Notwithstanding former President Jimmy Carter’s recent statement to the contrary, Undersecretary of State John Bolton’s remarks about Cuba’s biological weapons capabilities underscore lingering concerns with the rogue island only 90 miles from the United States.
Bolton, on May 6, told an audience at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation that the U.S. is suspicious about Cuban biomedical laboratories and their ability to transfer biological weapons technology to Iraq, Syria and Libya, all countries that Cuban President Fidel Castro visited last year. Bolton also made remarks, which may be interpreted as a clear signal of hardening State Department policy toward Cuba, faulting the Clinton administration for not labeling Cuba as a national security threat.
Clinton refused to do so despite attempts by members of his staff to bring attention to the problem.
Indeed, in 1998 Clinton administration Defense Secretary William S. Cohen wrote a letter to Armed Service Committee Chairman Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., pointedly stating that he was “concerned about the use of Cuba as a base for intelligence activities directed against the United States” and “Cuba’s potential to develop and produce biological agents, given its biotechnology infrastructure.”
Cohen’s letter concludes by telling Thurmond that the Department of Defense “remains vigilant to the concerns posed by Castro’s Cuba.” Attached to the letter was the defense secretary’s classified report, “The Cuba Threat to U.S. National Security.” The report’s publicly released summary read: “Cuba’s biotechnology industry is one of the most advanced in emerging countries and would be capable of producing biological warfare agents.”
Concurrent with Cohen’s letter, the CIA released a much-overlooked 1998 report that warned of the dangers of a biological terrorist attack on the U.S. The report explained that such an assault, if launched by a country with sophisticated means, could go undetected and be erroneously attributed to natural causes. The report listed a little over a dozen smaller nations as suspected of possessing biological weapons. Included high on the list was Cuba.
Despite Cohen’s and the CIA’s seemingly strong concerns, the Clinton administration did nothing to alter its posture or policies toward Cuba. Even after Clinton and members of the National Security Council received highly classified briefings on mounting concerns about Cuba’s biological warfare capacity and increasing numbers of Cuban spies being detected in South Florida, Washington, D.C., and New York, nothing changed.
Ironically, in 1994 President Clinton banned U.S. intelligence agencies from conducting covert operations in Cuba. The action, according to an October 1996 Miami Herald article by Christopher Marquis and Andres Oppenheimer, was based on “the CIA’s disastrous record on [Cuba] and an effort to smooth ties with Havana.”
In May 1995, Clinton appointed Richard Nuccio his special adviser on U.S.-Cuba policy. Nuccio, a former senior policy adviser in the State Department’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs, was a proponent for better relations with Cuba. He pushed the administration on its lack of issue positions on Cuba and later said, “[The administration] doesn’t have a position on anything. It just had a bid, like an opening bid: ‘OK, let’s try this and then we’ll see where we are.’”
Nuccio’s appointment by Clinton was not well received by hardliners on Cuban policy. Many in South Florida’s large and politically powerful Cuban community spoke out in protest. Cuban groups in Florida complained that Nuccio was soft on Castro and that his policy thinking “blurred Cuba’s uniqueness with the rest of Latin America.” The same groups were vocal in their complaints that Nuccio failed to take Castro’s “history of international terrorism, human-rights abuses and burgeoning biological warfare threat anywhere near seriously enough.”
On Sept. 19, 1996, the Clinton administration stripped Nuccio of his high-level CIA security clearance. Nuccio was charged with having given classified information to then-Rep. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., a member of the House Intelligence Committee. The information concerned the involvement of CIA “assets” in the torture and murders – and subsequent cover-up – of Michael Devine, an American innkeeper in Guatemala, and Efriam Bamaca, a Guatemalan resistance leader married to U.S. citizen, Jennifer Harbury.
Torricelli leaked the information to The New York Times and the angered CIA, with Clinton’s approval, yanked Nuccio’s security clearance. Nuccio responded that he had done nothing improper and accused the CIA of acting vengefully. After the administration rejected his appeal of the CIA’s action, Nuccio resigned in protest. As a result of the tremendous amount of publicity, the CIA came in for a round of harsh criticism focused primarily on its use of “unsavory characters” to perform its uglier biddings.
