How the FBI Cracked a Chilling Black Friday Terror Plot

Humberto Fontova
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Posted: Nov 27, 2015 2:01 PM
How the FBI Cracked a Chilling Black Friday Terror Plot

On the morning of November 17th, 1962, FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. took on “all the trappings of a military command post,” according to historian William Breuer. The previous night an intelligence puzzle had finally come together. The resulting picture staggered the FBI men. And these had served at their posts during WWII and the height of the Cold War. They’d seen plenty. Now they had mere days to foil a crime against their nation to rival Hideki Tojo’s.

The agents and officers were haggard and red-eyed –but seriously wired. Like hawks on a perch they’d been watching the plot unfold, sweating bullets the whole time. It was nearing time to swoop down on Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s agents, busy with a terror plot that would have made ISIS drool decades later.

Alan Belmont was second to J Edgar Hoover at the time. Raymond Wannall headed the Bureau’s Intelligence Division. That nerve-jangling morning both were in Belmont’s office just down the hall from Hoover’s. Both were burning up the telephone lines to their agents in New York. On one phone they had Special Agent John Malone who ran the New York field office. On other lines they talked with several carloads of FBI agents slinking around Manhattan. These were keeping a touch-and-go, but more or less constant, surveillance on the ringleaders of the Cuban terror plot.

Castro’s agents had targeted Macy’s, Gimbels, Bloomingdales, and Manhattan’s Grand Central Station with a dozen incendiary devices and 500 kilos of TNT. The holocaust was set for detonation the following week, on the day after Thanksgiving.

A little perspective: For their March 2004 Madrid subway blasts, all 10 of them, that killed and maimed almost 2,000 people, al-Qaeda used a grand total of 100 kilos of TNT. Castro and Che’s agents planned to set off five times that explosive power in the three biggest department stores on earth, all packed to suffocation and pulsing with holiday cheer on the year’s biggest shopping day. Macy’s get’s 50,000 shoppers that one day. Thousands of New Yorkers, including women and children—actually, given the date and targets, probably mostly women and children—were to be incinerated and entombed. (“We greeted each other as old friends,” gushed Jimmy Carter when visiting Fidel Castro in 2002.)

At the time, the FBI relied heavily on “HUMINT” (Human Intelligence.) So they’d expertly penetrated the plot. One by one the ringleaders were ambushed. The first was named Roberto Santiesteban and he was nabbed while walking down Riverside Drive. As the agents closed in, Santiesteban saw them and –took off!  And as he ran, Santiesteban was jamming paper in his mouth and chewing furiously.

But six FBI agents were after him, all fleet of foot themselves. Finally they closed the ring and “triangulated” the suspect. Santiesteban fell, raging and cursing, flailing his arms and jabbing his elbows like a maniac. They grabbed his arm and bent it behind his back just as he was reaching for his pistol.

While this group got their man, another FBI squad arrested a couple named Elsa Montero and Jose Gomez-Abad as they left their apartment on West 71st Street. The FBI speculated that as many as 30 others might have been in on the plot, but these were the head honchos. Had those detonators gone off, 9/11 might be remembered as the SECOND deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Some of these plotters belonged to the New York Chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, an outfit that became MUCH better known a year later on that very week. Incidentally, at the time of the Manhattan terror plot, the Fair Play For Cuba Committee also included among its members, CBS correspondent Robert Taber (an early version of Dan Rather, who conducted Castro's first network television soft-soaping on Aug. 30, 1957), along with The Nation magazine co-owner Alan Sagner. In 1996 President Clinton appointed Alan Sagner head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Terror-plotters Roberto Santiesteban, Elsa Montero and Jose Gomez-Abad belonged to the Castro-Cuban Mission to the U.N. and escaped prosecution by indignantly claiming “diplomatic immunity.” 

“Elsa Montero and Jose Gomez-Abad championed this project,” gushes New York Times contributor and Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Julia Sweig in the acknowledgements to her academically-acclaimed book published in 2002, Inside the Cuban Revolution. “In Cuba many people spent long hours with me, helped open doors I could not have pushed through myself, and offered friendship and warmth to myself during research trips to the island,” continues the paean by the Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow to her dear Cuban terrorist friends, Elsa Montero and Jose Gomez Abad.

“Julia Sweig helped lay the groundwork for President Obama’s current (Cuba) policy initiative,” gushes the bio of Ms Sweig at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs where this esteemed Cuba scholar also serves as a Senior Fellow.