Antonio Veciana, Mystery Man in JFK Assassination, Part 1

Photo credit: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

More than 50 years after President John F. Kennedy’s death, details relating to his assassination have accumulated like snowflakes in a blizzard. Hundreds of names, thousands of alleged facts, millions upon millions of words competing for our attention and requiring our judgment: Is this important? Is this true? Who would know?

John M. Newman, PhD is unique in what he knows. He is a retired US Army intelligence officer who served for two years as military assistant to the director General William Odom at the National Security Agency. He has testified before various subcommittees of the US House of Representatives, and has been a consultant for various US and foreign media organizations including PBS Frontline, the History Channel, C-Span, and NBC. (He is also an adjunct professor of Political Science at James Madison University.)

His expertise as a strategic intelligence cryptologic analyst makes his credentials unique among those who delve into the hidden histories buried within America’s military and intelligence bureaucracies. For the past quarter century his works have overturned orthodoxies, introduced new facts, and produced revelations about America during the Cold War.

His past publications include Oswald and the CIA: The Documented Truth About the Unknown Relationship Between the U.S. Government and the Alleged Killer of JFK (2008);  Where Angels Tread Lightly: The Assassination of President Kennedy, Volume I (2015); Countdown to Darkness: The Assassination of President Kennedy, Volume II (2017); JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue and the Struggle for Power 2nd Ed (2017).

His latest book — Into the Storm: The Assassination of President Kennedy Volume III (2019) — was described by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as a “groundbreaking work that finally illuminates the dark places where democracy goes to die.”  

Here we present the first of two excerpts from that book. They reveal the intricate web of claims, contradictions, and complexities relating to the former leader of the murderous anti-Castro paramilitary group Alpha-66, Antonio Veciana. Veciana made the explosive claim that he was present in Dallas two months before the Kennedy assassination, with Lee Harvey Oswald and an agent/handler whom he knew by the name of Maurice Bishop (eventually identified by Veciana as CIA officer David Atlee Phillips).

Introduction by Alan Dale.


Chapter Three. When Fiction is Stranger Than Truth: Veciana and Phillips in Cuba — 1959-1960

 

Antonio Veciana Blanch was born on 18 October 1928 in Havana, Cuba. In 1960, he was a public accountant working as an assistant manager at Banco Financiero, the bank owned by Cuban sugar magnate and CIA asset Julio Lobo. Veciana was also president of the Cuban Certified Public Accountants Association. The Veciana story is ubiquitous among researchers of the Kennedy assassination, but views vary considerably about which events did or did not take place in his life. The lengthy and byzantine history of Veciana’s activities with the U.S. Military and the CIA is dominated by his claim that he had a meeting with Dave Phillips [David Atlee Phillips] — who was using the pseudonym Maurice Bishop — in Dallas, Texas, in September 1963; and, further, that a man Veciana later recognized as Lee Harvey Oswald was also present at that meeting. For nearly four decades, that single assertion has sucked the oxygen out of attention to the less sensational but necessary research into the rest of Veciana’s story and the documentary record surrounding it, such as it is.

Veciana’s accounts have radically changed over the four decades leading up to the appearance of his 2017 book Trained to Kill. His first account on 2 March 1976 was given to Gaeton Fonzi, an investigator then working for Senator Schweiker of the Select Committee on Intelligence Activities (SSCIA). That interview occurred while he was incarcerated for cocaine trafficking, an offense for which he still claims he was innocent. Three months after his parole, Veciana was interviewed by journalist Dick Russell. Veciana gave his third account in a 25-26 March 1978 deposition to the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). The fourth phase of his story took place during the numerous lengthy sessions he had with Gaeton Fonzi during the fifteen years between the HSCA’s final report (2 January 1979) and the 1993 appearance of Fonzi’s book, The Last Investigation.

Gaeton Fonzi passed away on 30 August 2012. Two years later, on 26 September 2014, Veciana gave his fifth account at the Assassination Archives and Research Center (AARC) symposium in Bethesda, Maryland. At the time, Veciana was already at an advanced stage of preparation for his book, Trained to Kill. In that work, he offered his sixth and final version of the events that took place between 1959 and 1961.

There are many minor differences among Antonio Veciana’s versions of the Bishop-Phillips saga. But there are also significant structural and existential changes to his story. Among these, the two most important are the date that Phillips first approached Veciana in Cuba, and the true identity of the person using the name Maurice Bishop. The vast majority of the relevant intelligence documents in the available record were not released until late in this epic tale — not until the mid-1990s as a result of the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. As such, they were not available to Veciana until then. In the late 1970s, the HSCA did get access to significant amounts of pertinent classified records. However, many CIA records were not shared with the committee. The committee and its researchers were bound by secrecy oaths not to publicly reveal classified information gained during their investigation.

Minor differences in Veciana’s various accounts may, in some cases, be excused as resulting from confusion or faulty memory. However, there is no getting around this unwelcome problem: major structural and existential changes to Veciana’s story indicate deception — if not in one place, then inescapably in another. The principal task facing researchers today is to decide which accounts are true — or partly true — and which are not. If we are to rescue any pieces of this puzzle that were true, we must first strip away many pieces that were false.

This job is made more difficult by the accounts of American and Cuban intelligence officers whose experiences bear upon this mission, most notably CIA staff officer David Phillips and Cuban intelligence chief Fabian Escalante. Escalante’s Washington-based officers from the Cuban Interest Section were naturally researching the new records as they poured out in 1994.1 And as far as I can determine, in his 1995 book, The Secret War, Fabian Escalante was the only author who immediately discovered the most glaring problem with Veciana’s chronology — the date Phillips allegedly recruited Veciana in Cuba. In 1995, Escalante made the forced readjustment of that date from mid-1960 to mid-1959, two decades before Veciana followed suit in 2014!

