NY Transfer News Collective - Covert Actions
Operations Northwoods, by James Bamford
Operations Northwoods, by James Bamford
"We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba," they proposed; "casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation."
The following excerpt from James Bamford's "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency" (Doubleday, 2001) provides very disturbing information that is directly relevant to the events of September 11, 2001.
Indeed, we must wonder if the inexplicable intelligence and defense failures claimed by US Government agencies are simply part of some elaborate cover story. Even worse, we must consider the possibility that the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington were simply a bigger, badder version of the Gulf of Tonkin "incident," which was successfully foisted upon a gullible US public to push them into supporting the war against Vietnam.
Bamford begins Chapter Four of his book by describing the bizarre cold-war atmosphere in the US in 1960, with the witch-hunts of McCarthyism a recent event, and US military leadership full of paranoid arch-reactionary attitudes. General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a protege of outgoing president Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, was one of these ultra-rightwing military anticommunists, many of whom actually believed that the government was riddled with communist traitors, from the Chief Justice on down.
In charge of the entire military might of the United States, Lemnitzer had nothing but contempt for the new crop of civilian leaders in JFK's government, including JFK himself.
Lemnitzer and the other joint chiefs were avidly planning a military invasion of Cuba, and were strongly opposed to the CIA's various plans to subvert the Cuban Revolution covertly. They wanted Kennedy to scrub the scheme, hatched in the last months of the Eisenhower administration, to attempt an invasion by Cuban exiles, covertly funded and supported by the US Government.
In late January, shortly after JFK's inauguration, Lemnitzer advocated against the exile invasion and strongly pitched the idea of a military invasion. John Kennedy refused, on the grounds that such an invasion would be completely unacceptable to international and domestic public opinion as being an American version of the USSR's 1956 invasion of Hungary.
Ironically, the US Government's betrayal of its exile Cuban invaders, and the shocked and bewildered radio intercept transcripts from the Bay of Pigs, became a replica of the CIA's betrayal and abandonment of its trusting agents during the Hungarian uprising.
For those who are unfamiliar with the author's work and his 1982 book on the NSA ("The Puzzle Palace"), it may be necessary to explain that James Bamford is no crackpot conspiracy theorist.
This excerpt begins during the late winter, during the new administration's preparation for what became the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of April, 1961.
- NY Transfer News Collective
Body of Secrets, by James Bamford (Doubleday & Co., 2001)
Excerpt from Chapter Four: "Fists"
Eisenhower had spent eight years working closely with the CIA. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Cuban operation, which he had helped plan for nearly a year. Now Kennedy, in office barely a week and attempting to put his administration together, was being pressured to quickly okay a dangerour plan produced by a man he didn't know and an agency that was a cipher to him. Dulles told him that once the landing took place, it would trigger a great uprising and Castro would quickly tumble.
But Dulles certainly knew that to be a lie. Castro was a hero to much of the Cuban population for having rid them of the bloody excesses of Batista only two years before. As a long-hidden CIA report notes, "We can confidently assert that the Agency had no intelligence evidence that the Cubans in significant numbers could or would join the invaders or that there was any kind of an effective and cohesive resistance movement under anybody's control, let alone the Agency's, that could have furnished internal leadership for an uprising in support of the invasion." The same report concluded that at the time of that White House meeting "the Agency was driving forward without knowing precisely where it was going."
Lemnitzer was a man of details. After becoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff he sent out elaborate instructions outlining exactly how his fellow Chiefs were to autograph group picturesÄthey were to sign their names directly under his, and they must follow his slant. Neither his limousine nor his plane was ever to be moved without his being consulted. Lemnitzer also enjoyed his reputation as a consummate planner. In an eight-page biography he submitted to Congress prior to his testimony, he made frequent reference to himself as an "imaginative planner" and to his "skill as a planner." On his Pentagon desk was a crystal ball and in a drawer was a favorite verse:
Planners are a funny lot
Lemnitzer, the planner, certainly saw the pitfalls of the CIA's amateur and ill-conceived plan, as did his fellow Chiefs. Years later Lemnitzer hand-wrote a detailed fifty-two-page summary of the JCS involvement in the Bay of Pigs operation. He called it "The Cuban Debacle" and locked it away in his house; he died without ever publicly revealing its existence. Obtained for Body of Secrets, the account clearly shows that Lemnitzer's Joint Staff viewed the CIA plan as a disaster waiting to happen. He quotes from a secret internal JCS analysis of the operation: "In view of the rapid buildup of the Castro Government s military and militia capability, **and the lack of predictable future mass discontent,** the possible success of the Para-Military Plan appears very doubtful" [emphasis in original].
