Obituary: Richard Bissell
Thursday 03 March 1994
RICHARD BISSELL was the central covert operations man in the Central Intelligence Agency for the central period of the cold war. Not the most well-known nor the highest-ranking official, Bissell was the man who planned and gave the orders for such low points in American cold-war dirty tricks as the overthrow of Patrice Lumumba, the disastrous invasion of Cuba and the numerous (failed) attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Bissell could be called, based on this track record, the head honcho of the 'cowboys' - the CIA agents who believed in firepower over diplomacy, and who never let the US Constitution get in the way of their plans. Yet Bissell was, at the same time, a pillar of the establishment. He was born in 1909, to a New England family of wealth and influence and he attended the upper-class Groton School, Yale University and the London School of Economics.
The contradiction between his class background and his chosen line of work is not, of course, anomalous. The American establishment that ran the cold war certainly employed an army of tough customers to do the dirty work - pay-offs, murders, gun-running and the like - but the elite corps made the choices and issued the orders.
When Lumumba, a postal clerk in the Congo up till 1956, became that newly independent country's leader, the US responded as though the Red Army had marched into the heart of Africa.
Lumumba was, above all, a fighter for his own people. His attraction to the idea of getting Soviet help to oust the Belgian soldiers from his land was probably based on the sensible notion that his best option for defeating the well-armed white men was to fight them with other well-armed white men. Having made no attempt to understand Lumumba or his political dilemma, the US decided he had to go. The decision was made by President Eisenhower and transmitted by Richard Bissell, then deputy director of the CIA, to his station chief in Kinshasa (then Leopoldsville).
Like many of his generation Bissell was drawn into government by the Second World War. Then an economics teacher at Yale, Bissell was tapped to manage the maritime operations supplying American and allied forces around the world. After the war he returned to teaching (at Massachusetts Institute of Technology) until 1948, when he returned to Washington to work on the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe.
In 1954, Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, appointed Bissell, who was known as a brilliant innovator, as his special assistant for planning and co-ordination. Bissell's job was to commission an aeroplane that could fly over hostile countries with impunity: Lockheed built him the U-2 spy plane. The dream of 'impunity' was, of course, shattered some years later when the Russians shot down a U-2 and captured its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, in one of the cold war's critical turns of fortune. But Bissell went on to higher things. He launched the American spy satellite programme which, according to the former CIA director Richard Helms, 'did much to improve intelligence during the cold war'.
In 1960, as head of clandestine operations, Bissell embarked on the one dirty trick that will forever bear his name: the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Conceived by the CIA command under President Eisenhower, the plan was to train a small army of exiles from Cuba and then land them on the Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) in Cuba. The theory was that the Cuban people, oppressed by Fidel Castro's Communist government, would rise up with the invaders and re-take their country. But midway through the planning John F. Kennedy won the presidential election over the CIA's friend Richard Nixon. Incredibly, the agency continued planning for the invasion to take place on 17 April 1961 - without telling the President.
As the day drew near, Bissell, Dulles and other holdovers from the previous Republican administration found their support eroding. Even though Kennedy, we now know, felt totally isolated from and intimidated by his military-
intelligence directors, Dulles and Bissell had to tell him their plans. The new President refused to provide them with US Air Force and Navy support. Then the invasion was compromised by a report in the New York Times about the training of the refugee army in Guatemala. Still the CIA went ahead, and, preceded by bombing raids on Cuban airfields by unmarked American planes flown out of Florida, 2,000 men landed at the Bay of Pigs.
It took Castro's forces less than 72 hours to capture or kill every invader, and Kennedy was thereafter reviled by Cuban exiles and CIA hard-liners as the man who sabotaged their invasion. Many of the conspiracy theories on the Kennedy assassination cite these two groups as likely co-conspirators.
Bissell was not done yet. Allegedly at Kennedy's behest, he ordered a series of bizarre schemes designed to assassinate Fidel Castro. These included hiring known Mafia leaders to send in hitmen, providing a fake television reporter with a camera fitted with a through- the-lens rifle, and shipping drugs to Havana that were supposed to make the maximum leader's beard fall out. Some believe that these schemes inspired Castro to retaliate and kill Kennedy, but the evidence for this is thinner than for most other conspiracy theories.
The Bay of Pigs invasion, in which the US government absurdly denied official involvement, was seen world-wide as a blow to American honour, so Bissell and Dulles had to go. On 28 February 1962, Bissell resigned his post as chief of covert operations and was given a National Security Medal by Kennedy, who called Bissell's intelligence work 'unique'.
While Kennedy's administration unfairly piled the blame for the Bay of Pigs on Bissell, Bissell remained unrepentant. Far from reflecting on the constitutional and political implications of allowing career spies to plan the overthrow of foreign governments, Bissell complained that the Kennedy administration had 'chipped away' at the invasion plans. He regretted that he hadn't demanded all, or nothing. 'Because we were so involved in seeing it go ahead,' Bissell told the Evening Star in 1965, 'we did not insist on as great freedom of action as we needed.'
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