Skip to main content

The Mafia. Hollywood starlets. Foreign leaders. Fake sex tapes. Illegal surveillance. Watergate. The CIA. And Howard Hughes. Robert Maheu’s life had it all. In this episode we take a look at the life and times of a CIA contract agent who touches on many important 20th century events, and provided the inspiration for one of the world’s most well known TV shows.

I have wanted to do an episode on Robert Maheu for some time, because his life hooks into several topics that we’ve examined a lot on this podcast. The CIA-Hollywood relationship, the Bay of Pigs and anti-Castro black operations, Watergate, even Howard Hughes. He worked for both the FBI and CIA and his antics even became the inspiration for the original TV series of Mission: Impossible.

Bob was born on October 30th 1917 in Maine, to parents of French Canadian descent, hence the surname Maheu. He studied at the Jesuit College of the Holy Cross before moving on to Georgetown to study law. At this point, in 1941, he was hired by the FBI to work in counter-intelligence, hunting Nazis and so on. He left the FBI in 1947 and founded a company called Dairy Dream Products, presumably selling ice cream. This resulted in bankruptcy in 1952, and so he re-entered government work with the Small Business Administration. In 1954 he was forced to resign from the SBA due to political reasons, which a CIA biography of Maheu says were ‘determined to be the result of backing the wrong political party in the election.’

He responded to this setback by setting up his own private detective firm, Robert A Maheu and Associates, in Washington DC. His first steady client was the CIA, whose documents refer to the firm by the acronym RAMA. They used Maheu and others as a cut-outs – contract agents used to make contact with people and carry out missions that the CIA proper cannot be caught talking to or doing. They were stupid enough to write a lot of this down, but many of those documents only became available in recent years via CREST and the JFK disclosures.

In 1955 he was hired by Howard Hughes, and worked for him until 1970, but apparently never met him face to face. They communicated via memo and telephone calls, but Maheu rose to become a close confidante and head of Hughes’ Nevada operations. This covers the period when Hughes was hiding out in a hotel in Vegas, calling up the local TV station he owned and telling them to replay his favourite bits of Ice Station Zebra, as we covered in a previous episode. It was also while Hughes was financing CIA operations such as the Glomar Expedition.

In 1970, Hughes fired Maheu, apparently due to the power struggle within the Hughes empire involving the Mormon Mafia. This resulted in a legal battle and, according to Hughes, a campaign of harassment and intimidation run by Maheu against possibly the world’s richest man. This eventually drove Hughes to leave Las Vegas, though the fake autobiography that came out that year probably also had something to do with it. The defamation lawsuit Bob brought against Howard was also the reason for the CIA removing Maheu’s security clearances and ending their relationship with him.

In the summer of 1975 Maheu testified before the Church Committee that he was involved in a CIA plot using Las Vegas and Florida mobsters to try to assassinate Fidel Castro. This led to a lot of internal discussion within the CIA, who were concerned that the Committee’s report on assassinations named many people who were still alive, including Maheu, Santo Trafficante and Johnny Roselli.

One CIA document says that, while some of Maheu’s testimony had leaked to the press, he was still entitled to protection from official confirmation of these stories – i.e. from being named in the report. It goes on, ‘The Syndicate members through whom Maheu worked pose a somewhat different problem, but the same central issue remains. We cannot divine how publicity would impact on their future. Giancana is dead, presumably as a result of unrelated events, but how publicity would affect Trafficante is debatable.’

This document was attached to a memo sent to President Ford in October 1975, which was shared around with the likes of Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney for their input. They unanimously approved trying to block publication of the Committee’s report, especially the section on plots aimed at assassinating foreign leaders. There were several efforts to block the report but it did come out, and it did name Maheu and some of the mobsters he had conspired with on behalf of the Agency.

The report explains, ‘Maheu was an ex-FBI agent who had entered into a career as a private investigator in 1954. A former FBI associate of Maheu’s was employed in the CIA’s Office of Security and had arranged for the CIA to use Maheu in several sensitive covert operations in which “he didn’t want to have an Agency person or a government person get caught”.’

A footnote details, ‘During 1954-1955 Maheu cooperated with the CIA in attempting to undermine a contract with the Saudi Arabian government that would have given one person virtually complete control over shipping of oil from Saudi Arabia. Although he was employed by a competitor of the person who held the contract Maheu worked closely with the CIA. Maheu testified that after consulting with the Agency he arranged for a listening device to be placed in the room of the contract holder and that he provided the impetus for the termination of the contract by publicizing its terms in a Rome newspaper which he said he had purchased with CIA funds.’