Yet inexplicably, only days later, Lemnitzer submitted a positive recommendation to Secretary of Defense McNamara. "Evaluation of the current plan results in a favorable assessment ... of the likelihood of achieving initial military success," he wrote. "The JCS considers that timely execution of the plan has a fair chance of ultimate success and, even if it does not achieve immediately the full results desired, [it] could contribute to the eventual overthrow of the Castro regime." Later that day, McNamara verbally endorsed those conclusions.
It may well have been that the Joint Chiefs, angry with the arrogant CIA brass for moving into their territory, were hoping that the spooks would fail. Once the CIA was out of the way, the uniformed professionals in the Pentagon would be called on to save the dayÄto take over, conduct the real invasion, and oust Castro. From then on, military invasions would again be the monopoly of the generals. But soon it became clear that Kennedy had meant what he said about keeping the operation covert.
As originally planned, the exile force was to land at the coastal town of Trinidad. But the White House objected. According to Lemnitzer's private summary, Kennedy wanted a quiet night landing, which the world would believe was planned by Cubans. Above all, Lemnitzer noted, there was to be no intervention by U.S. forces.
Following Kennedy's order, CIA planners presented the Joint Chiefs of Staff Working Group with a list of five alternative landing sites. Later the list was reduced to three. The group picked Alternative III, a spot in the swampy Zapata Peninsula called the Bay of Pigs. After a brief twenty-minute discussion, barely enough time for a coffee break, Lemnitzer and his Chiefs agreed with their Working Group's choice. "Of the alternative concepts," said the JCS recommendation, "Alternative III is considered the most feasible and the most likely to accomplish the objective. None of the alternative concepts are considered as feasible and as likely to accomplish the objective as the original [Trinidad] plan."
Lemnitzer had grave doubts about the whole CIA operation from the beginning but remained largely silent and quickly approved the plan. The Bay of Pigs was considerably closer to Havana than Trinidad was; this meant a quicker response from Cuban troops, and with only one road in and out of the landing zone, it was a perfect place for a slaughter. Cuban troops could easily isolate the invaders, who would be forced to die on the beaches or drown in the sea.
Lemnitzer had one last chance to reach up and pull the emergency brake before the train plunged off the embankment. On April 4,1961, Kennedy held a conference at the State Department with his key advisers to get their final thoughts on the invasion. Lemnitzer, seeing certain disaster ahead, buttonholed Assistant Secretary of State Thomas C. Mann before the meeting started and insisted that the choice of Zapata for a landing site was a bad decision, that the Joint Chiefs did not want the invasion to take place closer to Havana. Mann, taken aback by Lemnitzer's sudden change of position, dismissed his protest and insisted that Kennedy had already made his decision.
As Kennedy convened the meeting, Lemnitzer sat mute. The man in charge of the most powerful military force on earth, with enough nuclear weapons to destroy civilization, was afraid to speak up to his boss. It was his moment of truth. Instead he chose to close his eyes, cover his mouth, and wait for the sound of grinding metal. He knew, as he had known from the beginning, that the operation would turn out to be a disaster, that many men would die palnfully and needlessly, but still he preferred silence. He must also have finally realized that the Pentagon would never receive presidential authorization to charge in and save the day. At the end of the meeting, Kennedy asked who was still in favor of going ahead with the invasion. Lemnitzer's hand slowly reached toward the ceiling. Much later, in his summary, he confessed his failure to speak up but offered no apology.
