Castro Weaponizes West Nile Virus: Cuban Defectors Say Fidel Castro's `Biological Front' Studied Ways of Spreading Infectious Diseases through Birds with Migratory Routes through the United States. (World: Cuba)

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As the Bush administration prepares for war with Iraq a growing threat to its rear flank is being ignored, according to senior officials who believe that Cuba's biological-weapons (BW) program is at more advanced stages than officially is acknowledged. There now are reports that P-4 containment systems used to store the deadliest toxins have been identified at suspected bioweapons labs inside Cuba.

A member of the intelligence community expresses concern, but says that an open hearing on this issue would provide "feedback" to Cuba on "how much we know about its BW effort." Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, the source says, was scheduled to deliver details of the Cuban program to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June, but the testimony was suppressed by the intelligence bureaucracy.

In his gagged statement, a copy of which was obtained by INSIGHT, Bolton expresses "frustration" at the apparent unwillingness of U.S. intelligence agencies to disclose information about Cuba's biological weapons which could include anthrax, smallpox and variants of encephalitis such as West Nile virus. Recent outbreaks of West Nile virus that have killed more than 30 Americans and infected another 675 have been traced to birds that may have been infected at Cuban bioweapons labs, according to defecting scientists who report Fidel Castro's experiments using animals as carriers of weaponized germ agents.

Carlos Wotzkow, a leading Cuban ornithologist who defected in 1999, says that Castro's "Biological Front, which coordinates military and scientific research, was extended to the Institute of Zoology in 1991 to develop ways of spreading infectious diseases, including encephalitis and leptospirosis, through implantations in migratory birds."

Roberto Hernandez, another exiled Cuban scientist, says, "We were instructed to look into viruses such as encephalitis which are highly resistant to insecticides. Military-intelligence officers running the labs ordered us to trap birds with migratory routes to the United States with the idea of releasing contaminated flocks which would be bitten by mosquitoes which, in turn, infect humans."

A dead crow infected with West Nile virus recently was discovered on the White House lawn, according to the Washington Post. Sixty similarly infected birds fell around the U.S. Navy base in Boca Chica, Fla., during September 2001, causing an encephalitis epidemic that killed a civilian employee.

Scenarios worthy of Stephen King's sci-fi horrors are corroborated by Col. Alvaro Prendes, a former vice chief of the Cuban air force and exiled leader of Union de Soldados y Oficiales Libres (USOL), a clandestine pro-democracy movement within Cuba's armed forces. He tells INSIGHT that Castro's biotech facilities operate under the close control of a colonel of the Directorate of General Intelligence (DGI), Librado Reina Benitan, a longtime protege of Raul Castro, Cuba's defense minister and brother of Fidel Castro [see "Fidel Castro's Deadly Secret," July 20, 1998].

One fortified compound near a military hospital in east Havana is the size of two football fields and contains six giant bubbles to retain toxic gases. It is fronted as a cattle-feed producer, according to documents smuggled out of Cuba by military dissidents. The laboratory is equipped with a 10,000 Reid vapor-pressure centrifugal reactor and has its own water system and backup generators. It is in any case supported by high-priority circuits that feed a nearby artillery base storing Russian-made SS-22 medium-range missiles capable of reaching south Florida, according to Cuban documents obtained by INSIGHT.

"Castro plans a Gotterdammerung if his regime becomes seriously threatened by an invasion or internal upheaval," warns Prendes, citing a doomsday plan that is code-named Lucero. "Known dissidents would be rounded up and herded into tunnels beneath Havana to be exterminated with poison gas," according to the former fighter pilot who was close to Castro and was decorated as a "hero of the revolution" for shooting down CIA-manned bombers during the aborted Bay of Pigs operation in 1961.

Cuba already has some experience using weaponized poison gas, having employed it against South African troops and forces from the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), according to Aubin Heyndrickx, a senior U.N. consultant on chemical warfare. Cuban-supported rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia also used poison gas in an attack on the Colombian town of San Adolfo last year, according to an analysis of bomb residues by the U.S. Army's chemical- and biological-warfare center at Fort Detrick in Maryland.

But despite the publicly available evidence presented by highly authoritative sources, U.S. officials are not cleared to make unambiguous statements about Cuba's bioweapons threat. And it has yet to be mentioned by the president or any member of his Cabinet. The CIA's national intelligence officer for Latin America, Fulton Armstrong, is "coordinating talking points" on the issue. But when contacted by INSIGHT he declined comment.

While U.S. intelligence agencies understandably are reluctant to reveal classified material that might compromise methods and informants, a variety of sources in the State Department, the Pentagon, congressional staffs and among media professionals covering national security confirm that Clinton holdovers who retain key positions in the intelligence agencies are using their authority to mislead public opinion on Cuba. This is especially galling to members of the Bush national-security team, and they are known to be complaining loudly about it.

The pro-Castro clique under Bill Clinton was nothing if not brazen. When the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) was researching a segment on Cuba for its internationally acclaimed 1998 TV documentary on the proliferation of biochemical weapons to rogue states, Clinton's national-security shop defended Castro at every turn. "A member of the U.S. intelligence community discredited published reports about Cuba's biowarfare capabilities," a BBC executive producer tells INSIGHT, "saying that no Russian scientists involved in the former Soviet Union's biological-weapons program had ever worked in Cuba."

That was disinformation. Ken Alibek, former deputy director of the Soviet Biopreparat, reveals in his 1999 book, Biohazard, that Castro obtained bioweapon technology directly from top-ranking Biopreparat generals and scientists who made repeated trips to Cuba to provide advice and training during the late 1980s and early 1990s. "We knew that Cuba was interested in biowarfare research. We knew that there were several centers, one of them very close to Havana, involved in military biotechnology," Alibek told a congressional hearing last year. He called the contradictory U.S. government statements on Cuban bioweapons a "confusing situation."

