meeting of the Special Group and the National Security Council.

With Eisenhower’s approval, the Cuba Project plan called for propaganda activities, the development of a Cuban exile organization as a highly visible public front for the anti-Castro effort, clandestine intelligence collection inside Cuba and most importantly the covert recruiting and training of a relatively small paramilitary cadre of Cuban expatriates and anti-Castro resistance fighters. Members of the cadre were to come out of the large Cuban community in Miami, others would be clandestinely exfiltrated out of Cuba itself. The goal was to identify and sustain on-island resistance groups who would could be led by highly trained cadre infiltrated into Cuba, clandestinely supplied and equipped to conducted wide spread sabotage and other military activities designed to encourage defections and widespread public opposition to the Castro regime.

This initial plan called for the new Cuban political front to be established within approximately one month and a powerful propaganda effort to be organized within two months. In regard to paramilitary action, a covert intelligence collections effort was to be in place within two months, providing intelligence both for the propaganda efforts and for targeting individual defections from the Castro military as well as other key state positions.

In regard to paramilitary operations, the Cuba expatriate cadre was to be trained and deployed on island within six to eight months (September/October) to support a growing resistance movement. In addition, as with the Guatemala operation, there were to be deniable combat aircraft on call for selective air strikes – in support of resistance attacks but also to provide highly visible air strikes in support of the psychological warfare program. Such airstrikes were felt to have been a major contributing factor in the Guatemala project and had become a key element in a number of follow on CIA operations, during 1958 organizing the Revolutionary Air Force (AUREV) used in support of its regime change effort in Indonesia (Operation Haik).[viii] [ix]

All elements of the new Cuba Project were to be in place and producing results by November, 1960.[x] CIA Plans/Operations officers with direct experience in the Guatemala project would manage the project within a specially tasked group of the Western Hemisphere Division (WH/4), organized its logistics and recruiting, and ran its intelligence collection, political action and psychological warfare elements. Veteran CIA paramilitary officers were detailed to conduct training for the Cuban cadre in guerilla operations and intelligence collection practices.

The overall project was to be conducted with total deniability, pursuing United States foreign policy objectives but concealed its activities to the extent that the President and State Department could plausibly deny any official responsibility – ranging from technical deniability involving funding or the use of American military equipment to the any officially sanctioned participation of any American citizens.

That was the plan and official policy as outlined in the directive signed by President Eisenhower in March, 1960.  Anyone “read into” or briefed on the project at a policy level during much of 1960 would only have become aware of a highly secret, deniable project intended to use Cuban surrogates in generating a domestic counter-revolution and ousting the Castro regime. Only with a closer examination of actual Paramilitary Plan (Operations Plan 60) documents developed for the project during the summer would have seen that by the July/August time frame the original plan was evolving into something increasingly overt – including the creation of a deniable revolutionary air force composed of 12-16 B-26 fighter bombers capable of conducting tactical air support for resistance groups beginning by November 1, and continuing for a period of at least six months.[xi]

While the Cuba Project (designated as Operation Pluto and with assigned CIA codewords/cryptos JMARC/JMATE) was certainly not the first American covert regime change operation, over some twelve months it evolved into what was unquestionably the most extensive covert effort organized by the United States up to that point in time. In addition to political action and psychological warfare it developed the largest combined air, sea and ground operation ever organized by the CIA. In the beginning it was largely modeled from the earlier Guatemala project (CIA codewords PBSUPRISE/PBSUCCESS), which had achieved the 1954 ouster of the democratically elected government of Jocobo Arbenz in Guatemala and was considered to be a major CIA success.[xii]

Following its approval, the Cuba Project, as with any covert operation, would remain under the oversight of the Special Group, Records of the Special Group indicate that to a large extent that oversight would focus on policy matters relating to deniability. One of its first concerns was the risk of using active military personnel and aircraft to support supply missions into Cuba. It would only be in October that the group was briefed that U-2 photographic reconnaissance missions over Cuba were already in progress; at that point they directed the group be advised in advance of any further planned overflights. In December, when preparations had finally been completed for actual supply and propaganda leaflet drops into Cuba, the Special Group directed that it be advised in advance of each mission.[xiii]

