THE INVISIBLE GOVERNMENT -- A GRAY OPERATION
Inside, James Donovan, the remarkable, soft-spoken New York attorney, picked up the telephone and asked the Cuban operator to put him through to a number in the United States.
He took out a black wallet, of the type that was large enough for foreign bills, and reached into an apparently empty pouch. From a concealed pocket in the wallet he pulled out a typewritten sheet of onionskin paper.
On it, down the left-hand side, were key words like "negotiations." On the right side were various phrases such as "1 am meeting with" and then a list of various people, including the name "Fidel." The sheet also contained what appeared to be a list of stocks.
By ordering his "broker" to "sell Quaker City" and by using other innocuous key words, Donovan, through his code sheet, was able to convey to the CIA men on the line in the United States the real progress of his negotiations to ransom the lives of more than 1,000 prisoners.
James Donovan was on his most important mission. He was playing for high stakes -- the freedom of the 1,113 survivors of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The men were captives in the jails of Fidel Castro.
Donovan was a silver-haired, forty-six-year-old former OSS man, short but powerfully built. In February, 1962, on the bridge in Berlin, he had traded the Soviet master spy Rudolf Abel (whom he defended five years earlier in Federal Court) for the U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers and Yale student Frederic L. Pryor, held on a charge of espionage by the East Germans. It was the most spectacular spy swap in the history of the Cold War.
Donovan's Cuban adventure began a few months later, early in June, 1962, when Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent to him a delegation of Cubans made up of survivors of the Bay of Pigs brigade and their families.
Up to that time, sixty prisoners had been ransomed for a pledge of cash, but efforts to free the rest had failed in June, 1961, when negotiations between Castro and a Tractors for Freedom Committee collapsed. The committee, sponsored by the Kennedy Administration, had been unable to reach agreement with Castro on the dictator's continually shifting offers to trade the prisoners for 500 tractors or bulldozers.
Donovan, after listening to the pleas of his visitors, agreed to become the general counsel to the group. It was called the Cuban Families Committee for Liberation of Prisoners of War, Inc., a charitable corporation that had been granted tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service.
On August 29, 1962, Donovan went to Cuba for his first talks with Castro. He stayed at the crumbling villa in Miramar and conferred with Castro at the Presidential Palace in Havana. He made it clear he would offer drugs and baby foods for the men, but no cash or tractors. Castro agreed to negotiate on this basis, provided the Cuban Families Committee came up with the $2,900,000 it had pledged in return for the sixty prisoners released the previous April.
Donovan returned to New York and visited John E. McKeen, the president of Charles Pfizer Company, who lived in the penthouse of Donovan's apartment building near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. They called in John T. Connor, head of Merck, Sharp & Dohme, another friend of Donovan. The executives of the two drug companies offered to donate medicines to help Donovan get the men out.
The CIA separately approached the drug industry trade association, to explore the chances of large- scale donations by manufacturers.
In the meantime, Donovan had entered the political arena. On September 18, shortly after his return from Cuba, Donovan won the Democratic nomination for United States Senate. His opponent was the Republican incumbent, Senator Jacob K. Javits.
On October 2, the drug-company pledges in his pocket, Donovan returned to Havana, confident he could reach agreement with Castro. The Pfizer Company quietly began moving $2,000,000 worth of drugs in refrigerator cars to Idlewild International Airport. The United States Government began making preparations to receive the influx of prisoners in Miami.
It was on this second trip that Castro agreed to trade the men for baby foods and medicines. All was going well except for a painful attack of bursitis in Donovan's right shoulder that forced him to fly to Miami briefly for treatment.
He returned to Havana to continue his talks with Castro, but back in the United States there were charges that Donovan was seeking to make political capital out of his role as Cuban negotiator. And some members of Congress said that the United States ought not to be dickering with Castro at a time when it was asking other countries to cut off trade.
The White House refused to say whether any government funds would be used to ransom the men. It insisted Donovan was acting as a private attorney but said he was keeping President Kennedy advised of his activities. Donovan returned from Cuba on October 11.
