Operation Northwoods, the 1960s government plan to fake terrorist attacks on the U.S.

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At the core of the 9/11 Truther movement is the idea that the government staged the attacks to drum up support for a war. So much Truther evidence is laughable that it's easy to dismiss the idea, but there exists a chilling reminder that the U.S. military was once all-too-willing to deceive and attack its own citizens for political reasons. That was the goal of Operation Northwoods.


In the 1950s and 60s, the U.S. was in the grip of the Cold War and terrified by the threat of Communism. Cuba, a Communist nation right on the doorstep, was deemed such a threat that a huge amount of intelligence and military activity was devoted to finding ways to depose or assassinate Fidel Castro. After the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, these activities were collected under a CIA program known as Operation Mongoose, also called the Cuban Project. It was lead by General Edward Lansdale of the U.S. Air Force.

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In 1997, the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board released a pile of records from the Kennedy era. Among them was a 1962 document titled "Justification for US Military Intervention in Cuba." The memorandum concerned something called Operation Northwoods, a plan to create fake attacks on "friendly" defected Cubans, U.S. military bases, and U.S. citizens — all designed to appear conducted by Cuba. This action, known as a "false flag" operation, would be used to garner the public and political support necessary for direct military intervention against Cuba. And the plan wasn't some crackpot scheme devised by a minor official – it was sent from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara.

At times, the document reads like a how-to manual for 9/11 conspiracies:

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 selected passengers, all boarded under carefully prepared aliases. The actual registered aircraft would be converted to a drone.

From the rendezvous point [with the drone] 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 will meanwhile continue to fly the filed flight plan. When over Cuba the drone will being [sic] transmitting…a "MAY DAY" message stating he in under attack by Cuban MIG aircraft. The transmission will be interrupted by destruction of the aircraft which will be triggered by radio signal.

The document also outlines an elaborate plan for a fake attack on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, including suggestion number 10, "Sink ship near harbor entrance. Conduct funerals for mock victims." The author goes on to suggest a "Remember the Maine" incident, referring to the explosion and sinking of the USS Maine that lead to the Spanish-American War. "Casualty lists in US newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation."

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Other measures include refitting an American jet to resemble a Cuban MIG, then using it for, "harassment of civil air, attacks on surface shipping and destruction of US military drone aircraft." A fake attack on U.S. military jets involved cloak and dagger moves like quickly repainting tail numbers in a hangar while a submarine jettisoned burned jet parts and a parachute, all using a pilot flying under an alias who would subsequently, "resume his proper identity and return to his normal place of business."


Operation Northwoods was not limited to chicanery in which no one was really harmed. In part four of the plan, a fake Communist Cuban terror campaign included suggestions to, "sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated). We could foster attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the Unites States even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicized." Perhaps the "plastic bombs in carefully chosen spots" would not have injured or killed anyone. But perhaps they would have.

Ultimately, Operation Northwoods never went beyond this stage ("suitable only for planning"). No evidence suggests that any part of the plan was put into action by the Department of Defense. Nevertheless, it's impossible to escape the feeling of creeping horror when you realize that such a plan was even considered at such high levels of the U.S. government.


Photos from: CIA, NYS Archives, National Archives.



Conspiracy theorist logic often works along the lines of, "Here's evidence that conspiracies have existed in the past, which gives credence to my conspiracy theory." It's pretty much like saying,"I have pictures proving that the house across the street used to be blue, which is evidence that supports my contention that my house used to be blue."

The truth of the matter is that there have been and there likely are now various groups within and without the government, corporations, media, what have you that may very well be creating and even executing clandestine plans to attempt to achieve what goals that particular group wants. Some of those goals may be perfectly reasonable, some may be criminal and some may make perfect sense to some people and be the epitome of evil to others.

Cast in the proper light, any plan, no matter how benign its intent, can be made to appear sinister. Conspiracy theorists as a whole tend to be pretty fast and loose with concepts like "facts" and "context."