Desmond FitzGerald

Desmond FitzGerald

Desmond FitzGerald was born in 1910. Educated at St. Mark's, Massachusetts and Harvard University, he served as a member of the Office of Strategic Services in the Far East during the Second World War. He joined General Joe Stilwell and took part in his campaign to recapture Burma from the Japanese.

After the war FitzGerald worked as a lawyer in New York City. He became active in the Republican Party and helped establish the Committee of Five Million, an organization that investigated political corruption in the city. FitzGerald had been friends with Frank Wisner since before the war. Wisner persuaded him to become executive officer of the Office of Policy Coordination's Far Eastern Division. OPC was the espionage and counter-intelligence branch of the Central Intelligence Agency.

One of FitzGerald's tasks involved arranging for over 200 agents to be parachuted into China. In a two year period 101 were killed by local peasants and another were captured and imprisoned. He also purchased $152 million worth of foreign weapons and ammunition for guerrilla groups that never existed in China.

Based in Taiwan he organized covert operations during the Korean War. Later he became CIA station chief in the Philippines and Japan. Eventually he became head of the CIA's Far Eastern Division (1957-1962). During this period he worked closely with Colonel Edward Lansdale.

In 1962 FitzGerald was appointed Chief of the Cuban Task Force. John F. Kennedy was determined to overthrow Fidel Castro. He created a committee (SGA) charged with overthrowing Castro's government. The SGA, chaired by Robert F. Kennedy (Attorney General), included John McCone (CIA Director), Alexis Johnson (State Department), McGeorge Bundy (National Security Adviser), Roswell Gilpatric (Defence Department), General Lyman Lemnitzer (Joint Chiefs of Staff) and General Maxwell Taylor. Although not officially members, Dean Rusk (Secretary of State) and Robert S. McNamara (Secretary of Defence) also attending meetings.

Desmond FitzGerald with his first wife, Marietta Peabody.
Desmond FitzGerald with his first wife, Marietta Peabody.

Robert Kennedy put FitzGerald under a lot of pressure to arrange the assassination of Fidel Castro. CIA agent, Sam Halpern, later claimed that "Bobby Kennedy was a bad influence on Des. He reinforced his worst instincts." Thomas Parrott, the secretary of SGA, claimed that FitzGerald had trouble dealing with Kennedy: "He was arrogant, he knew it all, he knew the answer to everything. He sat there, tie down, chewing gum, his feet up on the desk. His threats were transparent. It was, "If you don't do it, I tell my big brother on you."

FitzGerald also became concerned when John F. Kennedy invited Tony Varona to the White House. As FitzGerald pointed out, Varona had been recruited by Johnny Roselli to kill Fidel Castro. As Evan Thomas pointed out: "to bring an assassin into the Oval Office was hardly the way to preserve plausible deniability."

FitzGerald personally organized three different plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. This included working with Rolando Cubela, a senior official in Castro's government. He was given the codename AM/LASH and reported to JM/WAVE. However, Joseph Langosch, of the Special Affairs Staff, suspected that Cubela was a "dangle" (a double agent recruited by Castro to penetrate the American plots against him". This idea was reinforced when Cubela refused to take a lie-detector test.

In September, 1963, Cubela had a meeting with the CIA in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It was suggested that Cubela should assassinate Fidel Castro. According to a CIA report Cubela asked for a meeting with Robert Kennedy: "for assurances of U.S. moral support for any activity Cubela under took in Cuba." This was not possible but FitzGerald, now Chief of the Cuban Task Force, agreed to meet Cubela. Ted Shackley was opposed to the idea as he was now convinced that Cubela was a double-agent.

FitzGerald and Nestor Sanchez met Cubela met in Paris on 29th October, 1963. Cubela requested a "high-powered, silenced rifle with an effective range of hundreds of thousands of yards" in order to kill Fidel Castro. The CIA refused and instead insisted on Cubela used poison. On 22nd November, 1963, FitzGerald handed over a pen/syringe. He was told to use Black Leaf 40 (a deadly poison) to kill Castro. As Cubela was leaving the meeting, he was informed that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

On 7th April, 1964, the SGA officially brought an end to the sabotage operations against Cuba. John McCone, director of the CIA, stated that President Lyndon B. Johnson had abandoned the goal of overthrowing or "eliminating" Castro. However, FitzGerald continued to work with Cubela who was now put in touch with Manuel Artime. They met for the first time on 27th December, 1964. At the Madrid meeting Cubela again asked for a FAL rifle and silencer. A CIA report suggests that a "Belgian FAL rifle with silencer" was given to Cubela on 11th February, 1965.

