WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The CIA worked with three American mobsters in a botched "gangster-type" attempt to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the early 1960s, according to documents released by the CIA on Tuesday.
The CIA hauled the skeletons out of its closet by declassifying hundreds of pages of long-secret records that detail some of the agency's worst illegal abuses during about 25 years of overseas assassination attempts, domestic spying and kidnapping.
CIA Director Michael Hayden released the documents to lift the veil of secrecy on the agency's past, even as the Bush administration faces criticism of being too secretive now.
Hayden told agency employees in a statement the trove included "reminders of some things the CIA should not have done" and a glimpse "of a very different era and a very different agency." The documents had been requested 15 years ago by a watchdog group.
Much of the information had been released in various congressional investigations in past years, but the pages provide detailed accounts of CIA activities, much of it against the backdrop of the Cold War.
Some of the CIA's "Family Jewels" describe the agency's initial efforts to get rid of Castro, whose 1959 revolution ushered in communism to the island. Despite the U.S. campaign against him, Castro remains Cuban leader at age 80, although he handed over temporary power to his brother Raul after surgery last July.
The agency's leaders determined "a sensitive mission requiring gangster-type action" was needed. "The mission target was Fidel Castro," the document said.
The CIA contacted Johnny Roselli, believed to have been a high-ranking member of the Mafia and the person who controlled all the ice-making machines on the Las Vegas strip.
The story Roselli was to be told by a go-between was that several international business firms were suffering heavy financial losses in Cuba as a result of Castro's action and they were willing to pay $150,000 for his removal.
"It was to be made clear to Roselli that the United States government was not, and should not, become aware of this operation," a document said.
In documents that often read like a cheap detective novel, the story is outlined: The pitch was made to Roselli at the Hilton Plaza Hotel in New York. Roselli was initially cool.
But the contact led the agency to two top mobsters, Momo Salvatore Giancana and Santos Trafficant, who were both on a U.S. list of most-wanted men, who seemed more interested.
Giancana, who was known as Sam Gold, suggested firearms might be a problem and said using a potent pill that could be slipped into Castro's food or drink might work.
Eventually, six pills of "high lethal content" were provided to Juan Orta, identified as a Cuban official who had been receiving kickback payments from gambling interests, who still had access to Castro and was in a financial bind.
"After several weeks of reported attempts, Orta apparently got cold feet and asked out of the assignment. He suggested another candidate who made several attempts without success," the document said.
There was also plenty in the documents on the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974, which started with a break-in at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington in June 1972.
A leader in that operation, ex-CIA operative Howard Hunt, that spring requested "a lockpicker who might be retiring or resigning from the agency." Hunt's name surfaces elsewhere in the pages.
There was an extensive effort to infiltrate the U.S. anti-war movement in the 1960s and 1970s with undercover CIA agents to find out if it was financed from abroad. The CIA also investigated student unrest in the same period.
There were concerns that foreigners might try to disrupt the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 1972, and one memo said ex-Beatle John Lennon had given money to an anti-war group.
There are also details on such Cold War matters as the three-year incarceration of KGB defector Yuriy Ivanovich Nosenko.
The agency was convinced Nosenko, who defected in 1964, was still working for the KGB but was unable to prove it "even after a long period of hostile interrogation."