U.S. intelligence activities in Cuba have been lamentable since the mid-1950s when the Eisenhower administration subtly severed ties with dictator Fulgencio Batista. Few Americans seemed to notice the policy shift apart from the Mafia, which virtually controlled the island’s tourism industry, and a handful of huge U.S corporations, like United Fruit and Standard Oil, with substantial Cuba-based holdings. Crime lords and corporate executives were greatly concerned about the future of Cuba under Fidel Castro but were quietly assured by U.S. officials that all would be fine. Still uneasy, both groups acted to hedge their bets by paying more than tacit homage to Castro’s rebel forces, usually in the form of arms shipments, and by continuing to provide hefty kickbacks to Batista.
At the same time, the CIA, with ample assistance from a cadre of American “journalists,” proclaimed Castro a “modern-day Robin Hood” who had “the best interests of the Cuban people at heart.” One 1959 CIA report christened Castro “a new spiritual leader of Latin America democratic and anti-dictator forces.”
Hardly sharing the CIA’s enthusiasm for Castro was the U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Earl E.T. Smith. A no-nonsense former businessman, Smith began knocking heads with the CIA on Cuban policy on June 13, 1957, the day he was sworn into office. Having spent substantial time in Cuba beginning in 1928, Smith knew of Fidel Castro’s strong communist leanings. When the State Department had him officially briefed on Cuba by New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews, Smith was shocked to hear Matthews compare Castro to Abraham Lincoln.
Later, on Aug. 30, 1960, Smith appeared before a Senate subcommittee examining the role of the U.S. “in Castro’s and the communist rise to power in Cuba.” He testified: “Herbert Matthews [in his articles and editorials] served to inflate Castro to world stature and world recognition. … [U]ntil that time Castro had been just another bandit … who had terrorized the campesinos. … After the Matthews articles, [Castro] was able to get followers and funds. … From that time on, arms, money and soldiers of fortune abounded.”
In 1962, after resigning as ambassador, Smith recounted that he became aware within days of becoming ambassador that the CIA officials operating out of the U.S. embassy in Havana were acting consistently to undercut and circumvent his authority and policy decisions.
Said Smith: “There is no advantage to the United States in sending an ambassador to a country if the CIA representatives there act on their own and take an opposite action. For instance, the ambassador reports that the present policy of the State Department will only benefit communists; the CIA reports that the revolutionary leadership is not communist controlled.”
Six days after Batista was forced to flee Cuba and Castro gave his victory speech, on Jan. 7, 1959, the United States officially recognized Cuba’s new government. Castro soon visited Washington and met with Vice President Richard Nixon. In a secret memorandum detailing the meeting written to Eisenhower and CIA Director Allen Dulles, Nixon wrote that Castro is “either incredibly naive about communism or is under communist discipline.” Within days, Nixon began quietly prodding administration officials to seriously consider taking measures against Castro.
Five months after Nixon’s meeting, in Oct. 1959, the CIA performed a remarkable flip-flop on Castro, and Eisenhower approved the agency’s request to give covert support to elements in Cuba that could depose Castro. Less than 60 days later, following Castro’s nationalization of American corporations in Cuba and the seizure of all Mafia-controlled property on the island along with the forced expulsion of all Mafia operatives, the CIA upped the ante in its strategy to remove Castro.
Only “violent action,” concluded the CIA, would rid the Western Hemisphere of Castro. The Agency’s Latin American chief recommended that “thorough consideration be given to the elimination” of Cuba’s new leader.
In early 1960, CIA officials in the U.S. embassy in Havana were requested by the CIA branch chief, Col. J.C. King, to use their influence on several of the nearly 30 American “soldiers of fortune” who had fought for Castro and were still in Cuba, in efforts to “eliminate Castro.”
Several weeks later, William Alexander Morgan, a mercenary from Toledo, Ohio, with assistance from two other Americans, made the first of two unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Castro. Morgan, along with the Americans who acted with him, was eventually arrested. In 1961, Morgan was executed by a firing squad in Cuba.
