Plausible Deniability

by Joseph G. Lariosa

“The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that because they were  military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.

–President John F. Kennedy, Embarrassed at the failure of Bay of Pigs Invasion


CHICAGO (JGL) – Plausible deniability or cover-up is a legal doctrine used by some political leaders to buy time to escape responsibility if some illegal mission takes a tragic  turn.

It shields the leader from some responsibility if he is made unaware of the knowledge of such mission or activity.

Some lawyers may also employ this tactic by deciding not to investigate an issue if they may suspect that facts exist, which would hurt their case. If the attorney had actual knowledge, the rules of ethics might require him to reveal those facts to the opposing side to avoid running into some kind of the Brady Rule, when the prosecution is required to disclose evidence or information favorable to the defendant in a criminal case.

When information of the invasion of Cuba was made public, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nation Adlai Stevenson, who was not made aware of the plan authorized by President Kennedy to topple the leadership of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, stated that US armed forces would not “under any conditions” intervene in Cuba, and that the US would do everything in its power to ensure that no US citizens would participate in actions against Cuba.

Stevenson also stated that Cuban defectors had carried out the invasion that day, and he presented a UPI wire photo of (Cuban exile Mario) Zúñiga’s B-26 with pre-installed bullet holes in the engine cowling and radioed a mayday call and requested immediate permission to land at Miami International airport. It turned out everything was staged and caused him embarrassment. Stevenson realized the Central Intelligence Agency lied to him and to U.S. State Department Secretary Dean Rusk.


If Generals Alan Purisima and Getulio Napenas tried to delay in relaying the information of the heavy casualties to President Aquino, they could have tried to shield Aquino from being aware of the situation so the President can not be blamed for the failure to issue a rescue order of “Oplan Exodus,” which was designed to capture dead or alive Zulkifli Adbhir a.k.a. Marwan that came with a heavy prize – the massive loss of life of 44 members of PNP’s Special Action Force (SAF), 18 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and five civilians.
When President Kennedy learned of the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, he was so mad he wanted “to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” Kennedy told his journalist friend, Ben Bradlee, “The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn.”

Kennedy fired C.I.A Director Allen Dulles, CIA Deputy Director Charles Cabell, and Deputy Director for Plans Richard Bissell.

CIA laid the blame for the failure squarely on internal incompetence. Errors by the CIA and other American analysts contributed to the debacle: The administration believed that the troops could retreat to the mountains to lead a guerrilla war if they lost in open battle. The mountains were too far to reach on foot, and the troops were deployed in swamp land, where they were easily surrounded. (This conjures images of the scene of Mamasapano, Maguindanao massacre.)


Analysts also believed that the involvement of the US in the incident could be denied. That Cubans would be grateful to be liberated from Fidel Castro and would quickly join the battle. This support failed to materialize; many hundreds of thousands of others were arrested, and some executed, prior to the landings. The invasion by a foreign country appeared to have actually boosted the support of the Fidel Castro government.

In November 1961, C.I.A. inspector general Lyman B Kirkpatrick, authored a report ‘Survey of the Cuban Operation’, that remained classified until 1996. Conclusions were:

1.The C.I.A. exceeded its capabilities in developing the project from guerrilla support to overt armed action without any plausible deniability.
2.Failure to realistically assess risks and to adequately communicate information and decisions internally and with other government principals.
3.Insufficient involvement of leaders of the exiles.
4.Failure to sufficiently organize internal resistance in Cuba.
5.Failure to competently collect and analyze intelligence about Cuban forces.
6.Poor internal management of communications and staff.
7.Insufficient employment of high-quality staff.
8.Insufficient Spanish-speakers, training facilities and material resources. And
9.Lack of stable policies and/or contingency plans.

Despite the tragic invasion that resulted in the death of four Americans and 114 Cuban exiles and between 500 and 4,000 Cuban forces killed, wounded or missing, Kennedy’s successor, Richard Nixon, still employed the “plausible deniability” doctrine by repeated attempts by his aides to conceal the Watergate scandal that finally forced Nixon to resign the presidency.

But for a while, “plausible deniability” worked for President Reagan when Vice Admiral John Poindexter told the congressional committee studying the Iran–Contra affair: “I made a deliberate decision not to ask the President, so that I could insulate him from the decision and provide some future deniability for the President if it ever leaked out.”

But in the case of “Operation Just Cause,” the invasion of Panama launched by the first President George Bush in 1989 to “protect the 35,000 U.S. Citizens, defend democracy and human rights, protect the integrity of Panama-US treaty, control the American-owned Panama Canal and combat drug trafficking and money laundering  by Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega” resulted in the death of from 516 up to 1,000 Panamanians, 23 U.S. servicemen and 325 wounded.

While the invasion was popular in the U.S., the United Nations censured President Bush for launching the Panama invasion.


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