Richard Bissell

Richard Bissell

Richard Bissell was born in 1910. He went to Groton where three of his fellow pupils were Joseph Alsop, Eugene Rostow, and Tracy Barnes. He also studied economics at Yale University.

In July, 1947 Bissell was recruited by Averell Harriman to run a committee to lobby for an economic recovery plan for Europe. The following year he was appointed as an administrator of the Marshall Plan in Germany and eventually became head of the Economic Cooperation Administration. Bissell also worked closely with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which had helped to organize guerrilla fighting, sabotage and espionage during the war.

Bissell moved to Washington where he associated with a group of journalists, politicians and government officials that became known as the Georgetown Set. This included Frank Wisner, George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Desmond FitzGerald, Joseph Alsop, Stewart Alsop, Tracy Barnes, Thomas Braden, Philip Graham, David Bruce, Clark Clifford, Walt Rostow, Eugene Rostow, Chip Bohlen, Cord Meyer, James Angleton, William Averill Harriman, John McCloy, Felix Frankfurter, John Sherman Cooper, James Reston, Allen W. Dulles and Paul Nitze.

Most men brought their wives to these gatherings. Members of what was later called the Georgetown Ladies' Social Club included Katharine Graham, Mary Pinchot Meyer, Sally Reston, Polly Wisner, Joan Braden, Lorraine Cooper, Evangeline Bruce, Avis Bohlen, Janet Barnes, Tish Alsop, Cynthia Helms, Marietta FitzGerald, Phyllis Nitze and Annie Bissell.

Bissell worked for the Ford Foundation for a while but Frank Wisner, persuaded him to join the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Its role was to evaluate intelligence reports and coordinate the intelligence activities of the various government departments in the interest of national security. In 1954 he was placed in charge of developing and operating the U-2 spy plane. The U-2 was designed by Kelly Johnson, who had previously been responsible for the P-38 and the F-104 fighter planes. It was essentially a glider with a jet engine. It was so light it could fly at an altitude of 70,000 feet and travel over 4,000 miles. It took two years and $19m to develop. President Dwight Eisenhower gave permission for the U-2 to fly over Moscow and Leningrad for the first time on 4th July, 1956.

The U-2 spy plane was a great success and within two years Bissell was able to say that 90% of all hard intelligence about the Soviet Union coming into the CIA was "funneled through the lens of the U-2's aerial cameras". This information convinced Eisenhower that Nikita Khrushchev was lying about the number of bombers and missiles being built by the Soviet Union. Eisenhower now knew that United States enjoyed a major advantage over the Soviet Union and allowed him to control defence spending.

In December, 1956, Frank Wisner, head of the Directorate for Plans, an organization instructed to conduct covert anti-Communist operations around the world, suffered a mental breakdown and was diagnosed as suffering from manic depression. During his absence Wisner's job was covered by Richard Helms. The CIA sent Wisner to the Sheppard-Pratt Institute, a psychiatric hospital near Baltimore. He was prescribed psychoanalysis and shock therapy (electroconvulsive treatment). It was not successful and still suffering from depression, he was released from hospital in 1958.

Wisner was too ill to return to his post as head of the Directorate for Plans (DPP). Allen W. Dulles therefore sent him to London to be CIA chief of station in England. Dulles decided that Bissell rather than Richard Helms should become the new head of the DPP. Helms became Bissell's deputy.

The Directorate for Plans was responsible for what became known as the CIA's Black Operations. This involved a policy that was later to become known as Executive Action (a plan to remove unfriendly foreign leaders from power). This including a coup d'état that overthrew the Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 after he introduced land reforms and nationalized the United Fruit Company.

Other political leaders deposed by Executive Action included Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, General Abd al-Karim Kassem of Iraq and Ngo Dinh Diem, the leader of South Vietnam. However, his main target was Fidel Castro who had established a socialist government in Cuba.

