West Nile virus: Part of Hussein's plan – via Cuba?

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who has a special familiarity with intelligence matters, last week urged the government to explore the possibility of a terrorist link to the US outbreak of West Nile virus.

Last year, 66 people contracted the disease. This year about 1,400 have, and 66 of them have died.

While there is so far no evidence that the virus, or something similar, is being used as a biological weapon against the US, Mr. Leahy's concern has renewed speculation among some Cuba-watchers about Fidel Castro's dabbling with germ warfare, and his close relationship with Saddam Hussein of Iraq and other rogue nations such as Iran.

Last month, Havana's official newspaper, Granma, carried a curious story about the West Nile virus, revealing substantial familiarity with its transmission by mosquitoes and migratory birds. Then it offered Cuba's "fullest cooperation" with US authorities in confronting the threat.

Does this offer by a regime expert in deception, in fact, mask a long-suspected Cuban biological warfare program?

Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Carl Ford Jr. testified to US Senators in June that Cuba "has at least a limited ... offensive biological warfare research and development effort." While US intelligence is perfectly capable of detecting weapons like rockets and missiles for delivery of biological warfare products, is it possible that Cuba could be conducting experiments with delivery by such unconventional means as migratory birds?

Mr. Ford claimed that Cuba has provided dual-use biotechnology (technology that can be used for both constructive medical, or destructive military, use) to rogue states. Does this mean Iraq? Cuba has had friendly relations with Iraq for years and consistently supported it at the UN against the US. Rumors of financial scandal in 1999 at Cuba's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology suggested some kind of funding support from Iraq. As recently as July, Castro confidant Rodrigo Alvarez Cambra – an orthopedic surgeon who reportedly performed back surgery on Mr. Hussein, and who is president of the Cuban-Arab Friendship Society – was dispatched to Baghdad to meet with Hussein and proclaim Cuba's ongoing support.

West Nile virus first appeared in New York in 1999. In the same year, a book written by Michael Ramadan, a purported former bodyguard and look-alike for Hussein, related an alleged conversation with the Iraqi leader in which he speculated about an "ultimate weapon, developed in secret laboratories outside Iraq, free of UN inspection," to "develop the SV1417 strain of the West Nile virus." The story gained further circulation in an October 1999 article in New York magazine by Richard Preston, the author of "The Cobra Event," a novel whose plot involves a terrorist attack on New York using a lethal virus.

The problem with much of this rumor and speculation about Cuba's biological warfare program – and who might be subsidizing it – is that it is unsubstantiated and in many cases comes from defectors whose reports cannot be corroborated.

It also comes amid heightened debate in Congress over the future of the US–Cuban relationship, and whether US sanctions against Cuba should be modified or lifted. Thus pro- and anti-Castro factions have a vested interest in proving or disproving Mr. Castro's dabbling with dangerous offensive viruses. This is especially so at a time when President Bush is threatening war against Iraq, and any evidence of links between Hussein and Castro involving biological warfare experiments would be political dynamite.

The problem, as Ford testified, is that "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."

In a column four months ago, I suggested that if Castro wanted an early lifting of the US embargo, there were two things he should do. First, he could hold the national referendum called for by 11,000 Cubans who courageously signed a petition to institute human rights and free political prisoners. He has already contemptuously dismissed this appeal by his fellow Cubans. My second suggestion was that he permit serious international inspection of the Cuban laboratories suspected of biological warfare development. In the light of recent developments with Iraq, and a suggestion by an influential US senator that the West Nile virus and terrorism may not be unrelated, that inspection assumes new urgency.

• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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