Waffling language and intelligence gaps have clouded U.S. allegations that Cuba constitutes a bioweapons threat.
BY PABLO BACHELET
WASHINGTON - Does Cuba have a bioweapons ‘‘effort’’ or a ‘‘program’‘? Is it ‘‘developmental,’’ or is Havana ‘‘developing’’ it? And where does U.S. intelligence get its information on Cuba?
Those questions have simmered amid little media notice since 2002, when the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, John Bolton, publicly declared Cuba had a ``limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort.’‘
But now they are getting much attention as Bolton, President Bush’s nominee as U.N. ambassador, battles complaints that he tried to get two U.S. intelligence analysts fired or reassigned because they disagreed with his words on Cuba.
Bolton’s confirmation hearings and previous congressional testimonies do not reveal any hard evidence on whether Cuba is or is not working on bioweapons. But they do offer an intriguing vision of how the U.S. intelligence community has handled the semantics of the issue.
The dispute arises from a secret National Intelligence Estimate on worldwide bioweapons capabilities, produced by the CIA and other intelligence agencies in 1999. U.S. officials who have seen it say that, for the first time, it expressed strong concern over Cuba.
Although the NIE’s exact language remains classified, in March 2002, Carl W. Ford, who at the time was chief of the State Department’s intelligence wing, went public with some of the NIE’s findings.
He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that ``the United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited developmental offensive biological warfare research and development effort.’‘
Ford added that Havana also ‘‘has provided dual use biotechnology through rogue states’’—a reference to Cuba’s sale to Iran of biotechnology for medical uses. Cuba has denied any bioweapons work but acknowledged the Iran sales.
Ford’s statements went largely unnoticed.
But two months later, on May 6, Bolton made headlines when he used almost the same language in a speech to the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Cuba has a ‘‘limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort,’’ Bolton said. He later told Congress that he did not use the word ‘‘developmental,’’ which Ford had used, because it was ``spurious.’‘
In June 2002, Sen. Christpher Dodd, D-Conn., a longtime advocate of improving relations with Cuba, convened a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the issue.
Ford acknowledged to the senators that distinguishing between bioweapons and legitimate biotech work was ‘‘a difficult intelligence challenge’’ but stuck by his previous line.
‘‘Clearly, we’re suggesting that Cuba is working on biological weapons,’’ he said.
Hinting at some of the semantic hair-splitting that the intelligence community sometimes engages in, Ford also explained why he had used the word ‘’`effort’’ and not ``program.’‘
‘‘An effort, in our minds, is the research and development necessary to create BW weapons in the laboratory that can be delivered in conventional means,’’ he said.
``A program suggests to us something far more substantial than what we see in the evidence.’‘
And there the issue lay until this year, when the Senate committee considering Bolton’s U.N. nomination received complaints that he had attacked two intelligence analysts—including Christian Westermann, then the State Department’s top analyst on bioweapons—because they disagreed with his Cuba speech.
Bolton denied that he tried to influence the intelligence reports on Cuba.
But Senate Committee transcripts show he had clashed with Westermann, then the State Department’s in-house specialist on bioweapons, one month before Ford had first addressed Congress—when Bolton sent in his Heritage Foundation speech for clearance by Westermann.
The wording of the draft that Bolton sent to Westermann remains unknown. But according to a July 7, 2004, report by the Senate Intelligence Committee that focused largely on U.S. pre-war assessments on Iraq’s WMD, Westermann objected to Bolton’s proposed wording.
Westermann proposed alternate language that said nothing about developing bioweapons: ``Cuba has demonstrated that it is committed to developing a highly advanced biotechnology infrastructure and to arranging foreign collaboration with rogue states that could involve proliferation of dual-use technologies to countries assessed to have BW weapons.’‘
That’s when a furious Bolton asked that Westermann be reassigned.
The speech Bolton eventually delivered to the Heritage Foundation, presumably by then approved by U.S. intelligence, included the much stronger wording on bioweapons.
And what about the evidence against Cuba?
Ford testified in June 2002 that it was ‘‘substantial.’’ Yet he also acknowledged that none of the U.S. information on Cuba’s BW capabilities had come from Cubans who worked directly in such programs.
Of the Cubans interviewed, he added, ``none of them had direct evidence.’‘
Bolton told a March 2004 House committee that the ‘‘case for the existence of a developmental Cuba BW R&D effort is strong’’ but added that some of the U.S. information had come ``from sources of questionable access, reliability and motivation.’‘
Bolton also acknowledged that the U.S. government’s ability to assess any Cuban bioweapons program may have been poisoned from the start by Ana Belen Montes, a Cuba analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency who confessed to spying for Havana and was sentenced to 25 years in jail in 2002.
He told the House panel that Montes ‘‘passed some of our most sensitive information about Cuba back to Havana’’ and that her espionage had ``materially strengthened Cuba’s denial and deception efforts.’‘
Last September, The New York Times reported that the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that it was no longer clear whether Cuba had an active biological weapons program.
It quoted an unidentified intelligence official as saying that the intelligence community ``continues to believe that Cuba has the technical capability to pursue some aspects of an offensive biological weapons program.’‘
Shortly afterward, an intelligence official tried to explain the new position to The Herald:
‘‘We’re not saying with absolute certainty that they don’t’’ have a biological weapons program, the official said. ``What we’re saying is that we’ve lost some confidence in that judgment that they do.’’