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Operation Northwoods


by James Bamford
(an excerpt from Body of Secrets*)

This section of he book picks up at the point in the early 1960s, when American generals eager to attack Cuba were frustrated by Castro’s unwillingness to engage the U.S. militarily. Neither can the Cuban population be stirred into open revolt against Castro. To get rid of Castro, other more sinister plans were made.

One idea seriously considered involved the launch of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. On February 20, 1962, Glenn was to lift off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on his historic journey. The flight was to carry the banner of America’s virtues of truth, freedom, and democracy into orbit high over the planet. But Lemnitzer and his chiefs had a different idea. They proposed to Lansdale [Deputy Director of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Operations] that, should the rocket explode and kill Glenn, “the objective is to provide irrevocable proof that . . . the fault lies with the Communists of Cuba [sic].” This would be accomplished, Lemnitzer continued, “by manufacturing various pieces of evidence which would prove electronic interference on the part of the Cubans.” Thus, as NASA prepared to send the first American into space, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were preparing to use John Glenn’s possible death as a pretext to launch a war.

Glenn lifted into history without mishap, leaving Lemnitzer and the Chiefs to begin devising new plots which they suggested be carried out “within the time frame of the next few months.”

Among the actions recommended was “a series of well-coordinated incidents to take place in and around “ the U. S. Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This included dressing “friendly” Cubans in Cuban military uniforms and then have them “start riots near the main gate of the base. Others would pretend to be saboteurs inside the base. Ammunition would be blown up, fires started, aircraft sabotaged, mortars fired at the base, with damage to installations.“

The suggested operations grew progressively more outrageous. Another called for an action similar to the infamous incident in February 1898 when an explosion aboard the battleship Maine in Havana harbor killed 266 U. S. sailors. Although the exact cause of the explosion remained undetermined, it sparked the Spanish American War with Cuba. Incited by the deadly blast, more than one million men volunteered for duty. Lemnitzer and his generals came up with a similar plan. “We would blow up a U. S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba,” they proposed: “casualty lists in U. S. newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation.”

There seemed no limit to their fanaticism: “We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington,” they wrote. “The terror campaign would be pointed at Cuban refugees seeking haven in the United States . . . We could sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated) . . . We could foster attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicized.’

Bombings were proposed, false arrests, hijackings:

• “Exploding a few plastic bombs in carefully chosen spots, the arrest of Cuban agents
and the release of prepared documents substantiating Cuban involvement also would
be helpful in projecting the idea od an irresponsible government.”

• “Advantage can be taken of the sensitivity of the Dominican (Republic) Air Force to
intrusions within their national air space. ‘Cuban’ B-26 or C-46 type aircraft could
make cane-burning raids at night. Soviet Bloc incendiaries could be found. This could
be coupled with ‘Cuban’ messages to the Communist underground in the Dominican
Republic and ‘Cuban’ shipments of arms would would be found, or intercepted, on
the beach. Use of MiG type aircraft by U. S. pilots could provide additional

• “Hijacking attempts against civil air and surface craft could appear to continue as
harassing measures condoned by the Government of Cuba.

Among the most elaborate schemes was to “create an incident which will demonstrate convincingly that a Cuban aircraft has attacked and shot down a chartered civil airliner en route from the United States to Jamaica, Guatemala, Panama or Venezuela. The destination would be chosen only to cause the flight plan route to cross Cuba. The passengers could be a group of college students off on a holiday or any grouping of persons with a common interest to support chartering a non-scheduled flight.”

Lemnitzer and the Joint Chiefs worked out a complex deception:

An aircraft at Elgin AFB would be painted and numbered as an exact duplicate for a civil
registered aircraft belonging to a CIA proprietary organization in the Miami area. At a
designated time the duplicate would be substituted for the actual civil aircraft and would
be loaded with the selected passengers, all boarded under carefully prepared aliases. The
actual registered aircraft would be converted to a drone [a remotely controlled aircraft].
Take off times of the drone aircraft and the actual aircraft will be scheduled to allow a
rendezvous south of Florida.

From the rendezvous point the passenger-carrying aircraft will descend to minimum
altitude and go directly into an auxiliary field at Elgin AFB where arrangements will have
been made to evacuate the passengers and return the aircraft to its original status. The
drone aircraft meanwhile will continue to fly the filed flight plan. When over Cuba the
drone will be transmitting on the international distress frequency a “May Day” message
stating he is under attack by Cuban MiG aircraft. The transmission will be interrupted by
destruction of the aircraft, which will be triggered by radio signal. This will allow the
ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] radio stations in the Western
Hemisphere to tell the U.S. what has happened to the aircraft instead of the U.S. trying
to “sell” the incident

Finally, there was a plan to “make it appear that Communist Cuban MiGs have destroyed a USAF aircraft over international waters in an unprovoked attack.” It was a particularly believable operation given the decade of shootdowns that had just taken place.

