U.S. Torn over How to Handle Anti-Castro Crusader

FBI agents recently traveled to Havana to try to gather evidence about a 1997 hotel bombing in the Cuban capital that might be linked to Luis Posada Carriles — a Cuban exile and a former CIA informant.

Government sources say the unusual trip by FBI investigators was motivated by an investigation of Posada by a federal grand jury in New Jersey. Posada falls under the grand jury's jurisdiction because he is thought to be connected to two New Jersey men implicated in the 1997 bombing.

The 79-year-old Posada is the Leonard Zelig of U.S.-Cuban relations. It seems that wherever there have been turning points between Washington and Havana, Posada has been there. He is militantly opposed to Fidel Castro and has been trying to topple his regime — even trying to assassinate him — for more than 40 years. He was a Bay of Pigs veteran and a former CIA operative and, more recently, because of his anti-Castro activities, an international fugitive.

The Department of Justice has been torn about how to handle him. The Bush administration has been handling him with kid gloves, in part because of his past relationship with the U.S. intelligence community. He is also very popular in the influential Cuban-American community, which sees him as an anti-Castro crusader.

The convening of the grand jury in New Jersey and the administration's focus on fighting terrorism seems to have changed the tenor of the debate about Posada, government sources said. The administration seems less inclined to turn a blind eye to his militant activities, they said, and that is part of the reason FBI agents were sent to Havana to gather their own evidence on the Copacabana Hotel bombing.

"Up to now, there has been some question as to whether the U.S. government is serious about holding Posada accountable. The FBI going down to Havana looks like an indication of the Bush administration's seriousness," said Peter Kornbluh, the director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive. "If they actually indict Posada, that could be a turning point in the history of Cuba-U.S. relations."

The past couple of weeks have brought a newfound focus on Posada. He had been in U.S. custody since 2005 in connection with alleged immigration violations. Two weeks ago, a judge released him and put him under house arrest while he awaits an immigration hearing May 11 in Texas.

Posada's house arrest brought a host of perception problems to the doorstep of the White House. Posada has actually admitted to being part of a number of violent acts targeting the Castro regime, yet the Bush administration has stopped short of calling him a terrorist. Critics said the U.S is setting a terrorism double standard. How can they claim to be against terrorism if they are harboring Posada, who is known as the Osama bin Laden of the Americas?

Whatever happens at Posada's immigration hearing, the administration wants to be in a position to say it is serious about indicting Posada on more-severe charges. Sending FBI agents to Havana to investigate his potential role in the hotel bombing allows them to do just that. Government officials said the investigation isn't over. The FBI and the Department of Justice aren't talking about any of this publicly, and probably won't break their silence until they think they have enough to charge Posada.

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