At the time of the proposal, Cuba had recently become communist under Fidel Castro. The operation proposed creating public support for a war against Cuba by blaming it for terrorist acts. To this end, Operation Northwoods proposals recommended hijackings and bombings followed by the introduction of phony evidence that would implicate the Cuban government. It stated:
The desired resultant from the execution of this plan would be to place the United States in the apparent position of suffering defensible grievances from a rash and irresponsible government of Cuba and to develop an international image of a Cuban threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere.
Several other proposals were included within Operation Northwoods, including real or simulated actions against various U.S. military and civilian targets. The operation recommended developing a "Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington".
The plan was drafted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed by Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer and sent to the Secretary of Defense. Although part of the U.S. government's Cuban Projectanti-communist initiative, Operation Northwoods was never officially accepted; it was authorized by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but then rejected by President John F. Kennedy. According to currently released documentation, none of the operations became active under the auspices of the Operation Northwoods proposals.
The main proposal was presented in a document entitled "Justification for U.S. Military Intervention in Cuba (TS)," a top secret collection of draft memoranda written by the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). The document was presented by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on 13 March 1962 as a preliminary submission for planning purposes. The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended that both the covert and overt aspects of any such operation be assigned to them.
"Appendix to Enclosure A" and "Annex to Appendix to Enclosure A" of the Northwoods document were first published online by the National Security Archive on 6 November 1998 in a joint venture with CNN as part of its 1998 Cold War television documentary series—specifically, as a documentation supplement to "Episode 10: Cuba," which aired on 29 November 1998. "Annex to Appendix to Enclosure A" is the section of the document which contains the proposals to stage terrorist attacks.
The Northwoods document was published online in a more complete form, including cover memoranda, by the National Security Archive on 30 April 2001.
In response to a request for pretexts for military intervention by the Chief of Operations of the Cuba Project, Brig. Gen. Edward Lansdale, the document listed methods, and outlined plans, that the authors believed would garner public and international support for U.S. military intervention in Cuba. According to Jacob Hornberger:
The plan called for U.S. personnel to disguise themselves as agents of the Cuban government and to engage in terrorist attacks on the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay. It also called for terrorist attacks within the United States that would be conducted by pro-U.S. forces disguising themselves as Cuban agents.
According to the documents, the plan called for the following:
Since it would seem desirable to use legitimate provocation as the basis for U.S. military intervention in Cuba a cover and deception plan, to include requisite preliminary actions such as has been developed in response to Task 33 c, could be executed as an initial effort to provoke Cuban reactions. Harassment plus deceptive actions to convince the Cubans of imminent invasion would be emphasized. Our military posture throughout execution of the plan will allow a rapid change from exercise to intervention if Cuban response justifies.
A series of well coordinated incidents will be planned to take place in and around Guantanamo to give genuine appearance of being done by hostile Cuban forces.
Incidents to establish a credible attack (not in chronological order):
Start rumors (many). Use clandestine radio.
Land friendly Cubans in uniform "over-the-fence" to stage attack on base.
Capture Cuban (friendly) saboteurs inside the base.
Start riots near the base main gate (friendly Cubans).
Blow up ammunition inside the base; start fires.
Burn aircraft on air base (sabotage).
Lob mortar shells from outside of base into base. Some damage to installations.
Capture assault teams approaching from the sea or vicinity of Guantanamo City.
We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba.
We could blow up a drone (unmanned) vessel anywhere in the Cuban waters. We could arrange to cause such incident in the vicinity of Havana or Santiago as a spectacular result of Cuban attack from the air or sea, or both. The presence of Cuban planes or ships merely investigating the intent of the vessel could be fairly compelling evidence that the ship was taken under attack. The nearness to Havana or Santiago would add credibility especially to those people that might have heard the blast or have seen the fire. The United States could follow up with an air/sea rescue operation covered by U.S. fighters to "evacuate" remaining members of the non-existent crew. Casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation.
We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington. The terror campaign could be pointed at refugees seeking haven in the United States. We could sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated). We could foster attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicized. Exploding a few plastic bombs in carefully chosen spots, the arrest of Cuban agents and the release of prepared documents substantiating Cuban involvement, also would be helpful in projecting the idea of an irresponsible government.
A "Cuban-based, Castro-supported" filibuster could be simulated against a neighboring Caribbean nation (in the vein of the 14 June invasion of the Dominican Republic). We know that Castro is backing subversive efforts clandestinely against Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Nicaragua at present and possible others. These efforts can be magnified and additional ones contrived for exposure. For example, advantage can be taken of the sensitivity of the Dominican Air Force to intrusions within their national air space. "Cuban" B-26 or C-46 type aircraft could make cane-burning raids at night. Soviet Bloc incendiaries could be found. This could be coupled with "Cuban" messages to the Communist underground in the Dominican Republic and "Cuban" shipments of arm which would be found, or intercepted, on the beach.