It is unclear to what extent the Special Group was given detailed operational progress reports on the project. However CIA officers cleared for access to and routinely monitoring the military operations group reports would have known that the first insertion of the specially trained resistance leadership cadre called for in the Paramilitary Plan was projected to occur no earlier than November. It also remains uncertain as to how personally President Eisenhower was involved with monitoring the detailed progress of the project, and to what extent he was personally monitoring its progress or timetables. The best insight available appears to come from the Taylor Commission, which reviewed the project after its failure, the official study conducted after the disaster at the Bay of Pigs notes that Eisenhower involvement with the program had dropped off sharply by the July/August time frame when the Paramilitary Plan was being finalized. His interest on the project only returned in the November time frame, following the presidential elections of 1960.[xiv]

It is understandable that Eisenhower may well have left the project to essentially start up under CIA management; he had considerable confidence in their abilities and had been impressed by their performance during his presidency. And there were other secret interventions demanding his attention – across South East Asia and especially in Laos.  Eisenhower had authorized the covert deployment of 107 Green Berets to Laos in 1959. Operating in civilian clothes and under the cover as contract employees of the Program Evaluations Office, a civilian aid mission, the Green Berets acted as advisors to the twelve battalions of the Royal Lao Army. In addition they recruited Laotian tribesmen for reconnaissance and intelligence collections missions against the routes through eastern Laos which were already being used by North Vietnam for infiltration into South Vietnam.  That project was expanding during 1960, with American military authorized to enter combat against communist insurgents if their advisory role demanded it.[xv]

In 1960, Eisenhower had expanded the covert effort in Laos, allowing the CIA to deploy field officers.  An arrangement was made for CIA operations officer Bill Lair to bring in almost a hundred Thai Border police to assist in recruiting Hmong tribal fighters to create and arm a guerilla force to collect intelligence and began military harassment missions against Laotian communist rebels as well as North Vietnamese forces deployed to expand the supply route through eastern Laos into South Vietnam. Some 2,000 rifles were initially supplied to the Hmong and air supply drops to the Hmong militia, using the CIA proprietary Air America, were made in January, 1960. [xvi]

Eisenhower’s focus on Laos during 1960 is particularly well documented – he referred to it as the “Cork in the Bottle”; he felt that preserving Laos from communist control was key to communist domination of the entire Far East.[xvii]   With covert operations already quite active in Laos, that nation rather than Cuba was the centerpiece in Eisenhower’s transition meeting with the newly elected president, John Kennedy, in January 1961. Kennedy later expressed surprise that the first major challenge his administration had to deal with was the Cuba Project, as Eisenhower had not raised Cuba as a major topic. Eisenhower had focused their conversation on the importance of Laos and Kennedy’s commitment to the ongoing covert activities related to that nation. Cuba was mentioned during the transition conversation, although apparently in no detail and only with an admonition from Eisenhower to Kennedy that he must remain strong in facing the problem of Castro take whatever action might be necessary.

President Eisenhower himself had returned some level of personal attention to the Cuba project in November, endorsing a major change from the initial approach. No new policy directive was issued to document the change, but it was quite dramatic and transformed what had been a clandestine, guerilla resistance centered concept into an operation, which when presented to President Kennedy, can only be described as a conventional military action. An action involving a full scale amphibious landing of a full brigade (four battalions) of troops trained for infantry action, transport aircraft conducting dropping a paratroop unit during the landing, and the use of military landing craft to bring in tanks and heavy weapons to support the overall effort. It was also planned to include air strikes on a broad range of military targets as well as ongoing combat air cover over the beachheads.  

