30+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Understanding the CIA: How Covert (and Overt) Operations Were Proposed and Approved during the Cold War

Published: Mar 4, 2019
Briefing Book #667

Edited by John Prados and Arturo Jimenez-Bacardi

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

New Collection of Declassified Documents Illuminates the Role of Presidents and Top Advisers in Guiding and Sanctioning CIA Activities from Cuba to Africa, 1961-1974

A Gift to Bokassa and Exploiting Personal Characteristics of Fidel Castro Were Among Methods Used

Understanding the CIA: How Covert (and Overt) Operations Were Proposed and Approved during the Cold War

Washington, DC, March 4, 2019 – The covert operations of the Central Intelligence Agency are one element of the forward edge of power in U.S. foreign policy. But the CIA is not a lone ranger, shooting up saloons on its own account. A senior interagency group within the United States government acts as the high command of the secret war. Today, the National Security Archive is posting a collection of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and extended archival research that illustrates some of the breadth of the group’s activity as it evolved during the Cold War.

Today’s selection is a tiny fragment of an extensive new compilation, CIA Covert Operations III: From Kennedy to Nixon, 1961-1974, published recently as part of the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) through the scholarly publisher ProQuest and available by subscription and at many major libraries. This is the third part of a National Security Archive series on the CIA's clandestine side, curated by Pulitzer-nominated author and historian John Prados. 

This edition takes the story from the epic disaster of the Bay of Pigs through a series of little-known or under-explored covert activities including the Mongoose operation against Cuba, actions in British Guiana, Bolivia, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic, Iraq (the Kurds), and more. The set provides unprecedented, in-depth coverage of the CIA’ s high command, ranging from minutes of the "Special Group" that approved covert operations, to CIA directors' daily staff meetings, to the notes of meetings with presidents Kennedy and Johnson made by CIA Director John  A. McCone.

Among other things today’s selection shows:

  • CIA Director Allen W. Dulles made a bid in June 1961 for this “Special Group” to have an autonomous ability to approve covert operations (Document 1).
  • In early 1962 the CIA’s top lawyer relied upon presidents’ Article 2 powers under the Constitution, and on the notion Congress approved by appropriation, to justify covert operations. He warned that no statute actually authorized covert operations (Document 4).
  • President Kennedy’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, in March 1962 brought up personal characteristics and known acquaintances of Fidel Castro as things which could be exploited in efforts to neutralize the Cuban leader (Document 6).
  • Actions of the CIA’s own Cuban exile allies in March 1963 caused the high command to reconsider its alliance with them against Castro (Document 8).
  • CIA Director John A. McCone, one member of the high command group, spent a great deal of his time pressing an aggressive anti-Cuba strategy even while recognizing that U.S. efforts were doomed to failure (Documents 8, 9, 10).
  • When taking charge of the United States government after the death of President Kennedy, at his first meeting with the high command on December 19, 1963, President Lyndon Johnson proved cautious, initially not approving additional strikes against Cuba (Document 12).
  • Overseers of the CIA’s secret warriors at the White House level was the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB). The oversight mechanism could be distracted by extraneous events in the intelligence field. For example, the PFIAB meeting (August 8-9, 1964) closest to the Gulf of Tonkin incident (August 2 & 4) was preoccupied with the discovery of Russian microphone devices inside the great seal of the United States at the Moscow embassy (Document 14).
  • Lyndon Johnson showed his distaste for “continuing subsidies” to political parties of a close American ally in July 1966 when a CIA political action was up for renewal. His decision foreshadowed the end of the CIA project in Italy (Document 15).
  • President Richard Nixon’s high command in July 1972 approved a $20,000 ($120,000 in 2018 dollars) “gift” to the Central African Republic dictator, Jean-Bedel Bokassa (Document 18).


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The High Command of the Secret War: Exhibits from the CIA,

By John Prados and Arturo Jimenez-Bacardi


Intelligence practice has always been a matter of indirection, secrecy and deceit. In United States covert operations this has included applying the technique of “plausible deniability.” Under that concept operations and activities are carried out in such fashion as to keep hidden the hand of the CIA or the United States, or in other ways to make it possible to deny U.S. involvement. In recent history plausible deniability has eroded somewhat, as American presidents sought open monetary appropriations for “overt covert” operations, or, in the war on terror, dispensed with the “plausible” and simply denied what they could be seen to be doing. But during the Cold War era—and here the presidents under consideration are John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon—plausible deniability was standard procedure.

