"You are authorized to destroy the plane," the radar operator in Havana said. "To do what? To do what?" Lt. Col. Lorenzo Alberto Perez asked. He was in the cockpit of a Cuban Air Force MiG-29 fighter jet, cruising at several hundred miles per hour above the Caribbean. Ahead he could see a small blue-and-white Cessna 337. "To destroy the second plane," the voice from Havana Center said. "Come on," Perez said. The Cessna was flying in a big arc 750 feet above the Straits of Florida. In the waters below there were a fishing trawler and a cruise ship. "Get ready, easy there now," the voice from Havana said. "No problem." At that moment, about 10 kilometers to the east of the Cessna, Jose Basulto, founder and leader of Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based pilots organization that helped refugees from Cuba and campaigned against Fidel Castro, was flying in another Cessna. He was talking on the radio to Mario de la Pena, 24, who was piloting the plane shadowed by the MiG. "Do you see that smoke to my, ah, left?" Basulto asked Pena. "I don't see anything now," Pena replied. "Do you see smoke below the MiG?" "I didn't see, see the MiG," the young pilot replied. "I saw smoke and a flare." "I do not know if it was a flare," Basulto said. "Calm, calm," the Cuban colonel was breathing into his microphone, to steady himself. He pushed the firing switch on his control stick. A nine-foot-long, 230-pound, heat-seeking missile detached from underneath the MiG's wing and rocketed off toward the rear engine of the Cessna piloted by Mario de la Pena. The fireballs that consumed two Cessna airplanes and killed four of Jose Basulto's colleagues from Brothers to the Rescue in the skies off Havana that day, February 24, 1996, destroyed the possibilities of U.S.-Cuban detente at a time when Cuba was wrestling with its place in the post-Soviet world. The shootdown shattered a budding alliance between Castro's opponents on the island and in Miami. It undermined the already tenuous position of reformers within the Cuban government and strengthened hard-liners wary of political or economic liberalization. President Clinton, previously willing to search for ways to find accommodation with Cuba, became the first president since John F. Kennedy to consider a direct U.S. military attack on the island nation. Because of widespread outrage over the shootdown, the Helms-Burton bill tightening the U.S. embargo on Cuba was transformed from a candidate for a Clinton veto to the law of the land. When Helms-Burton took effect last August, with its punitive sanctions for investors anywhere in the world who do business with the Cuban government, it disrupted America's relations with dozens of friendly governments. After the shootdown, Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, famously denounced the act as Cuban "cowardice." Editorialists decried the Cubans for cold-blooded murder. And murder it was. There is no ambiguity about that -- the Brothers to the Rescue planes were unarmed, they were in international airspace. But if you work backward from that moment, back through the lives of the people in the sky that day, through the years of conflict between Cuba and the United States, the story of the shootdown grows more complex. Jose Basulto, who launched himself so defiantly toward Havana on February 24, has been a part of similarly violent and outsized dramas in the past. In a sense, in the anatomy of the shootdown lies the anatomy of 40 years of edgy, conspiratorial violence involving Cuba and the United States. A pilot, a provocateur, a self-proclaimed "soldier of peace," and a charismatic leader of his fellow exiles, Basulto believes the events of February 24, 1996, were the manifestation of a conspiracy between Cuban leaders and "certain factions" in the U.S. government to eliminate Brothers to the Rescue. A veteran of the violent anti-Castro resistance based in Miami, Basulto is no stranger to elaborate conspiracies. While he has produced no hard evidence for his suspicions about the shootdown, he has helped to raise some serious questions about why U.S. military commanders did nothing to intervene in the deadly, one-sided aerial confrontation. