U.S. Establishes Task force To Coordinate Response to Health Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba and China 

On May 23, the U.S. State Department established the Health Incidents Response Task Force to coordinate a response to unexplained health problems affecting some diplomats stationed in Havana, Cuba and in China.[1]

As the Department’s press release stated, this group will “direct a multi-agency response to the unexplained health incidents that have affected a number of U.S. government personnel and family members stationed overseas” and coordinate “Department and interagency activities, including identification and treatment of affected personnel and family members, investigation and risk mitigation, messaging, and diplomatic outreach.” This Task Force “includes interagency partners, such as the Departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce, Justice, Defense and Energy, as well as other members of the foreign affairs community.”

As has been noted in previous posts, 24 U.S. personnel and family members who had served in Cuba have been “medically-confirmed as having symptoms and clinical findings similar to those noted following concussion or minor traumatic brain injury.[2] In addition, on May 16, 2018, “a U.S. government employee serving in China was medically-confirmed with similar findings.”

This Task Force, at least initially, ignores the recent request by an eminent Cuban scientist for the creation of a joint task force of Canadian, Cuban and U.S. scientists and medical personnel to conduct an investigation of these medical issues.[3]

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Establishment of the Health Incidents Response Task Force (June 5, 2018); Reuters, U.S. Sets Up Task force Over Unexplained Diplomatic Heath Incidents, N.Y. Times (June 5, 2018).

[2] Previous posts about the medical incidents of U.S. diplomats in Cuba may be found in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017-18” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[3] Cuban Scientist Calls for U.S., Canada and Cuba Joint Investigation of Medical Problems of U.S. and Canadian Diplomats in Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (May 30, 2018).

 

 

The JFK Files and Cuba    

On October 26, the U.S. National Archives released additional documents from the files regarding the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Preliminary examination by journalists revealed what are well known facts relating to Cuba and that horrible crime.[1] Here are what some journalists report.

CIA and Defense Department Schemes To Kill Fidel Castro

“Some of the papers recounted the [CIA’s] well-chronicled schemes to kill Fidel Castro. One document, a summary of the CIA’s plans to assassinate foreign leaders, recounted how the CIA tried to use James B. Donovan, the American lawyer and negotiator made famous by the movie ‘Bridge of Spies,’ for one plot. He would give Castro a contaminated skin-diving suit while the two negotiated for the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners.”

“It was known that Fidel Castro liked to skindive. The CIA plan was to dust the inside of the suit with a fungus producing madera foot, a disabling and chronic skin disease, and also contaminating the suit with tuberculosis bacilli in the breathing apparatus,” the paper said. Donovan didn’t go through with it, instead presenting the Cuban leader with “an uncontaminated skindiving suit as a gesture of friendship.”

“Another outlandish plot described talks of prepping a ‘booby-trap spectacular seashell’ that would be submerged in an area Castro enjoyed diving. The seashell would be loaded with explosives that would go off once lifted. ‘After investigation, it was determined that there was no shell in the Caribbean area large enough to hold a sufficient amount of explosive which was spectacular enough to attract the attention of Castro.’”

“Another scheme to kill Castro involved a CIA employee fluent in Spanish based in Cuba who was recruiting a high-ranking Cuban government official in 1963. The CIA officer and the Cuban actually met in Europe on the day of Kennedy’s assassination. The Cuban wanted the CIA to supply him with ‘some type of esoteric gadget with which he would be able to defend himself’ if he got into a fight with Castro. ‘He had in mind some sort of pellet pen,’ the document read. The agency officer didn’t have a pellet pen, but he did show his asset a ballpoint pen with a hypodermic needle ‘inside that when you pushed the lever, the needle came out and poison could be injected into someone.’”

“But the Cuban declined the gadget because it would have required him to get too close to Castro. Instead, the agent asked the CIA operative for weapons. The agency complied, sending down high-powered rifles with scopes to Cuba. The asset was never used. The case officer broke off contact in 1964.”

The Pentagon proposed “a scheme called Operation BOUNTY that sought to overthrow Cuba’s government, and established a system of financial rewards for Cubans for ‘killing or delivering alive known Communists.’ A reward would be paid to an individual upon presentation of a leaflet, with ‘conclusive’ proof of death and dead person’s party/revolutionary membership card. Cubans who played along would get a certain dollar amount based on the title of the Communist they had killed. They would get up to $100,000 for government officials and $57,500 for “department heads.” Castro, perhaps for symbolic reasons, would earn a Cuban only two cents.”

