BY ALFONSO CHARDY AND JAY WEAVER | Miami Herald
South Florida’s three Cuban-American members of Congress condemned the Justice Department Thursday for sending Miami FBI agents to Cuba to collect evidence against Luis Posada Carriles in a hotel bombing that killed an Italian in Havana a decade ago.
‘By asking a state sponsor of terrorism for `evidence’ regarding terrorism, the Bush administration Justice Department demonstrates a shockingly profound ignorance of the nature of terrorism, of its origins and its state sponsors,’’ U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and brothers Lincoln and Mario D�az-Balart said in a statement.
It marked the first official public expression of anger over a heightening grand jury investigation in Newark, N.J. The former CIA-trained explosives expert was detained by immigration agents in Miami-Dade two years ago.
Posada, 79, is under house arrest at his wife’s home in West Kendall while he awaits a May 11 trial in Texas on immigration fraud charges unrelated to the bombing.
The three Republican lawmakers blasted the Justice Department on the same day The Miami Herald published an article about the FBI’s trip to Cuba in the fall.
Mario D�az-Balart’s office said he would not comment further. The other lawmakers did not return calls, but at least one member of Florida’s congressional delegation said members were briefed about the FBI’s trip months ago.
The FBI’s Miami office and the Justice Department, which is running the hotel bombing investigation, declined to comment.
The United States and Cuba have cooperated case-by-case on various issues since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, even in the absence of normal relations. Such cooperation extended to alien smuggling, hijacking and other criminal cases, including a congressional probe of the John F. Kennedy assassination.
‘‘Federal prosecutors and agents travel all over the world searching for evidence of violations of U.S. laws,’’ said Miami lawyer David Buckner, the former federal prosecutor who successfully tried five Cuban spies in 2001 and traveled to Cuba with a team to question defense witnesses.
‘‘Sometimes their pursuit of that evidence takes them to places they would rather not be, but they go because they’re doing their jobs,’’ he said.
Cuba is on the list of the State Department’s ‘‘state sponsors of terrorism,’’ along with Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. The list does not preclude U.S. officials traveling to those countries.
On Thursday, for instance, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the Syrian foreign minister and greeted Iran’s foreign minister during an international conference on Iraq at an Egyptian resort.
This is not the first time South Florida’s Cuban-American lawmakers have intervened in a case dealing with the Cuban exile militant. A few years ago when Posada was imprisoned in Panama for his role in an alleged plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, they lobbied the Panamanian government to pardon Posada along with three fellow exile militants. Then-Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso pardoned the men in August 2004 and released them.
Posada went into hiding. He resurfaced in Miami soon after sneaking into the United States in March 2005. His illegal entry revived the FBI’s probe into the hotel bombings.
LACK OF PROGRESS
The investigation had been shut down in 2003 for lack of progress after U.S. authorities failed to get any solid evidence during trips to Cuba from 1998 to 2000.
In the most recent trip, FBI agents were given better access by Cuban officials and were able to interview witnesses, review Cuba’s forensic evidence and visit crime scenes, according to three sources familiar with the journey.
The trip may result in a stronger case against Posada, but it only served to exasperate some exiles and the three congressional members.
‘The only `evidence’ that the terrorist regime in Havana could provide the United States with regard to the twice-acquitted-in-Venezuela-Mr. Posada or anyone else would be fabricated evidence,’’ Ros-Lehtinen and the D�az-Balart brothers said in their statement.
``The evidence that the Bush administration Justice Department needs to bring forth and stop ignoring is of the murder of U.S. citizens and other crimes committed with impunity by the Castro brothers and their henchmen.’‘
The congressional members’ reference to the Venezuela acquittals pertained to Posada’s alleged role in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner that killed 73 people.
Posada was acquitted by a military court in 1980 in Venezuela but fled prison in 1985 while awaiting retrial in a civilian court.
He has denied any role in the plane assault.
The National Security Archive at George Washington University released documents Thursday from the 1970s related to the Cuban plane bombing. One of the documents included a ‘‘surveillance report’’ by a Venezuelan who worked for Posada’s private security firm in Caracas. The Venezuelan, Hernan Ricardo Lozano, listed several ‘‘targets’’—including Cuban jetliner flights, according to the archive.
Ricardo was convicted in Venezuela after Posada fled. Ricardo served about 10 years in prison.
Cuba and Venezuela have demanded that Posada be extradited or prosecuted for the hotel bombings and the deadly attack on the Cuban jetliner. Posada initially claimed credit for masterminding the tourist-site attacks, but he later retracted the claim.