...In [Joint Chief's chair] Lemnitzer's view, the country would be far
better off if the generals could take over. [JFK assassination legend has
it some general presided over the fudgy JFK autopsy. --Mk]
For those military officers who were sitting on the fence, the Kennedy
administration's botched Bay of Pigs invasion was the last straw.
"The Bay of Pigs fiasco broke the dike," said one report at the
time. "President Kennedy was pilloried by the super patriots as a
'no-win' chief . . . The Far Right became a fount of proposals born of
frustration and put forward in the name of anti-Communism. . . Active-duty
commanders played host to anti-Communist seminars on their bases and
attended or addressed Right-wing meetings elsewhere."
Although no one in Congress could have known it at the time, Lemnitzer
and the Joint Chiefs had quietly slipped over the edge.
According to secret and long-hidden documents obtained for Body of
Secrets, the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up and approved plans for what may
be the most corrupt plan ever created by the U.S. government. In the name
of antiCommunism, they proposed launching a secret and bloody war of
terrorism against their own country in order to trick the American public
into supporting an ill-conceived war they intended to launch against Cuba.
Code named Operation Northwoods, the plan, which had the written
approval of the Chairman and every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
called for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for boats
carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for a wave of
violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C., Miami, and
elsewhere. People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes
would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on
Castro, thus giving Lemnitzer and his cabal the excuse, as well as the
public and international backing, they needed to launch their war.
The idea may actually have originated with President Eisenhower in the
last days of his administration. With the Cold War hotter than ever and
the recent U-2 scandal fresh in the public's memory, the old general
wanted to go out with a win. He wanted desperately to invade Cuba in the
weeks leading up to Kennedy's inauguration; indeed, on January 3 he told
Lemnitzer and other aides in his Cabinet Room that he would move against
Castro before the inauguration if only the Cubans gave him a really good
excuse. Then, with time growing short, Eisenhower floated an idea. If
Castro failed to provide that excuse, perhaps, he said, the United States
"could think of manufacturing something that would be generally
acceptable." What he was suggesting was a pretext a bombing, an
attack, an act of sabotage carried out secretly against the United States
by the United States. Its purpose would be to justify the launching of a
war. It was a dangerous suggestion by a desperate president.
Although no such war took place, the idea was not lost on General
Lemnitzer But he and his colleagues were frustrated by Kennedy's failure
to authorize their plan, and angry that Castro had not provided an excuse
The final straw may have come during a White House meeting on February
26, 1962. Concerned that General Lansdale's various covert action plans
under Operation Mongoose were simply becoming more outrageous and going
nowhere, Robert Kennedy told him to drop all anti-Castro efforts. Instead,
Lansdale was ordered to concentrate for the next three months strictly on
gathering intelligence about Cuba. It was a humiliating defeat for
Lansdale, a man more accustomed to praise than to scorn.
As the Kennedy brothers appeared to suddenly "go soft" on
Castro, Lemnitzer could see his opportunity to invade Cuba quickly
slipping away. The attempts to provoke the Cuban public to revolt seemed
dead and Castro, unfortunately, appeared to have no inclination to launch
any attacks against Americans or their property Lemnitzer and the other
Chiefs knew there was only one option left that would ensure their war.
They would have to trick the American public and world opinion into hating
Cuba so much that they would not only go along, but would insist that he
and his generals launch their war against Castro. "World opinion, and
the United Nations forum," said a secret JCS document, "should
be favorably affected by developing the international image of the Cuban
government as rash and irresponsible, and as an alarming and unpredictable
threat to the peace of the Western Hemisphere."
Operation Northwoods called for a war in which many patriotic Americans
and innocent Cubans would die senseless deaths, all to satisfy the egos of
twisted generals back in Washington, safe in their taxpayer financed homes
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 could
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
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 could
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
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 of 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 which 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
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 unmanned aircraft]. Take off times of the drone aircraft and
the actual aircraft will be scheduled to allow a rendezvous south of
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 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 shoot downs 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 13, 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 those meetings is unknown. But three days
later, President Kennedy told Lemnitzer that there was virtually no
possibility that the U.S. would ever use overt 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 the
"tank," as the JCS conference room was called, and agreed on the
wording of 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
Concluding, Lemnitzer did not mince words: "[T]he 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
By then McNamara had virtually no confidence in his military chief and
was rejecting nearly every proposal the general 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 am the senior military office--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 General 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, NSA's military arm.
Because of the secrecy and illegality of Operation Northwoods, all
details remained hidden for forty 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 during 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 shake up of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff" he said. "We direly need a new
chairman, as well as new members." No one had any idea of Operation
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 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 deliberately create a war between Cuba and any of a number of .n
American neighbors. This would give the United States military an excuse
to come in on the side of Cuba's adversary and get rid of "A
contrived 'Cuban' attack on an OAS [Organization of Americas] member could
be set up," said one proposal, "and the attacked state could be
urged to 'take measures of self-defense and request ice from the U.S. and
OAS; the U.S. could almost certainly obtain necessary two-thirds support
among OAS members for collective action against Cuba."
Among the nations they suggested that the United States secretly were
Jamaica and Trinidad-Tobago. Both were members of the Commonwealth; thus,
by secretly attacking them and then blaming Cuba, the United States could
lure England into the war Castro. The report noted, "Any of the
contrived situations de 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 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
The report even suggested secretly paying someone in the Castro
government to attack the United States: "The only area remaining for
ration 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 American
military installation--was treason.
In May 1963, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul H. Nitze sent a 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
"[T]he U.S. could undertake various measures designed to stimulate
the Cubans to provoke a 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 to 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 the 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 an 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 out 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 with
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 at
deceiving the public and trumping up wars for Americans to fight and die
in was standard, approved policy at 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 cause a helpful wave of
indignation." One need only replace "Guantanamo Bay" with
"Tonkin Gulf," and "Cuba" with "North
Vietnam" and 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.
"The public has a duty to watch its Government closely and keep it
on the right track." --Lieutenant Gen. Kenneth A. Minihan, USAF,
Director, NSA, _NSA Newsletter_, June 1997
SEE James Bamford Video>>>
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