In March I960, President Dwight Eisenhower of the United States approved a CIA plan to overthrow Castro. The strategy was organised by Bissell. Sidney Gottlieb of the CIA Technical Services Division was asked to come up with proposals that would undermine Castro's popularity with the Cuban people. Plans included a scheme to spray a television studio in which he was about to appear with an hallucinogenic drug and contaminating his shoes with thallium which they believed would cause the hair in his beard to fall out.

These schemes were rejected and instead Bissell decided to arrange the assassination of Fidel Castro. In September 1960, Bissell and Allen W. Dulles, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), initiated talks with two leading figures of the Mafia, Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana. Later, other crime bosses such as Carlos Marcello, Santos Trafficante and Meyer Lansky became involved in this plot against Castro.

The strategy was managed by Sheffield Edwards and Robert Maheu, a veteran of CIA counter-espionage activities, was instructed to offer the Mafia $150,000 to kill Fidel Castro. The advantage of employing the Mafia for this work is that it provided CIA with a credible cover story. The Mafia were known to be angry with Castro for closing down their profitable brothels and casinos in Cuba. If the assassins were killed or captured the media would accept that the Mafia were working on their own.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation had to be brought into this plan as part of the deal involved protection against investigations against the Mafia in the United States. Castro was later to complain that there were twenty ClA-sponsered attempts on his life. Eventually Johnny Roselli and his friends became convinced that the Cuban revolution could not be reversed by simply removing its leader. However, they continued to play along with this CIA plot in order to prevent them being prosecuted for criminal offences committed in the United States.

As the end of his presidency approached, Dwight Eisenhower, decided to take a decisive step towards ending the Cold War by arranging a summit meeting with Nikita Khrushchev. The two sides agreed to meet in Paris on 16th May, 1960.

On 1st May, 1960, a high-altitude American photographic reconnaissance aircraft, a Lockheed U-2, was shot down over the Soviet Union and the pilot, Gary Powers, was taken prisoner. Six days later Khrushchev announced to the world what had happened and demanded a full apology from the United States government. President Eisenhower replied by admitting that the Central Intelligence Agency had carried out these spying missions without his authority. However, he argued that the United States government had the right to protect its security by collecting the maximum of information about Soviet military strength.

On 15th May Nikita Khrushchev made another appeal to Dwight Eisenhower to apologize for carrying out aerial spying on the Soviet Union. When he refused, the Soviet delegation left Paris and the summit meeting never took place. Some suspected that some hardliners had purposely undermined Eisenhower's attempts to bring an end to the Cold War.

In March 1960 Bissell had drafted a top-secret policy paper entitled: A Program of Covert Action Against the Castro Regime (code-named JMARC). This paper was based on PBSUCCESS, the policy that had worked so well in Guatemala in 1954. In fact, Bissell assembled the same team as the one used in Guatemala (Tracy Barnes, David Atlee Phillips, David Morales, Jake Esterline, Rip Robertson, E. Howard Hunt and Gerry Droller “Frank Bender”). The only one missing was Frank Wisner, who had suffered a mental breakdown in 1956. Added to the team was Desmond FitzGerald, William Harvey and Ted Shackley.

The policy involved the creation of an exile government, a powerful propaganda offensive, developing a resistance group within Cuba and the establishment of a paramilitary force outside Cuba. In Guatemala this strategy involved persuading Jacobo Arbenz to resign. Bissell knew of course that Fidel Castro would never agree to that. Therefore, Castro had to be removed just before the invasion took place. If this did not happen, the plan would not work.

John F. Kennedy was given a copy of the JMARC proposal by Bissell and Allen W. Dulles in Palm Beach on 18th November, 1960. According to Bissell, Kennedy remained impassive throughout the meeting. He expressed surprise only at the scale of the operation. The plan involved a 750 man landing on a beach near the port of Trinidad, on the south coast of Cuba. The CIA claimed that Trinidad was a hotbed of opposition to Castro. It was predicted that within four days the invasion force would be able to recruit enough local volunteers to double in size. Airborne troops would secure the roads leading to the town and the rebels would join up with the guerrillas in the nearby Escambray Mountains.

