Cuba Still On U.S. Terrorism List, but Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Wonders Where the Evidence Went

Last week, the State Department released its annual report on state sponsored terrorism, and wouldn't you know it, Cuba made the list once again.  For nearly thirty years, the United States has named Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism.  It originally made the list due to its support for armed rebel groups in Central America. But for nearly twenty years, the evidence offered for its continuing designation has become so scant it would be funny if it weren't so serious.  Aside from a half a dozen (hard-line) Cuban American lawmakers, who in Washington really believes Cuba belongs on this list?  And yet, it never actually comes off the list.

It reminds me of my credit card statement, which now dutifully informs me that I can pay my bill off quickly, but if I choose to only pay the minimum balance each month, it's going to take me 17 years to pay off a $3,000 balance.  If I just pay the minimum balance, then last few years, I'll end up paying a few pennies at a time.  It's a lot like the State Department's diminishing case for keeping Cuba on the terrorism list.  It gets smaller and smaller but never seems to finally go away.

This year, the case really just amounts to this:

"Designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1982, the Government of Cuba maintained a public stance against terrorism and terrorist financing in 2010, but there was no evidence that it had severed ties with elements from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and recent media reports indicate some current and former members of the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) continue to reside in Cuba. Available information suggested that the Cuban government maintained limited contact with FARC members, but there was no evidence of direct financial or ongoing material support. In March, the Cuban government allowed Spanish Police to travel to Cuba to confirm the presence of suspected ETA members."

Aren't we reaching just a little bit, though, when we're relying on "media reports" to collect our intelligence and make our case?  Of course, there's no sign that State read any other potentially informative media reports, such as the one from earlier this year about Spain and Colombia being unconcerned about the presence in Cuba of individuals who belonged to FARC, ELN and ETA.  Many of the ETA members in Cuba came as part of an agreement with the Spanish government in 1984, and, according to El Pais, some of those who came on their own aren't feeling so welcome in Cuba (two ETA members wrote to a Basque newspaper to complain that the Havana government refuses to let them leave the country).  And there have been plenty of reports about how both the Pastrana and the Uribe administrations in Colombia appreciated Cuba's efforts to mediate in the civil conflict there.  And, several years ago, Fidel Castro criticized the "cruel" practice of hostage taking and called on the FARC to release all of its hostages unconditionally.  All of that is readily available intelligence from media sources.  And then, of course, if the State Department failed to read its own cables coming out of Havana, Wikileaks was more than happy to leak them to the media.  And here's what one of those cables had to say:

"We have seen no evidence that the GOC allows hostile intelligence service to plan terrorist, anti-U.S. operations in Cuba."

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, disrespectfully disagrees. (h/t Babalu Blog - they get her news before it gets up on her website)  While she was relieved to see Cuba listed once again, Ros-Lehtinen wondered where some of the evidence against the island nation got off to.

"Conspicuously absent from this year’s report, however, is any mention of Cuba’s longstanding alliance with Iran and other state sponsors of terrorism, the safe haven it continues to provide to fugitives of U.S. justice, or its ongoing espionage activities against the U.S.   This is deeply troubling and raises questions about a potential concerted effort by the Administration to exclude information to justify its weakening of U.S. policy toward the Cuban regime.

“It is my hope that the Administration is not manipulating information directly relevant to our nation’s security to advance its misguided approach to the dictatorship."

It's one thing to call the president's approach to Cuba "misguided."  Every policy has its detractors.  But it's quite another matter to publicly insinuate that the administration may be ("I hope it is not") "manipulating information directly relevant to our nation's security."  Isn't there the remotest possibility that Ros-Lehtinen sees what she wants to see in order to advance her own deeply held policy preferences?

Surely Ros-Lehtinen doesn't believe espionage qualifies a country for inclusion on the terrorism list, or else she'd have to lead the charge against friendly nations like Israel.  And what about Cuba's coziness with Iran and either Syria or Sudan (I'm guessing that this talking point used to include North Korea, but North Korea even got off the list before Cuba).  While it might make you question their judgment, where is the evidence of actual cooperation in terrorism against the United States or any other country?  Because that's what the list should be about.  Not a laundry list of Cuban policies we don't like, but rather, policies for which there is real evidence aid terrorists today

Afterall, when President Bush decided to remove North Korea and Libya from the terrorism list, then-Secretary Rice had to certify that neither country had been engaged in acts of or support for terrorism in the previous six months, and that it was in the U.S. national interest that they be removed from the list.  Herein lies the problem: what exactly are criteria for inclusion on this list?  Without clearly established criteria, how are we to know that they are applied fully and fairly to any nation? 

As for the missing fugitives of U.S. justice, the United States should certainly seek their return to face justice here at home.  But that is a law enforcement matter that two reasonable governments willing to dialogue ought to work out without bringing terrorism into it, given that there are real live terrorist threats in 2011 to guard against. Those fugitives belong on a list not to be forgotten, but not this list. But the issue of bringing U.S. fugitives to justice for the crimes they committed will run up against claims Cuba could make against the United States for harboring not just your garden variety heinous criminals, but for the presence of actual terrorists living in the United States for years, Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch Avila (Bosch died in Miami earlier this year, a free man).  And in case anyone didn't know it by now, the FBI concluded that Bosch and Posada were the masterminds behind the 1976 Cubana airliner bombing, which exploded in mid-air, killing everyone aboard.  And let's not forget Posada's 1997 Havana hotel bombing campaign, which killed an Italian tourist but didn't cost Posada any sleepless nights.  Shouldn't the presence on U.S. soil of these two Cuban exile terrorists have landed us on our own terrorism list?  I suppose Ros-Lehtinen, who campaigned for Bosch's release from jail twenty years ago, might disagree.