Luis Posada's Long History With the CIA

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Paid as an asset for years by the Agency, the recently acquitted bombing suspect crisscrossed Latin America as an anti-Castro operative

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Luis Posada Carriles outside a courthouse in El Paso, Texas in January. credit: Reuters


The acquittal of accused terror bomber Luis Posada Carriles in Texas on Friday insures that the 83-year old former CIA agent will return to Miami as a vindicated hero. Posada was cleared Friday of 11 counts of perjury, obstruction and immigration fraud in connection with a 1999 bombing of a Havana hotel that killed an Italian businessman. The verdict is good news for Posada and the CIA but bad news for U.S.-Cuba relations, the Obama Justice Department, and U.S. counterterrorism policy.

The acquittal virtually insures that Posada will never be brought to justice for his role in the bombing of Cubana airliner in October 1976 that killed 73 people, including the entire Cuban national fencing team.

The Justice Department's decision not to extradite or prosecute Posada for the hotel or the airline bombings, and instead to bring lesser charges, did not lead to the verdict prosecutors sought. Despite hearing a tape recording in which Posada acknowledged planning the hotel bombing, the jury swiftly acquitted him of lying about his involvement to immigration authorities.

The decision extricates the CIA from the unprecedented and uncomfortable position of having the Justice Department charge a longtime agent with participation in an international terrorist incident.

But the verdict deals a blow to hopes that the United States and Cuba might have a more normal relationship, and it could undermine the credibility of U.S. counterterrorism policy in the Western Hemisphere -- insofar as the only suspect in two terror incidents involving Cuban civilians has never faced charges for the bombings themselves. Posada's 10-year career as a CIA agent was not much of an issue in the three-month-long trial in El Paso, Texas, but his acquittal may suggest to skeptics that anti-Castro operatives enjoy a degree of impunity that the U.S. legal system cannot or will not punish. Cuba's Foreign Ministry, for one, has denounced Posada's acquittal as a "farce."

Early in Posada's trial, prosecutors introduced the CIA's one-page, unclassified summary of Posada's work as a "paid asset" for the agency between 1965 and 1976. It emphasized that he had provided "unsolicited threat reporting." The implication was that Posada sought to prevent attacks on civilians, a claim that Posada himself has never made. The agency retains thousands of documents about Posada that have never been made public for reasons of "national security."

In fact, other documents posted online by the non-profit National Security Archive show how the CIA trained, recruited, promoted and protected Posada on his road to international notoriety. On more than one occasion, Posada has said that any Cuban civilian is a legitimate target in the struggle against Castro.

Posada's evolution from political refugee to accused terrorist was nurtured by the CIA. He came to the United States in 1961 and received demolition and small-arms training from the Agency. After serving a year in the U.S. Army and becoming a demolitions expert, he was recruited by the CIA's Maritime Training Branch in 1965, where he planned to plant on a bomb on the hull of a  Soviet ship docked in Vera Cruz, Mexico. "It is hoped this procedure will cause little or no harm to the ship's crew," a CIA official said in a cable to Langley. The plan was later abandoned.

As the CIA shut down its Miami station in 1967 and shifted its attention to Vietnam, Posada emigrated to Venezuela. Disenchanted with Washington's willingness to live with Castro, he was embraced by an anti-communist government in Caracas. With Agency help, Posada and other exiles assumed high-ranking positions in the Venezuelan intelligence services. Soon Posada and co. were able to deploy the power of the Venezuelan state against the Castro government and its supporters. Within a year, Posada had returned to the CIA payroll.

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Jefferson Morley is a former editor at The Washington Post and the author of Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA. He writes about JFK's assassination at JFKfacts.org.

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