WASHINGTON -- One of the most secret documents of the Cold
War is out: the CIA's brutally honest inquest into the 1961 Bay
of Pigs fiasco, which laid the blame for the disastrous invasion of Cuba
squarely on the agency's own institutional arrogance, ignorance and
document also cautioned those who would use the CIA to
overthrow enemies, saying that job belongs to the Pentagon and its broad
arsenal of military forces around the globe.
The report painted
a picture of an agency shot through with deadly
self-deception, one whose secret operations were "ludicrous or tragic or
both." In mounting the Cuban operation, almost none of the CIA officers
were able to speak Spanish, yet those same officers heaped contempt on
their Cuban "puppets" hand-picked to replace Fidel Castro, the report
The Bay of Pigs
invasion, carried out in April 1961, was organized by the
CIA and was intended to lead to the overthrow of Castro, whose
Communist government just 90 miles from the Florida coast was seen as
a beachhead for Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere.
While the basic
facts of the commando raid on Cuba are known, the
report, titled "The Inspector General's Survey of the Cuban Operation," is
an untapped well of cold, hard facts. A leading historian of the operation,
Peter Wyden, wrote wistfully in his book "Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story"
(Simon & Schuster, 1979) that the report was "probably buried forever."
Last week, after
36 years of secrecy during which all but one copy of the
report was destroyed, a Freedom of Information Act request by the
National Security Archive, a nonproft group, unearthed the sole surviving
volume, which was locked in the safe of the director of CIA. The report,
written by the CIA's inspector general, Lyman Kirkpatrick, after a
six-month investigation, is a record of bungling by the best and the
brightest and makes for chilling reading.
The CIA's leaders
believed that it was President John F. Kennedy's
failure to approve an attack on Cuba's air force to coincide with the
landing of commandos that caused the deaths of nearly 114 raiders.
Another 1,189 were captured; the rest of the 1,500 either never landed
or made their way back to safety.
And in their
rebuttals to the report by Kirkpatrick, they wrote that his
depiction of "unmitigated and almost willful bumbling and disaster" -- in
the words of Gen. Charles Cabell, then deputy director of the CIA -- was
motivated by personal malice. Kirkpatrick had wanted to be the agency's
spymaster, but his career advancement stalled when he contracted polio
in the early 1950s.
The report said
the operation, whose planning began in April 1960,
started as a classic covert action "in which the hand of the United States
would not appear." The plan called for a group of exiled Cuban leaders,
supported by a CIA cadre, to build political momentum slowly toward
toppling Castro, who had taken power 16 months earlier.
"this operation took on a life of its own," the report said.
"The agency was going forward without knowing precisely what it was
The CIA's officers
"became so wrapped up in the operation as such that
they lost sight of ultimate goals." Their budget multiplied from $4.4 million
to $46 million. Within a year, they created an unruly, ill-trained, crudely
supported invasion force whose cover was blown, and whose existence
had been broadly hinted at in newspaper reports before the operation
took place. "Plausible denial" -- the ability of the United States to lie
convincingly about its role in the invasion -- became "a pathetic illusion,"
the report said.
lines of communication and control among bases and
camps in Miami, Key West, New Orleans, Nicaragua and Guatemala, all
under sporadic command from headquarters, the CIA created a "complex
and bizarre organizational situation" that was doomed to fail.
chosen to staff the huge operation were in many instances
incapable; "very few spoke Spanish or had Latin-American background
knowledge," the report said.
Even today, CIA
officials say that this lack of foreign languages and
experience remains one of the biggest problems at the agency.
treated the Cubans training to overthrow Castro "like
dirt." The abuse left the hungry, barefoot, disillusioned trainees "wondering
what kind of Cuban future they were fighting for."
Council, the CIA-created alternative to Castro,
became the agency's "puppets," as described in the report. "Isolated in a
Miami safe house, 'voluntarily' but under strong persuasion, the
Revolutionary Council members awaited the outcome of a military
operation which they had not planned and knew little about while
agency-written bulletins were issued to the world in their name."
If the CIA could
not work with Cubans, Kirkpatrick warned
prophetically, "how can the agency possibly succeed with the natives of
Black Africa or Southeast Asia?"
had been in office just three months when the invasion
took place. The report argued that he might not have fully grasped the
details of the raid, because the CIA did not fully explain them. "Detailed
policy authorization for some specific actions was either never fully
clarified or only resolved at the 11th hour," it said. "Even the central
decision as to whether to employ the strike force was still somewhat in
doubt up to the very moment of embarkation."
The CIA convinced
itself and the White House that the invasion would
magically create in Cuba "an organized resistance that did not exist,"
composed of 30,000 Cubans who would "make their way through the
Castro army and wade the swamps to rally to the liberators." This was
self-deception, the report said, adding drily, "We are unaware of any
planning by the agency or by the U.S. government for this success."
On April 15,
1961, CIA pilots knocked out part of Castro's air force,
and were set to finish the job. At the last minute, on April 16, Kennedy
called off the air strikes, but the message did not reach the 1,511
commandos headed for the Bay of Pigs. Three days of fighting destroyed
the invading force. A brigade commander sent his final messages: "We are
out of ammo and fighting on the beach. Please send help," and: "In water.
Out of ammo. Enemy closing in. Help must arrive in next hour."
It never came.
Over the next few days two American teams and a crew
of Cuban frogmen plucked 26 survivors off the beaches and reefs.
After the inquiry
completed its work, the agency clearly viewed the report
as poison: "In unfriendly hands, it can become a weapon unjustifiably to
attack the entire mission, organization, and functions of the agency,"
warned Cabell, the deputy director at the time. Nevertheless, the CIA
agreed to release the report as part of a slow process of making public
parts of its past.
Read with hindsight,
the accumulated weight of the details in Kirkpatrick's
report makes a case that "the fundamental cause of the disaster" was the
CIA's incompetence, not Kennedy's failure to follow through with the air
raids in support of the commandos.
The agency failed
the president by failing to tell him "that success had
become dubious and to recommend that the operation be therefore
canceled," it said.
of canceling was chagrin: "The world already knew all
about the preparations, and the government's and the agency's
embarrassment would have been public," the report said. The cost of
continuing was "failure, which brought even more embarrassment, carried
death and misery to hundreds" and wounded American prestige. "The
choice was between retreat without honor and a gamble between
ignominious defeat and dubious victory," the report said.
"The agency chose
to gamble, at rapidly decreasing odds," in an operation
sabotaged by bad intelligence, incompetent staffing, illusionary planning,
and self-deception. In the future, it concluded, when the White House
wanted to engage in major covert operations "which may profoundly
affect world events," it should call the Defense Department, not the CIA.
The report was
released under the Freedom of Information Act to the
National Security Archive, which collects and publishes declassified
director of the archive's Cuba Documentation Project,
called the report "one of the most important examples of self-criticism
ever written inside the agency." He said it would be posted on Sunday at
the archive's Web site: http://www.seas.gwu.edu/nsarchive.