(Publisher note: This article was submitted by one of the authors, Matt Lawrence, who is a member of the Havana Journal. The management of Havana Journal Inc. has approved of the posting as a courtesy to one of its members. However, all opinions and statements are those of the author and not of the management of Havana Journal Inc.)
March 30, 2009
By Wes Vernon
April is “Cuba month” for the Obama administration.
The Observer, the Sunday edition of the UK’s left-wing Guardian, approvingly tells its readers that the Obama White House “has moved to ease some travel and trade restrictions as a cautious first step towards Havana…raising hopes of an eventual lifting of the four-decade-old economic embargo.”
The report goes on to add that “several Bush era controls are expected to be relaxed in the run-up to [the April] Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago,” thus — in Rodney King “Can’t we just all get along”-style (our words) — signaling “a new era of ‘Yankee’ cooperation.’”
Not so fast
Predictably, the “no-enemies-on-the-left” crowd and a few others — who should know better — are hailing this as a welcome breakthrough, implying that in the great move toward “cooperation,” the onus is on the shoulders of the United States, while poor little Cuba has nothing for which to make amends. In trying to deconstruct that mythology, one hardly knows where to begin. But the cold shower of reality can start with the new book Betrayal: Clinton, Castro & the Cuban Five. The thoroughly documented bottom line in this shocking exposé is “In the end, Fidel Castro got away with murder” (italics in original). The book has been 13 years in the making — involving painstaking shoe-leather sleuthing and putting it all together in writing.
Authors Matt Lawrence and Thomas Van Hare focus on the day in early 1996 (Feb. 24) when the Cubans shot down two Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR) planes (and attempted to bring down a third) whose humanitarian mission was to assist and rescue raft refugees fleeing Cuba on the dangerous waters of the Straits of Florida. Many of the rafters never made it to the free shores of America, but freedom-loving Cubans were nonetheless willing to risk their lives to get out of there — a telling commentary on the Castro jackboot-on-the-neck conditions in their homeland.
Fidel’s dictatorship was very sensitive to that public relations black-eye, perhaps fearing that influential touchy-feely saps in U.S. academia and the salons of the Upper East and West sides of Manhattan might experience a twinge of conscience or second thoughts regarding their ideological slavish whitewash of the dictatorship 90 miles from our shores.
To compound the tragedy, many people within our own government that day were aware of the unique danger or — at the very least — knew something was afoot and did not think to pick up a phone and warn the pilots that the Cubans were pro-actively looking that day for an opportunity to target the rescue flights.
In a nutshell
The three planes were unarmed. Two of them carried four doomed Cuban exiles — three of them U.S. citizens (Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Costa, and Mario de la Pena) and the fourth a legal U.S. resident (Pablo Morales, who was working toward citizenship and had a “Green Card”). A third plane (piloted by Jose Basulto, the BTTR leader) made it safely back to Florida. They were chased by Cuban MiGs. The two mercy flights were shot down by the Cubans even though they presented a threat to no one. Theirs was purely a mission of mercy.
What did — and did not — happen
First, what did not happen — realizing that the Cuban government, true to Marxist form, lied in defending the taking of four innocent lives.
Even to begin to justify an interception/shootdown based on an incursion, here is what would have had to happen: 1 — BTTR would have had to be heading south toward Cuba. 2 — BTTR would have had to maintain radio silence, as well as try to sneak across the line to attack Cuba. 3 — In either case, Cuban MiGs would have taken off and begun patrolling in their airspace in case BTTR attempted to fly over Havana or attack Cuba. 4 — BTTR would have had to cross into Cuban airspace and head toward Havana. 5 — In that event, the MIGs would have intercepted and fired warning shots, attempting to force the BTTR to land. 6 — Or, if BTTR attacked Cuba (obviously quite hard to do in unarmed Cessnas), their planes would no longer have been considered non-combatants, and they could legitimately be taken down. 7 — Then, and only then, based on international law, could the MiGs justify shooting at the aircraft.