Why this fog has been allowed to persist into the Bush administration is even more confusing, if that is the euphemism, say critics. While Bolton was blowing the whistle on Cuba's biowarfare threat in a speech to the Heritage Foundation on May 6, a top CIA analyst identified as a former member of Clinton's National Security Council (NSC) team and a known advocate of rapprochement with Cuba, was telling Jimmy Carter that there was no evidence to support Bolton's accusations. Carter then embarrassed the administration by citing this U.S. intelligence briefing during a press conference in Havana following a tour of a suspected biochemical lab at the invitation of Fidel Castro.

"There is sufficient information to alert the American public, which deserves to know about the developing threat from Cuba" says Bolton. His view is supported by John Ford, head of the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, who on June 5 told an open congressional hearing that "Cuba does indeed have an offensive biological-weapons research program."

Bolton's more sharply worded statement also criticized "a tendency to underplay Cuba." He drew attention to the case of Ana Belen Montes, a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst who has pleaded guilty to charges of spying for Castro after being caught red-handed communicating with her DGI handlers in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Montes used her position at the Pentagon to try to delete Cuba from the national-security list and influence her colleagues," says Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who is trying to condition current legislation easing Cuban travel restrictions upon presidential certifications that biological weapons are not being developed on the island. Staffers of the House and Senate intelligence and foreign-relations committees tell INSIGHT that there nonetheless is resistance within the intelligence bureaucracy to "reviewing assessments filed by Montes which underplay Cuban biowarfare capabilities and discredit defectors warning of the danger."

Constantine Menges, a former NSC officer and CIA analyst, says, "We are looking at the same type of intelligence failure which led to last year's Sept. 11 attacks. I don't think it's as much a case of ideological conspiracy as of our intelligence community not wanting to admit that they have been asleep at the switch."

Encouraging the inertia are pressures from an increasingly powerful business lobby of food producers, farming interests and pharmaceutical companies eager to trade with Cuba. Proof of Cuba's biowarfare activities likely would poison congressional support to lift the economic embargo. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), currently a supporter of easing trade restrictions, says, "If it is true that Cuba has biological weapons it would be very serious and we would have to act on this. It would be an entirely new ball game."

Aside from the direct threat that Cuba's bioweapon capabilities pose to U.S. security, senior administration officials, who include Special Negotiator for Chemical and Biological Weapons Donald Mahley, also worry about ongoing Cuban transfers of dual-use biotechnology to Islamic countries closely connected to Middle Eastern terrorist networks. Castro's vice president, Carlos Lage, inaugurated a new biotechnology-research plant in Iran in 2000, purportedly producing Hepatitis B vaccines. According to Jose de la Fuente, the former director of research at Cuba's Center for Biological Investigations and Genetics, the transferred technology involves biological agents, pathogens and germ-strengthening processes that also are applicable to weaponizing bacteria.

The deal with Iran was transacted through banks in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which was Castro's next stop following a state visit to Tehran last year during an Islamic tour that also included the terrorist states of Libya and Syria.

A seemingly neutral gulf kingdom with a low international profile, the UAE would seem an odd destination for Castro. But the small oil state is one of the main international money-laundering centers of the Arab world--one where a series of bank accounts and financial companies has been directly linked to al-Qaeda and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror network. Debit cards uncovered at al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, inspected by INSIGHT, invariably were issued by banks in the UAE.

Alibek explains how Soviet biotechnology simultaneously was transferred to Cuba, Iran, Iraq and other former Russian allies that share similar bioweapons programs: "The Soviet Union organized courses in genetic engineering and molecular biology for scientists from Eastern Europe, Cuba, Libya, Iran and Iraq. Some 40 foreign scientists were trained annually. Many of them now head biotechnology programs in their own countries."

According to Alibek, Iraq copied Cuban methods to cover up acquisitions of bioweapons technology, such as large industrial fermentation vessels and related equipment. "The model was one we had used to develop and manufacture bacterial biological weapons. Like Cuba, the Iraqis maintained the vessels were intended to grow single-cell protein for cattle feed. What made the deals particularly suspicious were additional requests for exhaust-filtration equipment capable of achieving 99.99 percent air purity--a level we only used in our bioweapons labs," says the world's top biowarfare expert.

On Nov. 4, 2001, Castro was delivering an informal two-hour chat on Havana television about the war on terrorism. He said that Afghanistan was going to be a new Vietnam, that it would take the United States 20 years to defeat the Taliban and that al-Qaeda never would be destroyed. In a brief sound bite that piqued the interest of some U.S. military-intelligence analysts, the Maximum Leader also said that 40 envelopes "containing strange powders" had been intercepted in Cuba, of which five were directed to the United States, Pakistan, Italy and Costa Rica.

Yet, despite the reports of Cuba's biowarfare activities and possible involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks [see "Fidel May Be Part of Terror Campaign" Dec. 3, 2001], Castro never has been named as a "person of interest" in the FBI's anthrax investigations, which instead have focused on Stephen Hatfill, a white, Rhodesian-born U.S. Army scientist who more closely fits the profile of a politically correct villain. A former FBI deputy director told CNN on Aug. 25 that he was perplexed as to why the bureau had failed seriously to investigate a "foreign source" for the anthrax mailings to leading politicians and the media.

U.S. investigators appear to be overlooking two Cuban DGI deep-cover agents indicted in Florida on Aug. 4, 2001, who told the FBI that they had obtained jobs in the U.S. Postal Service on instructions from Havana, which wanted studies of post-office security, through which the deadly anthrax letters moved to kill Americans.

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