- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
There is absolutely zero evidence to suggest the United States had a hand in the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, but that hasn’t put a stop to a cascade of conspiracy theories about U.S. agents somehow infecting the charismatic leader with cancer.
The best evidence the CIA wasn’t involved? Logic. "It’s just not effective," Kel McClanahan, a D.C.-based national security lawyer who has studied CIA habits for years, told Foreign Policy. "While some cancers can be intentionally induced, they take years to kill you. If an intelligence agency wants you dead, it wants you dead now so that you’ll stop doing whatever it is that you’re doing that makes them need to kill you." Still, keeping all that in mind, it’s fair to say one thing about these CIA conspiracy theories: Crazier assassination attempts have been plotted. Over the years, the CIA has hatched some pretty creative ways of killing off foreign leaders. Below is a brief list:
The ridiculous attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro In 2007, the CIA released hundreds of documents detailing a range of Cold War-era intelligence abuses. Particularly revealing were the various methods drummed up to take out Cuban leader Fidel Castro, including a poisonous wetsuit, a ballpoint hypodermic syringe, an exploding cigar, and a handkerchief loaded with lethal bacteria. Here’s one operation highlighted by Greg Miller, then of the Los Angeles Times.
[It] was a plot to enlist known organized-crime figures to assassinate Castro in the early 1960s. According to a five-page memo, a private investigator contracted by the CIA worked directly with Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana to come up with the assassination plan. In an almost comical aside, the CIA realized it was dealing with Giancana after seeing his photo in a most-wanted listing in Parade magazine.
The plot to poison Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba A few years ago, the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus uncovered a particularly interesting CIA memo:
A one-paragraph memo recounts planning for a "project involving the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, then premier of the Republic of Congo. According to [name deleted], poison was to have been the vehicle . . ." A Belgian commission later attributed Lumumba’s 1961 death to local rivals who had imprisoned him.
For more on the CIA’s involvement with Lumumba, read the Guardian’s unpacking of the incident from 2011.
The death of Dominican Republic strongman Rafael Trujillo
Minutes obtained by the National Security Archive, an organization within George Washington University, reveal some rather morbid remarks made during a meeting with former CIA chief William Colby and pertaining to the death of Trujillo in 1961.
The minutes state that the CIA "plotted the assassination of some foreign leaders including … [Rafael] Trujillo [Dominican Republic]." They go on: "With respect to Trujillo’s assassination on May 30 1961, the CIA had ‘no active part’ but had a ‘faint connection’ with the groups that in fact did it."
Elsewhere in the world of CIA assassination plots, some have alleged the agency had a role in the death of Chilean Gen. René Schneider in 1970, but there has yet to be conclusive proof. It’s worth noting that most of these allegations surfaced as a result of the 1975 Church Committee investigation into intelligence abuses. That investigation precipated a ban on CIA assassinations of foreign leaders, which means targeting Chavez would be a major no-no. Still, even if the assassination ban didn’t exist today, cancer really isn’t the CIA’s style.