Alleged Anti-Castro Plot May Reveal CIA Secrets

US global prestige at risk if old CIA files are opened in defense of accused plotters.

The US intelligence community spent a good portion of the 1960s trying to dream up methods of doing away with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Some of them were downright silly: poison cigars, a Mob contract, a lethal wet suit, and even an exploding seashell.

But now seven men accused of launching their own assassination plot in 1997 are hoping the mere threat of exposing secrets of the Central Intelligence Agency's anti-Castro efforts will win them get-out-of-jail-free cards.

A federal judge will ultimately determine whether the CIA secrets may be relevant to the accused plotters' trial. Some experts say such a ruling is unlikely. But they add that should the judge rule in favor of disclosure, the resulting testimony could be a devastating blow to US prestige internationally, particularly at a time when Washington is seeking to establish itself as the world's leading antiterrorist policeman.

"There is not just a can of worms involved here, there is a case of many cans of worms that would be terribly embarrassing to the administration," says Larry Burns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington.

Mr. Burns says that if the judge in the Castro assassination plot case permits inquiry into past anti-Castro schemes and covert operations, the US Justice Department and the White House would have little choice but to drop all charges against the current defendants. "All the Cuban accusations of [US-backed] conspiracies - like germ warfare - probably are all true, and the administration would not want to be in a position of having to admit that," Burns says.

Any effort to expose past CIA anti-Castro efforts in the trial would be bolstered should it turn out that some or all of the recent plotters were once trained in assassination tactics by the CIA.

In the same way that Osama bin Laden has come back to haunt the US after waging successful CIA-backed covert operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s, so, too, might the CIA's anti-Castro contacts of the 1960s come back to bite the Clinton administration, analysts say.

The ultimate irony, analysts say, is that such trial tactics would most benefit one man - Fidel Castro. "It would provide a propaganda coup for Fidel Castro. He will play the victim," says Jos Cardenas, a Washington-based spokesman for the Cuban American National Foundation.

The seven men, all members of the Cuban exile community in the US, were indicted Aug. 25 on charges that they conspired to use two high-powered sniper rifles to gun down the Cuban president as he arrived for a November 1997 summit of Latin leaders on a Venezuelan island in the Caribbean.

The would-be assassins were arrested in Puerto Rico prior to the summit, after their aged yacht began taking on water and they were forced to call the Coast Guard for help. US officials found the sniper rifles hidden on board.

Analysts say the case is significant because it holds the potential of discrediting the Cuban American National Foundation. The exile-run lobbying group has been the driving force behind the US embargo of Cuba.

Critics of the hard-line policy have long suspected foundation members were secretly supporting efforts to kill or overthrow Castro. They say they are hopeful that the assassination case will erode the foundation's credibility in Washington.

"When you have a bunch of people who are charged with this kind of blatant crime, then it becomes more difficult for members of Congress and White House people to associate with them so closely," says Jane Franklin, author of the book "Cuba and the United States: A Chronological History."

One of the alleged plotters is a member of the foundation's executive committee, and the foundation's president owned one of the sniper rifles.

Foundation officials deny any link to the alleged assassination attempt or any other violent anti-Castro efforts. But, nonetheless, they are critical of the US decision to prosecute the alleged plotters.

"These indictments are politically motivated," says Mr. Cardenas.

He questions how the US government could prosecute Cuban exiles for undertaking activities in line with the CIA's own efforts in the 1960s.

Many of the rules for covert US operations have changed during the past three decades, including a ban on the assassination of foreign leaders.

In addition, public attitudes are softening toward Cuba.

Michael O'Heaney, director of the Cuba program at the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange, says the exiles' possible CIA defense might backfire with an American public unsympathetic to a plot against a leader it does not consider to be a threat.

"It is something that might have worked in the 1980s or even the early 1990s, but there is a change of perception about the situation in Cuba," he says.

Sandra Levinson runs the Center for Cuban Studies in New York. She says the apparent US crackdown against Cuban exiles is long overdue.

A new wave of violent attacks planned in Miami and waged in Cuba have been under way since 1992, she says, including a hotel bombing campaign last summer.

"How long can we continue to talk about being on the front lines of stopping terrorism and let these Cuban exiles get away with doing what they were doing?" Ms. Levinson asks.

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