In March 1961 John F. Kennedy asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to vet the JMARC project. As a result of “plausible deniability” they were not given details of the plot to kill Castro. The JCS reported that if the invaders were given four days of air cover, if the people of Trinidad joined the rebellion and if they were able to join up with the guerrillas in the Escambray Mountains, the overall rating of success was 30%. Therefore, they could not recommend that Kennedy went along with the JMARC project.

At a meeting on 11th March, 1961, Kennedy rejected Bissell’s proposed scheme. He told him to go away and draft a new plan. He asked for it to be “less spectacular” and with a more remote landing site than Trinidad. It appears that Kennedy had completely misunderstood the report from the JCS. They had only rated it as high as a 30% chance of success because it was going to involve such a large landing force and was going to take place in Trinidad, near to the Escambray Mountains. After all, Fidel Castro had an army and militia of 200,000 men.

Bissell now resubmitted his plan. As requested, the landing was no longer at Trinidad. Instead he selected Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). This was 80 miles from the Escambray Mountains. What is more, this journey to the mountains was across an impenetrable swamp. As Bissell explained to Kennedy, this means that the guerrilla fallback option had been removed from the operation.

As Allen W. Dulles recorded at the time: “We felt that when the chips were down, when the crisis arose in reality, any action required for success would be authorized rather than permit the enterprise to fail.” In other words, he knew that the initial invasion would be a disaster, but believed that Kennedy would order a full-scale invasion when he realized that this was the case. According to Evan Thomas (The Very Best Men): “Some old CIA hands believe that Bissell was setting a trap to force U.S. intervention”. Edgar Applewhite, a former deputy inspector general, believed that Bissell and Dulles were “building a tar baby”. Jake Esterline was very unhappy with these developments and on 8th April attempted to resign from the CIA. Bissell convinced him to stay.

On 10th April, 1961, Bissell had a meeting with Robert Kennedy. He told Kennedy that the new plan had a two out of three chance of success. Bissell added that even if the project failed the invasion force could join the guerrillas in the Escambray Mountains. Kennedy was convinced by this scheme and applied pressure on those like Chester Bowles, Theodore Sorenson and Arthur Schlesinger who were urging John F. Kennedy to abandon the project.

On 14th April, Kennedy asked Bissell how many B-26s were going to be used. He replied sixteen. Kennedy told him to use only eight. Bissell knew that the invasion could not succeed without adequate air cover. Yet he accepted this decision based on the idea that he would later change his mind “when the chips were down”.

Allen W. Dulles was in Puerto Rico during the invasion. He left Charles Cabell in charge. Instead of ordering the second air raid he checked with Dean Rusk. He contacted Kennedy who said he did not remember being told about the second raid. After discussing it with Rusk he decided to cancel it.

Instead the operation tried to rely on Radio Swan, broadcasts being made on a small island in the Caribbean by David Atlee Phillips, calling for the Cuban Army to revolt. They failed to do this. Instead they called out the militia to defend the fatherland from “American mercenaries”.

At 7 a.m. on 18th April, Bissell told Kennedy that the invasion force was trapped on the beaches and encircled by Castro’s forces. Then Bissell asked Kennedy to send in American forces to save the men. Bissell expected him to say yes. Instead he replied that he still wanted “minimum visibility”.

After the air raids Cuba was left with only eight planes and seven pilots. Two days later five merchant ships carrying 1,400 Cuban exiles arrived at the Bay of Pigs. Two of the ships were sunk, including the ship that was carrying most of the supplies. Two of the planes that were attempting to give air-cover were also shot down.

That night Bissell had another meeting with John F. Kennedy. This time it took place in the White House and included General Lyman Lemnitzer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations. Bissell told Kennedy that the operation could still be saved if American warplanes were allowed to fly cover. Admiral Burke supported him on this. General Lemnitzer called for the Brigade to join the guerrillas in the Escambray Mountains. Bissell explained this was not an option as their route was being blocked by 20,000 Cuban troops.

Within seventy-two hours all the invading troops had been killed, wounded or had surrendered. Bissell had a meeting with John F. Kennedy about the Bay of Pigs operation. Kennedy admitted it was his fault that the operation had been a disaster. Kennedy added: "In a parliamentary government, I'd have to resign. But in this government I can't, so you and Allen (Dulles) have to go."

