I-Team: Docs Show Cuban Shoot Down Was Expected

For more than a decade the mystery surrounding the secrets behind the shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue airplanes by Cuban military jets has remained elusive. To find answers to that mystery, the CBS4 I-Team spent a year digging through once-top secret documents about the shoot down.

In those documents as well as interviews with nearly one dozen major players in the event, the I-Team discovered details that raise questions about whether the U.S. government might have prevented it had someone in Washington taken more decisive action.

The I-Team’s investigation raises serious questions about the White House’s role in the shootdown.

In the 1990’s, thousands of Cuban refugees on makeshift rafts fled Cuba by sea. Those refugees on the water turned to the skies for their survival.

In the skies, these small private planes routinely saved the desperate refugees from certain drowning. The planes were flown by a group of volunteers called Brothers to the Rescue.

“I originally flew with brothers to the rescue as a volunteer,” said Matthew Lawrence.

Matthew Lawrence flew on some of those rescue missions and later wrote a book about the shootdown titled “Betrayal: Clinton Castro and the Cuban Five.”

“My first flight was a bit harrowing, we were almost knife edged, meaning our wings tipped up,” Lawrence recalled of his time in one of the Brothers to the Rescue airplanes flying over the Florida straits.

“We kept flying mission after mission,” said Jose Basulto, one of the Brothers to the Rescue leaders. “Sixteen times a week. Four times a day in four planes.”

Basulto is one of the founders of Brothers to the Rescue. And he flew hundreds of these missions himself.

“We were very busy at the time,” said Basulto. “We were picking up refugees here and there in the Florida straits. And then we forwarded their positions to the US Coast Guard.”

But all that changed with President Clintons’ so called “wet foot/dry foot” policy. It was a policy that said any Cuban refugee who didn’t make it to American soil was sent back to Cuba.

“After the “wet foot/dry foot” policy we had to change how we operated,” said Basulto. “We would drop a radio down and ask what their situation was, if they were in dire need of help. (If so,) then we can call the Coast Guard. But we would tell them (by the two-way radio) that most likely you will be sent back to Cuba. If you don’t want it (to be rescued but sent back to Cuba), say “No” and we keep flying.”

“It made the Cubans angry,” said former White House advisor Richard Nuccio.

Richard Nuccio served as the top advisor on Cuba to President Bill Clinton. Nuccio now serves as Director of the Civitas International Program at the Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, California.

Nuccio says after the “wet foot/dry foot” policy was put in place, the Brothers to the Rescue actions became more provocative and more political.

“They (Brothers to the Rescue) started to redefine their mission as one of not helping innocent people at risks for their lives but to carry out a political agenda of harassing and threatening the Cuban government by over flights, dropping leaflets (from the air into Cuba),” Richard Nuccio told the I-Team.

That created tensions which were discussed in secret talks and cables between Havana and Washington in 1994, 1995 and 1996.

Those talks were the focus of some declassified documents obtained by the CBS4 I-Team. And those tensions came to head on February 24, 1996. Richard Nuccio remembers feeling anxious the night before.

I-Team Related Links
Emails/Cables Between Havana and Washington
FAA Action/Warning To Pilot Jose Balsuto
Department of Transportation Warning
FAA Letter Warning Of Possible Shoot Downs Of Brothers In Arms Planes

“I had a great foreboding about the next day,” Nuccio told the I-Team. “I didn’t sleep much that night. I worried that some incident would occur. But I never thought Cuban MIGs would fly into international air space and intercept planes that were turning around and leaving.”

But that is precisely what happened on February 24, 1996.

Two Cuban MIG’s flying 12 miles north of the Cuban shoreline in international waters encountered three Brothers to the Rescue planes. The MIGS shot down two of the three planes, killing all four men on board. Three of the men were US citizens. The fourth was a US resident.

“We knew they (the Cubans) would react,” said Jose Basulto.

Basulto was flying the third plane and survived. He escaped back to Florida. But documents show that two other Cuban MIG’s pursued him, following Basulto’s small plane to within 3 minutes of Key West before breaking off pursuit. Basulto said he didn’t know he was being followed until later.

“The fact that they sent the Cuban air force with missiles, missiles to drop (ordinance),” said Basulto. (They sent) war airplanes against a Cessna. Come on! We didn’t expect that!”

The I-Team has discovered in the once secret documents further proof that shows clear warnings of the shootdown and suggests it might have been prevented by the US government.