I’m sure you’re getting a picture of this guy – Robert Maheu had a lot of guts, and a fair amount of brains, and almost no moral conscience. No wonder he made friends with the CIA. One more story from the Church Committee report before we delve into some of this in more detail – they note how in October 1960, during the negotiations with ‘Sam Gold’ – Sam Giancana – he asked Maheu to bug a hotel room to find out whether Sam’s girlfriend was schtupping some other schmuck. The girlfriend was Phyllis McGuire, while the schmuck was Dan Rowan – these names are redacted in most copies of the memos, but not all. Maheu got in a guy from a Florida investigations firm, Arthur Balletti, to do the actual bugging.

But Balletti screwed up, leaving the wiretap equipment lying around in the apartment while he was bugging the phone, and he was discovered by a maid who called the sheriff’s department. They arrived, arrested Balletti, took him in for questioning, whereupon he called Maheu in Miami, in front of the sheriffs. Balletti’s bail was paid by Johnny Roselli, but the DOJ wanted to prosecute both Balletti and Maheu for illegal wiretapping.

The Church Committee’s report says it ‘received conflicting evidence on whether the Agency was consulted’ about the bugging, with Maheu himself saying he initially asked if the CIA could handle it, but other Agency officials denying they knew anything. According to the Agency’s internal biography of Maheu, it was at their request that Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department dropped the case against Maheu and Balletti, but likewise it’s unclear how much they knew about it ahead of time.

It doesn’t end there though – Maheu testified that the reason for the surveillance was to find out if Sam’s girlfriend was cheating on him, but according to Roselli Bob had told him two different reasons: 1) to check on the girlfriend’s possible infidelity and 2) to find out if Sam had told her about the assassination plot, and she was telling others. The Church Committee gave serious weight to this second reason for the tap, because this is what Maheu told the FBI when they questioned him about it while preparing the DOJ’s case back in 1961. The Committee’s report notes how the CIA leaned on the DOJ, saying the prosecution might reveal sensitive information about the Bay of Pigs operation, and that following a briefing by the CIA to the Attorney General (Kennedy), the case was dropped.

Before we move on I want to draw a quick parallel between this event and two others around the same time – the death of Marilyn Monroe and the disappearance of her diary of secrets, which apparently included information about the Bay of Pigs, and the death of Mary Pinchot Meyer, Cord Meyer’s wife.

In the Marilyn Monroe case there’s the infamous memo that suggests the CIA were tapping her phone and knew all about the diary of secrets, including apparent revelations from JFK concerning UFOs. Whether this memo is authentic or not is a matter of some debate – the CIA themselves did an analysis and concluded it was a forgery, but I have my doubts about their motives. In the case of Mary Pinchot Meyer, she died in mysterious circumstances and none other than James Jesus Angleton turned up at her home shortly afterwards, broke in, and stole her diary. And then we have this mysterious wiretap in Las Vegas, purportedly to check on whether Sam Giancana’s girlfriend was fucking around but which more likely was to check on whether she was blabbing about the Castro assassination plot. Though she survived, whereas the other two ladies did not.

Robert Maheu vs Howard Hughes

According to Maheu’s autobiography, which mostly covers his relationship with Howard Hughes and only touches on his CIA activities, is quite vainglorious. He credits himself with using Hughes’ vast wealth to buy up large tracks of Las Vegas real estate, and very much paints himself as the victim in their fight in the early 70s.

His relationship with Hughes began when a lawyer from a DC firm called and asked about connections between an individual named Stuart Cramer and the CIA. Apparently, the lawyer had a client to whom Cramer had been boasting of being a CIA operative, and the client wanted to know whether this was true. Maheu was known in DC as a CIA contact, and he called up his friend Jim O’Connell at the CIA’s Office of Security, who’d originally got him the job working for the Agency. Jim called back later that day confirming they had some sort of connection to Cramer, but no, he did not work for them.

It turned out that the client was Howard Hughes, who was pursuing Cramer’s ex-wife and wanted him out of the picture so he could get a free run at the lady. A few months later, the lawyer called back, identified Hughes as the client, and hired Maheu to spy on Ava Gardner, who had recently split up with Frank Sinatra. The way Maheu tells it, Hughes had a range of women he was wooing, but his particular form of wooing was more about control than romance, and he kept some of them under round-the-clock surveillance.

The job went bad, because the guy Maheu hired to spy on Ava fucked it up. Sinatra turned up, and the pair went out on a boat on Lake Tahoe but instead of just keeping an eye out and waiting for their return, the guy rented his own boat and followed them. Frank spotted him, went apeshit, called the local police, the whole thing hit the newspapers – including Hughes’ involvement.

