Operation Mongoose: The Psyop Papers
Following the disastrous invasion at Cuba's Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy
administration regrouped and initiated a massive new covert action program to
trigger Fidel Castro's overthrow. Operation Mongoose, as the effort was called,
was launched in late 1961 and placed under the command of Brig. Gen. Edward
Lansdale, an Air Force officer viewed by the president as a real-life James Bond
-- a covert action specialist without peer.
Details of the campaign have been seeping out for years, but now, thanks to the persistent efforts of the Assassinations Record Review Board (ARRB), the full story of secret Mongoose PSYOP is available to the public. The board was created by Congress to oversee the release of documents relating to the murder of President Kennedy. Some of its most significant recent releases have focused on the Defense Department's involvement in Kennedy-era covert action against Cuba.
In November 1997 and January 1998, documents released by the board unveiled dozens of Pentagon proposals for disinformation operations against Cuba. The documents offer up startling new evidence of the extreme measures that came under consideration for the Operation Mongoose propaganda war, and reveal some of the most deceptive and ruthless schemes ever suggested by U.S. military officials.
In late 1961, a Mongoose task force was created which brought together officials from the CIA, the U.S. Information Agency and the departments of State and Defense. The Pentagon representative was Brig. Gen. William Craig, who, as the documents show, was never short of ideas for the operation.
Part of Craig's contribution to Mongoose was divulged decades ago. In 1975, while reporting on U.S.-backed assassination plots, the Church Committee in the U.S. Senate took note of "Operation Bounty," a proposal Craig sent to Lansdale in January 1962. The plan was to offer rewards (via leaflets) to Cubans who killed government officials. Lansdale told the Senate investigators that he rejected the plan.
However, the newly released documents indicate that Craig pushed for even stronger psychological warfare measures. In one February 2, 1962 memo to Lansdale, Craig listed no less than twelve "possible actions to provoke, harass, or disrupt" the Castro government. (Click here to view the document.)
Craig schemed to pin international blame on Cuba for incidents staged covertly by the United States. The aptly named Operation Dirty Trick, for example, would have made it seem that Cuba was responsible for a failed U.S. space launch from Florida. "This is to be accomplished by manufacturing various pieces of evidence which would prove electronic interference on the part of the Cubans," Craig wrote.
Another Craig disinformation plot, Operation Bingo, called for faking a Cuban attack on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, "thus providing the excuse for use of U.S. military might to overthrow the current government."
Some of Craig's plans were more whimsical. Consider Operation Good Times, an attempt to "disillusion the Cuban population with Castro['s] image by distribution of fake photographic material." Craig proposed disseminating "a desired photograph, such as an obese Castro with two beauties in any situation desired, ostensibly within a room in the Castro residence, lavishly furnished and a table briming [sic] over with the most delectable Cuban food with an underlying caption (appropriately Cuban) such as 'My ration is different.'"
The image of a fat, satisfied Castro "should put even a Commie Dictator in the proper perspective with the underprivileged masses," Craig advised.
Most of Craig's plans never got off the ground, but other materials released by the ARRB document the anti-Castro propaganda operations that were actually conducted. On the one hand there were the overt operations, those openly supported by the United States. These included Voice of America broadcasts and State Department statements focusing on Cuba -- messages that were tailored (to the extent possible) to enhance the secret plans of Operation Mongoose.
On the covert side, the CIA did most of the media work. The agency's secret psywar duties included the production and dissemination of anti-Castro radio programs, newsreels, books and periodicals. The Cuban Revolutionary Council, an exile political group covertly created and secretly subsidized by the CIA, served as a major conduit for the propaganda messages and materials.
The newly released documents include a remarkable file of records from an inter-agency "Psychological Operations Group" set up to advance Lansdale's plans. Lt. Col. James Patchell of the Office of the Secretary of Defense attended the group's weekly meetings, and his notes of the sessions were relayed to Lansdale. Patchell's memos reveal how officials from the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA and the U.S. Information Agency brainstormed ways of turning the tide of public opinion against Castro.
The United States had plenty of ways to invade Cuba with information, but what was the best message to convey to the island? The officials on the Mongoose PSYOP group searched high and low for effective propaganda themes. A major concern was choosing an appropriate, convincing symbol for the anti-Castro movement. During the Bay of Pigs invasion, for example, CIA radio broadcasts to Cuba had declared cryptically that "The fish will rise very soon." The Cuban people may or may not have understood this as a call to arms, but they certainly did not follow the call.
During Operation Mongoose, Patchell reported, the CIA "decided that the 'worm' is preferable to the 'fish' and that it has been popularized by Castro and we should take advantage of it." (Castro had derided opponents of the revolutionary government as "gusanos" -- worms.) By late 1962 the CIA was pushing the slogan "Gusano Libre!" -- Free Worm! -- in its broadcasts to Cuba.
Patchell suggested using catch-phrases such as "the worm will turn" to bolster the propaganda pitch. He also recommended using bible verses to spread the message, such as this quote from the book of Isaiah: "Their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched." (Click here to read Patchell's notes.)
Despite such creative planning by Craig and his colleagues in the Mongoose PSYOP group, the Cuban people did not rise up against the revolutionary government. Lansdale's project was shut down in the midst of the October 1962 missile crisis -- but the methods of Operation Mongoose remained a part of U.S. planning for Cuba.
The anti-Castro psywar, along with sabotage attacks and economic warfare, continued into 1963. According to one of the recently released documents, Lt. Col. Patchell was among those who stayed on the job. Patchell had contributed some inventive schemes to Operation Mongoose -- but none as absurd as his proposal that the United States invent a mythical anti-Castro leader.
On May 13, 1963, Patchell prepared a memo on "Future Cuban Leadership." Days earlier, the Kennedy administration's secret support of the CIA's exile front group, the Cuban Revolutionary Council (CRC), was terminated. Without the CRC, Patchell noted, "a vacuum has been created" in the anti-Castro movement. The solution? An "imaginary Cuban leader," Patchell suggested.
The proposal was "replete with gimmickry," Patchell acknowledged. The United States would surface reports that a daring anti-Castro rebel was eluding Cuban authorities and responsible for a range of underground activities. The fabricated fighter would become "our 'Cuban Kilroy,'" Patchell wrote. "Humorous antics could be credited to our imaginary friend and rumors of his exploits of bravery (ala Zoro) could be circulated."
Of course the imaginary insurgent would need an appropriately stirring nom de guerre. Patchell suggested "utilizing a popular name from Cuban history" or "a newly devised name." The name "should typify a person who is friendly to the Cuban people, is anti-communist, is willing to fight against the regime, and is little -- but tough." Patchell offered several options: "The Little Bull," "The Little Worm," "The Friendly Worm," "The Fighting Friend," or "The Tough Peasant." (Click here to read Patchell's "Future Cuban Leadership" report.)
This particular proposal was never put into action, but similar plans were used during the Mongoose psywar extravaganza. The CIA's Radio Free Cuba, a clandestine station transmitted from a Navy submarine which would surface near the island, claimed to originate from within Cuba.
Such claims failed to foment an anti-Castro rebellion. Reading the newly declassified records of Mongoose-era schemes, it becomes all the more evident why Cubans didn't heed the advice of U.S. propagandists. The appeals were often too divorced from Cuban culture and reality to be taken seriously, and probably only strengthened the impression that the United States was trying to manipulate sentiments from afar. Whether the bait was fish, worms, or imaginary friends, Cubans weren't biting.
(Want to know more about Operation Mongoose? Last year State Department historians published hundreds of secret documents on the secret war against Cuba. Click here to access the full collection.)
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