The operation began at dawn on Monday, April 17, 1961, and quickly turned into a debacle. As Cuban air force and other military units converged on the area, NSA voice-intercept operators eavesdropped on the desperate pleas of the exiles. "Must have air support in next few hours or will be wiped out," Brigade Commander Pepe San Roman implored. "Under heavy attacks by MiG jets and heavy tanks." The Navy offered to evacuate the brigade commander and his troops, but was refused. They would fight to the end.
Because no provision had been made to provide NSA's Sigint to the brigade, the agency's intercepts were largely useless. All analysts could do was sit and listen to the hopeless messages from the rebel soldiers fighting on the beach and their supporters throughout Cuba. "Arms urgent," said one. "We made a commitment. We have complied. You have not. If you have decided to abandon us, answer." Another radioed, "We are risking hundreds of peasant families. If you cannot supply us we will have to ... demobilize. Your responsibility. We thought you were sincere." Still another pleaded, "All groups demoralized.... They consider themselves deceived because of failure of shipment of arms and money according to promise." Finally, there was one last message. "Impossible to fight... Either the drops increase or we die.... Men without arms or equipment. God help us."
"It wasn't much that was done here, as I understand," said one NSA official, "except they were copying the communications ... and their calls for help and assistance and what-have-you were all monitored."
"I will not be evacuated," said San Roman, defiantly. "Will fight to the end if we have to." On the beach, nearly out of bullets and mortars, the brigade launched a futile counterattack against Cuban army soldiers pushing relentlessly in from the west. "We are out of ammo and fighting on the beach," the brigade commander radioed to the task force command ship. "Please send help, we cannot hold."
"In water. Out of ammo. Enemy closing in. Help must arrive in next hour." San Roman's voice was now terse and desperate. There was no place to go. Between them and the approaching helmets were scores of their comrades, their blood joining the seawater with each crashing wave. "When your help will be here and with what?" The commander's voice was weaker now, unbelieving but still wanting to believe. "Why your help has not come?"
There were faces under the green helmets now, and arms with rifles, and legs running. They were coming from all sides, bullets hitting the water, the sand, and the men. NSA intercept operators eavesdropped on the final messages. "Am destroying all equipment and communications. Tanks are in sight. I have nothing to fight with. Am taking to woods. I cannot, repeat, cannot wait for you."
At 3:20 P.M., out at sea beyond the horizon, the evacuation convoy heading for the beach received a final message. "[Ships] ordered withdrawn [at] full speed."
The pall cast over the CIA as a result of the botched invasion did nothing to dampen the Kennedy administration's obsession with Castro. On a gray autumn Saturday in early November 1961, just after two o'clock, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called a meeting to order in the Cabinet Room of the White House. The day before, the president had given the group their marching orders. He wanted a solution to the Cuba problem and his brother was going to see that it was done. Robert Kennedy turned to the group and introduced Edward G. Lansdale, an Air Force one-star general and a specialist in counterinsurgency who sat stiffly in a padded black leather chair.
Tall, with Errol Flynn good looks, Lansdale was the deputy director of the Pentagon's Office of Special Operations. Hidden away behind the door to Room 3E114 in the Pentagon, the OSO was the unit responsible for NSA. Responsibility for dealing with Cuba, Kennedy said, was to shift from the CIA to the Pentagon, where the project would be known as Operation Mongoose. Kennedy asked the group if they had any problems with the change. Richard Bissell, who had just seen the CIA's crown jewel pass from his hands, could not resist at least one jab. No, he said, as long as "those employees on it were competent in clandestine operations."
Both Lansdale and Lemnitzer viewed Operation Mongoose as a golden opportunity, a chance for the military to flex its muscles at last and show off its ability to succeed where the CIA had so miserably failed. As prospects of an internal revolt in Cuba dimmed, Lansdale and Lemnitzer began to quletly explore the possibility of doing what they had wanted to do all along: conduct a full-scale invasion.
Since the Kennedy administration had come into office the extreme, distrustful right wing within the military had grown significantly, not only in numbers but also in decibels. In April 1961 Defense Secretary Robert McNamara finally lowered the boom on Major General Edwin A. Walker. Walker was charged with indoctrinating his troops with John Birch Society propaganda, officially admonished, and relieved of his command. As a result many conservatives accused the Kennedy administration of trying to muzzle anti-Communists.