As Evan Thomas points out in The Very Best Men: "Bissell had been caught in his own web. "Plausible deniability" was intended to protect the president, but as he had used it, it was a tool to gain and maintain control over an operation... Without plausible deniability, the Cuba project would have turned over to the Pentagon, and Bissell would have have become a supporting actor."

John F. Kennedy asked Maxwell Taylor to investigate what went wrong during the Bay of Pigs operation. Taylor asked Lyman Kirkpatrick, the CIA's inspector general, to write a report on the failed project. Kirkpatrick was highly critical of both Bissell and Tracy Barnes. He claimed that they had misled the president and that "plausible deniability was a pathetic illusion".

Kennedy was still determined to overthrow Fidel Castro. He created a committee (SGA) charged with overthrowing Castro's government. The SGA, chaired by Robert F. Kennedy (Attorney General), included Allen W. Dulles (CIA Director), later replaced by John McCone, Alexis Johnson (State Department), McGeorge Bundy (National Security Adviser), Roswell Gilpatric (Defence Department), General Lyman Lemnitzer (Joint Chiefs of Staff) and General Maxwell Taylor. Although not officially members, Dean Rusk (Secretary of State) and Robert S. McNamara (Secretary of Defence) also attending meetings.

At a meeting of this committee at the White House on 4th November, 1961, it was decided to call this covert action program for sabotage and subversion against Cuba, Operation Mongoose. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy also decided that General Edward Lansdale (Staff Member of the President's Committee on Military Assistance) should be placed in charge of the operation.

Robert F. Kennedy now took the leading role in trying to overthrow Castro. At a meeting in November, 1961, Kennedy accused Bissell of "not doing anything about getting rid of Castro and the Castro regime." CIA agent Sam Halpern complained that "Bobby (Kennedy) wanted boom and bang all over the island... it was stupid... the pressure from the White House was very great." Bissell did what he could to arrange the assassination of Castro. This included asking William Harvey to take over the Mafia contracts from Sheffield Edwards.

John F. Kennedy did not actually sack Bissell. Instead he offered him the post as director of a new science and technology department. This would place him in charge of the development of the SR-71, the new spy plane that would make the U-2 obsolete. Bissell turned down the offer and in February 1962 he left the Central Intelligence Agency and was replaced as head of the Directorate for Plans, by Richard Helms.

Bissell became head of the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) in 1962. IDA was a Pentagon think tank set up to evaluate weapons systems. Later he worked for United Technologies in Hartford (1964-74). He also worked as a consultant for the Ford Foundation.

Richard Bissell died in 1994. His autobiography, Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs, was published two years later.

Primary Sources

(1) Jacobo Arbenz, speech after he had been deposed as leader of Guatemala in 1954.

They have used the pretext of anti-communism... The truth is very different. The truth is to be found in the financial interests of the fruit company and the other US monopolies which have invested great amounts of money in Latin America and fear that the example of Guatemala would be followed by other Latin countries... I was elected by a majority of the people of Guatemala, but I have had to fight under difficult conditions. The truth is that the sovereignty of a people cannot be maintained without the material elements to defend it.... I took over the presidency with great faith in the democratic system, in liberty and the possibility of achieving economic independence for Guatemala. I continue to believe that this program is just. I have not violated my faith in democratic liberties, in the independence of Guatemala and in all the good which is the future of humanity.

(2) Richard Bissell, Reflections of a Cold Warrior (1996)

I had no grand plan for advancing myself or any offices to which I particularly aspired. I did want to lead a challenging life and, if I could, participate in the key issues and events of my time. To attain this end, I seized those opportunities that came my way and made the most of them. Some of my accomplishments I am very proud of, others less so, but I take pride in knowing that I did my best.

