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Moral Misstep

Some Terrorists Get a Hero's Welcome

By Marcela Sanchez
Friday, September 3, 2004; Page A19

It would seem safe to assume that people who have fired a bazooka at the United Nations headquarters in New York, served time in connection with the first state-sponsored act of terrorism in the United States, or actively participated in secret groups that claimed responsibility for dozens of bombings in New York, New Jersey and Florida would raise many red flags when coming into this country.

Or maybe not. Just last week Guillermo Novo Sampol, Pedro Remon and Gaspar Jimenez, the men behind those and other terrorist acts, received a hero's welcome in the United States. After a quick flight from Panama aboard a private jet, the men flashed victory signs and smiled to a swarm of cameras in a Miami airport while U.S. authorities looked on.

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Hours earlier, Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso pardoned the three men and another, Luis Posada Carriles, ending their stint in a Panamanian prison for charges related to plotting to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2000. According to an April court ruling, if the explosives found had been used, they could have destroyed an armored car and everything within 220 yards would have felt the impact.

Posada, an international fugitive charged with the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, did not join the rest in Miami because he does not possess a U.S. passport. Instead, according to Honduran press reports, the CIA-trained explosives expert was dropped off in Honduras with a false U.S. passport.

Critics here and in Latin America jumped to conclude that Washington had pressured Moscoso to release the men, citing the Bush administration's obsession with Castro and the potential political gain for President Bush in Florida. U.S. officials, on the other hand, responded quickly by stating they "never lobbied the Panamanian government to pardon anyone."

Such talk falls into the old trap of conspiracy and denial, and it obscures the larger point: There is something terribly wrong when the United States, after Sept. 11, fails to condemn the pardoning of terrorists and instead allows them to walk free on U.S. streets.

"Moral clarity is a strategic asset" in the war on terrorism, Pentagon policy chief Douglas Feith said in a 2002 speech. If President Bush frequently labels terrorism as "evil," he continued, it is to steer the world toward an unquestionable rejection of terrorism, regardless of its goals.

The four Cuban exiles have spent nearly four decades in rabid pursuit of the destruction of Castro, his communist revolution and anyone who dared criticize their violent methods. Whether by the fortune of powerful supporters or the convenience of previous tolerance toward certain acts of terrorism, they have more often than not managed to roam free to plan their next move. They can now add Panamanian presidential clemency to a bizarre list of achievements that have included escapes from foreign prisons, dropped charges and commuted life sentences.

Times are supposed to be different since Sept. 11. In his 2002 speech, Feith acknowledged the "unpleasant fact" that for the past three decades, the world, including the United States, tolerated terrorism. In the post-Sept. 11 world, he added, "no one who aspires to respectability can tolerate, let alone support" terrorists who in the past may have been seen as freedom fighters.

Perhaps Feith should have exempted people who hate Castro. Judging by interviews this week, leaders in the Cuban American community, including former U.S. officials, have not reevaluated their tolerance of terrorism. Simon Ferro, a former U.S. ambassador to Panama, played down the significance of Moscoso's pardon, saying the men had been found guilty only of entering Panama illegally. (They were serving seven- to eight-year sentences for endangering public safety.) Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, said that his organization does not advocate violence but that "we do not condemn those who fight and risk their lives to try to liberate their people."

The U.S. government appears to be doing little to make them think otherwise. Asked again to comment this week, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher simply denied, once again, any U.S. involvement. In an interview this week with a Panamanian journalist, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell himself said that this was "entirely an internal Panamanian matter and I will just leave it there."

Days before her term as president ended, Moscoso pardoned the four conspirators on humanitarian grounds, fearing rightly that if extradited to Cuba, as Castro has been requesting, the men would be summarily executed. There is no argument here that Castro's courts would be anything but ruthless to the men. But must the United States welcome terrorists as heroes to avert further injustice?

There was room for moral consistency. Washington could always persuade Panama to deny extradition to Cuba without having to now look so conspicuously acquiescent in the pardon. That would have demonstrated Washington's intolerance for terrorists and allowed Panama to prove itself a strong and unquestionable ally in the larger war against terrorism. But U.S. officials made a decision altogether different.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company