Aggravated with Morgan’s initial failure, King, at a CIA meeting in Washington on March 9, 1960, stated that Fidel Castro, his brother, Raul, and Che Guevara would have “to be eliminated in one package” or things could come to an invasion of the island.
King then reached out for Federal Narcotics Bureau official Charles Siragusa. At the time, Siragusa was surreptitiously on the CIA’s payroll overseeing MK/ULTRA-related safe houses in Chicago and Manhattan and coordinating a highly secret domestic group known as SG/1 . At King’s request, CIA Security Office Chief Sheffield Edwards met with Siragusa in December 1960 and asked the narcotics official if he would dispatch one of his “special employees,” who had been previously used by the CIA, to Havana to commandeer a team that would murder the Castro brothers and Che Guevara. According to a 1978 interview with Siragusa, Edwards said the CIA “had nearly $500,000 to expend on the project.”
Siragusa, unknown to King and Edwards, consulted his former World War II OSS supervisor, James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s counterintelligence chief, asking Angleton’s opinion of the project. Angleton, according to Siragusa, was “less than encouraging” about the likely success of killing Castro. Subsequently, Siragusa discretely took on another “equally important agency request.” Edwards then turned to Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, the CIA’s Technical Services Division chief.
It may be safe to maintain that Gottlieb’s subsequent involvement in efforts to assassinate Cuba’s leaders was the triggering point of Castro’s keen interest in biological warfare.
Gottlieb, a highly trained biochemist who specialized in the development of deadly bacteriological agents for the CIA, proposed murdering Castro through the use of lethal and undetectable germ and chemical agents. Said one former intelligence official, “I think it is altogether logical that after you attempt to dispose of someone using an inventive means, that the fortunate someone might develop a counter-interest in those means.”
Interviews with Gottlieb in 1999 and declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that one of the substances considered for use against Castro was “a new convulsive compound which produced a condition similar to electroshock.” Called “Indoklon” by its developers at the Bressler Research Laboratory of the University of Maryland, its odorless vapors “produce immediate convulsions accompanied by arching of the back, stiffening of the neck and unconsciousness.” Human testing with the compound had been conducted at Spring Grove State Hospital, Baltimore, and at Chestnut Lodge in Rockville, Md.
Gottlieb also proposed that a special aerosol spraying device, designed by scientists at Fort Detrick’s Special Operations Division, be employed to contaminate the radio studio where Castro broadcast his frequent speeches. The device was to be filled with the powerful hallucinogenic BZ, which scientists have described as being “about ten times more powerful than LSD.”
In May 1967, Gottlieb told CIA Inspector General J. S. Earman, who was investigating the Castro murder plots, that he “distinctly remembered a plot involving cigars.” Gottlieb said the idea “never got beyond the talking stage,” but that the proposal was “to dip some of Castro’s cigars in various chemical and biological substances.” Gottlieb also recalled a scheme to dose Castro with LSD before a scheduled appearance before the United Nations assembly. The TSD chief said this plot was “nixed by higher-ups at the last minute.”
There was another scheme aimed at making Castro’s beard, which CIA analysts had concluded was the root cause of his charismatic masculinity, fall out through the use of thallium salts, “a chemical used by women as a depilatory.” Administered in proper amounts, Gottlieb explained, “depilation occurs along with total paralysis.”
One of CIA’s more remarkable schemes, cooked up in January 1963, involved lacing a diver’s suit with a deadly bacteria. The suit was intended to be a gift to Castro, an avid skin diver, from James B. Donovan, a respected lawyer who was negotiating with Castro for the release of the 1,113 men captured at the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. According to Gottlieb, “the diving suit was coated inside with a rare fungus” that “produced a debilitating and chronic skin disease.” In addition, Gottlieb explained, the diving suit’s breathing apparatus was “contaminated” with an “especially resistant” tubercle bacilli, which causes tuberculosis. The suit was actually prepared by CIA scientists but was never delivered to Donovan.