Instead, this is what actually took place:
1 — BTTR (unarmed) headed south toward Cuba, but presented no threat, as was the case with the thousands of previous, identical mercy missions that they had previously flown. 2 — The Cuban MiGs took off and headed north into international airspace, hunting BTTR aircraft. 3 — BTTR openly communicated with Havana Air Traffic Control and stated its intention to fly a routine search and rescue mission. 4 — All BTTR aircraft then turned east to fly parallel “track lines” as they did on any regular search mission. 5 — The Cuban MiGs flew past the first BTTR aircraft (Seagull One), apparently not seeing it, to attack and shoot down the second one (Seagull Charlie) — and were seen by the first plane. 6 — BTTR’s first aircraft (Seagull One) crossed (inadvertently) into Cuban airspace in the confusion of events — while headed east, i.e., not toward Cuba. 7 — The Cuban MiGs then shot down another BTTR plane (Seagull Mike). 8 — The first BTTR plane (Seagull One) then flew toward home to attempt an escape from the hunting MiGs. 9 — Two additional Cuban MiGs were sent out to chase and shoot down the last plane. They failed. Their murderous mission was reluctantly aborted, but not before they had come within three minutes of South Florida, having illegally crossed into U.S. airspace on an attack mission aimed at murdering U.S. citizens.
NO justification, period
And most significantly: 10 — No warning shots were fired. Nor were there any attempts to force BTTR to land. It was outright, cold-blooded murder, author Van Hare reiterates in an e-mail to this column.
Attempted cover-up begins
The BTTR plane that made it home was piloted by Jose Basulto. The minute his aircraft landed safely and shut down its engines inside its hangar at Florida’s Opa-Locka Airport, he was met by a man who was awaiting his arrival and who claimed to be a U.S. Customs official. He demanded that Basulto hand over the plane’s taped intercom conversations. Basulto refused.
No one in the U.S. government claims to have authorized anyone to meet Basulto and demand the taped conversations. The true identity of the stranger is unknown to this day. He could have been someone from an agency of the U.S. government whose top brass do not want to be identified. Author Thomas Van Hare believes it is more likely that the man was a Cuban agent posing as a U.S. government official.
U.S. spectators and another mysterious disappearance
Major Jeffrey Houlihan, a highly rated U.S. Customs radar operator, saw the airborne killing spree on his radar screens as the events were unfolding. Of all those in the U.S. government watching the whole thing on radar screens, only Major Houlihan made a “911” call for help.
Testifying later in court, the major said while all this was going on, he ended up talking to the Senior Director Technician at Southeast Air Defense (SEADS):
“What I told him was do you see [the Brothers to the Rescue] aircraft? and he said yes, we’ve been briefed.”
Leading up to: “I said well, it looks like a MiG-23 to me heading directly to the United States. I think that’s important. And the [Senior Director Technician] responded we’re handling it, don’t worry.”
The authors document that instead of following “Standard Operating Procedure,” for the duration of the shootdown and subsequent hunt of the third aircraft, the USAF ready F-15 jet fighters, which should have launched in intercept, were taken off battle stations, and were ordered to taxi back to their hangars and shut down their engines. The book notes that the U.S. Military later justified that inaction, by claiming it to be a “communications mix-up.”
“Mix-up” indeed. The authors also publish that the USAF squadron commander was on the phone with SEADS literally pounding on the desk and begging for authorization to launch — which was repeatedly denied.
Later, Maria Fernandez, a Clinton-appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, told a congressional committee that the name of the Senior Director Technician who took the call that day was one Col. Frank Willy, an Air Force officer. She also noted at the time that the colonel had since “retired.”
Here’s another unsolved mystery: Van Hare tells this column, “[W]e searched for Col. Frank Willy — in all 50 states — using White Pages look-ups, Internet name searches, and more. We never found him. Perhaps in publishing this book, he will finally be found and make himself available for an interview.”
That alone begs the suspicion that the colonel was told by some authority to disappear into utter oblivion as part of a cover-up. But — ever cautious — as is the case with the authors all throughout Betrayal — Van Hare tells me, “I do not believe there were any stone walls erected,” and that “maybe he passed away or has an unlisted number. We would have loved to speak with him, but never found him.”
