Via NY Transfer News * All the News That Doesn't Fit
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 - ANOTHER OPERATION NORTHWOODS?
"We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame
Cuba," they proposed; "casualty lists in U.S. newspapers
would cause a helpful wave of national indignation."
"We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the
Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington,"
they wrote. "The terror campaign could be pointed at Cuban
refugees seeking haven in the United States..."
The following excerpt from James Bamford's "Body of Secrets: Anatomy
of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency" (Doubleday, 2001)
provides very disturbing information that is directly relevant to the
events of September 11, 2001.
Indeed, we must wonder if the inexplicable intelligence and defense
failures claimed by US Government agencies are simply part of some
elaborate cover story. Even worse, we must consider the possibility
that the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington were
simply a bigger, badder version of the Gulf of Tonkin "incident,"
which was successfully foisted upon a gullible US public to push them
into supporting the war against Vietnam.
Bamford begins Chapter Four of his book by describing the bizarre
cold-war atmosphere in the US in 1960, with the witch-hunts of
McCarthyism a recent event, and US military leadership full of
paranoid arch-reactionary attitudes. General Lyman L. Lemnitzer,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a protege of outgoing
president Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, was one of these ultra-rightwing
military anticommunists, many of whom actually believed that the
government was riddled with communist traitors, from the Chief
Justice on down.
In charge of the entire military might of the United States,
Lemnitzer had nothing but contempt for the new crop of civilian
leaders in JFK's government, including JFK himself.
Lemnitzer and the other joint chiefs were avidly planning a military
invasion of Cuba, and were strongly opposed to the CIA's various
plans to subvert the Cuban Revolution covertly. They wanted Kennedy
to scrub the scheme, hatched in the last months of the Eisenhower
administration, to attempt an invasion by Cuban exiles, covertly
funded and supported by the US Government.
In late January, shortly after JFK's inauguration, Lemnitzer
advocated against the exile invasion and strongly pitched the idea of
a military invasion. John Kennedy refused, on the grounds that such
an invasion would be completely unacceptable to international and
domestic public opinion as being an American version of the USSR's
1956 invasion of Hungary.
Ironically, the US Government's betrayal of its exile Cuban invaders,
and the shocked and bewildered radio intercept transcripts from the
Bay of Pigs, became a replica of the CIA's betrayal and abandonment
of its trusting agents during the Hungarian uprising.
For those who are unfamiliar with the author's work and his 1982 book
on the NSA ("The Puzzle Palace"), it may be necessary to explain that
James Bamford is no crackpot conspiracy theorist.
This excerpt begins during the late winter, during the new
administration's preparation for what became the disastrous Bay of
Pigs invasion of April, 1961.
* * *
Body of Secrets, by James Bamford (Doubleday & Co., 2001)
Excerpt from Chapter Four: "Fists"
Eisenhower had spent eight years working closely with the CIA. He
knew the strengths and weaknesses of Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the
Cuban operation, which he had helped plan for nearly a year. Now
Kennedy, in office barely a week and attempting to put his
administration together, was being pressured to quickly okay a
dangerour plan produced by a man he didn't know and an agency that
was a cipher to him. Dulles told him that once the landing took
place, it would trigger a great uprising and Castro would quickly
But Dulles certainly knew that to be a lie. Castro was a hero to much
of the Cuban population for having rid them of the bloody excesses of
Batista only two years before. As a long-hidden CIA report notes, "We
can confidently assert that the Agency had no intelligence evidence
that the Cubans in significant numbers could or would join the
invaders or that there was any kind of an effective and cohesive
resistance movement under anybody's control, let alone the Agency's,
that could have furnished internal leadership for an uprising in
support of the invasion." The same report concluded that at the time
of that White House meeting "the Agency was driving forward without
knowing precisely where it was going."
Lemnitzer was a man of details. After becoming Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff he sent out elaborate instructions outlining exactly
how his fellow Chiefs were to autograph group picturesÄthey were to
sign their names directly under his, and they must follow his slant.
Neither his limousine nor his plane was ever to be moved without his
being consulted. Lemnitzer also enjoyed his reputation as a
consummate planner. In an eight-page biography he submitted to
Congress prior to his testimony, he made frequent reference to
himself as an "imaginative planner" and to his "skill as a planner."
