John McAdams: Review of Brian Latell's "Castro's Secrets: The CIA and Cuba's Intelligence Machine" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)





John McAdams teaches American politics, public opinion, and voter behavior at Marquette University. He is the author of "JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think about Claims of Conspiracy" (Potomac, 2012) To read Brian Latell's response to this review, go here.

History is quite frequently distorted by ideological bias, and nothing shows this better than the corpus of JFK assassination books. Written by people on the political left, they almost uniformly want to blame some group on the right for John Kennedy’s death. Of course, it’s far from the case that all voices to the left of center have claimed a right-wing conspiracy. The liberal mainstream media have had little truck with conspiracy theories, and hard left voices like Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn and The Nation have often insisted that Lee Harvey Oswald did it all by himself.

But pick up your average conspiracy book and most likely the culprits will be some of those bêtes noires of the left: the CIA, the FBI, anti-Castro Cubans, rich Texas oil millionaires, and so on. The conspiracists’ fruitless half-century fixation with these groups makes Captain Ahab’s obsession with the Great White Whale look like a passing summer afternoon fancy.

In this context, this volume from longtime CIA Cuba analyst Brian Latell has some value as a corrective. Conspiracy theorists, typically in thrall of Camelot and, if not outright fans of Castro, then at least rather mellow toward the Caribbean dictator, have downplayed the enmity between Castro and Kennedy. But Latell gives a full account of the incendiary mutual denunciations that the American president and the Cuban leader directed at each other. Likewise, he makes it clear (in the tradition of writers like Gus Russo and Max Holland) that the impetus behind assassination attempts on Castro came from the highest levels of the Kennedy administration, with Bobby being John’s chief honcho in dealing with the CIA and anti-Castro Cubans.

Where assassination writers have wanted to believe that Kennedy, at the time he was killed, was preparing to make nice-nice with Castro, Latell makes it clear that Kennedy would only accept a “Tito solution.” Castro would have to end his alliance with the Soviet Union and quit trying to export revolution. But of course, Castro was never going to do that.

Latell, to his credit, is far from being an apologist for the CIA. He straightforwardly describes CIA plots against Castro as “aggression” -- while at the same time showing that Castro was engaged in virtually identical actions against other Latin American nations. He gives a full account of Agency schemes that look at best feckless, and more usually merely stupid. And a major theme of the book is the way in which the CIA arrogantly underestimated the Cuban intelligence agency, the DGI. He says that “for years they ran circles around both the Agency and the Bureau [the FBI].” He quotes with approval a fellow Agency officer saying “Boy, did they do a job on us!” Latell writes compellingly on this point.

So far, so good. But the volume is laced with jarring instances of poor historical judgment.

For example, he details a documentary, on Cuban state television, that showed some of the CIA’s operations on the island -- Cuban double agents meeting their CIA handlers, dead drops, and so on. He goes on at some length about the technical sophistication of the footage in the program.

. . . clearly multiple cameras were used in filming some of the incidents. Segments were shot from above, which probably means that small, sophisticated cameras with telescopic lenses were places in tree limbs. They must have been remotely controlled because they panned left and right to follow the Americans as they moved about. . . .

Targets were seen in close-ups and from various distances, so the cameras had zoom capability. Some of the sequences were filmed from eye level, dead straight ahead of the subjects. All of the footage shown on Cuban television was clear and in sharp definition. The program demonstrated exceptionally sophisticated technical and surveillance skills. (p. 17)

Latell proceeds to wonder “just how the Cubans knew in advance precisely where to position their cameras.”

It appears not to have dawned on him that Cuban television did what the History Channel does routinely: it recreated the events. It’s easy to get broadcast quality footage if you have broadcast quality equipment and a bunch of actors. In real intelligence work, not so much.

Latell’s explanation of why the Cubans got such excellent footage also rings false. He speculates that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana was “peppered with the most sophisticated and miniaturized audio and video surveillance devices available at the time.” The problem with this theory is not that that the Cubans would not have done that, but rather than U.S. personnel would have assumed they had done that and taken appropriate precautions. Indeed, Latell quotes one official at the mission as saying “We were never sure how secure the protection of the embassy building had been.”

Castro and the Kennedy Assassination

Had Latell steered clear of the Kennedy assassination, he might have written a workmanlike and useful (if not attention-getting) volume. But he does deal with the assassination, and falls into the same sort of traps as his predecessors on the left.

Wanting to blame Castro, he does not go so far as to say that Castro or Cuban intelligence put Oswald up to shooting Kennedy, but he asserts that Castro knew that Oswald was going to shoot Kennedy, welcomed it, and after the assassination lied about knowing it.

A key event in his scenario was Lee Harvey Oswald’s visit to the Cuban embassy in Mexico City on September 27, 1963. Smitten with Castro’s revolution, Oswald tried to get a visa to enter Cuba, and after a confrontation that escalated into a shouting match, left frustrated, knowing that no visa was to be had.

