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Bush Family's Terrorism Test

By Robert Parry
August 31, 2005

A week after a Cuban civilian airliner was blown out of the sky in 1976, George H.W. Bush’s CIA was hearing from informants that two right-wing Cuban extremists were implicated in that terrorist attack – as well as in an earlier assassination in Washington – but the Bush Family has continued to protect these operatives for the three decades since.

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, Texas.

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.

CIA Protection

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, Michael Townley.

“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 Europe.”

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 Letelier-Moffitt murders.

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 regime.”

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.

Venezuelan Intrigue

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 Venezuela.”

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 Colombian territory.”

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 junta.

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 States

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 Charged

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 involvement.

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, Florida.

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.

Posada’s Reprieve

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 States.

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 & Project Truth.]

More Attacks

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 safety.

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.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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