For nearly a year, the I-Team dug through thousands of e-mails, diplomatic memos, letters and reports. The I-Team read through page after page of documents which filled two large boxes, some once classified, but declassified at our request, show that for a year and a half before the shootdown, there were urgent secret talks between the Clinton administration and officials in Havana. They were talking about the Brothers to the Rescue flights.

“There had been secret negotiations a year prior to the time I became special advisor for Cuba,” said Nuccio.

“It was a slow motion crisis,” said Dr. Brian Latell.

University of Miami Professor Dr. Brian Latell is one of the leading American authorities on US Cuba relations and Cuban history.

“The Brothers to the Rescue missions that were flying toward Cuba and around Cuba repeatedly, those missions were exacerbating the situation,” said Dr. Latell.

“The bilateral situation was that the Cuban government had been protesting those intrusions, quite often in diplomatic sessions,” said Dr. Latell.

“They would call in our diplomats into session over there in Havana; they would make a protest, in diplomatic language. They were polite, direct, firm, not angry or confrontational but the message was clear-these flights are interfering with Cuban air space,” said Dr. Latell.

At the I-Team’s request Dr. Latell reviewed the entire two boxes of government documents, including the once classified documents, relating to the shootdown.

“Not all the flights did (violate the airspace), Dr. Latell said. “Not all the flights, but many did and we knew that in the US. There were American diplomats, I’ve heard, in Havana who actually during the American diplomatic mission, they were able on different occasions where they could hear the Brothers to the Rescue there (in Havana),” said Dr. Latell.

“They (the US diplomats in Havana) would hear the Brothers to the Rescue planes, they would look up and there they (the planes) were. It was visible and audible from the ground even from the American diplomatic mission,” said Dr. Latell.

You can review copies of just some of the memos and e-mails obtained by the CBS4 I-Team from the FAA and the US Department of State below.

I-Team Related Links
Emails/Cables Between Havana and Washington
FAA Action/Warning To Pilot Jose Balsuto
Department of Transportation Warning
FAA Letter Warning Of Possible Shoot Downs Of Brothers In Arms Planes

The documents revealed several things for Dr. Latell.

“The Cuban government had been protesting the flights for at least 17 to 18 months prior to the shootdown,” said Dr. Latell.

One document from an International Manager to her superiors at the FAA dated January 22, 1996, stands out. The memo was from Cecilia Capestany, an International Affairs analysis at the FAA, to her superior at the FAA’s Miami flight standards district office, Michael C. Thomas. Thomas then forwarded the memo to Charles J Smith, Jr. at the FAA.

The document reads in part. “Worst case scenario is that one of these days the Cubans will shoot down one of these planes and the FAA better have all its ducks in a row.”

You can read the entire memo by clicking here.

Just a month later it happened. Cuban MIG’s shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes.

“The Cuban government thought it was sending strong messages to the U.S. government to stop the flights,” said President Clinton’s top Cuba advisor Richard Nuccio. “The U.S. thought it was sending the Cuban government strong messages that we did not have the power to stop the flights that these were American citizens or residents exercising their rights of free speech. ”

“We were not told about that (warning),” Jose Basulto told I-Team investigator Stephen Stock who first showed him the FAA memo.

Stock asked Basulto “Had you been told (about the memos) what would you have done?”

“Believe me we would have thought about it twice if we knew that,” Basulto said. “We wouldn’t have flown that day had we known. I wouldn’t have exposed those kids to the risk. And I wouldn’t have done it myself.”

Richard Nuccio says the Clinton Administration did try to informally warn the Brothers to the Rescue leaders numerous times months before the shootdown but politics got in the way.

“We repeatedly warned brothers to the rescue. To the point that Brothers to the Rescue complained to their constituents members of congress, the Cuban-Americans, that we were persecuting them,” Richard Nuccio said.

The government documents reviewed by the I-Team also show that for nearly a year before the shootdown, the Federal Aviation Administration tried to take away Jose Basulto’s pilot’s license because he had flown over Cuba.

One FAA memo reads quote “this latest over flight can only be seen as further taunting of the Cuban Government. State is increasingly concerned about Cuban reactions…”

You can read a copy of that FAA memo by clicking here.

The I-Team showed the memo to Jose Basulto who insisted he’d never seen it until we showed it to him.

But for whatever reason, the FAA didn’t act until it was too late.

“We suspended Basulto’s pilot’s license the day the shootdown occurred. Basulto was in the cockpit of an airplane with a suspended license,” said Richard Nuccio.

I-Team Related Links
Emails/Cables Between Havana and Washington
FAA Action/Warning To Pilot Jose Balsuto
Department of Transportation Warning
FAA Letter Warning Of Possible Shoot Downs Of Brothers In Arms Planes

I-Team investigator Stephen Stock asked Basulto, “Do you take responsibility for that?”