The release of CIA documents left Veciana with a difficult choice. He realized that he had to give up the entire story of his recruitment by Phillips in Cuba or adjust the date to the time when Phillips really was in Cuba. Veciana decided to preserve his Phillips story and therefore was forced to change the date of the recruitment. Why he waited until 2014 to do that raises problems that I will address in future volumes. Veciana’s unfortunate decision ended up causing more problems than it solved. I will mention them later in this chapter. In Chapter Eleven, I will show what happens when Veciana’s Cuban story is moved forward in time into his original chronology — back where it belongs — when Phillips was not in Cuba.

I hope the reader will not be disappointed that I will not start my examination of Veciana’s history with his alleged meeting with Oswald and Phillips in Dallas during September 1963. For reasons that will become obvious, I will get to that shiny object in Volume V. In this chapter, I will only mention the claim about 1963 in connection with a caper Veciana pulled off with his best friend, Zabala in 1976.

And so, in this chapter, I will begin my examination of Veciana by taking the reader back to the point in time where he now claims he was recruited in Cuba by a man he knew as Maurice Bishop. In Veciana’s final two accounts at the 2014 AARC conference and in his 2017 book, Trained to Kill, he forcefully and unequivocally contended that Maurice Bishop was Dave Phillips. For this reason, in this chapter I will be using the name Phillips instead of Bishop. When I mean the true Phillips, I will use the appellation “Phillips”; when I mean Bishop, I will— for the most part — use the appellation “notional Phillips.” Only in instances where clarity demands it will I use the pseudonym Bishop.

The 38-Year-Long Wrong Date — Mid-1960 — for Phillips’ First Approach to Veciana in Cuba

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When did Phillips first approach Veciana in Cuba? Veciana’s six accounts of that event have left us — with only the slightest permutations — with three different periods of time. While the dates of those six accounts moved forward in time, the date of their first encounter in Cuba moved backward in time. The start of those three time periods are first, mid-1960; then, the end of 1959; and, finally, mid-September 1959.

In the table below, I have assembled the dates given by Veciana to congressional investigations and in his book, as well as the dates given by other American and Cuba investigators and researchers:2

DATE OF FIRST MEETING DATE OF SOURCE CLAIMS, EVENTS AND SOURCE DETAILS
Mid-1960 3/2/76 Veciana to Schweiker investigation, interview by Fonzi, p.1.
1960 6/1976 Dick Russell interview of Veciana for New Times magazine.
Mid-1960 4/26/78 Veciana HSCA deposition, pp. 5-8, 65.
8/1/1960 1993 Fonzi, The Last Investigation, p. 445
1960 1994 The Plot to Kill Kennedy and Castro, Claudia Furiati, p. 36; and 1960 again on p.145, in interview with Fabian Escalante.
1994 Appearance of large volume of CIA records on Phillips’ activities and movements due to the passage of October 1992 JFK Records Collection Act.
1959 1995 The Secret War, Fabian Escalante, p. 95, “recruited in 1959,” and trained “in the final months of 1959…”
1960 2003 The Man Who Knew Too Much (1992 Ed.), Dick Russell, p. 295, and p. 419 [Interview was in June 1976].
Late 1959 2004 The Cuba Project, Fabian Escalante, p. 93.
8/30/2012 Death of Gaeton Fonzi.
1960 2013 Fonzi, The Last Investigation (2013), pp. 128-129.
1960 2013 Summers, Not in Your Lifetime (2013), p. 302.
Late 1959 9/26/2014 AARC Symposium; links to the time of Veciana’s two interviews with Che Guevara [Problem: The two Guevara interviews did not happen until approximately February 1960: “some months after” Che was named head of the Banco Nacional in November 1959 (see Trained to Kill, p. 82).]
Mid-Sept 1959 2017 “Just a few days after Jack Ruby departed Cuba,” Trained to Kill, p. 40 [Note: Ruby departed Cuba on 9/13/59].

Fonzi’s 2013 edition of The Last Investigation (published just after his death) shows no awareness that Veciana’s identification of Bishop as Phillips destroyed — as Escalante had discovered — any possibility that Veciana’s first meeting with Phillips could have taken place in mid-1960.

Swiss Cheese

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For thirty-eight years, Veciana’s accounts to the SSCIA, HSCA, Gaeton Fonzi, Tony Summers, and Dick Russell about his recruitment by the notional Phillips had more holes than Swiss cheese. For example, Phillips was a contract “NOC” — a non-official-cover CIA asset in Havana without diplomatic protection. His duties concerned Agency propaganda activities and, if he observed anything significant in the course of that work, to report it to the Havana station. Nothing more. His work precluded recruiting anti-Castro Cubans. Phillips’ participation in recruiting Cuban dissidents would have endangered his life and the lives of his wife and children — not to mention CIA operations against Castro in Cuba.

Even if all of that was not true, Veciana’s thirty-eight-year claim of being recruited in Cuba by the notional Phillips in mid-1960 was impossible for an even more compelling reason: the real Dave Phillips was nowhere near Cuba! Even the most cursory examination of the declassified CIA records on Phillips reveals that he was not in Cuba in mid-1960. He was at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, up to his eyeballs setting up the propaganda and psychological warfare operations for Eisenhower’s covert program to overthrow Castro.

