In May, 1963, Fidel Castro traveled to the Soviet Union to meet Nikita Khrushchev for the first time since the October missile crisis. The purpose of the get-together, according to a report by Pablo Alfonso, was to smooth over their differences and seek additional Soviet military aid. During their meetings, the then Soviet Union leader counseled Castro on the survivability of his regime: “The best defense of Cuba will not only be to build a powerful military force, but to build an effective overseas intelligence capability.” Additionally, Khrushchev advised Havana it “should put all its effort into penetrating the exile groups in order to crush their plans even before they had advanced to viability,” and “there are times when the security services will have to physically eliminate the leaders of the counter-revolution in exile.”
Castro hardly needed encouragement to eradicate his rivals. As Dr. Brian Latell outlines in his book Castro’s Secrets: the CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine, Castro had already set out to exterminate his adversaries and rivals. As early as 1946, Castro began his lifetime addiction to violent resolutions to competing contenders with his attempted murder of Leonel Gomez. This was but the first known of what became numerous murders and assassinations carried out by Castro himself or by his minions at his direction. Castro took it even further. Latell writes: “Since the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period, regicide practiced by a national leader against enemy monarchs and chief executives has been rare….even Joseph Stalin eschewed such risky behavior….But through most of his years in power, Fidel played by his own vengeful rules. At least four sitting or former presidents of Latin American countries were targets of meticulously planned Cuban black operations. Probably other such operations left no trace.” Khrushchev’s admonishment to create an effective overseas intelligence capability and to infiltrate the exile community already had been adroitly accomplished by the time of the May 1963 meeting, Latell writes.
Does Castro continue his murderous ways? A telling declassified intercept entered into evidence during the Wasp Network trial instructs a Cuban agent: “How would you suggest that a maritime incursion could be carried out to the U. S. from our country….for this part it would have two or three crew members with false documentation….The general ideas of all this, which is under your control, is to operate in the area and be able to move persons as well as things, including arms and explosives, between our country and the U. S.” Even today Castro harbors terrorist fugitives like Joanne Chesimard, Victor Gerena, and many others in Cuba, including members of the Wasp Network, some of whom have been implicated in the 1996 death of four Brothers to the Rescue pilots shot down in international waters by Cuban MiGs.
From its title, one might be led to believe that this book is about Cuba’s omnipresent intelligence apparatus; its history, its organization, its personnel, and its operations. While these topics are discussed, they are effectively glossed over. Ana Belen Montes, the DIA analyst and the highest level Cuban spy publicly exposed to date, gets no more than a mere mention. Southern Florida’s Wasp Network (La Red Avispa), the largest Cuban spy network ever made public and one of the largest of any nation operating in the United States, if not the largest, also gets only passing references. The execution of General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez and the subsequent purge and reorganization of the General Directorate of Intelligence (DGI) into the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), again, receives little discussion. These, and many other events, are defining moments in the history of the Cuban intelligence services.
At the core of this book is the war between the United States, as represented by John and Robert Kennedy and Castro, and the now ageless question: What was Castro’s role in, or knowledge of, the assassination of President John F Kennedy? While providing interesting and valuable insight, the references to Cuban intelligence history, personnel, and operations, seem to be cited by Latell only in support of his basic premise that Castro at least had prior knowledge that Kennedy would be killed. Latell has done admirable research in writing this book. In discussing Cuban intelligence, he has provided more than sufficient proof that Castro had the capability, motivation, organization, and trade craft to effect an assassination of the President or certainly to have had prior knowledge of it.
Whether Castro knew of, or participated in, Kennedy’s assassination, the world may never know. According to Latell, Castro at least knew of Lee Harvey Oswald and Latell cites credible sources confirming Castro’s previous knowledge of him. Publicly, Castro has denied any prior knowledge of the assassination or even knowing of Oswald. Of course, Castro cannot be believed, especially when talking about topics important to him. For example, shortly following the 1998 arrest of the Wasp Network agents, Castro, in perpetrating the canard that Cuba has no interest in U. S. military information was quoted as follows: “It is worth saying here that we are not interested in any report on its military forces. I categorically reject – and I have already explained the reasons to you – the accusation that we have tried to look for information on the United States armed forces.”
