Orlando Bosch in custody after his arraignment in Hartford, Conn., in 1965, and Jeb Bush in 1988. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Bettmann/Corbis, George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)
An international terrorist enters the United States illegally, with no visa. FBI agents alert their superiors; the suspect is linked to more than 40 bombings — including blowing up a civilian airliner. He makes it clear he has no intention of renouncing violence to achieve his goals.
It’s a scenario that today would have public officials and politicians of all stripes expressing outrage — and demanding that the suspect be booted out immediately, or locked up indefinitely. But 25 years ago, the accused terrorist in question, a fiery, white-haired Cuban exile by the name of Orlando Bosch, was freed by the U.S. government in a deal cleared by the White House — thanks in part to the backing he received from the then president’s son Jeb Bush.
The story of Jeb Bush and Orlando Bosch is from another era in U.S.-Cuba relations, when passions about Fidel Castro’s regime ran high in south Florida. For many Cuban-Americans, Bosch was a symbol of anti-Communist resistance — a pediatrician turned freedom fighter who, after receiving early backing from the CIA, had dedicated his life to overthrowing the Cuban government by any means necessary. “I am a fighter and a patriot. … In war, everything is valid,” he told Ann Louise Bardach, a journalist who interviewed Bosch extensively for her book “Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington.”
When the Justice Department in the summer of 1989 moved to deport Bosch from the country, labeling him “an unrepentant terrorist” and “a danger to the community,” Bush — then a Miami businessman who had served as chairman of the Dade County Republican Party — was among a number of local political figures who rushed to his defense, even making a highly publicized visit to meet with Bosch’s diabetic brother, who was then on a hunger strike protesting the decision.
President George H.W. Bush during a press conference in 1989. (Photo: AP)
Bush’s backing of Bosch received media attention at the time. But documents recently reviewed by Yahoo News in the presidential library of President George H.W. Bush and in Justice Department archives shed new light on the case, revealing how political interests — including a congressional race in which Jeb Bush was the campaign manager — influenced his father’s White House to ultimately arrange for Bosch to win his freedom.
“Mr. Bosch clearly has broad based support in the community,” White House staffers Sichan Siv and Shiree Sanchez wrote in a June 30, 1989, memo to the president, mentioning that among his “key supporters” was “your son Jeb.”
Siv and Sanchez wrote that the Justice Department decision to deport Bosch had “created a difficult political atmosphere in Miami.” They complained that the Justice Department had failed to show “any political sensitivity” in its handling of the Bosch case — and warned about potentially damaging fallout.
“The timing of this decision has further complicated our hopes for a Republican victory in the special election (for the Claude Pepper seat) held in late August,” they wrote, referring to an upcoming election in which the congressional campaign of the GOP candidate — then-state Sen. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, running for the seat of the recently deceased Democratic Congressman Claude Pepper — would be managed by Jeb Bush.
The White House staffers recommended that White House officials meet with Bosch’s supporters at the White House and “discuss ways by which the Justice Department can be more responsive to their concerns.” (Three weeks later, President Bush flew on Air Force One with Bosch’s leading supporter, Ros-Lehtinen, to campaign for her in Miami. She later told reporters she pressed the president to free Bosch on “humanitarian” grounds.)
The documents on file at the Bush library reviewed by Yahoo News do not spell out exactly how the White House planned to make the Justice Department more “responsive” to Bosch’s supporters. Nor do they indicate whether Jeb Bush directly pressed his father or other White House officials on the case — as some critics would later allege. (Bush does not appear to have ever spoken publicly about his role in Bosch’s case and, at the time, refused to answer questions about any conversations he had with his father on the subject. Asked for comment, Tim Miller, a spokesman for Bush’s presidential campaign, emailed: “As reported at the time, Jeb was not an outspoken advocate on this case. He was familiar with it as an advocate for the Cuban community.”
Miller added, “Jeb’s opposition to Obama’s Cuba policy and advocacy for resolve to defeat terror in all its forms couldn’t be more clear. This decades-old case that he was not involved with has no bearing on that.”)
But the documents on file at the Bush library do make clear where the president’s sympathies were. Another “memorandum for the president” sent by White House staffer David Q. Bates forwarded a New York Daily News op-ed headlined “Persecution of an Anti-Communist.” In the piece, Bosch was described as “Fidel Castro’s most feared enemy” and a “living symbol of [the] struggle to regain Cuba’s independence.”
“Good editorial, GB,” the president wrote on the cover page of Bates’ memo.
What happened over the next year was a steady evolution in the Justice Department’s position, closely monitored by top officials at the White House. Bosch, who had once fought with Castro, had fled Cuba for Miami in July 1960, but had never been approved as a legal resident and left the United States in 1974. When he returned 14 years later from Venezuela, he was detained by immigration authorities in a Miami jail as an “excludable” alien who had entered the country without a visa.
With Bosch’s lawyers challenging the move to deport him, and seeking political asylum, the State Department mounted an effort to find someplace else to send him, approaching more than 30 countries to see if they would be willing to accept Bosch, government records show. But given Bosch’s violent past, there were no takers.
“We were embarrassed to have to ask other countries to have to take him in,” recalls Vicki J. Huddleston, who served as the State Department’s director of Cuban affairs at the time.