It is equally impossible that — given Phillips’ valuable work on the Eisenhower plan to overthrow Castro — that he would have been sent back into Cuba covertly on a dangerous mission to recruit and train a single anti-Castro asset. As I will demonstrate in this chapter, in mid-1960, Phillips’ work for the CIA was well-known to Cuban intelligence. If, for any reason, Phillips had made a trip to Cuba in the second half of 1960, he would have been executed.

The reason why it took researchers so long to catch up with Escalante about the chronological impossibly of Veciana’s original scenario is a problem I will leave to others to ponder. In this chapter, I am concerned with why it took Veciana so long to abandon his mid-1960 scenario. One obvious reason it took him so long is because he invented his notional Phillips story twenty years before the public release of Phillips’ CIA records. When Veciana fabricated his mid-1960 recruitment by the CIA in Cuba, he knew nothing about Phillips history during that period. But the point is that when the records were released and Veciana found himself stuck with an impossible scenario — he still waited almost twenty more years to follow Escalante’s lead and adjust the recruitment date back to mid-1959. Why?

The Death of Gaeton Fonzi, the Backward Movement in Time of the Recruitment, and Veciana’s Increasing Certainty that Bishop was Phillips

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We do not know for certain exactly when Veciana first figured out that his mid-1960 scenario was unworkable. What we do know is that he did not publicly endorse a 1959 scenario until after Gaeton Fonzi’s death in 2012. Similarly, Veciana did not give a full-throated claim that Bishop was Phillips until then. Those two existential changes in Veciana’s story happened at the same time.

Thus, the backward movement in time for the notional Phillips’ initial approach to Veciana was a fundamental structural alteration that bears crucially on the existential change of the name Veciana used for the man he now claims recruited him. Between the publication of the HSCA’s final report in early 1979 and the publication of Fonzi’s The Last Investigation in 1993, Fonzi asked Veciana — over and over again — if Bishop was David Phillips. Eventually, after more than a decade of unfaltering denials that he knew who Bishop was, Veciana began to begrudgingly concede that Bishop might have been Phillips. Two years after the death of Gaeton Fonzi, at the AARC symposium in Bethesda, Maryland, Veciana surprised the many researchers attending the conference by declaring unequivocally that Phillips had been Bishop.

David Atlee Phillips. Photo credit: Shane McBryde / YouTube

To do that, however, Veciana had to face the complicated task of recasting the entire saga of Phillips’ initial approach to, assessment of, and training for Veciana into a time period when Phillips was actually in Havana. And so, at the 2014 AARC symposium, Veciana replaced his mid-1960 start date scenario with a start date at the end of 1959. In his 2017 book, Trained to Kill, Veciana repeated his claim that Bishop was Phillips and pushed the first encounter with his notional Phillips even further back in time—to mid-September 1959. Veciana anchored his recruitment by the notional Phillips to a known firm event: “David Phillips came to meet me for the first time just a few days after Jack Ruby departed Cuba.”3 When viewed against the chronological backdrop of what was happening to Phillips at that time, Veciana’s decision to anchor his recruitment on Ruby’s departure would result in a Keystone Cops comedy. I will get to that problem shortly.  

Out of Place and Out of Context

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And so, after thirty-eight years, Veciana made the difficult choice to abandon his original chronology about his recruitment and handling by his alleged CIA case officer, the notional David Phillips. But when Veciana finally faced the music, that major chronological makeover turned out to be about as easy as placing a square peg into a round hole. Back in the summer and fall of 1959, Phillips and his family were in great danger. When Veciana superimposed his notional Phillips scenario on the situation in 1959, the result was an unmitigated mess. The activities that Veciana claimed the notional Phillips undertook were out of place and out of context.  

As Phillips situation became increasingly precarious, the CIA decided to pull Phillips out of Cuba and Phillips and his wife decided to leave the CIA for good. In his memoir, The Night Watch, Phillips recalled:

In the final days of 1959, I realized how precarious my situation had become, and how I would surely be jailed should Castro’s new intelligence service discover I was an intelligence officer working for the CIA. I had spotted another American, also a businessman in Havana, whom I suspected was cooperating with CIA. I wasn’t certain at the time, and there was obviously no need for me to know. I was shocked when he was arrested by Cuban authorities and, without ceremony or trial, executed.4 [Emphasis added]

Phillips and his family left Cuba sometime in February 1960, narrowly escaping Castro’s clutches. Phillips would never set foot on the island again.

In the sections below, I will undertake an examination of Veciana’s story about the birth of his work for the notional Phillips in Cuba during the last half of 1959. To do that, I will juxtapose that story on the extensive CIA documentary record about Phillips’ activities in Cuba during the same period. I will set the established record beside each episode of Veciana’s narrative — from the moment of the notional Phillips’ alleged recruitment in mid-September 1959 to the end of his alleged training program on or about 21 November 1959. I will use Veciana’s description of events in Trained to Kill to assist measuring the approximate time benchmarks in this nine-and-a-half-week story about the notional Phillips. I will use those benchmarks to compare Veciana’s scenario of the notional Phillips to the known events in the CIA documentary record about the true Phillips.

The documentary record of Phillips’ work for the CIA in Cuba during the last half of 1959 is robust. That record does not reflect any of the episodes of Veciana’s notional Phillips narrative for that period. At the same time, Veciana’s first appearance in the CIA’s records from Havana did not occur until 9 December 1960 — ten months after Phillips’ departure from Cuba. On that occasion, Veciana approached the Havana Chief of Station, James Noel, and asked him for CIA assistance in a plot to kill Castro and his top associates. Noel refused.5 I will examine that event in Chapter Eleven. The point is that not a single CIA record exists for either Veciana or his account of Phillips’ activities in Cuba during 1959.

