Cuban Exile Accused of Terror Faces Perjury Charges (NYT 10/1/11)
An elderly Cuban exile who once worked for the C.I.A. and has been linked to bombings in Havana and the downing of an airliner in the 1970s is scheduled to go on trial this week in a Texas courtroom — not on terrorism charges, but for perjury.
The exile, Luis Posada Carriles, who as a Central Intelligence Agency operative waged a violent campaign against Fidel Castro’s regime for decades, is accused of lying to an immigration judge about his role in the bombings at Havana tourist spots in 1997. He also faces several charges of immigration fraud and obstruction of a proceeding, stemming from lies he is accused of telling United States officials about how he entered the country in March 2005.
But the trial that is scheduled to begin on Monday in federal court in El Paso will go far beyond questions of Mr. Posada’s mendacity under oath. For the first time, American prosecutors will present evidence in open court that Mr. Posada — a man originally trained in explosives by the C.I.A. — played a major role in carrying out bombings in Cuba.
“The C.I.A. trained and unleashed a Frankenstein,” said Peter Kornbluh, an analyst with the National Security Archive who has studied Mr. Posada’s career. “It is long past time he be identified as a terrorist and be held accountable as a terrorist.”
Mr. Posada’s lawyer, Arturo Hernandez, predicted that his client would be acquitted. “He’s innocent of everything,” Mr. Hernandez said.
Mr. Posada, 82, has been free on bond and living with his family in Miami since 2007 in legal limbo. An immigration judge ordered him deported in 2005, but barred him from being sent to Cuba or Venezuela for fear he might face torture. No other country has agreed to accept him.
He was a target in a 2007 investigation by federal agents in New Jersey who were looking into accusations that he had raised money from Cuban exiles in Union City for terrorist attacks. That investigation never led to an indictment.
Instead, the Obama administration has taken the novel approach of charging Mr. Posada with having lied at a deportation hearing about his involvement in the bombings. Some experts on Cuban history say the approach is not unlike indicting Al Capone on tax evasion charges. The penalty could still be stiff: he faces a maximum sentence of five years for each of 10 counts in the indictment, and 10 years on the last count.
But to convince a court that the self-styled Cuban militant committed perjury, prosecutors must prove he participated in the attacks. In court documents, prosecutors have already signaled that they will call two Cuban police officials and present forensic evidence about the 1997 explosions, in which one Italian tourist died. They will also submit tapes and transcripts of interviews of Mr. Posada by a reporter for The New York Times in 1998. In the interviews, he boasted that he had organized the wave of seven bombings at hotels, restaurants and nightclubs.
The trial will be closely watched by officials in Cuba and Venezuela and may be a turning point in relations between the United States and the leftist governments in those countries.
For years, Cuba and Venezuela had been clamoring for Mr. Posada to be extradited to their countries to stand trial. In Venezuela, he remains a prime suspect in the bombing of a Cubana Airlines flight that crashed off the coast of Barbados on Oct. 6, 1976, killing all 73 people aboard. Though he was never convicted, he was imprisoned for nine years in Caracas on charges of conspiring with the bombers. He escaped by bribing a warden and walking out of prison disguised as a priest.
Cuban officials regard him as a terrorist mastermind and have repeatedly accused the United States of harboring “the bin Laden of this hemisphere.” Not only did he say in interviews with The Times that he had orchestrated the Havana bombings in 1997, but he also was convicted in 2000 in Panama of taking part in a plot to assassinate Mr. Castro at a summit meeting. He served four years in prison there before being pardoned by President Mireya Moscoso in her last week in office.
Mr. Posada has long been entwined with American intelligence services, going back to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. He worked directly for the agency until 1967, spying on Cuban exile groups in Miami and running paramilitary training camps, according to declassified documents. He was also a “paid asset” of the agency in Venezuela from 1968 to 1976, according to declassified documents and an unclassified summary of his career in the court record.
“The C.I.A. taught us everything — everything,” he told The Times in 1998. “They taught us explosives, how to kill, bomb trained us in acts of sabotage.”
In 1963, at the C.I.A.’s behest, he enlisted in the United States Army and enrolled in officer school at Fort Benning. He was trained in demolition, propaganda and intelligence, though he quit the military a year later. By March 1965, he was a paid operative for the agency in Miami, making $300 a month, declassified documents show.
He left the United States in 1967 and, with help from the C.I.A., joined the Venezuelan intelligence service, rising quickly to become the chief of operations and proving a ruthless opponent to leftist guerillas. But he fell out with the newly elected President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1974, and started a private security agency. Two years later, he was arrested after two of his former employees had helped carry out the bombing of the Cuban airliner.
Mr. Posada was never convicted in the case and has steadfastly maintained he had nothing to do with the bombing. “I repudiate that abominable action as a case of terrorism,” he said in 2005.
Declassified F.B.I. documents from 1976, however, place Mr. Posada at two meetings in Santo Domingo in which the bombing of the airliner was planned.
After he escaped from a Venezuelan prison in 1985, Mr. Posada slipped through the hands of the police and border guards, somehow arriving in El Salvador, where he worked covertly for the United States government again. This time he coordinated a rickety fleet of planes that ferried supplies from Ilopango airfield to the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries known as contras.
Five years later, gunmen ambushed him in Guatemala and shot him 12 times, nearly killing him. He later blamed Cuban intelligence for the attempted assassination, though he had many other enemies.
The fusillade left his health in ruins and crippled his speech but did not curb Mr. Posada’s zeal to hamstring the Cuban government. By 1997, he was recruiting bombers in El Salvador and Guatemala to terrorize Havana, he said in interviews with The Times. The intent, he said, was only to scare away tourists.
But one tourist, Fabio Di Celmo, an 32-year-old Italian who lived in Canada, was killed by a bomb in the lobby of the Copacabana Hotel on Sept. 4, 1997. Mr. Posada said he had a clear conscience about the man’s death. “I sleep like a baby,” he said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 14, 2011
An article on Thursday about the perjury trial of a Cuban exile, Luis Posada Carriles, referred incompletely to the years that he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. Besides working for the C.I.A. in Miami between 1965 and 1967, he was also a “paid asset” of the agency in Venezuela from 1968 to 1976, according to declassified documents and a unclassified summary of his career in the court record.