Our men in Havana

Tim Weiner is a former New York Times reporter and author of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (2007). The history of the CIA, according to Weiner, is a history of the failures of the CIA.

The CIA chose not to ignore the book. It posted a response by the agency’s historian that the agency has unfortunately removed from its site. The CIA historian’s response to Weiner’s book was linked in J.R. Bullington’s review for American Diplomacy here, but the link now draws up a blank page. I read the CIA response at the time Weiner’s book was published and thought it was pretty good. Writing from my memory of it, I think it informs Bullington’s review.

My favorite writer on intelligence issues, however, is Edward Jay Epstein, with whom I have gotten friendly over the past 15 years. Indeed, Ed is my model of a journalist, period. Ed praised Weiner’s book in attention-getting terms in his Wall Street Journal review (accessible online here). Ed particularly appreciated elements of Weiner’s book that supported Ed’s continuing defense of former CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton.

One astounding paragraph of Weiner’s book relates the penetration of the CIA by Cuban intelligence:

In June 1987, Major Florentino Aspillaga Lombard, the chief of Cuban intelligence in Czechoslovakia, drove across the border to Vienna, walked into the American embassy, and defected to Jim Olson, the CIA chief of station. He revealed that every Cuban agent recruited by the agency over the past twenty years was a double–pretending to be loyal to the United States while working in secret for Havana. It was a genuine shock, and hard to believe. But CIA analysts glumly concluded after a long and painful review that the major was telling the truth. That same summer, a trickle of fresh intelligence about the deaths of the CIA’s agents began coming in from a new set of Soviet and Soviet-bloc military and intelligence officers. It grew to a stream, and then a flowing river, and seven years passed before the terrible realization that it was disinformation delivered to mystify and mislead the CIA.

Olson sat for a fascinating interview in Foreign Policy’s I Spy podcast series. I have embedded the podcast with Olson below. I asked Ed Epstein to check it out. Ed commented:

Olson dates the Cuban penetration of CIA operations to 1962. In 1962-1964, the CIA was running assassination plots against Castro in parallel to Oswald’s trips to the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City. The key agent was AMLASH (Roland Cubela), who was meeting with his CIA case officer on Nov. 22, 1963 to get equipment to kill Castro. You can find it in my chapter in Annals of Unsolved Crimes as well as my paperback on Amazon, Political Assassinations.

Ed’s most recent discussion of the Kennedy assassination makes up the epilogue to The Annals of Unsolved Crime (2014), but three of Ed’s books bear on the Kennedy assassination: Inquest (1966, on the Warren Commission), Counterplot (1968, on the odious Jim Garrison), and Legend (1978, on Lee Harvey Oswald). Anyone interested in the subject will want to take in the podcast with Olson below.

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