In September 1960, Edwards’ assistant, James P. O’Connell, a former FBI agent, began meeting with mobsters Johnny Rosselli, Sam Giancana, and Santo Trafficante Jr. in Los Angeles, New York, Washington and Florida to enlist their assistance in plans to kill Castro. Rosselli, who knew the Cuban underworld like the back of his hand, was closely aligned with John Vincent Martino, an electronics specialist who had been imprisoned in Cuba’s La Cabana Fortress along with William Alexander Morgan. Before departing for Cuba in late 1957, Morgan briefly worked with Rosselli in New Jersey, where he first met Martino, and in Florida. At the time, all three men were arranging Cuba-bound arms shipments for anti-Batista forces controlled by deposed former Cuba president Carlos Prio.
At one February 1961 meeting, a CIA official handed Rosselli a packet of lethal pills to be used on Castro. Rosselli then met with Trafficante, who claimed to already have an assassin placed in Cuba. Nothing came of this or other mob-related attempts, except for the eventual and still unsolved murders of Rosselli and Giancana just days before they were scheduled to meet with congressional investigators. Siragusa would later say that Rosselli, shortly before his death, admitted that Trafficante was “playing the CIA like a well-tuned violin on the Castro stuff” and that the Florida-based mobster “never had any intention of helping to kill Castro.”
After John F. Kennedy became president, the government’s desire to assassinate Castro intensified. It may be speculated that this intensity stemmed in part from Castro’s nationalization of American corporations in Cuba. Included on the list of companies was the Great Lakes Carbon Corporation, owned by George Skakel Sr., father of Bobby Kennedy’s wife, Ethel. Richard D. Mahoney reports in his book, “Sons & Brothers: The Days of Jack and Bobby Kennedy,” that the Kennedys were less than pleased after “certain fidelista irregulars” attempted to confiscate the Skakels’ 55-foot yacht anchored in Cuba.
Frustrated with the CIA’s lack of success, the Kennedys brought in quintessential cold-war warrior Gen. Edward Lansdale to oversee Castro’s murder. Lansdale had had significant exposure to assassination programs through his close association with Maj. Lucien Conein, who relied extensively on the highly mysterious and closed Corsican Brotherhood for assistance with the Army’s post-World War II “executive action” projects.
In numerous White House strategy sessions, Lansdale held Attorney General Bobby Kennedy in a schoolboy’s awe as he spewed out possible scenarios for deposing Castro. One of Lansdale’s more outlandish proposals, according to Gottlieb and former Lansdale aide Thomas Parrott, involved launching a “psychological operation” aimed at spreading rumors among Cuba’s largely Roman Catholic population that the Second Coming was about to occur over Havana’s harbor. Cubans were to be informed that Jesus Christ himself felt that Castro was the antichrist. After the rumors had circulated to a wide enough point, U.S. Navy submarines, strategically positioned in the harbor, were to set off a spectacular pyrotechnics display that would provoke an uprising against Castro’s regime. CIA officials, many of whom thought Lansdale “certifiable,” dubbed the plot “Elimination by Illumination.”
In mid-1963, researchers in the CIA-funded Special Operations Division at Fort Detrick were requested to quickly ready a dozen 25-pound biological bombs for insurgency use by a team of Special Forces out of Fort Bragg, N.C. The team was soon sent to Swan Island off the coast of Florida, but it is not known if they ever were ordered to Cuba. About six months later, another Special Forces team was assembled on Florida’s Useppa Island, but their ultimate undertakings are also unknown. Over the past two decades, Castro has accused the U.S. of mounting at least 12 biological attacks against livestock and crops on Cuba.
Allegations that Cuba is covertly operating a biological weapons, or BW, program are nothing new. For nearly two decades, defectors from the island have told authorities that this was the case, but never was any hard evidence produced. Then in the final months of the Clinton administration, a book by Ken Alibek entitled “Biohazard,” sent shock waves throughout South Florida.
Alibek, a former KGB colonel who oversaw the Soviet offensive BW program and defected to the U.S. in 1992, reported that the Russian commander of BW programs, Maj. Gen. Yuri Kalinin, informed him in 1990, following a visit to Cuba, that Castro was deeply involved in offensive biological weapons research.
