The arrest of Luis Posada, a former anti-Castro CIA operative, has critics questioning the Bush administration's double standards in the war on terror.

Published May 20, 2005 4:55PM (EDT)

Luis Posada, the aging anti-Castro militant wanted in Venezuela and Cuba over an airliner bombing 30 years ago, was Thursday charged with illegally entering the United States, in a case that has led to claims of double standards by Washington in the war on terror. Posada, 77, who worked for the CIA during its war against left-wing radicals in Latin America, was arrested on Tuesday after spending more than two months living in Miami.

Officials said Thursday that the Cuban exile, who admits entering the country illegally through Mexico in mid-March of this year, would be held without bail until he appears before an immigration judge at a hearing scheduled for June 13. The decision leaves open the possibility that he could be deported to a third country other than Venezuela or Cuba.

The case has become an embarrassment for the Bush administration, which has been trying to reconcile the feelings of the large Cuban exile population in Florida -- where the president's brother, Jeb Bush, is the governor -- with its tough post-9/11 stance against terrorism suspects.

It has also provided ammunition for America's more vehement international critics. Thursday night, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez denounced the U.S. approach as "two-faced." "He is a self-confessed terrorist," Chávez said. "The U.S. has a choice: Either send him to Venezuela or be seen by the world as protecting terrorism."

Posada, who applied for political asylum after arriving in the United States, was detained by immigration officials after he surfaced publicly for the first time to give a news conference in a Florida warehouse. Hours earlier, Cuban President Fidel Castro had led a crowd reportedly numbering hundreds of thousands past the U.S. mission in the capital, Havana, and made a speech castigating Washington for hypocrisy over its handling of the case.

U.S. authorities say Posada has withdrawn his request for political asylum. But his lawyer, Eduardo Soto, said Thursday that his client claims he never lost permanent U.S. legal residency, which he obtained in 1962, and should be given asylum. He said Posada, who claims he would face persecution in Cuba and Venezuela, would "vigorously oppose" deportation and would seek bail.

Posada is being held at a detention facility in Texas, and Soto said he would ask for the proceedings to be moved to Miami, where his client's wife and his 29-year-old son live. He left open the possibility that he would agree to move to a third country if an acceptable friendly state could be found. U.S. law does not allow extradition to Cuba or to countries believed to be acting on its behalf.

Posada was involved in numerous attempts to overthrow Castro after fleeing Cuba in 1961, just in time to sign up with the CIA for the abortive Bay of Pigs operation. In 1963 he joined the agency's officer candidate school, where he is said to have learned to build bombs, gather intelligence and spread propaganda.

In 1967 he moved to Venezuela, becoming a citizen and rising to lead the government's counterintelligence service, a job he left in 1974. When a Cubana Airlines aircraft blew up off the coast of Barbados on Oct. 6, 1976, killing all 73 people on board, suspicion immediately fell on Posada. He was arrested and acquitted twice, but was held in custody pending appeals. Dressed as a priest, he escaped in 1985, apparently after bribing guards.

A State Department intelligence brief issued after the aircraft bombing and made public on Wednesday revealed that Posada had told an informant weeks before the attack: "We are going to hit a Cuban airliner."

Venezuela formally requested his extradition earlier this month after officials under Chávez reopened the case, seeking to try him for murder and treason. But U.S. officials initially said they were not looking for Posada because he was not wanted for a crime here.

The Venezuelan vice president said yesterday that his country was not seeking Posada's extradition "for reasons of vengeance," or because of Venezuela's close ties with Cuba. "It's about the exercise of justice on the part of the Venezuelan state," he said, urging the U.S. government to be "coherent" on the issue of terrorism. "There cannot be a good terrorism and a bad terrorism," he said.

Posada, who survived an assassination attempt in Honduras in 1990 that scarred his face, has also been implicated in a string of bombings in Cuba in 1997. He was pardoned last year by the Panamanian president for his role in an alleged assassination plot against Castro.

By Jamie Wilson

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