The terrorist we tolerate


LIKE PIRATES, terrorists are supposedly hostis humani generis -- the “enemy of all mankind.” So why is the Bush administration letting one of the world’s most notorious terrorists stroll freely around the United States?

I’m talking about a man who was -- until 9/11 -- perhaps the most successful terrorist in the Western Hemisphere. He’s believed to have masterminded a 1976 plot to blow up a civilian airliner, killing all 73 people on board, including teenage members of Cuba’s national fencing team. He’s admitted to pulling off a series of 1997 bombings aimed at tourist hotels and nightspots. Today, he’s living illegally in the United States, but senior members of the Bush administration -- the very guys who declared war on terror just a few short years ago -- don’t seem terribly bothered.

I’m talking about Luis Posada Carriles. That’s not a household name for most U.S. citizens, but for many in Latin America, Posada is as reviled as Osama bin Laden is in the United States.


The Cuban-born Posada was trained by the CIA at the School of the Americas in 1961. From Venezuela, he later planned the successful 1976 bombing of a civilian Cuban jetliner (apparently with the knowledge of the CIA). He was arrested for the crime, but he escaped from a Venezuelan prison before standing trial.

Posada later aided Ollie North’s illegal efforts to get arms to the Nicaraguan Contras, tried repeatedly to assassinate Fidel Castro and was behind a 1997 string of Havana hotel bombings. Recently declassified U.S. government documents suggest that, throughout most of his career, Posada remained in close contact with the CIA.

Posada entered the U.S. illegally in 2005. Human rights groups and the Cuban and Venezuelan governments urged that he be tried or extradited for his terrorist activities, but for several months the Bush administration denied that Posada was even in the United States.

On May 17, 2005, the Miami Herald shamed the administration into action by publishing a front-page interview with Posada (who sipped his peach drink on his Florida balcony, described his leisure reading and commented cheerfully that at first he “thought the [U.S.] government was looking for me” but eventually realized that U.S. officials had no interest in finding him). Only then did the administration detain Posada -- but on immigration charges, not terrorism-related charges.

Since 2005, the administration seems to have done everything in its power to botch the immigration case against Posada, mishandling it so blatantly that on Wednesday an exasperated federal judge declared herself “left with no choice” but to throw out the indictment. Although a different judge previously ordered Posada deported, Posada can’t legally be extradited to Venezuela because the court concluded that he might be tortured there.

So for now, Posada’s a free man -- even though the administration has sufficient evidence to arrest him for his role in either the 1976 airliner bombing or the 1997 Havana bombings. For that matter, Posada easily could be detained under Section 412 of the Patriot Act, which calls for the mandatory detention of aliens suspected of terrorism.

The administration’s approach to Posada contrasts jarringly with its approach to suspected Al Qaeda terrorists. With the latter, the administration wastes no time on legal niceties. Foreign nationals have been illegally “rendered” to countries where they faced torture, interrogated in secret CIA prisons and sent to languish at Guantanamo, sometimes on the flimsiest of evidence. Even U.S. citizens suspected of terrorist activities have been dubbed “unlawful enemy combatants” and deprived of their constitutional rights. So why is the administration dragging its feet on arresting and charging Posada?

It’s not as if the evidence against Posada is seriously in dispute. In 1998, for instance, he “proudly admitted authorship of the hotel bomb attacks” to the New York Times, “describ[ing] them as acts of war intended to cripple a totalitarian regime by depriving it of foreign tourism and investment.” He dismissed the civilian casualties as “sad” but assured the reporter that he slept “like a baby.” (When asked about these admissions in 2005 by the Miami Herald, he coyly replied, “Let’s leave it to history.”)

If all this sounds eerily familiar, it should. We’ve heard the same callous justifications for terrorism from Bin Laden and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

The administration’s failure to make serious efforts to prosecute Posada is hypocritical but politically expedient. A trial might expose past CIA misdeeds and risk alienating Florida’s hard-line Cuban exiles, a voting bloc the administration has long cherished.

After 9/11, the phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” went out of fashion. But though no one will openly admit it, the idea still seems to hold some currency within the Bush administration.