Anti-Castro Groups’ Plans

“Many of the documents center on the activities of Cuban anti-Castro groups — including Orlando Bosch’s Insurrectional Movement of Revolutionary Recovery (MIRR) — as the FBI tried to dissuade or scuttle their plans for armed invasions of the island. One FBI document from June 1959 predicts an uprising against Castro that never came: ‘Conditions are getting so bad in Cuba that it can well be that a counterrevolution will occur from within Cuba, rather than waiting for any invasion force from outside…. Powerful interests, such as bankers, sugar institute, et cetera, are extremely dissatisfied.’”

“Similarly, another 1959 FBI report relays intelligence on some Cuban exiles jockeying to replace Castro if he were to be overthrown, an outcome seen as all but assured. The same document cites the prediction by an informant that Castro ‘cannot last more than two months.’”

“A 1964 FBI memo describes a meeting in which Cuban exiles tried to set a price on the heads of Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. ‘It was felt that the $150,000.00 to assassinate FIDEL CASTRO plus $5,000 expense money was too high,’ the memo noted. At a subsequent meeting, they settled on more modest sums: $100,000 for Fidel, $20,000 for Raúl and $20,000 for Che.”

Cuban Plans To Assassinate JFK?

 In 1963, the Cuban ambassador to the U.S. reacted with “happy delight” to the murder, according to a CIA memo.

In 1978 Fidel told American lawmakers that his country was not involved in the plot to kill Kennedy.

“A draft report by the House Select Committee on Assassinations found it unlikely that Cuba would kill Kennedy as retaliation for the CIA’s attempts on Fidel Castro’s life. ‘The Committee does not believe Castro would have assassinated President Kennedy, because such an act, if discovered, would have afforded the United States the excuse to destroy Cuba,’ the draft states. ‘The risk would not have been worth it.’”

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[1] Miller, Strippers, surveillance and assassination plots” The wildest JFK Files, Wash. Post (Oct. 27, 2017); Yuhas & Dart, JFK files reveal FBI warning on Oswald and Soviets’ missile fears, Guardian (Oct. 27, 2017). Some of these U.S. plots against Fidel and Cuba were discussed in a prior post about then U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s obsession with Cuba.

 

U.S. Process for Screening Refugees

The U.S. process for screening refugees only commences after representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees screens and determines that an individual meets the international standard for refugees: an individual who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” [1]

Once an individual is determined to be a “refugee” by that U.N. agency and is designated for resettlement in the U.S., the U.S. commences its process for screening such an individual before he or she is permitted to come to the U.S. On November 19, 2015, Mr. Simon Henshaw, the U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, gave a special briefing on that U.S. process. [2] Here is what he had to say.

The U.S. “remains deeply committed to safeguarding the American people from terrorists, just as we are committed to providing refuge to the world’s most vulnerable people. We do not believe these goals are mutually exclusive or that either has to be pursued at the expense of the other.”

“All refugees go through the most intensive security screening of any travelers to the [U.S.]. It includes multiple federal intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI Terrorist Screening Center, and the Departments of Homeland Security, State, and Defense. A refugee applicant cannot be approved for travel until all required security checks have been completed and cleared.”

“Syrian refugees go through yet additional forms of security screening. . . . We prioritize admitting the most vulnerable Syrians, including female-headed households, children, survivors of torture, and individuals with severe medical conditions. We have, for years, safely admitted refugees from all over the world, including Syrian refugees, and we have a great deal of experience screening and admitting large numbers of refugees from chaotic environments, including where intelligence holdings are limited.” In addition, the Government continues “to examine options for further enhancements for screening Syrian refugees, the details of which are classified.”

The “Department of Homeland Security has full discretion to deny admission before a refugee comes to the U.S. When in doubt, DHS denies applications on national security grounds and the individual never travels to the [U.S.]. Their decisions are guided by the key principle directed by the President and affirmed throughout the U.S. Government that the safety and security of the American people must come first. The U.S. Government has the sole authority to screen and decide which refugees are admitted to the [U.S.]. Security checks are a shared responsibility between the State Department and DHS.”

“All available biographical and biometric information is vetted against a broad array of law enforcement, intelligence community, and other relevant databases to help confirm a refugee’s identity, check for any criminal or other derogatory information, and identify information that could inform lines of questioning during the interview. DHS conducts extensive in-person interviews of all refugee applicants. Biographic checks against the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System, known as CLASS, which includes watch list information, are initiated at the time of a prescreening carried out by State Department contractors.”

“In addition, the State Department requests security advisory opinions from the law enforcement and intelligence communities for those cases meeting certain criteria. Biometric checks are coordinated by USCIS [U.S. Customs and Immigration Service] using mobile fingerprint equipment and photographs at the time of the interview.[3] These fingerprints are screened against the vast biometric holdings of the FBI, the integrated automated fingerprint identification system, and screened and enrolled in DHS’s Automated Biometric Identification System, which is known as IDENT.”

