Operation Mongoose-Propaganda Balloon Operations Plan, 10 Oct., 1962

27 August 1993

Echoing Earl Long's famous taunt to arch-segregationist Leander Perez ("Whatcha gonna do now, Leander? The feds got the H-bomb!"), book reviewers have challenged thriller-writers ("Whatcha gonna do now, le Carre?") with the end of the Cold War. John le Carre of course simply retired Smiley to the British equivalent of the Declassification Branch and rang for The Night Manager. But judging by some of the truth-is- stranger-than-fiction items which have emerged in recent months from archives on all sides of the Cold War, spy novelists won't have to come in from t he cold for lack of material.

August's Document of the Month, for example, reads like a movie treatment: "High Winds Over Havana," featuring Ricardo Montalban as The Sponsor (p. 1) and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the brave Balloon Technician. See Arnold battle tropical depression and protect Cuban schoolchildren from being thumped on the head with four-pound propaganda drops (p. 8).

A casual reader might think this memo is completely serious, but it contains several dead giveaways which illustrate the dry wit and sense of delicious irony with which the CIA approached its Operation Mongoose mission to undermine Fidel Castro. For example, the balloon drops were not only to include written propaganda, but also "novelty items such as 'gusano libre' pins, toy balloons... decals, stickers, etc." (p. 6). Also, on the issue of risk to aviation, the memo notes that "during the extensive tests conducted by CIA during the 1950's, it proved to be impossible to fly a propeller-driven aircraft into an unmoored balloon" (p. 8). (Imagine Tom Cruise as "Top Pop.")

Only in the final round of settlement negotiations this summer, which brought our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for Cuban Missile Crisis-related documents to a successful conclusion, did the State Department release this document. Why was this the very last document produced, the most secret of all 3,500, more sensitive even than the Kennedy-Khrushchev letters? Because, said State in 1992, "Disclosure of this document could vitiate the potential usefulness of this and similar proposals in the future," and "intelligence sources and methods" must be protected under the National Security Act of 1947.

This legal limitation suggests that the review of the secrecy system ordered this year by President Clinton will not succeed in reducing secrecy and cutting costs just by executive order; some legal relics of the Cold War also need to move from the U.S. Code to the realm of novels and screenplays. Enjoy your reading.

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