Nonetheless, Hughes called back again early in 1955, wanting to hire Maheu to deal with a little blackmail problem he was having in Hollywood. Years later, Bob asked Howard why he did this, given the Lake Tahoe fiasco, and Hughes revealed that he knew all about Maheu’s background in the CIA and FBI, as well as his success in early missions for other clients.

So Bob flew out to Los Angeles and met Bill Gay, the head of the Mormon Mafia who would later take over the Hughes empire. The assignment was a local minister, who had found out that one of his ‘young female parishioners’ had an affair with Howard and was now blackmailing him, threatening to go to the press. Maheu was tasked with shutting the guy up, even if that meant paying him, but he didn’t want to pay the minister, Bob felt he’d just keep coming back for more. So instead he dug into the blackmailer and found he had a criminal record – a charge, not convicted, of molesting young boys. When he met the preacher, Maheu turned the tables on him and threatened to expose him to the LA Times. Naturally, the minister opted to keep his mouth shut.

Maheu had to complete one more counter-blackmail assignment before he got to speak to Hughes personally. A guy in New York was threatening to expose Howard regarding one of the starlets he kept under lock and key in an apartment in Hollywood. Maheu rented a room, bugged it and invited the guy round to discuss matters. He paid the blackmailer, then revealed he’d recorded the whole conversation and would take the tape to the DA. The blackmailer pleaded to make a deal, and agreed to give the money back in exchange for the tape. They did this, then Maheu revealed another tape, this time of their entire conversation up until that point. He told the blackmailer that if he ever spoke about what he knew, this tape would be sent to the prosecutor’s office. The guy agreed to keep schtum, and ran out.

Shortly afterwards, Maheu called up Bill Gay to tell him what had happened, and dictated a lengthy report on how it had gone down. He was told to wait in the hotel where he’d rented the room while Hughes got a chance to read the report. Half an hour passed, and then Hughes called back in person, wanting to hear all the details about the altercation between Maheu and the blackmailer. In total, Maheu told him the story three times, leaving nothing out, and each time Hughes got as excited as when hearing it the first time. Yes, it’s pretty clear that Howard Hughes was not neurotypical.

In 1956 Hughes hired Maheu again, this time for a much higher-stakes job – ensure Nixon remained Eisenhower’s Vice President. Hughes didn’t think much of Nixon but saw him as easy to influence, so he wanted to keep him in place in the White House. So Bob began a campaign of dirty tricks inside the Republican party, and against Nixon’s main rival Harold Stassen, succeeding in keeping Nixon as Eisenhower’s running mate in the ‘56 election.

It wasn’t long after this that Hughes – who was already becoming reclusive – hired Maheu to be his alter-ego, the public face of Hughes, doing his bidding. He agreed, and spent the next 13 years or so handling various elements of Howard’s business and personal affairs, from the lawsuit with TWA to dealing with the US government over the flying boat known as the Spruce Goose.

Indeed, it was Maheu who facilitated Hughes’ move from Boston to Las Vegas, the purchase of the Desert Inn, where Howard lived for several years, and the acquiring of gaming licenses so Hughes could take over the Strip. Normally, the authorities would insist on meeting the applicant face to face, but Hughes was hiding out on the top floor of the hotel, seen only by bodyguards and a handful of close aides.

Johnny Roselli was involved in these deals, and was paid a commission on every purchase Hughes made in Vegas, but to get the licenses Maheu turned to a more legitimate source – the governor of Nevada, who persuaded the gaming commission that Maheu was a surrogate for Hughes and bingo, the licenses were awarded.

However, as the Hughes empire in Vegas expanded, his mental state deteriorated, resulting in fractures in his relationship with Bob. In 1968 Hughes became obsessed with nuclear bomb tests in Nevada, worrying about the fallout. As the biggest private defense contractor in the country he couldn’t overtly appear anti-nuke or anti-government, so Maheu arranged for a scientific advisor on his payroll to work with Ban the Bomb and other groups. Howard even instructed him to meet with Lyndon Johnson, by that point the outgoing president, and to offer him a million dollar bribe if he banned such weapons testing before leaving office. Maheu did meet with Johnson, but did not offer him the bribe. A year or so later, once Nixon had taken office, Hughes again told Maheu to offer a million dollar bribe to try to get the nuclear testing stopped. Again, Maheu did not make the offer.

The downfall of Hughes, and how it affected his relationship with Maheu, plays out not unlike it does in American Tabloid. Howard’s health deteriorated, there was a power struggle in his organisation with everyone vying for a piece of the action, then Hughes disappeared. He apparently signed a proxy allowing the lawyer in the TWA case to take control of his Nevada operations, and Maheu was fired.