On his Pentagon desk was a crystal ball and in a drawer was a
Planners are a funny lot
They carry neither sword nor pistol
They walk stooped over quite a lot
Because their balls are crystal
Lemnitzer, the planner, certainly saw the pitfalls of the CIA's
amateur and ill-conceived plan, as did his fellow Chiefs. Years later
Lemnitzer hand-wrote a detailed fifty-two-page summary of the JCS
involvement in the Bay of Pigs operation. He called it "The Cuban
Debacle" and locked it away in his house; he died without ever
publicly revealing its existence. Obtained for Body of Secrets, the
account clearly shows that Lemnitzer's Joint Staff viewed the CIA
plan as a disaster waiting to happen. He quotes from a secret
internal JCS analysis of the operation: "In view of the rapid buildup
of the Castro Government s military and militia capability, **and
the lack of predictable future mass discontent,** the possible
success of the Para-Military Plan appears very doubtful" [emphasis in
Yet inexplicably, only days later, Lemnitzer submitted a positive
recommendation to Secretary of Defense McNamara. "Evaluation of the
current plan results in a favorable assessment ... of the likelihood
of achieving initial military success," he wrote. "The JCS considers
that timely execution of the plan has a fair chance of ultimate
success and, even if it does not achieve immediately the full results
desired, [it] could contribute to the eventual overthrow of the
Castro regime." Later that day, McNamara verbally endorsed those
It may well have been that the Joint Chiefs, angry with the arrogant
CIA brass for moving into their territory, were hoping that the
spooks would fail. Once the CIA was out of the way, the uniformed
professionals in the Pentagon would be called on to save the dayÄto
take over, conduct the real invasion, and oust Castro. From then on,
military invasions would again be the monopoly of the generals. But
soon it became clear that Kennedy had meant what he said about
keeping the operation covert.
As originally planned, the exile force was to land at the coastal
town of Trinidad. But the White House objected. According to
Lemnitzer's private summary, Kennedy wanted a quiet night landing,
which the world would believe was planned by Cubans. Above all,
Lemnitzer noted, there was to be no intervention by U.S. forces.
Following Kennedy's order, CIA planners presented the Joint Chiefs of
Staff Working Group with a list of five alternative landing sites.
Later the list was reduced to three. The group picked Alternative
III, a spot in the swampy Zapata Peninsula called the Bay of Pigs.
After a brief twenty-minute discussion, barely enough time for a
coffee break, Lemnitzer and his Chiefs agreed with their Working
Group's choice. "Of the alternative concepts," said the JCS
recommendation, "Alternative III is considered the most feasible and
the most likely to accomplish the objective. None of the alternative
concepts are considered as feasible and as likely to accomplish the
objective as the original [Trinidad] plan."
Lemnitzer had grave doubts about the whole CIA operation from the
beginning but remained largely silent and quickly approved the plan.
The Bay of Pigs was considerably closer to Havana than Trinidad was;
this meant a quicker response from Cuban troops, and with only one
road in and out of the landing zone, it was a perfect place for a
slaughter. Cuban troops could easily isolate the invaders, who would
be forced to die on the beaches or drown in the sea.
Lemnitzer had one last chance to reach up and pull the emergency
brake before the train plunged off the embankment. On April 4,1961,
Kennedy held a conference at the State Department with his key
advisers to get their final thoughts on the invasion. Lemnitzer,
seeing certain disaster ahead, buttonholed Assistant Secretary of
State Thomas C. Mann before the meeting started and insisted that
the choice of Zapata for a landing site was a bad decision, that the
Joint Chiefs did not want the invasion to take place closer to
Havana. Mann, taken aback by Lemnitzer's sudden change of position,
dismissed his protest and insisted that Kennedy had already made his
As Kennedy convened the meeting, Lemnitzer sat mute. The man in
charge of the most powerful military force on earth, with enough
nuclear weapons to destroy civilization, was afraid to speak up to
his boss. It was his moment of truth. Instead he chose to close his
eyes, cover his mouth, and wait for the sound of grinding metal. He
knew, as he had known from the beginning, that the operation would
turn out to be a disaster, that many men would die palnfully and
needlessly, but still he preferred silence. He must also have finally
realized that the Pentagon would never receive presidential
authorization to charge in and save the day. At the end of the
meeting, Kennedy asked who was still in favor of going ahead with the
invasion. Lemnitzer's hand slowly reached toward the ceiling. Much
later, in his summary, he confessed his failure to speak up but
offered no apology.
The operation began at dawn on Monday, April 17, 1961, and quickly
turned into a debacle. As Cuban air force and other military units
converged on the area, NSA voice-intercept operators eavesdropped on
the desperate pleas of the exiles. "Must have air support in next few
hours or will be wiped out," Brigade Commander Pepe San Roman
implored. "Under heavy attacks by MiG jets and heavy tanks." The Navy
offered to evacuate the brigade commander and his troops, but was
refused. They would fight to the end.
