The CIA offered $150,000 to assassinate Fidel Castro in the early 1960s, but the mob insisted on taking the job for free, according to a newly declassified document.
“We were at (ideological) war,” says Robert Maheu, who, as a Las Vegas private investigator on the CIA payroll in 1960, hired Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana for the hit. “Would it be folly to go after Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War or to go after Hitler during World War II?”
The underworld murder-for-hire contract was detailed in a summary of a May 1962 CIA briefing for then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy. By then, the Kennedy White House had launched its unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and several assassination attempts against Castro had failed.
The memo is among 450 documents, nearly all newly declassified, that are included in a soon-to-be released State Department volume, “Cuba, 1961-62.” Only two copies of the three-page memo were made, one each for the attorney general and CIA headquarters.
In the memo, then-CIA director of security Sheffield Edwards writes that senior agency officials approved plots to kill Castro between August 1960 and May 1961. The White House isn’t mentioned. “Knowledge of this project … was kept to a total of six persons,” Edwards wrote.
At least two assassination attempts were made with CIA-supplied lethal pills and organized crime-made muscle in early 1961, according to the memo and congressional hearings in 1975. Lawmakers counted a total of eight CIA tries to kill Castro in the early 1960s; Castro bragged the number was two dozen.
The memo said Maheu contacted John Rosselli, a top Giancana lieutenant, to arrange the hits on Castro.
“A figure of $150,000 was set by the agency as a payment to be made on completion of the operation,” the memo said. Rosselli and Giancana “emphatically stated that they wished no part of any payment,” it added. Still, $11,000 in expenses were paid.
Rosselli and Giancana, both later victims of mob hits, weren’t told the U.S. government put the contract out on Castro, but they “guessed or assumed that CIA was behind the project,” the memo concludes.
After the Bay of Pigs invasion failed to oust Castro in April 1961, President Kennedy and his brother, the attorney general, tacitly approved a renewed CIA effort to kill the Cuban leader.
“They were telling the CIA, ‘Do whatever it takes to get rid of Castro,”’ says Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archives, a private research organization.
Louis Smith, senior State Department historian for the book, said the Kennedys were obsessed with eliminating their communist nemesis.
“Robert Kennedy gave (then-deputy CIA director Richard) Bissell hell for not getting rid of Castro the first time around, so Bissell took this as a green light to go forward again with assassination plots,” Smith said.
At the time, Robert Kennedy was running “Operation Mongoose,” which used propaganda to gin up revolt among Cubans.
“A measure of the Kennedy administration’s renewed determination to eliminate Castro was the reauthorization of assassination attempts on the Cuban premier,” says a summary of the State Department volume.
CIA Bay of Pigs project manager Jacob Esterline, now 79, said he lost heart when he learned of the top-secret plans to kill Castro.
“Somebody thought it was some magic cure,” says Esterline, who paid the assassination attempt bills. “Even after all these years, it’s still painful.”
The first plans to oust Castro began before Kennedy took office.
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