Use of MIG type aircraft by U.S. pilots could provide additional provocation. Harassment of civil air, attacks on surface shipping and destruction of U.S. military drone aircraft by MIG type planes would be useful as complementary actions. An F-86 properly painted would convince air passengers that they saw a Cuban MIG, especially if the pilot of the transport were to announce such fact. The primary drawback to this suggestion appears to be the security risk inherent in obtaining or modifying an aircraft. However, reasonable copies of the MIG could be produced from U.S. resources in about three months.
Hijacking attempts against civil air and surface craft should appear to continue as harassing measures condoned by the government of Cuba. Concurrently, genuine defections of Cuban civil and military air and surface craft should be encouraged.
It is possible to create an incident which will demonstrate convincingly that a Cuban aircraft has attacked and shot down a chartered civil airliner en route from the United States to Jamaica, Guatemala, Panama, or Venezuela. The destination would be chosen only to cause the flight plan route to cross Cuba. The passengers could be a group of college students off on a holiday or any grouping of persons with a common interest to support chartering a non-scheduled flight.
An aircraft at Eglin AFB would be painted and numbered as an exact duplicate for a civil registered aircraft belonging to a CIA proprietary organization in the Miami area. At a designated time the duplicate would be substituted for the actual civil aircraft and would be loaded with the selected passengers, all boarded under carefully prepared aliases. The actual registered aircraft would be converted to a drone.
Take off times of the drone aircraft and the actual aircraft will be scheduled to allow a rendezvous south of Florida. From the rendezvous point the passenger-carrying aircraft will descend to minimum altitude and go directly into an auxiliary field at Eglin AFB where arrangements will have been made to evacuate the passengers and return the aircraft to its original status. The drone aircraft meanwhile will continue to fly the filed flight plan. When over Cuba the drone will begin transmitting on the international distress frequency a "MAY DAY" message stating he is under attack by Cuban MIG aircraft. The transmission will be interrupted by destruction of the aircraft which will be triggered by radio signal. This will allow ICAO radio stations in the Western Hemisphere to tell the United States what has happened to the aircraft instead of the United States trying to "sell" the incident.
It is possible to create an incident which will make it appear that Communist Cuban MIGs have destroyed a USAF aircraft over international waters in an unprovoked attack.
Approximately 4 or 5 F-101 aircraft will be dispatched in trail from Homestead AFB, Florida, to the vicinity of Cuba. Their mission will be to reverse course and simulate fakir aircraft for an air defense exercise in southern Florida. These aircraft would conduct variations of these flights at frequent Intervals. Crews would be briefed to remain at least 12 miles off the Cuban coast; however, they would be required to carry live ammunition in the event that hostile actions were taken by the Cuban MIGs.
On one such flight, a pre-briefed pilot would fly tail-end Charley at considerable interval between aircraft. While near the Cuban Island this pilot would broadcast that he had been jumped by MIGs and was going down. No other calls would be made. The pilot would then fly directly west at extremely low altitude and land at a secure base, an Eglin auxiliary. The aircraft would be met by the proper people, quickly stored and given a new tail number. The pilot who had performed the mission under an alias, would resume his proper identity and return to his normal place of business. The pilot and aircraft would then have disappeared.
At precisely the same time that the aircraft was presumably shot down, a submarine or small surface craft would disburse F-101 parts, parachute, etc., at approximately 15 to 20 miles off the Cuban coast and depart. The pilots returning to Homestead would have a true story as far as they knew. Search ships and aircraft could be dispatched and parts of aircraft found.
Operation Northwoods, which had the written approval of the Chairman and every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for a wave of violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C., Miami, and elsewhere. People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro, thus giving Lemnitzer and his cabal the excuse, as well as the public and international backing, they needed to launch their war.
In addition to Operation Northwoods, under the Operation Mongoose program the U.S. Department of Defense had a number of similar proposals to be taken against the Cuban regime of Fidel Castro.
Twelve of these proposals come from a 2 February 1962 memorandum entitled "Possible Actions to Provoke, Harass or Disrupt Cuba," written by Brig. Gen. William H. Craig and submitted to Brig. Gen. Edward Lansdale, the commander of the Operation Mongoose project.
