HAVANA – The CIA recruited a former FBI agent to approach two of America's most-wanted mobsters and gave them poison pills meant for Fidel Castro during his first year in power, according to newly declassified papers released Tuesday.
Contained amid hundreds of pages of CIA internal reports collectively known as "the family jewels," the official confirmation of the 1960 plot against Castro was certain to be welcomed by communist authorities as more proof of their longstanding claims that the United States wants Castro dead.
Communist officials say there have been more than 600 documented attempts to kill Castro over the decades. Now 80, Castro has not been seen in public since handing power to his younger brother Raul while recovering from intestinal surgery last July. But in a letter published on Monday, the elder Castro claimed without providing details that President Bush had "authorized and ordered" his killing.
And while Cuban government press officials didn't return a call seeking reaction Tuesday, the release of the newly declassified CIA documents had already been noted in state media.
"Upon the orders of the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency tried to assassinate President Fidel Castro and other former personalities and leaders," the Communist Party newspaper Granma said Saturday. "What was already presumed and denounced will be corroborated."
Other aborted U.S. attempts to kill Castro, who rose to power in January 1959 in a revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista, have been noted in other declassified documents.
The papers released Tuesday were part of a report prepared at the request of CIA Director James Schlesinger in 1973, who ordered senior agency officials to tell him of any current or past actions that could potentially violate the agency's charter.
Some details of the 1960 plot first surfaced in investigative reporter Jack Anderson's newspaper column in 1971.
The documents show that in August 1960, the CIA recruited ex-FBI agent Robert Maheu, then a top aide to Howard Hughes in Las Vegas, to approach mobster Johnny Roselli and pass himself off as the representative of international corporations that wanted Castro killed because of their lost gambling operations.
At the time, the bearded rebels had just outlawed gambling and destroyed the world-famous casinos American mobsters had operated in Havana.
Roselli introduced Maheu to "Sam Gold" and "Joe." Both were mobsters on the U.S. government's 10-most wanted list: Momo Giancana, Al Capone's successor in Chicago; and Santos Trafficante, one of the most powerful mobsters in Batista's Cuba. The agency gave the reputed mobsters six poison pills, and they tried unsuccessfully for several months to have several people put them in Castro's food.
This particular assassination attempt was dropped after the failed CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961. The CIA was able to retrieve all the poison pills, records show.
The hundreds of pages also detail the testing of mind- and behavior-altering drugs like LSD on unwitting citizens, wiretapping of U.S. journalists, spying on civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protesters, opening mail between the United States and the Soviet Union and China, break-ins at the homes of ex-CIA employees and others.
The 693 pages, mostly drawn from the memories of active CIA officers in 1973, were turned over at that time to three different investigative panels — President Ford's Rockefeller Commission, the Senate's Church committee and the House's Pike committee.
The panels spent years investigating and amplifying on these documents. And their public reports in the mid-1970s filled tens of thousands of pages. The scandal sullied the reputation of the intelligence community and led to new rules for the CIA, FBI and other spy agencies and new permanent committees in Congress to oversee them.
These documents also were one of the products of the Watergate scandal. Then-CIA Director James Schlesinger was angered to read in the newspapers that the CIA had provided support to ex-CIA agents E. Howard Hunt and James McCord, who were convicted in the Watergate break-in. Hunt had worked for a secret "plumbers unit" in Richard Nixon's White House. The unit originally was tasked to investigate and end leaks of classified information but ultimately engaged in a wide range of misconduct.
In May 1973, Schlesinger ordered "all senior operating officials of this agency to report to me immediately on any activities now going on, or that have gone on the past, which might be construed to be outside the legislative charter of this agency." The law establishing the CIA barred it from conducting spying inside the United States.
The result was 693 pages of memos that arrived after Schlesinger had moved to the Pentagon and been replaced as CIA chief by William Colby. Colby ultimately reported the contents to the Justice Department.
"These are the top CIA officers all going into the confessional and saying, `Forgive me father, for I have sinned,' " said Thomas Blanton, director of the private National Security Archive, which had requested release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
Inside the CIA, Colby referred to the documents as the "skeletons." But another name quickly caught on and stuck: "family jewels."
They first spilled into public view on Dec. 22, 1974, with a story by Seymour Hersh in The New York Times on the CIA's spying against antiwar and other dissidents inside this country. The agency assembled files on some 10,000 people.