JFK files: CIA spy in Cuba ‘befriended’ Castro, Che; played key role amid nuclear-war fears

The World War II veteran with the top-secret job hid a lot from his 12-year-old daughter. But on this day, he opened up about how suspicious it seemed: The accused assassin of John F. Kennedy getting shot and killed on live TV, during a transfer between jails.

Today, Lilliam remembers her dad “being sort of angry that we weren’t going to get any answers… and just really wondering about it: Was it (Lee Harvey) Oswald who shot the president like we all thought? And he conveniently gets shot himself?”

She wouldn’t know for four more years that this was not simply idle speculation about danger and deception surrounding the president’s 1963 murder. Her dad was a deep-cover CIA operative whose life had been dedicated to danger and deception.

A secret war the White House waged against Cuba provided both in abundance. And the spy was often in the thick of the adventure. Fate would sideline him at a crucial moment, when Fidel Castro took control of the island nation. But that didn’t derail his dedication to fighting communism – until a personal demon destroyed his career.

The spy was Ross Lester Crozier, who died in obscurity in 2000. Details of his role in history remained buried in 944 pages of classified Central Intelligence Agency documents until their release, bit by bit, starting two years ago.

In those files, reinforced by recollections of his daughter and of former operatives who worked under him, Crozier emerges as a real-life James Bond. He interacted with major players of tumultuous events involving Cuba and the Cold War from the mid-1950s to the early ’60s. He crossed paths with spies who would later be arrested in the 1972 burglary of Democratic offices at Washington’s Watergate complex, which took down another president.

Prior to Cuba’s revolution, he managed to develop a rapport with its two biggest icons – Castro and aide Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whose name and image today are synonymous with revolution.

Crozier also was the agency’s official liaison for a CIA-funded group of young, exiled Cubans who opposed both Castro and Guevara.

Through those students, he learned that the Soviet Union had placed missiles in Cuba capable of striking the U.S. and passed this intelligence on to Washington. But his reports went nowhere, he complained to a researcher in his later years – a lost opportunity with the potential to change the course of history by preempting the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Ross Lester Crozier hit the prime of his CIA career in the 1950s. The communist penetration expert operated under deep cover in Cold War missions, including in Cuba.

“Humanoid,” “Hydropathic,” Arthur G. Vaivada, Harold R. Noemayr, Mr. Vicks, Roger Fox, James Fedder – Crozier used all these aliases during his CIA service. The DeKalb, Illinois, native had served in WWII as an Air Force intelligence and operations specialist in the China-Burma region and in Panama.

In the Canal Zone, he met a Costa Rican native named Argentina Cordero. They married in December 1945, a few months after the war. Three years later he started working for the newly created CIA.

Crozier had a “broken to left” nose and stood 6 feet, 2 inches tall, weighing a slender 175 pounds in his prime, by his own description. He looked young for his age and spoke and read Spanish so well that were it not for his Anglo-Saxon appearance, he “could pass as a native of Latin American countries,” the chief of CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division noted in a 1958 dispatch.

A pistol expert who could send up to 16 words a minute in Morse code, he also showed “a great deal of integrity, honesty, intelligence and resourcefulness,” a CIA review of his services in Central America reported.

Crozier’s specialty in his early years was infiltrating communist groups in Central America and Cuba.

“I had no idea,” said his daughter, who today goes by her married name, Lilliam Crozier Moore. “I always thought he worked at Zenith Electronics” – the cover for the Miami station, where crucial events in Crozier’s CIA career unfolded.

A guard at a Havana shopping center was hit in a drive-by shooting and the spy’s daughter remembered him attempting to write “Viva Fidel” with his blood.

By 1954, political violence was on the rise in Cuba.

Crozier had already excelled at several assignments. In Costa Rica, he had installed a hidden dark room under the family home to capture images for the CIA. In Guatemala, he had helped spread radio propaganda to scare out the socialist president. In his cover there as a student at the University of San Carlos, he competed in track and field and even set a Guatemalan record in the discus.

That student cover took Crozier to the University of Havana, a thriving center of activism in Cuba’s capital. It was one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries at the time, fueled by U.S. investments and tourists drawn to Havana’s Spanish-colonial charm, sleek hotels and casinos. Poverty there also was crushing, especially in the rural areas.

A 1957 CIA memo details the Crozier family’s evacuation from Cuba after the shooting death of an agent handled by Ross Crozier.