The CIA and other spy agencies have used plausible deniability, in particular, to insulate presidents from charges they had had a hand in, or had even approved, covert operations. But maintaining this fiction put a special premium on the approval and management of these activities by organs of government beyond the CIA itself. In the United States this became a function of the National Security Council (NSC), or more specifically, of a NSC subcommittee. This unit changed names over time, but it retained the same responsibilities – approval, monitoring and review. Unless a president chose to become involved personally—such as Kennedy with Cuba, or Nixon with Chile—the interagency committee served as the ultimate authority for operations approval and review. Effectively this NSC unit was the high command of the secret war. The documents in this electronic briefing book illustrate the covert high command in action.

President John F. Kennedy inherited an existing apparatus for making covert operations decisions. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman had created it as the same type of NSC subcommittee. Named after an Eisenhower directive, NSC 5412/2, the unit was known as the 5412 Group or, to be even more vague, the “Special Group.” Many of its working sessions, during the early Kennedy administration, were conducted over Tuesday luncheons. Later sessions were called as necessary. The unit essentially constituted a deputy secretaries committee covering covert operations and strategic reconnaissance. The Special Group had the authority to approve, reject, and review all covert activities. President Kennedy also appointed an additional expert, with his own staff, the “special military adviser,” who would be General Maxwell D. Taylor. President Kennedy additionally made Taylor the chairman of the Special Group (5412).

Small staffs served the various Special Groups. From 1961 through about 1965 the executive assistant was an officer detailed by the CIA who worked officially for the director of central intelligence (DCI). Afterwards the assistant’s job was usually extra duty for the NSC staffer who held the intelligence portfolio. This person was typically an officer detailed from the CIA also, but in this case they were responsible to the national security adviser, not the DCI. For the Special Group (Augmented) the staff assistant was an Army colonel. For the Special Group (CI) the staff assistant was the NSC staffer responsible for global security programs. During the entire time of the CI group’s existence (1962-1965) this person, though formerly of the CIA, functioned as a defense intellectual.

All the chief executives maintained a White House watchdog unit authorized to review intelligence operations, including covert operations. This was the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB). The Special Group did not report to PFIAB, rather the CIA supplied the board with periodic updates, and PFIAB could then decide to look into any activities it cared to.

At the highest level the president’s national security adviser, at the time McGeorge Bundy, worked closely with the DCI to track intelligence activities from a NSC perspective. According to the State Department representative, “Mac Bundy consulted with the President to the degree he considered desirable, but he did not necessarily tell us whether he had, or if he had, what the President’s views had been.”[1] The national security advisor was a member of the Special Group, and after Maxwell’s Taylor’s October 1962 departure (to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), its chairman. Security advisers during this period include Bundy (presidents Kennedy and Johnson), Walt Rostow (Johnson), and Henry Kissinger (Nixon).

Covert operations proposals originated variously. What became the CIA operation at the Bay of Pigs started with the president of the United States himself. Ambassadors, station chiefs, the DCI, the deputy director for plans (DDP), the DDP area divisions, the State or Defense Departments could all suggest covert operations. Proposals from outside the agency often surfaced initially at the Special Group.

Proposals that began within the CIA went through an internal approval process. Usually this originated in the DDP. When more specific criteria for approval were formulated in the early 1960s, proposals budgeted under a certain dollar amount could be approved directly within the agency, while larger ones went to the interagency group. The DDP presented pros and cons to the director’s office, and the DCI was responsible for dealings with the Special Group and its brethren. The DCI himself was a member of the Special Group. He or his deputy attended its meetings.

At the State Department, many covert operations proposals were staffed by its Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). During this period the director had one element focused on actual analysis, plus a politico-military unit under him. The latter unit drafted INR comments on covert operations proposals. These eventually circulated to the secretary of state for review, and then went to the interagency NSC committee. To a degree it became customary for the secretary of state to propose covert operations and write the project papers which went to the Special Group. The deputy secretary of state, not the secretary or the INR director, was State’s representative on the Special Group. From April 1961, and into the Nixon years, this person was Ulysses Alexis Johnson (referred to below as “Alex”). Aside from consulting INR, Johnson would usually speak to the assistant secretary of state responsible for the region where an operation was proposed. Johnson adverts that he managed good relations with many of his counterparts from other agencies, but faced proposals that held risks he considered excessive, and so he acquired the nickname “Dr. No.”[2]

The deputy secretary of defense would be the Pentagon’s representative on the Special Group. As at State, the staff work associated with covert operations was the responsibility of a different part of the bureaucracy. Until the summer of 1961 this was the Office of Special Operations (OSO), a holdover from earlier years. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara reorganized his office that fall, and replaced OSO with a new Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities (SACSA).