As the plan evolved during the remainder of the Eisenhower Administration, from the concept of individual three man guerilla leadership teams through inserting a 750 man force, then escalating to the amphibious landing of a full brigade and holding a beachhead as a “lodgment” (with ongoing combat airstrikes and air drops of supplies and weapons) to the final CIA offered proposal (the Trinidad Plan) to President Kennedy, the Cuba project became increasingly less “deniable”. As proposed, the Trinidad plan included not only obvious American military equipment such as main line U.S. Army M-41 tanks, but preparations for U.S. Navy support of the landings and rules of engagement that would have almost certainly have taken the Navy into direct combat with Cuban forces.

Initially Eisenhower had demanded total deniability for the project, stating that “our hand should not show up in anything that is done” and the plan he had officially approved did not even hint at landing a conventional military force; it only called for placing trained Cuban volunteers on the island to stimulate guerilla warfare against the Castro regime.[xviii] Yet by early November, in a Special Group meeting held only days before the presidential election, Gordon Gray, Eisenhower’s national security advisor and his conduit to the group, offered the opinion that it would be impossible to oust Castro from power without the use of overt American military force.

It what could only have been a reflection of Eisenhower’s own views, Gray went so far as suggesting that the CIA use its Cuban exile volunteers in a staged attack on the American Guantanamo Navy base in order to create a false provocation sufficient to justify American military intervention in Cuba.[xix]  The view that Eisenhower had become sufficiently frustrated to not only sacrifice deniability but to move to something as dramatic as a “provocation” operation designed to justify military intervention is suggested by his urging, (expressed in a November 29 White House meeting) that the Cuba Project team was not being imaginative and aggressive enough – as well as by Richard Bissell’s remarks that Eisenhower had suggested to Bissell that he would authorize a move against Castro before January 20, 1961 (the inauguration of President Kennedy) if “we could think of manufacturing something that would be generally acceptable”.[xx]

That view certainly was not written into any new policy, it remains documented only in remarks and meeting notes. However it seems likely that by December the most senior levels of the Eisenhower Administration, had come to suspect that overt American military involvement was going to be required. Although no such program of provocation was actually developed, it appears that the Cuba Project team itself had also come to a similar view – that the program would have to become more overt to succeed and that American military support was going to be needed for the Cuban Expeditionary Force.

In his work on an official history of the project, CIA Historian Jack Pfeiffer uncovered what he termed a “strange” note which had been produced following a staff meeting of the Cuba Project task force (WH/4). The note stated that the original concept of the project was felt to be unachievable in light of the rapid escalation of Castro’s internal security controls – “There will not be the internal unrest earlier believed possible, nor will the defenses permit the type of strike first planned. Our second attempt (1,500 – 3,000 man force to secure a beach with an airstrip) is also seen to be unachievable except as a joint Agency [CIA] / DOD [Department of Defense/military] action.”[xxi] 

The evolution of the project from covert to arguably overt has remained a bone of contention over the years, largely because the policy statement never evolved and there was no new, official  directive on the Cuba Project from President Eisenhower prior to his departure from office.[xxii]  It is true that there had been high level intelligence community concerns about the possibility of any effort actually ousting Castro from power even before the project had been officially sanctioned.

In fact before the CIA had offered a formal proposal to the Special Group, a Special National Intelligence Estimate of December, 1959 had registered the assessment that no serious domestic threats against the Castro regime were seen emerging during 1960 and that any American intervention in Cuba would simply unify the Cuban people behind him, “…most Cubans, including the military, would react violently” to American intervention.[xxiii] [xxiv]  And shortly before John Kennedy was sworn in as president, on January 4, 1961, the head of military operations for the Cuba Project, sent the head of the project a memorandum specifically outlining the issues and risks which were needed to go into any briefing to the new president. Colonel Jack Hawkins was deliberate in his statement that no early breakout from the “lodgement” at Trinidad, Cuba (viewed as necessary to declaring a provisional government in place inside Cuba) could be anticipated without some general uprising on the island or “overt military intervention” by the United States.[xxv]  Hawkins’s view of the necessary actions was crystal clear, his concern was whether or not the new president would accept the necessity of moving by March 1 and the option of overt military action by American forces.

