WASHINGTON, April 6 (UPI) -- The United States suspected for some time that Cuba was trying to develop a bioweapons capacity, but did not go public with the allegations in part because of doubts about the intelligence now blamed on a Cuban spy in the Defense Department, U.S. officials tell United Press International.
The allegations against the communist island -- first made in 2002 -- surfaced again last week when John Bolton, undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill he was concerned that Cuba's high-tech biomedical industry was being covertly redirected toward biological weapons research.
"The administration believes that Cuba remains a terrorist and BW (biological weapons) threat to the United States," Bolton said in a written submission to the House Committee on International Relations.
Some experts regard these claims with skepticism, and their criticisms have been given new force by the apparent failure of the United States to find alleged stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq, a major rationale for war in that country.
Bolton told lawmakers, however, that problems with intelligence reporting about the alleged Cuban threat were, in part, the fault of Ana Belen Montes, the Defense Intelligence Agency's senior Cuba analyst, who was convicted of spying for the Marxist regime in 2002.
"Incredibly, a major U.S. intelligence analysis in 1998 concluded that Cuba did not represent a significant military threat to the United States or the region ... Why did it underplay the threat Cuba posed to the United States?" he asked. "A major reason is Cuba's aggressive intelligence operations against the United States, which included recruiting the Defense Intelligence Agency's senior Cuba analyst, Ana Belen Montes, to spy for Cuba."
Bolton said the convicted spy had a hand in drafting the 1998 Cuba report and participated in interagency coordination of a national intelligence estimate on biological weapons. He said Montes passed some of the United States' most-sensitive information about Cuba back to Havana.
"Monte's espionage materially strengthened Cuba's denial and deception efforts; the data Montes passed gave Havana ample opportunity to generate controlled information that could, via defectors and émigrés, reach Washington," he said.
Bolton also accused Cuba of collaborating in biotechnology -- including extensive dual use technologies -- with state sponsors of terror.
"... I believe the case for the existence of a developmental Cuba BW R&D effort is strong," he said. "The administration believes that Cuba remains a terrorist and BW threat to the United States. The Bush administration continues to watch this rogue state very closely."
The Bush administration differentiates between a weapons "effort" and a weapons "program."
Carl Ford, assistant secretary of State for intelligence and research, told Senators in 2002, "A program suggests to us something far more substantial than what we see in the evidence. But we feel very confident about saying that there is ... an effort that would give them a limited BW capability."
The issue is a prickly one in Washington because of calls by some lawmakers to normalize ties with Havana. Many weapons experts have openly questioned the veracity of Bolton's claims, which were first made in 2002. The Center for Defense Information, a non-profit Washington institute, sent a team to Cuba soon after those allegations and said it found no evidence of a biological weapons effort.
"What we did find was what appeared to be a very ambitious medically related biotech industry that created dozens of vaccines and other pharmaceuticals largely for domestic use," Glenn Baker, author of a report on the trip, told United Press International.
Baker said the Bush administration's phrasing of the allegations gives it enough room to maneuver on the claim.
"The written statement is carefully worded enough so they can get away it," he said. "They talk about the possibility of an effort. They are really parsing the words here."
A State Department official defended the claims, however. The official said Bolton's speech had the support of top intelligence agencies.
"Bolton's claims were cleared by the highest levels of the CIA," the official told UPI.
In 2001, Bolton first asked the U.S. intelligence community to look into the biological weapons efforts of several countries, including Cuba, the official said. His subsequent references to Cuban research efforts were backed by the intelligence community, which had published similar findings.
"What he said was nothing new," the official said.
Bolton's remarks first stirred up a controversy in May 2002 during a speech to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.
"The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort," he said.
Although top officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, distanced themselves from the comment, the State Department official said that since the 2002 speech, the United States has more evidence of a Cuban biological weapons effort.
"Since Heritage, he (Bolton) has seen intelligence that he believes strengthens his claim the Cubans have covert bioweapons research and development effort," the official said.
The official said the United States would use the findings to keep the pressure on the Castro regime.
"We hope they'll come clean and abandon their efforts," the official said.
Critics, however, say the evidence to back up the accusations is slim.
"There has been no evidence and it is widely assumed the motive is political," John Steinbruner, director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, told UPI. "Frankly I think it's irresponsible."
Steinbruner said Cuba's extensive biotechnology complex, which is used to make vaccines for its people and for sales overseas, would have the appropriate technology to make biological weapons, but the odds were against it.
"The incentives are overwhelmingly against that," he said. "They're trying to legitimize the complex in the eyes of the rest of the world. It would be devastating to have the charges believed."
David Isenberg, a weapons of mass destruction analyst at the British American Security Information Council, which describes itself as "a progressive and independent analysis and advocacy organization," told UPI Bolton had little evidence to support his claims.
"Bolton is tied in to Madam Cleo's psychic hotline to know the things he does," he said. "Every now and then in the context of broader electoral politics...stuff like this crops up. There is no incriminating evidence ... to support it."
He conceded, however, that Cuba did have the know how to pursue such an effort.
"But you can say that about any biotech factory in the world, including in the United States," he said.
Steinbruner, of the University of Maryland, said the Bush administration was on thin ice because its previous claims on weapons of mass destruction, notably in Iraq, have proven embarrassing.
"I don't know why anyone would believe anything they say about weapons of mass destruction," he said. "Of all their claims, this one has the least credibility."