Because no provision had been made to provide NSA's Sigint to the
brigade, the agency's intercepts were largely useless. All analysts
could do was sit and listen to the hopeless messages from the rebel
soldiers fighting on the beach and their supporters throughout Cuba.
"Arms urgent," said one. "We made a commitment. We have complied. You
have not. If you have decided to abandon us, answer." Another
radioed, "We are risking hundreds of peasant families. If you cannot
supply us we will have to ... demobilize. Your responsibility. We
thought you were sincere." Still another pleaded, "All groups
demoralized.... They consider themselves deceived because of failure
of shipment of arms and money according to promise." Finally, there
was one last message. "Impossible to fight... Either the drops
increase or we die.... Men without arms or equipment. God help us."
"It wasn't much that was done here, as I understand," said one NSA
official, "except they were copying the communications ... and their
calls for help and assistance and what-have-you were all monitored."
"I will not be evacuated," said San Roman, defiantly. "Will fight to
the end if we have to." On the beach, nearly out of bullets and
mortars, the brigade launched a futile counterattack against Cuban
army soldiers pushing relentlessly in from the west. "We are out of
ammo and fighting on the beach," the brigade commander radioed to the
task force command ship. "Please send help, we cannot hold."
"In water. Out of ammo. Enemy closing in. Help must arrive in next
hour." San Roman's voice was now terse and desperate. There was no
place to go. Between them and the approaching helmets were scores of
their comrades, their blood joining the seawater with each crashing
wave. "When your help will be here and with what?" The commander's
voice was weaker now, unbelieving but still wanting to believe. "Why
your help has not come?"
There were faces under the green helmets now, and arms with rifles,
and legs running. They were coming from all sides, bullets hitting
the water, the sand, and the men. NSA intercept operators
eavesdropped on the final messages. "Am destroying all equipment and
communications. Tanks are in sight. I have nothing to fight with. Am
taking to woods. I cannot, repeat, cannot wait for you."
At 3:20 P.M., out at sea beyond the horizon, the evacuation convoy
heading for the beach received a final message. "[Ships] ordered
withdrawn [at] full speed."
The pall cast over the CIA as a result of the botched invasion did
nothing to dampen the Kennedy administration's obsession with Castro.
On a gray autumn Saturday in early November 1961, just after two
o'clock, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called a meeting to order
in the Cabinet Room of the White House. The day before, the president
had given the group their marching orders. He wanted a solution to
the Cuba problem and his brother was going to see that it was done.
Robert Kennedy turned to the group and introduced Edward G. Lansdale,
an Air Force one-star general and a specialist in counterinsurgency
who sat stiffly in a padded black leather chair.
Tall, with Errol Flynn good looks, Lansdale was the deputy director
of the Pentagon's Office of Special Operations. Hidden away behind
the door to Room 3E114 in the Pentagon, the OSO was the unit
responsible for NSA. Responsibility for dealing with Cuba, Kennedy
said, was to shift from the CIA to the Pentagon, where the project
would be known as Operation Mongoose. Kennedy asked the group if they
had any problems with the change. Richard Bissell, who had just seen
the CIA's crown jewel pass from his hands, could not resist at least
one jab. No, he said, as long as "those employees on it were
competent in clandestine operations."
Both Lansdale and Lemnitzer viewed Operation Mongoose as a golden
opportunity, a chance for the military to flex its muscles at last
and show off its ability to succeed where the CIA had so miserably
failed. As prospects of an internal revolt in Cuba dimmed, Lansdale
and Lemnitzer began to quletly explore the possibility of doing what
they had wanted to do all along: conduct a full-scale invasion.
Since the Kennedy administration had come into office the extreme,
distrustful right wing within the military had grown significantly,
not only in numbers but also in decibels. In April 1961 Defense
Secretary Robert McNamara finally lowered the boom on Major General
Edwin A. Walker. Walker was charged with indoctrinating his troops
with John Birch Society propaganda, officially admonished, and
relieved of his command. As a result many conservatives accused the
Kennedy administration of trying to muzzle anti-Communists.
Walker resigned from the Army in protest, but even as a civilian he
continued to warn of the dangers of Communist infiltration. Among the
themes he constantly pounded home was a distrust of civilian control
of the military. "The traditional civilian control of the military
has been perverted and extended into a commissar-like system of
control at all major echelons of command," he said. In September 1961
he traveled to Oxford, Mississippi, to protest the enrollment of
James Meredith, a black student, at the state university there.