Yet another loose end
Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), while serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, fired off a letter to then-Defense Secretary William Perry demanding an explanation as to why nothing was done — either to respond when the MiGs apparently were 3 minutes off the U.S. coast, or to prevent the tragedy and alert the civilian pilots. The senator asked 11 detailed questions. The authors could find no record that the letter was ever answered. Moreover, when the House International Relations Committee held a hearing on the tragedy, a Customs official “with significant knowledge of the incident was prohibited from testifying in open session,” according to Helms. Here, the word “stonewall” unmistakably applies.
Over their 13 years of research, the authors of Betrayal were able to amass and document evidence, which they present in their book, that high officials in the U.S. government — including several senior staff at the Clinton White House — had advance knowledge of the shootdown, yet did nothing to prevent the incident. This is not to say, authors add, the U.S. authorities were legally “complicit” in the murder of the four BTTR pilots — but it is nearly equally damning.
“Nonetheless,” Betrayal charges, “even if unwittingly, they effectively condoned the shootdown murder of U.S. citizens.”
The buck stops where?
“There is no direct evidence [italics mine — WV] that President Bill Clinton himself had prior knowledge of the plan.” But advisors “at the highest level of his administration knew of Cuba’s plans,” as did “members of the U.S. military, and of the State Department Diplomatic Corps” and “many of these senior advisors knew for months or at least weeks what was coming, but failed to act.”
The Betrayal multi-year probe adds, “It is also questionable as to whether President Clinton was kept fully in the dark,” and then concludes, “There have been some who’ve wondered aloud how the president could not have known [again, italics added].”
Sandy Berger — again?
Lawrence and Van Hare name Clinton’s then Deputy National Security Advisor — none other than Sandy Berger — as “the man who most likely could have stopped Brothers to the Rescue from flying that day had he answered his phone or checked his e-mails in the final hours of February 23, the eve of the tragedy.
Another obvious red flag came during a meeting in Cuba between Cuban and American officials. In that discussion, Cuban officials bitterly complained about BTTR. A Cuban cosmonaut and Air Force general directly asked former Ambassador Robert White about the reaction of the U.S. military if Cuba were to shoot down one of the Brothers to the Rescue airplanes. Quoting the book: “The most that was said by any members of the delegation was that the shootdown would be a public relations disaster for Cuba and would further serve to endorse the validity of the views shared by hardliners within Miami’s exile community [italics in original].”
So the public relations angle — rather than the savagery of the act — was all the U.S. delegation could consider in response. God forbid that we give any PR ammunition to those freedom-loving “hardliners” — the mutual concern of both the Cuban government and — apparently — the Clinton administration!
Verdict, but no justice
Cuba was found guilty in a U.S. court, and the Castro government fumed and stomped its feet in angry denial (fake anger is also a part of the Marxist playbook). But the evidence was plain — especially after the transcript of the Cuban communications was cited where Havana’s control tower and the MiG pilots ghoulishly savored the opportunity to commit their unprovoked cold-blooded murder — even screaming joyful celebration as they fired their missiles to down the little unarmed Cessnas.
For all that, Cuba not only suffered little punishment for its acts, but has insisted the shoot-down was justified. The clear record, however, exposes the Cuban dictator Castro followed the Marxist culture wherein lies, lies, and damn lines are virtuous if the end result is the advancement of the Communist cause.
There are several other angles to all this. Readers of Betrayal will find them fascinating. One in particular is worthy of note here:
The murder of the unarmed civilians was facilitated by spies. This case has served to spotlight a Cuban spy network as pervasive as any of the old Soviet spy rings at the highest levels of our government before and during the Cold War.
That in and of itself deserves a separate column. Later.
For now, all I’ll write is that reading Betrayal: Clinton, Castro & the Cuban Five has been one of the highpoints of the year so far. I’d recommend you purchase your copies (http://www.mattlawrencebooks.com) before the book mysteriously disappears from the online bookstores. Oh, no, of course, that could never happen — or could it?
© Wes Vernon