The Mysterious Blunderings of the CIA

November 20, 2015

The Church Committee’s report, “Alleged Assassination Plots against Foreign Leaders,” turns 40 today. Most of us first learned of this document — easily accessible courtesy of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — as one of several reports the committee produced on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1975. “Alleged Assassination Plots” remains a collection of fascinating revelations of CIA-sponsored covert operations in the Congo, Vietnam, Chile, and elsewhere in the developing world in the 1960s and early 1970s. Among the most shocking was ZR/RIFLE, the operations directorate’s code-word for a plan for the development of an assassination capability — something which seems to come right out of the Jason Bourne films. (Actually, it was the other way around.) The directorate’s leadership discussed Project RIFLE with Kennedy administration officials sometime during or just after Kennedy’s transition, although officials have long denied they ever brought it up or even knew about it. In any case, the directorate designated one asset, a European associated with organized crime, to recruit others who would carry out future assignments after this. But the plan never went beyond the drawing-board. RIFLE, the Church Committee concluded, never became anything more than a how-exactly-would-we-do-this-if-we-were-instructed-to-do-it thought at the agency.

Kennedy officials, if not Kennedy himself, likely initiated these discussions in early 1961 because Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles (1953–1961) had been cultivating a Mission Impossible-like mystique since the CIA had overthrown governments in Iran and Guatemala. Dulles leaked information on these coups to journalists Richard and Gladys Harkness, who published “The Mysterious Doings of the CIA” in the Saturday Evening Post just after Guatemala. This article romanticized these operations and drew official Washington in, persuading officials of the agency’s infallibility in the world of covert operations. All continued going well for Dulles until the Bay of Pigs, when he and his protégé Richard Bissell — who had planned and directed it — were forced to resign by an embarrassed Kennedy.

Sometime between this Cuban fiasco, Kennedy’s assassination, the Ramparts scandal, Vietnam, Watergate, and the overthrow of President Salvador Allende in Chile, the American public stopped looking at the mysterious doings of the CIA in awe and started viewing them with suspicion. Authors Victor Marchetti and John Marks, and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, alleged that the agency was violating its charter, coolly functioning as an omnipotent, omniscient, and sinister government-within-the-government. It was even running operations against Americans inside the United States. Indeed, many conspiracy theorists still believe that the CIA either assassinated Kennedy or covered it up. The Senate formed the Church Committee partly in response to these concerns and allegations.

The committee, however, concluded that the CIA had in fact remained within its charter and it had not run operations against Americans in the United States either. It reviewed the exact nature and scope of several of the agency’s operations, and it found that presidents had directed all of them. However, the idea of a “rogue elephant” continued to resonate in conspiracy theories, especially in the public discourse on the CIA and in spy fiction and film — from Steven Seagal and Oliver Stone to the Bourne trilogy, whose producers and writers likely read at least part of the committee’s reports.

There is an alternative way to read the “Alleged Assassination Plots” document. It offers neither a window into Jim Phelps and the Impossible Mission Force nor the CIA from which Bourne is perpetually running. Rather, it reveals the Dulles era’s operations directorate as Maxwell Smart’s agency, an agency that blundered around in, rather than dominated, the developing world from the early 1950s into the early 1970s. Dulles-era covert operators may not have been talking to each other in cones of silence or using shoe phones, but there were dart guns and poison pens involved. The committee’s reports show this and more.

For instance, the CIA attempted “to neutralize [Fidel] Castro’s influence” eight times between 1960 and 1965. Covert operators tried poisoned cigars with “a botulinum toxin so potent that a person would die after putting one in his mouth,” and — as Maxwell Smart might have asked — would you believe … exploding cigars, too? The agency knew Castro liked to dive and spearfish, so officers tried to poison his wetsuit and plant an exploding seashell in the area where he habitually swam. Maybe, they reasoned, it would attract his attention. Maybe, as Smart often quipped, they missed it by that much. All of these efforts failed.

The CIA’s covert operators also attempted to recruit hitmen from organized crime to kill Castro. Agency officials wanted to use the mafia because their officers had no idea how to assassinate anyone, and they assumed, likely deriving from yet more stereotypes in fiction and film, that the mob employed master assassins. These officials also assumed that since organized crime had run gaming operations in Havana before Castro’s revolution, they still had influence in the underworld there. They employed Robert Maheu, a former FBI agent living in Las Vegas, as their cutout. Maheu had contacts in the mafia all the way up to Johnny Rosselli and Sam Giancana. The CIA’s operators tried passing poisoned pills to Rosselli, but the pills came back unused. Meanwhile, Maheu instructed an associate to wiretap a hotel room in Las Vegas for unclear reasons (either to confirm Giancana’s whereabouts or to check operational security). Maheu’s amateurish associate carelessly left the wiretapping equipment in the room, in the open. A maid walked in and discovered it. She reported it to her supervisors, who called the local police. Thus Maheu’s associate was promptly arrested and his identity and actions were recorded in the Clark County justice system. So much for low-profile. CIA executives sheepishly acknowledged that this was nothing less than “a Keystone Comedy act” while testifying about it before the committee.

The Church Committee broadly inquired into these operations; it did not limit its review to the CIA’s assassination plots. These operations also included the anti-Castro guerrilla movements the agency attempted to field in the months that preceded the Bay of Pigs, before the operation morphed into an amphibious invasion. The best account of these would-be guerrilla operations remains CIA Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick’s scathingly critical report, which the committee read and cited. Kirkpatrick described a typical incident that illustrated the CIA’s air-support operations in Cuba at the time.

A 100-man arms pack was dropped for an agent rated as having considerable potential as a resistance leader. The crew missed the drop zone by seven miles and dropped the weapons on a dam. Castro forces scooped them up, ringed the area, caught the agent and later shot him. The airplane got lost on the way back to Guatemala and landed in Mexico [where local authorities impounded it]. It is still there.

Subsequent attempts were planned and executed at the same level of laughable incompetence. Another pilot, for example, could not find his marker but nevertheless dropped his cargo where he was — because, he later reported, he had had “a positive feeling.” Yet another pilot also got lost. He circled his aircraft in an erratic pattern four miles off target, prompting those on the ground to complain that he was either “drunk or crazy.”

When reading “Alleged Assassination Plots” from this perspective, it is easy to appreciate the committee’s conclusions that not only did no CIA assassination attempt succeed during the Dulles era, but that agency officials and others in government at the time had exaggerated notions about their capabilities, especially the CIA’s ability to control or influence events in the developing world. Some may still prefer to read this differently, to see ominous agency conspiracies, for example. But however you do choose to read it, it is worth your time. The Church Committee investigations remain one of the most notable Senate inquiries in congressional history, and “Alleged Assassination Plots” and the other reports they produced remain key documents in Cold War history.


James Lockhart is a PhD candidate in American foreign relations and world/comparative history at the University of Arizona. He has lectured at Embry-Riddle University’s College of Security and Intelligence since 2014. He specializes in United States–Latin American relations, particularly southern South America.