Robert Kennedy later issued an arrest warrant for Walker, charging
him with seditious conspiracy, insurrection, and rebellion. He was
jailed for five days, during which time he claimed he was a political
Even at the stately National War College in Washington, seminars
would occasionally be reduced to "extreme right-wing, witch-hunting,
mudslinging revivals" and "bigoted, one-sided presentations
advocating that the danger to our security is internal only,"
according to a report prepared by a member of Secretary of Defense
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a report on the problem of
right-wing extremism in the military, warned that there was
"considerable danger" in the "education and propaganda activities of
military personnel" that had been uncovered. "Running through all of
them is a central theme that the primary, if not exclusive, danger to
this country is internal Communist infiltration," said the report.
Among the key targets of the extremists, the committee said, was the
Kennedy administration's domestic social program, which many
ultraconservatives accused of being communistic. The "thesis of the
nature of the Communist threat," the report warned, "often is
developed by equating social legislation with socialism, and the
latter with Communism.... Much of the administration's domestic
legislative program, including continuation of the graduated income
tax, expansion of social security (particularly medical care under
social security), Federal aid to education, etc. under this
philosophy would be characterized as steps toward Communism." Thus,
"This view of the Communist menace renders foreign aid, cultural
exchanges, disarmament negotiations and other international programs
as extremely wasteful if not actually subversive.
The chilling Senate study concluded by warning of a revolt by senior
military officers such as the one portrayed in "Seven Days in May." To
show the idea was not farfetched, the report cited "as an example of
the ultimate danger" the recent revolt by army generals in France,
largely over policies in Algeria. "Military officers, French or
American, have some common characteristics arising from their
profession," said the report, "and there are numerous military
`fingers on the trigger' throughout the world."
Finally, the committee specifically pointed to General Lemnitzer and
called for an examination of the relationship between him, his
Chiefs, and the extreme right-wing groups. Among the members of the
committee most outspoken in calling for an investigation of Lemnitzer
and the Joint Chiefs was Senator Albert Gore, Sr., of Tennessee (the
father of former vice president Al Gore).
It was not an idle worry. In their 1963 book, "The Far Right," Donald
Janson of the New York Times and CBS reporter Bernard Eismann wrote,
"Concern had grown that a belligerent and free-wheeling military
could conceivably become as dangerous to the stability of the United
States as the mixture of rebelliousness and politics had in nations
forced to succumb to juntas or fascism. The agony that gripped France
as a result of military defectors' efforts to reverse government
policy on Algeria was another forceful reminder of the inherent
dangers in allowing political power to build up in the military
Outwardly, Lemnitzer remained stiff and correct. But deep inside he
was raging at the new and youthful Kennedy White House. He felt out
of place and out of time in a culture that seemed suddenly to have
turned its back on military tradition. Almost immediately he became,
in the clinical sense, paranoid; he began secretly expressing his
worries to other senior officers. A little more than a month after
Kennedy took office, he sent a letter to General Lauris Norstad, the
commander-in-chief of the U.S. European Command, and several other
top generals. Fearful that the administration would learn of his
comments, he noted, "I had considered sending this information to you
by electrical means but in view of its nature, I am sending it by
letter for your, Jim Moore's and [Deputy Commander-in-Chief] Charlie
Palmer's EYES ONLY." It was then delivered "in a sealed envelope for
delivery to Gen. Norstad ONLY."
"You and Charlie are probably wondering what, if anything, the JCS
are [d]oing about some of the disturbing things that have been
happening recently with respect to your area," Lemnitzer wrote. But
what so upset the JCS Chairman was not a major change in nuclear
policy in Europe or a shift in Cold War strategy, but the fact that
White House officials had canceled money earmarked for the remodeling
of an officers' club. "I am sure that this seems as incredible to you
as it does to us," he wrote, "but this is how things are happening
here now." Finally, Lemnitzer complained about what he felt were
deliberate leaks intended to embarrass senior military officials.
"Here again I believe that the fundamental cause is the `eager
beaver' attitude by many of the new and very young people who have
been brought into government to publicize promptly any item they
believe will give the new administration good press. I don't know how
long this situation is going to continue but we seem to have a new
incident every day."