“Through IDENT, applicant fingerprints are screened not only against watch list information, but also for previous immigration encounters in the [U.S.] and overseas, including cases in which the applicant previously applied for a visa at a U.S. embassy. The classified details of the refugee . . . security screen process are regularly shared with relevant congressional committees.”

“The U.S. welcomed 1,682 vulnerable Syrian refugees in Fiscal Year 2015, and the President has directed his team to make preparations to admit at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in Fiscal Year 2016. Measured against more than four million Syrian refugees currently hosted in the Middle East, this is a modest but an important contribution to the global effort to address the Syrian refugee crisis.”

In addition, it has been widely reported that the U.S. screening of an individual Syrian refugee typically takes at least two years.

Conclusion

This account of the screening process should provide assurances to the American public that no additional procedures are necessary and that the recent bill to do that as passed by the House of Representatives is unnecessary.

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[1] Refugee and Asylum Law: Modern Era (July 9, 2011); Refugee and Asylum Law: Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (July 10, 2011).

[2] State Dep’t, Special Briefing: Refugee Screening Process (Nov. 19, 2015).

[3] The mobile units for screening Syrian refugees currently are located in Turkey and Jordan with another unit planned for Lebanon.

More House Republican Efforts To Impede U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives continue inserting into appropriation bills provisions to impede U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. Here are three more.

Department of Defense Appropriation Act, 2016 [1]

On June 11, the House passed, 278-149, the Department of Defense Appropriation Act, 2016 (H.R.2685). According to the Appropriations Committee press release, the bill would provide $578.6 billion to fund “critical national security needs, military operations abroad, and health and quality-of-life programs for the men and women of the Armed Forces and their families.”

The bill also would bar the use of funds (i) “to transfer, release, or assist in the transfer or release to or within the United States, its territories, or possessions Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or [other non-U.S. citizens or non-members of U.S. Armed Forces at Guantanamo Bay Cuba on or after June 24, 2009] (Section 8100); (ii) “to construct, acquire, or modify any facility in the United States, its territories, or possessions to house any [such] individual” (Section 8101); and (iii) “to transfer any individual detained at . . . Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the custody or control of the individual’s country of origin, any other foreign country, or any other foreign entity except in accordance with section 1035 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014” (Section 8102).

Also on June 11 the Senate Appropriations Committee approved, 27-3, its defense- funding bill for $575.9 billion. Although only three Democrats voted against the bill, the Democrats’ leaders said they would block the bill on the floor because it continues the sequestration of funding, which they oppose. However, the committee did vote 18-12 to adopt a measure by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (Dem, NH) to express the sense of the Senate that the budget caps should be lifted.

Moreover, Democratic senators are threatening to block consideration of all spending bills unless the Republicans agree to a budget summit. In addition, the White House is threatening to veto any such measure that has the sequestration caps.

A motion to amend the bill was offered by Democratic Senators Dick Durbin (IL) and Diane Feinstein (CA) to allow the Obama administration to transfer Guantánamo Bay detainees to maximum-security prisons in the U.S., but it was defeated, 14-16.
Durbin argued that it cost $3.2 million per year to house a detainee at the Cuban prison, versus $70,000 at a super-max facility in the U.S. while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a retired Air Force colonel and a 2016 presidential candidate, argued the funding for Guantánamo is “money well spent” and hoped “we fill the damn place up.”

The White House has threatened a veto of these bills over insufficient funding and the above provisions relating to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

State Department Appropriations Act FY 2016 [2]

On June 11 the House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the appropriations bill for the State Department and Foreign Operations for FY 2016. It would provide nearly $47.8 billion, which is 11% ($869 million) less than the White House’s request.[3]

The bill contains provisions that impede U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. The main one is Section 7045 (c)(3)(A) (pp. 175-76), that would bar the use of funds (i) “for the establishment or operations of a United States diplomatic presence, including an Embassy, Consulate, or liaison office, in Cuba beyond that which was in existence prior to December 17, 2014;” or (ii) “to facilitate the establishment or operation of a diplomatic mission of Cuba, including an Embassy, Consulate, or liaison office, in the United States beyond that which was in existence prior to December 17, 2014.”[4]

There are still other references to Cuba in the bill. Section 7045 (c)(1) allocates $30 million “to promote democracy and strengthen civil society in Cuba: Provided, That no funds shall be obligated for business promotion, economic reform, entrepreneurship, or any other assistance that is not democracy-building as expressly authorized in the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity (LIBERTAD)Act of 1996 and the Cuban Democracy Act (CDA) of 1992.” Section 7045 (c)(2) prohibits use of certain funds to establish any organization to carry out the existing broadcasting and related programs for Latin America and the Caribbean region or to alter the structure of Cuba Broadcasting. Others are Section 7007 (p. 64)(no funds for “assistance or reparations for the governments of Cuba, North Korea, Iran or Syria”); and Section 7015 (f) (p. 76-81)(no funds for assistance to Cuba and certain other countries).