(3) Richard Bissell, Reflections of a Cold Warrior (1996)

I was very uninformed about covert activities... Even with my curious nature, I myself was unaware, except in the vaguest terms, what political action projects were going forward and how (Frank Wisner was spending Marshall Plan counterpart funds.) I don't think any of us were worried... I suspect that had we known more (it would have just made us more appreciative.) It has since become known (that) we in the Marshall Plan were dealing-with quite a number of people who were beneficiaries of the CIA's early covert political action programs, (including) many left-of-center organizations... Vibrant democratic parties, even socialist ones, were preferable to a Communist victory.

(4) Andrew St George, The Attempt to Assassinate Castro, Parade Magazine (12th April, 1964)

This week will mark the anniversary of the ill-fated disaster at the Bay of Pigs. It is exactly three years since Fidel Castro's regime threw back an exile-manned, U.S.-supported attempt to invade Cuba.

The story of that debacle has been repeatedly discussed since. It has been the subject of Congressional and executive investigations and of partisan political recrimination.

Yet one of the most important details of that Cuban defeat has not previously been revealed. It is an event that may have been the whole key to the Bay of Pigs tragedy, and its occurrence - or failure to occur - had a profound effect on the invasion itself and on subsequent history. And although it has not publicly been acknowledged, long and painstaking investigation by this reporter has documented this event.

Carried out on the highest levels of Cuba's revolutionary government, it was an attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro. And it came within a cat's whisker of success.

This plot, of course, was not the first against Castro's life, nor has it been the last. One of the records of which the bearded revolutionary leader is least proud is the number of times he has been the target of nearly successful assassination attempts.

Before detailing the most important plot, let's look at a few others. The most recent try came just before the celebrations in Havana last January commemorating the victory over Batista. U.S. security boats intercepted two speedboats crammed with anti-Castro conspirators and hundreds of petacas, plastic bombs to blast Castro from his reviewing stand.

The U.S. government, worried about the Caribbean aftermath of a successful assassination, is not happy about such attempts. But American nervousness has not been able to do too much about it. Some of the attempts have come so close to success that Castro has been left with the apprehensive wariness of a lone fox in a hunting preserve.

An early try at an ambush was engineered by the sinister Col. Johnny Abbes, formerly intelligence chief of the Dominican Republic. Abbes, working on orders of Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo - himself the victim of assassination - hired a swashbuckling American adventurer, Alex Rorke, son-in-law of New York's famed restauranteur, Sherman Billingsley, to pilot a speedboat that landed eight men before dawn in eastern Cuba. The plan was to ambush Castro on his way to speak at a service at the Santiago cemetery.

Through a pouring rain, Trujillo's Tommy gun team spotted Castro's chief bodyguard, Capt. Alfredo Gamonal, in the second jeep of a caravan. The killers assumed Castro was in the back seat, and their bullets chewed up Gamonal, the superintendent of cemeteries and the jeep driver. Castro, riding in the next-to-the-last jeep, was unhurt.

"He may have nine lives," Abess told Rorke, who returned to Ciudad Trujillo complaining of Castro's charmed life. "But if so, I'll try a tenth time."

Abbes acquired an apartment in Havana overlooking the CMQ television studios, where Castro appeared frequently to deliver his nation-wide harangues. Another American adventurer, a one-time top competition sharpshooter, was retained by Trujillo on a down payment of $25,000 and the promise of a cool million if he managed to score a clean hit on his moving target.

The marksman said he could do it, but demanded a special weapon-a bench-adjusted telescopic carbine with a nondeflecting muzzle silencer.

"Dominican ordnance experts immediately went to work to produce the rifle," former Dominican State Security Minister General Arturo Espaillat recalls. "The weapon was completed and en route to Cuba when Trujillo canceled the project... He was afraid of Washington's fury. I really think that Fidel would be dead today if the plot had not been called off."

Prior to that attempt, another American, Alan Robert Nye, a 31-year-old Chicagoan, was convicted in Havana for conspiring to kill Castro. Fee: $100,000. Although a Cuban court had signed, sealed and delivered the order for his execution, Nye was allowed to leave the country for the U.S.

There have been far too many of these attempts to detail here; although men like Alex Rorke, and Paul Hughes, a former American Navy jet pilot, have lost their lives because of them, Castro cannot rest easy.