Lemnitzer had no respect for the civilians he reported to. He
believed they interfered with the proper role of the military. The
"civilian hierarchy was crippled not only by inexperience," he would
later say, "but also by arrogance arising from failure to recognize
its own limitations.... The problem was simply that the civilians
would not accept military judgments." In Lemnitzer's view, the
country would be far better off if the generals could take over.
For those military officers who were sitting on the fence, the
Kennedy administration's botched Bay of Pigs invasion was the last
straw. "The Bay of Pigs fiasco broke the dike," said one report at
the time. "President Kennedy was pilloried by the superpatriots as a
`no-win' chief.... The Far Right became a fount of proposals born
of frustration and put forward in the name of anti-Communism....
Active-duty commanders played host to anti-Communist seminars
on their bases and attended or addressed Right-wing meetings
Although no one in Congress could have known it at the time,
Lemnitzer and the Joint Chiefs had quietly slipped over the edge.
According to secret and long-hidden documents obtained for Body of
Secrets, the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up and approved plans for
what may be the most corrupt plan ever created by the U.S.
government. In the name of anticommunism, they proposed launching a
secret and bloody war of terrorism against their own country in order
to trick the American public into supporting an ill-conceived war
they intended to launch against Cuba.
Codenamed Operation Northwoods, the plan, which had the written
approval of the Chairman and every member of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, called for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for
boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for
a wave of violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C.,
Miami, and elsewhere. People would be framed for bombings they did
not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it
would be blamed on Castro, thus giving Lemnitzer and his cabal the
excuse, as well as the public and international backing, they needed
to launch their war.
The idea may actually have originated with President Eisenhower in
the last days of his administration. With the Cold War hotter than
ever and the recent U-2 scandal fresh in the public's memory, the old
general wanted to go out with a win. He wanted desperately to invade
Cuba in the weeks leading up to Kennedy's inauguration; indeed, on
January 3 he told Lemnitzer and other aides in his Cabinet Room that
he would move against Castro before the inauguration if only the
Cubans gave him a really good excuse. Then, with time growing short,
Eisenhower floated an idea. If Castro failed to provide that excuse,
perhaps, he said, the United States "could think of manufacturing
something that would be generally acceptable." What he was suggesting
was a pretext -- a bombing, an attack, an act of sabotage -- carried
out secretly against the United States by the United States. Its
purpose would be to justify the launching of a war. It was a
dangerous suggestion by a desperate president.
Although no such war took place, the idea was not lost on General
Lemnitzer. But he and his colleagues were frustrated by Kennedy's
failure to authorize their plan, and angry that Castro had not
provided an excuse to invade.
The final straw may have come during a White House meeting on
February 26, 1962. Concerned that General Lansdale's various covert
action plans under Operation Mongoose were simply becoming more
outrageous and going nowhere, Robert Kennedy told him to drop all
anti-Castro efforts. Instead, Lansdale was ordered to concentrate for
the next three months strictly on gathering intelligence about Cuba.
It was a humiliating defeat for Lansdale, a man more accustomed to
praise than to scorn.
As the Kennedy brothers appeared to suddenly "go soft" on Castro,
Lemnitzer could see his opportunity to invade Cuba quickly slipping
away. The attempts to provoke the Cuban public to revolt seemed dead
and Castro, unfortunately, appeared to have no inclination to launch
any attacks against Americans or their property. Lemnitzer and the
other Chiefs knew there was only one option left that would ensure
their war. They would have to trick the American public and world
opinion into hating Cuba so much that they would not only go along,
but would insist that he and his generals launch their war against
Castro. "World opinion, and the United Nations forum," said a secret
JCS document, "should be favorably affected by developing the
international image of the Cuban government as rash and
irresponsible, and as an alarming and unpredictable threat to the
peace of the Western Hemisphere."
Operation Northwoods called for a war in which many patriotic
Americans and innocent Cubans would die senseless deaths -- all to
satisfy the egos of twisted generals back in Washington, safe in
their taxpayer-financed homes and limousines.
One idea seriously considered involved the launch of John Glenn, the
first American to orbit the earth. On February 20, 1962, Glenn was to
lift off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on his historic journey. The
flight was to carry the banner of America's virtues of truth,
freedom, and democracy into orbit high over the planet. But Lemnitzer
and his Chiefs had a different idea. They proposed to Lansdale that,
should the rocket explode and kill Glenn, "the objective is to
provide irrevocable proof that ... the fault lies with the
Communists et al Cuba [sic]." This would be accomplished, Lemnitzer
continued, "by manufacturing various pieces of evidence which would
prove electronic interference on the part of the Cubans." Thus, as
NASA prepared to send the first American into space, the Joint Chiefs
of Staff were preparing to use John Glenn's possible death as a
pretext to launch a war.
