by Jane Franklin
Before the opening credits, “The Good Shepherd” shows us glimpses of a murky and mysterious audiovisual tape. As the movie unreels, layers keep unfolding, like a brilliant combination of Antonioni’s fictional photographs in “Blow-Up” and Zapruder’s real-life tape of the Kennedy assassination. But embedded in the audiotape is an historical fiction about the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos) that the filmmakers themselves fail to comprehend. Yet the audiotape of lovers whispering secrets about “Bahía de Cochinos” is a fascinating invitation to penetrate the core of the Central Intelligence Agency, and “The Good Shepherd” delivers.
Viewers at 2,250 screens all over the United States get to see the CIA as a toxic swamp of moral corruption and psychological depravity. After it leaves the multiplex nearest you, the film will be seen again or for the first time by more people on DVD. It will travel abroad to foreign audiences, many of them in countries victimized by the CIA.
To portray the cult of secrecy of our secret government, “The Good Shepherd” makes the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion the fulcrum for its revelations. In the first scene we find a man meticulously placing a model of a ship into a jug while listening to a radio broadcast of President John F. Kennedy at a press conference before the invasion.
The man is CIA official Edward Wilson, based loosely on James Jesus Angleton, CIA director of counterintelligence at the time of the invasion, and on Richard Bissell, Jr., the CIA head of the Bay of Pigs operation. He hears Kennedy promise what both he and the president know is a lie: no Americans will be involved in any action against Cuba. Already the supposed super secret invasion had become an open secret. The whole world was waking up to the reality that the CIA had planned an invasion of Cuba and trained the Cuban expatriates as their proxy army.
With their invasion imminent, Wilson and other CIA agents head from Washington to a beachfront location closer to Cuba to be ready for rapid, victorious transit to Havana. From their headquarters, we experience the invasion and the quick defeat.
Instead of having a celebratory lunch on the turf of “El Comandante” as they had anticipated, the agents are faced with the reality of Cuba’s defenses. On the morning of the invasion, April 17, U.S. B-26 planes (painted to look like Cuba’s B-26s) are shot down in a “surprise attack” by real Cuban planes. We see documentary footage of a ship burning, Prime Minister Fidel Castro arriving at the invasion site, invaders surrendering, and Castro announcing victory. It’s over, less than 72 hours after it began. The huge audience for this movie has just watched actual scenes of what is arguably the first great defeat of U.S. imperialism.
Wilson stands on the beach staring across the water toward Cuba in stunned disbelief. We hear, “They knew where to find us.” This becomes the central mystery of the movie: Who told the Cubans that the invasion would take place at the Bahía de Cochinos? These intelligence agents, arrogant even in defeat, believe that a leak about the landing site led to Cuba’s victory.
On cue, a package containing the audiotape arrives from an unknown source (later we learn it came from Soviet intelligence). The CIA Technical Service begins deciphering. Their expertise is standard espionage-movie fare–007 territory.
But the filmmakers’ expertise in the use of this fictional leak as the nexus of intrigue is impressive. The movie revolves around the Bay of Pigs invasion, diving into the past, surfacing, diving again, demonstrating over and over why the CIA must be secretive. Transparency would reveal its delusions, duplicity, arrogance, cruelty, murderousness, corruption, incompetence, and just plain stupidity, all of which are on exhibit in “The Good Shepherd.”
Back in 1925 when Wilson was six as his father committed suicide and next in 1939 as a student at Yale, Wilson is somebody who could have taken a different path. But he falls in with the wrong crowd. In woman-deprived Yale, we find Wilson in drag singing “I’m Called Little Buttercup” in a performance of H.M.S. Pinafore. Backstage as he’s taking off his makeup, a recruiter for Skull & Bones whispers over his shoulder (seductively, like the whispers in the audiotape), “Skull & Bones: Accept or Reject?” “Accept.”
Wilson almost backs out of the Bonesmen when one casually urinates on him from a balcony while he’s mud-wrestling naked during an initiation rite, but these are his friends now, his “brothers for life,” one says to him. So he’s in, a member of an elite secret society of fraternity boys who go on to become an ever-growing network of influential men, including presidents like William Howard Taft, George H. W. Bush who was director of the CIA before he was president, and his son George W. Bush as well as would-be presidents like Senator John Kerry and CIA officials like Richard Bissell.
We watch how Skull & Bones incubates a ruling-class brotherhood of secrecy and how powerful this cult becomes in post-World War II America. From the network of the Bonesmen, Wilson is recruited into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), another elite secret society but fighting The Good War against fascism. In London Wilson learns from British Intelligence the art of “black propaganda.” He smiles as he signs off on spreading a rumor that Hitler has syphilis. How easily lies about a Hitler can become a life of lies.