Latell’s theory works up to a point. He plausibly argues that Castro himself micro-managed a lot of Cuban intelligence, and might have known about the confrontation at the embassy. He then argues that Oswald threatened Kennedy’s life when leaving the embassy frustrated, saying “I’m going to kill Kennedy for this.” Then he further asserts that Castro and Cuban intelligence actually knew that Oswald was going to shoot Kennedy about noon on November 22.

This is not just a bridge too far. It’s an entire continent too far.

What is the evidence on this? Latell posits -- with absolutely no evidence -- that Oswald had some contact with DGI officers in the Cuban embassy, and these would be people beyond the three individuals (two consuls and a secretary) with whom he is known to have interacted. He suggests that Oswald may have had contact (either in the Embassy or via phone during the following weeks) with one Luisa Calderon. When someone called Calderon immediately after the assassination to inform her that Kennedy has been shot, she responded “Yes, of course. . . I learned of it almost before Kennedy.” Latell interprets this to mean she knew of it before Kennedy did. Unfortunately, the “almost” makes a big difference here.

More intriguing, and more plausible, is the account of one Jack Childs. Childs was an official in the U.S. Communist Party who was also reporting to the FBI. In May 1964, Childs met with Castro, and Castro informed him of Oswald’s supposed “I’m going to kill Kennedy” outburst.

Childs would seem to be a reliable source. But if Castro told Childs this, was it true? Anybody who thinks that information moves seamlessly up through layers of bureaucracy to top officials needs to examine the things that J. Edgar Hoover was telling U.S. government officials in the wake of the assassination. His conversations with Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy and Secret Service head James Rowley are laced with misinformation, including misinformation about important matters.i

Further, there is no source for Oswald having made this threat that dates from before the assassination. Could it be that Oswald’s tantrum got transmuted, via misunderstanding and faulty memory in the wake of the shooting, into a threat against Kennedy? That’s entirely possible.

But if Oswald really did say that, did the Cubans therefore know that Oswald would shoot Kennedy? Or did they write him off as a crackpot? Latell insists that they knew, and indeed knew the exact date of the assassination.

His evidence for this latter notion is tenuous, to say the least. He engages in pure speculation about phone contact between Oswald and Cuban intelligence agents in Mexico City in the days and weeks leading up to the assassination. But much better evidence (if it is to be believed) is the account of a defector from Cuban intelligence, one Florentino Aspillaga. Working Cuban signals intelligence in a complex near Havana on November 22, 1963, Aspillaga reports being ordered to stop his monitoring of CIA traffic from Langley and the CIA’s JMWAVE station in Miami and listen to communication from Texas. He claims to have heard chatter on amateur short-wave bands about the assassination.

None of this makes much sense. Radio amateurs were simply talking about what the media were reporting. Since Miami radio stations could be gotten in Cuba, and since the key events surrounding the assassination were carried throughout the world via AP and UPI, there would seem to be little utility in listening to guys with short wave sets in Texas. Indeed, journalist Jean Daniel, who was with Castro at the time of the assassination, reported that Castro and his staff were listening to NBC broadcasts on a Miami station.ii

Aspillaga doesn’t have to be lying about this. Memory errors greater than this are all too common among apparently honest witnesses. But his story simply lacks credibility.

As is typical of conspiracy theorists, once one adopts an implausible theory, one has to make all sorts of ad hoc assumptions to protect it from being falsified. That’s why the assassination literature is littered with claims of lying witnesses, forged documents, faked photographs and so on.

In this case Latell, who thinks Castro welcomed Kennedy’s death, has to deal with Daniel’s report that Castro was shocked when he heard the news, saying “Es una mala noticia” (this is bad news). Latell dismisses this as “elaborate fidelista theater.” Much more plausible is the idea that Castro had no reason to believe that Lyndon Johnson would be any easier than Kennedy on his Communist regime, and had excellent reason to fear what would happen if blame for the assassination fell on Cuba.

Conclusion

While Castro’s Secrets is hardly without value, it is marred by Latell’s poor historical judgment, especially when it deals with the JFK assassination. He has fallen into the morass that is assassination “scholarship.” It’s ironic that Latell, who rightly laments the failures of the CIA in dealing with Castro, exemplifies the analytical shortcomings he deplores.

 


 

i John McAdams, JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think About Claims of Conspiracy (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2011), pp. 197, 202-203.

ii Jean Daniel, “When Castro Heard the News,” The New Republic, December 7, 1963. Online at: http://karws.gso.uri.edu/jfk/history/wc_period/pre-wcr_reactions_to_assassination/pre-wcr_reactions_by_the_left/When_Castro_Heard_TNR.html


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