Below, I will proceed to a detailed comparison of the CIA record with Veciana’s notional narrative about Phillips in the second half of 1959. Veciana’s final (2017) sequence of events covers slightly more than nine and a half weeks of activity in Cuba during 1959. As I mentioned above, Veciana anchors his notional narrative about Phillips in Cuba “a few days after” Jack Ruby left the island in 1959.6 Cuban immigration records show that Ruby’s departure occurred on 11 September 1959, and that he arrived in Miami the next day. Therefore, the sections below on Veciana’s notional Phillips’ cover a period that lasted from approximately 15 September until 21 November 1959.7  

In Volumes I and II of my current multi-volume series, I described how CIA operations at headquarters and the Havana station were jeopardized by security threats resulting from the real Phillips’ dire situation in Cuba during the final six months of 1959. Phillips’ nightmares began when, on orders from headquarters, he became entangled in the Cuban cattlemen’s conspiracy to kill Castro. That bad dream was further compounded by another major breach of security. Phillips’ hazardous situation in Havana was so bad that it not only undermines the plausibility of Veciana’s original accounts but also leaves one wondering by what logic any of Veciana’s claims can be trusted.

I return once again to Phillips’ involvement in the 1959 Cuban cattlemen’s conspiracy to kill Castro.

The Cattleman’s Conspiracy and the Implausibility of Veciana’s 1959 Scenario

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Toward the end of July 1959, the CIA Station in Havana instructed Dave Phillips to contact Michael P. (“Jack”) Malone, vice president of the Czarnikow Rionda firm, which controlled four of the major sugar companies in Cuba. He was also the manager of Robert Kleberg’s (King Ranch) $5.7 million 40,000-acre cattle ranch in Camaguey Province, Cuba. In a 6 August 1959 memo, Phillips wrote down what happened as a result of that instruction.8

On 29 July, Phillips met Malone in his room at the Hotel Nacional in Havana. Malone said he had talked with several people at CIA HQS about his association with a group of Cuban cattlemen anxious to do something about Castro’s Agrarian Reform Program. CIA HQS had told Malone that Phillips would be able to act as an advisor in a public relations program. The cattlemen had approached Malone in the hope that he and the interests he represented would contribute to a fund being generated to prepare “a plan of action.”

Malone told Phillips that Caines Milanes was the president of the National Association of Cattlemen of Cuba (NACC). Phillips was driven to meet Caines at a large home in Miramar that belonged to a prominent Cuban rancher, Gustavo de Los Reyes. Phillips had been assured that he and Malone would only be meeting with Caines and one other associate. However, an attorney for the Cuban Cattleman’s Association and others also joined the meeting. In his detailed account about the meeting afterward, Phillips said that in view of being in this “sudden crowd” he was inclined to be “as discreet as possible.”

(……)

The danger of meeting with Caines’ group was much greater than Phillips had imagined. July 1959 was the moment, as Castro told Herb Matthews in 1963, that the Cuban communists “had men who were truly revolutionary, loyal, honest and trained. I needed them.”9 July 1959 was also the moment that Castro decided to lower the boom on the Cuban cattlemen.

After Phillips extricated himself from that scary 31 July meeting, he spent the next several days composing a very disturbing 4-page, 15-paragraph memorandum for the record about his frightening experience with the Cuban cattlemen. Dated 6 August 1959, that memo was just five weeks before Antonio Veciana’s book Trained to Kill claims that he was first approached by the notional Phillips in Havana.”10 As that moment neared, there was a great deal of angst at the Havana station and at CIA HQS over the potential danger facing Phillips, his family, and CIA operations in Cuba.

In his autobiography, Phillips recalled that he was sorry for accepting such a “downright dangerous” mission. As a result, he and his wife decided to leave Cuba and the CIA behind and to investigate a long-standing job offer in New York.11 On 11 August, the CIA summoned Phillips to HQS to analyze the security implications arising from his involvement with the cattleman’s conspiracy.12  Phillips left on 13 August, en route through New York, to discuss a CIA propaganda film deal. He arrived in Washington on 17 August.13

Fidel Castro

Cuba’s President Osvaldo Dorticós (left) and head of government Fidel Castro, July 1962. Photo credit: © Peter Heinz Junge/DPA via ZUMA Press

The next day, 18 August 1959, the Havana station sent a priority cable to HQS with the alarming news that the conversation with Caines’ group had been taped by a government tape recorder. The station warned HQS that a “distinct possibility [exists] that government may have some knowledge of Choaden [Phillips] through direct recording or by later mention of his name by others.” The cable added that Cuba’s counterespionage capabilities had been upgraded and that the Cuban police had rounded up the cattlemen along with 3,000 other people.14 Caines Milanes and his group were in prison.15 They would be interrogated, charged with crimes, and tried.

On 19 August, the chief of the CIA’s Office of Security, Robert Bannerman, immediately became actively involved in Phillips’ case.16 On 21 August, Phillips attended an urgent meeting at HQS headed by Henry Hecksher (using file pseudo Lawrence R. Charron) to discuss this security compromise and what to do about it.17 That same day (21 August), the Havana station sent word to HQS saying that they had not obtained information about whether or not Cuban intelligence had Phillips in their crosshairs. The station added that they needed Phillips’ services and asked HQS for his views about returning to Cuba.18

On 22 August, Phillips and senior officers from the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division (WHD), the Cuban desk, WH/3/Caribbean, were joined by officers from the Agency’s Psychological and Paramilitary (PP) Staff for a meeting to decide on a final plan.19 After careful consideration and further phone calls at HQS, the decision was made to send Phillips back to Havana with the story that had been worked out the previous day. Further contact with any cattlemen by Phillips was ruled out, and he was told to begin planning for his permanent departure from Cuba.20  

