How the CIA burned its fingers

Wednesday, March 25, 1992

Backfire: The CIA's Biggest Burn
By Ron Ridenour
Jose Marti Publishing House, Havana, 1991. 174 pp. $5.00
Reviewed by Steve Painter

This is the story of one of the CIA's most embarrassing, and least publicised, incidents: its infiltration by 27 agents of the Cuban Seguridad (security agency). Although Cuban television screened an 11-part series on its moles in 1987, the story was largely ignored in the rest of the world.

Explaining this, Ron Ridenour points to the CIA's relationship with much of the world's media. He cites an investigation by Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, which revealed that at least 400 US journalists had been used by the CIA to recruit and handle foreign agents, gather information, and plant false information with foreign governments.

After the 1987 television series, "only a few short items appeared, generally aimed at dismissing Cuba's denunciation/expose as communist propaganda", writes Ridenour.

Some producers at CBS television were interested in the story, but top management told them they couldn't go with it unless they could get independent verification in the form of an on-camera admission by US officials. Not surprisingly, the US authorities wouldn't oblige. "The story is dead. We can't get anyone in Congress, or elsewhere in government, to go on the air. They all clammed up", CBS's Karen Taylor eventually told Ridenour.

The US government issued a diplomatic note protesting against the Cuban television series and what it described as harassment and unwarranted surveillance of its diplomatic staff, but not denying the claim that more than half of its personnel in Cuba in the previous 10 years had been spies.

The US note only denied any involvement of US personnel in plots to kill Fidel Castro. In fact, completely independent of the Cubans' material, there is ample evidence that the US has been involved in plots against Castro's life, including at least one attempt for which the Mafia was paid around US$3 million.

Backfire outlines how 26 Cubans, and one Italian living in Cuba, worked for the Cuban security service after being recruited by the CIA. The Cuban government was aware that Cubans working abroad, in jobs ranging from trading to deep sea fishing,

were likely to be approached by the CIA, and the most likely targets were briefed on what to do if they received such an approach.

When the expected approaches came, the Cubans entered the CIA and provided it with information provided by the Cuban government. To protect the agents, the information was always accurate, though often too late to be of any use.

A persistent concern of the CIA was the movements, habits and security arrangements of Fidel Castro, and the US agents often attempted to come up with schemes to kill him. The Cuban government claims to know of at least 30 plans to kill Castro since 1960. Eight of these were mentioned in the 1975 report of a Senate committee headed by Senator Frank Church.

The Cuban agents say the CIA also attempted to develop programs of economic sabotage and even terrorist attacks. At one point they were particularly interested in diseases among Cuba's main agricultural crops and livestock. This was at a time when diseases never before seen in Cuba caused considerable economic damage, and there was an unexplained epidemic of an unusual form of conjunctivitis among humans.

One of the Cuban agents, Ignacio Rodriguez-Mena Castrillon, a former professional baseball player in the US, operated in the CIA for 21 years, while the others averaged 15 years. The operation was brought to an end in 1987 after the Cuban government was confident it had neutralised the CIA in Cuba and had learned all it could of how the agency operates.