Alibek told the Miami Herald in June 1999, “They (Cuba) are using the same cover stories we had developed [in Russia], about factories [producing] single-cell bacteria as animal feed. … I have no question Cuba is involved.”
Clinton administration officials scoffed at Alibek’s claims and said there was no proof that Cuba was attempting “to produce military-grade BW agents or munitions.” Quipped one State Department spokesman, “We have no evidence of that.” Another official, speaking to Miami Herald reporter Juan O. Tamayo on condition of anonymity, said, “We don’t see any sign of production facilities. We don’t see any special facilities with eight-foot fences and stuff like that.”
At the same time, other observers concerned with Cuba’s possible BW capacities opined confidentially, “Given the sad state of the art with intelligence gathering in Cuba,” it would be “absolutely foolish to jump to any conclusions.” One of the same observers said that Cuba’s “secret services are far more sophisticated than most would have the American public believe. … for years they have been making a mockery of the CIA. It’s all well-documented.”
The “documented” reference is to a lengthy television documentary that Havana television produced in 1987. Entitled “The CIA War Against Cuba,” the eight-part series both outraged and embarrassed the intelligence agency. The documentary graphically shows secretly filmed U.S. agents conducting meetings with their Cuban sources revealing in the process that the sources are actually double-agents feeding bogus information to the CIA. In all, the documentary featured 10 Cuban intelligence agents who the CIA had trusted for years as extremely reliable informers.
As a result of the televised exposures, U.S. intelligence operations in Cuba collapsed. Said one former CIA official, “We were left reeling. They had been on to us for years; they knew everything that we were doing before we did it.”
The CIA re-evaluated its efforts in Cuba and decided to embark in a new direction that some former officials mockingly termed “the kinder, gentler approach.” The agency began funneling large grants and resources through foundations and other federal agencies to U.S.-based advocacy and special-interest organizations like the AFL-CIO and Catholic charities. In turn, these organizations fed monies to associated Cuban groups. The net result, in the eyes of one former official, was that “a few of the more savvy players in the U.S. fattened their bank accounts, but no real intelligence gathering occurred.” Said one Clinton administration official to Miami Herald reporters Marquis and Oppenheimer, “The cloak-and-dagger stuff just didn’t pan out.”
All of this may lead one to wonder how anyone can say with any certainty what is occurring in Cuba today with biological warfare activities. But reports keep piling up, and examination of the circumstantial record can be overwhelming and frightening.
A July 12, 1999, article in The New Yorker magazine by Richard Preston, an expert on BW and best-selling author, perhaps laid the groundwork for Bolton’s remarks last week. Preston stated that the U.S. government “keeps a list of nations and groups that it suspects either have clandestine stocks of smallpox or seem to be trying to buy or steal the virus.” That list is now known to include Cuba.
Preston’s article also laid out suspicions that the recent, and now spreading, outbreak of West Nile Virus on the East Coast may have come from a deliberate terrorist act and not from naturally occurring causes. Initially, some scientists scoffed at Preston’s claim, but things have now changed.
One entomology expert who maintains an open mind on the West Nile outbreak, Dr. Jonathan F. Day of the University of Florida, said in an exclusive WorldNetDaily interview, “The sporadic appearance of WNV is disturbing, especially its appearance in the Florida Keys. It really appears that WN has been seeded throughout the eastern half of the United States. I guess the question is, by whom?”
Day continued, “The Florida and East Coast situations relative to human cases are remarkable. In some places, Atlanta, the Florida Keys, WNV appeared in humans without any other indication that the virus was present. In some cases, humans are acting as sentinels for the sentinel (animal carriers). This is unlike any other mosquito-borne virus in North America.”
On July 20, 1998, Insight magazine reported, “A classified annex to the 1998 Pentagon’s report to Congress contained the warning: ‘According to sources within Cuba, at least one research site is run and funded by the Cuban military to work on the development of offensive and defensive biological weapons.’
