By Robert Parry
- Lost History: The CIA's Fugitive Terrorist
WASHINGTON -- On Feb. 7, 1992, at 9 a.m., in Room 426 of the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, two FBI agents sat down with a fugitive terrorist. For 6 1/2 hours, the agents debriefed the man who spoke with a faint slurping sound, the result of a bullet that had struck his face and nearly sliced off his tongue.
The fugitive, then in his early 60s, labored through his story, including his usual denial that he had committed the mass murder of scores of civilians. But the agents were not interested in that long-ago act of terror. They wanted to know instead about the man's secret work for Ronald Reagan's White House.
In 1986, during a congressional ban on U.S. military assistance to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, the fugitive terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles, had been recruited into Oliver North's secret gun-running operation. Though charged in Venezuela with allegedly blowing a civilian airliner out of the sky a decade earlier, the CIA-trained explosives expert was made the operation's logistics chief. He oversaw caches of munitions stored at El Salvador's Ilopango airport and paid North's crews with bags of cash delivered from Miami. In return for this contra help, Posada was rewarded with false government papers to conceal his identity.
Then, in October 1986, when one of North's supply planes was shot down and the operation was exposed, Posada's last job was to clear the safe houses of incriminating evidence. One federal drug enforcement officer, Celerino Castillo, later told the FBI that shortly after the houses had been cleaned out, Salvadoran drug agents raided them searching for evidence of contra narcotics smuggling.
After the FBI interview ended on Feb. 7, 1992, Posada walked out of the U.S. Embassy to freedom. The 31-page summary of his interview was stamped "secret" and filed away in the records of the Iran-contra investigation conducted by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh who brought no charges based on Posada's information. A partially censored version of Posada's debriefing was recently obtained by The Consortium from the National Archives.
In some ways, the 1992 FBI interview was just one more strange chapter in Posada's long career as a shadow soldier in the Cold War. But the bizarre situation, in which an accused international terrorist could freely enter and leave a U.S. embassy, also spoke volumes about Washington's ambivalence over criminal activities by former CIA operatives. Many of these warriors have enjoyed virtual licenses to kill or to commit other crimes with what some police agencies call "get-out-of-jail-free cards."
Like hundreds of other young Cubans, Posada enlisted in the CIA's Cold War adventures in 1960, after fleeing Castro's communist revolution. Posada received paramilitary training for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, but his battalion stayed behind in reserve in Nicaragua, as Castro's forces overwhelmed the exile invasion force on the beach.
But Posada's war was only beginning. Back on the CIA payroll in the mid-1960s, he slipped arms into Cuba for possible future insurrections. He worked with anti-Castro extremist Orlando Bosch in sabotage attacks against Cuban targets, from ships to embassies. "There was a time when I thought this was the way to liberate Cuba," Posada told The Miami Herald. "Attack everything that served Fidel. Make him lose an embassy here, a consulate there."
When Castro didn't fall, however, the Cuban exiles volunteered as shock troops in the international war against communism. Some exiles, such as Felix Rodriguez, worked directly for the CIA in Southeast Asia. Others were farmed out to regimes across South America to oversee anti-leftist "dirty wars." Posada landed a job with Venezuela's intelligence service, DISIP.
By the mid-1970s, with Cuban exiles often in the background, violence was sweeping Latin America. In 1973, the Chilean military staged a bloody coup to oust the elected government of Marxist president Salvador Allende, who died in the fighting. In 1976, the Argentine army invented a new word, "disappeared," for the fate of suspected leftists who were swept off the streets by the thousands and never seen again.
In 1976, too, Bosch and other Cuban exiles were itching to hit again at Castro. Bosch chaired a secret meeting in the Dominican Republic to plot strategy. Bosch has claimed that Posada was there, although Posada has publicly denied participating. Afterwards, Cuban exiles dramatically stepped up their terror attacks against Castro and his friends.
Cuban exiles helped Chilean intelligence hunt down Allende's foreign minister, Orlando Letelier, who was considered a Castro ally. Letelier and an American co-worker were killed when assassins detonated a bomb taped to Letelier's car as it traveled down Embassy Row in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 21, 1976. The murder occurred after the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay had alerted then-CIA director George Bush to a suspicious Chilean intelligence mission to the United States. But Bush and the CIA did nothing to thwart the attack.
Two weeks later, on Oct. 6, a Cubana airliner took off from Barbados. Nine minutes into the flight, a bomb exploded killing all 73 people on board, including the Cuban national fencing team. Police soon arrested two men who had gotten off the plane in Barbados. They were Posada's employees and had called Posada immediately after the plane crashed. One of the men confessed to the bombing. And when police searched Posada's residence, they found incriminating evidence, including Cubana flight schedules.
Working for North
Venezuelan authorities charged Posada and Bosch with masterminding the bombing. The two Cuban exiles denied the charges, and the case became a political tug-of-war with Venezuela uncomfortable prosecuting the pair but unwilling to set them free. Finally, in 1985, with the terror charges still pending, Posada bribed a guard and escaped from a Venezuelan jail.
Posada's first stop as a fugitive was the Caribbean island of Aruba, where he got help from another Cuban-CIA veteran Felix Rodriguez, who arranged for Posada to fly to El Salvador. There, Rodriguez already was overseeing a secret resupply operation for the CIA-trained contra rebels in their war against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government. In 1984, Congress had cut off U.S. military assistance to the contras, but President Reagan had authorized one of his national security aides, Oliver North, to continue funnelling assistance to the rebels.