Reacting to the Committee’s previous release of a draft of the bill, the White House budget director Shaun Donovan said the funding level “will pose a significant constraint on USAID and the Department of State’s ability to conduct diplomatic engagement. Taken together, these cuts would impede our ability to conduct effective diplomacy and development, essential components of our national security,” Donovan also criticized the ban on funds for a new embassy in Havana. He said it would interfere with the executive branch’s ability “to make the best decisions consistent with our national security.”

The bill also has a provision to withhold 15 percent of the State Department’s operational funds, unless it turns over documents faster to the congressional panel investigating the assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Treasury Department Appropriations Act FY 2016[5]

On June 10 the Appropriations Committee released the draft Financial Services Bill FY 2016. According to the Committee’s press release, the bill allocates $20.2 billion for the Treasury Department, the Judiciary, the Small Business Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission and several other agencies. It purportedly prioritizes “critical national programs to enforce U.S. laws, maintain a fair and efficient judicial system, and help small businesses grow.” It also “reduces or eliminates lower-priority programs and cuts funding to poor-performing agencies—including an $838 million reduction to the Internal Revenue Service.”

The Committee’s press release also discloses that the bill contains prohibitions on (a) “travel to Cuba for educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program;” (b) “importation of property confiscated by the Cuban Government;” and (c) “financial transactions with the Cuban military or intelligence service.” I searched, but could not find these provisions in the 156-page draft bill, and I solicit comments to identify these provisions. Here is an outline of the bill to assist in such an endeavor

Title Pages Subject
I 2-27 Department of Treasury
II 27-41 Executive Office of the President
III 42-50 Judiciary
IV 51-61 District of Columbia
V 61-96 Independent Agencies
VI 96-111 General Provisions—This Act
VII 111-146 General Provisions—Government-Wide
VIII 146-156 General Provisions—District of Columbia
IX 156 Additional General Provision

The draft bill on June 11 was submitted for markup to the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, but so far no information is available about the result of that markup. It will be before the full Committee for markup on June 17th.

Conclusion

I already have expressed my disgust at these anti-reconciliation measures and at the tactic of including them in appropriations bills and thereby running the risk of partial or complete government shutdown if the President vetoes some or all of such bills.

Therefore, all supporters of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation should contact their representatives and senators to urge them to seek to eliminate these provisions. Contact information for senator and representatives is available online.

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[1] Department of Defense Appropriations Act 2016 (H.R. 2685); House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: House Appropriations Committee House Releases Fiscal 2016 Defense Bill (May 19, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: House Passes Fiscal Year 2016 Defense Appropriations Bill (June 11, 2015); Matishak & Wong, OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: House passes defense spending bill, The Hill (June 11, 2015); Assoc. Press, House Passes Defense Spending Bill, N.Y. Times (June 11, 2015).

[2] House App. Comm., Draft Bill Making appropriations for the Department of State, foreign operations, and related programs for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016, and for other purposes (June 2, 2015); House App. Comm, Press Release: Appropriations Committee Releases Fiscal Year 2016 State and Foreign Operations bill, (June 2, 2015); Reuters, U.S. House Panel Seeks to Ban Funding for U.S. Embassy in Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 2, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: Appropriations Committee Approves Fiscal Year 2016 State and Foreign Operations Bill (June 11, 2015); Matishak, Funding bill advances despite criticism of Benghazi provision, The Hill (June 11, 2015), Shabab, WH budget chief: GOP spending bill would interfere with diplomacy, The Hill (June 10, 2015); Assoc. Press, House Panel Oks Bill Punishing State Over Benghazi Response, N.Y. Times (June 11, 2015).

[3] A prior post discussed the draft of this bill.

[4] The above prohibited use of funds would “not apply if the President determines and reports to the appropriate congressional committees that the government in Cuba has met the requirements and factors specified in section 205 of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996 (22 U.S.C. 6065).” (Section 7045 (c )(3)(B).)

[5]  House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: Appropriations Committee Releases Fiscal Year 2016 Financial Services Bill (June 10, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., A Bill Making appropriations for financial services and general government for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016 and for other purposes (June 10, 2015);  Shabad, House Republicans propose $838 million cut to IRS, The Hill (June 10, 2015).