Thursday, December 21, 2000

Files show orders to discredit pilots

Published Thursday, December 21, 2000, in the Miami Herald

Papers: Spies planned sabotage

Files show orders to discredit pilots  

Even before Cuban MiGs shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996, killing four men, Fidel Castro's intelligence bosses apparently targeted the Miami pilot group for sabotage and dissension, according to court documents in the Cuban spy trial.

Declassified communications from Cuban intelligence, read to jurors Wednesday, showed that accused spy and pilot Rene Gonzalez -- one of five men on trial -- was directed to burn the hangar and planes of the ``counter-revolutionary organization'' and to make it look like an ``accident, negligence or self damage.''

``Rumors will leak that [Brothers leader Jose] Basulto and his people caused the damage themselves to collect the insurance and get more money from their contributors,'' said the undated message, whose author was not revealed.

Operation Picada, or bite, as the anti-Brothers campaign was named, was one of dozens of missions allegedly linked to the five alleged spies now on trial in federal court. Picada also means nose dive.

Jurors also heard about orders from Cuban intelligence for someone to mail an ``alleged book bomb'' -- complete with ``plastique,'' or plastic explosives -- to a Miami-based CIA agent. Other missions sought to discredit the Cuban American National Foundation and Miami's Cuban exile community at large.

The communications were contained on nearly 1,000 encrypted computer disks confiscated during FBI searches of the defendants' South Florida apartments. Further testimony about the messages is expected when the trial resumes Jan. 3.

Developers of Operation Picada also directed Gonzalez -- a pilot for Brothers to the Rescue and alleged double agent -- to disable the group's ground antennae and transmission equipment ``making it seem like negligence.'' The orders were directed to ``Castor,'' one of Gonzalez's cover names, according to the government.

``Castor'' also was requested to ``inform us ahead of time'' of who was flying Brothers planes and when, and to try to hide material in Brothers planes.

The documents mirror suspicions voiced previously by Basulto, who has speculated that Brothers planes were ``sabotaged'' several times: cut cables in an airplane's control panel, a weight attached to the propeller of Basulto's plane, metal particles in the oil drum of another aircraft.

Basulto has said that Gonzalez was the first person at the Brothers' Opa-locka hangar after the 1996 tragedy. Gonzalez came to the United States in 1990 in a hijacked crop duster. He is accused of infiltrating exile groups and posing as an FBI informant.

Cuban intelligence bosses also tried to ``discredit'' the Cuban American National Foundation with Operation Finado, or deceased, according to other documents read to jurors.

CANF met in July 1998 to choose a successor to chairman Jorge Mas Canosa, who had died. The communications show that U.S.-based Cuban agents were directed to mail disparaging, anonymous flyers on possible candidates to some 40 people and media outlets.

``Who are you voting for as Chairman of the CANF?'' the flyer was to start.

It listed disparaging accusations against Jorge Mas Santos, Dr. Alberto Hernandez, Pepe Hernandez, Diego Suarez and Domingo Moreira Jr., and ended, ``Who should you vote for? Vote for the Finado.''

The five co-defendants -- accused members of the so-called Wasp Network -- were arrested Sept. 12, 1998, in the culmination of a major counterespionage investigation.

Lead defendant Gerardo Hernandez faces the most serious charge: conspiracy to murder the four Brothers fliers, allegedly by providing Cuban authorities the flight plan of two Brothers planes while instructing other spies to shun the doomed flight.

Though all of the accused spies acknowledge working on orders from Havana, they deny ever obtaining classified information or intending to harm U.S. interests.

Rather, they say they worked from a defensive posture, trying to identify the exiles presumably responsible for a series of bombings at tourist sites in Cuba and to find out if the United States had plans to invade the island. 

Copyright 2000 Miami Herald