Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Last Laugh

Antonio Veciana has the last laugh, at least for the time being. The former anti-Castro activist died last Thursday at the age of 91 and his hometown paper, the Miami Herald, provided him with exactly the sort of obituary he would have wanted.

Herald reporter Sarah Moreno wrote that Veciana was “trained by the CIA” to carry out military actions. “Veciana worked for the CIA in Bolivia” Moreno’s article continues, “until he fell out with the agent who was running him, David Atlee Phillips.” According to Moreno, at a meeting with Phillips, whose code-name was Maurice Bishop, Veciana observed his handler talking with Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President Kennedy. Fearing for his life and the safety of his family, Veciana did not mention the incident during congressional hearings on the assassination, according to Moreno who was quoting Veciana’s daughter Ana Veciana-Suarez.

It is unfortunate that a respected publication such as the Herald did not take more care in the preparation of the obituary. It is apparent that only two sources the Herald used were Veciana-Suarez and Veciana’s virtually fictionalized autobiography Trained to Kill. The claims against Phillips, a highly decorated CIA officer who rose to the number three position in the agency, are particularly regrettable and should have been presented as allegations instead of facts. The purpose of this article is to attempt to untangle the mess the Herald has created.

The myriad problems with Veciana’s changing story of his life have been discussed at this site in detail and will therefore only be summarized here. There is no evidence, save for Veciana’s word, that he was trained by the CIA to do anything or that he “worked” for the agency. He was an asset of sorts for a brief time and in December of 1961, the agency requested a Provisional Operational Approval to use him as a “sabotage man.” But shortly thereafter, Veciana began his work with Alpha 66 as an organizer and fundraiser and there is no evidence that he did any sort of sabotage work for the agency. And his case officer during this abortive sojourn was not David Phillips but Cal Hicks. The POA was canceled in October of 1962 because of a lack of “further interest” by the agency.

There is no evidence that Veciana ever received a dime from the CIA. A one-time payment of $500 often mentioned by theorists came from CIA asset Luis A. Ferre. But this was a private donation by Ferre to the Alpha 66 cause rather than any sort of payoff for Veciana’s services. In 1962, Veciana provided information to Army Intelligence that he hoped would secure money and arms for Alpha 66. This relationship lasted for four years although Veciana always attempted to minimize the association.

Despite the quote attributed by Moreno to his daughter, Veciana most certainly did mention his Maurice Bishop story during “congressional hearings.” He first told his story in a series of interviews with government investigator Gaeton Fonzi in March of 1976. Later that year, Veciana testified before both the Church Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In 1978, he testified on consecutive days before the House Select Committee on Assassinations and repeated his Bishop tale. Fonzi championed Veciana’s cause until his own death in 2012 and authored a scandalous article in 1980 that resulted in a lawsuit by Phillips, who always denied that he was Bishop. Fonzi was forced to admit in his HSCA report that “No corroboration was found for Veciana's alleged meeting with Lee Harvey Oswald.” Fonzi later wrote a book that popularized Veciana’s story in the conspiracy culture and promoted the notion of CIA complicity in the death of JFK utilizing the Bishop story.

Veciana initially never claimed that Phillips, or anyone else, was Bishop and he supposedly was looking for his former case officer so he could rejoin him in the anti-Castro effort. In various interviews with Fonzi and others, Veciana stated that Bishop was not necessarily CIA but could have been an agent for another intelligence service or acting on behalf of a powerful interest group. After a face-to-face meeting with Phillips, Veciana told Fonzi that the CIA man was not Bishop and Fonzi admitted in his book that Phillips showed no recognition of Veciana. Testifying under oath in 1978, Veciana swore that Phillips was not Bishop and repeated this claim for most of his life.

However, in 2013 at the urging of Fonzi’s widow Marie, Veciana reversed course and declared that Phillips was Bishop after all. But JFK conspiracy researcher and author John Newman discovered that both of Veciana’s stories about meeting Phillips as Bishop in Cuba were demonstrably false. In Veciana’s first version of the story, he met Bishop in mid-1960 but Phillips had left the island permanently no later than March of that year and perhaps earlier. By the time of his Assassinations Archives and Research Center conference appearance in 2014, Veciana, perhaps aware of the 1960 timing problem, was floating a new scenario that placed his meeting with Phillips in 1959. But Newman found that, during the time Veciana claims he met Phillips that year, the latter was involved in a potentially life-threatening security problem that precluded any recruitment of new agents.

Veciana’s 2017 autobiography repeated the Bishop canard and added new details that he had unaccountably neglected to mention to investigator Fonzi or anyone else. Veciana expanded his tale to include suicide pills, disappearing ink, lie detector tests, truth serum and other unverified specifics apparently designed to move books. Similarly, Veciana’s AARC appearance inexplicably added new “facts” to the Bishop lexicon. As one astonished conference attendee put it, Veciana claimed among other things that, “David Atlee Phillips imagined and organized the entire Mexico City scenario [Oswald traveled there in 1963 just before the assassination].” It should be noted that when Veciana made the new claims in his book and at the conference, he was well into his eighties.

It is likely that there was no Maurice Bishop. Veciana almost certainly made up an imaginary case officer to have someone to blame for his 1974 drug conviction. In the early interviews with Fonzi, Veciana mentioned his drug conviction repeatedly and stated that Bishop may have had something to do with it. Later, he was just as likely to say that Castro had “set him up” although a review of the trial transcripts shows that the evidence against Veciana was compelling. In the final analysis, the Miami Herald should have at least qualified the information they provided in the obituary and their failure to do so is lamentable. Veciana has the last laugh for now but increasing scrutiny of his life story by researchers may ultimately deliver him a different place in history.

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