Three days later a U-2 plane flying secretly over western Cuba took a photograph of a Soviet mobile medium-range missile site.
The Cuban missile crisis was on. The world moved close to nuclear war during the latter half of October. Against this background of tension it looked as though Donovan's chances of reaching an agreement to free the men had been shattered. He suffered a personal, although not unexpected, blow when he lost the election on November 6 to Senator Javits.
By late November the situation was this:
Donovan still had Castro's general agreement to a swap. But now in the wake of the missile crisis, the drug industry was unwilling to take the risk of donating medicines to Castro unless the Kennedy Administration made it publicly clear that the deal was in the national interest. The drug firms, already hit hard by the Senate investigation of their high prices, had no desire to bring a new wave of public disapproval down upon themselves.
On November 30 a meeting was held at the Justice Department of top aides to Robert Kennedy and officials of the Internal Revenue Service, the State Department and the CIA (including Lawrence R. Houston, the general counsel of the CIA, Donovan's CIA contact in the Powers-Abel trade). Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and Assistant Attorney General Louis F. Oberdorfer represented the Justice Department. Robert Hurwitch spoke for the State Department.
The high-level meeting concluded that Castro's demand of $53,000,000 in drugs would cost only $17,000,000 at wholesale U.S. prices. It was also decided to study the tax angle involved in possible contributions of drugs by the companies. It was agreed that a memorandum would be prepared over the weekend to be ready for Robert Kennedy on Monday December 3. * In the meantime, a drug-industry representative was contacted informally.
On Monday morning the New York Herald Tribune published a front-page story by Warren Rogers, Jr., stating that the President felt a "moral obligation" to free the men. It was the kind of reassurance the drug companies had been looking for. Donovan's phone began to ring in Brooklyn with additional pledges of drugs from the industry.
In Washington, Robert Kennedy called on the President at the White House, and at noon the Attorney General phoned Oberdorfer to give him the green light to go ahead with the operation. The American Red Cross then agreed to accept the drugs as contributions to charity and to deliver them to Havana.
The next day Donovan slipped into Washington to confer with Robert Kennedy. On December 7 the Attorney General met with officials of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association. He told the drug manufacturers that the Bay of Pigs invasion had been launched by the United States, that the plan had been started by the Eisenhower Administration and continued by the Kennedy Administration, and that both the nation and the government had a moral obligation to get the men out.
Robert Kennedy talked about the courage of forty members of the brigade who had escaped and crossed the Caribbean in an open boat. He went on to say that the United States could not directly conduct negotiations with Cuba because it would be "misunderstood" by the world and would be a diplomatic disaster if the deal failed. He said that all departments had received a list of the drugs Castro wanted and that none were considered strategic.
Finally, the Attorney General assured the companies that the sight of the returning prisoners would still any criticism of the drug companies for contributing to Castro. He made it clear that contributions were voluntary.
He then ordered Oberdorfer to devote his full time to the project. And on December 9, Robert Kennedy gave the same talk to a group of baby-food manufacturers.
Oberdorfer's office in the Justice Department became the command post for "Project X." Additional telephones were installed. A group of private attorneys, including John E. Nolan, Jr., and E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr., were brought in to help. (Both later joined the administration.)
From Oberdorfer's office, the private attorneys (and two Justice Department lawyers) now began telephone solicitation of the drug companies. The Justice Department attorneys did not identify themselves as government employees, but said they were calling as representatives of the Cuban Families Committee.
The Justice Department team obtained clearances from the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Interstate Commerce Commission to permit charitable contribution of air and surface transportation to haul the drugs to Miami. The CIA, the Air Force, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare began making arrangements to receive and process the prisoners in Florida. The Commerce Department granted export licenses for the food and drugs.
