INTERVIEW WITH SAMUEL HALPERN
INTERVIEWER: Sam, can I ask you the hardest question of all, can we have your name and title for the transcripts?
SAM HALPERN: My name is Samuel Halpern, H A L P E R N, and I was the executive assistant to Bill Harvey in Task Force W before and during after the missile crisis.
INT: Thank you. So first off, can I ask you to explain to me how you got involved, what happened in the early sixties?
SH: How I got involved was kind of simple. I came back from a tour of duty overseas in the Far East and looking for a next assignment and I was told by the then DDP, fella by the name of Richard Bissell, that my next assignment was going to be in the branch dealing with Cuba in the Western Hemisphere Division. That's where people get confused in terms of talking about WH. It's not the White House, it's the Western Hemisphere Division. It's now called Latin America Division, LA, just to avoid that kind of confusion in the future.
INT: What was your reaction when you were told you were going to be dealing with Cuba?
SH: [Inaudible] why me? I had nothing to do with Cuba, I was a Far East specialist, I'd served in the Far East activities for about eighteen years, including the War, and I didn't know why I was going off to Latin America. And he said, you need to work on Cuba next, that's our next important problem and it was after about two or three days on the job that Bissell called my branch chief boss, I was a deputy branch chief, into his office and he told us that the Kennedy brothers, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, had told him they were upset with the fact that he, Bissell, had not gotten off his arse to do something about getting rid of Castro and the Castro regime. This is after the Bay of Pigs. And that was the new assignment that I was faced with.
INT: So when you joined up, so to speak, what was the atmosphere? There'd just been this terrible failure, very public failure of the Bay of Pigs, what were the reactions in the department to that?
SH: Well, everybody still was reeling from the shock...
INT: Can I just stop you there. Reeling from the shock of what?
SH: Oh, sure. Well everybody, even though this was about five or six months after the Bay of Pigs, which was in April of '61 and this was October November '61, and everybody was still kind of reeling from the shock of the Bay of Pigs and its failure and our job in the branch, we were in Branch 4 of the then Western Hemisphere Division, which contained not just Cuba, but also all the islands in the Caribbean, and our job was to start to come up with new plans, not a Bay of Pigs type plan, but new plans to quote, get rid of Castro and the Castro regime, unquote. And we had the right papers to be passed and approved by the special group, which by the time this got started in the end of '61, beginning of '62, was a special group augmented and the augmented simply meant two additional people. One was the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, and the other was General Max Taylor from the military and they were the augmentees. The special group itself had simply been under a variety of names, usually the second in command in people on all of the agencies involved in national security and foreign affairs. So it's a Deputy Secretary of Defense and a Deputy Secretary of State and so on. they had to approve all of our plans and our programs. And the idea was to present how to get rid of Castro and the Castro regime by black magic, I guess, because we had no assets whatsoever in Cuba at that time. the Cubans had rounded up all of the dissidents who were involved and the various revolutionary groups in Cuba as a result of the Bay of Pigs. They were helped very, very well by the various services from the Eastern European countries, the Eastern Bloc countries in those days, particularly the East Germans, the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians, who had very good intelligence and security services, and they just took all of the lessons that they'd learned over the years in Eastern Europe and applied 'em to Cuba practically overnight.
INT: So what were these schemes... this black magic, what were these schemes going to consist of?
SH: Well, the first thing we had to do was to try to get some intelligence and my whole approach to this was always in terms of let's find out what's happening inside Cuba first before we come up with plans to do away with what's going on. We just literally didn't know and didn't have any assets to be able to help us. I did not realize until about, oh I guess, it was the beginning of November that we were really part of an overall government program, it had nothing to do with just CIA, it was everybody was involved. Defense was involved, State was involved, Commerce, Treasury, Immigration, you name 'em, everybody was there. The new program to be run by the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, and the Chief of Operations was going to be a General Ed Lansdale. I knew Ed from a way back when he was out in the Philippines in the fifties, working with Maxisi and Ed was a very good officer in that regard, simply because he and Maxisi had good chemistry between 'em and it worked like a charm. When they sent Ed after the Philippines to Saigon to try to do the same kind of chemistry with Ziem in Saigon, it fell apart. No fault of Ed's, you just have good chemistry with somebody and not with others. So Ed though was a guy who managed to convince everybody that he walked on water when it came to covert actions and in my opinion, and I knew Ed, as I say, in the fifties, Ed was a good Madison Avenue man in a gray flannel suit who could sell refrigerators to Eskimos and that's about what he did in this case. He had a great plan, his original idea of course was that the basic agencies of government involved in National Security affairs, that's Defense, State, CIA, would detail men, money and material to this new group working under the Attorney General. Fortunately, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense and the new director of Central Intelligence said, we can't do that, Congress appropriates money to us, we'll do everything we can and with you and under your direction, but provided it's all done through normal command channels. And so that's what happened and we ended up reporting, in effect, to the Attorney General through Ed Lansdale and even Ed Lansdale though and the Attorney General had to get approval from the special group before we could do anything.