Glenn lifted into history without mishap, leaving Lemnitzer and the
Chiefs to begin devising new plots which they suggested be carried
out "within the time frame of the next few months."
Among the actions recommended was "a series of well coordinated
incidents to take place in and around" the U.S. Navy base at
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This included dressing "friendly" Cubans in
Cuban military uniforms and then have them "start riots near the main
gate of the base. Others would pretend to be saboteurs inside the
base. Ammunition would be blown up, fires started, aircraft
sabotaged, mortars fired at the base with damage to installations."
The suggested operations grew progressively more outrageous. Another
called for an action similar to the infamous incident in February
1898 when an explosion aboard the battleship Maine in Havana harbor
killed 266 U.S. sailors. Although the exact cause of the explosion
remained undetermined, it sparked the Spanish-American War with Cuba.
Incited by the deadly blast, more than one million men volunteered
for duty. Lemnitzer and his generals came up with a similar plan.
"We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba," they
proposed; "casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a helpful
wave of national indignation."
There seemed no limit to their fanaticism: "We could develop a
Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida
cities and even in Washington," they wrote. "The terror campaign
could be pointed at Cuban refugees seeking haven in the United
We could sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or
simulated).... We could foster attempts on lives of Cuban refugees
in the United States even to the extent of wounding in instances to
be widely publicized."
Bombings were proposed, false arrests, hijackings:
- "Exploding a few plastic bombs in carefully chosen spots, the
arrest of Cuban agents and the release of prepared documents
substantiating Cuban involvement also would be helpful in projecting
the idea of an irresponsible government."
- "Advantage can be taken of the sensitivity of the Dominican
[Republic] Air Force to intrusions within their national air space.
`Cuban' B-26 or C-46 type aircraft could make cane-burning raids at
night. Soviet Bloc incendiaries could be found. This could be
coupled with `Cuban' messages to the Communist underground in the
Dominican Republic and `Cuban' shipments of arms which would be
found, or intercepted, on the beach. Use of MiG type aircraft by U.S.
pilots could provide additional provocation."
- "Hijacking attempts against civil air and surface craft could
appear to continue as harassing measures condoned by the Government
Among the most elaborate schemes was to "create an incident which
will demonstrate convincingly that a Cuban aircraft has attacked and
shot down a chartered civil airliner en route from the United States
to Jamaica, Guatemala, Panama or Venezuela. The destination would be
chosen only to cause the flightplan route to cross Cuba. The
passengers could be a group of college students off on a holiday or
any grouping of persons with a common interest to support chartering
a non-scheduled flight."
Lemnitzer and the Joint Chiefs worked out a complex deception:
An aircraft at Elgin AFB would be painted and numbered as an exact
duplicate for a civil registered aircraft belonging to a CIA
proprietary organization in the Miami area. At a designated time
the duplicate would be substituted for the actual civil aircraft
and would be loaded with the selected passengers, all boarded under
carefully prepared aliases. The actual registered aircraft would be
converted to a drone [a remotely controlled unmanned aircraft].
Take off times of the drone aircraft and the actual aircraft will
be scheduled to allow a rendezvous south of Florida.
From the rendezvous point the passenger-carrying aircraft will
descend to minimum altitude and go directly into an auxiliary field
at Elgin AFB where arrangements will have been made to evacuate the
passengers and return the aircraft to its original status. The
drone aircraft meanwhile will continue to fly the filed flight
plan. When over Cuba the drone will be transmitting on the
international distress frequency a " May Day" message stating he is
under attack by Cuban MiG aircraft. The transmission will be
interrupted by destruction of the aircraft, which will be triggered
by radio signal. This will allow ICAO [International Civil
Aviation Organization] radio stations in the Western Hemisphere to
tell the U.S. what has happened to the aircraft instead of the U.S.
trying to "sell" the incident.
Finally, there was a plan to "make it appear that Communist Cuban
MiGs have destroyed a USAF aircraft over international waters in an
unprovoked attack." It was a particularly believable operation given
the decade of shootdowns that had just taken place.
In the final sentence of his letter to Secretary McNamara
recommending the operations, Lemnitzer made a grab for even more
power, asking that the Joint Chiefs be placed in charge of carrying
out Operation Northwoods and the invasion. "It is recommended," he
wrote, "that this responsibility for both overt and covert military
operations be assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
At 2:30 on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 13, 1962, Lemnitzer went
over last-minute details of Operation Northwoods with his covert
action chief, Brigadier General William H. Craig, and signed the
document. He then went to a "special meeting" in McNamara's office.
