Global Policy Forum

US Changes Position on Cuba's Weapons


Split between US intelligence and policy communities leads to reassessment of
Cuba's "biological weapons."

By Tom Regan

Christian Science Monitor
September 8, 2005

In 2002, John Bolton, then US undersecretary for arms control and international security (and current US ambassador to the United Nations) said that Cuba had "biological weapons capabilities" and was sharing them with "rogue nations." Mr. Bolton and the Bush administration were adamant that Cuba was a potential threat to the United States because of this.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise last Tuesday when the US retreated from this early claim that Cuba has "an offensive biological weapons effort." The new position was made public in a State Department document released last Tuesday, when almost the entire United States was focusing on the effects of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico region.

Knight Ridder reported that the Bush administration acknowledged in the document that 'there is a split view' among intelligence analysts on the question. The Knight Ridder story notes that this is the first time that the US has "publicly softened" its charge that Cuba had biological weapons, which has been "controversial from the outset." The Economic Times of India said the new position amounts to a "volte face" by the US.

The new finding on Cuba is based on a US intelligence-community-wide assessment, known as a National Intelligence Estimate, completed last year. In that estimate, which is classified, 'the Intelligence Community unanimously held that it was unclear whether Cuba has an active biological weapons effort now, or even had one in the past,' the State Department report states. A senior State Department official, briefing reporters on the document, said biological weapons programs are 'some of the most difficult activities to verify' because the facilities needed are small.

The BTC News blog points out that during the Senate confirmation hearings for Mr. Bolton (who was never approved by the Senate, instead getting his job via presidential recess appointment), one of the charges leveled against him was "a substantiated accusation that he tried to have two State Department intelligence analysts reassigned when they wouldn't back his position that Cuba had an active biological warfare program."

The US position on Cuba highlights a problem that has been pointed out by opponents of the Bush administration - that policymakers interpret the information in whatever way suits them at the particular moment, often ignoring the cautions of the intelligence community or pressuring them to change their views. David Adams, the New York Times Latin America correspondent, hits on this point in an opinion piece.

Government intelligence experts 'unanimously held that it was unclear whether Cuba has an active offensive biological warfare effort now, or even had one in the past,', the report says. But, using the same information, the policymakers insist the 2003 finding 'remains correct.' They base their concern on Cuba's 'technical capability' to pursue bioweapons thanks to the island's highly advanced biotech and pharmaceutical industry. Critics say such a hypothetical scenario is hardly the basis for making such a serious allegation.

Does the lead-up to the Iraq war ring a bell?, a leading security think tank, reports that Cuba's biotechnology industry is "one of the most advanced in emerging countries." As a result, Bush administration officials, like Bolton, believe that Cuba is "capable of producing biological warfare agents, and Cuba's biotechnology industry could produce many types of toxins" although there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case.

The Associated Press reported that the 108-page document, while admitting to a "split in opinion" over Cuba, claimed that "Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Syria continue to maintain biological weapons programs," while China "maintains some elements" of a program. China denied the charge.

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