Robert sued for wrongful termination and lost, but then Hughes gave a telephone interview to a small group of journalists in which he accused Maheu of stealing from him, so Bob sued for slander, eventually winning a substantial settlement. Hughes refused to appear at the trial, or even give a deposition, and was never seen in public again.

Robert Maheu and the CIA

Maheu’s firm provided various services to the CIA, ranging from investigations to covert operations, as well as providing cover for CIA operatives, pretending they were working for his firm. Before we get into the Bay of Pigs and the Castro assassination plot, let’s run through what else is known about Robert Maheu’s work for the Agency.

Early in 1954 he was recruited by the CIA and paid $500 per month (this was later doubled, with entertainment, travel and other expenses added in on top). This was on the condition he move his firm to its own office, having previously shared office space with one Carmine Bellino, another ex-FBI agent who’d been involved with illegal wiretapping. Bellino was the personal gumshoe of Joe Kennedy, and was starting to do the same job for his sons. The CIA didn’t want Maheu to have any association with the Kennedys or their PI with a history of dodgy behaviour.

Maheu was initially used for surveillance and surreptitious entries, including a break in at the apartment of a student in Washington DC. In the summer of 1954 Maheu was hired by ‘British shipping interests’ to spy on oil magnate Aristotle Onassis. He was negotiating a contract which would give him control of around 90% of the exports of oil from Saudi Arabia. Maheu and one of his associates prepared a paper outlining the potential damage to the US economy from the Onassis deal, which he presented to the National Security Council. He also briefed people at the State Department, including John Foster Dulles, as well as J Edgar Hoover and Vice President Richard Nixon. In August he also told the CIA about his mission, and the State Department, CIA and Nixon in the White House all approved and leant their support. Maheu was ordered to carry out surveillance and a campaign of dirty tricks to try to scupper the oil deal.

While the bug itself proved relatively useless, Maheu obtained details of the Saudi export contract via other means and published them in an Italian newspaper to try to generate opposition to the deal. Ultimately the agreement fell apart, there were lawsuits in which the ‘British shipping interests’, actually Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, revealed the CIA’s involvement. The CIA’s Maheu biography notes extensive files from the Agency’s office of general counsel on this matter.

This project – known by the cryptonym LPHIDDEN – and Project TWIXT, another unknown operation, set up Maheu’s long-running association with the Agency. But in 1956 he was accused of violating the Mann Act – the law against transporting young people across state lines for sexual purposes. Maheu had apparently done this to facilitate the provision of female company for a visiting foreign leader, supposedly with both CIA and State Department approval.

Maheu contacted the Agency to tell them the accusations were baseless, and that he would have his lawyer ‘see that appropriate [redacted] officials would retract the charges’. Sure enough, the charges were dropped.

The following year, the CIA received information about President Sukarno of Indonesia apparently meeting a charming woman on a visit to Moscow and beginning an affair with her. The Agency conceived of an op named Happy Days, and asked Bob to rent a movie studio in California. He was to find an actor who looked like Sukarno and produce a film ‘simulating an intimate relationship’ – i.e. a fake sex tape of a foreign president.

According to the CIA’s account, their Technical Division put together a backdrop to make it look like the tape was filmed in Moscow, and provided a suitable male employee and his fiance to star in the movie. After an extensive makeup course, Maheu himself applied the disguises to the two actors and then filmed then doing the deed. The idea was to either distribute the tape itself, or at least images from it on pamphlets, in Indonesia and try to undermine and embarrass Sukarno, or even imply he was in the love pocket of a Soviet temptress.

According to Maheu’s version, he acquired the actors through a friend in the LA County Sheriff’s department, who provided him with a blonde, female informant. For Sukarno, he used a guy who had been working for him in Tuscon. Likewise, Maheu’s somewhat elaborate (and possibly untrue) account has the CIA telling him to use Bing and Larry Crosby to help make the film, because the Agency liked their politics and had already done security checks on them.

In both versions, Maheu completed the sex tape and sent it back to CIA headquarters, but the CIA say the project was never completed, the tape or images from it were never used. Maheu claims some still images were used, which helped undermine the Indonesian president, but provides no evidence for this. Exactly why the two accounts differ so much is not clear, but this wasn’t the end of meddling with Sukarno.

Just as an aside, consider how the supposed Moscow hotel room prostitutes pissing on Trump video that probably doesn’t exist and may have been deep faked in any case captured people’s imaginations and drew headlines. And consider just how similar – almost identical – it was to this 1950s CIA operation.