Crozier cultivated students as informants and agents, even as radical student movements gathered strength in opposition to brutal dictator and U.S. ally Fulgencio Batista. Havana law school graduate Fidel Castro stirred up trouble, too, quickly becoming Batista’s biggest nemesis.

An era of extreme violence followed. Batista systematically eliminated his opponents, even claiming at one point that his troops had killed Castro in an ambush.

Outside a shopping area, a security guard was shot in a drive-by shooting. As the car sped away, a young mother and her 5½-year-old daughter came out of the shops to find the guard on the ground.

Rousted out of bed and rushed to the airport, Crozier’s 5½-year-old daughter cried when she realized her teddy bear was still in her bed back in their Havana home.

The mother was Argentina, Crozier’s wife, and the girl their daughter, Lilliam. Before the guard stopped moving, Moore said, she watched him write all but the last letter or two of “Viva Fidel” on the sidewalk, in his own blood.

Shortly afterward, Batista forces gunned down one of Crozier’s agents. At that point, the CIA feared for the safety of Crozier’s family, according to a dispatch from Havana station to headquarters and, on Feb. 15, 1957, ordered their evacuation back to Costa Rica.

“I was crying,” Moore says of being rousted out of bed that night. “I couldn’t take my Teddy bear.”

Chaos in Cuba escalated when news broke that Castro was alive. A photo and interview in The New York Times proved it. He, his brother Raúl Castro, Guevara and up to 15 others had survived the Batista ambush.

Three weeks later, armed student revolutionaries stormed the Presidential Palace. Amid a hail of bullets from Batista’s guards, their assassination attempt failed.

Crozier was back in Havana within days, the CIA having given an “all’s clear” for his return.

After returning to Cuba, Ross Crozier in 1958 infiltrated the remote hideaway of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army. Posing as a researcher and a photographer, he…
After returning to Cuba, Ross Crozier in 1958 infiltrated the remote hideaway of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army. Posing as a researcher and a photographer, he gained the confidence of Castro in a long, nighttime chat by a campfire.

Cuba was an increasingly dangerous place. For Crozier this meant risking his life as never before in a daring mission.

With the University of Havana closed down because of the country’s instability, the CIA gave Crozier a new cover as a representative for a fictional economic research firm, Public Surveys Institute.

Business cards included Crozier’s real name and a Dallas address for the firm. He had other covers as well, side gigs like freelance photographer and writer. Stories under his real name appeared in the Boy Scout magazine Boys Life and in a Cuban magazine, Bohemia.

He somehow managed to score an introduction to a provincial leader of Castro’s underground, the July 26th Movement. That, in turn, gained him access to Castro’s hideout on the far end of the island from Havana.

In March 1958, Crozier spent two weeks there, meeting with Castro and Guevara and snapping pictures. He encountered a strong anti-U.S. sentiment, according to an internal CIA history document. But that didn’t stop Castro from entertaining Crozier’s offer of a $25,000 helicopter from the U.S. to which Crozier pretended to have access.

During a four-hour campfire chat in Spanish, Crozier and Castro discussed the potential helicopter deal plus additional money for an American pilot.

Two years later, Crozier would tell a CIA officer about this in an internal memo and note with regret that the agency never followed through. A helicopter – with a spy as the pilot, of course, he said – would have offered the CIA “penetration inside the Castro inner-circle.”

Under the alias Harold R. Noemayr, Ross Crozier received an official commendation from the CIA for infiltrating then-rebel Fidel Castro’s army in Cuba.

The record shows that on Crozier’s trip back, Batista patrols eager to apprehend anyone suspected of helping Castro, stood in his way. Moore remembers her father recounting years later that he eluded capture by running at night and sleeping by day in odd spots, such as under porches.

But then she pauses. Was this story instead about his time as a soldier in Burma during World War II? The volume of newly public documents about her father have brought back a flood of memories that are at times overwhelming, especially since Moore had not seen them until contacted by USA TODAY.

“I’m tying together these CIA files that are like Swiss cheese and my memory from before I was 10 years old,” Moore said. “And it’s not very easy.”

On his return from the mountains, Crozier was promptly flown to the U.S. for a debriefing at Washington’s DuPont Plaza Hotel, according to one CIA memo. The agency’s No. 2 wrote Crozier a letter of commendation for his mission, and he was nominated for an “intelligence star” for courage. He received a $300 bonus.

The CIA authorized the sale of his photos to newspapers to reinforce his cover. Buyers included The New York Times and the now-defunct New York Daily Mirror. On April 8, 1958, The Times – unaware of Crozier’s spy work, CIA files say – ran three of his photos of the camp under his real name. One, showing a rebel examining a scoped rifle, made the front page.

