06/09/17In the Magazine
In the early 1960s, Antonio Veciana was the CIA’s man in Havana. With a senior position in the Cuban government, he wreaked havoc on Fidel Castro’s Communist regime, firebombing the capital’s largest department store and plotting to kill Castro with a bazooka. When the Cuban strongman’s security forces forced him into exile, Veciana didn’t quit. From 1960 to the early 1970s, he funneled CIA funds to a network of Miami-based counter-revolutionaries who carried out an armed revolt against the Cuban government.
Veciana has long since retired from his covert war against Castro, who died peacefully in his own bed last year. Now, the ex-Cuban operative is telling his story in a memoir, Trained to Kill: The Inside Story of CIA Plots Against Castro, Kennedy, and Che, which weighs the cost of the anti-Castro crusade, both for himself and the United States. Veciana writes to justify and to apologize, to express pride and regret. He doesn’t regret fighting Castro, but he does regret that his fight led him to miss so many events with his family and children.
Most of all, he wants to share what he knows about one of the most enduring traumas in American history: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Operation Pedro Pan
Trained to Kill is not another tinfoil hat Kennedy-conspiracy book—declassified CIA cables confirm Veciana’s working relationship with the agency and even his code name, AMSHALE-1. The book is a soldier’s story about what he saw on the front lines of the Cuban-American struggle for power. “I was an unlikely terrorist,” Veciana begins. “I was skinny, asthmatic and plagued with insecurities.”
His account, co-written with veteran journalist Carlos Harrison, is laconic and lucid as he replays his twin careers in accounting and spying. In 1960, Veciana joined Castro's new socialist government so he could subvert it from within. He stole official funds while working for Finance Minister Che Guevara and used the money to fund attacks on government offices, security outposts, factories and warehouses. Two years later, he used his government position to distribute propaganda falsely announcing the government planned to take custody of school-age children. That ruse panicked thousands of Cuban families and drove many of them in 1962 to send their children to South Florida, where the Catholic Church welcomed them. They called it Operation Pedro Pan, and U.S. newspapers depicted it as a selfless effort to rescue the victims of Communist oppression.
Veciana’s handler for that operation was a man he knew as “Maurice Bishop” but whose real name, Veciana claims, was David Atlee Phillips. Over the course of a decade, Veciana says he got to know Phillips well—both personally and politically. A theatrically handsome man and decorated undercover officer, Phillips would rise to become the chief of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere division before his retirement in 1975.
After the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, when Castro defeated a band of CIA-trained rebels, Phillips expressed contempt for Kennedy, Veciana says. After JFK’s peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis, Veciana also says Phillips helped him found Alpha-66, a paramilitary organization dedicated to attacking Cuban targets, and the group became the CIA man’s instrument for pressuring Kennedy. In March 1963, Veciana and a group of maritime commandos attacked a Russian ship sailing for Cuba, generating headlines worldwide. Veciana says Langley helped him hold a press conference in Washington to boast of the attack. Phillips, he recounts, hoped to humiliate the Soviets and embarrass JFK into taking more aggressive action against Cuba.
But it didn’t work. Kennedy downplayed the Cuban issue, and Castro’s foes, Veciana says, were furious—including Phillips.
‘Tony, This Is Lee’
Perhaps the most tantalizing part of Veciana’s tale fleshes out a story he first told to congressional investigators in 1975: that he saw Maurice Bishop with Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas in September 1963, two months before JFK was killed.
As Veciana tells it, they met in the lobby the Southland Center, the tallest building in Dallas. “Bishop was already there,” he writes. “The lobby was busy, full of people, but I spotted him standing in a corner, talking to a young, pallid, insubstantial man. He didn’t speak when Bishop introduced him to me or at all for the rest of the time we were together…. I don’t remember if Bishop introduced him by name. He might have said, ‘Tony, this is Lee. Lee, Tony.’ But I am absolutely sure ‘Lee’ said nothing.”
