WASHINGTON - The Bush administration’s decision this week to expel 14 Cuban diplomats had its genesis in an FBI memorandum sent to the State Department last October citing concern about Cuban intelligence activities, officials asserted Thursday.
U.S. officials vigorously defended the mass expulsion, even as questions arose about its timing, the lack of public disclosure of evidence to support charges of espionage and whether genuine national security concerns led to the action—and not political motivations.
Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, laid out the chronology of what they said was ongoing concern about Cuban intelligence activities.
ACTIVITY OF CONCERN
For its part, the FBI issued a statement saying that Cuban espionage activity is a major concern and denying a New York Times report that the White House and State Department had pressed for the expulsions for political reasons.
‘‘Cuban intelligence agencies have and continue to pose a significant threat to the national security of the United States,’’ the FBI statement said.
‘‘Based on thorough investigations, and to preempt the activities of Cuban intelligence in the United States, the FBI recommended to the State Department that a number of Cuban intelligence officers be declared persona non grata and expelled,’’ the statement added. “The State Department acted on our recommendation.’‘
For decades, the FBI has maintained an active counter-intelligence unit to thwart Cuban espionage in the United States. Its mission is ‘‘to identify and neutralize agents’’ seeking to harm the United States, one official said.
An FBI memo arrived at the State Department last October, another official said.
‘They [the FBI] came to us and said, `We want some people booted,’ ‘’ he said.
A month later, the State Department acted on some of the information, ordering two Cuban diplomats expelled from Washington and two others from the Cuban mission to the United Nations. The department linked the expulsions to the 25-year jail term handed down in September to Ana Belen Montes, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who confessed to spying for Cuba.
By mid-April, more FBI documentation arrived recommending expulsion of Cuban diplomats, officials said. Authorities said they are required by the Immigration and Nationality Act to take action against foreigners who are believed to be engaged in spying.
However, there is no law that compels the United States to present evidence. Nor, officials said, is there a desire to do so.
Some analysts said the Bush administration is looking for ways to express its displeasure with a crackdown on dissidents in Cuba and alleged harassment of U.S. diplomats in Havana but don’t have many tools available. The White House is under pressure from some Cuban exile groups to tighten the screws on the regime of Fidel Castro over the mass arrests.
Next Tuesday marks Cuba’s independence from Spain. It is a day that President Bush has used in past years to announce U.S. policy changes toward Cuba.
Juan Hernández-Acen, a spokesman at the Cuban Interests Section, and one of the 14 diplomats who is reportedly being forced to leave, said: “If they don’t say anything, then what do they really have?’‘
According to Hernández-Acen, Interests Section chief Dagoberto Rodríguez was summoned to the State Department at 9 a.m. Tuesday and given a diplomatic note with the names of the seven declared persona non grata in Cuba’s mission in Washington.
‘‘This is a decision purely based on politics,’’ Hernández-Acen said.
He said the function of diplomats at the Washington mission is to engage in congressional, academic, cultural and commercial relationships and promote travel to the island.
He added that the expulsions would temporarily disrupt the workforce, “but we Cubans are multitasked. Everything will be resolved.’‘
Jorge Domínguez, a Harvard University Cuba expert and author, characterized the current Cuba-U.S. relationship as a shouting match and said both governments “are bugging each other—listening, as well as annoying each other.’’