Returning to Maheu, the following year the CIA launched Project HARPSTAR, again targeting Sukarno. They sought to exploit his ‘weakness for Caucasian women’ and got Maheu to source a suitable female. He came up with Florence Horn, a ‘well to do widow’, 35, who was considered ‘highly intelligent and extremely attractive’. Not sure where he found her because women like that are in fairly short supply. She teamed up with a female CIA officer, under cover as her secretary. The idea was to get close to Sukarno, befriend him, maybe sleep with him, and try to ascertain his thinking and future plans.

They needed to come up with a plausible cover story, and given Florence’s close association with what Maheu called ‘the movie colony’, he suggested they take that path. They came up with the idea of saying she was part of a location scout of Far East locations for a proposed movie version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, and put money into accounts of the Indonesian branch of 20th Century Fox in Jakarta, to provide a funding source for the operation.

In the event, Florence was unable to get close to Sukarno and gather intelligence on him, largely due to travel conflicts. But 20th Century Fox did produce a film version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, which came out in 1959.

The same year, Maheu was involved in yet another CIA operation, known as Project Norfolk. King Hussein of Jordan was on a visit to the United States and Maheu was tasked with procuring a bit of skirt. As a CIA memo records, ‘The foreign official was especially desirous of female companionship during his Los Angeles visit and it was requested that appropriate arrangements be made through a controlled source of the [CIA’s] Office [of Security] in order to assure a satisfied visit.’

Maheu turned to a ‘prominent Los Angeles attorney’ in order to arrange a party for the King where he could meet a nice young lady for the purposes of getting his royal end away. The lady he chose for the purpose was B-movie starlet Susan Cabot, perhaps best known for starring in The Wasp Woman. The name of the individual who arranged the party is redacted, but it is known that Hussein and Susan met at a party hosted by California oil baron Edwin Pauley.  Whether or not it was Pauley who Maheu reached out to, whoever it was had previously been granted some kind of clearance by a division of the CIA.

There began an affair between Hussein and Cabot, which included spending a month together later that year in a mansion in Long Island rented for them by the CIA. Their correspondence was opened and read by the Agency and they were ‘otherwise surveilled’, though whether this involved any further state-sponsored sextapes is not known.

Hussein was impressed – also in 1959, he was considering hiring Maheu for Public Relations purposes, necessitating CIA approval, but the Agency felt they’d already carried out enough security checks on Bob and signed off on the idea. However, Susan’s time of it did not turn out so rosy. Not unlike Marilyn Monroe and Mary Pinchot Meyer, her life ended in a grisly death.  Cabot had one son – likely the product of her relationship with the King – and as she got older she became suicidally depressed (a common experience for performers of many kinds). One day she attacked her son, and he killed her in self-defence, later being prosecuted and jailed for involuntary manslaughter.

Then came the Cuba situation and the Mafia, which we’ll pick up on in the next section. By 1966 things were starting to get a little frayed. Maheu was called to testify before a committee being run by Senator Edward Long, looking into illegal surveillance. This led to quite a lot of back and forth with the Senator, who knew that Maheu had been used as part of the Niarchos-Onassis situation, and had some kind of connection with Sam Giancana. The Senator basically agreed not to call Maheu before the committee if the CIA would confirm that they had used him for ‘sensitive assignments’. Long said he wouldn’t call any other witnesses that involved the CIA and wouldn’t pursue specifics on the Maheu case.

An internal CIA assessment considered the pros and cons of accepting this deal, including the possibility that the Senator might use or leak their confirmation of Maheu’s role. Likewise he could have his staffers dig into it, without using it in public committee hearings, or might tell other people on Capitol Hill and they might get onto the scent. Other cons of not accepting the deal were that Giancana would become involved, ‘and we could not control Giancana’ and ‘our involvement in the Giancana situation would become known to other members of the Giancana family’. Were the CIA scared of the mob? They were also worried that Florence Horn, of Project HARPSTAR, ‘could come into the picture’ as a result of TV coverage of the Maheu affair.

So, in the end, they accepted the Senator’s deal, Maheu never testified (at least until the Church Committee) and the whole thing continued to be covered up. However, the CIA put flags in Maheu’s personnel file, saying that anything related to bugging or wiretapping had to be referred to higher-ups. Evidently, they were concerned about further exposure. But these flags were ignored, and in 1968 Maheu’s son (who had also worked as a CIA employee), three executives at the Maheu company and one secretary were all granted security clearances. When the CIA discovered this towards the end of their working relationship with Maheu, several officers were reprimanded for overlooking the flags.