On 17th June, 1965, FitzGerald was appointed as as head of the Directorate for Plans. For days later the CIA sent out a cable to all stations directing termination of all contact with Cubela and his associates. It stated that there was "convincing proof that entire AMLASH group insecure and that further contact with key members of group constitutes menace to CIA operations against Cuba as well as to the security of CIA staff personnel in western Europe." The CIA had been informed that one of Cubela's associates was having secret meetings with Cuba intelligence.

Eladio del Valle had also told the CIA that Cubela was secretly in league with Santo Trafficante. It is claimed that FitzGerald came to the conclusion that Trafficante was feeding back information to Fidel Castro in the hope of recovering his gambling dynasty.

Richard Helms became director of the Central Intelligence Agency in June, 1966. He immediately put FitzGerald under pressure to sack Tracy Barnes. The following month FitzGerald told Barnes his CIA career was over. FitzGerald told his friend, Thomas Parrott: "It was the hardest thing I ever did"

In January, 1967, FitzGerald discovered that Ramparts, a left-wing publication, had discovered that the CIA had been secretly funding the National Student Association. FitzGerald ordered Edgar Applewhite to organize a campaign against the magazine. Applewhite later told Evan Thomas for his book, The Very Best Men: "I had all sorts of dirty tricks to hurt their circulation and financing. The people running Ramparts were vulnerable to blackmail. We had awful things in mind, some of which we carried off."

This dirty tricks campaign failed to stop Ramparts publishing this story in February, 1967. As well as reporting CIA funding of the National Student Association it exposed the whole system of anti-communist front organizations in Europe, Asia, and South America was essentially blown.

FitzGerald became increasingly concerned about the mental state of James Angleton, the CIA's counterintelligence section. FitzGerald was convinced that Angleton was suffering from paranoia. He was also concerned by his excessive drinking. However, FitzGerald failed to get support from Richard Helms and Angleton held onto his job.

Desmond FitzGerald died of a heart attack while playing tennis in Virginia on 23rd July, 1967.

Primary Sources

(1) William Colby, interview in The Very Best Men (1992)

Desmond FitzGerald had just become chief of the division, and his spirit permeated it... With a lovely Georgetown house and a country residence in Virginia, he was well connected throughout Washington, where his romantic activism produced great dinner talk. In the Far East Division and its stations in Asia, he had a rich stable of immensely colourful characters from "ugly Americans" like Lansdale, swashbucklers accustomed to danger, to quiet students steeped in the culture of the Orient.

(2) Richard Helms, interview in The Very Best Men (1995)

Des was basically a guy interested in political action, not espionage, and I don't think he ever understand counter-espionage. He felt he had to get something visible done. Collecting intelligence was passive. The only reason to collect it was to use it. He understood about tradecraft and security, but really he cared more about using the stuff.

(3) Dick Russell, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1992)

According to Nagell, Desmond FitzGerald definitely figures into the Oswald saga - to what degree we may never know, except perhaps through a no-holds-barred official inquiry. A Time magazine file would later describe FitzGerald as "one of the most powerful, but least known top officials in Washington." This was shortly after his death at age fifty-seven, when FitzGerald suddenly collapsed of an apparent heart attack on a country-home Virginia tennis court on July 23, 1967, and died en route to the hospital. At the time he was in charge of all CIA clandestine operations. "Now there is a corpse," Nagell would write, "that should be exhumed and examined by a qualified pathologist."

FitzGerald was a charming, well-connected, redheaded Irishman whose roots derived from the same Boston-Irish background as the Kennedys'. He stood about six-foot-two, with strong, rugged features and, like his mentor Alien Dulles, there was often a ready pipe in his mouth. In 1951 FitzGerald joined the CIA. Almost from the beginning he was the agency's leading spokesman for agents in the field, a staunch advocate of the "can-do" philosophy During the Korean War FitzGerald made his name, smoothly organizing dozens of covert operations from a CIA base in Taiwan. After Korea, FitzGerald moved on to become CIA station chief in the Philippines and then Japan before being appointed the Agency's Far Eastern Division head. He was known as a scholarly sort with a rapt interest in art - as well as an avid enthusiast of CIA covert operations.

"He grew up in a world where the models were the British," his daughter Frances was saying as we sat in her book-lined apartment over-looking New York's East River in the spring of 1992. "You know, the attitude that a whiff of grapeshot would do. He viewed politics in the Third World as a matter of elites, very small elites, so he simply believed you could change things quite a bit by changing the ruler."