Felix Rodriguez had been placed in El Salvador by an old friend in the CIA, Donald Gregg, the national security adviser to then-Vice President George Bush. Rodriguez introduced Posada to Rafael "Chi Chi" Quintero, another Cuban who had close ties to both the CIA and to retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Secord who was directing the contra mission for North.
According to Posada, Quintero was the one who actually recruited him for the contra operation. Paid $3,000 a month, plus living expenses and given an ID in the name of "Ramon Medina," Posada arranged for safe houses and fuel for North's air crews. He also stored a top-secret U.S. encrypting device, known as a KL-43, at his house for secure communications to the CIA's Costa Rican station chief and to other U.S. officials covertly assisting the project.
In his FBI interview, Posada shed only a little new light on the old question of how much Bush knew about North's illegal activities. According to the FBI summary, "Posada ... recalls that Rodriguez was always calling Gregg. Posada knows this because he's the one who paid Rodriguez' phone bill. ...Posada assumes that Rodriguez told Gregg and other friends about the resupply project." But Posada didn't know for sure.
After the Iran-contra scandal broke in fall 1986, Bush denied that his office had any role in the secret contra resupply operation, although Gregg did admit that he placed Felix Rodriguez in El Salvador.
Gregg and Rodriguez, who worked together for the CIA in Vietnam, also acknowledged speaking frequently during this period, but insisted that they never talked about the contra operation. Gregg's claim of ignorance -- and Bush's insistence that he "out of the loop" -- were treated with great skepticism by Iran-contra investigators. But neither Bush nor Gregg budged from their stories.
By early October 1986, under intense White House pressure, Congress had nearly completed work on a plan to resume CIA support for the contras. But on the morning of Oct. 5, one of the last flights of North's little air force took off from Ilopango airport and sliced into southern Nicaragua to drop arms to the contras. There, a Sandinista soldier blasted the plane from the sky with a surface-to-air missile. One crew member, Eugene Hasenfus, parachuted to earth and was captured.
When the Hasenfus flight didn't return, Posada quickly sounded the alarm. "Posada's first act was to call [Felix] Rodriguez, who was in Miami," the FBI summary read. "Rodriguez told him that Radio Havana had already announced the downing of an aircraft. ...Posada then went to the resupply houses and told everyone what had happened."
Posada, the fugitive terrorist, also alerted Col. James Steele, the chief of the U.S. military group in El Salvador who rushed over to meet with Posada and to review a map showing the flight plan of the lost plane. Another Posada call went to Luis Rodriguez, another Cuban exile with close ties to the contras. (A year later, the federal government would indict Luis Rodriguez as a drug trafficker.)
Soon after the Hasenfus disaster, Rafael Quintero and Robert Dutton, another contra resupply figure, arrived in El Salvador. Dutton told Posada that the FBI had learned that he was managing the contra operation and agents wanted to interview him the next day. But the interview never happened. Attorney General Edwin Meese intervened and suspended the probe on national security grounds. The delay bought Posada and his associates precious time.
"Dutton and Quintero quickly left El Salvador," the FBI summary read. "Posada was left all alone to clean up the mess during the post-Hasenfus period. Posada had to move all the equipment out of the houses and close them down. Posada had to get all the U.S. personnel out of the country, dispose of their personal weapons, communication gear, terminate the leases and utilities. pay off all of the outstanding bills and all other loose ends."
Luckily for Posada, an earthquake hit El Salvador briefly diverting press attention. Seizing that opening, Posada slipped the American crew men out of the safe houses, took them to Ilopango and helped them depart in small numbers. With the help of the Salvadoran military, Posada then cleaned out the houses.
"During the course of cleaning up these houses, Posada collected papers, maps, house and fuel receipts, flight logs, photographs and other kind of miscellaneous items and put them in two boxes," the FBI summary states. "These boxes were stored at Ilopango and as far as Posada knows, they're still there."
In a separate interview with the FBI, DEA officer Castillo said that after the Hasenfus shoot-down, Salvadoran drug agents planned to bust the safe houses over suspicions that North's pilots had doubled as narcotics traffickers. But Castillo added that the police arrived "too late and the houses had already been cleaned out."
Posada himself hid out in Zanadu, a Salvadoran beach town. But by interrogating Hasenfus, the Nicaraguans soon identified the mysterious "Ramon Medina" -- the contras' logistics chief -- as the fugitive terrorist, Luis Posada. The Cuban exile was once more a hunted man.
Still, Posada's friends continued to find him work. Salvadoran president Napoleon Duarte hired Posada as a special security adviser. Later, Posada moved to Guatemala where he worked for the state-owned phone company and gave informal security advice to Guatemala's president Vinicio Cerezo.
Then, on Feb. 26, 1990, two cars pulled up next to Posada's black Suzuki jeep as he was heading to work. Gunmen opened fire, riddling Posada's car with more than 40 bullets. One penetrated Posada's chest and grazed his heart. Another cut through his jaw and nearly severed his tongue. Posada fired back and pulled into a gas station before collapsing.
Cerezo's security men rushed Posada to a hospital where his life was saved, although his damaged tongue continued to slur his speech. After his recovery, Posada moved to Honduras and again went into hiding.
In 1992, Posada spoke with the FBI for 6 1/2 hours. Then, he left the U.S. embassy and slipped back into obscurity. The Cuban government occasionally demands that the United Nations seek his return to Cuba to stand trial on terrorism charges. But the United States has taken no steps to assist in Posada's apprehension.
As the Iran-contra probe ended in 1993, Posada's testimony also slid into thick government's files and was soon forgotten.
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