INT: So what was Lansdale's basic policies that he was trying to put in place? What were the actions that were to be taken?
SH: Well, I think it was in January of '62, or December '61, any way about that time, he presented his first course of action, which was a long paper directing various government agencies to do a whole variety of things, from A to Z and back again. And the interesting part about all of the program that he proposed, if you looked at it very carefully, at the very end he's got the Cubans and the Americans marching down Havana at the last week of October of '62 in victory and Castro has disappeared. And if you look a little further in the calendar, the very next week, if I remember correctly, there was going to be a congressional election in this country and what they had to do, is they had two and two and you got four and that's the program we were looking for and in other words, to try to do it all by the end of October of '62, which is to get rid of Castro and the Castro regime, without having any bit of intelligence as to what's going on.
INT: Fascinating. It's so important to the program that. Let's ask you a slightly different way, just to get a slight clarification. Can you sort of explain to me that Lansdale's fundamental plan was to overthrow the Castro regime by the middle of October? If you can just sort of simplify a bit what you said.
SH: Well, to sum up Ed's plan, it was to have Castro and the Castro regime disappear by the last week of October of 1962. and he realized that we didn't really have much intelligence and fortunately the special group, when they got his pap about the same time we got itto do the things he's directed us to do, even the speciagroup said, whoa, wait a minute, we don't have enough intelligence to make this one work. And so, thank the Lord, the special group itself directed that we emphasize first intelligence and second do the kinds of sabotage operations to try to unsettle the public in Cuba and maybe try to get somebody to rise and revolt and whatever Ed could come up with in terms of different ideas. But the whole idea was let's get some intelligence, do some minor sabotage along the way and in the meantime, keep getting the intelligence and that's what we ended up trying to do, at least initially.
INT: So, what sort of attempts were made to destabilize the Castro regime during that period?
SH: Well, it started after January really, when we organized, and the CIA, we created a task force which… Cuba as an area of activity was taken out of the Western Hemisphere Division and set up by itself, reporting directly to the then Deputy Director for Plans and the DCI. basically, as I say, we were trying to first collect intelligence, which takes a little while, you can't do it overnight. Ed was trying to direct us to have two agents recruited on Monday, three on Wednesday, five on Friday and by the following week you had fourteen different people working for you. Life doesn't work that way. Ed's plans were basically the kind of thing you get in a course on clandestine activity or covert action, it is good textbook and information and it's good textbook planning. The problem is when you try to put that into life, it doesn't work. you just can't find people overnight that you can spot, assess and recruit by numbers, simply because somebody says you have to have fourteen people by the end of the week. That's where Ed went completely off base, you just don't work that way with human beings. And as far as the sabotage operations were concerned, we tried to get a few started. As a matter of fact, we tried three times against a major target, the Mapahambray copper mines. We failed each time and every time we failed, we were bawled out, we were attacked by Bobby Kennedy for not doing a decent job and not knowing what we were doing and what have you and I'll give you one example. This is after Bill Harvey had been in charge for a while. we accomplished some minor sabotage somewhere, I don't know whether it was a covert or some transformer station or something was knocked out. Anyway that made the headlines in Cuba, as it should. Well, if it makes the headlines in Cuba, it's gonna make the headlines in Miami and it did. So the American press picked that up and it was all over the newspapers and small, except in Miami, where it was big headlines, in other parts of the country it was probably buried in page fifty five. Anyway, I happened to be in Bill's office at the time and he had a telephone call from Bobby Kennedy and I couldn't hear all of it, but I knew Bobby Kennedy was chewing him out, I could hear part of it, for how come, he said, you fellas are supposed to do things in secret, how come this is all out in the open and it's all being talked about? And my boss had to explain in words of one syllable, very slowly, that when you blow up something, anywhere, no matter how small or how large, it's gonna make a headline and you can't have it both ways. You can't have the boom and bang that the Kennedy people were talking about and Lansdale, boom and bang, boom and bang, you can't have boom and bang without having publicity. Now make up your minds, which do you want? Well, that was part of the problem of having to work with these people, in terms of getting involved in clandestine and covert activities.
INT: Excellent reply.