Walker resigned from the Army in protest, but even as a civilian he continued to warn of the dangers of Communist infiltration. Among the themes he constantly pounded home was a distrust of civilian control of the military. "The traditional civilian control of the military has been perverted and extended into a commissar-like system of control at all major echelons of command," he said. In September 1961 he traveled to Oxford, Mississippi, to protest the enrollment of James Meredith, a black student, at the state university there. Robert Kennedy later issued an arrest warrant for Walker, charging him with seditious conspiracy, insurrection, and rebellion. He was jailed for five days, during which time he claimed he was a political prisoner.
Even at the stately National War College in Washington, seminars would occasionally be reduced to "extreme right-wing, witch-hunting, mudslinging revivals" and "bigoted, one-sided presentations advocating that the danger to our security is internal only," according to a report prepared by a member of Secretary of Defense McNamara's staff.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a report on the problem of right-wing extremism in the military, warned that there was "considerable danger" in the "education and propaganda activities of military personnel" that had been uncovered. "Running through all of them is a central theme that the primary, if not exclusive, danger to this country is internal Communist infiltration," said the report.
Among the key targets of the extremists, the committee said, was the Kennedy administration's domestic social program, which many ultraconservatives accused of being communistic. The "thesis of the nature of the Communist threat," the report warned, "often is developed by equating social legislation with socialism, and the latter with Communism.... Much of the administration's domestic legislative program, including continuation of the graduated income tax, expansion of social security (particularly medical care under social security), Federal aid to education, etc. under this philosophy would be characterized as steps toward Communism." Thus, "This view of the Communist menace renders foreign aid, cultural exchanges, disarmament negotiations and other international programs as extremely wasteful if not actually subversive.
The chilling Senate study concluded by warning of a revolt by senior military officers such as the one portrayed in "Seven Days in May." To show the idea was not farfetched, the report cited "as an example of the ultimate danger" the recent revolt by army generals in France, largely over policies in Algeria. "Military officers, French or American, have some common characteristics arising from their profession," said the report, "and there are numerous military `fingers on the trigger' throughout the world."
Finally, the committee specifically pointed to General Lemnitzer and called for an examination of the relationship between him, his Chiefs, and the extreme right-wing groups. Among the members of the committee most outspoken in calling for an investigation of Lemnitzer and the Joint Chiefs was Senator Albert Gore, Sr., of Tennessee (the father of former vice president Al Gore).
It was not an idle worry. In their 1963 book, "The Far Right," Donald Janson of the New York Times and CBS reporter Bernard Eismann wrote, "Concern had grown that a belligerent and free-wheeling military could conceivably become as dangerous to the stability of the United States as the mixture of rebelliousness and politics had in nations forced to succumb to juntas or fascism. The agony that gripped France as a result of military defectors' efforts to reverse government policy on Algeria was another forceful reminder of the inherent dangers in allowing political power to build up in the military establishment."
Outwardly, Lemnitzer remained stiff and correct. But deep inside he was raging at the new and youthful Kennedy White House. He felt out of place and out of time in a culture that seemed suddenly to have turned its back on military tradition. Almost immediately he became, in the clinical sense, paranoid; he began secretly expressing his worries to other senior officers. A little more than a month after Kennedy took office, he sent a letter to General Lauris Norstad, the commander-in-chief of the U.S. European Command, and several other top generals. Fearful that the administration would learn of his comments, he noted, "I had considered sending this information to you by electrical means but in view of its nature, I am sending it by letter for your, Jim Moore's and [Deputy Commander-in-Chief] Charlie Palmer's EYES ONLY." It was then delivered "in a sealed envelope for delivery to Gen. Norstad ONLY."
"You and Charlie are probably wondering what, if anything, the JCS are [d]oing about some of the disturbing things that have been happening recently with respect to your area," Lemnitzer wrote. But what so upset the JCS Chairman was not a major change in nuclear policy in Europe or a shift in Cold War strategy, but the fact that White House officials had canceled money earmarked for the remodeling of an officers' club. "I am sure that this seems as incredible to you as it does to us," he wrote, "but this is how things are happening here now." Finally, Lemnitzer complained about what he felt were deliberate leaks intended to embarrass senior military officials. "Here again I believe that the fundamental cause is the `eager beaver' attitude by many of the new and very young people who have been brought into government to publicize promptly any item they believe will give the new administration good press. I don't know how long this situation is going to continue but we seem to have a new incident every day."
