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Washington Debates Whether Castro Has Germ Weapons
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady
Is Fidel Castro busy cooking up viruses in Cuban labs to share with Islamic fundamentalists? To the pro-Castro lobby in America this is nothing more than a crackpot conspiracy theory devised by Miami's right-wing extremists. But to some reputable intelligence experts, the case is not so open and shut. It would be alarmist to warn of an impending attack but it would be irresponsible to ignore some disconcerting signals and not remain vigilant.
Exhibit A in the case is Castro's warm relationship with sworn enemies of the U.S. In May the Cuban dictator went to Iran, which the U.S. labels as the world's most active supporter of terrorism. He was received by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who declared that "U.S. grandeur can be broken," and that if it is "it will be a service rendered to mankind and even the American people."
Not to be outdone, Castro told the Iranians, according to the Associated Press, that the U.S. is an "imperialist king" that "will finally fall, just as your king was overthrown." Other AP reports said that the maximum leader, as Castro calls himself, received an honorary doctorate from a Tehran university in recognition of his struggle against the U.S. Upon his departure, he declared that he had made new friends and left "with optimism about future ties."
In July Castro sent his close confidant Rodrigo Alvarez Cambras -- a congressman and the head of the Cuban-Iraqi Friendship Society -- to Iraq as an envoy. According to BBC reports from Iraqi TV and Iraq Radio in Baghdad, Alvarez Cambras met with Saddam Hussein to convey a "verbal message" on behalf of Castro and also with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. His meetings were boilerplate Fidelismo: Down with Yankee aggression and up with solidarity with Iraq. During an April visit he had included commentary on the Middle East. "Condemning the Zionist crimes against our people in Palestine, Cambras described them as Nazi crimes," reported the BBC, monitoring the Iraqi News Agency.
Exhibit B in the case by those who claim that the Cuban regime is up to nefarious biological projects is testimony from U.S. intelligence. Carl Ford, Jr. is Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Research at the State Department and as such deals regularly with the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. intelligence bodies. On June 5, Mr. Ford told a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- as he told the full committee on March 19 -- that the U.S. "believes that Cuba has at least a limited developmental offensive biological warfare research and development effort. Cuba has provided dual-use technology to rogue states. We are concerned that such technology could support BW [bioweapons] programs in those states."
Mr. Ford said there is no "smoking gun" but also explained how difficult it is to ascertain the truth about such efforts. "The nature of biological weapons makes it difficult to procure clear incontrovertible proof that a country is engaged in illicit biological weapons research, production, weaponization and stockpiling. Cuba's sophisticated denial and deception practices make our task even more difficult." He later said that, "If you have the facilities to do medical, biotechnological research, you have facilities to build a biological weapon, unfortunately."
Mr. Ford said "We feel very confident about saying that they're working and have been working on an effort that would give them a BW -- limited BW offensive capability. And that's serious enough to tell you about it." When Virginia Sen. George Allen asked Mr. Ford whether the U.S. believes Cuban assistance to Iran is "simply helping Tehran's public health program," Mr. Ford said, "We don't know," but also requested an opportunity to answer the question more fully in a closed session.
The classified nature of so much of the intelligence surrounding this question may be making it harder for the Bush administration to make its case. In a letter to Florida Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart on July 22, the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, John Bolton, wrote that he raised the issue because "of numerous references I have seen to a Cuban BW effort in classified CIA and DIA analyses."
There are also a number of allegations from Cuban defectors who, like the State Department, have stopped short of proclaiming certainty about a Cuban biological weapons program but have assigned high probabilities to it. Sorting out whether they are telling the truth or simply trying to create new opportunities for themselves will take time and effort. But in the interest of homeland defense, it would seem that their stories are worth listening to.
There is also Ken Alibek, once the deputy director of research and production for the Soviet biological weapons program. He has written that his boss back in the U.S.S.R. had been convinced that Cuba had a bioweapons program after he returned from a trip there in 1990.
The anti-embargo lobby in Washington appears to have been quite taken aback by Mr. Bolton's May 6 speech at the Heritage Foundation, when he first spoke publicly about the issue. Not surprisingly, there was a tone of concern about whether he might have made the speech for political purposes, as a favor to the Bush administration's Cuban exile constituency. But Mr. Bolton has defended his actions, pointing out that he was only repeating what Mr. Ford had said in his March testimony.
Furthermore, in his July 22 letter, he said this: "Cuba continues to seek to undermine U.S. national security through the use of espionage. So the question policymakers must answer is whether there is sufficient information to alert the American public and the Congress about the potential threat Cuba's BW effort poses to the United States. We strongly believe that the answer to that question is 'yes.' The American people deserve to know. Particularly in light of the terrorist attacks of September 11, we feel obligated to tell the public about Cuba's BW effort. The intelligence community has known about this threat for several years, as have the intelligence oversight committees."
Having experienced terrorism first-hand, Americans want to take fewer chances with tyrants who live by fomenting hatred. That shoe certainly fits Fidel Castro, even if it's not convenient for foes of the embargo.