“The Good Shepherd” is not an action movie. We experience the CIA from inside. How secrecy breeds more secrecy, lies more lies, betrayals more betrayals. How being determines consciousness. Told repeatedly that in his work he can never trust anyone, Wilson is unable to bond securely with any other human being-his wife, his son, the deaf woman with whom he could have had a different life. In post-war Berlin, he trusts someone once–the secretary whom he takes to bed only to figure out the next morning before breakfast that her hearing aid is a microphone. Wilson is free to bond only with his clandestine deceptions. Consequently, he is more than ready to join the Central Intelligence Agency when Bill Sullivan (based on William “Wild Bill” Donovan, chosen by President Roosevelt to found the OSS) comes to his home and tells him the Soviets will be in our backyard–unless we have a new intelligence agency. Wilson will be head of counterintelligence for the CIA in a war against communism.
The CIA easily overthrows a Latin American government too friendly with the Soviet Union and perceived as a threat to U.S. coffee interests (read United Fruit in Guatemala). At a Christmas party afterward, Sullivan tells Wilson and the other assembled agents that they “can all be proud” of what they’ve done. Although not precisely based on the 1954 CIA overthrow of Guatemala’s elected government, this victory, like the actual one in Guatemala, contributes to the CIA’s illusion that an overthrow of the Cuban government will be easy, too.
“The Good Shepherd” is uncompromising in depicting this constant ignorance and arrogance. Wilson sits behind his desk, seemingly in charge. But the two people in the office with him are both Soviet double agents who exchange pleasantries and secrets without Wilson’s having a clue. Wilson smiles amiably as the British double agent (modeled loosely on Kim Philby) presents the recent Soviet “defector” with a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which contains in its binding secret papers for the “defector,” who is an impostor.
It’s one of the many scenes in this movie which, in retrospect, becomes brilliant. Wilson is so duped that when the real Valentin Mironov turns up, Wilson watches alongside the fake Mironov while the real Mironov is tortured in the same way we’ve now seen prisoners tortured at Abu Ghraib. He is beaten bloody and stripped naked while his covered head is doused with water–waterboarding. But he continues to insist that he is Valentin Mironov. Wilson is asked for approval of using a new drug, LSD. A man of few words, Wilson nods his assent. Tripping on LSD, the defector leaps out a window to his death.
This is reminiscent of U.S. Army scientist Frank Olson, who was dosed with LSD without his knowledge in one of the CIA’s MKULTRA experiments in mind control in 1953. A few days later Olson either fell, leaped, or was thrown from a window to his death. In addition, it echoes the notorious misidentification of KGB defector Yuri Nosenko, who was imprisoned and interrogated by the CIA for more than three years.
“The Good Shepherd” keeps exposing its huge audience to the CIA’s depths, always returning to that April 1961 audiotape and the search for the leak. Ultimately Wilson figures out, without telling anyone else, the identity of the Caucasian man whispering “Bahía de Cochinos” to his African lover, who it turns out was working for the KGB. Because he believes that the leak enabled the Soviet Union to stop the CIA “from taking back Cuba” and perhaps partly because of his racism, Wilson kills his son’s bride and his own unborn grandchild.
The leak by Edward Wilson, Jr., is a fiction. But what if there had been such a real-life leak? If a source, even a trusted source, had reported that the invaders would land at the Bay of Pigs, Cubans would not have based the defense of their island on something that could so easily be a trick. Students of World War II know how Hitler was fooled into believing that the Allied D-Day landing would be at Pas de Calais rather than at Normandy. In fact, as would be assumed, the CIA had a plan for a diversionary attack in Oriente province to the east and a fake attack in Pinar del Río to the west.
Fidel Castro was not relying on intelligence reports from Soviet agents or anybody else in preparing for the invasion that, by the time it happened, was expected not only by Cuba but by the whole thinking world. No sooner had President Dwight Eisenhower in March 1960 secretly ordered CIA Director Allen Dulles to organize and train Cuban expatriates for an invasion than Cuba learned about the plan and knew that Guatemala would be used for a training camp. Cuba had a whole year to mobilize and organize to repel the invasion and defend the independence they had finally achieved.
Before, during and after that year, sabotage, infiltration, assassination and disinformation were constantly employed against the island. In May 1960, the CIA’s Radio Swan began broadcasting to Cuba. Skull & Bonesman Richard Bissell, Yale professor turned CIA chief of covert operations, asked for help to assassinate Prime Minister Castro, leading in September to the recruitment of organized crime bosses John Roselli, Momo Salvatore (Sam) Giancana, and Santo Trafficante Jr.
The crime bosses enlisted the aid of “very active” Cuban expatriates in Miami. But Cuba has always had excellent sources inside the right-wing circles of Cuban expatriates and excellent security on the island itself; so the assassination attempts (like hundreds of attempts since the invasion) failed. On September 28 when four bombs exploded as Castro was speaking to a mass rally in Revolution Plaza, he proposed creating the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), which quickly became a mainstay of defense.
