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10 Ways the CIA Tried to Kill Castro

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In February of 1959 Fidel Castro became the Prime Minister of Cuba. Since then, according to the man who was charged with protecting him for most of his regime, he's survived over 600 assassination attempts. Fabian Escalante, the former head of the Cuban Secret Service, claims that the assassination endeavors break down like this: the Eisenhower administration tried to kill Castro 38 times; Kennedy, 42; Johnson, 72; Nixon, 184; Carter, 64; Reagan, 197; Bush Sr., 16; Clinton, 21. (The accuracy of Escalante's statistics, especially attempts since the Nixon administration, is in dispute.) There are only so many different ways you can ambush someone with a sharpshooter, so some of the ways the CIA plotted to kill Castro were pretty wild. Here are just a few of the unorthodox methods considered to oust the Beard.

1. Femme fatale. Marita Lorenz, just one of many women Castro counted as a mistress, allegedly accepted a deal from the CIA in which she would feed him capsules filled with poison. She managed to get as far as smuggling the pills into his bedroom in her jar of cold cream, but the pills dissolved in the cream and she doubted her ability to force-feed Castro face lotion, and she also just chickened out. According to Lorenz, Castro somehow figured out her plan and offered her his gun. “I can’t do it, Fidel,” she told him.

2. Poisoned wetsuit. While there’s nothing suspicious about receiving random diving gear from your enemy right in the middle of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the CIA gave it a shot. In 1975, the Senate Intelligence Committee claimed it had "concrete evidence" of a plan to offer Castro a wetsuit lined with spores and bacteria that would give him a skin disease (and maybe worse). The plan supposedly involved American lawyer James B. Donovan, who would present Castro with the suit when he went to negotiate the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners. A 1975 AP report said the plan was abandoned "because Donovan gave Castro a different diving suit on his own initiative."

3. Ballpoint hypodermic syringe. An ordinary-looking pen would be rigged with a hypodermic needle so fine that Castro wouldn’t notice when someone bumped into him with the pen and injected him with an extremely potent poison.

4. Exploding cigar. But this was no parlor trick – this cigar would have been packed with enough real explosives to take Fidel’s head off. In 1967, the Saturday Evening Post reported that a New York City police officer had been propositioned with the idea and hoped to carry it out during Castro's United Nations visit in September 1960.

5. Contaminated cigar. They may have given up on the TNT stogie, but the idea of spiking his smokes was still being floated around. The CIA even went as far as to recruit a double agent who would slip Castro a cigar filled with botulin, a toxin that would kill the leader in short order. The double agent was allegedly given the cigars in February of 1961, but he apparently got cold feet.

6. Exploding conch shell. Knowing that Castro liked to scuba dive, the CIA made plans to plant an explosive device in a conch shell at his favorite spot. They plotted to make the shell brightly colored and unusual looking so it would be sure to attract Castro’s attention, drawing him close enough to kill him when the bomb inside went off.

7. Nair. Well, maybe not that brand specifically, but according to that 1975 Senate Intelligence Committee report, the U.S. believed that messing with Castro’s beard was messing with the man’s power. The CIA figured that the loss of the beard would show Cubans that Castro was weak and fallible. A half-baked scheme was hatched to use thallium salt, the chemical in depilatory products such as Nair, in Castro’s shoes or in his cigar. The chemical would be absorbed or inhaled and cause the famous facial hair to fall out. (Wait, wasn’t this an episode of Get Smart?)

8. LSD. In what was mostly an effort to discredit Fidel, not kill him, a radio station where Castro was giving a live broadcast would be bombarded with an aerosol spray containing a substance similar to LSD. When Fidel had the requisite freak out live on the air, Cubans would think he had lost his mind and stop trusting him.

9. Handkerchief teeming with deadly bacteria. The CIA was seemingly obsessed with covering Fidel in harmful bacteria and toxins, because they also considered giving him a germ-covered hankie that would make him very ill.

10. Poisoned milkshake. According to Escalante, the closest the CIA ever came to killing Castro was a deadly dessert drink in 1963. The attempt went awry when the pill stuck to the freezer where the waiter-assassin at the Havana Hilton was supposed to retrieve it. When he tried to unstick it, the capsule ripped open.

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Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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