After JFK was killed in Dallas on November 22, 1963, Oswald was arrested, and his face was broadcast on TV. “I recognized him immediately,” Veciana writes. “He was, without question the same pallid, pasty-faced man I had seen eleven weeks earlier” with Bishop.
A loyal CIA foot soldier, Veciana says he knew not to mention it to anyone, especially his handler. He thought Kennedy had been weak, even treacherous, on the Cuba issue and did not lament his death.
Bishop’s reaction to JFK’s death was curious to say the least, Veciana says. In early 1964, he claims, the agency man asked him if his cousin, an officer in the Cuban intelligence service, would be willing to say he conspired with Oswald before JFK was assassinated. Phillips offered to pay for such a story. But Veciana told him that his cousin was a Communist and could not be bought.
A decade later, in 1975, when American authorities reopened the JFK inquiry, Gaeton Fonzi, a congressional investigator in South Florida, learned Veciana had worked for the CIA. He approached him, asking to find out more about how the CIA collaborated with Cuban exiles. Veciana told him the story of his work with Bishop, including the meeting with Oswald. Fonzi arranged for an artist to do a drawing of Bishop based on Veciana's description. The result was a portrait that looked very much like Phillips, already a person of interest to the investigators. Fonzi then brought Veciana to Washington for a meeting with Phillips. Although he had worked with Veciana for a decade, Phillips coolly pretended not to know him, Veciana writes, and to not even recognize his name, which was strange, because the Cuban was very well known to the CIA officers working to overthrow Castro.
Veciana went along with Phillips’s ruse, he says, out of fear of CIA retaliation. He told Fonzi that Phillips was not the man he knew as Maurice Bishop. “I felt bad for lying to a friend,” he writes, “but he could only guess at the stakes involved when it came to breaking my vow of silence.”
It was a vow he would not keep forever.
A Secret Burning Inside
To some, Veciana’s changing story about Phillips’s identity impeaches his credibility. And researchers will note one big hole in his account. He does not mention his work with U.S. Army intelligence in the early 1960s, which is documented in declassified U.S. government files.
Yet there are many reasons to believe him. CIA documents show that AMSHALE-1 was a trusted militant in a network run by Phillips in the early 1960s. His account about a press conference in Washington in March 1963 to publicize an Alpha-66 attack checks out. And two of Phillips’s colleagues at the CIA have said the agency man did in fact use the pseudonym Maurice Bishop.
Veciana’s reluctance to talk about Oswald, his admission that he lied to Fonzi and his decision to not exploit the story at the earliest possible moment make his tale more plausible, not less. So does his reluctance to speculate beyond what he knows for sure. Instead, Veciana sticks with what he knows best: the mood of the CIA and its Cuban allies in Miami in late 1963.
“I don’t know who killed Kennedy,” he writes, “but I know who wanted to and he [Phillips] worked for the CIA.”
Trained to Kill does not prove that Phillips or anyone else at the CIA conspired to assassinate JFK. But it does add to the body of evidence that runs counter to the conclusions of the Warren Commission, which President Lyndon Johnson created to investigate JFK’s murder. That probe determined Kennedy was killed by Oswald, whom it described as a lone nut. In reality, Oswald was not a loner or a psychopath. He was a person who attracted close and constant attention from half a dozen top CIA officers, including Phillips, before November 22, 1963.
Today, decades since his death, Phillips’s work at the agency remains shrouded in secrecy. According to the National Archives database, the CIA has a set of operational files generated by him that runs to more than 600 pages. Unless President Donald Trump intervenes, the files will be declassified before October 2017.
Whatever those documents show, Veciana has told his part. He ends his book with the story of how he came to break his silence at a 2014 conference on the 50th anniversary of the Warren Commission report. He was invited to speak by Marie Fonzi, the widow of his late friend Gaeton Fonzi. “With her as my witness,” he writes, “I felt I could finally make public the secret that had been burning inside of me for all those years.”
Jefferson Morley is the author of the forthcoming biography, The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton.
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