How the US planned to provoke a war with Cuba
Recently declassified US government documents cast further light on America's obsession with getting rid of Fidel Castro, reports Michael McCaughan.
Eever since Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in January 1959, successive US governments have spared no expense in their efforts to oust the bearded rebel.
The CIA experimented with exploding cigars and a potion to make Fidel's beard fall out, assuming that the sudden loss of facial hair would be the downfall of a revolutionary in a culture dominated by machismo. The US government quickly moved on to more serious terror tactics, facilitating bombing raids on commercial targets in Havana and supporting the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.
A new set of declassified documents, published this week, reveal a further twist in this surreal web of intrigue. The aptly-titled Assassinations Records Review Board describes how the US government, in 1962, planned to create "pretexts to provide justification for military intervention in Cuba" by placing the US "in the position of suffering justifiable grievances".
The first step was "a series of well co-ordinated incidents planned to take place in and around Guantanamo to give genuine appearance of being done by hostile Cuban forces". The incidents would include a landing of "friendly" Cubans in uniform to stage mock attacks on the US base, capturing "saboteurs" inside the base and blowing up ammunition.
US aircraft would be set on fire, mortar shells would be lobbed into the base from outside the perimeter fence, US ships would be "sabotaged" in the harbour and mock funerals would be held for the "victims". The US would then stage the "shooting down" of an American civil aircraft in international airspace and concoct "reliable" evidence to "prove" the Cubans were responsible. Any self-respecting intelligence service would have called it a day at this point but the US, chastened by past failures, carried on regardless.
The next stage involved a chartered plane full of students on their way to Central America, to be swapped with a "double" belonging to the CIA. "At a designated time the duplicate would be substituted for the actual civil aircraft and would be loaded with the selected passengers, all boarded under carefully prepared aliases."
The two planes would rendez-vous somewhere south of Florida. From there the passenger-carrying aircraft would descend to minimum altitude and go into a field at Eglin Air Force Base where arrangements will have been made to evacuate the passengers.
The CIA drone would continue its journey on a scheduled flight path until it crossed Cuban airspace, at which point it would begin transmitting a Mayday message stating it was under attack by Cuban MIG aircraft. The transmission would be interrupted by the destruction of the aircraft which would be triggered by radio signal to allow "radio stations in the western hemisphere to tell the US what has happened to the aircraft instead of the US trying to 'sell' the incident".
The Americans also planned to make it look like Cuban MIGs had destroyed a US air force aircraft over international waters in an unprovoked attack. A "pre-briefed pilot would broadcast that he had been jumped by MIGs and was going down. No other calls would be made. The pilot would then fly directly west at extremely low altitude and land at a secure base... the aircraft would be met by the proper people , quickly stored and given a new tail number".
The pilot who had performed the mission under an alias, would resume his proper identity and return to his normal place of business. The pilot and aircraft would then have disappeared.
In a final flourish the US dirty tricks department then planned to distribute parts of the missing aircraft into the shores off Cuba. Search ships and aircraft would then be dispatched, with appropriate outrage, to find parts of the "downed" aircraft. The doors would then be wide open to "commence large-scale military operations".
The plan was approved by then US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The plot could be dismissed as yesteryear Cold War shenanigans were it not for compelling contemporary evidence that suggests continuity in US intelligence thinking.
Four decades later Mr McNamara's successor, Donald Rumsfeld, unveiled the Office for Strategic Influence (OSI), set up to feed false information to the media, preparing the terrain for fresh attacks on perceived US enemies.
The Cuban plan was abandoned but the Tonkin incident (1964) bears remarkable similarities. In August 1964 US President Lyndon Johnson ordered attacks on North Vietnam after a US destroyer was allegedly attacked in Tonkin harbour.
A second attack was then reported by US officials. Unpublished cables dispatched from the US ship referred to "freak weather effects", "almost total darkness" and an "overeager sonarman" who "was hearing ship's own propeller beat" rather than enemy fire.
"American planes hit North Vietnam after second attack on our destroyers; Move taken to halt new aggression", announced a Washington Post headline on August 5th, 1964. The Tonkin incident marked the escalation of the Vietnam War.
News of the Cuban destabilisation plan broke the same week that a top Pentagon expert on Cuba admitted she gave Havana classified information relating to US national defence over a period of 16 years.
Ana Belen Montes, who identified US agents operating in Havana, is facing 25 years in prison on espionage charges. Ms Montes said she was motivated by her belief that "US policy does not afford Cubans respect, tolerance and understanding". She has a point.
• Michael McCaughan is a freelance journalist specialising in Latin America