Lemnitzer had no respect for the civilians he reported to. He believed they interfered with the proper role of the military. The "civilian hierarchy was crippled not only by inexperience," he would later say, "but also by arrogance arising from failure to recognize its own limitations.... The problem was simply that the civilians would not accept military judgments." In Lemnitzer's view, the country would be far better off if the generals could take over.
For those military officers who were sitting on the fence, the Kennedy administration's botched Bay of Pigs invasion was the last straw. "The Bay of Pigs fiasco broke the dike," said one report at the time. "President Kennedy was pilloried by the superpatriots as a `no-win' chief.... The Far Right became a fount of proposals born of frustration and put forward in the name of anti-Communism.... Active-duty commanders played host to anti-Communist seminars on their bases and attended or addressed Right-wing meetings elsewhere."
Although no one in Congress could have known it at the time, Lemnitzer and the Joint Chiefs had quietly slipped over the edge.
According to secret and long-hidden documents obtained for Body of Secrets, the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up and approved plans for what may be the most corrupt plan ever created by the U.S. government. In the name of anticommunism, they proposed launching a secret and bloody war of terrorism against their own country in order to trick the American public into supporting an ill-conceived war they intended to launch against Cuba.
Codenamed Operation Northwoods, the plan, which had the written approval of the Chairman and every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for a wave of violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C., Miami, and elsewhere. People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro, thus giving Lemnitzer and his cabal the excuse, as well as the public and international backing, they needed to launch their war.
The idea may actually have originated with President Eisenhower in the last days of his administration. With the Cold War hotter than ever and the recent U-2 scandal fresh in the public's memory, the old general wanted to go out with a win. He wanted desperately to invade Cuba in the weeks leading up to Kennedy's inauguration; indeed, on January 3 he told Lemnitzer and other aides in his Cabinet Room that he would move against Castro before the inauguration if only the Cubans gave him a really good excuse. Then, with time growing short, Eisenhower floated an idea. If Castro failed to provide that excuse, perhaps, he said, the United States "could think of manufacturing something that would be generally acceptable." What he was suggesting was a pretext -- a bombing, an attack, an act of sabotage -- carried out secretly against the United States by the United States. Its purpose would be to justify the launching of a war. It was a dangerous suggestion by a desperate president.
Although no such war took place, the idea was not lost on General Lemnitzer. But he and his colleagues were frustrated by Kennedy's failure to authorize their plan, and angry that Castro had not provided an excuse to invade.
The final straw may have come during a White House meeting on February 26, 1962. Concerned that General Lansdale's various covert action plans under Operation Mongoose were simply becoming more outrageous and going nowhere, Robert Kennedy told him to drop all anti-Castro efforts. Instead, Lansdale was ordered to concentrate for the next three months strictly on gathering intelligence about Cuba. It was a humiliating defeat for Lansdale, a man more accustomed to praise than to scorn.
As the Kennedy brothers appeared to suddenly "go soft" on Castro, Lemnitzer could see his opportunity to invade Cuba quickly slipping away. The attempts to provoke the Cuban public to revolt seemed dead and Castro, unfortunately, appeared to have no inclination to launch any attacks against Americans or their property. Lemnitzer and the other Chiefs knew there was only one option left that would ensure their war. They would have to trick the American public and world opinion into hating Cuba so much that they would not only go along, but would insist that he and his generals launch their war against Castro. "World opinion, and the United Nations forum," said a secret JCS document, "should be favorably affected by developing the international image of the Cuban government as rash and irresponsible, and as an alarming and unpredictable threat to the peace of the Western Hemisphere."
Operation Northwoods called for a war in which many patriotic Americans and innocent Cubans would die senseless deaths -- all to satisfy the egos of twisted generals back in Washington, safe in their taxpayer-financed homes and limousines.
