Think of how angry Americans would be if Pakistan's government let Osama bin Laden emerge from his cave of refuge and take up open residence in Islamabad?
A scene just like that is the reality here in the United States where Luis Posada Carriles, who ranks in the top ten list of the world's most prolific terrorists, is living freely in Florida–despite his known involvement in blowing up a civilian airliner and other bombings and assassination attempts over more than forty years. Since May, when a Federal judge tossed out the minor charges of immigration fraud leveled by Alberto Gonzales's Justice Department, Posada has been enjoying life in Miami's hard-line Cuban exile community. The U.S. media has all but forgotten about him. His victims, however, remain seared by this remarkable injustice and so should we.
Today, after all, marks the anniversary of the mid-air destruction of Cubana Airlines flight 455, which took the lives of 73 passengers and crew, including the Cuban Olympic Fencing team and a group of teenage Guyanese science students on their way to Cuba to go to medical school. Their families will commemorate this day of loss, as they have for 31 years, wondering whether Posada and his co-conspirator Orlando Bosch–who is also living freely in Miami–will ever be brought to justice.
But for those of us in the United States, the case of Luis Posada Carriles is not only about a long overdue legal reckoning for the victims of terrorism, it is about the hypocrisy of the purported leader in the global fight against international terrorism now harboring a renowned purveyor of terrorist violence. "The United States cannot tolerate the inherent inhumanity of terrorism as a way of settling disputes," declared a 1989 Justice Department ruling that Orlando Bosch should remain detained or deported after he illegally returned to the United States from Venezuela. "We must look on terrorism as a universal evil, even if it is directed toward those with whom we have no political sympathy."
That principle was ignored by the administration of George H.W. Bush which, urged on by politically powerful rightwing Cuban exiles in Florida, set Bosch free in 1990. Following in his father's footsteps, George W's administration has politicized the Posada case as well, allowing him to go free and flaunting the credibility of the U.S. war on terror in the process.
Make no mistake, this former CIA asset and demolition trainer is a resolute and unrepentant advocate of terror. As early as 1965, declassified CIA intelligence reports cite Posada's operations to blow up ships and other targets, financed by benefactors in Miami. Documents uncovered in his office in Caracas link Posada to a string of sabotage attacks on consulates and travel agencies that did business with Cuba in the summer of 1976. Those same records contained information on the route of Cubana flight 455.
Indeed, the part Posada played in the first atrocity of aviation terrorism in the Western Hemisphere is especially well corroborated. Declassified FBI reports place him in meetings in Caracas where the attack on the plane was planned. According to a secret CIA intelligence report, a high level informant overheard Posada declaring, "We are going to hit a Cuban airliner and Orlando has the details" only days before the plane exploded after take off from Barbados. Confessions by the two Venezuelans who brought the bomb on board–plastic explosives stuffed into a large tube of Colgate toothpaste–and who worked for Posada, noted that their first calls after the airliner plunged into the ocean were to Posada's office. "The bus has gone off the cliff and the dogs are dead," they reported.
Both Posada and Bosch were arrested in Caracas. Posada was held in Venezuela for nine years for the aircraft bombing but escaped from prison in 1985. (He then went to El Salvador to work on the Reagan administration's illicit contra resupply operation.) In the spring and summer of 1997, he orchestrated a bombing campaign against Havana hotels and discotheques that resulted in the death of an Italian businessman; "That Italian was sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time," Posada noted in an interview with the New York Times a year later in which he publicly took responsibility for the attacks. "I sleep like a baby."
Three years later, at age 73, he was caught in Panama with 34 pounds of C-4 explosives, which he planned to use to blow up an auditorium where Fidel Castro was scheduled to speak.
After serving only four years of a prison sentence, Posada and three co-conspirators were inexplicably pardoned and freed; still wanted in Caracas for the bombing of flight 455, Posada became a fugitive once again. But in March 2005, he illegally entered the United States and surfaced in Miami, sufficiently comfortable in the cradle of the anti-Castro exile community to announce his presence to the media and actually seek political asylum. If Orlando Bosch could live freely in Miami, why couldn't Luis Posada?
For two months, the Bush administration basically pretended that he was not there. But this is the post 9/11 world. Massive and embarrassing publicity finally forced Bush's hand. On May 17, 2005, DHS agents detained Posada on illegal entry charges, and then indicted for lying to immigration authorities on how he came to the United States.
Yes, you read that correctly: one of the world's most infamous terrorists charged as an illegal immigrant. Using the counter-terrorism provisions of the Patriot Act, the administration could have certified Posada as a terrorist danger and detained him indefinitely. But apparently the Justice Department viewed his brand of political violence is different than those other terrorism suspects with Middle Eastern names.
The Administration could have also accepted Venezuela's formal petition for Posada's extradition. After all, Posada is a naturalized Venezuelan citizen; the crime was planned in Caracas, and he is a fugitive from justice from Venezuela. But Bush has his priorities: it is more important to mollify rightwing Republican Cuban-American voters in Florida who would view Posada's extradition as a betrayal and as a victory for Chavez and Castro, than to turn over a terrorist to the country that has a legitimate claim to hold him accountable for the first act of airborne terror in the hemisphere, a devastating crime.
The charade of detaining Posada on immigration violations has not been lost on the U.S. courts. Indeed, last May a Federal Judge dismissed the entire illegal entry case against Posada, citing prosecutorial misconduct and incompetence. Without even a slap on the wrist, he returned to Miami a free man, limited only in his movements by the ironic DHS decision to place him on a government "no fly" list.
To date, Bush has made a mockery of his motto that no nation should harbor terrorists and all nations should take steps to bring those who commit acts of terrorism to justice. If his administration will not certify and detain Posada for the international criminal he is, if his administration will not extradite Posada to Venezuela because Bush doesn't like Chavez, the administration still has one option to redeem itself: the Justice Department can indict Posada for the hotel bombings in Havana ten years ago for which he has publicly claimed credit.
The known body of evidence in this case is strong: the FBI has an informant who witnessed Posada's meetings in Guatemala where the bombings were organized, and saw a bag of 23 tubes of plastic explosives in the offices Posada used. Couriers have told how they were recruited by Posada associates to transport the explosives in Prell shampoo bottles and in their shoes. Federal authorities are also in possession of an August 1997 fax, in Posada's own handwriting and signed "Solo"–one of his nom de guerres–stating that "if there is no publicity, the job is useless" and arranging for funds to be "sent by Western Union from New Jersey." Additional evidence was gathered during a rare FBI trip to Havana late last year and presumably turned over to a federal grand jury which as been impaneled in Newark to hear this case.
With a new attorney general designate soon to face confirmation hearings, the Senate Judiciary Committee has the opportunity to voice its concerns about the way the Justice Department has allowed a known terrorist to go free. Retired judge Michael Mukasey, who is known for being tough on terrorism, should be given every opportunity to disassociate himself from the political contamination of this case and to commit the Justice Department to finally holding Posada accountable for his acts of international violence.
Prosecuting Posada matters. It would put our country on the side of justice for a crime that took place in Cuba that was inspired politically to hurt the Castro regime. This, in turn, would send a signal to Cuba and the world that Washington is serious about deterring acts by terrorists using U.S. soil as their base of operations. It would end a dramatic and hypocritical inconsistency in our policy toward terrorism. Moreover, the families of Posada's many victims deserve their day in court.
And, who knows. If we take the man known as Latin America's Osama bin Laden off our own streets, someone might just help us take America's bin Laden off theirs.
This piece was co-written with Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba
Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, a non-profit
research center in Washington D.C.