Ignorance, incompetence and arrogance. That's the CIA's own assessment of its faults in the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle. Small wonder that the spy agency guarded one of the Cold War's most secret documents so jealously for so long.
The 150-page report, released after more than three decades in the CIA director's safe, blamed the disastrous attempt to oust Fidel Castro not on President John F. Kennedy's failure to back the invaders with air strikes but on the agency itself.The CIA's ignorance, incompetence and arrogance toward the 1,400 Cuban exiles it trained and equipped to mount the invasion were responsible for the fiasco, said the report, obtained by the Associated Press on Saturday.
"The fundamental cause of the disaster was the agency's failure to give the project, notwithstanding its importance and immense potentiality for damage to the United States, the top-flight handling which it required," the report said.
The top secret document, released by the agency in response to a Freedom of Information Act request late last week, criticized almost every aspect of the CIA's handling of the invasion: misinforming Kennedy administration officials, planning poorly, using faulty intelligence and conducting an overt military operation beyond "agency responsibility as well as agency capability."
Few of the CIA personnel helping train the exiles for the invasion spoke Spanish, yet "the agency reduced the exiled leaders to the status of puppets." Some CIA agents "treated the Cubans like dirt."
Despite U.S. news articles linking the United States with a plan to invade Cuba, the $46 million project went forward under the "pathetic illusion" of deniability, the report said.
Castro's forces easily turned back the April 1961 assault at the Bay of Pigs, killing 200 rebel soldiers and capturing 1,197 others, who were later turned over to U.S. authorities.
The fiasco at the swampy, mosquito-ridden inlet on Cuba's southern coast was a watershed for the spy agency, puncturing the air of invincibility it had acquired with its successes in helping topple Iran's president in 1953 and Guatemala's leader in 1954.
It was also a major foreign policy disaster for the Kennedy administration, tarnishing its "Camelot" sheen and reducing its 43-year-old president to tears the morning of April 19 when the scale of the disaster became clear.
"How could I have been so stupid?" Kennedy later told his advisers.
While the defeat sobered Kennedy, it also apparently hardened his determination to get rid of Castro. Within months, his administration would step up plans to assassinate the Cuban leader, with some schemes involving Mafia figures.
In the aftermath of the debacle, many CIA officials and Cuban exiles said Kennedy's failure to approve air strikes to back up the seaborne rebels doomed the invasion.
But the October 1961 report, by CIA Inspector General Lyman Kirkpatrick, placed the blame directly on CIA leaders, saying they had "failed to advise the president, at an appropriate time, that success had become dubious and to recommend that the operation therefore be canceled."
Accusing Kennedy of timidity by not calling in air strikes overlooked a more fundamental problem, the report said.
"If the project had been better conceived, better organized, better staffed and better managed, would that precise issue ever had had to be presented for presidential decision at all? And would it have been presented under the same ill-prepared, inadequately brief circumstances?"
The report's conclusions so outraged CIA officials that all but one of the 20 copies produced was destroyed.
CIA officials feared that if the document leaked, it could provoke crippling public criticism of the agency. "In unfriendly hands, it can become a weapon unjustifiably (used) to attack the entire mission, organization and functioning of the agency," CIA deputy director C.P. Cabell wrote in a Dec. 15, 1961, memorandum.