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) has demanded that the Pentagon's inspector general review these questions, an investigation that is ongoing. It was 11:30 on the night of August 24, 1962. John F. Kennedy was president of the United States. Bill Clinton was about to start his junior year of high school in Hot Springs, Ark. Twenty-two-year-old Jose Basulto was standing on the deck of a boat, the Juanin, floating in the darkness about 200 yards off the coast of Miramar, a western suburb of Havana. He was gripping the trigger of a German-made 20mm cannon. Across the water, Basulto could see the lights of the Hornedo de Rosita Hotel. He waited for a signal from the boat's captain, Juan Salvat. Salvat was the brains behind an anti-Castro youth group called the Revolutionary Student Directorate. The directorate was then well-known in Miami both for its intelligence network in Cuba and for its connections in Washington. It was secretly being funded to the tune of $20,000 a month by the CIA, according to documents in the National Archives. Basulto, who came to the United States in 1959, had been an early volunteer for Brigade 2506, an exile army sponsored by the CIA. Trained as a radio operator, he was infiltrated into Cuba just before the brigade's abortive invasion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. He managed to escape back to Miami, where he brooded about Washington's betrayal of the exile army and plotted to strike again at Castro. For $300 he bought the 20mm cannon and showed it to Salvat. The directorate had been tipped off that Castro often went to the Hornedo de Rosita late on Friday nights to drink with his Soviet Bloc advisers. Salvat gave the signal. Basulto started cranking the handle of the cannon, launching a stream of eight-inch armor-piercing shells into the darkness. In the distance the windows of the hotel were shattering, there was screaming, then the lights went out. The hotel's residents, terrified by the noise, dove behind the reception counter or huddled in their rooms. Castro had not yet arrived, but Basulto didn't know that. He kept firing. Soldiers onshore returned the fire. Cuban Coast Guard boats revved their motors. The young men on the Juanin fled into the darkness back toward the United States. The front-page headline of The Washington Post blared: Havana Area Is Shelled; Castro's Charge of U.S. Aid in Sortie Rejected Nobody was killed or injured, but the hotel guests, who included doctors and other advisers from Czechoslovakia and East Germany, were shaken up. The front page of the Washington Daily News featured a photograph of Jose Basulto and Juan Salvat proudly standing shoulder to shoulder. Thirty-five years later Basulto recalls the moment with a pride that seems somewhat bemused. "We were pretty {lousy} terrorists, let me tell you," he says, "because somebody else would have got explosive ammunition. But our intention was not to kill people but to scare the hell out of them." He argues that while the directorate militants wouldn't have been at all sorry if they had killed Castro, the attack shouldn't be called an assassination attempt because they were not certain that Castro was actually at the hotel at that moment. Rather, Basulto says, the fusillade of cannon shells was a way of letting Castro know that he himself was a target. It was also, he adds, a way of sending a message to Washington. Kennedy "was saying at the time that there were no Russians in Cuba," Basulto recalls, not quite accurately. "So, {it was} a nice opportunity to shake the hotel there and see if there are no Russians in Cuba." (In fact, Kennedy was saying at the time that there were no offensive Soviet weapons in Cuba -- he was not denying there were Russians there.) U.S. government officials "had trained us for doing this type of thing," Basulto says. "Except that this time we did it without their consent, and they never expected us to do that." It was only the beginning of Basulto's career as a loose cannon. Seven months after the attack on the hotel in Miramar, Jose Basulto enlisted in the U.S. Army. On March 20, 1963, he and 50 other Bay of Pigs veterans were given officers' commissions as second lieutenants. Among the other promising young men who showed up at the Army recruiting office in Coral Gables, Fla., was Felix Rodriguez, perhaps Jose Basulto's best friend. Rodriguez would become known for participating in the capture of Castro's revolutionary comrade Che Guevara in 1967 and then, in the 1980s, as a player in the Iran-contra scandal. Also enlisting that day was Jorge Mas Canosa, now one of the most powerful men in Cuban-American politics -- the chairman of Radio and TV Marti, a U.S.-subsidized broadcasting empire that competes with Castro's media for the hearts and minds of the Cuban people. After a year studying psychological warfare at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Benning, Ga., Basulto left the Army. He returned to Miami and the anti-Castro underground. What happened in Basulto's life from 1964 to 1969 is not something he cares to talk about in much detail. At one point, in the middle of a conversation about another subject, he says suddenly, "About that time in my life, I have only one thing I want to say. We had come to the conclusion that the only hope for the Cuban people lay in the physical elimination of Fidel Castro." The apparent implication of these words is that Basulto supported and perhaps participated in assassination plots. But he will say nothing else about it, other than to make clear that "I have