The following months would demonstrate that within the Cuba Project itself as well as at higher policy making levels those involved were simply unwilling to accept those warnings, even in the final weeks before the landing of the Brigade when both the senior operational officers attempted to resign as a demonstration of their concerns.    

With so many visible elements of American military participation and so much exposure to the press that the concept of deniability had been sacrificed – sacrificed but in a manner never officially acknowledged at the policy level of either President Eisenhower or later President Kennedy.

The immediate result was to as well as to the new Kennedy Administration, which itself had only become involved with the Cuba Project some three months earlier, in January of 1961.

However the dramatic of the CIA’s Cuba project immediately brought into question the practices, tools and even personnel which were being used in covert operations around the globe; operations which President Eisenhower had increasingly turned to as a major weapon in pushing back against what were deemed to be potential communist and Soviet beacheads around the globe – from Tibet and Indonesia to Laos, and the Congo – and across Latin America. The Central Intelligence Agency had been tasked to lead those operations, including their increasingly extensive military elements. As of April, 1961 the outstanding question was whether or not that tasking – as compared to a much greater role for the Department of Defense – had been the right decision.

While still in something comparable to a state of shock, both President Kennedy and the CIA Director both issued orders for inquiries into the Cuba Project failure – with the goal not of suspending such operations bur rather of isolating weaknesses and drawing the lessons necessary for success in future deniable operations. The inquiry ordered by President Kennedy was chaired by General Maxwell Taylor; its report would subsequently be referred to as the Taylor Commission Study. General Taylor chaired the commission, which included Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Admiral Arleigh Burke of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and CIA Director Allen Dulles. Their final report proved to be highly critical of the CIA’s management of the Cuba Project; the full Taylor Study was not circulated within the CIA and  never fully released publicly – it remained held confidentially at the JFK Presidential Library.

Extremely limited portions were released in 1977 and in 1979 the  CIA’s own historian managed to obtain a copy to use in a new internal project to prepare the Official History of the Bay of Pigs (a five volume work).  It was only in 2000 that the National Archives and Records Administration manged to obtain and make a declassified copy available for historical review.

In itself the Taylor Commission Report is extremely valuable because General Taylor was tasked with not only examining the manner in which the Cuba Project had been conducted, but the overall American approach to covert operations as part of the nation’s capability for pushing back against the spread of communism and in particular of Soviet geopolitical influence. Beyond the specific failure at the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy clearly intended that the studies would drive future decisions about the use of the CIA and the respective roles of both the Agency and the Department of Defense in facing up to not only to the outstanding issue of Soviet military influence over Cuba but in regard to escalating challenges the United States was facing in SE Asia, challenges involving both Laos and North Vietnam.

The Kennedy Administration had inherited paramilitary projects not against Fidel Castro but around the globe from Laos and Tibet to the Congo in Africa. It was incumbent on President Kennedy to quickly determine his course of action in those efforts and the Bay of Pigs failure raised the the obvious question was whether or not those oprations might be suffering from some or all of the weaknesses which had apparently overtaken the Cuba Project.

In addition to the broadly based Taylor Commission, the CIA’s Inspector General, Lyman Kirkpatrick was ordered to conduct an internal review of the Cuba Project. After some six months of work that report, “The Inspector General’s Survey of the Cuban Operation”, was internally generated for comment. The Kirkpatrick report also proved to be critical of many aspects of the project including its organizational structure and management. It was immediately viewed by those who had been personally involved t as being both inaccurate and intentionally brutal – so much so that in a unique move the CIA’s Director allowed Cuba Project leader Richard Bissell (Deputy Director of Plans/Operations) to prepare a detailed rebuttal to the IG report. Much of the material in that rebuttal was accumulated and written by Tracy Barnes, Bissell’s chief operations aide on the project. 