Orlando Bosch in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1976, after a court appearance in connection with his arrest for questioning about the crash of a Cuban airliner. (Photo: AP)
Much of the incriminating evidence against Bosch had been spelled out in a damning 18-page memo prepared by Joe Whitley, then acting associate attorney general, based in part on classified CIA and FBI files. Though there were no pending criminal charges against him in the United States, Bosch, Whitley wrote, was a convicted felon: He had been imprisoned for firing a recoilless rifle at a Havana-bound Polish freighter in the Port of Miami in 1968. Upon his release, he fled the country, violating his parole. He then founded an anti-Castro terror group that was linked to assassination plots, attempted kidnappings and “numerous bombings” in Miami and New York as well as throughout Latin America, Whitley’s memo states. In 1974, Bosch had publicly admitted sending package bombs to Cuban embassies in Lima, Madrid, Ottawa and Buenos Aires.
Then, in 1976, Bosch had been arrested in Venezuela for the bombing of a civilian Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, including teenage members of the Cuban national fencing team (the worst act of terrorist violence in the Western Hemisphere until 9/11).
Although Bosch was ultimately acquitted in a Venezuelan court, Whitley noted that evidence at the trial showed that the two men who were convicted “were in contact with Bosch both before and after the bombing.”
“For 30 years, Bosch has been resolute and unwavering in his advocacy of terrorist violence,” Whitley wrote. “His actions have been those of a terrorist, unfettered by laws or human decency, threatening and inflicting violence without regard to the identity of his victims.” He added: “The United States cannot tolerate the inherent inhumanity of terrorism as a way of settling disputes.”
“I’m proud of the language in that memo,” Whitley, who later served as general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, said in a recent interview. Whitley added said he had “absolute confidence” in the strength of the intelligence linking Bosch to terrorism, adding: “I’m not unsympathetic to people who want freedom [in countries like Cuba]. But not when innocent people are harmed.”
Photos of victims at the Colón Cemetery in Havana in 2006, during a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the Cubana Airlines plane crash. (Photo: Javier Galeano/AP)
For their part, Bosch’s lawyers vigorously resisted the government’s efforts. “I don’t think the government could prove any of it,” George Yoss, one of Bosch’s lawyers at the time, said in a recent interview about the evidence in the Whitley memo. He described Bosch as “always a gentleman. He was extremely personable.”
Yoss added: “The issue was, what do you do with this guy? You can’t just keep him in jail indefinitely with no charges against him, only allegations.”
At the Justice Department, officials grew frustrated — and believed the State Department was dragging its feet in finding a new home for Bosch, at the behest of a White House trying to mollify the anti-Castro community in south Florida, according to internal department files recently discovered by Yahoo News at the University of Pittsburgh, where then Attorney General Richard Thornburgh had donated his papers.
Margaret Love, then associate deputy attorney general, noted on Jan. 16, 1990, that the effort to deport Bosch had been constrained by what was understood to be “the president’s wishes” — that he could be sent only to a country “where he would be relatively safe from Cuban agents.” Robert Mueller, then assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division (and, much later, FBI director), later complained in another memo of State’s “lassitude” in the effort to find a country to take Bosch. A May 11, 1990, memo to Mueller from Love quotes a State Department counterterrorism official as informing Justice that “State’s relatively relaxed efforts to find a country to take Dr. Bosch reflect what it understands to be the present disposition of the White House in the matter.”
In the end, the Justice Department relented and informed White House counsel C. Boyden Gray and then deputy chief of staff Andrew Card it would agree to a deal to free Bosch to live with his family in Miami. There were conditions imposed: Bosch had to agree to be monitored, stay at home for all but three hours of the day, pledge to renounce violence and promise to avoid contact with any of his old anti-Castro confederates.
Orlando Bosch speaks to the media on July 17, 1990, following his release from U.S. federal prison after 13 years in Venezuelan and American prisons on suspicion of terrorism. (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis)
On July 17, 1990, Bosch walked free — and promptly thumbed his nose at the Justice Department. He held a news conference and called the deal with Justice “ridiculous” and a “farce.” And he vowed to talk to any friends and supporters he wanted to. “They [the Justice Department] purchased the chain, but they don’t have the monkey,” he said.
The resolution did not go down well at the Justice Department. “I wasn’t looking for any more terrorists to be turned loose on society,” recalled Thornburgh, who was attorney general at the time, in a recent interview with Yahoo News. “It was hard for me to figure out why anybody would be making a case to turn him loose.”
But for Bosch’s defenders, his release was justified.
The Bosch case would resonate for years to come. Cuban officials repeatedly pressed for Bosch and one of his longtime associates — Luis Posada Carriles, another alleged co-conspirator in the airline bombing plot — to be extradited to Cuba to stand trial on terrorism charges. The Cubans also contended that their need to thwart such plots was a main reason they dispatched the spy network known as La Red Avispa (the Wasp Network) to south Florida in the 1990s — five of whose agents were later arrested by the FBI in a notorious spy case that would not get resolved until last year, when President Obama freed the last remaining members as part of the deal to begin normalizing relations.
Bosch died in 2011 at the age of 84. As for Jeb Bush, he has maintained his silence about his own role in the Bosch case, although the issue did briefly pop up in the news in Florida in 2002, when he appointed Raoul Cantero, another of Bosch’s lawyers (and a grandson of former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista), to the Florida Supreme Court. Bush brushed aside any questions about Cantero’s representation of his notorious former client.
“Everybody has a right to an attorney — it’s one of the foundational aspects of our legal system,” he said then. “And I have no problems that Raoul was part of the team defending Orlando Bosch.” Cantero, for his part, told Yahoo News that his prior representation of Bosch had nothing to do with his appointment. “I never discussed Orlando Bosch with Jeb Bush,” he said.