An hour later he met with Kennedy's military representative, General
Maxwell Taylor. What happened during those meetings is unknown. But
three days later, President Kennedy told Lemnitzer that there was
virtually no possibility that the U.S. would ever use overt military
force in Cuba.
Undeterred, Lemnitzer and the Chiefs persisted, virtually to the
point of demanding that they be given authority to invade and take
over Cuba. About a month after submitting Operation Northwoods, they
met in the "tank," as the JCS conference room was called, and agreed
on the wording of a tough memorandum to McNamara. "The Joint Chiefs
of Staff believe that the Cuban problem must be solved in the near
future," they wrote. "Further, they see no prospect of early success
in overthrowing the present communist regime either as a result of
internal uprising or external political, economic or psychological
pressures. Accordingly they believe that military intervention by the
United States will be required to overthrow the present communist
Lemnitzer was virtually rabid in his hatred of communism in general
and Castro in particular. "The Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that the
United States can undertake military intervention in Cuba without
risk of general war," he continued. "They also believe that the
intervention can be accomplished rapidly enough to minimize communist
opportunities for solicitation of UN action." However, what Lemnitzer
was suggesting was not freeing the Cuban people, who were largely in
support of Castro, but imprisoning them in a U.S. military-controlled
police state. "Forces would assure rapid essential military control
of Cuba," he wrote. "Continued police action would be required."
Concluding, Lemnitzer did not mince words: "[T]he Joint Chiefs of
Staff recommend that a national policy of early military intervention
in Cuba be adopted by the United States. They also recommend that
such intervention be undertaken as soon as possible and preferably
before the release of National Guard and Reserve forces presently on
By then McNamara had virtually no confidence in his military chief
and was rejecting nearly every proposal the general sent to him. The
rejections became so routine, said one of Lemnitzer's former staff
officers, that the staffer told the general that the situation was
putting the military in an "embarrassing rut." But Lemnitzer replied,
"I am the senior military officer -- it's my job to state what I believe
and it's his [McNamara's] job to approve or disapprove."
"McNamara's arrogance was astonishing," said Lemnitzer's aide, who
knew nothing of Operation Northwoods. "He gave General Lemnitzer very
short shrift and treated him like a schoolboy. The general almost
stood at attention when he came into the room. Everything was `Yes,
sir' and `No, sir.'"
Within months, Lemnitzer was denied a second term as JCS chairman and
transferred to Europe as chief of NATO. Years later President Gerald
Ford appointed Lemnitzer, a darling of the Republican right, to the
President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Lemnitzer's Cuba
chief, Brigadier General Craig, was also transferred. Promoted to
major general, he spent three years as chief of the Army Security
Agency, NSA's military arm.
Because of the secrecy and illegality of Operation Northwoods, all
details remained hidden for forty years. Lemnitzer may have thought
that all copies of the relevant documents had been destroyed; he was
not one to leave compromising material lying around. Following the
Bay of Pigs debacle, for example, he ordered Brigadier General David
W. Gray, Craig's predecessor as chief of the Cuba project within the
JCS, to destroy all his notes concerning Joint Chiefs actions and
discussions during that period. Gray's meticulous notes were the only
detailed official records of what happened within the JCS during that
time. According to Gray, Lemnitzer feared a congressional
investigation and therefore wanted any incriminating evidence
With the evidence destroyed, Lemnitzer felt free to lie to Congress.
When asked, during secret hearings before a Senate committee, if he
knew of any Pentagon plans for a direct invasion of Cuba he said he
did not. Yet detailed JCS invasion plans had been drawn up even
before Kennedy was inaugurated. And additional plans had been
developed since. The consummate planner and man of details also
became evasive, suddenly encountering great difficulty in recalling
key aspects of the operation, as if he had been out of the country
during the period. It was a sorry spectacle. Senator Gore called
for Lemnitzer to be fired. "We need a shakeup of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff," he said. "We direly need a new chairman, as well as new
members." No one had any idea of Operation Northwoods.
Because so many documents were destroyed, it is difficult to
determine how many senior officials were aware of Operation
Northwoods. As has been described, the document was signed and fully
approved by Lemnitzer and the rest of the Joint Chiefs and addressed
to the Secretary of Defense for his signature. Whether it went beyond
McNamara to the president and the attorney general is not known.