In the final sentence of his letter to Secretary McNamara recommending the operations, Lemnitzer made a grab for even more power, asking that the Joint Chiefs be placed in charge of carrying out Operation Northwoods and the invasion. “It is recommended,” he wrote, “that this responsibility for both overt and covert military operations be assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

At 2:30 on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 16, 1962, Lemnitzer went over last minute details of Operation Northwoods with his covert action chief Brigadier General William H. Craig, and signed the document. He then went to a special meeting in McNamara’s office. An hour later he met with Kennedy’s military representative, General Maxwell Taylor. What happened during these meetings is unknown. But three days later, President Kennedy told Lemnitzer that there was virtually no possibility that the U.S. would ever use military force in Cuba.

Undeterred, Lemnitzer and the Chiefs persisted, virtually to the point of demanding that they be given authority to invade and take over Cuba. About a month after submitting Operation Northwoods, they met in the “tank,” as the JCS conference room was called, and agreed on a tough memorandum to McNamara. “The Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that the Cuban problem must be solved in the near future,” they wrote. “Further, they see no prospect of early success in overthrowing the present communist regime either as a result of internal uprising or external political, economic or psychological pressures. Accordingly they believe that military intervention by the United States will be required to overthrow the present Communist regime.“

Lemnitzer was virtually rabid in his hatred of communism in general and Castro in particular. “The Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that the UNited States can undertake military intervention in Cuba without risk of general war.” he continued. “They also believe that the intervention can be accomplished rapidly enough to minimize communist opportunities for solicitation of UN action.” However, what Lemnitzer was suggesting was not freeing the Cuban people, who were largely in support of Castro, but imprisoning them in a U.S. military-controlled police state. “Forces would assure rapid essential military control of Cuba,” he wrote. “Continued police action would be required “

Concluding, Lemnitzer did not mince words:

“The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommend that a national policy of early military intervention in Cuba be adopted by the United States. They also recommend that such intervention be undertaken as soon as possible and preferably before the release of National Guard and Reserve forces presently on active duty.”

“. . . by then McNamara had virtually no confidence in his military chiefs and was rejecting nearly every proposal sent to him. The rejections became so routine , said one of Lemnitzer’s former staff officers, that the staffer told the general that the situation was putting the military in an “embarrassing rut.” But Lemnitzer replied, “I’m the senior military officer — it’s my job to state what I believe and it’s his [McNamara’s] job to approve or disapprove.” “McNamara’s arrogance was astonishing,” said Lemnitzer’s aide, who knew nothing of Operation Northwoods. He gave Lemnitzer very short shrift and treated him like a schoolboy. The general almost stood at attention when he came into the room. Everything was ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir.’

Within months, Lemnitzer was denied a second term as JCS chairman and transferred to Europe as chief of NATO. Years later President Gerald Ford appointed Lemnitzer, a darling of the Republican right, to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Lemnitzer’s Cuba chief, Brigadier General Craig, was also transferred. Promoted to Major General, he spent three years as chief of the Army Security Agency, NATO’s military arm.

Because of the secrecy and illegality of of Operation Northwoods, all details remained hidden for 40 years. Lemnitzer may have thought that all copies of the relevant documents had been destroyed; he was not one to leave compromising material lying around. Following the Bay of Pigs debacle, for example, he ordered Brigadier General David W. Gray , Craig’s predecessor as chief of the Cuba project within the JCS, to destroy all his notes concerning Joint Chiefs actions and discussions during that period. Gray’s meticulous notes were the only detailed official records of what happened within the JCS at that time. According to Gray, Lemnitzer feared a congressional investigation and therefore wanted any incriminating evidence destroyed.

With the evidence destroyed, Lemnitzer felt free to lie to Congress. When asked, during secret hearings before a Senate committee, if he knew of any Pentagon plans for a direct invasion of Cuba he said he did not. Yet detailed JCS invasion plans had been drawn up even before Kennedy was inaugurated. And additional plans had been developed since. The consummate planner and man of details also became evasive, suddenly encountering great difficulty in recalling key aspects of the operation, as if he had been out of the country during the period. It was a sorry spectacle. Senator Gore called for Lemnitzer to be fired. “We need a shakeup of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he said. “We direly need a new chairman, a well as new members.” No one had any idea of Operation Northwoods.


