BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. September 11th was surely the most infamous act of airplane terrorism in the Americas, but it wasn’t the first. That distinction belongs to Cubana Flight 455, which was bombed out of the sky over Barbados 30 years ago this past October, killing 73 people.
All the evidence suggests it was the work of Cuban exiles, who had been trying to destabilize the Castro government for years, usually through smaller acts of terror, sometimes with the backing of U.S. and Venezuelan intelligence agencies. Chief among the suspected masterminds are two exiles with long terrorist rap sheets and ties to both agencies.
One is Orlando Bosch, now living in a Miami suburb. The other is Luis Posada Carilles, onetime Venezuelan intelligence chief who was on the CIA payroll off and on from 1960 through the mid-80s.
After the Cubano bombing, Posada was imprisoned in Venezuela but managed to bribe his way out in 1985. He laid low until 1998, when he returned a call from journalist Ann Louise Bardach, then working on a New York Times series about Posada’s involvement in a series of Cuban hotel bombings. She and fellow Times reporter Larry Rohter immediately flew down to Aruba, tape recorder in hand, to hear what he had to say.
ANN LOUISE BARDACH: What Posada implicitly said, or explicitly said, is that look, I’m very proud of this campaign I’ve led in Havana, of the hotel bombings and tourist sites, because we have to stop Fidel Castro, and the only way we can stop Fidel Castro, and I’m paraphrasing, of course, is to cut off his money from tourism and investors, so we have to scare the investors and the tourists away, and that’s why we’re doing this bombing campaign.
And he made clear that they didn’t intend to hurt people, and that therefore they didn’t use the large amounts of explosives that one would use in another type of situation. And he just talked about his 40 years, you know, trying to have a successful assassination of Castro. He talked about his many years working for the CIA. He talked about running the Iran-Contra network with his old friend Felix Rodriguez. He talked about his so-called escape from prison and how they bribed the warden.
He talked about a great many things that I think were embarrassing to some people. In fact, he got into so much trouble over this interview that he actually said, look, I never talked to The New York Times. I don’t know what they’re talking about.
And so we pointed out that not only did you talk to The New York Times and two reporters met you, but most of it was put on a tape recorder.
BOD GARFIELD: So fast forward seven years to about a year ago. Posada is somehow emboldened to show up in the United States where, I guess, the government’s ambivalence towards him created a kind of strange situation, but in the wake of 2001 they felt they had to arrest an alleged terrorist, especially [LAUGHS] an airplane bomber, and he’s taken into custody.
ANN LOUISE BARDACH: I wrote a piece in the Outlook of The Washington Post, saying has anyone noticed that Luis Posada has shown up in Miami and looks like he’s going to be buying a condominium. And he’s asking for political asylum and didn’t this administration say something about the war on terror being absolutely paramount? You know, I’m confused. Straighten me out.
And after that piece appeared, around a week later, they swooped in and did detain him. But they didn’t charge him with these various acts that he’s long talked about and been outspoken about. They charged him with illegal entry.
Around a week after my story appears, I get a phone call from FBI agents.
BOB GARFIELD: Here’s where it gets truly bizarre. What did they tell you?
ANN LOUISE BARDACH: He said, would you mind giving us your CIA FBI files? I said, wait a minute! You are the FBI. [BOB LAUGHS] And then he says, we can’t find ours. At this point, I’m just flabbergasted.
I start talking to my sources in the Miami FBI, U.S. Attorney’s office, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and they tell me, you’re not going to believe what happened here. They destroyed everything. They closed the Posada case in August 2003 and when you close a case, you greenlight the evidence for destruction.
Now mind you, there’s a big difference between evidence and files. The files live for ever. Evidence is different. Remember, most courts want original documentation. They demand it.
A week later, I get a subpoena. Well, it’s served on The New York Times. And what goes through my mind is, wait a minute. The U.S. government has willfully destroyed the most crucial and relevant evidence against Luis Posada and now wants to do a raid on the Fourth Estate? You cannot do that.
BOB GARFIELD: So there was a subpoena, but it was eventually overturned, and then another. Tell me the history of the subpoenas and what they were seeking.
ANN LOUISE BARDACH: There was a subpoena served on The New York Times. We moved to quash it, and we won. A year later, as this judge in El Paso was saying to the government, look, give us some evidence, charge him, do something or else we have to release Posada under habeas corpus, then they came back with a second subpoena, and that subpoena they served on me, and they say now they just want the tapes.
But we all know how these things go. You want the tapes, and then you want me to testify, then you want the editors at The New York Times, and the law is very clear that the government cannot turn to the media when they have other sources of information.
And in this case, they’ve had sources for 45 years. They have several witnesses that have basically thrown themselves at them, but they’ve never gone forward on a prosecution, because this is a politically charged prosecution.
In 1976, when the Cubano plane was blown out of the sky, George H.W. Bush was the head of the CIA. There were CIA memorandum and cables, warning that there would be an attack on a civilian Cuban airliner in the weeks before. No word of this attack was passed on to the Cuban government. That’s a fact.
BOD GARFIELD: There was ambivalence not only in the government’s treatment of Posada and Bosch, but I imagine on your part as well, because after all, you spent yourself years trying to expose their acts of terrorism, and yet you have an opportunity to help [LAUGHS] with the prosecution, but The New York Times and you are saying not so fast. Tell me why you were fighting the subpoena for this information.
ANN LOUISE BARDACH: Well, you can be sure that I have thought long and hard about the ironies of this case. But the bottom line is, when people come to me to tell me their stories, they are seeking publication. They’re not seeking prosecution. And there is no reason to believe that any one would ever speak to me or any other reporter at The New York Times if they believed that materials would be turned over to prosecutors to then put them in prison.
I think the principle here is significant, very significant. But I can tell you it’s very unlikely that I’m willing to go to prison to defend the civil liberties of Luis Posada.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, considering everything that’s happened up until now –
ANN LOUISE BARDACH: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: - what do you think should be done with the Posada case?
ANN LOUISE BARDACH: What absolutely must be done first is we need a special prosecutor, because I am unaware of any other occasion where the FBI closed such an important case and then destroyed the evidence. We need a special prosecutor to look into who gave the order and why it happened, when he was under so much scrutiny, because you must remember that not only did the FBI sign off, but the U.S. Attorney’s office.
And then we need the government to turn over every rock and talk to all the available witnesses and sources before they come to The New York Times and myself and say give us your stuff.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Annie. Well, good luck to you.
ANN LOUISE BARDACH: [LAUGHS] Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Ann Louise Bardach writes frequently about Cuba. Her latest story about Posada, “Twilight of the Assassins,” appears in the November issue of The Atlantic Monthly.