During this time Donovan told the Justice Department that Castro was demanding a guarantee of full payment of the ransom; otherwise he would hold back the brigade officers until the last payment was made. Katzenbach flew to Montreal on December 14 but the Royal Bank of Canada balked at issuing a letter of credit without some formal guarantees by American banks. The Justice Department official flew back to New York. The Morgan Guaranty Trust Company of New York and the Bank of America agreed to participate; special meetings of their boards of directors were hastily convened to approve the plan.
To complete the financial arrangements, the Continental Insurance Company wrote out a $53,000,000 performance bond without charge, guaranteeing that the Red Cross would meet its obligations to deliver the drugs to Cuba.
Meanwhile, the drugs contributed to "Project X" by the manufacturers were flooding into Miami and creating a monster job of cataloging and bookkeeping at Opa-locka (ironically, the same CIA air base used as a jumping-off point for the Bay of Pigs trainees). The CIA provided a pharmacist, Stephen Aldrich, who helped log the drugs as they arrived in Florida.
On December 16 Donovan began his final mission. He stopped off in Washington to confer with officials and then went on to Miami, where he disappeared. The press could not find him, and with good reason.
Donovan stayed in a CIA house in Miami on December 16 and 17, telephoning to Havana. About 9:00 P.M., December 17, Donovan called Washington to say that he had arranged to go to Havana in the morning. He also reported that one of Castro's negotiators had a sick child who needed a certain medicine immediately.
Katzenbach called Walter Reed Hospital and got ten vials of the medicine. Shortly after midnight Oberdorfer, his assistant Frank Michelman, John Nolan and a CIA attorney flew to Miami from Washington, taking the medicine along.
They did not arrive at the CIA "safe house" until 5:00 A.M. on December 18. There, Donovan received a final pre-dawn briefing. Then he flew into Havana. Nolan stayed at the house, helping to man the CIA telephones. The rest of the team flew back to Washington.
Two days later Donovan returned briefly to Miami. Then he flew back to Havana, taking with him Dr. Leonard Scheele, the former Surgeon General of the United States. On December 21 Donovan and Castro signed a Memorandum of Agreement. But Castro was wary of Donovan's representations. Donovan suggested that Castro's aides inspect some of the drugs.
Shortly after midnight three Cuban Red Cross officials in olive drab flew secretly into Miami. They were met by Dr. Scheele and Barrett Prettyman, shown the supplies at Opa-locka and then taken to Port Everglades to inspect the drugs being loaded on the African Pilot, a ship donated by the Committee of the American Steamship Lines.
The Cubans then adjourned to a Howard Johnson's motel and said to Prettyman they wanted to remain for the day. It was now 5:00 A.M., December 22. Nolan and Prettyman were alarmed at what would happen if the press learned that Castro emissaries were holed up in a Florida motel. One of the Cuban Red Cross men smoked big cigars and, in his olive uniform, did not project the image of a man of mercy. Nolan and Prettyman finally prevailed on the Cubans to fly back to Havana, which they did at 9:00 A.M.
That same day the African Pilot sailed for Havana with the first shipload of drugs. Early on Sunday, December 23, Nolan and Prettyman joined Donovan in Havana. The African Pilot docked that afternoon. Castro met the ship.
The prisoner exchange seemed to be proceeding smoothly. At 5:00 P.M. the first plane left the San Antonio de los Banos airport for Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami. It landed in Florida an hour and five minutes later. All told, four planeloads and a total of 426 prisoners left Cuba by nightfall.
But, in Havana, it had become obvious to Donovan that the airlift would be halted by Castro unless the Cuban Families Committee came up with the $2,900,000 that had been pledged as ransom for the sixty wounded prisoners released in April before Donovan entered the picture.
At 2:00 A.M. on Monday, December 24, Nolan flew to Miami. He placed a 5:00 A.M. phone call to Robert Kennedy in Washington. Nolan made it clear that unless the money was raised by three o'clock that afternoon, the deal would collapse.
"What are you going to tell Jim Donovan?" Robert Kennedy asked.
"I'm going to tell him you're going to get the money," Nolan replied.
There was a pause. Then Robert Kennedy said: "Have a nice trip back."