One idea seriously considered involved the launch of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth. On February 20, 1962, Glenn was to lift off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on his historic journey. The flight was to carry the banner of America's virtues of truth, freedom, and democracy into orbit high over the planet. But Lemnitzer and his Chiefs had a different idea. They proposed to Lansdale that, should the rocket explode and kill Glenn, "the objective is to provide irrevocable proof that ... the fault lies with the Communists et al Cuba [sic]." This would be accomplished, Lemnitzer continued, "by manufacturing various pieces of evidence which would prove electronic interference on the part of the Cubans." Thus, as NASA prepared to send the first American into space, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were preparing to use John Glenn's possible death as a pretext to launch a war.
Glenn lifted into history without mishap, leaving Lemnitzer and the Chiefs to begin devising new plots which they suggested be carried out "within the time frame of the next few months."
Among the actions recommended was "a series of well coordinated incidents to take place in and around" the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This included dressing "friendly" Cubans in Cuban military uniforms and then have them "start riots near the main gate of the base. Others would pretend to be saboteurs inside the base. Ammunition would be blown up, fires started, aircraft sabotaged, mortars fired at the base with damage to installations."
The suggested operations grew progressively more outrageous. Another called for an action similar to the infamous incident in February 1898 when an explosion aboard the battleship Maine in Havana harbor killed 266 U.S. sailors. Although the exact cause of the explosion remained undetermined, it sparked the Spanish-American War with Cuba. Incited by the deadly blast, more than one million men volunteered for duty. Lemnitzer and his generals came up with a similar plan. "We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba," they proposed; "casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation."
There seemed no limit to their fanaticism: "We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington," they wrote. "The terror campaign could be pointed at Cuban refugees seeking haven in the United States...
We could sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated).... We could foster attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicized."
Bombings were proposed, false arrests, hijackings:
- "Exploding a few plastic bombs in carefully chosen spots, the arrest of Cuban agents and the release of prepared documents substantiating Cuban involvement also would be helpful in projecting the idea of an irresponsible government."
- "Advantage can be taken of the sensitivity of the Dominican [Republic] Air Force to intrusions within their national air space. `Cuban' B-26 or C-46 type aircraft could make cane-burning raids at night. Soviet Bloc incendiaries could be found. This could be coupled with `Cuban' messages to the Communist underground in the Dominican Republic and `Cuban' shipments of arms which would be found, or intercepted, on the beach. Use of MiG type aircraft by U.S. pilots could provide additional provocation."
- "Hijacking attempts against civil air and surface craft could appear to continue as harassing measures condoned by the Government of Cuba."
Among the most elaborate schemes was to "create an incident which will demonstrate convincingly that a Cuban aircraft has attacked and shot down a chartered civil airliner en route from the United States to Jamaica, Guatemala, Panama or Venezuela. The destination would be chosen only to cause the flightplan route to cross Cuba. The passengers could be a group of college students off on a holiday or any grouping of persons with a common interest to support chartering a non-scheduled flight."
Lemnitzer and the Joint Chiefs worked out a complex deception:
An aircraft at Elgin AFB would be painted and numbered as an exact duplicate for a civil registered aircraft belonging to a CIA proprietary organization in the Miami area. 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 actual registered aircraft would be converted to a drone [a remotely controlled unmanned aircraft]. Take off times of the drone aircraft and the actual aircraft will be scheduled to allow a rendezvous south of Florida.
Finally, there was a plan to "make it appear that Communist Cuban MiGs have destroyed a USAF aircraft over international waters in an unprovoked attack." It was a particularly believable operation given the decade of shootdowns that had just taken place.
In the final sentence of his letter to Secretary McNamara recommending the operations, Lemnitzer made a grab for even more power, asking that the Joint Chiefs be placed in charge of carrying out Operation Northwoods and the invasion. "It is recommended," he wrote, "that this responsibility for both overt and covert military operations be assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
At 2:30 on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 13, 1962, Lemnitzer went over last-minute details of Operation Northwoods with his covert action chief, Brigadier General William H. Craig, and signed the document. He then went to a "special meeting" in McNamara's office. An hour later he met with Kennedy's military representative, General Maxwell Taylor. What happened during those meetings is unknown. But three days later, President Kennedy told Lemnitzer that there was virtually no possibility that the U.S. would ever use overt military force in Cuba.