President Kennedy inherited certain operations, already ongoing, that had been approved by the Special Group during Eisenhower’s time. Among these were efforts in the Dominican Republic, Tibet, the Congo, and against Castro’s Cuba. The Dominican Republic played itself out over the year 1961, when dictator Rafael Trujillo was assassinated. Tibet was in stasis, with aircraft resupply of partisan fighters prohibited since the 1960 U-2 shootdown, and little practical capacity to supply the rebellion on the ground over the Himalayas. The Congo remained an ongoing headache. But the Cuba operation resulted in major disaster at the Bay of Pigs within a few months of Kennedy’s entering office, and then preoccupied him throughout his presidency. When covert operations carried very high risks, or were judged to be of moderate risk but the high command was divided over whether to approve them, that was when a president became involved. He would meet and discuss the proposal with Special Group members. Thus President Kennedy met with 5412 members on Cuba several times (for example Documents 6 and 8), as did President Johnson (Document 12).

In early 1962, the president added the Special Group (Counterinsurgency) to focus on military and police aid projects, anti-guerrilla operations, and other security programs. It differed from the 5412 group by including officials from the Agency for International Development, the United States Information Agency, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The president considered the Special Group (CI) so important that it had its initial meeting the same day JFK issued the National Security Action Memorandum that established it. When General Taylor moved on to the Joint Chiefs, several members wished to transfer this committee to the State Department, but instead it remained within NSC, where Bobby Kennedy wanted to serve as chairman. Instead, Alex Johnson succeeded to the chairmanship and Michael Forrestal followed Max Taylor as the White House representative. Later Averell Harriman held sway. 

One problem with all of the special groups within their NSC context is what, precisely, did “high command” mean? Was the Special Group a command authority, giving orders that the CIA, Pentagon, and State Department were required to implement? Or was it an interagency committee making recommendations to members’ home departments, coordinating rather than directing? The confusion persisted, in considerable part due to the convention of plausible deniability. Presidents could not clarify the matter because they were not supposed to be seen to be meddling in covert operations. Alex Johnson, the State Department representative, although writing only of the Special Group (CI), makes remarks that could apply as easily to the other units:

Bobby Kennedy, the Defense Department, and to some extent the President never quite brought themselves to accept the fact that we were coordinating the departments instead of directing them. I always took the view that our decisions could have no meaning except insofar as we implemented them through our departments, which alone had the authority to allocate money and people to make them work. I do not believe the President always understood this. He typically wanted fast results and was inclined to feel that if he put somebody in charge of something, this person would be able to give directions that the departments would have to carry out.[3]

John Kennedy’s track record on Cuba makes Alex Johnson’s point. In late 1961 President Kennedy added a variant committee he called the Special Group (Augmented), which concerned itself entirely with operations against Cuba. He apparently considered the regular 5412 unit too cautious or too slow. The Special Group (Augmented) actually referred to the 5412 unit, but with the addition of Bobby Kennedy. The thought must have been that Bobby would keep the balls in the air. Of this endeavor the State Department representative writes, “Recognizing that internal circumstances in Cuba were not right for a quick overthrow, however, the Special Group (Augmented) should first concentrate on acquiring hard data about possible targets,” a clear reference to Edward Lansdale’s Operation Mongoose plan of February 20, 1962 (Document 5). Johnson also reports the high command never discussed assassinating Castro. Johnson quotes President Kennedy, as early as March 1962, as doubtful a revolt in Cuba would happen. “I never had moral qualms about Mongoose,” Alex Johnson says for himself, “But I never thought much of the operation either.” Bobby Kennedy was out front. Alex Johnson quotes him too: “‘We are in a combat situation [with Castro] and we have complete command. There is no excuse for failure. There is no reason that the richest, most powerful nation in the world can’t do this.’” President Kennedy encouraged Lansdale but often drew back when it became a matter of approving specific covert operations that had high noise levels.[4]

The high command could falter too. Later in 1962 JM/WAVE, the CIA’s Miami Station, came up with the idea of contaminating a cargo of Cuban sugar bound for Eastern Europe. The Mongoose plans had discussed sabotage in the abstract, but the prospect of sickening innocent consumers, especially in communist satellite countries which it was also a covert operations goal to influence, was too much. But as Alex Johnson recounts, “The ship had sailed by the time the Special Group (Augmented) got wind of this.”[5] 