Times officials said they didn’t know what the paper’s freelance policies were then. Asked about publishing photos that turned out to be from a CIA spy, both of the officials — Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Danielle Rhoades Ha, vice president of communications — offered no explanation.

“I don’t know anything about this history,” Baquet said.

At a Mexico City park, Crozier and another CIA contact kept a close eye out for each other — Crozier while circling the park in a car and the contact while walking through it. If the contact wasn’t followed by a Soviet spy, he would signal Crozier to pick him up so the two could share intel.

Crozier was at the top of his game, using circumstances to his advantage. But fast-flowing historical events were about to complicate things and frustrate his best efforts.

His next assignment, Mexico City, was a good match for his skills.

Mexico was far more stable than Cuba, but its capital had become a hub of Soviet-directed efforts to spread communism in Latin America. Again, under deep cover, Crozier penetrated organizations that the CIA labeled communists – coded-named BGGYPSIES.

Even meetings with visiting CIA spies were tricky. One arrangement called for Crozier to drive counterclockwise around Mexico City’s Parque de las Americas. His contact, associated with the Costa Rica station, would walk across the park. If not tailed he would face Crozier, signaling a rendezvous was safe. Otherwise, Crozier would drive off, return in 10 minutes, and try again.

Toward the end of 1958, Crozier was summoned from Mexico back to Cuba on a temporary assignment. The files say it was part of another infiltration. Castro’s rebels had rapidly gained territory, with Guevara’s vanguard moving toward Havana.

Decades later, an American soldier of fortune involved with the rebels gave a JFK assassination conspiracy theorist a different explanation. Crozier, he claimed, was going to assassinate Castro. Another U.S. soldier of fortune with Castro at the time – Watergate burglar-to-be Frank Sturgis – was in on the job, according to the claim.

Crozier had told bosses earlier he would “welcome … being asked to hit a well-chosen target.” But whatever his mission, it was a bust. On Jan. 1, 1959, just 36 hours after he landed in Havana, Batista fled. Castro, surrounded by well-armed guards and adoring crowds, entered the capital days later as Cuba’s new leader.

Crozier lingered for two weeks as the CIA weighed next moves, judging from the tentative tone of the Havana station’s dispatches. He wanted to stay awhile. But what he later called a “sophomoric loyalty” to the Mexico assignment won out.

Castro soon solidified his power through executions and canceled elections. As diplomacy with the Eisenhower administration soured, he dismantled U.S. corporate and Mafia interests on the island.

In March 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially approved covert action against Castro.

By then, Crozier was sidelined in Mexico, writing and translating reports. In one memo, the chief of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division noted that being out of the action made Crozier “increasingly more tense.”

On March 5, 1960, Cuban military and civilian leaders including Fidel Castro, left, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, third from left, march in solidarity after the…
On March 5, 1960, Cuban military and civilian leaders including Fidel Castro, left, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, third from left, march in solidarity after the explosion of a French ship in Havana’s harbor. The vessel named La Coubre carried Belgian arms intended for the Castro regime.

Florida, just 90 miles north of Cuba, provided a handy escape for Cubans alarmed by Castro’s regime. Thousands settled in Miami, including students who protested Castro’s overtures to the Soviet Union. They called themselves Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil – DRE for short.

The CIA took some of them on as agents, and in late August, Crozier moved to Miami to mentor and guide them. With the student group, his alias would be Roger Fox.

Eisenhower’s plan to oust Castro had morphed into primarily a seaborne invasion of the island, using exiles secretly trained by the CIA. Crozier’s bunch would go back to Cuba ahead of time to help the invasion from the inside.

Crozier later told the CIA in a self-assessment that he felt invasion planners were too confident and it was destined to fail. Still, he “pitched in to do a job that was not infrequently praised.”

He taught his DRE agents about firearms and secret writing, using lemon juice to uncover hidden messages. In an interview, one of Crozier’s agents, Jose Antonio Lanuza, remembered Crozier showing how plastic explosives work at a Miami motel on Southwest 8th Street – known as “Calle Ocho,” the heart of Little Havana.

Lanuza recalled that it took three tries to get a contingent into Cuba. Crozier wasn’t among the crew on that successful February 1961 mission, Lanuza said, but he was dockside for their midday departure.

Lanuza asked him ahead of the eight-hour boat ride when the invasion was going to happen.

