That long record of loyalty is now being tested by
Venezuela’s demand that one of the Cuban exiles – former CIA operative
Luis Posada Carriles – be extradited from the United States to stand
trial as an international terrorist for the airplane bombing that killed
73 people. The request is before a federal immigration judge in El Paso,
It remains unclear whether the judge will order
Posada deported to Venezuela or – if the judge does – whether George W.
Bush’s administration would comply.
When Posada illegally sneaked into the United States
earlier this year and hid out in Miami for several weeks, neither
President Bush nor Florida Gov. Jeb Bush took any known action to catch
the fugitive terrorist. Only after Posada called a news conference was
the U.S. government shamed into arresting him.
Since then, the Bush administration has voiced an
unwillingness to turn Posada over to Venezuela, which is governed by
President Hugo Chavez, an ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. If Posada
gets U.S. protection again, it will represent a continuation of a Bush
Family policy dating back 29 years.
In the fall 1976, then-CIA Director George H.W.
Bush and his subordinates at the U.S. spy agency deflected suspicion
away from both the right-wing Chilean dictatorship of Gen. Augusto
Pinochet and anti-Castro Cuban exiles who had been collaborating with
Chile’s secret police in a wave of terrorist attacks.
Those attacks, which targeted critics of South
American military dictatorships, reached the center of American power on
Sept. 21, 1976. On that morning, a bomb ripped through a car carrying
Chile’s former foreign minister Orlando Letelier and two American
associates as they drove down a stretch of Massachusetts Avenue known as
Embassy Row. Letelier and female co-worker Ronni Moffitt were killed.
About two weeks later, on Oct. 6, 1976, a Cubana
airliner, flying the Cuban Olympic fencing team and other passengers to
Cuba, exploded after taking off in Barbados. Everyone on board died.
[For a fuller account of these cases, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
Inside the U.S. government, the two attacks were
quickly linked to Operation Condor, a campaign of terror and
assassination organized by South America’s right-wing juntas which
worked closely with the CIA in opposing leftist political movements.
Operation Condor had recruited anti-Castro Cubans trained by the CIA to
help carry out the killings.
Even before the Letelier and Cubana attacks, Bush’s
CIA knew a great deal about these operations. The Pinochet government
even had flashed its intention to mount an operation inside the United
States by involving the U.S. Embassy in Paraguay and CIA deputy director
Vernon Walters to provide cover for the Letelier assassins. Bush’s CIA
had in its files a photograph of the leader of the terrorist squad,
“The Agency had concrete knowledge that DINA had
murdered other political opponents abroad, using the same modus
operandi as the Letelier case,” Kornbluh wrote in his book, The
Pinochet File. “The Agency had substantive intelligence on Condor,
and Chile’s involvement in planning murders of political opponents in
Other information that directly linked Pinochet to
the Letelier assassination also began flowing into the CIA. On Oct. 6, a
CIA informant in Chile went to the CIA Station in Santiago and relayed a
story about Pinochet denouncing Letelier before the murder.
The informant said the dictator had called
Letelier’s criticism of the government “unacceptable.” The source
“believes that the Chilean Government is directly involved in Letelier’s
death and feels that investigation into the incident will so indicate,”
the CIA field report said.
But apparently to protect these U.S. allies from
exposure as international terrorists – and to spare the Ford
administration political embarrassment during the 1976 presidential
campaign – Bush’s CIA dragged its heels on turning over evidence that
might have quickly broken the case.
Instead, Bush’s CIA leaked false stories to the
U.S. media, exonerating Pinochet’s regime of responsibility for the
For instance, Newsweek reported in its Oct. 11,
1976, issue, that “the Chilean secret police were not involved. …. The
[Central Intelligence] agency reached its decision because the bomb was
too crude to be the work of experts and because the murder, coming while
Chile’s rulers were wooing U.S. support, could only damage the Santiago
However, inside the U.S. government, the evidence
kept pointing toward the Santiago regime as well as its collaborators in
the violent anti-Castro Cuban community. Those suspicions rose even
higher after the bombing of the Cubana plane.
According to a secret CIA cable dated Oct. 14,
1976, sources in Venezuela relayed information about both the Letelier
and Cubana bombings that tied in anti-communist Cuban extremists Orlando
Bosch and Luis Posada, who served as a senior officer in Venezuela’s
intelligence agency, DISIP.
The Oct. 14 cable – recently declassified and
obtained by the National Security Archive – said Bosch arrived in
Venezuela in late September 1976 “under the protection of Venezuelan
President Carlos Andres Perez, who had assigned his intelligence adviser
Orlando Garcia “to protect and assist Bosch during his stay in
On his arrival, Bosch was met by Garcia and Posada,
according to the report. Later, a fundraising dinner was held in Bosch’s
honor during which Bosch requested cash from the Venezuelan government
in exchange for assurances that Cuban exiles wouldn’t demonstrate during
Andres Perez’s planned trip to the United Nations.
“Also, during the evening, Bosch made the statement
that, ‘now that our organization has come out of the Letelier job
looking good, we are going to try something else,’” the CIA report said.