Even after Lemnitzer lost his job, the Joint Chiefs kept planning
"pretext" operations at least into 1963. Among their proposals was a
plan to deliberately create a war between Cuba and any of a number of
its Latin American neighbors. This would give the United States
military an excuse to come in on the side of Cuba's adversary and get
rid of Castro. "A contrived `Cuban' attack on an OAS [Organization of
American States] member could be set up," said one proposal, "and the
attacked state could be urged to `take measures of self-defense and
request assistance from the U.S. and OAS; the U.S. could almost
certainly obtain the necessary two-thirds support among OAS members
for collective action against Cuba."
Among the nations they suggested that the United States secretly
attack were Jamaica and Trinidad-Tobago. Both were members of the
British Commonwealth; thus, by secretly attacking them and then
falsely blaming Cuba, the United States could lure England into the
war against Castro. The report noted, "Any of the contrived
situations described above are inherently, extremely risky in our
democratic system in which security can be maintained, after the
fact, with very great difficulty. If the decision should be made to
set up a contrived situation it should be one in which participation
by U.S. personnel is limited only to the most highly trusted covert
personnel. This suggests the infeasibility of the use of military
units for any aspect of the contrived situation."
The report even suggested secretly paying someone in the Castro
government to attack the United States: "The only area remaining for
consideration then would be to bribe one of Castro's subordinate
commanders to initiate an attack on [the U.S. naval base at]
Guantanamo." The act suggested -- bribing a foreign nation to launch
a violent attack on an American military installation -- was treason.
In May 1963, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul H. Nitze sent a plan
to the White House proposing "a possible scenario whereby an attack
on a United States reconnaissance aircraft could be exploited toward
the end of effecting the removal of the Castro regime." In the event
Cuba attacked a U-2, the plan proposed sending in additional American
pilots, this time on dangerous, unnecessary low-level reconnaissance
missions with the expectation that they would also be shot down, thus
provoking a war. "[T]he U.S. could undertake various measures
designed to stimulate the Cubans to provoke a new incident," said the
plan. Nitze, however, did not volunteer to be one of the pilots.
One idea involved sending fighters across the island on "harassing
reconnaissance" and "show-off" missions "flaunting our freedom of
action, hoping to stir the Cuban military to action." "Thus," said
the plan, "depending above all on whether the Cubans were or could be
made to be trigger-happy, the development of the initial downing of a
reconnaissance plane could lead at best to the elimination of Castro,
perhaps to the removal of Soviet troops and the installation of
ground inspection in Cuba, or at the least to our demonstration of
firmness on reconnaissance." About a month later, a low-level flight
was made across Cuba, but unfortunately for the Pentagon, instead of
bullets it produced only a protest.
Lemnitzer was a dangerous -- perhaps even unbalanced -- rightwing
extremist in an extraordinarily sensitive position during a critical
period. But Operation Northwoods also had the support of every single
member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and even senior Pentagon
official Paul Nitze argued in favor of provoking a phony war with
Cuba. The fact that the most senior members of all the services and
the Pentagon could be so out of touch with reality and the meaning of
democracy would be hidden for four decades.
In retrospect, the documents offer new insight into the thinking of
the military's star-studded leadership. Although they never succeeded
in launching America into a phony war with Cuba, they may have done
so with Vietnam. More than 50,000 Americans and more than 2 million
Vietnamese were eventually killed in that war.
It has long been suspected that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident --
the spark that led to America's long war in Vietnam -- was largely
staged or provoked by U.S. officials in order to build up
congressional and public support for American involvement. Over the
years, serious questions have been raised about the alleged attack by
North Vietnamese patrol boats on two American destroyers in the Gulf.
But defenders of the Pentagon have always denied such charges,
arguing that senior officials would never engage in such deceit.
Now, however, in light of the Operation Northwoods documents, it is
clear that deceiving the public and trumping up wars for Americans to
fight and die in was standard, approved policy at the highest levels
of the Pentagon. In fact, the Gulf of Tonkin seems right out of the
Operation Northwoods playbook: "We could blow up a U.S. ship in
Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba ... casualty lists in U.S. newspapers
would cause a helpful wave of indignation." One need only replace
"Guantanamo Bay" with "Tonkin Gulf," and "Cuba" with "North Vietnam."
The Gulf of Tonkin incident may or may not have been stage-managed,
but the senior Pentagon leadership at the time was clearly capable of
Copyright (c) 2001 by James Bamford.
[Bamford is also the author of the 1982 book "The Puzzle Palace."]
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