“Not before September,” he remembers Crozier replying. They embraced. The crew – which Lanuza said included CIA’s Rolando Eugenio Martinez, another future Watergate burglar – shoved off from Marathon Key.

The invasion came much earlier, on April 17. Crozier’s exiles, embedded in Cuba, got no advance warning and could not spring into action. Instead, they were forced into hiding.

The 1,400 CIA-trained exile soldiers did not fare as well. Virtually all were wiped out in the invasion, at the Bay of Pigs. The CIA requested backup in the form of airstrikes but President John F. Kennedy, newly inaugurated, held back.

Lanuza said he only managed to escape by jumping the fence into the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay. A coded telegram from Lanuza’s aunt in Havana relayed word to his mom in Miami. She called a stranger who Lanuza had told her to contact in an emergency: Crozier. “My son is in Gitmo!” she told him.

The moon glowed as a 30-foot CIA cruiser took three of Ross Crozier’s agents toward their infiltration point into Castro’s Cuba. The agents, Cuban exiles…
The moon glowed as a 30-foot CIA cruiser took three of Ross Crozier’s agents toward their infiltration point into Castro’s Cuba. The agents, Cuban exiles who belonged to the CIA-funded DRE, hoped to assist in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion but never got the chance.

President Kennedy began to escalate the secret war as Cuba embraced communism and became a Soviet satellite. As part of that, Crozier worked with exiles in Miami to develop and distribute anti-Castro propaganda throughout Latin America.

But his agents itched for paramilitary action.

On their own they mounted a fundraising effort and bought and equipped a boat, Lanuza said and CIA reports indicate. The group’s small and zippy Bertram Moppie made a spectacular Cold War raid that reports say caught Crozier and the CIA by surprise.

Close to midnight on Aug. 24, 1962, the crew – led by another of Crozier’s agents, Juan Manuel Salvat – blasted a beachside Havana hotel with a 20mm cannon. Salvat told USA TODAY the contingent believed Soviet military advisers and possibly Castro were inside.

Agents under the Ross Crozier-handled Cuban exile group DRE defend their reports of Soviet missiles in Cuba at a high-level meeting at CIA headquarters.

CIA memorandum of Deputy Director of Plans Richard Helms’ conversation with DRE members Luis Fernandez-Rocha and Jose Maria Lasa

The raid led to front-page headlines and a lot of excitement, but no known fatalities.

When he saw Salvat back in Florida, Crozier pretended to scold him. Salvat recalls Crozier saying, “No estaba de guardia,” which he took to mean: Darn, wasn’t on duty, couldn’t stop you.

A report on the exile group’s activities indicates they sought to pressure President Kennedy – code name GPIDEAL – and the U.S. into becoming more aggressive.

The DRE’s leader, Luis Fernandez-Rocha, was especially impatient. He was just back from an infiltration to strengthen the Cuban underground, which now was reporting that Soviet-guided missiles had been installed on the island. The rockets could hit much of the U.S., they reportedly surmised.

Crozier in later years complained to a JFK assassination researcher that his relaying of this news to Washington “was like pouring water down a rat hole.”

Against this backdrop, Crozier’s agents griped about the CIA in a Miami Herald article headlined “Fidel-Hater ‘Rover Boys’ Want Action,” coverage that also exposed their agency ties. This might have ended CIA support of the DRE were it not for the sudden prospect of nuclear war. That nightmare scenario arose the very day the article appeared, on Oct. 22, 1962.

President Kennedy had finally gotten photographic proof of missiles. In a TV address that brought the Cuban Missile Crisis before the nation, he acknowledged the nuclear threat and said the U.S. would go to war unless the weapons were removed.

Within 48 hours, Crozier’s agents received an urgent request from the CIA: Could they infiltrate Cuba to pinpoint strike targets?

Fernandez-Rocha balked. With a U.S. blockade in effect, Cuban patrols were protecting the coast as never before, he protested. Exiles could volunteer, he said, but only if they fully understood the risk.

In October 1962, President John Kennedy saw aerial surveillance footage indicating missiles capable of striking much of the United States were being installed in Cuba. The ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis raised the specter of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Crozier’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis drew close attention from headquarters. It could have been the crowning moment of his career. Instead, it coincided with the beginning of his downfall.

CIA’s Miami station chief, to whom Crozier reported, was ticked off at the DRE. With the crisis over, he set in motion a three-step plan: Break into DRE offices, remove any “incriminating or embarrassing” files on the CIA and threaten to cut off their funding of $50,000 monthly.