Undeterred, Lemnitzer and the Chiefs persisted, virtually to the point of demanding that they be given authority to invade and take over Cuba. About a month after submitting Operation Northwoods, they met in the "tank," as the JCS conference room was called, and agreed on the wording of a tough memorandum to McNamara. "The Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that the Cuban problem must be solved in the near future," they wrote. "Further, they see no prospect of early success in overthrowing the present communist regime either as a result of internal uprising or external political, economic or psychological pressures. Accordingly they believe that military intervention by the United States will be required to overthrow the present communist regime."
Lemnitzer was virtually rabid in his hatred of communism in general and Castro in particular. "The Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that the United States can undertake military intervention in Cuba without risk of general war," he continued. "They also believe that the intervention can be accomplished rapidly enough to minimize communist opportunities for solicitation of UN action." However, what Lemnitzer was suggesting was not freeing the Cuban people, who were largely in support of Castro, but imprisoning them in a U.S. military-controlled police state. "Forces would assure rapid essential military control of Cuba," he wrote. "Continued police action would be required."
Concluding, Lemnitzer did not mince words: "[T]he Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend that a national policy of early military intervention in Cuba be adopted by the United States. They also recommend that such intervention be undertaken as soon as possible and preferably before the release of National Guard and Reserve forces presently on active duty."
By then McNamara had virtually no confidence in his military chief and was rejecting nearly every proposal the general sent to him. The rejections became so routine, said one of Lemnitzer's former staff officers, that the staffer told the general that the situation was putting the military in an "embarrassing rut." But Lemnitzer replied, "I am the senior military officer -- it's my job to state what I believe and it's his [McNamara's] job to approve or disapprove."
"McNamara's arrogance was astonishing," said Lemnitzer's aide, who knew nothing of Operation Northwoods. "He gave General Lemnitzer very short shrift and treated him like a schoolboy. The general almost stood at attention when he came into the room. Everything was `Yes, sir' and `No, sir.'"
Within months, Lemnitzer was denied a second term as JCS chairman and transferred to Europe as chief of NATO. Years later President Gerald Ford appointed Lemnitzer, a darling of the Republican right, to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Lemnitzer's Cuba chief, Brigadier General Craig, was also transferred. Promoted to major general, he spent three years as chief of the Army Security Agency, NSA's military arm.
Because of the secrecy and illegality of Operation Northwoods, all details remained hidden for forty years. Lemnitzer may have thought that all copies of the relevant documents had been destroyed; he was not one to leave compromising material lying around. Following the Bay of Pigs debacle, for example, he ordered Brigadier General David W. Gray, Craig's predecessor as chief of the Cuba project within the JCS, to destroy all his notes concerning Joint Chiefs actions and discussions during that period. Gray's meticulous notes were the only detailed official records of what happened within the JCS during that time. According to Gray, Lemnitzer feared a congressional investigation and therefore wanted any incriminating evidence destroyed.
With the evidence destroyed, Lemnitzer felt free to lie to Congress. When asked, during secret hearings before a Senate committee, if he knew of any Pentagon plans for a direct invasion of Cuba he said he did not. Yet detailed JCS invasion plans had been drawn up even before Kennedy was inaugurated. And additional plans had been developed since. The consummate planner and man of details also became evasive, suddenly encountering great difficulty in recalling key aspects of the operation, as if he had been out of the country during the period. It was a sorry spectacle. Senator Gore called for Lemnitzer to be fired. "We need a shakeup of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," he said. "We direly need a new chairman, as well as new members." No one had any idea of Operation Northwoods.
Because so many documents were destroyed, it is difficult to determine how many senior officials were aware of Operation Northwoods. As has been described, the document was signed and fully approved by Lemnitzer and the rest of the Joint Chiefs and addressed to the Secretary of Defense for his signature. Whether it went beyond McNamara to the president and the attorney general is not known.