On 25 August, Phillips arrived safely back in Havana.21 Within a week, however, more disturbing news caused CIA HQS to launch a second security investigation regarding Phillips’ situation in Havana. Phillips’ work for the CIA had been discovered by Malone’s lawyer and by Carlos Todd of the Havana Times. On 31 August, HQS ordered the station to conduct an immediate investigation of the risks this posed to CIA personnel and operations in Cuba.22

That second dire security situation in Havana was the context during which Veciana’s final version of events claims that the notional Phillips decided to recruit and train Antonio Veciana for use in CIA operations in Cuba. Back in Havana, on 15 September 1959 Henry Hecksher completed the station investigation of the threat posed to CIA operations by Phillips’ presence in Havana. The lengthy report was dispatched to HQS on 18 September. Hecksher concluded that Phillips’ security situation was the “major concern at the present time.”23  

Now, here we have come to the cornerstone event of this examination of Veciana’s notional narrative about the date Phillips recruited him in Havana against the backdrop of Phillips’ true situation there. That situation was a security nightmare. The day that the Havana security review of the real Phillips’ was written — 15 September 1959 — was an exact match for the day that Veciana’s notional Phillips first approached him in Havana!

As I discussed above, Veciana’s notional Phillips recruited him at the time of an easily verifiable date: the departure from Cuba of Jack Ruby, Oswald’s killer. Veciana says he now views this timing as curious but probably only coincidental. To repeat, Veciana alleges that the notional Phillips “came to meet me for the first time just a few days after Jack Ruby departed Cuba.” For the time being, I will use 15 September as the date for the alleged recruitment. But I cannot help but wonder why it took Veciana more than forty years to remember Ruby’s departure as the trigger event. Nowhere in any of his previous accounts did Veciana mention Ruby’s departure from Cuba.

Oswald and the CIA, Where Angels Tread Lightly, Countdown to Darkness, JFK and Vietnam, John M. Newman

Other books by John M. Newman, PhD. Photo credit: John M. Newman

On that day, according to Trained to Kill, Veciana’s notional Phillips walked into the reception area of Julio Lobo’s Banco Financiero in Havana. Such a dramatic scene for the notional Phillips involved a role that the real Phillips — who was himself an actor — could not, in his wildest dreams, have ever imagined playing. To be seen merely walking into the lobby of Lobo’s bank would have been a huge risk for the real Phillips in September 1959. The entrances to Lobo’s bank would almost certainly have been under surveillance by Cuban intelligence.

Lobo was the wealthiest sugar magnate in Cuba and a source of information for the CIA — known to Cuban intelligence — on anti-Castro Cuban organizations. By the fall of 1959, Cuban intelligence understood not only that Lobo was close to the CIA but also that the sugar king was bankrolling several anti-Castro counter revolutionary groups in Cuba and Miami.

In a futile attempt to mask the CIA’s relationship with Lobo, the station had arranged for an embassy cut-out for Lobo to use for communications. But the station had also made it clear that if at any time Lobo should have something of particular interest to the CIA, he could contact CIA Station Chief James Noel directly. According to CIA documents, Julio Lobo was one of the best known and most closely surveilled figures in all of Cuba. In June 1959, Lobo went to the U.S. to contact officials to secure American approval for his plans to help counter revolutionary Cuban groups overthrow Castro. Much, later, in the immediate aftermath of Veciana’s December 1960 appeal to the station in Havana for visas (discussed in Chapter Eleven), Lobo would vouch for Veciana’s bona fides.24

The visit by Veciana’s notional Phillips to Lobo’s bank in mid-September 1959 would have taken place at the very moment the Havana station and CIA HQS were struggling to ensure that the work of the real Phillips for the CIA would not come to the attention of Cuban intelligence. Lobo’s bank and counterrevolutionary associates — including Veciana — had been under tight surveillance for quite some time. Only a few months later, Che Guevara summoned Veciana to two meetings in which he attempted — unsuccessfully — to recruit Veciana to penetrate and report on Lobo’s anti-Castro activities.25

According to Trained to Kill, Veciana’s notional Phillips told the receptionist his name was Maurice Bishop and asked to speak with him. Veciana, who was working as an assistant manager at the bank, told the receptionist to send him right up.26 The reception room of Lobo’s Banco Financiero was the last place the real Phillips would want to have been seen on 15 September 1959. And if being seen in that place appears to be exceedingly poor tradecraft, what Veciana claims happened next, was even worse.

The Notional Phillips Recruits Veciana over Lunch and Drinks at the Famous La Floridita Restaurant

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Veciana’s notional Phillips invited him to lunch to listen to a proposition. Veciana said he couldn’t oblige just then, but the two agreed to meet for lunch the next day at 1 p.m. at the famous La Floridita restaurant. The iconic bar and restaurant were just a few blocks from the bank, a short walk along old Havana’s busy main thoroughfare, Obispo Street.

According to Trained to Kill, the notional Phillips was already there when Veciana arrived and spotted him at the bar, nursing a martini. The notional Phillips asked the bartender to get Veciana a drink. Veciana ordered a daiquiri and the two men took their drinks to a table. During the lunch the notional Phillips asked Veciana if he was willing to cooperate with “us” to organize a resistance against Castro’s government. Veciana said he replied, “Yes, I’ll do it.”27

La Floridita Restaurant

Sign for La Floridita Restaurant in Havana, Cuba. Photo credit: Teri Vesku / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

There is clearly something out of place in this scene. The real Dave Phillips was in the middle of not one but two unnerving investigations about his precarious security situation in Cuba. I find implausible the spectacle of the true David Phillips, entering from one of Havana’s busiest streets, the capitol’s most famous restaurant-bar — frequented by Ernest Hemingway and American diplomats — to meet for lunch and drinks with the bank manager of a known CIA asset like Julio Lobo.

