For others, the real promise was in what the document dump would reveal about U.S. relations with Cuba during the Cold War. Details about nefarious plots to assassinate Fidel Castro were on full display — including lining the Cuban leader’s wet suit with toxic chemicals, and plans to pay the Mafia to kill Castro.
What did we just learn that we didn’t already know about the CIA’s failed ploys to assassinate Castro? Not much. But the reminders of U.S. covert operations and assassinations from this era have a direct effect on U.S. foreign policy today — a legacy that seems particularly relevant in light of recent discussions about confrontations with dictators and talk of regime change.
The document dump contains few new revelations, even about U.S.-Cuba relations
We’ve certainly had hints about many of the recently released documents. In the 1970s, the Senate’s Church Committee, tasked with investigating U.S. intelligence activities abroad in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, produced a document called “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders.” The report was approved for public release in 2002. The three main cases examined were alleged assassination plots against Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and Castro.
The section on Castro begins: “We have found concrete evidence of at least eight plots involving the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro from 1960-1965. Although some of the assassination plots did not advance beyond the stage of planning and preparation, one plot, involving the use of underworld figures, reportedly twice progressed to the point of sending poison pills to Cuba and dispatching teams to commit the deed.”
The Church Committee’s report corroborated much of what was in the infamous “Family Jewels” document, which was released to the public in full in 2007. This was a document produced in 1973 after CIA Director James Schlesinger requested that the agency catalogue all of its controversial activities. The idea was to be able to contain any brewing scandals rather than being caught by surprise. The Mafia plot to kill Castro is among the episodes detailed in the Family Jewels document.
Not everything in the most recent National Archives release was recycled material. But the truly novel revelations are fairly minor. One such example is Operation BOUNTY, which targeted Cuban communists. The 1962 plan “establish[ed] a system of rewards commensurate with position and stature, for killing or delivering alive known Communists.” Rewards ranged from $5,000 (for informers) to $100,000 (for government officials). For inexplicable reasons, the monetary amount listed for killing or capturing Castro was just 2 cents.
It’s no secret that the U.S. government wanted regime change in Cuba
The U.S. desire to pursue regime change in Cuba was broadly consistent with fears about the spread of communism and the desire to deny the Soviet Union friendly clients in the Western Hemisphere. And although we know from recent research that such interventions rarely accomplish their stated aim, early successes in ousting left-leaning regimes in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954) undoubtedly emboldened U.S. decision-makers to press ahead with regime change against Castro in the 1960s.
Once a state has decided that regime change would be in its strategic interests, questions about how to intervene come to the fore. Scholars identify escalation concerns as one reason leaders might opt for covert action over open intervention.
But escalation wasn’t the issue here. Kennedy’s special assistant, Arthur Schlesinger, declared on April 5, 1961, “My guess is that the Soviet Union regards Cuba as in our domain and is rather surprised that we have not taken action before this to rid ourselves of Castro.” A special national intelligence estimate from the previous year affirmed these sentiments.
In my research, I show that policymakers were mainly concerned that sending military forces to oust Castro would directly violate U.S. commitments to nonintervention, which it had promised to abide by in the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
Unless Castro did something to justify overt military action — slaughtering Americans, attacking Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — a direct assault would damage the United States’ moral authority and trustworthiness. These concerns, I argue, explain the need for covert action, including the various assassination attempts on Castro.
These Cold War plots led to reforms that affect policymaking today
Although the plots to kill Castro and others may have been ethically and morally dubious, they were not technically illegal at the time. In fact, it was the revelation of these types of episodes that paved the way for policies outlawing such activities.
Attempting to get ahead of the various scandals and investigations that erupted in the mid-1970s (political assassinations were one piece of this much larger brouhaha), President Gerald R. Ford signed Executive Order 11905 in February 1976. One of its best-known provisions was the assassination ban. It read: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” Successive presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, reiterated the ban.
These reforms are especially relevant for today’s “war on terror.” Ford’s executive order banned assassinations in peacetime. So it matters a great deal whether using drones or Special Forces to conduct targeted killings, for example, is considered part of a larger wartime effort (and thus legal) or whether these are really peacetime activities (and thus illegal).
Recent debates about whether a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) is necessary for continued anti-terrorism operations speak directly to this issue. The broad interpretation of presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump has enabled the United States to prosecute the war against terrorism anywhere in the world.
Senate hearings scheduled for Oct. 30 will discuss this issue. A more restrictive AUMF would limit where the United States could legally carry out these operations — and against whom. A more expansive AUMF might have the opposite effect.
The release of these documents from the 1960s serves as a reminder that that the United States has a long and complicated history of plotting to kill political opponents such as Castro outside the context of war. This legacy of covert plots also factors into the current debate on the war against terrorism in important ways.
Michael Poznansky is an assistant professor of international affairs and intelligence studies in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. His current book project, “The Politics of Secret Interventions: A Legal Theory of Covert Action,” looks at the relationship between international law and covert regime change. Find him on Twitter at @m_poznansky