Before embarking on an airplane trip, he usually inspects the plane from tip to tail. During the warm-up, he once spotted flames belching from the engine exhaust. Castro ordered the ignition cut and both pilots back into the cabin, where they explained for a half-hour that burning exhaust was normal and that it did not prove the plane booby-trapped.

During his visit to New York to attend the United Nations in 1960, Castro's food problems were magnified by his methods of selecting restaurants. A brace of bodyguards was ordered to go out and buy food from a restaurant - but never from the hotel kitchen or from the restaurant nearest the hotel. On each occasion, Castro would call out a number, say, "Three!" or "Five!" which meant they had to count off three or five restaurants before they could enter the next one, thus having presumably eluded the potential poisoners.

His security chief also carried sensitive white mice "to detect assassination attempts by radiation or nerve gas," chief body guard Gamonal explained.

But the only security measure Castro really has faith in is the one he learned in his two years of guerrilla warfare: never let anyone know where you'll show up next. In the Sierra Maestra, when Castro and his little band were making their revolution against Batista, no one but Fidel knew exactly where the day's march route would end.

The habit persists. When he made his first visit to Moscow, he left Havana and returned to it as secretly as an enemy infiltrator. No one in Cuba knew when to expect the Premier home. When his Russian airliner finally landed, there was nobody to welcome him except some startled airplane mechanics. Grinning, Castro borrowed a coin, dropped it into the nearest pay phone to let Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticos know he was back.

But is was the assassination attempt just before the Bay of Pigs that was the most significant of all. It involved several senior commanders of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces as well as key civilian leaders.

The Central Intelligence Agency, which had received absolutely reliable reports that a conspiracy to assassinate Castro was developing among his top lieutenants, decided to contact the plotters, because the U.S. was already training its own anti-Castro force in Guatemala. CIA agents discovered the conspiracy had a wealthy contact man in Miami, a former sugar cane grower, Alberto Fernandez.

With CIA's tacit approval, Fernandez bought a converted subchaser, the Texana III, and had it outfitted with concealed deck armaments, 50-cal. machine guns, two 57 mm. recoilless rifles and a pair of small speedboats with muffled interceptor engines.

Now began one of the most daring and extraordinary secret intelligence operations ever attempted. Shuttling in the dark of night between Marathon Key and the north coast of Cuba, the Texana III was the link between the Cuban conspirators and the U.S.

Its two deck boats skimmered up to shore less than a dozen miles from Havana to pick up their unusual passengers: Cuban rebel comandantes in full uniform and governmental functionaries carrying brief cases.

Before the sun came up, the travelers were in U.S. waters, where they held quick conferences with American agents, sped back to Cuba the next night.

The tricky and hazardous process went on for a couple of months, and the U.S. learned more and more about the murder conspiracy beaded by cool, brainy Comandante Humberto Sori Marin, a hero of the Castro revolution. Other top-level men involved astounded the Americans: Secret Police Chief Aldo Vera; Comandante Julio Rodriguez, deputy commandant of the San Antonio de los Banos air base; several Navy flag officers; the military superintendent of Camagüey Province; the president of the Cuban Sugar Institute; and the undersecretary of finance. They were determined to act early in 1961. The plot was to kill both Castros and touch off a general uprising.

Convinced that, regardless of what the U.S. did, the conspirators meant business, the CIA decided to capitalize on the plot without actually participating in it. Officials readied the landing forces to go ashore at the same time. Agents began a series of secret meetings in Havana with the conspirators to coordinate their plans.

Then, just before the target date, there occurred one of those impossible mistakes nobody ever believes. A crucially important secret conference was being held with most of the top conspirators. They met in a house of known safety in Havana's Miramar suburb on a tranquil street, Calle Once. It was a large, yellow, somnolent building, lived in and owned by a respectable retired sugar engineer and his wife.

In the front patio, the engineer played gin rummy with his wife and led by many points. In the back of the house, the plotters gathered around a heavy refectory table covered with street maps, pinpointing the massive incendiary attack against the crowded downtown district of "Old Havana," which was to touch off the uprising. The Texana III had already shipped in hundreds of petacas.