“A few days following the fund-raising dinner, Posada was overheard to
say that, ‘we are going to hit a Cuban airplane,’ and that ‘Orlando has
the details’. …
“Following the 6 October Cubana Airline crash off
the coast of Barbados, Bosch, Garcia and Posada agreed that it would be
best for Bosch to leave Venezuela. Therefore, on 9 October, Posada and
Garcia escorted Bosch to the Colombian border, where he crossed into
The CIA report was sent to CIA headquarters in
Langley, Virginia, as well as to the FBI and other U.S. intelligence
agencies, according to markings on the cable.
Meanwhile, the FBI’s legal attaché in Buenos Aires,
Robert Scherrer, was putting other pieces of the puzzle together.
Relying on a source in the Argentine military, Scherrer reported to his
superiors that the Letelier assassination was likely the work of
Operation Condor, the assassination project organized by the Chilean
Cracking the Case
In South America, investigators soon began rounding
up suspects. Two Cuban exiles, Hernan Ricardo and Freddy Lugo, who had
left the plane in Barbados, confessed that they had planted the bomb.
They named Bosch and Posada as the architects of the attack.
A search of Posada’s apartment in Venezuela turned
up Cubana Airlines timetables and other incriminating documents. The
Cubana Airlines probe also put U.S. investigators on the right track
toward solving the Letelier assassination as they learned more about the
network of right-wing terrorists associated with Operation Condor.
Though the key facts of the Letelier case were
rapidly becoming clear, the Chilean government’s role was kept under
wraps through the 1976 presidential election. Voters were not confronted
with any scandalous headlines about how Pinochet, the military dictator
who rose to power with the Nixon administration’s help, returned the
favor by bringing his violence to the streets of Washington.
On Nov. 1, 1976, the day before the election, the
Washington Post became the latest news outlet to report the CIA’s
assessment that Pinochet was innocent.
“Operatives of the present Chilean military Junta
did not take part in Letelier’s killing,” the Post wrote, citing CIA
officials. “CIA Director Bush expressed this view in a conversation late
last week with Secretary of State Kissinger.”
Nevertheless, on Nov. 2, 1976, Democrat Jimmy
Carter narrowly defeated President Gerald Ford.
After Ford’s defeat, CIA Director Bush finally
showed some concern about the danger from anti-Castro terrorism at least
inside the United States. In early November, Bush and a senior FBI
official, James Adams, flew to Miami to listen to field reports about
the problem of anti-Castro terrorism from FBI and CIA officers.
Bush then visited Little Havana, though it’s
unclear whom he talked with or what his message was. One anti-Castro
Cuban activist told me that the CIA’s message at the time was to carry
out no more attacks inside the United States, although the activist
said, the CIA put no bars on anti-Castro attacks outside the United
Over the next two years, U.S. investigators would
crack the Letelier case, successfully bringing charges against lead
assassin Townley and several lower-level Cuban operatives who had
assisted in blowing up Letelier’s car.
Prosecutor Eugene Propper told me that the CIA did
provide some information about the background of suspects, but didn’t
volunteer crucial information about Chile’s attempt to involve the U.S.
Embassy in Paraguay and the CIA as cover for Townley’s operation.
“Nothing the agency gave us helped us break this case,” Propper said.
Posada and Bosch were
charged in Venezuela for the Cubana Airlines bombing, but the men denied
the accusations. The case soon became a political tug-of-war, since the
suspects were in possession of sensitive Venezuelan government secrets
that could embarrass President Andres Perez. The case lingered for
almost a decade.
After the Reagan-Bush
administration took power in Washington in 1981, the momentum for fully
unraveling the Letelier-Moffitt conspiracy dissipated. The Cold War
trumped any concern about right-wing terrorism.
Though the Letelier-Moffitt
evidence pointed to the highest levels of Chile’s military dictatorship,
including intelligence chief Manuel Contreras and Gen. Augusto Pinochet
himself, the Reagan-Bush administration backed away from demands that
the architects of the terrorist attack be brought to justice.
Regarding the Letelier murder, neither Bush nor
Walters was ever pressed to provide a full explanation of their actions
in 1976, such as why the CIA deceived the U.S. press about Chile’s
When I submitted questions to Bush in 1988 – while
he was Vice President and I was a Newsweek correspondent preparing a
story on his year as CIA director – Bush’s chief of staff Craig Fuller
responded, saying “the Vice President generally does not comment on
issues related to the time he was at the Central Intelligence Agency and
he will have no comment on the specific issues raised in your letter.”
My editors at Newsweek subsequently decided not to
publish any story about Bush’s year at the CIA though he was then
running for President and citing his CIA experience as an important
element of his resumé. Walters also rebuffed interview requests on the
Letelier topic prior to his death on Feb. 10, 2002, in West Palm Beach,
Many key Letelier conspirators escaped U.S. justice
altogether. Chile’s intelligence chief Contreras, though indicted, was
never extradited to the United States to stand trial. As a head of state
favored by Washington, Pinochet was never charged.
Although Pinochet had sponsored a terrorist attack under the nose of
the U.S. government at a time when Bush was in charge of U.S.
intelligence services, Bush didn’t appear to hold a grudge.