FOIA Operation Northwoods Redactions

Because so many documents were destroyed, it is difficult to determine how many senior officials were aware of Operation Northwoods. As has been described, the document was signed and fully approved by Lemnitzer and the rest of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and addressed to the Secretary of Defense for his signature. Whether it went beyond McNamara to the president and the attorney general is not known.

Even after Lemnitzer lost his job, the Joint Chiefs kept planning “pretext” operations at least into 1963. Among their proposals was a p[lan to deliberately create a war between Cuba and any of a number of its Latin American neighbors. This would give the United States military an excuse to come in on the side of Cub’s adversary and get rid of Castro. “A contrived ‘Cuban’ attack on an OAS [Organization of American States] member could be set up,” said one proposal, “and the attacked state could be urged to ‘take measures of self-defense and request assistance from the U.S. and OAS; the U.S. could almost certainly obtain the necessary two-thirds support among OAS members for collective action against Cuba.”

Among the nations that they suggested that the United States secretly attack were Jamaica and Trinidad Tobago. Both were members of the British Commonwealth, thus by secretly attacking them and then falsely blaming Cuba, the United States could lure England into the war against Castro. The report noted, “Any of the contrived situations described above are inherently, extremely risky in our democratic system in which security can be maintained, after the fact, with very great difficulty. If the decision should be made to set up a contrived situation it should be one in which participation by U.S. personnel is limited only to the most highly trusted covert personnel. This suggests the infeasibility of the use of military units for any aspect of the contrived situation.”

The report even suggested secretly paying someone in the Castro government to attack the United States. “The only area remaining for consideration then would be to bribe one of Castro’s subordinate commanders to initiate an attack on [the U.S. naval base at] Guantanamo.” The act suggested — bribing a foreign nation to launch a violent attack on an American military installation — was treason.

In May 1963, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul H. Nitze sent a plan to the White House proposing a “possible scenario whereby an attack on a United States reconnaissance aircraft could be exploited toward the end of effecting the removal of the Castro regime.” In the event Cuba attacked a U-2, the plan proposed sending in additional American pilots, this time on dangerous, unnecessary low-level reconnaissance missions with the expectation that they would also be shot down, thus provoking a war. “The U.S. could take various measures designed to stimulate the Cubans to provoke new incident,” said the plan. Nitze, however, did not volunteer to be one of the pilots.

One idea involved sending fighters across the island on “harassing reconnaissance” and “show off” missions “flaunting our freedom of action, hoping to stir the Cuban military into action.” “Thus,” said the plan, “depending above all on whether the Cubans were or could be made to be trigger-happy, the development of the initial downing of a reconnaissance plane could lead at best to the elimination of Castro, perhaps to the removal of Soviet troops and the installation of ground inspection in Cuba, or at least to our demonstration of firmness on reconnaissance.” About a month later, a low-level flight was made across Cuba, but unfortunately for the Pentagon, instead of bullets it produced only a protest.

Lemnitzer was a dangerous — perhaps even unbalanced — right-wing extremist in n extraordinarily sensitive position during a critical period. But Operation Northwoods also had the support of every single member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and even senior Pentagon official Paul Nitze argued in favor of provoking a phony war with Cuba. The fact that the most senior members of all the services and the Pentagon could be so ot of touch with reality and the meaning of democracy would be hidden for four decades.

In retrospect, the documents offer new insight into the thinking of the military’s star-studded leadership. Although they never succeeded in launching America into a phony war with Cuba, they may have done so in Vietnam. More than 50,000 Americans and more than 2 million Vietnamese were eventually killed in that war

It has long been suspected that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident — the spark that led to America’s long war in Vietnam — was largely staged or provoked by U.S. officials in order to build up congressional and public support for American involvement. Over the years, serious questions have been raised about the alleged attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats on two American destroyers in the Gulf. But defenders of the Pentagon have always denied such charges, arguing that senior officials would never engage in such deceit.

Now, however, in light of the Operation Northwoods documents. it is clear that deceiving the public and trumping up wars for Americans to fight and die in, was standard, approved policy t the highest levels of the Pentagon. In fact, the Gulf of Tonkin seems right out of the Operation Northwoods playbook: “We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba . . . casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a helpful wave of indignation.” One need only replace “Guantanamo Bay” with “Tonkin Gulf,” and “Cuba” with “North Vietnam.” The Gulf of Tonkin incident may or may not have been stage-managed, but the senior Pentagon leadership at the time was clearly capable of such deceit.

*James Bamford. 2001. Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the ultra-secret National Security Agency, Doubleday, New York. [pp 84-91]

Journalist and former military intelligence analyst, James Bamford has published three books about the deep structure of U.S. military decision-making.

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