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By Georgie Anne Geyer
While all eyes have been focused obsessively on Afghanistan and the Middle East, a drama over Cuba has been unraveling that dwarfs the earlier melodramas of the U.S.-Cuba relationship.
The story has spies, conspiracy and secrecy, undergirded by human perfidy and overlaid by the threat of revelations to international terrorists. But it also has the unexpected: It has leading U.S. generals, now officially retired, testifying for Cuba in one spy trial in Miami and then going to Havana to help provide a "soft landing" to the Castro brothers' younger generals so they could retain control after Fidel is gone.
No, I have not taken leave of my senses (at least, any more than usual). Let me offer a few facts, which will illuminate the rest of this strange, pivotal tale. On Sept. 21, 10 days after the bombings in New York and Washington, FBI agents suddenly appeared at the offices of the Defense Intelligence Agency, walked up to the Pentagon desk of Ana Belen Montes, and arrested her for "providing classified information about military exercises and other sensitive operations" - to the Cuban government.
Within a few hours, the 44-year-old Puerto Rican American, who has been working in clandestine services all her life (we thought, for us) as the top DIA analyst on Cuba, was sitting in U.S. District Court. Prosecutors claimed that she had for years "knowingly compromised national defense information and harmed the United States" (her motivation is not yet known). She could face the death penalty or life in prison.
In fact, the FBI had planned a longer reconnaissance of the stern, reclusive analyst. They arrested her prematurely, fearing she would send information to Havana, which Fidel Castro would then send on to his "friends" in countries such as Iran, Libya and Iraq.
The first chapter was written three years ago with the apprehensions and then the trials of the so-called "Wasp Network" in southern Florida. After several years of observation, 10 Cuban spies were arrested in the Miami area and went on trial in September 1998. It was discovered that one of the spies had provided the Cuban government with the home addresses of hundreds of military personnel stationed at Boca Chica Naval Air Station in Florida.
This makes sense when one notes that Jane's Defense Weekly of London, the definitive source on most military matters, reported in its March 6, 1996, issue that, since the early '90s, Cuba had been training commandos in Vietnam for a raid against just such an installation and its personnel.
At the trial, two retired American generals, Charles Wilhelm and Edward Atkeson, actually appeared in court as witnesses against the prosecution - and for the Cubans. Gen. Wilhelm, who had been head of the U.S. Southern Command, testified confidently that he had ignored the repeated warnings of the FBI about these men and women because the Cubans could not possibly have penetrated the security provisions of his command. Somehow this did not convince the jury (from which Cuban-Americans were deliberately excluded), which found all 10 guilty.
The generals then visited Havana for apparently cordial, even emotional, meetings with the Castro brothers. Indeed, Gen. Atkeson wrote in Army Magazine this past May about the meetings: "The comandante en jefe appeared in the doorway. The well-pressed, upscale, fatigue uniform set him off immediately from his bland escorts. He paused for a moment to survey his guests. Next was the former commander in chief of the U.S. Southern Command. Our host began to show more animation. . . . There were smiles all around as the poignancy of the moment became clear."
Later in the article, which until then reads much like a love letter, Gen. Atkeson does mention that Cuba is somewhat of a police state. But that doesn't seem to have quenched the enthusiasm these U.S. military men had for a total dictator, for a man who still offers a warm home to such terrorist organizations as the Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatist ETA of Spain and the Colombian FARC. By all accounts, he also has developed substantial production capabilities for biological and chemical warfare.
Why the sudden bonding? First, some of the military officers, most of whom rose to their positions during the Clinton administration, want to do business in Cuba. (Cuba is today one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, but they never claimed to be economists.)
Second, the 75-year-old Fidel Castro is busy planning and manipulating, in his customary Machiavellian style, for his "succession," or more truthfully "transition." And so he formed a think-tank, with the pretense that it is "nongovernmental." The "Center of Study of Defense Information" puts forward the idea that Cuba is no longer an enemy of the United States, and so the United States should support Raul Castro and the Cuban generals now to avoid problems later. It is no accident that, of the generals Fidel is apparently preparing to pass power to, 65 percent hail from the same eastern part of Cuba as the Castros and are essentially brother Raul's loyal minions.
In 1999, the Pentagon issued a ground-breaking intelligence assessment that declared Cuba no longer a threat to the U.N. militarily. Building upon that, our agreeable and business-minded generals pushed the idea that we should work with Cuba. It fit in well with a concomitant idea drifting around parts of the U.S. defense establishment: In order to avoid, after Fidel's death, chaos within Cuba and waves of immigration from Cuba, the optimum transition would be controlled by the generals, both politically - and economically.
Those were the ideas constantly pushed from within by busy, quiet, hard-working Ana Belen Montes.