Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bardach, Posada, and the First Amendment

EL PASO, Texas (AP) — A New York Times reporter who interviewed a shadowy ex-CIA operative about masterminding bombings that rocked hotels, nightclubs and an iconic eatery in Cuba in 1997 is set to testify at his perjury trial Wednesday after long resisting taking the stand.

Ann Louise Bardach (link to her Foreign Policy article, "Caught in the Crossfire" - H/T Cuban Colada) has been subpoenaed at least four times for federal court appearances since 1998, when she interviewed anti-communist militant Luis Posada Carriles over two days at a lavish, walled-off compound in Aruba where he was hiding. She fought those unsuccessfully, saying her testimony would discourage other people from talking to journalists.

Posada's defense also opposed her testimony, asking during a November arraignment for a judge to exclude tapes of her interviews from evidence. Bardach recorded much of what Posada said, but not all since she says he often switched off her recorder to elaborate on his answers. The defense motion was denied, and Bardach will be the last in a 10-week parade of prosecution witnesses.
"My husband says we should put out a mailbox that says 'subpoenas only,'" Bardach said.
The Cuba-born Posada, 83, is ex-President Fidel Castro's nemesis. He was a paid CIA operative until 1976 and spent decades crisscrossing Latin America as the ultimate Cold Warrior, largely backed by the U.S. government, before he was imprisoned in Panama in 2000 amid a plot to kill Castro during a summit there.
Pardoned four years later, he sneaked into the U.S. in March 2005. Prosecutors say he lied during later immigration hearings in El Paso about how he got into the country and about using a Guatemalan passport with a false name. They also say he failed to acknowledge planning the bombings that tore through the lobbies and discos of posh hotels and the La Bodeguita del Medio tourist restaurant in Havana, as well as a resort in Varadero, a beach east of the capital.
Italian tourist Fabio di Celmo was killed by an explosion in the lobby bar of Havana's Hotel Copacabana, and about a dozen others were injured in the wave of blasts between April and September 1997.
Posada is not on trial for the bombings, only for lying about them. He has been charged with interfering with a U.S. terrorism investigation, perjury and immigration fraud. The 11 counts against him carry widely varying prison terms under federal sentencing guidelines.
The New York Times published information from Bardach's interviews in a series of stories she wrote in 1998 with Larry Rohter. Transcripts of the interview tapes included in court documents confirm Bardach quoted Posada accurately but she said she still thinks her testimony will discourage newsmakers from talking to the media.
"What the government wants to do is use me as a bludgeon against a former source," Bardach said. "That's the recipe for eroding the First Amendment."
She also says her testimony shouldn't be needed given that the CIA has extensive files on Posada.
Bardach has expressed concern about her personal safety to the Justice Department because of the politically charged nature of the case and noted that her computer was recently hacked remotely.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Reardon said during opening statements that Posada granted the Times interviews because he was angry the bombings hadn't hurt Cuban tourism more and "was looking for more bang for the buck."
Bardach said her articles don't glorify or vilify Posada. She also says she's no Cuba sympathizer, noting that she was once expelled from the island during a reporting trip and has been denied a visa to return.
Posada has since recanted statements he made to Bardach, saying they were in English, which he doesn't really speak. As a young man, however, Posada lived and worked in Ohio, and he also served as a translator while helping the U.S. support Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s.
Transcripts of the interview included in court files have Posada saying, "in the hotels, we put small explosives because we don't want to hurt anybody. Just make a big scandal."
Asked about di Celmo's death, he said, "It's sad because it's not intentional."
A Cuban medical examiner testified earlier in the trial that di Celmo's throat was cut when the explosion blew apart an ashtray, sending shrapnel flying.
Bardach said she recorded only five or six hours of the 13 she spent talking with Posada.
"He was damning on tape, but he was much more damning when it was turned off," she said.
Court documents include only portions of the interview transcript that focus on the bombings. The New York Times gave The Associated Press additional excerpts.
Those include a part where Posada says he understands English and declares he has a clear conscience, saying "I sleep like a baby."
Also not in court documents is a portion where Posada tells Bardach that his activities were financed by the late Jorge Mas Canosa, founder and head of the powerful lobbying group, the Cuban-American National Foundation.
Defense attorneys are expected to press Bardach about whether she correctly interpreted Posada's answers, as they did last week with Miami-based television host Maria Elvira Salazar.
Posada claimed responsibility for the bombings in a videotaped interview with Salazar, but she said on the stand that she wasn't sure whether Posada truthfully admitted planning the attacks or was simply boasting.
Bardach said her testimony also may not be as helpful as prosecutors hope.
"I don't feel like I'm testifying against Posada," Bardach said. "I'm also not testifying for him, though."

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