The sudden and untimely arrival on U.S. territory of a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asset and admitted terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles, poses an embarrassing challenge to the credibility of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.
Posada, who in an interview with the New York Times seven years ago admitted to organizing a wave of bombings in Cuba in 1997 that killed an Italian tourist and injured 11 others, is best known as the prime suspect in the bombing of a Cubana Airlines flight shortly after it took off from Barbados in October 1976.
The incident, in which all 73 crew members and passengers, including teenage members of Cuba’s national fencing team were killed, was the first confirmed midair terrorist bombing of a commercial airliner.
Then-President George Bush in 1990 pardoned Orlando Bosch, another Cuban exile opposed to President Fidel Castro and implicated in the plot, overruling a strong U.S. Justice Department opinion that called for Bosch’s deportation.
Posada, who also worked for the operation supplying Contra rebels in Central America in the mid-1980s until the Iran-Contra scandal broke open with the downing of one of its planes, was also convicted of conspiring to assassinate Castro during a 2000 visit to Panama. A Panamanian court sentenced him to eight years in prison in 2004, but he was unexpectedly pardoned by outgoing President Mireya Moscosa last September and flew to Honduras.
"This is a real test of George W. Bush’s commitment to fighting terrorism," said Peter Kornbluh, a Latin American specialist at the nongovernmental National Security Archive (NSA). This week, the organization released a series of declassified U.S. documents that detailed Posada’s terrorist history and his previous association with the CIA.
"Already, U.S. credibility has been eroded in the six weeks since Posada apparently arrived in the United States without the government doing anything about it," Kornbluh told IPS Thursday. He said Posada had apparently arrived in south Florida, almost certainly by boat, in late March.
A spokesperson at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Miami, where Posada’s attorney, Eduardo Soto, announced April 12 that his client had filed an asylum claim, told IPS that its agents were not looking for Posada because "no warrant for his arrest has been issued."
"We do have an interest in talking with him, but we don’t have a way to exercise jurisdiction without a warrant," she said.
Venezuela, where Posada was originally arrested shortly after the 1976 Air Cubana bombing, is expected to transmit a provisional arrest warrant to the State Department either Friday or Monday, according to Arelis Baiba, a spokesperson for its embassy here. The issuance of the warrant will be followed by a formal extradition request.
In deliberating on the case earlier this week, the Venezuelan Supreme Court referred to Posada as "the author or accomplice of homicide," adding, "he must be extradited and judged."
It is unclear how the Bush administration, whose ties to Venezuela are increasingly fraught, will react, although many analysts said they believe that Washington will not deport him to Caracas.
Some said that administration intermediaries are trying to persuade Posada to leave the U.S. precisely in order to avoid further embarrassment for Bush.
"I think they’re trying to persuade him to quietly leave the country," said Wayne Smith, a Cuba specialist at the Washington-based Center for International Policy (CIP) who served as chief of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "But will he go along with that? I don’t know."
For now, the administration insists it has no idea where Posada is or even whether he is actually on U.S. soil. At a public appearance earlier this week, the hardline Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, ignoring the fact that Posada’s lawyer was the first to declare that he was in the United States, charged that more recent charges by Castro himself that Posada was here could be "inventions."
In a call-in to a Miami radio station, Bosch, who said he believes Posada should indeed receive asylum, said he had talked with Posada, who confirmed that he was in the United States.
"In terms of where he presently is, I think it’s fair to say we don’t know," said State Department spokesman Tom Casey Monday. Asked whether the State Department considered Posada to be a terrorist, Casey said the foreign ministry had no "particular assessment."
According to the NSA, Posada, who is now 77 years old, joined the U.S. military in 1963 and was recruited by the CIA, which trained him in demolition. CIA documents posted at the NSA’s Web site show that he was terminated as an asset in July 1967 only to be reinstated four months later.
The relationship lasted until 1974, although he retained contact with the agency at least until June 1976, three months before the plane bombing, according to the documents. During that period, he worked as a senior official in the Venezuelan intelligence agency, DISIP.
Another 1972 CIA document describes Posada as a high-level official in charge of demolition at DISIP. The report noted that Posada had apparently taken CIA explosives supplies to Venezuela and was associated with a Miami Mafia figure named Lefty Rosenthal.
A series of 1965 FBI memos obtained by NSA describe Posada’s participation in a number of plots involving sabotage and explosives, as well as his financial ties to Jorge Mas Canosa, another anti-Castro activist who would later go on to found and lead the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).
Plots included efforts to blow up Cuban or Soviet ships in Veracruz, Mexico, and the bombing of the Soviet library in Mexico City. One memo links him to a major plot to overthrow the Guatemalan government, an effort halted by the discovery by U.S. Customs agents of a cache of weapons that included napalm and explosives. During this period, Posada was working with the CIA.
In one of the very first reports on the Oct. 6, 1976, bombing of the Cubana Air flight, a cable from the FBI Venezuelan bureau cites an informant who identified Posada and Bosch as responsible and notes that the two Venezuelan suspects who both worked for a Caracas private security firm set up by Posada in 1974 had been arrested by police in Barbados.
A follow-up Nov. 2 cable cites information from another Cuban-exile informant for DISIP, Ricardo Morales Navarrete, also known as "Monkey" Morales, about Posada’s participation in planning meetings before the bombing.
Posada was arrested by Venezuelan authorities shortly after the bombing in what one former FBI counterintelligence official described to the Times earlier this week as a "preventative measure to prevent him from taking or being killed."
"They knew he had been involved," said Carter Cornick. "There was no doubt in anyone’s mind, including mine, that he was up to this eyeballs," in the Air Cubana bombing. Posada then spent the next eight years in jail, punctuated by two inconclusive trials, before escaping a minimum-security facility in 1985 and making his way to Central America.
Posada, who is rumored to be suffering from cancer, now hopes to gain asylum in the United States, posing a particularly delicate problem for a president whose family has long courted anti-Castro militants in the Cuban-American community but who himself has sworn that neither terrorists nor the governments that harbor them should escape punishment.