The real Phillips — who did not have the protection afforded by State Department cover — had been dismayed to find out that there were more than two anti-Castro Cubans in his secret meeting with the Cuban cattlemen. They had all been rounded up and were in prison at the very moment that Veciana claims Phillips casually recruited him over drinks at the La Floridita. At the cattleman’s secret meeting, the participants had been compromised by a hidden government tape recorder. But here, in the La Floridita restaurant, watchful eyes of Cuban intelligence agents would have been on the lookout for indiscretions by the Americans. Had Phillips and Veciana really been there, their every move would have been noted and reported to the authorities. It is not out of the question that a hidden microphone would have been under their table recording their conversation.28

Like the scene in the bank, this public meeting in the bar-restaurant smacked of trade craft as careless and risky as what we expect to see in a James Bond movie. I am confident that there was no way in hell that the real Phillips — especially during the security investigations he found himself the subject of — would have allowed himself to be seen in a prominent public place with anyone connected to the resistance against Castro — period.

Phillips Arranges Certain Tests for Veciana

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At the end of lunch at the La Floridita, the notional Phillips in Trained to Kill said that there were certain tests Veciana would need to undergo before continuing with the plan to organize resistance against Castro. One week later (that would have been approximately 22 September), Veciana’s notional Phillips telephoned Veciana at Lobo’s bank and arranged to drive him to an apartment building close to the U.S. Embassy. Here, I would hasten to point out that the phones to Lobo’s bank would certainly have been monitored by Cuban intelligence.

A man using the name Joe Melton was waiting for them in an apartment on the sixth floor. Veciana’s notional Phillips read the newspaper while Melton administered a polygraph to Veciana. The meeting ended uneventfully.29 Here, I should point out that Joe Melton was not a notional character. That name was a pseudonym for James Joseph O’Mailia, a paid CIA contract agent working for the CIA Station in Havana.

Another week passed before Veciana’s notional Phillips phoned Veciana at the bank again — around 29 September. Phillips drove Veciana to a ranch-style home in Miramar where a Spanish speaking American man using the name John Smith administered a truth drug to Veciana and interrogated him about lifestyle habits and activities and his views on other topics. Again, according to Veciana, this meeting ended uneventfully, and the notional Phillips drove him back to the bank and, again, said he’d be in touch. Seeing the real Phillips nonchalantly driving Veciana all over Havana is about as likely as a germ at a Lysol convention. It’s a wonder Veciana didn’t describe Phillips’ car as an Aston Martin with automatically revolving license plates.  

(……)

The gears were grinding in the Agency’s security and counterintelligence components over the multiple threats to Phillips, his family, and CIA operations in Cuba. Not surprisingly the activities of the notional Phillips with Veciana in Havana continued as carefree as the recruitment lunch at the La Floridita. According to Veciana’s notional 1959 narrative, the next day, on 13 October 1959, the notional Phillips picked him up and casually drove him to the Hotel Riviera for a meeting. It was supposed to be a two-hour discussion of the results of the tests administered by Melton and Smith, but it lasted more than six hours.

Aston Martin DB5

David Atlee Phillips was not driving Antonio Veciana around Havana in James Bond’s 1964 Aston Martin DB5 like this one photographed at the Louwman museum. Photo credit: Alf van Beem / Wikimedia

The two men went over Veciana’s test questions in minute detail. The notional Phillips had concerns about Veciana: He was too compassionate; religion and family could blind him; and nationalism was a dangerous devotion. Veciana claims that the notional Phillips cautioned him that he would need to learn how to lie, steal, and, if it came down to it, to kill.30

(……)

Joe Melton’s Training Program for Veciana

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While the CIA was laying the groundwork for Emilio Rodriguez to take over Dave Phillips’ propaganda operations in Cuba, the final chapter in Veciana’s 1959 notional Phillips scenario was unfolding. According to Trained to Kill, on approximately 30 October, the notional Phillips directed Veciana to return to the building where he had been polygraphed by Joe Melton and to come up to an office in a suite occupied by the “Cuban Mining Company.” Veciana got the name wrong but it was a mining company — the Moa Bay Mining Company.31 Veciana also noticed that a Berlitz Language School was on the first floor. The Berlitz school was run by Drexel Gibson. Veciana went up to the sixth floor and rang the bell. The notional Phillips and Melton ushered him into a small vestibule inside and closed the door.32

During his 26 April 1978 HSCA deposition, Veciana was asked if he recalled “Mr. Melton’s” first name. Veciana replied, “I don’t know if this is correct, but I think it was Joe.”33 In his 2017 book, Trained to Kill, Veciana said the name was “Dick Melton.”34 As I will show below [in a section not included in this extract], Melton’s true name was James Joseph O’Mailia.

