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Will U.S. harbor terrorist?

Authors: Peter Kornbluh, National Security Archive, and Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
May 15, 2005
The Baltimore Sun


WASHINGTON - The illegal entry into the United States of legendary anti-Castro Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles and his request for asylum present the Bush administration with a dilemma: The president can bow to the pressure from Miami's hard-line Cuban-American community to grant Mr. Posada a haven, or he can detain him as an "excludable alien" for his life-long involvement in acts of international terrorism.

Mr. Bush's decision will be viewed as a test of the principles he has championed - that no nation should harbor terrorists and that every nation must do its part in bringing those who commit acts of terrorism to justice.

Mr. Posada is one of the world's most unremitting purveyors of violence. Widely considered the godfather of Cuban exile efforts to overthrow Fidel Castro, the 77-year-old self-proclaimed freedom fighter has practiced the art of sabotage, bombing and attempted assassination since the early 1960s, when he was trained in demolition and guerrilla warfare by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Consider this record of terror:

Oct. 6, 1976: Mr. Posada masterminded the destruction of Cubana Airline Flight 455. The plane blew up just after taking off from Barbados, killing all 73 men, women and children aboard, including the entire teenage Cuban Olympic fencing team. Within 24 hours, according to a declassified FBI cable dated the next day, an intelligence source "all but admitted that Posada [and others] had engineered the bombing of the airplane."

He was arrested and jailed for nine years in Venezuela until 1985, when he bribed his way out of prison and fled to El Salvador.

1997: Mr. Posada orchestrated a series of hotel bombings in Havana intended to deter the growing tourism trade in Cuba. An Italian businessman was killed and 11 people wounded. In a taped interview with New York Times reporter Ann Louise Bardach, Mr. Posada proudly assumed responsibility and suggested such acts of terror would continue. "It is sad that someone is dead," he said, "but we can't stop."

November 2000: Mr. Posada was arrested in Panama, charged and convicted as the ringleader of a conspiracy to assassinate Mr. Castro during a state visit - a plot that involved detonating a carload of plastic C-4 explosives that could have killed dozens of innocent bystanders.

But in 2004, he and three other Cuban-Americans were suddenly pardoned by Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso. Mr. Posada went into hiding in Honduras. Six weeks ago, using a false passport, he apparently sneaked into the United States and decided to seek political asylum on the basis of his past relations with the CIA.

To date, the Department of Homeland Security has made no move to find and arrest him. Could an American president give refuge to an individual with such a record of terrorist violence? One already has: George H. W. Bush. The first Bush administration decided to give an administrative pardon to Mr. Posada's long-time partner in crime, Orlando Bosch.

Mr. Bosch, who headed a group that the FBI described as "an anti-Castro terrorist umbrella group," was also arrested and imprisoned in Venezuela as a co-conspirator in the Cubana airline bombing. He was released in 1987 and returned, illegally, to the United States.

Despite a 1989 ruling by the Justice Department that Mr. Bosch "has been resolute and unwavering in his advocacy of terrorist violence" and should be deported because he threatened "to engage in activities which would be prejudicial to the public interest, or endanger the welfare, safety or security of the United States," the White House yielded to the political lobbying of the right-wing anti-Castro forces in Florida and released him to live, unmolested, in the Miami community.

President Bush certainly will be tempted to follow the precedent set by his father. A decision to allow Mr. Posada to stay would be a reward to the anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Florida who believe the president owes them for delivering Florida electoral votes in the last election. Moreover, sending Mr. Posada back to Venezuela - officials there are preparing a formal extradition petition - would be a bitter pill for an administration that is escalating its hostile rhetoric against the government of Hugo Chavez, in part because of its close relations with Cuba.

But with the credibility of the war on terrorism and the safety of U.S. citizens at stake, the United States has no other choice but to deport him to Venezuela or turn him over to an international tribunal in Europe. The evidence, contained in voluminous FBI and CIA files, of Mr. Posada's unrelenting passion for violence is overwhelming and more than sufficient to reject his application for political asylum.

In keeping with Washington's commitment to advance international cooperation to bring terrorists to justice, it is evidence that should be shared with judicial authorities when and wherever Mr. Posada is put on trial.

"I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world," Mr. Bush stated last fall during the election campaign. Allowing Mr. Posada to stay would tell the world that, in fact, there is a place where those who use such tools are accepted: Here in the United States.

Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive. Julia E. Sweig is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Inside the Cuban Revolution.