Complicity in Murder: Shades of Cuba in Benghazi
By Janet Levy
Almost seven months have passed since the attack on the Benghazi consulate building and nearby CIA annex by al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia, in which four Americans were murdered, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Despite demands for further information into why the Obama administration and the military failed to act to defend and protect the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya even as they had intelligence of increasing Islamic violence, no answers have been given. Many Americans rightfully wonder whether or not the truth will ever come out about the murders at the American diplomatic mission in Libya.
The American public, in fact, has been shamefully left before without answers in the face of obvious government failures, as illustrated by the shoot-down 17 years ago by Cuban military jet fighters of two civilian planes and the deaths of four Cuban-Americans rescue pilots. Like the Benghazi attacks, no answers were ever given about the murder of four members of the activist group Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR), and the lack of action by U.S. military and government authorities to defend and protect them.
According to an in-depth interview with Jose Basulto, BTTR founder, and the examination of official documents and other sources, here is what occurred in that earlier example, on Feb. 24, 1996, of governmental failure. It serves as a reminder that until we demand a full accounting and require action on the part of our government and military, Americans will be left unprotected and vulnerable, even in mortal danger, by government authorities who fail in their duties to protect and defend while, in effect, even engaging in deathly complicity with our own enemies.
Brothers to the Rescue
In 1991, after learning of the death of a 15-year-old Cuban rafter who died following his rescue by the U.S. Coast Guard, Cuban-American Jose Basulto decided that it was time to act. That same year, Basulto, well aware of the desperate situation faced by citizens of Castro’s repressive regime and their dangerous journey to freedom on flimsy rafts through the Florida Straits, founded Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR). The group, a humanitarian search-and-rescue mission, would directly save over 4,000 lives.
Basulto’s efforts to free his beloved Cuba date back to his return to the island from college in Boston to join pro-democracy groups opposed to Castro. Later, as a Cuban exile, he was part of the failed Bay of Pigs 1961 invasion of Cuba. Decades later, with the founding of BTTR, Basulto saw another avenue to help his beloved, besieged country of origin.
BTTR volunteer pilots, from 19 different nationalities, patrolled from the skies for desperate Cubans seeking to escape the brutal Communist government and risking their lives in makeshift rafts and boats without adequate food and water, exposed to the elements. Later, BTTR dropped leaflets over Cuba, sending messages of hope and information about peaceful resistance. Their activities embarrassed the Cuban government, puncturing the myth of a socialist paradise. Castro clearly worried about their potential to cause internal problems and, on occasion, threatened to shoot down BTTR planes.
Not surprisingly then, BTTR was infiltrated by a former fighter pilot and member of the La Red Avispa (“Wasp Network”) Cuban spy network, Juan Pablo Roque, who staged his defection from Cuba in 1992. That year, Roque swam to the U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (GITMO) and sought asylum. Earlier, fellow La Red Avispa member and BTTR infiltrator Rene Gonzalez had “defected” in Florida by “stealing” a plane from a Havana airfield. At some point after his arrival, Roque became a paid FBI informant, although the Bureau was apparently aware of his membership in the subversive Cuban group, and his actions were suspect, viewed as an attempt to infiltrate the agency.
U.S. Political Situation
Around the same time as BTTR was active, President Clinton was “normalizing” the U.S. relationship with China — which included providing 11 million pages of classified data for the Chinese to modernize their missile and nuclear technology — and also trying to engage Castro. The president met in Martha’s Vineyard with author and Castro emissary Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who relayed that the Cuban dictator wanted an end to negative publicity from the balsero crisis — the torrent of Cubans desperately taking to the high seas in barely seaworthy crafts to seek freedom in America. BTTR, which had a reputation of goodwill among Cubans, was viewed as a serious threat to Cuban government stability. Besides rescue operations, BTTR was introducing principles of strategic nonviolent action and attempting to unite Cuban citizens with Cuban exiles to overthrow the repressive regime and usher in a return to democracy.
Events Leading to Shoot-Down
In 1995, then-Clinton confidant and U.S. Congressman Bill Richardson (D-NM), a frequent envoy for Clinton’s various foreign policy missions, was asked by Castro to visit Cuba. Richardson, following a briefing by Richard Nuccio, a member of the House Intelligence Committee and Clinton’s adviser on Cuba, traveled there in January 1996. Richardson met Castro and other Cuban officials and, allegedly, negotiated the release of American political prisoners in exchange for a U.S. promise to end BTTR missions to Cuba.
A CNN report published shortly after the incident stated that Castro issued the order to take action against Brothers to the Rescue after two anti-Castro leaflets drops over Cuba the month before. Castro admitted, “We gave the order to the head of the air force. They shot the planes down. They are professionals. They did what they believe is the right thing. These are all people we trust, but I take responsibility for what happened.” Cuban MiGs began test firing air-to-air missiles and practicing attack maneuvers against slow-moving aircraft similar to the Cessnas flown by BTTR. Although U.S. government officials obtained radar evidence of these practice runs, BTTR was not informed.