Three years following Castro’s interview, Montes was arrested and subsequently plead guilty to spying for Cuba. Montes started her espionage activities at the behest of the Cubans prior to the 1998 Wasp arrests and continued virtually uninterrupted for over fifteen years. Montes was the senior Cuban analyst at the DIA and passed a wealth of U. S. military oriented information to Cuba in response to their tasking. As Dr. Latell most accurately points out in his book, Castro always was well aware of Cuban intelligence operations and frequently oversaw the most important ones. Castro surely would have known of Montes, if not in actuality had input into her operation. To think that Castro is wedded to the truth is farcical.
While Castro’s Secrets is a commendable book and should be read by those with an interest in Cuba or intelligence operations, there are flaws. Latell starts his book with an “Acknowledgements” section, and the very first line is: “I owe a special debt of gratitude to Florentino Aspillaga Lombard, the most valuable defector ever to flee the Castro brother’s secret services.” Latell’s next section is the “Author’s Note,” and the first line of the second paragraph reads: “Florentino Aspillaga Lombard, the most knowledgeable Cuban defector ever to change sides…..” These are but the first two of numerous references to Aspillaga and Latell’s estimation of him.
There is no question that Aspillaga was a valuable defector and, up to the time of his defection, the most valuable. However, it is as if Latell is trying to convince the reader that Aspillaga is so valuable that anything he may say has to be true, thus endorsing Latell’s assertions. There have been many other defectors after Aspillaga who provided information as valuable, and in some cases, more valuable, and helped fill in the mosaic that is Cuban intelligence. Often a defector may not know the importance of his information, but it may provide an essential missing piece to a much bigger puzzle. There is an age-old adage in the intelligence business “to not fall in love with your source,” and Latell seems to have fallen into this trap.
One of Latell’s basic premises is that Castro knew Kennedy was going to be shot and quotes Aspillaga: “Castro knew….they knew Kennedy would be killed.” In a drastic change in routine, Aspillaga had been ordered on the day of Kennedy’s death to train his radio monitoring on Texas rather than the normal CIA in South Florida or on island exile activity. Further quoting Aspillaga: “I was told to listen to all conversations and to call the leadership if I heard anything important occur….. I put all of my equipment to listen to any small detail from Texas. They told me Texas.” A significant overlooked factor is that Aspillaga spoke little or no English. How was he to discern “any small detail?”
Latell later relates how he asked Aspillaga if he believed “Fidel had ordered that Kennedy be killed?” Aspillaga’s response was described as quick and reassuring to Latell: “I cannot tell you that, but at the very least Castro knew they were going to kill him.” Latell then quotes Aspillaga rendering his judgment: “Castro knew one hundred percent that they were going to shoot at Kennedy.” Latell persisted: “You don’t have any doubt?” Aspillaga replied: “no, no, no.” Unfortunately, Aspillaga offered neither proof nor credible reasons why he believed Castro knew other than that he had been ordered to listen to Texas rather than his normal targets.
In some areas, Latell also tends to the hyperbole. One of Aspillaga’s most valuable disclosures was the Cuban use of double agents targeting the CIA. Once the agents were unmasked by Aspillaga following his defection, the DGI “was tasked to put together an elaborate media campaign to expose still more Cuban successes against the American archenemy. These new revelations were also acutely embarrassing.” The media campaign included a “documentary” shown on Cuban television with a great deal of surveillance footage depicting CIA case officers engaged in intelligence activities such as loading dead drops. Latell writes: “Yet a tantalizing question the exposé left open, groaning to be answered, was just how the Cubans knew in advance precisely where to position their cameras. The double agents could not have told counterintelligence where to install surveillance equipment to capture the Americans on film and audiotape. Agents would not be told in advance by the CIA where they would need to go, say, to retrieve money or communications gear. They would receive detailed instruction only after their handler had made the delivery. These fundamental practices are described in any beginner’s manual about human intelligence or law enforcement tradecraft.” Latell then jumps to: “The inescapable conclusion, therefore, was that, somehow, the CIA had been penetrated.” Earlier in the book Latell wrote of “Castro’s personal super mole in the Washington establishment” who “must have occupied an important subcabinet or comparably sensitive position.”
