A pulpy, precisely rendered account of the CIA’s dalliance with organized crime in pursuit of Fidel Castro.
Former Newsday investigative reporter Maier (When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys, 2014, etc.) provides fresh eyes and an urgent tone in this unsettling narrative. “Historically,” he writes, “the CIA’s murder plot against Castro marked America’s first foray into the assassination business….The tradition of gentlemen spies engaged in gathering intelligence…had now transformed into the killing games of covert operations, carried out by gangsters and other CIA surrogates.” The author makes his rendition of an oft-referenced tale compelling by focusing on statements by key figures who fought to preserve their secrecy. Maier credits “recently declassified files about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy” for this verisimilitude. The labyrinthine narrative veers from Castro’s 1959 revolution to Watergate and the 1975 Church Committee investigation of the intelligence agencies. Essentially, CIA go-between Robert Maheu approached Mafia members Sam Giancana and Johnny Roselli to pursue assassination plots against Castro. Other CIA officers helped Roselli set up a formidable network of training camps for Cuban exiles in Florida, but their plans were disrupted following the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis. Roselli and others defied Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s ban on further covert action, continuing to scheme assassination plans and commit speedboat raids. Maier focuses on the dramatic personalities of Giancana, the brutal head of Chicago’s Outfit, and Roselli, a suave Hollywood “fixer” who claimed to have taken the CIA’s assignment out of patriotic fervor. The gangsters’ friendship with the Rat Pack provided a back-channel and electoral assistance to JFK, and their disappointment with his presidency would fuel conspiracy theories after his assassination, though Roselli hinted at connections to a vengeful Castro instead. Maier’s writing is approachable (if occasionally repetitive), almost breezy, despite the dark undertones and the violence surrounding Giancana and Roselli, both of whom were murdered in the mid-1970s.
As he has done before, Maier offers another deft translation of murky American history, focused on dynamic, improbable protagonists.