No sooner was it established that Pan Am Flight 103 had been destroyed by a bomb than the American press went into its predictable ritual. Journalists peppered President Reagan and President-elect Bush with all the usual questions: How can we bring terrorists to justice? Will we retaliate against any country harboring those responsible for bombing passenger planes?
Reagan and Bush responded with the expected tough-sounding rhetoric. Reagan: "We're going to make every effort we can to find out who was guilty of this savage thing and bring them to justice." Bush pledged to "seek hard and punish firmly, decisively, those who did this, if you can ever find them."
What's wrong with this all-too-familiar script? In a word, hypocrisy.
As many in the media and in the Reagan-Bush Administration know, the United States has harbored an accused jet-bombing terrorist. Our government has done nothing to bring him to justice, nor have the media clamored for justice. And there's no doubt, Mr. Bush, about whether "you can ever find him." Folks working for the Reagan Administration, in close association with your office as vice president, hired him -- long after he was linked to a murderous jet bombing.
The terrorist's name is Luis Posada, a right-wing Cuban exile who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for years after the Bay of Pigs invasion. Posada says the CIA trained him in the use of explosives. In October, 1976, he was the reputed mastermind behind the explosion of a civilian passenger jet that killed all 73 people on board. The Cubana Airlines DC-8 blew up soon after taking off from Barbados en route to Jamaica and Havana.
Posada and other members of the Cuban terror group, Command of United Revolutionary Organizations, were charged in Venezuela with the crime. The two men who admitted planting the bomb identified Posada as a mastermind of the plot. Posada, however, whose trial was never completed, mysteriously escaped in 1985 from a high-security Venezuelan prison. To this day, he is wanted for terrorism.
Since the Command of United Revolutionary Organizations was led by CIA veterans, the agency learned within days of the jet bombing that Posada and his associates were involved. But the CIA, according to investigative reporter Scott Armstrong, did nothing to bring the men to justice. Bush was then director of the CIA.
After Posada escaped from jail, instead of hunting Posada down, the United States apparently found him a job. Posada was discovered two years ago in El Salvador working as a key overseer in the U.S. operation (Oliver North, William Casey & Co.) to resupply the Nicaraguan Contras. In May, 1986, a Venezuelan television reporter interviewed Posada from "somewhere in Central America." "I feel good here," Posada exclaimed, "because I am involved once again in a fight against international communism."
Posada was recruited to the Contra supply program and was supervised in El Salvador by longtime CIA operative Felix Rodriguez. During this period, Rodriguez reported regularly to Vice President Bush's office. According to reports from a Senate subcommittee and the Wall Street Journal, Posada was one of four leaders of the Command of United Revolutionary Organizations who found work in the Contra operation. This despite the fact that the command's members had been involved in bombings and assassination plots, including one in 1976 targeted at Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
What did the United States do after major American dailies identified Posada as a Contra operative in El Salvador? Not much. He was allowed to disappear again.
Instead of clamoring at Bush for hypothetical responses to still-unidentified terrorists behind the Pan Am explosion, journalists would do better to ask Bush why the United States has protected Posada and friends.
Other questions need asking. If it's terrorism to blow up innocent civilians in the fight against "international Zionism" or "Western satanism," isn't it also terrorism to perform the same acts in the struggle against "international communism"? Or is blowing up civilians acceptable as long as the target is Cuba?
And if it's justified for the United States to retaliate militarily against a foreign country linked to the Pan Am terrorists, would Cuba have had the right to launch an air strike against Washington because of our relations with Posada and his Command of United Revolutionary Organizations?
The stories of Luis Posada and the CIA's historic links to right-wing terror groups overseas have been under-reported because much of the U.S. media is content presenting a simplistic view of the world where Americans in white hats police the globe of black hats--usually worn by Middle Eastern terrorists.
In some countries of Western Europe and Latin America--where the terrorism issue is analyzed with fewer ideological blinders--people don't automatically see us in white hats. They are as familiar with Luis Posada's U.S. links as we are with Abu Nidal and Libya.
American journalists could begin cutting through the fog by asking George Bush a simple question: If we're serious about punishing terrorists, shouldn't we start with our own?
This column appeared in the Los Angeles Times.