Crozier’s agents kept the upper hand – and their CIA funding. Appearing on NBC’s “Today Show” one day before that possible break-in, Fernandez-Rocha claimed missiles weren’t being removed from the island but instead were being hidden in caves.

When Kennedy learned of that telecast, he directed the CIA to get the bottom of it.

Fernandez-Rocha and a colleague were summoned to CIA headquarters for an extraordinary meeting. There, the head of clandestine operations worldwide and a future CIA director, Richard Helms, outlined a new DRE arrangement that overrode the plan to dump the group.

A new case officer would replace Crozier with, unlike him, a direct link to headquarters. This officer, George Joannides, would go on to become one of the most mysterious spies of the Kennedy-assassination era.

Crozier’s career as a spy clearly was falling off track. But he faced a greater challenge. As Crozier himself later told it, stress had led to a chronic personal problem: He was an alcoholic.

A job assessment three weeks before JFK’s missile speech noted “patterns of social behavior which have presented handling problems.” In a mea culpa Crozier wrote to agency officials five months later, he would express deep regret over “this (redacted) problem.” The hidden part is whited-out and covers eight spaces, enough to fit “drinking.”

At the end of August 1963, Crozier was put on paid leave while the CIA helped him look for a job outside the agency. By then, two seemingly disparate events with connections to his past already were in motion.

Accused of President Kennedy’s assassination, the mysterious Lee Harvey Oswald was himself murdered while in police custody two days after the assassination. Only three months before — in August 1963 — Oswald attempted to join the anti-Castro Cuban exile group once handled by Ross Crozier, the DRE.

A former Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald burst onto the scene in New Orleans. He seemed to be playing both sides. First, he pitched his skills to a DRE representative there but received no answer. Then, he handed out pro-Castro flyers on a city street, was arrested, and divulged in a radio debate over U.S.-Cuban relations that he had defected to the Soviet Union for three years.

Soon after, Oswald left New Orleans, ending up in Dallas.

On Nov. 22, 1963, in Paris, a CIA spy handed a lethal gadget to a high-level Cuban contact, a meeting that would eventually be revealed in a 1975 congressional probe. It was a literal poison pen with a retractable needle, an assassination device to be used in toppling Castro.

As that secret meeting ended, news flashed from Dallas that President Kennedy had been shot while riding in a convertible limousine.

Within an hour and a half, Oswald was arrested for the murder of a police officer after the assassination, and, not long after, accused of killing the president, too. Two days later Oswald himself was shot and killed by a Dallas strip club owner during a jail transfer.

With the nation in mourning over the slain president, Thanksgiving came and went. It was Crozier’s official last day as a spy.

Lilliam Crozier Moore recalls being 16 when her father finally told her that he had been a spy, as the two fished off a pier in the Florida Keys. It was 1967, four years after both Kennedy’s murder and Crozier’s retirement from the CIA.

Provided a false resumé by the CIA that hid his actual background, Crozier eventually found a job as a postal inspector in Washington, D.C. Then, four years after Kennedy’s death, Che Guevara was killed, kindling Crozier’s memories of their time together in the jungle.

CIA advisers had helped the Bolivian army track down Guevara in South America. The official story is that the CIA wanted him alive but Bolivian authorities had him executed.

Four years out of the spy business, Ross Crozier floated the idea of mentioning his CIA connection in writing about the just-slain Che Guevara. The CIA said no.

Crozier was keen to write an article about his impressions of the man. Moore remembers him describing Guevara as highly intelligent and engaging.

A literary agent apparently aware of Crozier’s spy background told him the piece would get a lot of attention if he disclosed his CIA connection. Crozier floated the idea with his old employer. The CIA said no, noting that his job with the agency “was covert from beginning to end,” and needed to stay that way, according to a memo from the Employee Activity Branch.

A little over a year later, in early 1969, 20th Century Fox approached Crozier about a Guevara biopic. The studio wanted to know “how much and how well the Subject actually knew Guevara and what contribution the Subject could make to the film.”

Crozier later told the CIA that his meeting with a studio representative ended with an understanding of, “We’ll call you; don’t you call us.”

By then, Moore had known about her father’s spy past for a couple of years.

One day when she was 16, her father had invited her along for one of his favorite hobbies: fishing. They went out to the end of a pier. That’s where she remembers him coming out and saying it for the first time:

“I was a CIA spy.”

The National Archives have released more than 35,500 records on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The once-classified records have fascinated researchers and fueled conspiracy theorists for decades.

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