Trained to Kill by Antonio Veciana and Carlos Harrison

Review published on November 28, 2017.

With the release of the latest cache of until-now-confidential documents on the JFK assassination, I thought it time I get some reading in. Along came on NetGalley, one of the review services I use, this title. Trained to Kill is sub-headed “The Inside Story of CIA plots against Castro, Kennedy and Che” and it is the autobiography of Antonio Veciana, a Cuban exile who spent the past fifty years or so plotting the overthrow of Fidel Castro.

Veciana details how he was recruited by a CIA officer known to him as Maurice Bishop (this officer’s cover name was to prove important) to usurp Castro, the CIA having correctly identified Vecianna’s growing disillusionment with the then nascent revolutionary regime. At first Veciana was tasked with psychological warfare – the spreading of rumours to sow discord and undermine the economy – something he embraced with gusto and not a little success. But by his own description, he was keen for more and it wasn’t long before he was leading his first assassination attempt. After the Bay of Pigs debacle (something he wasn’t involved in) Veciana fled with his family to Florida. Here he met up with Bishop and he says the CIA man was incandescent with what he saw as Kennedy’s betrayal of the Cuban exile invaders.

Veciana now founded Alpha 66, a militant group. While he says that the organisation’s exploits were exaggerated – again this was psychological warfare, this time more towards the Kennedy Administration, the hope being they would be forced to act against Castro – he does not deny that the group did launch attacks and raids against Cuba and against foreign shipping supplying the island. Veciana is keen to downplay civilian casualties here and perhaps Alpha 66 did take pains to avoid innocent casualties, but it’s hard not to conclude that the organisation was engaged in terrorism.

Throughout this time, Veciana was still in contact with the CIA via Bishop and it was at one such meeting that he met Lee. A little while later, JFK was assassinated and Veciana claims he recognised the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, as the Lee his CIA contact had been meeting with. Does this mean that the CIA, via Bishop, had something to do with the assassination of JFK? Perhaps, perhaps not. Years later, Vecianna was asked about this by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (a House of Representatives Committee formed to look again at the JFK assassination due to concerns over the original Warren Commission’s findings). In particular, he was asked whether Bishop was in fact the known CIA officer (who rose to be the CIA Chief of Operations in the Western Hemisphere) David Atlee Phillips. Veciana said no and claimed not to recognise Phillips. Fast forward to 2014 and he changed his mind, claiming Philips was indeed the man he knew as Bishop, something he repeats in Trained to Kill. Does this volte-face undermine Veciana’s credibility? Certainly, there could be compelling reasons for him not to have told the truth originally, not least fear of the consequences. If he is right and Bishop was Philips, and he witnessed him meeting with Oswald just weeks before Kennedy’s assassination, he might have reasonably feared for his safety. In the end, it is for the reader to decide.

For my own part, I tend towards the view that Oswald was a lone assassin. If so, Veciana might still have witnessed his CIA contact meeting with Oswald (and consequently concluded the CIA to have been involved). One explanation for the CIA’s later behaviour, which certainly gave the impression of cover up, is that Oswald was indeed in contact with the CIA and then when he assassinated Kennedy, the agency panicked. Realising people might assume they had set the assassination up, the CIA by this theory has spent the past fifty years desperately trying to suppress the evidence of their negligence, the fact that had they been on the ball they might have spotted Oswald’s plans and put a stop to them.

Whatever the case, this book’s revelations concerning the Kennedy assassination threaten to overshadow its real explosive power. For that we need to look again at Castro. Trained to Kill demonstrates that Castro’s regime was never really given a chance. Veciana and others like him were recruited almost as soon as Castro came to power. I don’t doubt that Castro was not a particularly likeable chap, but the obsessive and pernicious attempts to overthrow him hardened the regime. Hardliners came to the fore and more moderate members of the revolutionary administration were side-lined. In the end, Castro was pushed into the welcoming arms of the Soviets. All this has long been known of course, but what was new to this reader certainly was the level of terroristic violence Alpha 66 and other like-minded groups were willing to resort to. In other circumstances, these people would have been arrested by the FBI, tried and convicted. It’s difficult to see how the tactics employed by these groups were any different to, say, those of the IRA or ETA.

Trained to Kill is one man’s honest account – sometimes shockingly so – of his work for the CIA in the attempt to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. It is a fascinating historical document and well worth a read.

James Pierson 4/4

Trained to Kill by Antonio Veciana and Carlos Harrison
Skyhorse Publishing 9781510713567 hbk May 2017

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