(……)

Drexel Gibson was among the hundreds of thousands of Cubans and Americans arrested on 19 April 1961 as Castro’s forces were finishing off the exile invasion force at the Bay of Pigs. Also arrested that day was James Joseph O’Mailia, an American professor teaching English at the University of Villanueva. O’Mailia was released three months later and, along with 87 other Americans, was flown to the U.S. on a U.S. State Department plane. Upon disembarking, the reporters waiting for the plane honed in on O’Mailia for an interview. His comments about the arrests and releases in Cuba appeared in newspapers across America. The UPI story included this statement: “The professor said that at least two other Americans were still in Cubana prison when he was freed. He identified them as Charles McAvoy and Drexel Gibson, former director of the Berlitz School in Havana.”35

It is not out of the question that James Joseph O’Mailia might have sometimes been addressed by a version of his middle name — Joe. O’Mailia also told UPI that he had been arrested “on suspicion” by the Cuban secret police, and that he was “glad to be back in the good old USA.” And well he should have been. He had been a paid CIA agent in Havana since 1959. His cryptonym was AMCRACKLE-1, and his CIA pseudonyms were Gordon M. Biniaris and Joe Melton.

(……)

Veciana’s Account of When the Notional Phillips Left Cuba for Good

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In his 2017 book, Trained to Kill, Veciana describes a six-month period for his relationship with the notional Phillips in Cuba. It began in mid-September 1959 and ended in mid-March 1960: “In March 1960, he left Cuba for good.”36

That date is more or less consistent with the accounts in The Night Watch and CIA documents. However, Veciana appeared to be oblivious to that information when — many years earlier — he served up this whopper to Gaeton Fonzi:

Bishop left Cuba before the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, and Veciana says they had not met for some months prior to it. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Bishop returned to Cuba (probably with a Belgian passport) and Veciana recalls that he and Bishop had long discussions about what had happened. He says Bishop told him that Kennedy’s refusal to provide air support was the crucial factor in the failure of the operation. Bishop obviously felt a terrible frustration about that because, according to Veciana, it was then that “Bishop decided that the only thing left to be done was to have an attempt on Castro’s life.”37 [Emphasis added]

In Trained to Kill, Veciana says nothing about JFK’s role in the Bay of Pigs fiasco and, of course, nothing at all about the notional Phillips being in Cuba up to that event and returning to Cuba afterward. Obviously, Phillips did not return to Cuba after the Bay of Pigs. Phillips left Cuba for good around February 1960 (see above).

Nikita Khrushchev, John F. Kennedy

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev meeting with US President John F. Kennedy in Vienna, Austria on June 4. 1961. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion ended April 20, 1961. The Cuban Missile Crisis would begin about a year later on October 16, 1962. Photo credit: JFK Library / Wikimedia

And so, Veciana’s original Cuban chronology of his time with the notional Phillips — mid-1960 to October 1961 — is mere fantasy. But jettisoning Veciana’s unworkable mid-1959 chronology is only the first — relatively easy — task at hand. However, we should not be too quick to throw out all of the events that Veciana has placed into that implausible time period. Many of them may fit perfectly into the time period Veciana originally used for his recruitment in Cuba.   

Returning to Veciana’s Original Cuban Chronology: Mid-1960 to October 1961

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In 2017, Veciana moved his notional Phillips Cuban chronology back to mid-September 1959. That alteration allowed Veciana to adjust his Phillips myth to a period when Phillips really had been in Cuba. A recruitment by Phillips in Cuba was necessary to substantiate Veciana’s claim that he met Phillips with Oswald in Dallas in 1963. As we will see in Chapter Eleven, Veciana arranged a stunt to begin laying the groundwork for establishing his bona fides as a “CIA agent” just six months Gaeton Fonzi first interviewed him for the Church Committee in March 1976.  

However, the genesis of Veciana’s work for the American government began in Cuba during the middle of 1960 — not the middle of 1959. The Cuban episode of that secret work ended with the failure of Operation Liborio in October 1961. I will address Veciana’s role in that operation in Chapter Eleven. The distraction caused by the backward movement in time of Veciana’s 1959 engrossing notional Phillips’ spy saga has left us looking in the wrong place for the hidden episodes in Veciana’s long campaign to bring down Castro. We should be looking in the very span of time in which Veciana originally placed his work for Phillips! For example, the training by “Joe Melton” (true name James O’Mailia) did take place when Veciana originally said it did — in the fall of 1960! The fact that the real Phillips had nothing to do with those training sessions helps us pry open the lid of the crypt in which the secret years of Veciana’s life have long been buried.

None of Veciana’s ensepulchred service for the U.S. government during the period mid-1960 to October 1961 was associated with the real Dave Phillips. Some of Veciana’s activities in 1961 may have been connected to the CIA, and some of them might have been linked to the U.S. military. Bill Simpich has extensively investigated Operation Patty, a plot that took place in the summer of 1961. Veciana was associated with some of the participants in this operation. Simpich argues that Patty looks more like a plan orchestrated by the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI).38 A prime mover in this scheme was Spanish-speaking ONI Navy Lieutenant Commander Harold “Hal” Feeney (AKA Finney), the Base Intelligence Officer at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Facility.39 I will deal with those activities in Chapter eleven.  

Once we focus our search for Veciana’s secret activities in the right place, we encounter a history far more dramatic than his 1959 tale of secret writing and intrigue, driving all over Havana with Phillips, meeting with him in Julio Lobo’s bank, and drinking daiquiris with him in the La Floridita on Obispo Street. In the fall of 1960, while O’Mailia was training Veciana in the Edificio La Rampa in Havana, great pains were being taken by the CIA at HQS and in Havana to prepare for the impending break in relations between Havana and Washington.

The brave CIA officers selected to remain in Havana without diplomatic protection to manage the stay-behind nets — Emilio Rodriguez, Tony Sforza, and James O’Mailia — would all be gone within ninety days after the Bay of Pigs disaster. Only Veciana’s cover would hold up after that, but it only lasted until his Operation Liborio failed in October 1961. October 1961 was the moment that the White House finally returned to the problem of disposing of Castro with the implementation of Operation Mongoose. That was also the point at which Harvey took over the CIA-Mafia plot to kill Castro.