Nolan flew back to Havana. The Attorney General called Richard Cardinal Cushing, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston, who pledged $1,000,000. Robert Kennedy also called General Lucius Clay, who was a sponsor of the Cuban Families Committee.
Clay borrowed the remaining $1,900,000 on his own signature, then solicited contributions from American business firms to cover that amount. Texaco, Standard Oil of New Jersey and the Ford Motor Company Fund each contributed $100,000.
In Cuba, that Monday, two more planeloads of prisoners were permitted to take off. Then Castro stalled.
First he staged a military air show at San Antonio de los Banos to tie up the airport. Then, about 1:00 P.M., Castro halted all flights until he received word about the money. Late in the afternoon Castro was assured the Royal Bank of Canada had deposited it in Montreal. Donovan and Castro then met at the Canadian consul's office to accept the financial guarantees.
At 9:35 P.M. the last of the planes carrying the returning prisoners touched down at Homestead Air Force Base. Aboard was James Donovan, a quiet American -- his mission accomplished.
For each of the returning prisoners, the routine was the same. Clean clothes, a meal and then a bus trip to Dinner Key Auditorium, where their families and friends were waiting. There, they marched between double lines of fellow members of Brigade 2506 as a band played the march from The Bridge Over the River Kwai.
It was Christmas Eve, 1962.
There were some people who were not content to accept the prisoner exchange as a humanitarian act arranged by a private citizen. Months later, in June, 1963, all thirteen Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee called for a Congressional inquiry into Donovan's role. They charged that many aspects of the exchange "remain baffling."
Donovan replied: "I was a private citizen acting on behalf of the Cuban Families Committee."
It was not, of course, quite as simple as that, as has been shown. Although both Donovan and the White House took this position (for reasons Robert Kennedy had explained privately to the drug industry on December 7, 1962), the fact is that no fewer than fourteen branches of the government participated in the complex deal: the CIA, the Air Force, the Departments of Health, Education and Welfare, Justice, Defense, Commerce, Agriculture, Treasury, the Internal Revenue Service, the White House, Immigration, the CAB, the ICC and the State Department.
In January, 1963, the Agriculture Department gave 5,000,000 pounds of dried milk to the Red Cross for shipment to Cuba and pledged more as needed. In all, the Agriculture Department contributed a total of 35,000,000 pounds of surplus food to the prisoner exchange -- 15,000, 000 pounds of dried milk and 20,000,000 pounds of shortening.
But the administration was fearful that it would come under political attack for helping Castro. The milk and. shortening deal was played down.
Furthermore, the Agriculture Department announced on January 8, 1963, that "the Red Cross had indicated that the Cuban Families Committee expects to raise funds to reimburse the department." In other words, the government was saying that it would be paid back in cash for the surplus food.
What happened was somewhat different.
The dried milk cost the government $2,505,000 when it was bought from producers as part of the farm price support program. The shortening cost the government $3,150,000. Consequently, the government gave away commodities for which it had paid $5,655,000.
However, in calculating the value of the milk and shortening given to the Red Cross, the government figured its contribution as worth just under $2,000,000 -- the lower price the milk and repackaged shortening might have brought had it been sold by the government on the world market. Normally, the government uses the higher price that it paid to producers when it figures the value of a contribution of surplus food to charity. In this instance, it obviously sought to minimize the size of the donation because of the domestic political implications of giving anything away to Castro.
Nor was the government paid back any amount in cash for its donation of milk and shortening. Instead, in a bit of complex bookkeeping that leaves the onlooker breathless, the government accepted as "reimbursement" 4,000,000 pounds of an insecticide called Sevin. The Union Carbide Company had contributed $2,000,000 worth of the bug-killer to the Red Cross for the prisoner exchange. The Commerce Department ruled that the insecticides would be of strategic economic value to Castro by helping his sugar-cane crops.
"So the following took place: The Red Cross accepted the insecticides, then immediately turned them over to the Agency for International Development, which dispatched them to India, Pakistan and Algeria. The government accepted this as repayment for the milk and shortening. This was not quite the same as the "funds" which the Agriculture announcement had indicated would be raised "to reimburse the department."