In early February 1996, U.S. Navy Admiral (ret.) John Shanahan — who would later advocate reduced U.S. defense spending, including the demise of the F-22 program — hosted a delegation of diplomats and retired Pentagon officials to Cuba. The U.S. contingent was directly and shockingly asked by Cuban intelligence and military heads how the United States would respond if Cuba shot down BTTR planes. Upon their return here, the delegation discussed this threat with officials from the U.S. State department, the Center for Defense Information and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), but again neglected to inform BTTR. Allegedly, no U.S. response to Castro was given, which could have led him to conclude that no significant repercussions would be forthcoming.
The Day of the Shoot-Down
The BTTR flight of Feb. 24, 1996 began like most of their others, as a planned search-and-rescue operation in international airspace following all established protocols. On Feb. 23, the day before, double-agent Roque suddenly and suspiciously returned to Cuba. Although the state department was aware of his departure, it was never communicated to BTTR. Also, that same evening, U.S. radar and monitors had been placed on alert to follow the scheduled BTTR flights the next day. Local military had also been alerted to coordinate flight plans and departure times with the watch supervisor and to trace BTTR transponder codes for as long as possible.
On Feb. 24, BTTR flight plans filed for a 10:15 a.m. takeoff were transmitted to Miami and Cuba. Circumstances delayed the BTTR flight until the late afternoon, yet a Cuban military commander reported that Cuban MiGs were nonetheless sent out at BTTR’s anticipated arrival time to intercept three unidentified aircraft violating Cuban airspace. The U.S. commander in charge ordered a military aircraft response in accordance with standard operating procedures, and the MiGs returned to Cuba.
Inexplicably, however, U.S. reports did not show any unidentified aircraft or Cuban military aircraft activity during that time interval. As he flew his Cessna on that day, Basulto reported detecting aircraft north of the 24th parallel, the line which marks the U.S. airspace boundary. He also crossed paths with a U.S. Navy Orion aircraft, something he had never seen before during any of his missions. Per protocols and well-established procedures followed over the previous five years and 1,800 search-and-rescue missions, Basulto notified Havana of a five-hour stay in the area once he arrived at his airspace destination.
Meanwhile, in California, senior detection systems specialist Jeffrey Houlihan, with the U.S. Customs Service Domestic Air Interdiction Coordination Center, saw something amiss as he read and interpreted information from multiple antennae and Aerostat balloons. A seasoned radar and air weapons control expert and former Air Force pilot, Houlihan became alarmed as he observed Cuban interceptors operating without transponders, flying at high speeds, and making rapid maneuvers in and out of radar range. Much to his astonishment soon thereafter, he detected Cuban MiGs far out in international airspace flying directly above BTTR. Armed with the knowledge that an emergency response could be forthcoming from Tyndall Air Force Base in South Florida, he made a frantic call for help. Momentarily satisfied by the information that the Air Force base had been briefed and was handling the situation, Houlihan returned to his watch. As he continued to monitor the situation, he was astonished to see that no American interceptor aircraft showed up in the area to protect BTTR from attack, which would have been in accordance with standard operating procedures.
Little did he realize at that time that he was to witness the senseless murder of four dedicated BTTR pilots. Houlihan later recounted that the Air Force Base had been on battle stations alert at the time of his “911” call. The alert was inexplicably lifted at some point shortly thereafter.
The shooting down of BTTR planes without warning began with Cuban MiGs reporting visual contact and confirming planes registrations with Havana. As documented as part of an investigation conducted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), no warning passes or redirecting or escorting procedures, required by international law for civilian aircraft, were attempted. According to Basulto’s account, later denied by U.S. authorities, after shooting down the two planes of his fellow pilots, the Cuban MiGs chased Basulto for 53 minutes over the 24th parallel within three minutes of U.S. airspace. Upon Basulto’s safe landing back in Florida, U.S. Custom officials’ top priority was to obtain the video and audiotapes made by Basulto of his flight, which they demanded immediately. Later investigations revealed that the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force and Navy were all on alert and had monitored the events of that fateful day.
For his humanitarian efforts, Basulto incurred accusations by Castro of “being involved in terrorist acts” and “subverting the internal order of the island.” In an interview with television journalist Dan Rather, the Cuban dictator admitted to planning and ordering the shoot-down and misled the American public with false statements that BTTR had committed “serious terrorist actions” and had been warned on several occasions about flying in Cuban airspace. Basulto was punished by the U.S. government, losing his pilot’s license for six months. Plus, he was censured, discredited, and misrepresented as an agitator.
Following the BTTR shoot-down, U.S. policy on balseros underwent a dramatic change. In the year of the shoot-down, Clinton’s Attorney General Janet Reno warned that rafters discovered in the Florida Straits by the U.S. Coast Guard would risk being stopped and prosecuted by the U.S. government. A serious indictment of the Castro regime was that refugees reported preferring their internment at GITMO to the oppressive life in their native land.
By 1995, U.S. policy toward the balseros became more restrictive, and the Clinton administration began sending them back to Cuba if they failed to reach dry land. The U.S. resolved to curtail exile demonstrations thought provocative to Castro and sought a reduction of hostile rhetoric between the two countries.