In 1998, when Pinochet was detained in Great Britain on an
extradition request from Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who was pursuing
Pinochet for his role in killing Spanish citizens, one of the world
leaders who rallied to Pinochet’s defense was George H.W. Bush, then the
former President of the United States.
Bush called the case against Pinochet “a travesty of justice” and
urged that Pinochet be sent home to Chile “as soon as possible,” a
position ultimately endorsed by the British courts.
Once Ronald Reagan and
George H.W. Bush were in power in the 1980s, life began looking up for
the alleged Cubana bombers, too.
In 1985, Posada escaped
from a Venezuelan prison, reportedly with the help of Cuban exiles. In
his autobiography, Posada thanked Miami-based Cuban activist Jorge Mas
Canosa for providing the $25,000 that was used to bribe prison guards
who allowed Posada to walk out of prison.
Another Cuban exile who
aided Posada was former CIA officer Felix Rodriguez, who was close to
then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and who was overseeing secret
supply shipments to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. After fleeing
Venezuela, Posada joined Rodriguez in Central America and was assigned
the job of paymaster for pilots in the contra-supply operation.
After one of the
contra-supply planes was shot down inside Nicaragua in October 1986,
Posada was responsible for alerting U.S. officials to the crisis and
then shutting down the operation’s safe houses in El Salvador.
Even after the exposure
of Posada’s role in the contra-supply operation, the U.S. government
made no effort to bring the accused terrorist to justice.
By the late 1980s,
Orlando Bosch also was out of Venezuela’s jails and back in Miami. But
Bosch, who had been implicated in about 30 violent attacks, was facing
possible deportation by U.S. officials who warned that Washington
couldn’t credibly lecture other countries about terrorism while
protecting a terrorist like Bosch.
But Bosch got lucky. Jeb Bush, then an aspiring
Florida politician, led a lobbying drive to prevent the U.S. Immigration
and Naturalization Service from expelling Bosch. In 1990, the lobbying
paid dividends when Jeb's dad, President George H.W. Bush, pardoned
Bosch, allowing the unapologetic terrorist to remain in the United
In 1992, also during
George H.W. Bush’s presidency, the FBI interviewed Posada about the
Iran-Contra scandal for 6 ½ hours at the U.S. Embassy in Honduras.
Posada filled in some
blanks about the role of Bush’s vice presidential office in the secret
contra operation. According to
a 31-page summary of the FBI interview,
Posada said Bush’s national security adviser, Donald Gregg, was in
frequent contact with Felix Rodriguez.
“Posada … recalls that
Rodriguez was always calling Gregg,” the FBI summary said. “Posada knows
this because he’s the one who paid Rodriguez’ phone bill.” After the
interview, the FBI agents let Posada walk out of the embassy to freedom.
[For details, see Parry’s
Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press &
Posada soon returned to
his anti-Castro plotting.
In 1994, Posada set out
to kill Castro during a trip to Cartagena, Colombia. Posada and five
cohorts reached Cartagena, but the plan flopped when security cordons
prevented the would-be assassins from getting a clean shot at Castro,
according to a Miami Herald account. [Miami Herald, June 7, 1998]
The Herald also described
Posada’s role in a lethal 1997 bombing campaign against popular hotels
and restaurants inside Cuba that killed an Italian tourist. The story
cited documentary evidence that Posada arranged payments to conspirators
from accounts in the United States. “This afternoon you will receive via
Western Union four transfers of $800 each … from New Jersey,” said one
fax signed by SOLO, a Posada alias.
Posada landed back in
jail in 2000 after Cuban intelligence uncovered a plot to assassinate
Castro by planting a bomb at a meeting the Cuban leader planned with
university students in Panama. Panamanian authorities arrested Posada
and other alleged co-conspirators in November 2000. In April 2004, they
were sentenced to eight or nine years in prison for endangering public
Four months after the
sentencing, however, lame-duck Panamanian President Mireya
Moscoso – who lives in Key Biscayne, Florida, and has close ties to the
Cuban-American community and to George W.
Bush’s administration – pardoned the convicts.
Despite press reports
saying Moscoso had been in contact with U.S. officials about the
pardons, the State Department denied that it pressured Moscoso to
release the Cuban exiles, several of whom promptly flew to Miami where
they were received as heroes.
As Washington Post writer Marcela Sanchez
noted in a September 2004 article about the Panamanian pardons, “there
is something terribly wrong when the United States, after Sept. 11
(2001), fails to condemn the pardoning of terrorists and instead allows
them to walk free on U.S. streets.”
Now, with Posada facing possible deportation to
Venezuela, the Bush Family’s long-standing loyalty to these old
anti-communist terrorists will be tested again.
During court hearings that began on Monday before
immigration judge William Abbott, Bush administration lawyers were
noncommittal about what they would do if the judge orders Posada sent to
Venezuela. But the administration had suggested earlier that it would
not extradite Posada to any country “believed to be acting on Cuba’s
behalf,” an apparent reference to Venezuela.
If Posada does go to Venezuela and if he ever tells
all he knows about the shadowy world of Cold War operations, he may end
up sharing many tales about how the Bush Family helped protect him and
his violent cohorts.