Freshly released CIA documents on the Bay of Pigs invasion provide new details on the confusion, mixed messages and last-minute changes in plans that ultimately doomed the mission.
The documents also underscore the extremes the United States went to maintain “plausible denial’’ of Washington’s role in the April 1961 invasion by CIA-trained Cuban exiles.
“These documents go to the heart of what runs through the whole official history of the Bay of Pigs — the issue of plausible deniability,’’ said Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, a Washington-based nonprofit research organization that had sought the documents for years and was instrumental in gaining their release.
Concerned that Washington’s hands could be traced to the invasion, the Kennedy administration kept scaling it back, said Kornbluh. It cut back on planned air raids on Cuban airfields and insisted on a problematic night-time landing of the invasion force.
The result: the defeat of the exile brigade in less than 72 hours, 114 men killed and another 1,100 captured.
Previously released documents show that while Kennedy never abandoned the notion that the Bay of Pigs invasion should remain covert, planners of the operations had begun to have their doubts about the operation’s success as a secret mission at least five months before the April invasion.
The declassified documents are among a set of five volumes on the invasion prepared by Jack Pfeiffer, a CIA historian who died in 1997.
Among the revelations:
Grayston Lynch, a CIA operative who had helped mark Playa Giron for the landing of Brigade 2506, reported an instance of friendly fire. After marking the beach, Lynch returned to the Blagar, a U.S. transport boat that was under attack by Cuban aircraft off and on until late on the afternoon of April 17.
The Blagar was equipped with eleven .50 caliber machine guns and two 75 mm recoilless rifles but because the U.S. planes had been painted with the insignia of Cuban aircraft, Lynch and the exiles aboard were having trouble distinguishing their targets.
“We sent a message very early on the first morning [asking] those planes to stay away from us, because we couldn’t tell them from the Castro planes,’’ according to Lynch’s account. “We ended up shooting at two or three of them. We hit some of them...’’
The U.S. aircraft were supposed to be painted with blue stripes around the wings, Lynch said, but “they were impossible to see when they were coming at you.’’
Juan Clark, a paratrooper during the invasion and now a professor emeritus of sociology at Miami Dade College, remembers a green stripe on the underside of the U.S. planes.
“I had heard of friendly fire during the invasion,’’ he said Monday, “but not in that context.’’ Instead, he said, it was a Brigade combatant injured by friendly fire.
The CIA, with the support of the Pentagon, requested a series of large-scale sonic booms over Havana that would coincide with a preliminary air strike on April 14.
The rationale, according to Richard D. Drain, a top-level CIA invasion planner: “We were trying to create confusion and so on. I thought a sonic boom would be a helluva swell thing, you know. Let’s see what it does. Break all the windows in downtown Havana distract Castro.’’
But, Drain said in an interview with Pfeiffer that Assistant Secretary of State Wymberly Coerr rejected the plan. Drain said he wasn’t sure why. Another State Dept. official later said that Coerr could not approve the operation because it was “too obviously U.S.’’
During the fighting, American pilots were authorized to fly planes over Cuba but secret instructions warned that such flights must not be traced to the United States. “American crews must not fall into enemy hands,’’ according to the instructions. In the event they did, the instructions said, the “U.S. will deny any knowledge.’’ Four American pilots and their crews were killed when their planes were shot down over Cuba.
On April 14, the 50th anniversary of the invasion, the National Security Archive filed suit asking for the declassification of all five volumes on the invasion prepared by Pfeiffer. In response, earlier this month the CIA released four of the five volumes in the Pfeiffer report and made them available on its Freedom of Information Electronic Reading Room. The National Security Archive posted the documents on its website Monday.
A box containing hundreds of pages from Volumes I, II and IV of Pfeiffer’s report also arrived at The Miami Herald, which had filed a Freedom of Information request in August 2005 to obtain them.
Volume III was released in 1998 and arrived at the National Archives Kennedy Assassination collection and sat around for seven years before Richard Barrett, a Villanova University political scientist, discovered it in 2005.
He found it in a box marked “CIA miscellaneous.’’
“It’s important for the study of the Bay of Pigs that these are available,’’ Barrett said. But he was disappointed there weren’t new revelations on high-level White House interactions with the CIA.
The fifth volume in the Pfeiffer report remains classified. Kornbluh said the National Security Archive planned to be in court in September arguing for release of Volume V.