The CIA broke off their relationship with Maheu in 1971, because they didn’t want to get caught up in the battle between Maheu and Howard Hughes. But the connection didn’t end there – in 1976, following the death of Johnny Roselli (which we’ll look at shortly), Maheu started writing a book about his experiences. One of the former CIA officers he contacted told the CIA about the book, and said he would try to obtain proof copies of the pages to ensure his own reputation, and the CIA’s secrets, were protected. The CIA’s response was to tell him that whatever he wished to do was a private matter, but also that of course they were interested in protecting sources and methods and other operational secrets. The book eventually came out in 1992.

Maheu, Castro and the Mob

Maheu expressed some degree of moral regret towards the end of his life about his work for the CIA, especially the operation to whack the Beard. But given his behaviour both before and after that, we can assume he didn’t feel that way at the time.

According to a CIA memo summarising their contacts with Roselli, ‘In August 1960, Mr. Richard M. Bissell approached Colonel Sheffield Edwards to determine if the Office of Security had assets that may assist in a sensitive mission requiring gangster-type action. The mission target was Fidel Castro.’

While the head of the Western Hemisphere Division, JC King, was made aware of the operation, only a tiny handful of people were brought into the loop. King was likely told because he’d wrote the notorious ‘Castro must be eliminated’ document a year earlier. As the Roselli memo says, none of ‘the JMWAVE people’ knew about it, i.e. the people operating the CIA station in South Florida working with the Cuban exiles, including Howard Hunt.

It goes on, ‘Robert A. Maheu was contacted, briefed generally on the project, and requested to ascertain if he could develop an entrée into the gangster elements as the first step toward accomplishing the desired goal.

Mr. Maheu advised that he had met one Johnny Roselli on several occasions while visiting Las Vegas. He only knew him casually through clients, but was given to understand that he was a high-ranking member of the “syndicate” and controlled all of the ice-making machines on the Strip. Maheu reasoned that, if Roselli was in fact a member of the clan, he undoubtedly had connections leading into the Cuban gambling interests.

Maheu was asked to approach Roselli, who knew Maheu as a personal relations executive handling domestic and foreign accounts, and tell him that he had recently been retained by a client who represented several international business firms which were suffering heavy financial losses in Cuba as a result of Castro’s action. They were convinced that Castro’s removal was the answer to their problem and were willing to pay a price of $150,000 for its successful accomplishment. It was to be made clear to Roselli that the U. S. Government was not, and should not, become aware of this operation.’

Incidentally, before he got involved in trying to kill Castro, Johnny was a bodyguard for Harry Cohen, President of Columbia Pictures, and produced films for low budget movie outfit Monogram Studios. He got into the business via producer Bryan Foy – a man notorious for literally taking scripts for his existing movies and changing the names and locations then re-shooting them under a different title. Roselli worked for Foy at Eagle Lion Studios, and is credited on a bunch of early gangster flicks.

Roselli set up a meeting for Maheu with Sam Giancana and other mobsters in Miami, where they came up with the idea of slipping Fidel some poison pills, dropping them into his drink. This was attempted on three different occasions, one involving Castro’s ex-girlfriend, but all failed.

When we turn to the CIA’s internal history of the Bay of Pigs operation, we find an interesting twist – the missions were strictly compartmentalised. Not only did no one tell Roselli that he was working for the CIA – though he figured it out before long – no one told the CIA that Roselli was working for them.

That is to say, outside of Bissell, Allen Dulles, Bill Harvey, Sheff Edwards, Maheu and maybe one or two others, no one knew about the approach to the mafia. Volume 3 of the report says, ‘the activities of Messrs. Bissell, Edwards, and Harvey, with Maheu and the Mafia remained strictly compartmented and isolated from the officially authorized Project JMARC – the Project which came to be known as the Bay of Pigs operation.’ Indeed, no one told Jacob Esterline, the head of WH/4 (Western Hemisphere Division Branch 4), who was handling the Cuba thing.

But weren’t we told that this sort of thing doesn’t happen? Both in terms of rogue agents but more specifically in terms of operations overlapping without the people involved necessarily realising it? Why yes, yes we were. The CIA’s own podcast constantly denies this kind of rogue agent off the books operation is even a thing, while Michelle Rigby Assad dismissed the idea of two CIA teams working different operations in the same place at the same time.

But here, with Maheu and the mob, we have an example of the people at the top of the CIA doing exactly that. And you can tell me things have changed since then, but if no one tells anyone else what they’re doing, how do you deconflict multiple operations around the same target? If no one else knows, then they don’t know that they need to do something about it. So nothing is done about it, and the two operations continue in parallel, one knowing nothing about the other. The new, improved CIA doesn’t overcome this problem – if anything, the sheer size of the modern Agency has made it worse.