On October 7, Foreign Minister Raúl Roa García stated that the CIA was training expatriates and mercenaries in Guatemala for aggression against Cuba. On October 18, Cuba filed a formal complaint with the United Nations accusing the U.S. government of aerial aggression. On October 20, The New York Times reported that weapons had been dropped from a U.S. plane on September 29 by an aircraft of U.S. registration coming from the United States and piloted by U.S. “airmen.” On October 8-10, those weapons were seized in the Escambray and over a hundred counterrevolutionaries were arrested.
On November 1, the UN General Assembly rejected 45 to 29 with 18 abstentions Cuban and Soviet bloc demands for a debate of Cuba’s charge that the United States was planning to invade. Washington’s UN Ambassador James Wadsworth called Cuba’s charges “monstrous distortions and downright falsehoods.” A representative from Guatemala said Cuba was the one guilty of aggression, citing as an example of “aggression” Cuba’s grant of asylum in 1960 to former Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, who had been overthrown by the CIA. This lopsided vote took place at a time when Washington had virtual control of the General Assembly, prior to the various anticolonial victories that changed the nature of the General Assembly and led to U.S. efforts to downgrade the Assembly’s importance and upgrade the Security Council where Washington has a veto.
Since it was clear that Washington planned to invade, Cuba began receiving arms, including antiaircraft weapons, from the Soviet Union. In a sign of what Washington might expect, especially in Latin America, if its role in the invasion became common knowledge, about half of the Guatemalan Army, led by some 120 officers, rebelled against the regime of Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes. One of their motives was opposition to the use of their country as a base for invasion of Cuba. To put down that rebellion, the CIA used its B-26 bombers piloted by Cuban expatriates whom the CIA was training to attack Cuba.
In the midst of preparing the island for defense, Cubans on January 1, 1961, the second anniversary of the victory of the Revolution, launched a National Literacy Campaign which in one year reduced illiteracy from 25 percent to 3.9 percent, becoming a model for other countries. Evidently CIA analysts were unable to figure out that this kind of improvement in the lives of the Cuban population would obviously be leading to support for the government rather than to the uprising of support for the invaders that the CIA tried to organize and counted on.
On January 2 at the UN Security Council, Foreign Minister García formally charged that the U.S. government was preparing an invasion and denounced the U.S. Embassy in Havana for espionage. The next day Washington broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. Two days later the Security Council rejected without a vote Cuba’s charge that an invasion was being planned. On January 7-9 more weapons dropped from U.S. planes were seized in Pinar del Río and the Escambray. On January 19 seven U.S. mercenaries were captured while trying to land in Pinar del Río.
When Kennedy was inaugurated on January 20, he urged U.S. adversaries to “begin anew the quest for peace.” Castro responded that Cuba is ready to “begin anew” in relations with Washington and would await the next move by the Kennedy Administration. Cuba began demobilization of the militia who had been put on 24-hour alert 18 days earlier. But Kennedy knew about invasion plans even before he won the presidential election in November. He was briefed about the invasion as soon as he defeated Nixon and received intensive briefings once in office. On January 25 at his first news conference, Kennedy said there were no plans to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba. In his State of the Union address on January 30, Kennedy declared that “communist agents” have “established a base in Cuba.” Cuba reactivated the militia.
In February the CIA introduced into Cuba major infiltrators like Félix Rodríguez, who later had to hide in the Venezuelan Embassy for five months until he could get out of Cuba. He went on to be the CIA agent on the scene in Bolivia when Che Guevara was executed in October 1967. Later, he was a CIA agent in Vietnam and in El Salvador where he provided support to the “contras” fighting against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. He brags about showing a photo of himself with Guevara to Vice-President George Bush and remains “very active” in Miami.
On February 28 Cuban media warned that invasion plans were continuing. The CIA reportedly interfered with publication of articles in U.S. media about those plans, including a major article by David Kraslow of The Miami Herald that was not printed.
In March the Kennedy Administration rejected an offer by Brazil to mediate between Havana and Washington. On March 20, two organizations of Cuban expatriates formed a Revolutionary Council with the aim of establishing a Cuban provisional government on Cuban territory to be recognized by foreign nations. On March 22 The New York Times reported that those organizations had been carrying out sabotage inside Cuba.
At a mobilization of the Cuban people for imminent invasion, Che Guevara called the recent assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of the Congo “an example of what the empire is capable of doing when the struggle against it is carried on in a firm and sustained way.” Cubans prepared for invasion. Prime Minister Castro ordered platoon-sized militia posts set up at every conceivable invasion point. The Isle of Pines (later the Isle of Youth) had been made impregnable. Knowing that the CIA would plan to destroy the Cuban Air Force, Cuba placed planes that were not useable in plain sight. Active planes were based in scattered locations, camouflaged, and protected by antiaircraft weapons.