changed my mind on the subject," as he puts it quietly. "Now we have to concentrate on the man in ourselves. It will require the help of all the Cuban people. Not eliminating one man but eliminating the evil in all of us." Well into the 1970s, though, terrorism against civilians remained a tool of the most militant anti-Castro activists. On October 6, 1976, a Cubana airliner traveling from Barbados en route to Havana was rocked by two bomb explosions in mid-air and smashed into the water, killing all 73 people on board, including 24 members of Cuba's national fencing team. In the aftermath, two former colleagues of Basulto's from the Bay of Pigs days were named as suspects in the bombing, and one spent time in Venezuelan prisons because of the allegations, although neither was ever brought to trial. "The Barbados Bomb," as the incident is still known in Cuba, marked the first time that an unarmed civilian aircraft became a target in the struggle for power between Castro and his foes -- but not the last. There is no indication Basulto had any role in that bombing. He says that he dropped out of politics in the 1970s. He remarried after a bitter divorce and became a builder of luxury homes in the swank gated subdivisions where wealthy Latins congregate in Miami. In the summer of 1991, Billy Schuss, a Cuban American sugar company manager, was watching the local news in Miami. There was a report on rafters -- refugees -- who had come from Cuba and were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard. The news camera captured sailors lifting up a retarded teenage boy who was curled up tightly in fear. When Schuss heard the next day that the boy had died at the hospital, he wept. Then he called his friend Jose Basulto and said, "We have to do something." Thus was born Brothers to the Rescue. At the time, South Florida was awash in balseros, as the rafters were known in Cuban Miami. These were a different sort of refugee from those who came in the '60s. They were not, like Jose Basulto's family, professionals, managers and entrepreneurs dispossessed by Castro's revolution. These were working people, many of them black, who couldn't afford the scarce eggs, bread, milk, diapers and gasoline that Castro's embargo-pinched socialism generated. So they started coming to America on jerry-built boats that confirmed the Cuban reputation for ingenuity and audacity. One group of rafters sawed the top off a school bus, turned it upside down, lashed wooden beams to the sides with rope, added some Styrofoam and attached an old motorcycle engine to the back. But all the balseros were taking a huge risk in the brutal sun and treacherous currents of the Florida Straits. More than once, some fisherman or windsurfer in the Keys would find an empty raft washed up on a beach, a silent reminder that a whole Cuban family may have perished in pursuit of the American dream. Basulto enlisted some friends, the Lares brothers from Argentina, who had a plane, as Basulto did. (Basulto had earned his pilot's license in Cuba in 1959.) For two weeks that summer, they flew in tandem over the Straits of Florida looking for rafters. They saw no one. It was hot, noisy, tedious work with no reward. But they kept flying. Within a year they had located hundreds of rafters and were heroes of the local TV news shows, which began to feature Brothers to the Rescue planes hovering over knots of passengers perched on preposterously rickety rafts. In Brothers to the Rescue, Basulto found a nonviolent outlet for his desire for action, his physical daring, his charisma, his desire to help Cubans. He read a book by Martin Luther King Jr. and was impressed by how black Americans had effectively used nonviolent tactics against a seemingly more powerful foe. He started quoting King and attending seminars on nonviolence sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta and the Albert Einstein Institution in Cambridge, Mass. His pilots kept helping rafters to shore. American Airlines and Chevron donated fuel. Gloria Estefan lent her support. Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence went for a ride in a Brothers to the Rescue plane. "This strikes me as a cause, in a community of causes, about which everyone can agree," he wrote in his column. Basulto's conversion to nonviolence, he acknowledged to a Herald reporter, was not easy. "I was trained as a terrorist by the United States, in the use of violence to attain goals," he said. "When I was young, my Hollywood hero was John Wayne. Now I'm like Luke Skywalker. I believe the force is with us." In the spring of 1995, Brothers to the Rescue was effectively put out of business by an election-minded Bill Clinton. The steady flow of rafters into Florida was testing the capacity of social service agencies and the tolerance of some non-Cubans, who were feeling overrun by the new arrivals. There were also 