Published Wednesday, July 31, 1996, in the Miami Herald.

Cuban exiles seek probe of shootdown

Herald Staff Writer

The Cuban exile pilots organization Brothers to the Rescue today will ask Congress to investigate the downing of two of its planes by Cuban MiGs on Feb. 24.

Brothers president Jose Basulto will travel today to Washington to present a packet of documents to members of Congress at a Capitol news conference. He said the documents will show that the U.S. Air Force did not follow standard procedures that day, which might have saved the four fliers who died.

Groundwork has been laid for investigation. U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, both Miami Republicans, said Tuesday they expect those hearings to take place before Congress adjourns in October for national elections.

``I know Rep. Dan Burton, who heads the Western Hemisphere Affairs Subcommittee, is very interested,'' said Ros-Lehtinen, who belongs to the subcommittee. ``But he and his people are going through the protocol to make sure they aren't stepping on anyone else's toes on any other committee. We expect they'll happen in September.''

Burton was unavailable for comment, but another subcommittee source confirmed that Burton was interested.

``Yes, we'd like to find out exactly what happened that day,'' he said. ``It isn't a question of blaming anyone, but just getting at the facts.''

Ros-Lehtinen said she expected the main witnesses to come from the Department of Defense, including officials at Air Force's South East Air Defense Sector headquarters at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City. Also expected to be called is Jeffrey Houlihan, radar specialist for the U.S. Customs Agency in Riverside, Calif.

(Please see note below)

On the day of the tragedy, Houlihan saw the MiGs appear on his radar screen near the Brothers planes and called Tyndall, which is responsible for monitoring that area between Cuba and Florida for possible threats to the United States.

Houlihan testified this month in Miami at a Federal Aviation Administration hearing on the suspension of Basulto's pilot's license. He said he called Tyndall, asked if radar operators there could see what he was seeing on his screen: the proximity of the MiGs to the Brothers planes.

He said he was told that they saw the situation and that they would take care of it.

``I expected them to launch interceptor aircraft to go after the MiGs. . . . They didn't make any move,'' he said in an interview after testifying.

Within the 11 minutes, two Brothers planes were shot down. The shootdowns, according to a United Nations investigation made public in June, came over international waters at least 10 miles north of Cuban territorial waters.

``I thought the MiGs were a threat, not just to those aircraft, but due to the fact that from where they were, they could have been to the Keys in a matter of minutes,'' Houlihan said.

Ros-Lehtinen said she expected the location of the MiGs and the possible threat to the United States to be the major focus of the hearings, as well as the protection that might have been afforded the Brothers planes.

``We want to know what procedure was followed that day,'' she said. ``Is there a standard procedure, was it followed, and if there isn't, let's get a policy in place.''

Please refer to article "U.S. officials evasive in probe of downed planes, panel says." The Palm Beach Post, September 19, 1996. The administration refused to allow Major Houlihan to testify in public.

Copyright 1996 The Miami Herald