Both the IG report and the Bissell rebuttal brief were seen by a very limited number of senior CIA personnel, however they are particularly important in providing not only detailed insights into practices and personnel, but also in listing what were perceived to be major lessons from the experience and calling out specific changes that should be made to any future deniable/covert projects. Unfortunately, largely because of the heated nature of these exchanges within the CIA, certain points raised by the project’s officers appear to have gotten the higher level consideration they deserved – including the point that expectations related to both the standards for deniability and the restrictions on paramilitary activities had significantly changed between the way earlier operations had been conducted and the extent to which new restrictions had been placed on the Cuba Project.  Future events would prove that those concerns should have been much more closely examined, and discussed at senior policy maker levels. 

When taken as a body, the Cuba Project reports and studies are extremely valuable in any study of both historical and contemporary military operations, whether covert, deniable or simply “low profile”.  Yet the CIA reports have to be studied with the understanding that they included a significant amount of internal disagreement, extending to personal recriminations and an obvious amount of bitterness – what senior policy makers saw as lessons to be learned, many CIA personnel viewed as finger pointing and unfair blame for what were failed policies and decisions imposed on the Agency, in particular by the new Kennedy Administration. With careers at risk, organizational roles potentially to be redefined and substantive policy decisions in play, there were bitter, heated objections and pointed accusations – all expressed by at virtually all levels of  the CIA’s Directorate of Operations.

The extent of that disagreement, and what can only be called “attitude”, appears throughout the CIA’s own history of the Cuba Project, prepared between 1979 and 1984. CIA staff historian Jack Pfeiffer prepared that history in five separate volumes, offering extensive technical and operations detail in hundreds of pages of work. Volume I alone, devoted to the Bay of Pigs landings,  is over 400 pages. Pheiffer’s work also contains the rebuttal to the original IG report, submitted by Richard Bissell, as well as extensive details on Air Operations, Foreign Policy activities of the CIA in support of the project (primarily in Guatemala and Nicaragua) and what essentially constitutes a deconstruction and rebuttal of the Taylor Study.  While extremely useful as a source of historical detail, Pheiffer’s attitudes are quite clear throughout his work – most especially in Volume 5. In fact the CIA determined that Volume 5 was not publishable as a finished work because of its obvious polemics and personal tone; because of that Volume 5 was made available for public review as a draft paper only in 2016.

The good news is that a point – counterpoint approach, based in multiple perspectives and critical analysis, is extremely important in gaining a fully understand of any complex and controversial piece of history, especially so when dealing with a subject like covert/deniable operations – operations in which documents and communications are intentionally obscured and obfuscated in respect to operational security. And point-counterpoint is exactly what we find in the presentations and rebuttals in the Taylor Study, the CIA IG Report (and the internal Bissell rebuttal) and finally in the official history of the Cuba Project, prepared by the Agency’s own historian. The amount of historical detail – and the existence of what amounts to a detailed peer review of each study by those contesting it – that we now have available in the competing studies of the Cuba Project is quite unique.

Beyond that, we now have resources which allow us to take critical analysis of the project to an entirely new level of detail. Those resources are found in literally thousands of pages of day to day operational reports, internal project memoranda, individual mission directives and even debriefings. That level of detail – which identifies both CIA and Cuban personnel involved in the project – has only come available during the first two decades of the 21st Century in a massive releases of CIA files. Equally importantly, new research has made it possible to determine the true indentities of the cryptonyms and alieases that are found in the operations files. We can literally read and understand documents which were previously unintelligible, or at best obscure, without that type of information – as was originally intended given the demands of personnel and operational security.

In addition, many of those documents became available in time to allow them to be shown and discussed with several of original project participants. That exercise was nothing less than a revelation; it proved to be the first time that several key individuals learned of communications, directives and policy decisions which were totally unknown to them during some of the most critical periods of the project – including the actual Cuban air strikes and landings.  In several instances the information proved shocking to them, allowing new important new insights into the overall failure of the operation.

