Luis Posada's Long History With the CIA

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.

Posada was forced out of Venezuelan intelligence in 1974 when a more moderate government took power in Caracas, but his ties with the CIA survived. In its unclassified summary, the Agency says that it had "intermittent contact" with Posada between 1974 and 1976 over "outstanding financial matters," possibly a delicate reference to other CIA reports, now declassified, that Posada associated with a known drug trafficker and other "gangster elements."  The Agency says its financial relationship with Posada ended in February 1976.

Eight months later, two employees of Posada's private security firm boarded a flight from Caracas to Barbados with a suitcase loaded with explosives. The men disembarked in Barbados and the flight continued to Havana. The bomb detonated shortly after take off, killing all the passengers, including11 Guyanese and five North Koreans. The two men were arrested, as were Posada and an associate, Orlando Bosch. According to the documents posted by the National Security Archive, a reliable source "all but admitted" Posada's involvement to the FBI.*

But Posada had friends in the right places. To appease the Cuban government, Venezuelan officials detained Posada for eight years without announcing a verdict. To appease Washington, they finally put him in a military court, despite the fact that none of the people involved were military officers. The four men were acquitted, but the case was sent to a civilian court where Bosch was acquitted, while Posada and the two subordinates were convicted.

Before Posada could be sentenced he escaped prison, helped by a hefty bribe supplied by supporters in Miami. Posada made his way to Central America, where he joined the Reagan administration's secret campaign to evade contra rebels fighting a leftist government in Nicaragua. Soon he was earning $6,000 - $7,000 a month, paid by White House and former CIA officials seeking to evade a congressional ban on aid to the contras.

After the wars of Central America ended in the early 1990s. Posada settled In El Salvador where, as he later told Ana Louise Bardach of the New York Times in a tape-recorded interview, he planned a series of bombings of Havana hotels designed to discourage tourism to Cuba. His role went undetected and he moved on to other targets.

In 2000 Posada was arrested in Panama for plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro during a visit there by the Cuban president. Posada and two associates were convicted of conspiring to bomb a crowded auditorium where Castro was scheduled to speak. Posada was pardoned by the president of Panama. After being released in 2004, he snuck back into the United States in 2005, seeking political asylum and apparently not fearing criminal charges.

The Bush administration initially seemed to ignore his presence in the United States and then charged him with immigration violations. Venezuela's request that he be extradited was rebuffed, and a U.S. court ruled he could not be deported to Venezuela either, saying he might be tortured -- a charge Venezuela's defenders reject. The Obama Justice Department, perhaps seeking to rescue U.S. credibility on terrorism policy, amplified the immigration charges to include perjury and obstruction of counts related to the hotel bombing. The jury didn't buy it.

"We created a Frankenstein," said Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive during the trial. But as a creature of U.S. policy, Posada benefited from official secrecy and circuitous charges. The jury didn't see Posada as monster. If they agreed with the defendant's case, they saw him as an American sympathizer who deserved his freedom.

*The story originally stated that Posada himself "all but admitted" his involvement and said that he was held for eight years in Venezuela without being charged. The story also originally listed Posada as being arrested in 2004. We regret the errors.