Washington - Senior CIA officials held an unanounced and highly unusual meeting with Cuban intelligence officers in New York last month. The purpose: to show U.S. intelligence data to the Cubans demonstrating that two small U.S. civilian planes were not in Cuban airspace when a Cuban jet fighter shot them down, Clinton administration officials said Friday.
Washington arranged the encounter and provided entry visas for six Cuban military intelligence officers to call the bluff of Cubans who were telling the United Nations they had solid evidence that the unarmed Cessnas were downed inside Cuba's 12-mile territorial limit, the senior U.S. official said.
The ploy worked, they said.
Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina, who has been telling the United Nations he had "all the conversations, all the maps" to prove Cuban airspace had been violated, backed down after the CIA briefing. Reports at the time noted that Robaina retreated from his position but did not say why.
On February 24, a Cuban military jet shot down two private planes piloted by Miami-based members of Brothers to the Rescue. Jose Basulto, the group's leader, was flying a third plane that escaped and returned to Miami. Cuba said all three planes had violated Cuban airspace, but the United States countered that only Basulto had done so, and condemned Cuba for taking drastic action against unarmed aircraft.
In the international uproar that followed, Cuba and the United States squared off in the United Nations with contradictory claims over whether the two planes were downed in Cuban or international airspace. When U.N. members asked the United States to show its evidence that the shooting occurred more than 12 miles from the Cuban coast, the United States agreed to make classified data available, a senior administration official said Friday. When the Cubans made the same request "we made a policy decision" to show them what was being shown to other delegations at the U.N., the senior official said.
According to accounts given by administration officials and other sources Friday, members of Cuba's U.N. delegation said they had no one technically competent to evaluate the U.S. data and asked permission to bring specialists to this country.
Washington agreed. Six Cuban military officers, all holding the rank of colonel or lieutenant colonel, picked up visas in Mexico and flew to New York to be briefed.
As news of the encounter spread on Capitol Hill in the past day or two, some members of Congress said that one of the Cubans admitted for the briefing had been the commander of the pilots who shot down the U.S. planes. If so, he should have been arrested, not given a secret intelligence briefing, some members said.
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