On April 7, The New York Times ran an article about the invasion plan. Cut from four columns to one column after pressure from the White House, it omitted the original’s mention of the role of the CIA. But it did say that “experts” are training “anti-Castro forces” in Guatemala, Florida, and Louisiana. It reported that the training is “an open secret” in Miami and that couriers’ boats “run a virtual shuttle between the Florida coast and Cuba carrying instructions, weapons, and explosives.” On April 11, the Times reported the Kennedy Administration is divided over “how far to go in helping” Cubans overthrow the Cuban government, pointing out that U.S. military aid would violate both the UN Charter and the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS).
On April 13, an explosion destroyed a Havana department store, El Encanto, killing Fe del Valle, one of many people killed in acts of sabotage. Seventeen years later at a tribunal held in Havana, Philip Agee, who by then had left the CIA, told how CIA agents put dynamite in dolls shelved in the stockroom.
On Saturday, April 15, the CIA’s B-26 bombers began “softening-up” bombing of Cuba. After the day’s attacks, the CIA believed that it had wiped out Cuba’s Air Force. Evidently none of the CIA’s supposedly clever infiltrators, like Félix Rodríguez and José Basulto, had the ability to inform the CIA that the air raids had failed. In fact, the air raids served the purpose of informing Cuba and the rest of the world that the invasion was imminent.
The CIA’s fiasco was underway. On that first day, April 15, when the CIA-paid pilots flew to Cuba from Nicaragua, one pilot, Mario Zuñiga, flew his B-26 to Miami and posed as a defector bringing his Cuban plan to Florida. At an emergency session of the UN General Assembly’s Political Committee, Foreign Minister García was charging that the air attacks were the “prologue to a large-scale invasion” while U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson denied U.S. involvement and showed a wire photo of the “defector’s” B-26 to bolster his case. Meanwhile, journalists in Florida had figured out that Zuñiga’s story was as full of holes as his B-26, which had been shot up by the CIA before it left Nicaragua. Stevenson later called that UN session the most “humiliating experience” of his public life, saying he felt “deliberately tricked” by his own government. Pro-Cuban, anti-Washington demonstrations began all over the world, especially in Latin America.
The next day, Sunday, at a massive funeral for seven Cubans killed in Saturday’s bombings, Castro for the first time defined the Cuban Revolution as socialist. He said the invasion force was on its way.
In the wee hours of Monday, April 17, Brigade 2506 managed to get some men onto the beach at Playa Girón. Supposed to be all-Cuban, the Brigade was led by CIA agent Grayston (Gray) Lynch. He was the first man on the beach and the first to fire his gun. Nothing was going according to plan. The smaller invasion that was supposed to provide a distraction in Oriente was aborted when the leaders of that expedition sighted Cuban defenders.
In the early dawn, the Cuban Air Force went into action-the “surprise attack” we see in the documentary footage shown in “The Good Shepherd.” Cuban planes shot down two of the CIA’s B-26s. The Cuban Air Force was ordered to attack the ships facing Playa Larga and Playa Girón, two beaches on the Bay of Pigs. In the movie we see one ship burning. Actually that morning of April 17 two ships, the Houston and the Río Escondido, bearing invaders with their supplies, were put out of action.
At first, Fidel Castro could not be sure that the main invasion was at the Bay of Pigs. But once he knew that the landing there was no distraction, he committed his main forces, including himself, to that battle. Later, there was a false report that the invasion at the Bay of Pigs was only a feint and that the main landing was taking place in Pinar del Río, but the distraction was temporary.
By Wednesday, April 18, the invasion was going so badly that Richard Bissell authorized six U.S. pilots to attack with three bombers armed with napalm and high explosives. Four of the pilots were killed. Cubans recovered one body and used it on the following day as proof of the U.S. role.
As in the documentary footage shown in “The Good Shepherd,” Prime Minister Castro on Thursday, April 19, announced victory. Among more than 1,000 prisoners were men who had previously owned in Cuba 914,859 acres of land, 9,666 houses, 70 factories, 5 mines, 2 banks and 10 sugar mills. On April 20, President Kennedy said Washington would not allow communists to take over Cuba.
On April 21, Cuban expatriates criticized the CIA for inadequate consultation with their groups and for proceeding with an invasion even though the Agency had been warned in recent weeks that the time was not ripe. Despite many consultations and constant attempts since April 1961, the time for “taking back Cuba” has never been ripe. Too bad “The Good Shepherd” could not show this history. But of course if it did, it would never play at the multiplexes. And its huge audience would never get to see its marvelous dramatization of the inner sanctums of the empire.
This is a ZNet Commentary. Commentaries are a premium sent to Sustainer Donors of Z/ZNet. To learn more consult ZNet at http://www.zmag.org