Pilot Says U.S. Knew of Cuban MiGs

Lack of Aid Irks Leader Of `Brothers' Who Lost 4
By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 31 1996; Page A03
The Washington Post

U.S. military and civilian authorities knew that three American planes were in danger before Cuban fighters shot two of them down in February in the Florida Straits, but the officials made no effort to intervene, the head of a Cuban American pilots' group has charged.

Jose Basulto, head of the Brothers to the Rescue organization, says that after two Cuban MiGs killed four of his comrades in the Feb. 24 shoot-down, a second pair of MiGs pursued his own fleeing plane to within about 32 miles of U.S. territory, well inside a U.S. air defense zone. But even though U.S. radar had been tracking the Cuban flights for more than 40 minutes before the second pair of MiGs broke off their mission three minutes from the Florida coast, Basulto says, the fighters did not trigger any response from the U.S. Air Force, and he wants to know why.

The U.S. government could have prevented the shoot-down, but chose not to, Basulto charges. He bases his allegation on testimony and documents presented in a National Transportation Safety Board hearing this month on his challenge to the the Federal Aviation Administration's revocation of his pilot's license in May. The NTSB judge reduced the penalty to a 150-day suspension, and the FAA is appealing the decision.

"I never expected U.S. planes to come save us, but at least I expected the decency of a call," he said in a telephone interview. A warning that MiGs had taken off "would have been sufficient for us to abandon the area," Basulto said. "There were U.S. citizens' lives involved." He said U.S. officials had alerted Brothers to the Rescue aircraft to the presence of MiGs and had even scrambled fighters in response on previous occasions as the group searched for Cubans fleeing their homeland on makeshift rafts.

U.S. officials say they had warned Basulto generally against violating Cuban airspace, notably after a flight in July 1995 in which he had dropped bumper stickers over Havana.

Three Cuban Americans and one Cuban resident of the United States were killed in the Feb. 24 shoot-down of two unarmed U.S.-registered Cessna aircraft. The U.S. government has said that both downed planes were in international airspace and that only Basulto's plane had penetrated the 12-mile Cuban territorial limit.

According to a report by the International Civil Aviation Organization, the State Department had informed the FAA on Feb. 23 that Brothers to the Rescue might violate Cuban airspace to "demonstrate solidarity with dissidents" in defiance of the Cuban government, which it said was in "a rough mood" and less likely than before to "show restraint." Basulto charges that the information on his group's plans was false and had originated from a Cuban double agent, Juan Pablo Roque, who had joined Brothers to the Rescue in 1992 and returned to Cuba the day before the shoot-down.

The FAA asked the U.S. Customs Service to monitor the flights to check for any violations of Cuban airspace.

At 3:15 p.m. on Feb. 24, Jeffrey Houlihan, a Customs radar operator at California's March Air Force Base, was surprised to see on his screen two high-speed aircraft that he took to be Cuban MiGs streaking into international airspace toward the United States, he testified at the NTSB hearing.

He said he made what he later described as a "911 call" to the Southeast Air Defense Sector at Florida's Tyndall Air Force Base and was told, "We're handling it, don't worry."

However, Houlihan testified, although U.S. fighters could have been on the scene within five to 10 minutes and despite standard procedures in such circumstances, no interceptor aircraft were launched.

"The United States military has told me specifically that anything that appears in that area heading toward the U.S., they're going to launch on immediately," he testified.

Previously undisclosed documents presented at the hearing, including a transcript of Cuban radio transmissions, showed that two other MiGs chased Basulto's plane and were apparently about to shoot it down but were ordered to break off their mission because they were getting too close to the United States.

Col. Samuel Baptiste, vice commander of the Southeast Air Defense Sector, declined comment on any "operational decisions" on the day of the shoot-down, saying only that these decisions "had nothing to do with Brothers to the Rescue."

"We have our day-in and day-out procedures, and we followed those," Baptiste added in a telephone interview.

<Please refer to #1 below>

He refused to specify how far north Cuban warplanes would have to fly to trigger a U.S. response and would not comment on whether the Air Force was aware that the Brothers to the Rescue planes were in danger from Cuban MiGs.

<Please refer to #2 below>

Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

1.    See unanswered question 5, "U.S. interceptors were not deployed to deter MiGs in international waters, in contravention of standard operating procedure related to the "trigger line".

Also please refer to unanswered question 3- "The "miscommunication error" that cancelled the "battlestations" alert at Homestead has never been explained".

2. The Air Force was very much aware. As a matter of fact, at least the Department of State and the Defense Intelligence Agency even had prior knowledge. Please refer to unanswered question 1- "The Clinton Administration remained silent in connection with a "calculated warning" by the Cuban government" and unanswered question 4- "Response to a "911" call: "…we’re handling it, don’t worry".