Terror case snared in politics

Secrets could be bared if administration prosecutes covert operator

November 07, 2006|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MIAMI -- He has admitted bombing Havana hotels, served time for plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro and, for more than 20 years, was a fugitive charged with blowing up a Cuban airliner.

But 17 months after Luis Posada Carriles was arrested and sent to a Texas immigration lockup, U.S. officials have declined to label him a terrorist or charge him with a crime. On Friday, a federal judge in El Paso, Texas, gave the U.S. government until Feb. 1 to bring a case against Posada or free the reputed bomber.

He has become a political liability for the Bush administration in its declared global war on terrorism.

As a veteran of nearly five decades of covert operations in Latin America, including the Bay of Pigs invasion, clandestine Cold War actions and the Iran-contra affair, Posada knows where Washington's bodies are buried.

If Posada is prosecuted, he probably will defend himself against any criminal charges by arguing that his violent actions were taken on behalf of his CIA masters.

His Miami lawyer, Eduardo Soto, alluded to his client's past collaboration with U.S. intelligence services as he pressed the 78-year-old militant's unsuccessful quest for political asylum.

"A public trial of Luis Posada would certainly reveal embarrassing details on the degree to which U.S. covert operatives used terrorism as a tool in the 1960s," said Peter Kornbluh of the independent National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Kornbluh has compiled declassified CIA and FBI evidence of Posada's role in the bombing of a Cuban airliner near Barbados in 1976, which killed all 73 board.

Among the documents in the archive's online dossier is one recently obtained through Freedom of Information Act litigation that shows Posada informed his CIA minders of the plot to blow up the airliner three months before the attack.

The Bush administration has avoided bringing a criminal case against Posada, who has strong support among Miami's politically powerful Cuban exiles, by handling him like any other immigration offender and seeking his deportation.

Posada returned to Florida in March 2005, reportedly on a fellow exile's shrimp boat sent to fetch him from an island off the Yucatan Peninsula. He had made his way there six months after being pardoned by outgoing Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso in August 2004 after serving four years for attempting to kill Castro in 2000.

Moscoso's clemency decree for Posada and three U.S. militants was seen as a favor to the Bush administration in a presidential election year when the Cuban exile vote in Florida was vital.

Posada moved about Miami with impunity, despite indignant demands for his extradition by Cuba and Venezuela. Authorities arrested him two months after his arrival when he invited journalists to his Miami residence for a news conference.

A federal immigration judge in El Paso, where Posada has been held since May 2005, ruled last year that he should be deported to a country other than Venezuela and Cuba, which want to try him for the jetliner bombing. The federal government has spurned those countries' extradition requests, contending that Posada would be at risk of torture or execution.

The U.S. State Department approached Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica and El Salvador about taking Posada, but all refused. The Mexican government later said it would hand Posada over to Cuba if he re-entered Mexico.

Soto argued in August that U.S. authorities couldn't hold Posada indefinitely after abandoning efforts to send him abroad. U.S. Magistrate Norbert Garney agreed and recommended in September that Posada be released.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice urged the court to keep Posada in jail.

"Luis Posada Carriles is an admitted mastermind of terrorist plots and attacks. The Department of Justice believes that Posada is a flight risk and that his release would be a danger to the community," said spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement then notified Posada that the government had decided to prolong his detention because of concerns that his release "would have serious foreign policy consequences," according to an agency statement.

Under anti-terrorism powers claimed by the administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has only to ask Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez to brand Posada a terrorist to keep him locked up while the government pursues criminal action, said David Sebastian, Soto's paralegal.

The administration can hold Posada through a unilateral certification that he poses a threat to national security.

Soto has filed a writ of habeas corpus challenging the government's continued jailing of Posada on the immigration violation. That could force on the Bush administration to make a difficult choice between letting a man they call a terrorist walk free or prosecuting him and risking the public airing of some of Washington's darkest secrets.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Philip Martinez gave the administration the Feb. 1 deadline to prosecute Posada or release him.

Posada's fellow militants launched a petition drive, demanding that the Bush administration release him before today's election or risk losing support for Republican candidates among anti-Castro Cuban exiles.

"Some of us vote for President Bush. Others, like me, vote against him because he doesn't do anything for Cuba," said Juan Torres Mena, a vice director of the Brigade 2506 Bay of Pigs veterans association. "Those fighting against communism are in jail now. Before we were freedom fighters. Now we're terrorists."

Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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