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U.S. Underestimated Cuban Weapons, Bush Official Says

By Paul Richter
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- WASHINGTON

A senior Bush administration official said Monday that U.S. leaders have underestimated the security threat posed by Cuba, and he issued a specific warning about the country’s biological weapons program.

U.S. officials believe that Cuba has “at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort,” said John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. And they fear that the Cubans might be passing on their germ weapons know-how to other “rogue” states, he said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy center in Washington, D.C.

The comments represent a marked toughening of the official line on Cuba. The Castro regime has long been listed by the U.S. government as a state sponsor of terrorism, and officials have said in the past that Cuba was believed to have the capability to produce germ agents. But, until now, government officials have given this danger little emphasis. And they have not indicated that Cuba might be an important source of germ-weapon knowledge for other countries.

The new warnings brought charges from some analysts that the administration was trying to strengthen its political support from anti-Castro Cubans in Florida and other conservatives. Florida is important to President Bush’s re-election prospects, and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is facing an election in November.

Bolton said that the worries about Cuba arise from its “well-developed and sophisticated” biomedical industry, which until 1990 had substantial support from the Soviet Union. The equipment used to manufacture drug or biological products are considered “dual use,” meaning that they can also be applied to create germ weapon agents, such as viruses and toxins.

Bolton said that Cuba “has provided dual-use technology to other rogue states. We are concerned that such technology could support biological warfare programs in those states.”

Bolton did not specify which nations Cuba might have aided, but he noted that Cuban President Fidel Castro visited Iran, Syria and Libya last year. Bolton said that, at Tehran University, Castro told an audience: “Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees.”

U.S. officials have underestimated the threat posed by Cuba in large part because of the work of Cuban spies operating in the United States, Bolton declared.

He cited Ana Belen Montes, a longtime Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who pleaded guilty in March to spying for Cuba.

Montes was a contributor to a key 1998 Pentagon report that reviewed Cuba’s military capabilities. The report concluded that the island did not pose a substantial security threat to the United States -- although then-U.S. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen acknowledged he was “concerned” about the germ weapons program.