Declassified papers shed light on Bay of Pigs invasion

Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has outlasted eight American presidents and established his country as one of the world’s few remaining footholds of communism.

And in recently declassified documents published in a book late last year, GW’s National Security Archive Director Peter Kornbluh offers a unique look at one of the United States’ biggest Cold War embarrassments.

Kornbluh condensed the 30,000 pages of new information into a volume entitled Bay of Pigs Declassified. It includes papers from Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick’s review of the April 16, 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and other historical material.

“It is extremely upsetting that key documents were being withheld from students of history until now,” Kornbluh said.

The release of the secret documents, spurred by a 1996 Freedom of Information Act request, follows a 1992 CIA announcement that it “would begin a historical review of past covert operations as part of a new post-Cold War openness campaign.” In addition, a Clinton executive order in 1995 requires documents more than 25 years old to be processed for release.

“The movie JFK started a popular movement in this country to get documents on the Kennedy assassination declassified and prompted Congress to appropriate money for a board of non-governmental people to get this material to the public,” Kornbluh said.

“The Cuba documents were included because they were clearly part of Oswald’s motivation and the surrounding intrigue,” he said.

The archive that Kornbluh heads is a public research institute on the seventh floor of Gelman Library. It houses 1.7 million pages of declassified documents.

“We share the University’s mission to advance scholarship on history and contemporary relevance,” Kornbluh said.

In April 1961, CIA-organized Cuban dissidents landed at the Bahia de los Cochinos on the southern coast of Cuba in an ill-fated coup against Fidel Castro’s communist regime, which was seen as a launching pad for Soviet influence into the Western Hemisphere.

The project called for the formation of a Cuban exile organization, the creation of a clandestine intelligence force inside Cuba, and the development of a small paramilitary force to organize, train and lead resistance groups.

But between the formulation of that plan and Kennedy’s inauguration, the CIA altered its view of the situation in Cuba, saying it had become “militarily infeasible to overthrow the Castro regime except by the commitment to combat of a sizable organized military force,” according to the documents.

The operation, which would come to be one of the nation’s most infamous foreign policy debacles, cost the lives of 114 rebels. Twelve hundred of their compatriots were captured by Castro’s forces.

At the time, the report caused such a stir at the agency that then CIA Director John McCone ordered all but one copy burned. The original report, along with angry rebuttals penned by CIA officials in charge of the invasion, spent the Cold War locked in a safe in the director’s office.

“In the name of protecting the institutional future of covert operations, the Bay of Pigs report simply vanished into the thin air of secrecy,” Kornbluh said.

Kirkpatrick’s report, written over a six-month period in 1961, includes more than 125 interviews with CIA personnel and berates the CIA for “misinforming Kennedy administration officials, bad planning, inadequate intelligence, treating rebel leaders as `puppets,’ and conducting an overt military operation beyond agency responsibility as well as agency capability,” according to a press release from the National Security Archive.

But a lengthy and heated rebuttal written by then CIA Deputy Director Richard Bissell blamed the “political requirement of deniability” for the invasion’s failure and held “senior policy-makers” responsible.

Bissel’s answer to the Kirkpatrick report, entitled “An Analysis of the Cuban Operation,” concludes that Washington politics, not cloak and dagger incompetence, were behind the mission’s failure.

But Kornbluh says in his book that the Bissell mindset is “a combination of imperial arrogance, ethnocentric ignorance, and a false sense of U.S. omnipotence that has dominated the history of covert operations since the Bay of Pigs.”

That trend is changing now, Kornbluh said.

He cites the recent policy failures in Iraq, and says senior White House officials are beginning to realize the CIA has limitations, as first noted by both Kirkpatrick and Bissel.

“The United States cannot stay stuck in a Cold War time warp,” Kornbluh said. “The world of the 1960s is very different from today.”

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