Against the backdrop of all that, Veciana, having narrowly escaped arrest in Cuba, stepped off a small boat in Miami. Soon, he launched Alpha-66 and laid the groundwork to go to work for the U.S. Army instead of the CIA.

References

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1. In December 2004, I met with Cuban intelligence chief Fabian Escalante for an extended private discussion during a joint conference of 25 select Cubans and Americans in Nassau, the Bahamas. It was clear to me that Fabian was fully up to speed on the documents released in the U.S. as a result of the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act.

2. Besides Veciana’s versions given to the SSCIA and HSCA, his 2014 version to the AARC conference, and his 2017 autobiography, this table addresses only those authors who personally spoke with Veciana. For obvious reasons, the one exception is Cuban intelligence chief, Fabian Escalante.

3. Veciana, Trained to Kill, p. 40.

4. Phillips, The Night Watch: Twenty Five Years of Peculiar Service (New York: Atheneum, 1977), p. 79.

5. 12/9/60, HAVA 7133 to DIR; RIF 104-10181-10434.

6. Veciana, Trained to Kill, p. 39.

7. Thomas Hunt, “Jack Ruby’s 1959 Visit to Havana,” Informer: The Journal of American Mafia History, October 2009; see also, http://mafiahistory.us/a001/f_ruby.html.

8. 8/6/59, CIA memorandum by Michael H. Choaden, Subject: Meeting with Cuban Group RE Public Relations Campaign. RIF 104-10267-10168.

9. Herb Matthews Return to Cuba (pamphlet) as cited in Hugh Thomas, Cuba—The Pursuit of Freedom (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 1233.

10. Veciana, Trained to Kill, p. 40.

11. David Phillips, The Night Watch, p. 82.

12. Ibid., p. 82.

13. 8/13/59, HAVA 2545 to DIR; 104-10267-10167.

14. 8/18/59, HAVA 2573 to DIR; RIF 104-10267-10166.

15. Hugh Thomas, Cuba—The Pursuit of Freedom (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 1238.

16. 9/30/59 Fred Hall memo to Deputy Director of Security (Investigations and Support) re C-11937, #40696 (David Phillips): refs cables including 8/22/59 info copy to Chief, CI Staff (Angleton): “It is understood by this office that consideration has been given to the possibility of information having been secured by the Cuban authorities which might impair subject’s (Phillips’) future usefulness.” Marginalia: “Mr. Bannerman had an interest in this case as of 19 August 1959.”

17. 8/21/59, Charron MFR, “Conversation with Choaden” (Phillips), 21 August 1959.

18. 8/22/59, HAVA 2588 to DIR; 104-10128-10335.

19. 8/22/59, DIR 41198 to HAVA. 104-10177-10088.

20. David Phillips, The Night Watch, p. 82.

21. 8/27/59, HAVA 2603 to DIR; RIF 104-10267-10161.

22. 8/31/59, DIR 42454 to HAVA; RIF 104-10178-10281; see also 104-10128-10330.

23. 9/18/59, HAVA Dispatch to DIR; 104-1026710158.

24. 12/13/60, DIR 16224 to HAVA; RIF 104-10181-10207.

25. In his work The Sugar King of Havana, John Rathbone reported that Lobo had been a personal source for the Director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles for a number of years before 1960. Julio Lobo was eventually assigned the CIA cryptonym AMEMBER-1. While we are not certain when that crypt was assigned, the information Lobo was passing to Dulles would continue for many years as a CIA Foreign Intelligence operation centered around Lobo to collect economic information on the Cuban sugar industry. Among the remaining large companies with sugar holdings in Cuba during the period 1957-1959 was the United Fruit Company. That particular company and the information provided by Lobo on the Cuban sugar business were acutely important to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen Dulles. The Dulles brothers had been on the United Fruit payroll for nearly four decades. During 1958-1959, in a blatant conflict of interest, the Dulles brothers and their Wall Street law firm, Cromwell and Sullivan, occupied several seats on the board of directors of United Fruit.

26. Veciana, Trained to Kill, p. 40.

27. Ibid, pp. 44-45.

28. The La Floridita had not always been a spot crawling with Cuban intelligence agents. In his previous assignment in 1955-1956 during Batista’s reign, the La Floridita was Phillips’ favorite restaurant for lunch in Havana. 

29. Veciana, Trained to Kill, pp. 47-52.

30. Veciana, Trained to Kill, pp. 56-59.

31. The HSCA learned that the name of the company on the door was the “Moa Bay Mining Company.” See 8/25/78, HSCA request to the CIA for information on Joe Melton, RIF 104-10406-10260.

32. Veciana, Trained to Kill, pp. 60-61.

33. 4/26/78, HSCA deposition of Antonio Veciana; RIF 180-10118-10145.

34. Veciana, Trained to Kill, p. 61.

35. 7/00/61, Statement of James Joseph O’Mailia to UPI and other reporters after landing at Miami Airport.

36. Veciana, Trained to Kill, p. 70.

37. Fonzi, The Last Investigation, p. 130.

38. September-November 2018, personal communication with Bill Simpich.

39. 2/10/62, Passavoy (Colonel Wendell G. Johnson) MFR No. 200, U.S. Navy Officer Harold Finney (or Feeney) Visits Dr. Miro 7 February; RIF 104-10233-10432. See also 4/2/62, JMWAVE dispatch UFGA-3694, Possible Use of FPO Shipment of Weapons to Guantanamo Bay Naval Facility; RIF 104-10163-10235.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Antonio Veciana (Alchetron) and Havana (Baron Reznik / Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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