U.S. officials evasive in probe
of downed planes, panel says

At issue: Did they know the Brothers to the Rescue planes were being tracked by Cuban jets?

Palm Beach Post Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Members of a congressional panel Wednesday angrily accused the Clinton administration of stonewalling its attempt to investigate Cuba's downing of two Brothers to the Rescue planes last February and whether the United States could have prevented the tragedy.

Jose Basulto, president of Brothers to the Rescue and pilot of a third plane chased by Cuban MiG jets on Feb. 24, told the International Relations. Western Hemisphere subcommittee that U.S. agencies were aware of the threat posed by the Cuban planes and did nothing to warn the civilian pilots or protect U.S. airspace.

Brothers to the Rescue is a humanitarian organization which searches for Cubans attempting to cross to the United States. The Cuban government had previously protested Brothers' flights for violating its airspace.

"U.S. government authorities proceeded ... to watch and listen, in silence, for 53 minutes while Cuban MiGs hunted two Brothers to the Rescue planes, killed their four occupants and chased the third plane to within three minutes of the United States," Basulto said.

Basulto's claim was based on testimony by Maj. Jeffrey Houlihan, a Customs agent stationed at March Air Force Base in California, given at Basulto's civil hearing to regain his pilot's license , that he saw the MiGs in the vicinity of the. Brothers' planes and called the South East Air Defense Sector at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City to warn them. Houlihan was told the Air Force was aware of the situation.

Customs officials refused to allow Houlihan to testify before the subcommittee in public. His testimony was heard in a closed session.

But panel members were visibly frustrated when an Air Force colonel and a State Department representative said they could not explain the contradictions between Houlihan's civil testimony and a letter from Gen. Howard DeWolf, director of the Defense Department's Inter-American Region, which said neither the Customs Service nor the Air Force knew that the planes were being flown by Brothers to the Rescue.

"We have been sent individuals who know absolutely nothing about what happened ... who are totally unable to answer what happened and why it happened," fumed Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Miami.

<Please refer to #1 below>

"The administration went too far today (but) pleading ignorance will not work," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, another Miami Republican. "The executive branch is going to have to present the facts."

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., the panel's chairman, told Col. Michael McMahan to take a message back to the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

"We're going to get to the bottom of this and for them to send you here instead of the people who have the answers and are prepared to give the answers, is an obsfuscation of the issue ... it really ticks me off."

McMahan said he first learned he would be testifying at about 6. p.m. Monday. He mainly concentrated on what the Air Force did after the planes were shot down.

But panelists said they wanted to know why the Air Force did not warn the Brothers - as they had previously - that MiGs were in the area.

They also wanted to know why the Air Force did not react after the two planes were shot down and the third plane was chased toward Key West.

"What does it take, short of, a nuclear attack, for the United States to react?" asked Ros-Lehtinen.

McMahan said he was convinced the United States could not have prevented the Brothers' planes from being shot down, and he argued that the MiGs did not approach that close to U.S. airspace. He declined to say in public how close the U.S. would allow foreign military planes to approach before launching interceptors.

<Please refer to #2 & #3 below>

Basulto told the panel he was convinced the MiGs had crossed the 24th parallel into U.S. airspace before they broke off the chase. At the speed they were going, he said, they would have been over Key West in about three minutes.

But McMahan and Michael Ranneberger, from the State Department's Cuba Desk, said they did not believe the MiGs had crossed the 24th parallel.

<Please refer to #3 below>

"We want a definite answer to that question," Burton said. "No baloney. Did they come north of the 24th parallel? If they did, why weren't our planes scrambled? They were almost even with the Keys."

1. The administration refused to allow Major Houlihan, a key witness, to testify before the subcommittee in public and instead sent two individuals who knew nothing about what had happened.

2. Col. McMahan’s assertion that he was convinced the United States could not have prevented the Brothers’ planes from being shot down is completely false.

Please refer to Unanswered Questions (especially #3)  - Chronology of Events Related to the Murder, and to Reaction Time of US Interceptors (below).

Radar sighting of MiGs take off.   3:00 PM
"911" call from Major Jeffrey Houlihan                 3:16 PM
First aircraft is shot down                                         3:21 PM
Second aircraft is shot down                                 3:28 PM
Chase by the Cuban MiGs of the plane that survived is
suspended, about 3 mins from the coast of the US
3:53 PM

The reaction time for an interceptor from Key West to reach the area is, if on "battlestations" alert: less than 5 minutes and, not on "battlestations" alert: less than 11 minutes.

3. It is not clear how Col. Michael McMahan calculates the position of the MiGs when he asserts: "The MiGs did not approach that close to airspace of the United States".

The 24th parallel is not the "trigger line". The 24th parallel does not provide the reference for the intercept launch criteria. The "trigger line" is further south, approximately runs with the 12-mile Cuban territorial waters, and the south boundary of Cuba’s Air Defense Identification Zone. It is identified in Major Jeffrey Houlihan’s sworn court testimony (pages 482-484) and shown in the U.S. Customs screen prints.

The standard operating procedure is to deploy interceptors once Cuban MiGs cross the Cuban 12 mile territorial limit-the "trigger line" (Major Jeffrey Houlihan’s sworn testimony, pages 482-284). This procedure was not followed. Why?

Furthermore, Brothers to the Rescue questions the assertion that that MiGs did not cross the 24th parallel. Please refer to Unanswered Question #7.