Pentagon officials say that the report relied heavily on “earlier data compiled in December 1993 and January 1994 by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment,” which identified Cuba “as one of 17 countries” with “sophisticated biological weapons capability.”
According to some observers, that capability has not simply remained on the shelf for future use by Cuba.
In 1998, Reuters reported that Wouter Basson, former director of South Africa’s chemical and biological warfare program, had revealed in sworn statements that Cuba provided the genesis of his program by employing chemical weapons against South African soldiers fighting in Angola. A year earlier, commentators Rowland Evans and Robert Novak revealed that Cuban troops in Africa used chemical weapons against the U.S.-backed UNITA forces.
Other observers say that people don’t have to look as far as Africa for proof that Cuba is actually using biological weapons. In several Cuban-American publications, journalist Ernesto F. Betancourt has advanced the theory that Castro may be behind the U.S. outbreak of the West Nile virus. Bentancourt points out that Cuba is in prime position to covertly release WNV into the U.S. because the island is “outside the reach of U.N. inspectors,” possesses “the technological capability” and is located “within reach of migratory birds.”
Dr. Manuel Cereijo, a professor at Florida International University, agrees with Betancourt. In an October 1997 paper entitled “Castro: A Threat to the Security of the United States,” Cereijo wrote: “To conduct a bacteriological attack, a country or a terrorist group does not need to have any sophisticated means of delivery, such as a missile. A container the size of a five-pound sugar bag can bring bacteriological materials capable of causing over 50,000 causalities in an urban area, depending on the flow of air and atmospheric conditions.”
In the same paper, Dr. Cereijo states, “Many Cuban engineers and scientists have been trained by former East Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam and China.”
Investigative journalist Jonathan T. Stride has written that he has seen Cuban documents that reveal that there is a biological warfare factory in East Havana. Stride writes that Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and the head of Cuba’s military, affectionately calls the factory “la fabriquita” (the little factory), despite the fact that the facility is “huge, reportedly covering an area bigger than a couple football fields.”
Stride also claims that Col. Alvaro Prendes, a military pilot who defected from Cuba in 1994, reported that Castro maintained an earlier chemical-weapons factory called Quimonor, which was constructed by Soviet technicians in 1981 in Cuba’s Matanzas province.
The turning point in policy thinking about Cuba’s BW capabilities may have come with the FBI’s Sept. 20 arrest of a spy for Cuba operating within the Defense Intelligence Agency. Ana Belen Montes, a senior DIA analyst on Cuban matters, was arrested for allegedly stealing sensitive secrets and for betraying a number of U.S. agents. Montes played an instrumental role in writing a 1998 study advancing the position that Cuba “is not a threat to the U.S.”
According to Department of Defense officials, Montes did far more damage to U.S. intelligence efforts in Cuba than initially estimated and reported to the press. Sources say that Montes, who traveled at least once in 1993 to Cuba on a CIA-financed sabbatical to study military affairs, acted to soften Pentagon and CIA assessments of Cuba’s biological warfare capabilities, including the report submitted by Defense Secretary Cohen to Sen. Thurmond.
Said one Pentagon official last month on Montes, “She routinely briefed high-ranking Defense Department and CIA groups on sensitive and secret Cuban matters. She was in a prime position to influence policy decisions on Cuba’s biological warfare potential. … She is flesh and bone proof that we now need to take that threat more seriously.”
Late last week, Castro angrily responded to Undersecretary Bolton’s remarks by proclaiming, “They (the State Department) have no alternative but to lie, lie, lie.” Said Castro, “The only proof in Bolton’s statement is that Cuba is 90 miles away from the continental United States.” Castro then went on to lecture listeners at length about the pending demise of imperialism.
In many ways, Castro’s response was reminiscent of a speech he made in 1961. Ranting about U.S. intervention, he warned that if the United States continued its “aggressive imperialistic policies against Cuba” it was “putting New York in danger of becoming another Hiroshima.” Many listeners thought that Castro was quite serious at the time – many still today feel the same way.
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H.P. Albarelli Jr. is an investigative journalist and writer who lives in Florida.