In early 1998, the Pentagon released a report concluding that Cuba “does not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries in the region.”
Yet, later that year, a mere two years after the shoot-down, The Cuban Five, part of La Red Avispa, were arrested in Miami. Their arrests shed light on their activities: the successful infiltration of the U.S. Southern Command (SEADS) and Cuban-American groups. Their subversive activities contributed to the BTTR shoot-down, and the five were viewed as national heroes in Cuba.
It is also worth noting that on the day of the BTTR shoot-down, convicted Cuban spy Ana Montes was the senior intelligence expert on the Cuban military at the Pentagon. According to Scott Carmichael, a senior security and counterintelligence investigator for the DIA, military officials looked to Montes, as the designated Cuban expert, for answers on the day of the shoot-down. Thus, she was in a prime position to provide false information and pass military plans onto the Cuban government (True Believer: Inside the Investigation and Capture of Ana Montes, Cuba’s Master Spy, Scott W. Carmichael, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2007).
According to a December 24, 2000 article by Knight Ridder reporter Gail Epstein Nieves, who reported on the spy trials of the five, “[t]he FBI intercepted clandestine communications between Havana and its South Florida intelligence agents that forecast a potentially violent confrontation between Cuba and Brothers to the Rescue more than a week before the planes were shot down[.]”
One of the intercepts instructed the two BTTR Cuba spies, Roque and Gonzalez, to refrain from flying on particular days. Former Clinton Cuba advisor Nuccio, although admitting to concerns about a shoot-down by Cuba, said there was no “hard evidence” of an impending attack and claimed ignorance on the intercepts. Yet Nuccio wrote an e-mail on the day before the shoot-down to Clinton’s national security adviser Sandy Berger warning of a possible incident.
Today and Conclusions
The events that took place around the shoot-down of two BTTR rescue planes on February 24, 1996 amounted to a cover-up of major proportions. Despite significant prior information and forewarning, the Clinton administration’s failure to warn BTTR, a civilian search-and-rescue operation and peaceful advocate of democratic change in Cuba, was an unconscionable travesty resulting in the tragic loss of four lives. Furthermore, the decision not to initiate a defensive military response — the ordering of a military stand-down — smacks of complicity in this egregious incident.
This was indeed puzzling in light of previous U.S. government assistance to BTTR. During the Bush Sr. administration, the Coast Guard provided cover from above for a rescue mission in the water and, on another occasion, called on defense forces to rescue BTTR from a potentially dangerous situation.
Today, Obama has liberalized travel to Cuba and allowed religious, university, and cultural groups to visit the island. He has lifted restrictions on remittances to the island. In addition, he has failed to challenge efforts by the successors and allies of Castro and Hugo Chávez, enemies of the free world, to expand their sphere of influence in Latin America.
Despite mainstream media portrayals that herald Cuba under Raul Castro as leading to economic reform and political liberalization, Cuba ranks next to last, just above North Korea, on the Heritage Foundation’s latest index of economic freedom. This is “exactly where Cuba’s has been since Raul’s ‘reforms’ commenced,” said Cuban-American author Humberto Fontova, who agrees with the ranking.
“In fact, Cuba is currently undergoing a wave of terror, a 20-year high in political beatings and arrests. This wave of terror and repression coincides with record tourism to the island,” Fontova says.
The lack of action and the outright dissembling of information so prevalent in the BTTR shoot-down appear to have been at play in Benghazi. Although officials at the Pentagon, U.S. State Department, FBI, and other government agencies were almost immediately informed that the jihadist group had perpetrated the attack, the Obama administration initially credited it to a spontaneous eruption of anger against an anti-Muslim film posted on the internet. This charade was maintained for several weeks, with the U.S. government going so far as to place $70,000 worth of apology ads on Pakistani TV and for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to extend duplicitous words of comfort to the father of a fallen Navy SEAL with “We’ll make sure that the person who made that film is arrested and prosecuted.”
Following the attack, it was revealed that the late Ambassador Stevens repeatedly pleaded for extra security personnel, citing a “troubling increase in violence and Islamist influence,” but was denied additional support by the state department. Tragically, American drones were overhead at the time but did nothing to stop the attack, in deference to the political expediency of Obama’s pre-election portrayal of a successful U.S.-led operation toppling the Libyan dictator and furthering the “Arab Spring.” Later revelations uncovered that Stevens was aiding Syrian rebels, including al-Qaeda operatives, and supplying them with weapons to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime as part of a U.S.-sponsored operation.
Curiously, FBI investigators arrived at the attack site almost a month later and spent only three hours collecting evidence. At this point, 33 survivors have not yet been heard from, and some speculate that they have been silenced by threats.
The Benghazi attacks may well come to parallel the BTTR shoot-down. More than 17 years after that incident, the use of misinformation, the unavailability of potential witnesses, and the omission of vital evidence to perpetuate a cover-up of massive wrongdoing still haunt the survivors of this tragic event.