The Miami Herald
December 23, 2000

Messages may have warned of shoot-down

FBI intercept of Cuban radio calls weren't sent on, Clinton advisor says

Official says he would have kept Brothers to the Rescue planes from flying.


 The FBI intercepted clandestine communications between Havana and its South
 Florida intelligence agents that forecast a potentially violent confrontation between
 Cuba and Brothers to the Rescue more than a week before the Feb. 24, 1996,
 shoot-down that killed four men, newly released documents from the Cuban spy
 trial show.

 But the FBI apparently did not share its knowledge -- significantly more foreboding
 and specific than was publicly known before now -- with the White House's top
 advisors on Cuba, those advisors said Friday.

 ``I'm flabbergasted, furious and not at all surprised,'' Richard Nuccio, President Bill
 Clinton's Cuba advisor at the time, told The Herald. ``This is the first I've known
 that these intercepts were going on. I never recall getting any information through
 FBI channels about Brothers to the Rescue.''

 Had Nuccio known the nature of Havana's messages, he said, ``it would have
 made my case stronger'' to keep Brothers leader Jose Basulto out of the air that
 fateful day -- effectively canceling the flights and perhaps avoiding the shoot-down.

 There is no question that U.S. officials had warnings that Cuba might attack the
 Brothers' aircraft. But Nuccio and others have maintained that while they had
 concerns, they had no hard information suggesting a shoot-down would occur --
 especially over international waters. Previously published reports never included
 evidence as specific as the FBI's intercepted messages.


 At issue is a newly declassified series of transcripts of shortwave radio
 broadcasts routinely intercepted by the FBI in late 1995 and early 1996. In them,
 Havana intelligence bosses expressed to their Miami-based agents increasing
 frustration with Basulto, who was flying over Cuba dropping anti-Castro leaflets.

 By Jan. 29, the ``high command'' in Cuba had approved ``Operation Scorpion, so
 as to perfect challenges to counter-revolutionary actions by Brothers to the
 Rescue,'' said a radio message on that date.

 Operation Scorpion took shape over the next two weeks, the decoded messages

 Between Feb. 14 and Feb. 24, the shoot-down day, Havana repeatedly warned its
 Miami-based agents who had infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue not to fly on
 Brothers planes between Feb. 24 and Feb. 27.

 Nuccio said no one ever told him of those warnings. In fact, he says, the FBI
 never told him that it knew Cuba had infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue.

 One message stands out. It allegedly was written by Eduardo Delgado Rodriguez,
 code named ``MX,'' a Cuban general who has headed the Interior Ministry's
 Directorate of Intelligence (DI), Cuban's main foreign espionage agency.

 According to prosecutors, the message was directed to double agents Juan
 Pablo Roque, code named ``German,'' and Rene Gonzalez, code named

 Gonzalez is one of five spy suspects on trial in federal court.

 It states: ``MX instructs that under no circumstances should German nor Castor
 fly with Brothers to the Rescue or another organization on days 24, 25, 26 and
 27, coinciding with celebration of Concilio Cubano [a planned national conference
 of dissident groups in Havana], in order to avoid any incident of provocation that
 they may carry out and our response to it.''

 Nuccio said no one ever told him of that message, which he called ``significant''
 because it appears to foreshadow a violent response -- one that necessitated
 keeping Cuban agents off the planes.

 ``No one had ever told me, `We have these intercepts going on and here's what
 these guys were planning and clearly they are double agents.' These are all
 things that would have been crucial to me in my job that the FBI chose not to
 pass along,'' he said.

 ``Unless they told me, they weren't telling the person who was in the best position
 to judge the significance of that information.''

 Jill Stillman, spokeswoman for the FBI in Washington, declined to comment.

 ``We do not comment on ongoing investigations, including trials,'' she said. ``We
 will not comment on whether we spoke to someone from the White House.''


 It was unclear whether the FBI shared its intelligence information with Nuccio's
 boss, Sandy Berger, who at the time was the No. 2 person at the security
 council. Berger today is Clinton's national security advisor.

 ``Certainly the White House had no specific information that we were expecting
 an attack on the Brothers to the Rescue that day, but I can't speak for the FBI,''
 said P.J. Crowley, the White House's National Security Council spokesman.

 Basulto declined to comment Friday. He said he was following a gag order on trial
 witnesses. But Basulto's lawyer, Sofia Powell-Cosio, reiterated his stance: that
 the White House knew about the shoot-down in advance.

 Nuccio, now director of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public
 Policy at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., was so worried about a
 confrontation between Havana and Brothers that on Feb. 23, 1996, he wrote an
 e-mail to Berger warning of a possible shoot-down.

 Nuccio said he included the shoot-down scenario to get Berger's attention, but
 even he never believed a shoot-down was imminent unless the Brothers overflew
 Cuba. He was worried, he said, because he had unsuccessfully tried to get the
 Federal Aviation Administration to stop Basulto from flying.