Equally important, a detailed examination of the operational documents, combined with available oral history work, has revealed that President Eisenhower had actively encouraged a series of actions involving Cuban leadership decapitation, covert military provocation and a highly aggressive set of rules of engagement for the Naval forces involved in the initial plan (designated as the Trinidad plan) for landing the Cuban Expeditionary Force in Cuba. Based on the available information it appears that President Kennedy was not briefed on the decapitation efforts (which continued after he took office) or given the details of the type of overt participation of the American military that Eisenhower had come to favor following the November, 1960 elections – and which had became “hidden” essential elements of the Trinidad plan, elements not actively discussed during either the Taylor Study or the CIA IG report.

With this new, comprehensive body of information it is now possible to tell both a deeper and broader story of the Cuba Project failure. Deeper in the terms of the practices used in earlier covert operations (Guatemala, Indonesia and Tibet) which were either denied or heavily modified in regards to Cuba as well as the “hidden” aspects of the project which under President Eisenhower would have largely have sacrificed deniability in regard to ensuring success.  And broader in terms of President Kennedy’s decisions to translate the lessons of the disaster into a new approach to the challenges his administration faced in Laos, Vietnam and Cuba.

There were lessons learned from the disaster on the beaches at the Bay of Pigs, lessons that did lead to a number of changes, and experiments, in the conduct of covert military operations during the Kennedy presidency – yet those changes barely outlasted President Kennedy’s death in Dallas, in the fall of 1963. Virtually all the lessons garnered from the Cuba Project studies would be abandoned so quickly that they appear to have played no part at all in the decisions of the Johnson and Nixon years, decisions about deniable military activities first in the Congo, but much more dramatically and in Laos, Vietnam and later Angola.

The one constant that emerges over the decades is that through it all the illusion of “deniability” remained, lasting though the Cold War years and into the 21st Century.  Amazingly, following the attack on America in 2001, deniability would still be a fundamental element of the orders and practices governing the first CIA detachment sent into Afghanistan, with orders to bring down the Taliban. Only with the emergence of the Joint Special Operations commands, integrating the CIA and other intelligence collections assets into Department of Defense operations, did a true role reversal occur – with the demand for total deniability replaced by classified, low profile, overt military operations.

Still, the temptation of “fully deniable” political warfare remains in play – even in regard to regime change – despite the fact that both contemporary and historical exposure of virtually all such operations has proven the concept of “deniability” to be largely self-delusion.


[i] Office of the Historian, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950–1955, The Intelligence Community, 1950–1955, Covert Operations, Washington, undated

https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1950-55Intel/d250

[ii] Jack Pfeiffer,  Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation, Volume 3, U.S. Governments’ Anti-Castro Program Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington D.C., October 13, 2016, Document Number: 5076ddc4993247d4d82b58da, 43

[iii] Jack Pfeiffer,  Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation, Volume 1, U.S. Governments’ Anti-Castro Program Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington D.C., October 13, 2016, Document Number: 5076ddc4993247d4d82b58da, 4

[iv] Ibid, 6-9

[v] Ibid, 13

[vi] Ibid, 16-18

[vii] Ibid, Appendix B, PBSUCCESS Organizational Chart, 105

[viii] The CIA had assembled a “rebel” air force of some dozen military and civilian aircraft (including fighters and fighter bombers) to support its operations against Guatemala. The aircraft had flown out of an abandoned air base in Nicaragua, with full approval by that nation’s president, Luis Samoza. Samoza had provided the commercial cover for covertly purchasing aircraft, which were then flown by CIA contract pilots transferred from its Far Eastern proprietary company, Civilian Air Transport (CAT). The same location, Puerto Cabezas, would later be used as the forward strike base for the Cuba Project.  Ibid, 50-51

[ix] Tom Cooper and Marc Koelich, Clandestine US Operations: Indonesia 1958, Operation “Haik, February 10, 2008

[x] Jack Pfeiffer,  Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation, Volume 1, Part 2, Appendix 1, U.S. Governments’ Anti-Castro Program Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington D.C., October 13, 2016, Document Number: 5076ddc4993247d4d82b58da, , 408 – 412

https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/collection/bay-pigs-release