But what happened to Roselli? In June and September 1975, Johnny testified before the Church Committee on Operation Mongoose and the plot to kill Castro. A few days before his first appearance, an unknown assailant killed Sam Giancana at his home, which caused Roselli to move back to Miami, having lived in Las Vegas and Los Angeles for years.

In April 1976 Roselli was called back to the Committee to discuss an apparent conspiracy to kill JFK, but his testimony was fairly bland. Three months later they recalled him to ask more questions, but it was too late – he had disappeared. Days later, he was found in a 55-gallon drum floating in Dumfoundling Bay, near Miami. He had been strangled, shot and had his legs cut off.

Robert Maheu and Watergate

We should also talk about the connection between Robert Maheu and Watergate. And before we do that I will say that if you’re going to set up a fast buck disaster tourism submarine business, don’t put the suffix ‘gate’ in the name. It’s a recipe for scandal.

In 1974 the CIA undertook several file reviews to find material related to Watergate. The hearings the previous year had led to impeachment hearings in the first months of ‘74, and the Agency kept getting embarrassed by testimony and media coverage. According to the review guidelines, the purpose was ‘to the extent possible to ensure that Agency management is aware of all such material in our files and that there will be no future “surprises” in this regard.’

The list of individuals to use as a basis for the file search included those related to the Watergate break in and the cover-up, so the five burglars, Hunt, Liddy and White House figures like Colson, Erlichmann, Dean and so on. There is also a list of topics including the 1972 election, the Mexican money laundering that financed the Plumbers’ operations, the break in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. Then, there’s Howard Hughes and Robert Maheu.

But what did they have to do with Watergate? While Maheu’s activities for the Agency in many way prefigured what the White House attempted with the Plumbers, he wasn’t involved in those operations. Part of this relates to Maheu’s past running dirty tricks either to help Nixon during the 50s, or black ops authorised by Nixon when he was vice-president. Another element of this is that Hughes donated large sums to Nixon and his re-election campaign, and Maheu testified at the hearings that he gave $50,000 in cash in a briefcase to Nixon’s vice-president Hubert Humphrey.

Then there’s the $100,000 given to Nixon personally, not to his campaign. This was also delivered by Maheu, via Nixon’s friend Bebe Rebozo.  At this point – 1968 – Larry O’Brien worked for the Hughes organisation, having been hired by Maheu. A couple of years later and he was national chairman of the Democratic Party, and the theory is that the break-in was to try to find out if he knew about the dodgy money from Hughes to Nixon.

Then, there was the attempted break-in on the safe of Hank Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun. Hank had a large collection of memos between Maheu and Hughes, presumably covering the dodgy money given to Nixon. Around the time the Plumbers were discussing breaking into his safe, someone tried – but failed.  This attempted safe-cracking was among the topics included in the CIA’s Watergate file review.

Then, there’s the ‘whole Bay of Pigs thing’.

Immediately following the arrest of the burglars, Nixon told Bob Haldeman to go and see Richard Helms, director of the CIA, and get the FBI to back off on the Watergate investigation. Nixon suggested that there was a danger that Howard Hunt might start shooting his mouth off, and unravel the ‘whole Bay of Pigs thing’. Apparently, Helms became quite upset at this, and refused Nixon’s order to pressure the FBI. So Nixon fired him.

The implication of this phrase is that it relates to the JFK assassination, that Nixon (who was aware of and had signed off on the CIA-Maheu-Mafia-Castro plot) believed this had somehow got turned around after the failure at the Bay of Pigs. Instead of assassinating Castro, the CIA and the mob assassinated Kennedy. Whether this is true or not, it does seem that Nixon believed it, and hence his message to Helms was a coded threat about exposure of their role in the murder of JFK.

Naturally, the CIA files do not make it clear exactly why they were concerned with Maheu-related exposures, but it has to be one or some combination of these reasons.

Maheu and Mission: Impossible

Where this story gets a bit weird is that Maheu’s contract work as a covert, deniable operative for a shadowy organisation was canonised in a television show – while he was still working for the CIA.

To be clear, Robert Maheu never worked on Mission: Impossible but the similarities are quite obvious. We should also acknowledge that the series was a hodgepodge of ideas from other places, not just Robert A Maheu and Associates. The guitar-based theme song is taken from James Bond. The creators of an earlier show about a team of private detectives – 21 Beacon Street – sued the producers of Mission: Impossible for plagiarism. Even the idea of an audio taped instruction that self-destructs after playing once comes from the spy novels Saigon and Danger Key.

