By Carol J. Williams | Los Angeles Times
Three months before the 1976 midair explosion of a Cuban plane off the coast of Barbados, CIA covert operative Luis Posada Carriles cabled his U.S. minders from Venezuela to report that the plot was in motion and asked for Washington’s “assistance.”
Recently declassified CIA communications confirm that a U.S. agent got back to Posada within a few days. Other internal communications obtained by the National Security Archive research project put Posada in regular contact with Washington handlers from the time of his arrival here just before the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion through the late 1990s, when he allegedly masterminded a series of Havana hotel bombings in an effort to crush Cuba’s budding tourism business.
The 79-year-old anticommunist, who turned up two years ago in Miami, has never been charged by U.S. justice officials with participating in a violent act, not even the hotel bombings purportedly financed by fellow Cuban exiles in New Jersey and about which Posada has boasted.
On Tuesday, the sole prosecution brought by Washington against the Cuban-born Posada, an immigration fraud charge, was quashed by a federal judge in Texas, leaving a man branded by the U.S. Justice Department as “a dangerous criminal and an admitted mastermind of terrorist plots” free to roam a country he entered illegally and from which another court has ordered him deported.
Angry denunciations from Cuba and Venezuela of the “impunity” accorded Posada reached a high point Wednesday after word spread that U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone in El Paso had quashed the immigration case, denouncing the U.S. government for manipulating evidence and mistranslating testimony from its longtime collaborator.
“In addition to engaging in fraud, deceit and trickery, this Court finds the Government’s tactics in this case are so grossly shocking and so outrageous as to violate the universal sense of justice. As a result, this Court is left with no choice but to dismiss the indictment,” Cardone wrote in her scathing 38-page opinion.
As international condemnation mounts against the United States’ failure to prosecute an admitted terrorist, congressional leaders were demanding to know Wednesday from U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales why he hasn’t declared Posada a security threat and jailed him under the Patriot Act.
“Mr. Posada’s release from prison calls into question our commitment to combating terrorism and raises concerns about a double standard in our treatment of terrorists,” Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) wrote the attorney general.
In an interview Wednesday, Delahunt said he planned to launch an investigation into Posada’s longtime relationship with the U.S. government and the Bush administration’s failure to brand Posada a terrorist. A former prosecutor, Delahunt called Judge Cardone’s action almost unprecedented in its excoriation of the government’s handling of the case.
“It is incumbent on us to conduct a thorough and exhaustive investigation in a professional manner, in a way that reassures the world that we’re not hypocrites and that nefarious, unsavory machinations do not happen behind closed doors,” Delahunt said of the Posada case, which he described as a baffling evasion of justice.
He also wants a probe into how evidence against Posada in the hotel bombings now sought by a New Jersey grand jury got destroyed at the FBI’s Miami office in 2003, after the government’s only active case against Posada was dropped. Posada at the time was serving a sentence in Panama for plotting to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2000, a term that would be cut short less than a year later as a favor to the Bush administration fighting for Cuban exile votes in its 2004 reelection battle.
Unease over CIA ties cited
National Security Archive project director Peter Kornbluh attributes the U.S. government’s failure to win a conviction against Posada to Washington’s apparent complicity in some of Posada’s alleged criminal acts. Prosecutors’ efforts to banish any mention of his CIA service from the immigration case were “a reflection of real concern about details of past operations that might get thrown into the trial,” said Kornbluh, who oversees the George Washington University-based project aimed at disclosing past CIA operations.
Internal CIA cables and reports Kornbluh has unearthed suggest a pattern of contacts between Posada and U.S. government officials dating back to his arrival in Miami less than two years after Castro’s 1959 revolutionary triumph.
FBI agents struggling to put a case together for the New Jersey grand jury have reportedly visited Havana in recent weeks in an unusual act of collaboration with Castro’s security forces, who have preserved forensics in the case. News reports of the Havana trip spurred angry outbursts from South Florida’s three Cuban American congressional representatives. The three Republicans blasted the Bush administration for “asking a state sponsor of terrorism for ‘evidence’ regarding terrorism.”
Those advocating prosecution of Posada point to admissions he made about supervising the hotel bombings, in a June 1998 interview with author and freelance journalist Ann Louise Bardach in Aruba. One Italian tourist died in a 1997 bombing that Posada took responsibility for in the interview.
Bardach’s notes and tapes from that three-day visit with the exile have been subpoenaed by the New Jersey grand jury investigating reported links and money transfers between Cuban exiles in Union City, N.J., and Posada when he operated under a CIA-era code name from a front company in Guatemala. Bardach has been fighting the subpoena, claiming journalistic privilege, and the government has so far refrained from pressing the issue.
The grand jury has approached Bardach for evidence against Posada because the FBI documentation of money transfers and other incriminating materials were destroyed in the 2003 Miami bureau incident that Delahunt wants investigated.
FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said the supporting materials on any closed case are routinely cleared out of the bureau’s evidence locker to make room for active cases.
With the U.S. government unable or unwilling to raise a case against Posada, pressure is mounting within congressional and human rights circles for the Justice Department to satisfy Venezuela’s extradition request to try Posada for the Oct. 6,1976, Cubana Airlines bombing that took 73 lives.
“After learning that Mr. Luis Posada Carriles, a known terrorist, was released from U.S. custody and allowed to reside in the U.S. as a free man, I have become very concerned about our ability to protect our nation,” U.S. Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Wednesday.
The Caracas government asked for the extradition of Posada soon after he arrived in Florida in March 2005 on a shrimp boat owned by wealthy Cuban American developer Santiago Alvarez, now serving time for weapons violations related to another failed plot against Castro. Posada roamed about Miami for two months before federal agents arrested him in May 2005 for illegally entering the country. An immigration court ordered him deported four months later, but none of the countries contacted by Washington would take him.
Calls to the Cuban Interests Section and the Venezuela Information Office in Washington were not returned, but Cuban and Venezuelan media have denounced the freeing of Posada as evidence that Washington condones terrorism against innocent citizens of states it considers hostile.
With the immigration case dropped, Posada will be relieved of its accompanying house arrest and gag orders that have kept the ailing operative out of the public eye and confined to a small apartment in southwest Miami owned by his long-estranged wife. Nieves Posada and the couple’s two adult children had put up $350,000 in bonds pending trial.
Posada and his attorney were reportedly en route back to Miami from El Paso, where they had been preparing for the trial that was to have started Friday.
Amid scandals that have plagued the U.S. Justice Department, the Posada case has drawn little national attention beyond the exile community in Miami. But pressure is mounting, both domestically and abroad, to expose Posada for a lifetime of alleged transgressions, even if some were committed on behalf of or with the full knowledge of U.S. officials.
Nearly a decade after the plane bombing, after Posada had escaped a Venezuelan jail pending retrial, a fellow CIA operative ferried him from his Caribbean hide-out to El Salvador. There he earned as much as $10,000 a month from the U.S. government for organizing safe houses and flying weapons to anticommunist guerrillas in Nicaragua in what came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair.
Posada’s CIA weapons and explosives training was put to use repeatedly in the exile’s fight against Washington’s enemies, including at least half a dozen alleged plots to assassinate Castro.