CIA Reveals 'Skeletons in the Closet'

"Family jewels" documents detail agency's shadowy past.

February 10, 2009, 3:25 PM

June 26, 2007 — -- The recruitment of mafia men to plan the assassination of Fidel Castro, the wiretapping and surveillance of journalists who reported on classified material, and the two-year confinement in the United States of a KGB defector -- those are just a few of the past CIA activities revealed in documents released Tuesday.

Known as the "family jewels," the 702 pages of documents detail acts committed between March 1959 and the early 1970s that raise questions about the legality of some of the CIA's activities. Initially compiled for Congress in 1973, the documents helped spur sweeping agency reforms.

In 1973 CIA director James Schlesinger sent a memo to all agency employees, directing them to report on "all activities undertaken that may have fallen outside the CIA's charter."

The files were released voluntarily by the CIA, albeit after numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. In announcing the release, current CIA Director Michael Hayden said last week that the documents "provide a glimpse of a very different time and a very different agency."

"Much of it has been in the press before, and most of it is unflattering, but it is the CIA's history," Hayden said.

The documents trace the steps in an apparent failed plot to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

According to the files, Robert Maheu, a former FBI agent, was contacted, briefed on the mission and asked "if he could develop an entree into the gangster elements as a first step towards accomplishing the desired goal."

Maheu was asked to approach an acquaintance, Johnny Roselli, who was thought to be part of the "syndicate" that controlled all of the ice machines on the Las Vegas Strip. Maheu deduced Roselli's purported mob ties would include connections to Cuban gambling enterprises as well.

Maheu presented himself as an executive representing several clients who were losing money because of Castro's clampdown on the gambling industry, and therefore wanted the leader ousted from power.

Roselli was interested, and brought in an associate, Sam Gold. But Maheu discovered that Gold and a courier traveling between Miami and Havana known as Joe, also recruited for the mission, were leading double lives -- both men were on the attorney general's 10 most wanted list.

Gold was identified as Momo Salvatore Giancana, Chicago's Cosa Nostra boss -- the successor to Al Capone. Joe was determined to be Santos Trafficant, head of the organization's Cuban enterprises.

Giancana suggested poisoning as a murder method, and indicated that he had an assassin in mind: Juan Orta, a Cuban official with access to Castro who was receiving kickbacks from the gambling industry.

The CIA produced "six pills of high lethal content" to Trafficant, who delivered them to Orta.

But Orta, after he reported several failed attempts to administer the pills, "apparently got cold feet and asked out of the assignment." Orta nominated one of his contacts to carry out the mission, but that individual failed as well.

Trafficant suggested another contact: Dr. Anthony Verona of the Cuban Exile Junta, who was apparently dissatisfied with the junta's "ineffectual progress" and was "willing to handle the mission through his own resources."

But the documents note that "Dr. Verona's potential was never fully exploited, as the project was canceled shortly after the Bay of Pigs episode," referring to the failed U.S.-backed attempt to overthrow Castro in 1961. The pills were then returned to the CIA.

Roselli came into some legal trouble in the late 1960s and faced deportation after a conviction on charges of illegal entry into the United States and conspiracy. Roselli threatened to go public with the plot, indicating through his attorney that "if someone did not intercede on Roselli's behalf, he would make a complete expose of his activities with the Agency."

But the CIA decided not to intervene, and the documents conclude that Roselli himself or someone on his behalf must have given details of the Castro assassination attempts to reporter Jack Anderson.

As a result, the CIA kept close watch on Anderson and "at various times" his "legmen" Brit Hume, Leslie Whitten and Joseph Spear. The two-month long effort included physical surveillance and observation of Anderson's workplace from a hotel room across the street.

Anderson's surveillance was part of a much larger domestic surveillance project undertaken by the CIA, involving actions that are prohibited by the CIA's charter.

For three months in 1963, the CIA conducted "productive" wiretaps on two Washington-based journalists who had published "classified materials of this agency and others."

Dubbed "Project Mockingbird," the effort involved placing listening devices in the offices and homes of columnists Robert Allen and Paul Scott. The wiretaps were conducted with "the coordination" of then Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

The CIA eventually determined that the newsmen were so plugged into the executive and congressional branches of government that they "actually received more classified and official data than they could use, and passed some of the stories to other newsmen for release." It turned out that many "leaks" appearing under other bylines had actually come from Allen's and Scott's sources.

The documents also reveal an episode of overzealousness with regard to a KGB defector suspected of being a double agent, based on doubts that were later seen as misplaced.

Yuriy Ivanovich Nosenko was detained from August 1965 to October 1967 in "a specially constructed 'jail' in a remote wooded area" because the CIA was "convinced that he was a dispatched agent." Nosenko's confinement was an effort to get him to "confess" after initial "hostile interrogation" failed to confirm the CIA's contention that he was a plant.

As Nosenko's detention dragged on, CIA lawyers became concerned with "the illegality of the Agency's position in handling a defector under these conditions for such a long period of time." Nosenko was subsequently transferred to another unit where for the next year he was detained at a "comfortable safehouse." Finally the CIA determined he was a "bona fide" defector and a later analysis concluded he was "the most valuable and economical defector this Agency has ever had."

Leads long ignored by his interrogators eventually resulted in the arrests and prosecution of unnamed individuals.

Granted an alias and remarried to an American citizen, Nosenko's reaction to his CIA detainment was straightforward: "While I regret my three years of incarceration, I have no bitterness and now understand how it could happen."

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