Was the super mole the CIA penetration? A much simpler answer is that the Cubans would know in advance where to position their cameras. In any clandestine operation the agent is given a communications plan by his handler/case officer setting forth the methods by which the agent would communicate with his handler. There would be provisions for “handler to agent” and “agent to handler” communications. Most clandestine communications plans include as one method of communication the use of dead drops. The handler gives the agent the location of the dead drop as part of his communications plan, and the site could be used several times. Accordingly, the agent, and by extension, Cuban counterintelligence would know exactly where to position their cameras. The man “conspicuously leaving chalk marks on a park bench” is simply making either a “load” or an “unload” signal indicating that the dead drop had been loaded and the agent may go to the dead drop site to retrieve whatever was left there or, conversely, signaling that the dead drop was successfully cleared.
Both Aldrich Ames, the CIA officer convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, and Robert Hanssen, the FBI Special Agent also convicted of spying for the Soviets, used dead drops and chalk messages in their communications plans. In the voluminous declassified documents submitted as evidence in the Wasp network trial there are exemplars of Cuban communications plans with provisions for dead drops. In another quote from the “documentary” Latell describes an irate American wife shouting to her husband as he fills a dead drop in a rustic setting: “You idiot.” The larger context is the wife was imploring the husband to hurry because: “There might be a boar out there, you idiot.”
A potential clue that may have bolstered Latell’s thesis, but overlooked by him, and possibly others who have delved into the Kennedy death, is the passage describing Oswald as: “…..living like a monk. At the rooming house, he kept a shortwave radio purchased in the Soviet Union and apparently listened in the evenings to English-language Radio Havana propaganda broadcasts. Vincent Bugliosi, author of an exhaustive 1,500 page study of the assassination, writes that ‘more likely than not Lee Oswald was hearing Havana’s every complaint.’” Shortwave radio is common trade craft in Cuban clandestine communications to contact their agents and send instructions. Was Oswald listening to Castro’s rants or Castro’s instructions?
Flaws aside, this book is well worth reading. It provides valuable insight into Cuban intelligence, especially in its formative years and describes how the U. S. underestimated the Cubans and their dedication, professionalism, and effectiveness. Latell is successful in outlining the then ongoing struggle between the Kennedys and Castro and the still unresolved issue of just what was Rolando Cubela’s role in this drama. As with anything having to do with Cuba and its exile community, it is often impossible to ascertain the truth. There are always so many competing, plausible explanations. In 1976, Aldo Vera Serafin, an anti-Castro exile who had previously fought with Castro in the Revolution, was gunned down on a street in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His killers have never been identified. Was he assassinated by Castro’s Special Troops (Tropas Especiales) for his anti-Castro activities as many believe; was he killed by rogue members of the Police of Puerto Rico (POPR) in retaliation for wounding their own in a bombing believed perpetrated by Vera; was it because he was involved in the ongoing corruption scandal related to elements of the POPR, was he killed by a rival anti-Castro group in one of their many internecine struggles (often initiated or exacerbated by Cuban intelligence active measures); was it because of a bad business deal; or some other equally credible reason? Like Kennedy’s death and Castro’s possible knowledge of it, or participation in it, the truth may never be known.
Latell takes a good look at the relationship between the Kennedys and Castro and along the way begins to fill in the knowledge void of Cuban intelligence. Latell only scratches the intelligence surface and much is left to be written. Much more probably will never be known because, as Latell adeptly explains, Castro remains hidden behind obfuscation, plausible deniability, active measures, and lies. No, Castro had no need to heed Khrushchev’s admonishments because, as Latell clearly explains, Castro already had all the elements in place by the time of their 1963 meeting.