Several blocks away, a militia security patrol stopped in front of another house, then entered to search it. A nervous woman in a back room fled from a rear door with her small daughter. She ran beneath garden walls and ducked into the rear entrance of the large yellow house of the engineer, an old friend.

The street was deserted. But one militiaman watched as she ran to the yellow house. So, under the blazing sky of a spring afternoon, in Miramar, the security unit walked down the street to that yellow house, that sleepy yellow house . . . .

The pity of it was that the nervous woman who ran did not have to. The security police were on a routine search. She was suspected of nothing; if she had remained, nothing would have gone wrong.

The 11 key figures of the Sori Marin conspiracy were caught in a single sweep. The four men who had been sent in by the CIA might have gotten away; they were all Cubans and carried such perfectly forged papers that two were subsequently shot under their assumed names.

But Sori Marin had no chance whatever. As the milicianos burst into the room, his pistol leaped into his hand. But the security men's snub-nosed Czech Tommy guns chattered and Sori Martin crumpled as he tried to crash though a window.

And it was all a mistake. The militia walked in by mistake. The woman ran away by mistake.

Washington working with fragmented information, decided it was too late to halt the invasion troops staging for departure in Guatemala. There was no way to know just how badly the conspiracy had been crippled; there was a possibility that many of its members had not been identified and would thus be able to carry out the plans.

It was a forlorn hope. April 17, at dawn, the first of the invasion troops splashed through the surf onto Giron Beach. April 17, at dawn, the seven top conspirators, led by Sori Martin, wounded and supported by his guards, but still wearing his uniform, were executed in Havana. Within the next few hours they were followed to the wall by the captured CIA men. The rest, the slaughter at the Bay of Pigs, is history.

U.S. security and intelligence agencies are now more worried about the possibility of a successful assassination. For Washington - which once gave tacit support to Sori Marin - now feels that a real explosion involving Castro could trigger the most unpredictable chain reaction of the coming year, a chain reaction that conceivably could turn into World War III.

The current approach was pointed up in a quiet sort of way the day Allen Dulles - whose own job as head of the CIA ended a short time after that ill starred invasion-appeared in public for the first time to talk about it on Meet the Press.

"Mr. Dulles," the moderator asked, "in launching the Bay of Pigs invasion, you were obviously expecting a popular uprising to support it. Yet none occurred. How could you have been so wrong?"

"A popular uprising?" Mr. Dulles puffed on his pipe. "That's a popular misconception - but no, I wouldn't say we expected a popular uprising. We were expecting something else to happen in Cuba... something that didn't materialize."

As this is written, U.S. intelligence is still expecting it to happen, but the expectation has now turned to a nervous and gnawing worry.

(5) Richard Bissell, Reflections of a Cold Warrior (1996)

Like the Marshall Plan's Economic Cooperation Administration, the U-2 program was given the authority, the freedom of action, and the best people available to achieve an important national objective. It is not a coincidence that these programs were highly successful and contributed greatly to national security. Later, with the Bay of Pigs, what is noteworthy was the lack of a similar delegation of authority.

(6) Jack Anderson, Peace, War and Politics: An Eyewitness Account (1999)

The CIA's Sheffield Edwards was supposed to make the contact with the underworld. He approached a former FBI agent and CIA operative, Robert Maheu, who moved at the subterranean level of politics. Maheu knew his way around the shady side of Las Vegas; he had been recruited by billionaire Howard Hughes to oversee his Las Vegas casinos. Happily, Hughes was a friend who owed me a favor. Intermediaries persuaded Maheu to confide in me. He confirmed that the CIA had asked him to sound out the Mafia, strictly off the record, about a contract to hit Fidel Castro. Maheu had taken the request straight to Johnny Rosselli.