By late 1962 that operation ran up against the Cuba Missile Crisis. JFK then went even higher, to his NSC Standing Group. Each time he sought the authoritative official. Alex Johnson caps his point this way: “Creating jobs outside the chain of command [and] expecting them to stand Washington on its head ignored the realities of power in the government, and the Congress, which hold the departments and their secretaries responsible for the way funds and personnel were allocated.”[6]

That said, this collection of officials, which included the CIA director and the deputy secretary of defense, could accomplish a very great deal within their departments. The Special Groups brought together key officials who had formal authority, and records in this EBB show them going into great detail on covert operations plans and activities. To the extent that a high command of the secret war existed, this was it.

These arrangements remained standard throughout the 1961 to 1974 period, despite repeated name changes for the Special Group. Successor President Johnson revised the structure in mid-1964, creating the 303 Committee, named after a presidential order. In 1965 Johnson abolished the Special Group (Counterinsurgency), but the 303 Committee continued through the first year of the Nixon administration, when its designation changed to the 40 Committee, again drawn from the number of a national security decision memorandum.

The work of the Special Group and nature of proposals brought to it changed over time. Over much of the period covered by this posting, covert operations were big business. Between January 1961 and the fall of 1962 the Special Group approved 550 covert operations. Figures given to the congressional investigating committees in 1975—163 projects from January 1961-November 1963—evidently exclude such bread-and-butter approvals as reconnaissance missions, follow-on decisions on existing projects, or covert proposals beneath a particular threshold.[7]

Activity peaked in 1964 and remained strong through the 1967 scandal over secret CIA funding of the National Student Association. Not all projects received the Special Group imprimatur. In the first five months of 1964 the Special Group approved 23 of 35 project proposals.[8] The center of gravity for covert action also changed over time. The Kennedy administration had a marked focus on Latin America, especially Cuba. This focus continued but proposals spread out regionally.

Between January 1967 and June 1968 the 303 Committee considered 23 projects for Africa, 33 for Latin America, 15 for Europe, 14 for Asia and 2 for the Middle East. The reason for the scarcity of proposals for the Middle East was given as a poor operational environment in the wake of the Six Day war.[9]

One thorny problem that persisted throughout the period was review of existing operational activity. President Kennedy held at least one meeting intended for this purpose in 1961. Other than a mention from time to time at Special Group, there is little indication of subsequent specific reviews. Several CIA internal or consultant studies over the 1960s considered either the universe of covert operations or approval of procedures for projects. In 1969, when Henry Kissinger chaired the 303 Committee, he attempted to enforce a regimen under which covert operations that had not undergone review were automatically cancelled. But Kissinger did not meet with the interagency body often enough for that to be practical. Where Special Group had met weekly, Kissinger’s 303 Committee held only 18 meetings through 1969, 19 in 1970, and 17 in 1971. For three years after that the 40 Committee held no more than one session annually.[10] The standard became project approval by telephone, which made reviews pretty much impossible. Treatment of covert operations projects also varied. For example, the 303, then 40 Committees considered and authorized several stages of the Glomar Explorer project, and new measures for the secret war in Laos, but the high command would be kept in the dark about “Track II” of Nixon’s plan to overthrow Salvador Allende of Chile.

Future electronic briefing books will address several specific covert operations of this era, further illustrating the breadth and depth of the CIA Set III document collection.




[1] U. Alexis Johnson with Jef Olivarius McAllister, The Right Hand of Power: The Memoirs of an American Diplomat. Englewood Cliffs (NJ): Prentice-Hall, 1984, p. 349.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Johnson with McAllister, The Right Hand of Power, p. 330.

[4] Johnson, The Right Hand of Power, p. 343, Bobby Kennedy quoted 344.

[5] Ibid., p. 345.

[6] Ibid, p. 330.

[7] Prados, Safe for Democracy, p. 292.

[8] Ibid.

[9] National Security Council  Memo, Peter Jessup-Maxwell Taylor, June 4, 1968 (declassified  Sept 23, 2003). LBJL: NSF: Intel File, box 2, f: “303 Committee.”

[10] NSC Tabulation, “OAG Meetings,” no date. Jimmy Carter Library: Carter Papers: Brzezinski Materials: Rick Inderfurth Files, b. 1, f: “Inderfurth Chronological, 11/22/76-12/31/76.” In 1975 the 40 Committee would be replaced by the Operations Advisory Group, yet another new name for 5412 Special Group.