Washington D.C., April 16, 2021 – In the earliest known CIA assassination plot against leaders of the Cuban revolution, high agency officials offered the pilot of a plane carrying Raul Castro from Prague to Havana “payment after successful completion of ten thousand dollars” to “incur risks in arranging accident” during the flight, according to formally TOP SECRET documents posted today by the National Security Archive. The pilot, who the CIA had earlier recruited as an intelligence asset in Cuba, “asked for assurance that in event of his [own] death the U.S. would see that his two sons were given a college education.” “This assurance was given,” his CIA handler in Havana, William J. Murray, reported.
According to TOP SECRET cables between the CIA headquarters and the CIA Havana station, and debriefings Murray later provided on "questionable activities," the plot quickly evolved after the Cuban pilot, Jose Raul Martinez, advised Murray that he had been selected to fly a chartered Cubana Airlines plane to Prague to pick up Raul Castro and other high-ranking Cuban leaders on July 21, 1960. When Murray informed his superiors at Langley headquarters, as he later told the Rockefeller Commission on the CIA, “headquarters cabled back that it was considering the possibility of a fatal accident and asked whether the pilot would be interested.”
The cable, classified “TOP SECRET RYBAT OPERATIONAL IMMEDIATE” and signed by CIA Deputy Director of Plans Tracy Barnes, and J.C. King, the head of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division, informed Murray that “possible removal of top three leaders is receiving serious consideration at HQS” and asked if the pilot had “motivation sufficient to incur risks of arranging accident during return trip” from Prague. To provide sufficient motivation, Barnes and King offered $10,000, or “a reasonable demand in excess of that” as well as to arrange rescue facilities for the pilot after the “accident” took place.
Murray discussed the proposal with Martinez in a car as the pilot drove to the Havana airport to fly to Prague. “Subj willing to take calculated risk but limited to foll[owing] possibilities which can pass as accidental: A. engine burnout on take off to delay or harass trip. B. Vague possibility water ditching approx. 3 hours out from Cuba,” Murray reported to Langley after the meeting. “Subj rules out engine failure in flight due [to] imminent danger [of] fire and lack of opportunity to save any passengers or crew … Doubts ability perform real accident without endangering lives of all on board.”
After Martinez left for Prague, the Havana station received a second cable, signed by Tracy Barnes, that rescinded the assassination plot. “Do not pursue,” it stated. “Would like to drop matter.” By then, however, there was no way to reach the pilot. When he returned, Martinez reported to Murray that “he had no opportunity to arrange an accident such as we had discussed.”
This “accident plot” was obliquely described in the special Senate Committee report on Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders, published 1976 after an investigation into CIA covert actions led by Senator Frank Church. The Church Committee report identified the plot as “the first action against the life of a Cuban leader sponsored by the CIA of which the Committee is aware” but withheld—or perhaps was denied—key details, including that the would-be assassin was a pilot and the “accident” would involve a civilian airliner. Nor did the Committee publish any of the documents on which its description was based.
The TOP SECRET documents were later declassified as part of the JFK Assassination Records Act and obtained by National Security Archive senior analyst John Prados for the Archive’s digital collection, CIA Covert Operations II: The Year of Intelligence, 1975.
The Bay of Pigs Assassination Plot
The Bay of Pigs operation also involved a complex CIA plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, launched only a few weeks after the short-lived effort to kill his brother. In August 1960, the CIA’s director of covert operations, Richard Bissell, authorized what one SECRET EYES ONLY CIA memo described as “a sensitive mission requiring gangster-type action.” The mission “was the liquidation of Fidel Castro.” As the top CIA official in charge of the Bay of Pigs operation, Bissell’s intention was to assassinate Castro and enhance the chances of success for CIA’s counterrevolutionary program to overthrow his regime.
In a filmed interview Kornbluh conducted with Jacob Esterline, the CIA manager of the paramilitary invasion, Esterline said that he had been asked to divert over $150,000 from his budget for unspecified reasons but had refused to do so until he was briefed by Bissel’s chief of security, Sheffield Edwards. After he learned the funds were designated to pay the mafia to arrange Castro’s assassination—using poisoned pills created by the agency’s Technical Services Division—Esterline protested to the head of the Western Hemisphere Division, J.C. King. “I said, ‘J.C. do you realize that this is going to make people take this whole thing less seriously if somebody thinks there’s an easy way out with Castro being killed?’”
“I thought it was absolutely amoral that we involve ourselves for the record in anything of this sort,” Esterline told Kornbluh. “Number one, I was just having trouble coming to grips with that. But number two, I thought it would also be the most self-defeating thing for the operation which was going to be [difficult] at best.” (Peter Kornbluh, Bay of Pigs Declassified, pp. 264, 265)
The Archive is publishing these records as the Castro era in Cuba comes to a formal end. As the Cuban Communist Party convenes its 8th party congress on the 60th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Raul Castro is stepping down from his powerful position as party leader. “Just as the defeat of the CIA-led invaders at the Bay of Pigs marked a historic turning point for the young revolution,” according to Peter Kornbluh who directs the Archive’s Cuba project, “the official beginning of the post- Castro era marks a major turning point for Cuba’s future.”
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