Basulto replied, “For doing that? Of course I do (take responsibility).”

“We had conversations with the FAA in which they told us to be careful,” Basulto said. “They told us “don’t do this” and “don’t do that.” But something of this nature was never warned to us. Never.”

But perhaps the biggest mystery of all surrounds US military jets that never left the runway at Homestead Air Force base.

“I knew by the tone of their voice and they way that they called that something was wrong,” said Janet Ray Weininger who was there at Homestead Air Force base when news first came in about the shootdown in February, 1996.

Weininger was, at the time, the wife of the commander of the F-16 Air Force Reserve squadron at Homestead Air Force base. She took the first call after the shootdown and handed the phone to her husband.

“They said we were all watching the radar that day,” said Weininger.

Days later she got permission to go on base and spoke with Florida Air Florida National reserve pilots who had scrambled into their F-15 fighter jets ready to intercept the Cubans.

The pilots shared with Weininger their frustration as they sat on the runway waiting for orders to take off.

“We (the F-15’s) had launched earlier and that afternoon we were noticing how the Cubans were flying we could see the Brothers to the Rescue and that something’s wrong,” Weininger recalls the pilots telling her. “We (the F-15’s) need to launch.”

But the opposite orders came from unknown people in Washington. The F-15’s were ordered to stay on the ground. And they were not allowed to intercept the Cuban MIG’s.

“One of the guys said to me if they would have let us launch maybe we could have saved both of them,” Weininger told the I-Team.

Though US military jets had scrambled to intercept Cuban MIG’s since at least 1992 and even had scrambled earlier the very day of the shootdown, no jets ever took off from Homestead Air Force base. In fact, no jets took off from any other US military base at all to meet the threat posed by the MIG’s.

“Jeffrey Houlihan who was senior radar operator (with US Customs in California), spoke with an individual who was at Homestead Air Force Base (who was) literally slamming his hand on the table demanding they let the planes go and the gentlemen told him that we want to go,” said author Matthew Lawrence. “They said ‘We’re fighter pilots. It’s what we do, but we were told not to leave (the runway at Homestead).'”

“They (the pilots in the F-15’s) were there. They were the one people that could have saved these boys (in the Brothers to the Rescue planes),” said Weininger. “And they would have (saved them.) And they wanted to.”

But the pilots never got the chance.

Despite the fact that military officials watched the shootdown on several different radar installations around the country, even as far away as California, and despite the fact two more MIG’s chased Basulto’s plane to within 3 minutes downtown Key West, the records show that no United States military jets ever scrambled to intercept the Cubans.

“They were helpless and their hands were tied and they couldn’t do their job,” Weininger said of the US military pilots.

“I don’t think today we can say it could have been prevented but I can say it is unfortunate that swifter action wasn’t taken,” said Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum who was a US Representative from Florida at the time of the shootdown.

A Republican, who was very critical of the Clinton White House, McCollum later lead a US House Committee which investigated the shootdown.

“I personally feel responsible that four people died,” said President Clinton’s top Cuba advisor Richard Nuccio.

Nuccio says he doesn’t know why the military jets never scrambled. But he does wish he’d done more.

“And while I thought I was doing everything I could at the time I wish I had done more,” said Nuccio. “I wish I had jumped up and down, screamed, yelled, run into the President’s office. (I wish I’d) done more things than write memos, emails, make phone calls, ring alarms. I wish I’d done more to try to get others to act.”

All this leads Jose Basulto to blame the Clinton administration almost as much as the Fidel Castro himself for the shootdown.

“They should be blamed for it definitely,” said Basulto. “They (the Clinton White House leaders) are just as guilty as Castro who did it them self. They are accomplices of what happened.”

But Clinton’s advisor on Cuba says the blame partly lies with Basulto himself.

“It was a game being played. Unfortunately a very dangerous game that cost four people their lives,” said Richard Nuccio.

The CBS4 I-Team contacted representatives for former President Bill Clinton, his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright and his National Security Advisor Sandy Berger as well as Clinton’s former Energy Secretary and diplomatic envoy Bill Richardson, who is now the Governor of New Mexico.

All declined to speak with us about this part of our history.

Many other government documents related to the shootdown remain secret to this day.

But the classified documents, now declassified, which the CBS4 I-Team did obtain makes clear that at least some high ranking officials in the US government knew that a shootdown was possible if not probable.

And those documents demonstrate that this tragedy might have been averted had someone in the United States government taken more concrete action before it was too late.

More from CBS4 Investigates
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