(4) Evan Thomas, The Very Best Men (1995)

Halpern valued his relationship with FitzGerald as "almost father and son," but it became strained in the winter and spring of 1963. "Des's approach was a little scary," Halpern said. "We had a good base of intelligence in Cuba by 63. It had been our agent who targeted the U-2 to the missiles-we knew what was going on. Des came in, and unfortunately, because of pressure from Bobby, tried to do too much. Des did not want to be thwarted. When he wanted it done, you got it done, or he'd do it himself. With Castro he got frustrated. "Why can't we do this?" he'd demand. He'd glare at people and make you feel uncomfortable and quote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. He had contagious enthusiasms, but it was difficult to get him to stop and think, once he got the bit in his teeth." Halpern, like Ted Shackley, was inhibited. "I was just a junior officer, and I didn't have connections in Georgetown," said Halpern. "I didn't know what dinner parties he was going to.

Halpern thought the relationship between Kennedy and FitzGerald was unfortunate. "I think Bobby Kennedy was a bad influence on Des," he said. "He reinforced his worst instincts." Halpern said he began to "dread coming in to work in the morning," especially Monday mornings after FitzGerald had had all weekend to "run into" Kennedy and think up his own schemes "all these hare-brained ideas," as Halpern described a series of plots that would seem like black comedy when they surfaced a decade later during the Church Committee hearings.

(5) James Angleton, interviewed by Dick Russell about Desmond FitzGerald in his book, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1992)

Desmond FitzGerald... St. Mark's, Harvard, distinguished Irish family, highest social status. Distinguished himself in the Far East Theater (during World War II), working with guerrillas and different people. One of the most energetic men you can imagine. He was, to put it bluntly, a hard-nosed, positive individual who worked himself to death seven days a week. He lacked what I'd call research analysis - the verbal side of discussion for arriving at a decision. But never waffled on decisions. When he made up his mind, there were no ambiguities, no ifs, ands, or buts. Very loyal to his men, extra loyal to the cadre.

(6) Joseph Burkholder Smith, interviewed by Dick Russell (8th April, 1992)

I know that Desmond FitzGerald's Cuban Counter Intelligence staff was very interested in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, and getting a penetration into it would have been a high-priority effort. In other words, finding out exactly what they were doing, any ties with, say, the Cuban Intelligence service, and how much if any they were funded by the opposition - from Cuba, or Russia via Cuba, or anybody else.

(7) CIA Inspector General's Report on Plots to Assassinate Fidel Castro (1967)

Desmond FitzGerald, then Chief, SAS, who was going to Paris on other business, arranged to meet with Cubela to give him the assurances he sought. The contact plan for the meeting, a copy of which is in the AMLASH file, has this to say on cover: "FitzGerald will represent self as personal representative of Robert F. Kennedy who traveled Paris for specific purpose meeting Cubela and giving him assurances of full U.S. support if there is change of the present government in Cuba."

According to FitzGerald, he discussed the planned meeting with the DD/P (Helms) who decided it was not necessary to seek approval from Robert Kennedy for FitzGerald to speak in his name.

(8) Evan Thomas, The Very Best Men (1995)

The Cubans were notoriously leaky, while Castro's security service, the DGI, had been well trained by the East Germans, who had a knack for working double agents."

Shortly before FitzGerald was due to leave for Paris to meet AMLASH, Sam Halpern walked in on a shouting match between his boss and the SAS counterintelligence (CI) officer. "The CI man was telling Des not to go to Paris. He felt Cubela was a dangle, or that he'd talk to his friends. It was a real collision. The CI man wouldn't give and Des wouldn't give." FitzGerald decided to go anyway.

In Miami, Ted Shackley was equally frustrated. "I told Des that it was something he shouldn't do. 'If AMLASH does do something,' I told him, 'it's quite likely they'll track you down. You have a high profile. What are you going to get out of this? The only thing you'll get is the satisfaction of saying you saw the guy!' " said Shackley. "Des shrugged and went on his merry way."

FitzGerald's boss, Richard Helms, "shared the qualms (of the SAS staff)." As the head of the clandestine service, he could have vetoed the trip. "But," Helms later explained, "I was also getting my ass beaten. You should have enjoyed the experience of Bobby Kennedy rampant on your back." Helms signed off on FitzGerald's meeting with Cubela. Although FitzGerald was going in Robert Kennedy's name, Richard Helms decided it was "unnecessary" to tell the attorney general, whom he regarded as an even greater risk-taker than FitzGerald. "Bobby wouldn't have backed away," said Helms. "He probably would have gone himself." It shows the level of pressure felt by the CIA that Helms, normally careful to cover his back, didn't even bother to get Kennedy's authorization.