Cuban biological weapons called deterrent, not threat

By Tim Johnson, The Miami Herald

Posted on Thu, Jun. 06, 2002

WASHINGTON - Backpedaling from recent pronouncements, a Bush administration official said Wednesday that Cuba's biological weapons research is an ''effort'' and not a full-fledged weapons "program.''

Cuba has [allegedly] experimented with biological agents to harm humans, livestock and crops, but Cuban officials view the research on the biological weapons more as a deterrent against a U.S. attack than for first-strike use, said Carl Ford Jr., the State Department's assistant secretary for intelligence and research.

"Do I go home every night and worry about it before I go to sleep? No.''

FIRST EXPLANATION

Ford's remarks were the first real attempt by the Bush administration to explain a surprising speech May 6 by a more senior State Department official, John Bolton, that amounted to a five-star alarm over what he called Cuba's ``limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort.''

The speech, which seemed to signal a stark reassessment of Cuba's hostile potential toward the United States, brought headlines.

In a prepared statement, Ford told the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere that the U.S. government has ''a sound basis'' for making the assertion.

Responding to senators' questions afterward, Ford said that the assessment that Cuba can ''build the bug'' is based on ''substantial information'' but noted that ``our information is indirect.''

Saying he had been briefed by other officials in the intelligence community, Ford explained: ``The research and capabilities of Cuba include work on areas -- biological agents, pathogens -- that could be effective against people, livestock and crops.''

''I didn't ask them which crops,'' he told Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who pressed for details. ``I'm assuming that they're talking about those close by. As you know well, both the cattle industry and the fruits and vegetables in Florida would be clearly at least on my list of things to be worried about.''

A CAUTION

But Ford cautioned against undue concern.

''I don't want to give you the impression that we are suggesting . . . that there is a person with a satchel on his way to Dade County or St. Pete with a bag of biological weapons,'' he said. ``Indeed, if you want to talk about intentions, it has to do with their fear of the United States and wanting to have a deterrent, wanting to have something in their capability that they could strike back at us.''

[Note that no evidence of even this lesser charge has been produced. This, nevertheless, represents quite a climb-down  from the initial, obviously false allegations by Bush and Bolton only a few weeks previous. -- Dan]

Ford said Cuba was far from the No. 1 concern of U.S. policymakers keeping tabs on hostile biological weapons programs around the globe.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said he was ''terribly disappointed'' at Secretary of State Colin Powell's decision to block Bolton, the department's undersecretary for weapons proliferation, from appearing at the Senate hearing.

Visibly peeved, Dodd said he would provide Powell's department ''with an equivalent level of cooperation'' until the matter is cleared up.

Dodd asked whether Bolton's speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation was timed to undercut a May 12-17 trip by former President Jimmy Carter to Havana.

SEEKING DETAILS

Dodd said he was seeking details of Cuba's biological weapons capability to ensure that U.S. defenses against terrorism are properly managed.

''If we're off chasing an issue here that is not substantiated by facts, then we are misallocating resources,'' he said.

In a speech May 11, Cuban leader Fidel Castro called Bolton's assertions ''heinous slander'' and ''a string of Olympic-size lies.'' He said Washington might be trying to sandbag efforts by Cuba to market its bio-engineered medicines around the world.

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