Charges dropped for Cuban militant
Critics see double standard on terrorism as U.S. judge tosses charges for man tied to airline bombing that killed 73
by Robert Collier
May 10, 2007
Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle
In a case that critics say demonstrates a U.S. double standard on terrorism, a federal judge has dismissed all charges against Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative who has been accused of masterminding a 1976 bombing of a Cuban civilian airplane that killed 73 people and a series of 1997 bombings in Havana.
In a ruling Tuesday in El Paso, Texas, a federal judge dismissed immigration fraud charges against the Cuban-Venezuelan exile, citing a remarkably mundane reason -- the government's translator had botched the English-Spanish interpretation of Posada's naturalization interview in 2005.
Posada, 79, is expected to return soon to his home in Miami as a hero of that city's anti-Castro right wing, despite U.S. government documents made public recently that have tied him to terrorist acts.
The ruling quickly brought sharp criticism from the Venezuelan and Cuban governments, as well as some members of Congress.
Bernardo Herrera, Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, called the ruling "an outrageous double standard." Speaking at a press conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, he likened Posada to Osama bin Laden, noting that the bombing of the Cubana flight remains the world's ninth-deadliest act of airplane terrorism.
"The case of Posada is like if Osama bin Laden had been arrested in Afghanistan because he entered without a visa. For us, it's clear that this is in the hands of the White House," Herrera said.
In Congress, some liberals urged the Bush administration to use its powers under the Patriot Act to certify Posada as a terrorist and keep him behind bars.
"If the administration does not avail itself of all legal avenues to detain this terrorist and bring him to justice, it will send a message to the world that President Bush believes in the old adage that one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter," said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass.
Legally, Posada remains in a Kafkaesque limbo. He is under a deportation order, but courts have ruled that he cannot be deported to Cuba or its close ally Venezuela because of fears he would be subject to torture in those countries.
Since Tuesday's ruling, the Bush administration has downplayed the collapse of its case against Posada.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a statement late Wednesday noting that Posada must check in with immigration officials upon his return to Miami -- but not saying whether it plans to appeal the ruling.
"At this time, we're reviewing the judge's decision and we're evaluating our options," said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd. He declined to explain why the government had not filed terrorism charges against Posada. "I'm not going to get into our internal deliberations," he said.
Posada's life could hardly be more exotic, with the list of his CIA derring-do stretching from Cuba to Central America over four decades.
Born in Cuba in 1928, he was a student colleague of Fidel Castro before he fled the country after Castro's 1959 revolutionary takeover. He quickly began a long association with the CIA, receiving training in sabotage and explosives at the U.S. School of the Americas for the 1961 invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
Over the next few years, he played a key role in anti-Castro paramilitary groups based in Miami, and he also was involved in a 1965 attempt to overthrow the Guatemalan government. He then relocated to Venezuela, becoming a naturalized citizen of that country and eventually being named chief of Venezuela's secret police, which worked closely with the CIA.
On Oct. 6, 1976, a Cubana jet was blown up in midair after leaving Barbados for Havana. CIA documents released in 2005 indicate that the agency had prior knowledge of the plot, and a recently declassified FBI document placed Posada at two meetings where the bombing was planned.
"The CIA taught us everything -- everything," Posada said in a 1998 interview with the New York Times. "They taught us explosives, how to kill, bomb, trained us in acts of sabotage."
In that interview, the most extensive he has given, he implied that he had been involved in the Havana bombings, but he did not say so outright.
Posada faced charges in Venezuela for the airplane bombing, but escaped from prison there in 1985 and quickly resumed his CIA role. He was a key player in organizing the Reagan administration's supply flights to the Contra guerrillas who were fighting against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government. In 1997, Posada was linked to a series of bombings of hotels, restaurants and night clubs in Havana that killed an Italian tourist.
In 2000, he was discovered with 200 pounds of explosives in Panama City and arrested for plotting the assassination of Castro, who was visiting the country. He was pardoned by the Panamanian government in 2004, and he sneaked into the United States aboard a shrimp boat that landed in Florida in March 2005.
Since then, Posada has posed a delicate public-relations challenge for the Bush administration. He was arrested only after he held several press conferences bragging about his involvement in attacks against Cuba. Charged with immigration fraud, Posada stayed in and out of custody, and eventually his case was transferred from Miami to El Paso.
In a 38-page written order issued Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone accused the government of engaging in "fraud, deceit and trickery" to indict Posada. She called the government's naturalization interview with Posada a "pretext for a criminal investigation'' so it could keep him behind bars.
Jose Pertierra, a Washington attorney who is representing the Venezuelan government in the case, said the Bush administration deliberately botched the prosecution to protect an ideological fellow traveler.
"We're not indignant about what this judge has done; we're indignant about what the White House has done to bring out this decision," Pertierra said. "I don't think they're stupid at all. The government did as little as it possibly could, as sloppily as it possibly could. This was the result the government wanted all along."
Peter Kornbluh, a researcher at the National Security Archive, a Washington organization that has pursued the declassification of government records in the Posada case, said government officials may be implicated in a coverup.
In August 2003, Kornbluh noted, the Miami bureau of the FBI made the unexpected decision to close its terrorism case on Posada. Subsequently, according to FBI officials, five boxes of evidence were removed from the bureau's evidence room and destroyed. The U.S. attorney in Miami at that time was Marcos Jimenez, who had been a member of George W. Bush's legal team in the Florida 2000 election recount.