█ ADRIENNE WILMOTH LERNER
In November 1961, following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, President John F. Kennedy and his advisors launched Operation Mongoose, a covert operation intended to disrupt Cuban government and economic infrastructure. The ultimate goal of the operation was to thoroughly undermine, or even assassinate if necessary, Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. President Kennedy named his brother, United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to oversee Operation Mongoose. Robert Kennedy conducted Operation Mongoose in cooperation with President Kennedy's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a group of civilian experts on foreign relations.
Before Kennedy's election, the CIA clandestinely explored the notion of assassinating Castro. Castro's communist policy and close ties with the Soviet Union unnerved administration officials. The physical proximity of Cuba to the United States added Cold War security risks. Based upon interviews and declassified materials, historians assert that in 1960 several senior CIA officials allegedly began working with members of the mafia. The mafia would give the CIA plausible deniability if the assassination plot were uncovered. The mafia had operatives in Cuba, and a motive for assassinating Castro, who had disrupted casinos, travel, and mafia business interests in Havana.
Although official confirmations and a great deal of evidence remains unavailable to the public, espionage historians assert that these talks reached a loggerhead and eventually dissipated just as the Kennedy Administration assumed control of the White House. One of the first priorities of the new administration was to address the situation of Cuba. To this end, Operation Mongoose was established. Mongoose was, in essence, a continuation of a secret operation against the Cuban regime that began during the Eisenhower Administration. Psychological operations (PsyOps) such as propaganda and staged incidents were part of the plan, but Mongoose also contained provisions for far more ambitious physical threats to Castro and his allies.
In 2001, 400 pages of documents relating to Operation Mongoose were declassified. These declassified documents show that Operation Mongoose had several primary objectives. The Kennedy Administration sought to disable or destroy power plants in Cuba, lay mines to disrupt Cuban shipping, and undermine or destroy Castro's leadership. To achieve these goals, the Operation Mongoose creators proposed placing American intelligence operatives in Cuba.
The second objective of Operation Mongoose was to assassinate Castro. Operation Mongoose explored several possible means by which to carry out the assassination. The Kennedy administration considered poisoning cigars with botulism toxin and presenting them to Castro as a gift, poisoning a drink for Castro, and even rigging explosives to seashells on the sea floor to tempt the avid diver.
The final component of Mongoose was psychological warfare. Air Force Brigadier General Edward Lansdale commanded the PsyOps portion of Operation Mongoose. Lansdale created an anti-Castro radio broadcast that covertly aired in Cuba. Leaflets were distributed that depicted Castro as getting fat and wealthy at the expense of citizens. Operatives circulated stories about heroic freedom fighters.
Yet, the main thrust of Lansdale's plans was a series of large scale "dirty tricks" meant to evoke a call to arms against Cuba in the international community. One plan called for a space launch at Cape Canaveral to be sabotaged and blamed on Cuban agents. Operation Bingo called for a staged attack on the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay in hopes of creating a mandate for the U.S. military to overthrow Castro.
When the Church Committee investigated the actions of the national intelligence agencies in the wake of the Watergate scandal in 1974, notes on Operation Mongoose surfaced for the first time. The committee commented not only on the assassination plots, but also noted the "dirty tricks" proposed by Lansdale. Little else was revealed about the operation for three more decades.
Ultimately, Operation Mongoose existed on paper more than in practice. While some elements of the initiative were attempted, such as elements of propaganda dissemination, the operation was abandoned by Kennedy's successor, President Johnson.
█ FURTHER READING:
Chang, Laurence, ed. Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Documents Reader. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Press, 1998.
Fursenko, Alexandr and Timothy J. Naftali. One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998.