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The CIA, Castro, and the Mafia

The Central Intelligence Agency this week released a large cache of documents describing long-ago secret missions at odds with the agency’s charter as laid down in the National Security Act of 1947. The documents were compiled in 1973 and are referred to within the agency as the “family jewels” (see below). Among the weirder adventures they relate is the enlistment of Johnny Roselli, a member of the Las Vegas mob who “had connections leading into Cuban gambling interests,” to poison Fidel Castro (see Page 2 and Pages 4-8). Because of the “extreme sensitivity” of the planned Castro hit, knowledge of the caper was limited to a small number of agency employees and “assets” including former FBI agent Robert Maheu (who would later achieve fame as billionaire Howard Hughes’ right-hand man). It was Maheu who approached Roselli. He offered the mobster $150,000 for the job, but Roselli said he and his friends would perform the task free of charge (Page 5).

Through Roselli, Maheu was introduced to “Sam Gold” and a courier named “Joe.” These turned out to be pseudonyms for Sam Giancana and Santo Trafficante, two of the FBI’s 10 most wanted men. Trafficante delivered six CIA-produced “pills of high lethal content” to an associate in Havana who had access to Castro (Page 6). After that contact got cold feet, Trafficante recruited Tony Verona, an anti-Castro activist. Meanwhile, Giancana asked Maheu to bug the Las Vegas hotel room of comedian Dan Rowan, who was giving “much attention” to Giancana’s girlfriend, Phyllis McGuire of the singing McGuire sisters. Maheu agreed to grant Giancana the favor, but Maheu’s technician “was discovered in the process, arrested and taken to the sheriff.” Charges were brought against Maheu, and the CIA had to ask Attorney General Robert Kennedy to dismiss them (Page 6). In the midst of this opéra bouffe, President Kennedy launched the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. It failed, and the poisoning scheme was scrubbed.

In 1970, when Roselli, an illegal immigrant from Italy, faced deportation by the Justice Department, he called on his CIA friends to intercede. If they didn’t, he threatened, he would “make a complete expose of his activities with the agency.” The CIA refused (Page 7), and Roselli leaked the story to journalist Jack Anderson (who expressed his gratitude by describing Roselli as “dapper” and a “ruggedly handsome gambler”; see Pages 9 and 10). Roselli subsequently testified about his Cuban adventure to the Senate Committee on Intelligence Activities in 1975. Roselli was murdered the following year in an apparent mob hit. His legless body was found floating in a steel drum off the Florida coast.

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