Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Reporter: Ex-CIA agent viewed bombings as 'heroic'

EL PASO, Texas (AP) -- A New York Times reporter who interviewed an elderly ex-CIA agent about masterminding deadly bombings that rocked luxury hotels and other top tourist sites in Cuba in 1997 testified Wednesday that he sought out the newspaper to better explain the heroism of those attacks.

Ann Louise Bardach traveled to Aruba and spent 13 hours talking to anti-communist militant Luis Posada Carriles in 1998. She was compelled to testify at the 83-year-old Posada's trial in Texas after resisting U.S. government subpoenas for years on the premise that her participation would set a bad precedent and discourage sources from speaking to journalists.

Cuba-born Posada spent decades hatching schemes to topple communist governments in Latin America, primarily that of former President Fidel Castro in his native land. For much of that time, he had the backing of the U.S.

He sneaked into America in 2005, and underwent immigration hearings in El Paso, during which prosecutors allege he lied about how he made it into the country and about using a Guatemalan passport with a false name. They also say he failed to acknowledge planning the bombings in Cuba between April and September 1997 that tore through the lobbies and discos of hotels and a famous tourist restaurant in Havana, as well as a resort in the beach town of Varadero.

An Italian tourist, Fabio di Celmo, was killed and about a dozen other people injured in the wave of explosions.

Bardach told the jury that Posada agreed to an interview because "he didn't feel he was getting his side of the story out" and wanted "to clarify, 'I did this, but I didn't do that.'"

He also was anxious to detail "the heroic nature, in his view, of the campaign, the bombing campaign," Bardach said.

The prosecution played recordings from Bardach's interviews where Posada admitted planning the blasts over about a month. He said the plan was to use small bombs and trigger explosions that would scare visitors and hurt tourism in Cuba, but not kill anybody.

Asked about di Celmo's death, Posada called it "the worst luck ever," saying the victim was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

In another recording, Bardach was heard referencing previous reports that Posada directed co-conspirators to sneak plastic explosives into Cuba in shampoo bottles, diapers and with people posing as tourists. Posada replied, "more or less true."

Posada is not on trial for the bombings, only for lying about them, prompting charges he interfered with a U.S. terrorism investigation. He faces 11 counts of perjury, immigration fraud and obstruction of justice.

Bardach now works for the Daily Beast and was a contract writer for the Times in 1998. She was hired for investigative projects and conducted interviews in Cuba and with anti-Castro activists in Florida.

She described putting out the word she would like to interview Posada, then recalled being at a gas station in June 1998, checking the messages on her home answering machine when she heard Posada.

"There was this incredibly unique, gravelly voice speaking in Spanish," Bardach said.

Posada speaks with a deep slur, after being shot in the head during an assassination attempt in Guatemala in 1990.

Bardach used the interviews to co-write a series of 1998 stories for the Times with Larry Rohter. Posada has since recanted what he said during them, saying they were conducted in English, which he claims not to really understand.

Bardach's answers on the witness stand were long and unfocused, drawing steady objections for the defense. "Please listen to the question and just answer the question," U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone pleaded with Bardach several times.

"When we were doing these interviews, we never thought we'd end up in court like this," Bardach said. She also agreed with the prosecution's characterization that she's been "recalcitrant," only meeting with U.S. attorneys once before taking the stand.

"I'm not a witness for or against anybody," Bardach said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Reardon shot back, "That might be true to you ... but legally it's not."

The interviews took place over parts of three days. Bardach taped only about half of what Posada actually told her because he often directed her to turn off the recorder so he could elaborate on his answers.

A CIA agent until 1976, Posada trained for the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion but didn't reach Cuban beaches during the attack. He later served as head of the Venezuelan government's intelligence service and was arrested for planning the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, but escaped from prison while facing trial.

In 2000, he was imprisoned in Panama amid a plot to kill Castro during a summit there. Posada was pardoned in 2004 and turned up in the U.S. the following March. He was held in immigration detention for about two years, but released in 2007 and has been living in Miami.

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