[xi] Ibid, 96

[xii] Nicholas Cullather, Operation PBSUCCESS; The United States and Guatemala 1952-1955, Appendix A, PBSCUCCESS Timeline, History Staff, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington D.C., 1994, 97-103

[xiii] Jack Pfeiffer,  Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation, Volume 1, Part 1 U.S. Governments’ Anti-Castro Program Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington D.C., October 13, 2016, Document Number: 5076ddc4993247d4d82b58da, 31,68-69,78

[xiv] Jack Pfeiffer,  Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation, Volume 4, Part 1 U.S. Governments’ Anti-Castro Program Central Intelligence Agency, citations to the Taylor Committee Report, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington D.C., October 13, 2016, Document Number: 5076ddc4993247d4d82b58da, 2-3

[xv] John Prados, Fighting the War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 248, Posted – April 9, 2008

https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB248/

[xvi] Thomas L Ahern Jr. Undercover Armies; CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos, 1961-1963, CIA History Staff, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington D.C., 2006,  Approved for release 2009, 27

[xvii] Ibid, XIII

[xviii] Jack Pfeiffer,  Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation, Volume 3, U.S. Governments’ Anti-Castro Program Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington D.C., October 13, 2016, Document Number: 5076ddc4993247d4d82b58da, 72-74

[xix] Minutes of the Special Group Meeting, 11/3/1960

[xx] Richard M. Bissell Jr., Reflections of a Cold Warrior, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1996, 161

[xxi] Jack Pfeiffer,  Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation, Volume 3, U.S. Governments’ Anti-Castro Program Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington D.C., October 13, 2016, Document Number: 5076ddc4993247d4d82b58da, 149-150

[xxii] Jack Pfeiffer,  Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation, Volume 4, Part 1 U.S. Governments’ Anti-Castro Program Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington D.C., October 13, 2016, Document Number: 5076ddc4993247d4d82b58da, 2-3

[xxiii] Ibid, 30

[xxiv] Eric Rosenbach and Aki J. Peritz, National Intelligence Estimates, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, July 2009

https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/national-intelligence-estimates

[xxv] Memorandum from the Chief of WH/4/PM (Hawkins) to Chief of WH/4 pf the Directorate of Plans (Esterline), Foreign Relations of the United States, U.S. State Department, 1961-1963, Volume X, Cuba, Document 9

One response »

  1. John F Davies says:

    As a lifelong student of history myself, I’ve found that the job of a genuine historian is much like that of a professional investigator. One has to take information from different points of view, from different circumstances and from different sources, then find the common factors which bring out the “Shadow of Truth” about what actually happened.
    One has to also resist the tendency towards personal bias and go where the evidence takes you, even if it shatters popular myths and illusions.

    When reading these revelations concerning the Bay of Pigs, I see a CIA that was desperate at pulling this operation off no matter what the consequences. They also saw a time window closing fast while at the same time having to deal with an increasingly skeptical President and his administration.

    Regarding US Covert Ops in Laos, I myself have a personal connection. After my military service, I attended the San Francisco Academy of Art. One of my first instructors was himself a former Spec Ops vet who was in Laos between 1960 -61.
    Because of his French Basque ancestry he was quite fluent in French, which is what got him recruited into the program. At the time it was called Operation White Star, and had mobile training teams instructing the Royal Lao Army as well as the Hill Tribes. Overall command of this operation was under the legendary Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons.

    My friend was himself in the panhandle of Laos and went out on many operations against both the Pathet Lao, the NVA, and in some cases even the Chinese. He was later severely wounded on a mission that was unlike any they had ever done before. Later both he and the other members of his team concluded that it was meant to create an incident to force JFK’s hand and send US combat troops to Southeast Asia. He received a medical discharge, but could not take advantage of VA services due to the clandestine nature of his mission. Something many spec ops veterans experience to this very day.
    All his citations were classified as well, and for the very same reason.

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