A conservative estimate of what it cost the government to extricate itself after the Bay of Pigs would be $29,793, 000. This consists of a $20,000,000 tax loss * to the government as a result of the drug companies' charitable deductions; $5,655,000 in skim milk and shortening; $4,000,000 in secret CIA payments to families of the Bay of Pigs prisoners over a twenty-month period, and $138,000 in costs to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare when the prisoners returned. (Each man got a $100 check; the other costs were clothing, housing and food.)
Because of the political risks at home of dealing with Castro, the government felt it necessary to mask its participation in the prisoner exchange both by acting through Donovan and by a certain amount of fiscal hocus-pocus. It decided that the realities of the situation were such that even an act of humanity had to be approached with the utmost political caution.
Nevertheless, Donovan succeeded and the prisoners' lives were saved. As an unexpected part of the deal, Donovan persuaded Castro not to let the Red Cross ships sail away empty. Castro began releasing thousands of refugees previously unable to leave Cuba, including over 5,000 members of the families of the prisoners.
Then in March and April of 1963 Donovan won the release of more than thirty Americans held in Cuban jails, including three CIA men. On July 3, when the last of the medical supplies reached Cuba, the American Red Cross announced that a total of 9,703 persons (including the Bay of Pigs prisoners and the Americans) had been brought out of Cuba under the agreements negotiated by Donovan.
The staggering figure of nearly 10,000 persons rescued by one man is not widely known, because the total figure received less public attention than did the dramatic return of the invasion prisoners.
In all of these missions, Donovan had the assistance of, and worked hand in hand with, the United States Government. But he was not formally a part of it. In each case, as a private citizen, he was breaking new ground in a form of intelligence diplomacy that is a unique outgrowth of the Cold War.
In the case of the Powers-Abel swap, the negotiations that culminated on the Berlin bridge began with a series of letters to Donovan signed "Hellen Abel" The writer of the letters claimed to be the wife of the Soviet spy imprisoned in the United States. The letters came from Leipzig, East Germany.
Donovan turned each of them over to Lawrence Houston, the CIA general counsel. The agency prepared an answer to each letter from "Mrs. Abel," and shipped them back to Donovan in New York, who sent them off to Leipzig. But when Donovan eventually went to East Berlin to negotiate the final details directly with the Russians and East Germans, he was technically on his own, a private American citizen with no diplomatic immunity or protection.
Donovan's missions, then, have defied any neat categorization. President Kennedy, in a letter to Donovan after the East Berlin mission, characterized them as "unique." Because of their very nature, there was public confusion over whether he acted as a private citizen or as a secret agent of the United States Government. The truth is that he was somewhere inbetween.
The government was unwilling to tell the full story of its role in the Cuban prisoner exchange, as it has been related here, because to have done so during Donovan's negotiations might have handicapped his ability to deal with Castro. And, afterward, it might have engendered too many delicate political questions. In a very real sense, the seeds of one covert operation, the Bay of Pigs, had given rise to another -- the return of the invasion brigade.
Those who sought a clear, simple explanation of whether an operation was private or governmental were bound to be disappointed in the case of James Donovan.
His rescue of the Bay of Pigs prisoners was not precisely a "black, " i.e., secret operation. Nor was it entirely "white." It might be most accurately described as a mixture of both -- truly a gray operation.
* The memorandum noted that some drug companies might gain a tax "windfall" by making charitable contributions to the prisoner exchange deal. An accompanying letter by Oberdorfer to Robert Kennedy pointed out that the drug companies would nevertheless insist on approval of the deal by someone at least as high as a Cabinet officer as well as "maximum protection from legislative and public criticism in two particular directions: (a) charges of pro-Communism and (b) criticism for inferences drawn from any price mark-up exposed in the transaction."
*The estimate of tax loss was made by Mitchell Rogovin, counsel to the Internal Revenue Service, on December 28, 1962.