Freed anti-Castro figure still target of FBI inquiry

Published May 12, 2007

MIAMI - Luis Posada Carriles, the controversial Cuban exile believed to have committed terrorist bombings in Cuba, hopes to return to Miami today a free man.

But he may not be out of legal jeopardy yet.

Posada could face charges more serious than the immigration fraud case thrown out by a Texas judge Tuesday, according to details of an FBI investigation revealed in court documents.

The FBI investigation links Posada to a 1997 bombing campaign that targeted hotels in Havana and caused the death of an Italian tourist. The FBI has reportedly made three evidence gathering trips to Cuba, the most recent within the last several weeks, and a grand jury has also been convened in New Jersey.

Posada, 79, a former CIA operative and fierce opponent of Fidel Castro, is most usually associated with the notorious bombing of a Cubana airliner two decades earlier that killed 73 people off the coast of Barbados. Despite declassified government documents pointing to close ties between Posada and the bombers, no smoking gun has ever emerged in that case.

But documents in the 1997 case contain detailed evidence that appears to place Posada at the heart of the bomb plot, allegedly financed by Cuban exiles in the United States.

A June 2005 affidavit by Miami FBI Agent Thomas H. Rice, describes information from an unnamed "confidential source" in Guatemala who claims to have evidence of Posada hatching the bomb plot in the offices of a Guatemalan utility company run by two associates.

The source describes "putty-like" bombmaking equipment and a plot to smuggle explosives into Cuba hidden in shoes and shampoo bottles. He finds a note in a case containing a note pad with Posada's name on it. "The tyrant has to be eliminated regardless of how many others are killed, " it says.

Other documents relate how Cuban exiles sent $19, 000 in wire transfers from Cuban Americans in New Jersey to Posada. One is a handwritten fax signed "Solo, " a known alias of Posada. The fax included a news story about the 1997 bombings urging more publicity. "If there is no publicity, the work is useless, " the fax says.

Soon after, Posada gave an interview to the New York Times in which he admitted his role in the bombings. By giving the interview, Posada hoped to "generate publicity ... and ... frighten away tourists, " Rice stated.

Posada later denied making the statements and now says he had no role in the bombings.

Experts following the Posada case are baffled by the government's failure to bring terrorist charges against Posada.

"It's a very odd situation, " said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia think tank. "This is an administration that is running a global war on terror, they had a guy in custody who they described as a terrorist, yet they have not treated him as a terrorist in the legal system."

The Justice Department says it is reviewing the judge's ruling and evaluating the government's options, said spokesman Dean Boyd.

Complicating matters is Posada's immigration status. Born in Cuba, he is a Venezuelan national. Despite once holding U.S. residency, he lost his claim after spending years abroad. Normally an illegal immigrant like Posada would be deported.

But the U.S. has refused extradition requests from both Cuba and Venezuela. Five countries - Canada, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Mexico - have declined to take him.

Reaction in Miami, where Posada's wife lives, has been mixed. Even among the city's hard-line exile community, Posada is seen by many as a Cold War relic. Outside the United States, however, the handling of Posada's case has drawn outrage.

"The United States makes a mockery of international organizations, international law and the world's conscience about this case, " Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said this week. Venezuela has renewed its request for Posada's extradition.

Some in Congress have begun to speak out about the government's seemingly inconsistent attitudes toward Posada. Leaders demanded to know why U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez hasn't declared Posada a security threat and jailed him under the Patriot Act. Posada had to drive to Miami from Texas because he is on a "no-fly" list.

"Mr. Posada's release from prison calls into question our commitment to battling terrorism and raises concern about a double-standard in our treatment of terrorists, " Rep. William D. Delahunt, D-Mass., wrote the attorney general.

The U.S. government's handling of the case has prompted some to ask if the CIA is protecting its onetime asset, fearing he might speak out against the agency if he is prosecuted.

But the government cannot ignore the FBI evidence, others believe. "If the prosecutors are serious enough to send FBI agents to Cuba, it seems to me they are trying to compile a very strong case, " said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive.

"If the Justice Department were to bring an indictment this would truly be a turning point in U.S.-Cuba relations, " Kornbluh added. "It would send a message to the remnants of the anti-Castro exile militants that finally in the post 9/11 world the U.S. no longer is going to benignly look the other way as its soil is used as a base for terrorist actions."

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com