Nonetheless, the stakes in many Mission: Impossible episodes are far beyond those usually encountered by private detective firms. In the pilot the mission involves nuclear warheads on a Caribbean island ruled by a dictator. The IMF team have to break into a vault in the dictator’s hotel, where the warheads are being kept. This is obviously inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and to some extent the novel Topaz, written by a French CIA asset. By comparison, the opening episode of 21 Beacon Street is about protecting one witness from the Mob, and fooling them into thinking the witness is already dead.

So Mission: Impossible (the 60s TV show) is halfway between an episodic private detective show and a spy serial, much like Maheu’s professional life was. There are even assassinations organised or provoked by the IMF team using proxies. They rarely, if ever, just assassinate people themselves but they’re masters at tricking their enemies to kill each other, or manipulating third parties to actually do the murdering.

And all this appeared on the small screen before Maheu testified at the Church Committee. Evidently, the producers of Mission: Impossible knew a lot more than they let on. A major hint comes from the fact that two of the writers also wrote the screenplay for The CIA, a film project which the real CIA hated, and was never made. Why would two magicians turned screenwriters for a show that never, ever mentions the CIA write a script about the CIA?

Another major hint comes via the analysis of Bruce Little, who wrote a journal article back in 2004 titled Mission Impossible: The CIA and the Cult of Covert Action in the Middle East. In it, he tracks the comparisons between Mission: Impossible storylines and real CIA operations, particularly in the Middle East.

The article opens with a quote from season four, episode 11 titled The Brothers, which bears stunning similarity with the 1953 CIA coup in Iran that brought the Shah back to power:

Good morning, Mr. Phelps. The man you’re looking at is King Selim III of Qamadan, a good friend of the West. Unknown to the world, the king has been imprisoned somewhere for over six months by his younger brother, Prince Samandal. With the king in his power, Samandal now controls the huge oil royalties which are Qamadan’s main source of revenue… Your mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it, is to rescue King Selim and restore him to his throne.

He goes on, ‘One early episode, for example, saw the Impossible Mission Force free an Eastern European cleric, who resembled Hungary’s anticommunist Cardinal Jozef Mindszenty, from a maximum security prison behind the Iron Curtain. Two seasons later, millions of Americans watched Phelps’s team track down a bearded Che Guevara look-alike who, like the legendary Cuban guerrilla leader, died trying to export his revolution to other countries. “Mission: Impossible matter-of-factly offered the premise,” Patrick White observed in his 1991 postmortem on the action-adventure series, “that the United States government sponsored a group of saboteurs” who, in the course of waging covert Cold War, “could—and did—lie, cheat, steal, falsify media, hold persons illegally, falsely incriminate, destroy the property of innocent people, plot (though never personally execute) assassinations, and break any civil and criminal code that stood in their way.”’

However, I can find no direct evidence that the CIA had anything to do with Mission: Impossible the TV show, either the 60s version or the reboot from 1988. Though the pilot episode of the reboot does feature an assassin named Scorpio who is killing IMF team members. Kinda like in the film Scorpio, which was the first ever to film at CIA headquarters.

So, it’s a little tricky to figure out exactly what happened here. Was the production of Mission: Impossible, a show about off the books operations carried out by contract agents working for a secretive organisation, itself an off the books operation carried out by contract agents working for a secretive organisation?

Yet another clue comes in the fact that it’s not clear who IMF are working for – the CIA are never mentioned as their employers, indeed it’s not even totally certain that their instructions come from a government agency, rather than another private organisation.

But in 1996, that all changed, when the first big Mission: Impossible movie came out. In it, it’s clear that the IMF are working as contract agents for the CIA, just like Maheu, and they get embroiled in some kind of internal beef which results in two IMF teams being sent to the same mission location, and several of Tom Cruise’s friends end up dead. I would hope by this point in the episode I don’t have to break down the constituent parts of this storyline and how it relates to everything we’ve already talked about, so I’ll trust you to figure that bit out.

But I do want to highlight how this is another normalisation of black ops – in the 60s and the 80s the CIA were still hiding, skulking around in the shadows. That they were employing these contract agents couldn’t be openly stated on TV. Even a decade after Maheu’s testimony, they were still publicly maintaining the fiction that all this never happened.

But by the 90s, with the Cold War over, they had to change their approach. They had to own black ops and make them look sexy, hence the explicit relationship between the CIA and IMF in the 1996 movie. But also the removal of dialogue about the Church Committee’s discovery of massive, unrelenting CIA corruption.