The memorandum outlines Operation Bingo, a plan to; "create an incident which has the appearance of an attack on U.S. facilities (GMO) in Cuba, thus providing an excuse for use of U.S. military might to overthrow the current government of Cuba."
It also includes Operation Dirty Trick, a plot to blame Castro if the 1962 Mercury manned space flight carrying John Glenn crashed, saying: "The objective is to provide irrevocable proof that, should the MERCURY manned orbit flight fail, the fault lies with the Communists et al. Cuba [sic]." It continues, "This to be accomplished by manufacturing various pieces of evidence which would prove electronic interference on the part of the Cubans."
Even after General Lemnitzer lost his job as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Joint Chiefs of Staff still planned false-flag pretext operations at least into 1963. A different U.S. Department of Defense policy paper created in 1963 discussed a plan to make it appear that Cuba had attacked a member of the Organization of American States (OAS) so that the United States could retaliate. The U.S. Department of Defense document says of one of the scenarios, "A contrived 'Cuban' attack on an OAS member could be set up, and the attacked state could be urged to take measures of self-defense and request assistance from the U.S. and OAS."
The plan expressed confidence that by this action, "the U.S. could almost certainly obtain the necessary two-thirds support among OAS members for collective action against Cuba."
Included in the nations the Joint Chiefs suggested as targets for covert attacks were Jamaica and Trinidad-Tobago. Since both were members of the British Commonwealth, the Joint Chiefs hoped that by secretly attacking them and then falsely blaming Cuba, the United States could incite the people of the United Kingdom into supporting a war against Castro. As the U.S. Department of Defense report noted:
Any of the contrived situations described above are inherently, extremely risky in our democratic system in which security can be maintained, after the fact, with very great difficulty. If the decision should be made to set up a contrived situation it should be one in which participation by U.S. personnel is limited only to the most highly trusted covert personnel. This suggests the infeasibility of the use of military units for any aspect of the contrived situation."
The U.S. Department of Defense report even suggested covertly paying a person in the Castro government to attack the United States: "The only area remaining for consideration then would be to bribe one of Castro's subordinate commanders to initiate an attack on [the U.S. Navy base at] Guantanamo."
The continuing push against the Cuban government by internal elements of the U.S. military and intelligence communities (the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Project, etc.) had already prompted President John F. Kennedy to attempt to rein in burgeoning hardline anti-Communist sentiment that was intent on proactive, aggressive action against communist movements around the globe. After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy had fired CIA director Allen W. Dulles, Deputy Director Charles P. Cabell, and Deputy Director Richard Bissell, and turned his attention towards Vietnam. Kennedy had also stripped the CIA of responsibility for paramilitary operations like the Bay of Pigs and turned them over to the U.S. Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which, as Commander in Chief, Kennedy could more directly control. Personally, Kennedy's attempt to curtail the CIA's extensive Cold War and paramilitary operations was a direct expression of this concern.
Kennedy personally rejected the Northwoods proposal, and it would now be the Joint Chiefs' turn to incur his displeasure. A JCS/Pentagon document (Ed Lansdale memo) dated 16 March 1962 titled MEETING WITH THE PRESIDENT, 16 MARCH 1962 reads: "General Lemnitzer commented that the military had contingency plans for U.S. intervention. Also it had plans for creating plausible pretexts to use force, with the pretext either attacks on U.S. aircraft or a Cuban action in Latin America for which we could retaliate. The President said bluntly that we were not discussing the use of military force, that General Lemnitzer might find the U.S so engaged in Berlin or elsewhere that he couldn't use the contemplated 4 divisions in Cuba." The proposal was sent for approval to the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, but was not implemented.
(Some fifty years later when asked about the plot by journalist David Talbot, Robert McNamara drew a blank. "I have absolutely zero recollection of it. But I sure as hell would have rejected it," McNamara said, adding, "I really can't believe that anyone was proposing such provocative acts in Miami. How stupid!")
Following presentation of the Northwoods plan, Kennedy removed Lemnitzer as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, although he became Supreme Allied Commander of NATO in January 1963. American armed forces leaders began to perceive Kennedy as going soft on Cuba, and the President became increasingly unpopular with the military, a rift that came to a head during Kennedy's disagreements with the service chiefs over the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Jon Elliston, editor, Psywar on Cuba: The Declassified History of U.S. Anti-Castro Propaganda (Melbourne, Australia and New York: Ocean Press, 1999), ISBN 1-876175-09-5.
James Bamford, Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency From the Cold War Through the Dawn of a New Century (New York: Doubleday, first edition, 24 April 2001), ISBN 0-385-49907-8. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 4: "Fists" of this book.