Even after Lemnitzer lost his job, the Joint Chiefs kept planning "pretext" operations at least into 1963. Among their proposals was a plan to deliberately create a war between Cuba and any of a number of its Latin American neighbors. This would give the United States military an excuse to come in on the side of Cuba's adversary and get rid of Castro. "A contrived `Cuban' attack on an OAS [Organization of American States] member could be set up," said one proposal, "and the attacked state could be urged to `take measures of self-defense and request assistance from the U.S. and OAS; the U.S. could almost certainly obtain the necessary two-thirds support among OAS members for collective action against Cuba."
Among the nations they suggested that the United States secretly attack were Jamaica and Trinidad-Tobago. Both were members of the British Commonwealth; thus, by secretly attacking them and then falsely blaming Cuba, the United States could lure England into the war against Castro. The report noted, "Any of the contrived situations described above are inherently, extremely risky in our democratic system in which security can be maintained, after the fact, with very great difficulty. If the decision should be made to set up a contrived situation it should be one in which participation by U.S. personnel is limited only to the most highly trusted covert personnel. This suggests the infeasibility of the use of military units for any aspect of the contrived situation."
The report even suggested secretly paying someone in the Castro government to attack the United States: "The only area remaining for consideration then would be to bribe one of Castro's subordinate commanders to initiate an attack on [the U.S. naval base at] Guantanamo." The act suggested -- bribing a foreign nation to launch a violent attack on an American military installation -- was treason.
In May 1963, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul H. Nitze sent a plan to the White House proposing "a possible scenario whereby an attack on a United States reconnaissance aircraft could be exploited toward the end of effecting the removal of the Castro regime." In the event Cuba attacked a U-2, the plan proposed sending in additional American pilots, this time on dangerous, unnecessary low-level reconnaissance missions with the expectation that they would also be shot down, thus provoking a war. "[T]he U.S. could undertake various measures designed to stimulate the Cubans to provoke a new incident," said the plan. Nitze, however, did not volunteer to be one of the pilots.
One idea involved sending fighters across the island on "harassing reconnaissance" and "show-off" missions "flaunting our freedom of action, hoping to stir the Cuban military to action." "Thus," said the plan, "depending above all on whether the Cubans were or could be made to be trigger-happy, the development of the initial downing of a reconnaissance plane could lead at best to the elimination of Castro, perhaps to the removal of Soviet troops and the installation of ground inspection in Cuba, or at the least to our demonstration of firmness on reconnaissance." About a month later, a low-level flight was made across Cuba, but unfortunately for the Pentagon, instead of bullets it produced only a protest.
Lemnitzer was a dangerous -- perhaps even unbalanced -- rightwing extremist in an extraordinarily sensitive position during a critical period. But Operation Northwoods also had the support of every single member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and even senior Pentagon official Paul Nitze argued in favor of provoking a phony war with Cuba. The fact that the most senior members of all the services and the Pentagon could be so out of touch with reality and the meaning of democracy would be hidden for four decades.
In retrospect, the documents offer new insight into the thinking of the military's star-studded leadership. Although they never succeeded in launching America into a phony war with Cuba, they may have done so with Vietnam. More than 50,000 Americans and more than 2 million Vietnamese were eventually killed in that war.
It has long been suspected that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident -- the spark that led to America's long war in Vietnam -- was largely staged or provoked by U.S. officials in order to build up congressional and public support for American involvement. Over the years, serious questions have been raised about the alleged attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats on two American destroyers in the Gulf. But defenders of the Pentagon have always denied such charges, arguing that senior officials would never engage in such deceit.
Now, however, in light of the Operation Northwoods documents, it is clear that deceiving the public and trumping up wars for Americans to fight and die in was standard, approved policy at the highest levels of the Pentagon. In fact, the Gulf of Tonkin seems right out of the Operation Northwoods playbook: "We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba ... casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a helpful wave of indignation." One need only replace "Guantanamo Bay" with "Tonkin Gulf," and "Cuba" with "North Vietnam." The Gulf of Tonkin incident may or may not have been stage-managed, but the senior Pentagon leadership at the time was clearly capable of such deceit.
Copyright (c) 2001 by James Bamford.
[Bamford is also the author of the 1982 book "The Puzzle Palace."]