Rosselli had a reputation inside the mob as a patriot; he was quite willing to kill for his country. But as he told me, there was an etiquette to be followed in these matters. Santo Trafficante was the godfather-in-exile of Cuba after Castro chased out the mob. Rosselli couldn't even tiptoe through Trafficante's territory without permission, and he couldn't approach Trafficante without a proper introduction. So Rosselli prevailed upon his boss in Chicago, Sam "Momo" Giancana, to attend to the protocol. Since Giancana had godfather status, he could solicit Trafficante's help to eliminate Castro. The project appealed to Giancana who had commiserated with other dons over the loss of casino revenues in Havana. Killing Castro for the government would settle some old scores for the mob, and it would put Uncle Sam in the debt of the Mafia.

Maheu had been ordered to keep a tight lid on the involvement of the U.S. government. The CIA was ready with a cover story that the Castro hit had been arranged by disgruntled American businessmen who had been bounced out of their Cuban enterprises by Castro.

On September 25, I960, Maheu brought two CIA agents to a suite at the Fountainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. Rosselli delivered two sinister mystery men whom he introduced only as Sicilians named "Sam" and "Joe." In fact, they were two of the Mafia's most notorious godfathers, Sam Giancana and Santo Trafficante, both on the FBI's ten-most-wanted list. They discussed the terms of Castro's demise, with Giancana suggesting that the usual mob method of a quick bullet to the head be eschewed in favor of something more delicate, like poison.

The wily Giancana was less interested in bumping off Castro than in scoring points with the federal government, and he intended to call in as many chips as he could before the game was over.

(7) Richard Bissell, Reflections of a Cold Warrior (1996)

(The Mafia-connection aspect) did not originate with me - and I had no desire to become personally involved in its implementation, mainly because I was not competent to handle relations with the Mafia. It is true, however, that, when the idea was presented to me, I supported it, and as Deputy Director for Plans I was responsible for the necessary decisions.... Sheffield Edwards, the director of the Agency's Office of Security - and his deputy became the case officers for the Agency's relations with the Mafia. Edwards was frank with me about his efforts, and I authorized him to continue... I do not recall any specific contact with the Mafia, but Doris Mirage, my secretary at the time, does...

I hoped the Mafia would achieve success. My philosophy during my last two or three years in the Agency was very definitely that the end justified the means, and I was not going to be held back. Shortly after I left the CIA, however, I came to believe that it had been a mistake to involve the Mafia in an assassination attempt. This is partly a moral judgment, but I must admit it is also partly a pragmatic judgment.

(8) Gabriel Schoenfeld on Richard Bissell's autobiography in The Wall Street Journal (1996)

A fascinating memoir... Apart from sketching a life of public service, it takes us through key decisions in the two enterprises, recounting in arresting detail what went right and wrong - and why... Bissell's engaging memoir is a persuasive corrective to our current aversion to risk in foreign affairs.

(9) Chris Patsilelis on Richard Bissell's autobiography in The Hartford Courant (1996)

Besides providing the reader with much objective and illuminating Cold War history, Bissell's book appears to draw a portrait of a refreshing rarity in the realm of political memoirs: The man of honor and integrity.

(10) Richard Bissell, Reflections of a Cold Warrior (1996)

I have never believed for a moment that Allen (Dulles) went to the President and said, 'I'm trying to use the Mafia to get Castro assassinated.' Indeed, I am sure that just did not happen. On the other hand, I also don't think Bobby Kennedy would have concealed these plans from his brother. I feel he would have said that we were trying in every way we can to get rid of this guy, and this may mean using some pretty unpleasant methods. The President might have replied that it is really vital to get rid of him and you go right ahead, or he might have said I agree with you and hope to get rid of him.

(11) Mark Falcoff on Richard Bissell's autobiography in The National Interest (1996)

Informative and stimulating. It shows us where we have been and poses some hard questions on where we might wish to go in the future. It is both a fitting memorial and a legacy worthy of the conscientious public servant who has bequeathed it to us.

(12) Rémi Hyppia on Richard Bissell's autobiography in The National Security Studies Quarterly (1996)

Bissell's memoirs will surely contribute to a better understanding by historians and political scientists of the context and mindset that influenced decision-making inside the CIA during the Cold War.