32,000 restless Cuban refugees living in a tent city at the U.S. naval enclave at Guantanamo Bay on the southeastern tip of Cuba. In the White House, there was fear of another flood of refugees like the Mariel boatlift unleashed by Castro in the summer of 1980. Clinton had then been the governor of Arkansas, where thousands of Cubans were detained. The result of Mariel had been riots and a general sense of chaos. Three months later, Clinton had lost his bid to be reelected governor. As president, aides say, Clinton was determined that no such fiasco would mar his 1996 reelection campaign. So Clinton took the advice of a faction of his administration that wanted to open talks with Cuba. He authorized Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff to go to Canada to secretly cut a deal with the Cuban government. The United States would accept the refugees at Guantanamo but end the practice of giving all Cuban refugees automatic asylum in the United States. Instead of getting on the fast track for U.S. citizenship, most rafters would be returned to Cuba. Announced suddenly in May 1995, the new policy had the force of logic. Clinton administration officials were finding it harder and harder to defend the long-standing immigration policy under which a poor Cuban refugee would get automatic asylum in the United States while a poor Haitian refugee would get a return ticket. It also made sense politically. Clinton removed a threat to his electoral prospects in the key state of Florida. And Castro obtained an effective way to stanch the embarrassing flow of rafters out of his country. For South Florida Cubans, long accustomed to their special status in U.S. foreign policy, the deal felt like a betrayal. There was outrage in Miami. Protesters blocked freeways and attempted to shut down the city with a general strike. For Brothers to the Rescue, the deal threatened to end the main rationale for their work. This was a test of what Basulto had learned about nonviolence. How would he now use the examples of King and Gandhi to advance the cause of liberating Cuba? Basulto decided to start flying into Cuban airspace. He said he wanted to show the Cuban people that defiance of their government was possible. And the Cuban government started filing detailed diplomatic notes of protest with the U.S. government. The State Department forwarded these complaints to the Federal Aviation Administration, whose officials contacted Basulto and told him stop. Basulto did not. On July 13, 1995, Basulto flew above a flotilla of boats from Cuban democracy groups that were seeking to commemorate the anniversary of the sinking of a Cuban ferry. One year earlier, a group of Cuban men, desperate to escape the island, had hijacked a ferryboat and ordered the captain to set sail for Miami. The Cuban Coast Guard intercepted the ferry in Cuban waters, ordered it to stop, then rammed it. The ferry sank and 40 people, most of them women and children, drowned. The Castro government was unapologetic. The 1995 commemoration ceremony quickly degenerated into a confrontation. The Cuban Coast Guard intervened and ordered the boats to leave Cuban waters. Basulto, circling above, says that he feared another ramming. With a TV cameraman in tow, he took off for Havana in an effort to divert Castro's forces. He flew a few hundred feet over the Malecon, the main waterfront boulevard in Havana, dropping religious medals and bumper stickers. Upon his return to Miami, Basulto said that he would obey U.S. laws concerning violating the airspace of other countries but that he did not care at all if he was violating Cuban law. "We want confrontation," he declared. Basulto emphasized his commitment to nonviolence. His bravado suggested that his grasp of the philosophy of nonviolence was not as deep as it might have been. Gandhi and King, after all, did not advocate violating just any law imposed by an immoral regime, only laws that were in and of themselves immoral. More importantly, Gandhi and King advocated accepting the punishment of the unjust authorities. By sacrificing themselves to the truncheons of segregationist police, King and his followers forced their oppressors to act out the violence inherent in their unjust laws. If Basulto had fully applied the lessons King taught, he might have landed his plane on the Malecon and let the TV cameras of the world capture him being carried off to jail. Understandably, Basulto did nothing of the sort. Such a stunt might well have won him a one-way ticket to a firing squad. On the rainy, windy afternoon of January 13, 1996, Basulto and another Brothers to the Rescue pilot, Pablo Roque, flew south from Miami toward Havana. Somewhere not far from the city, Roque took the controls while Basulto clambered into the back of the Cessna. He opened the rear door and started tossing bundles of pamphlets into the roaring wind. The Cuban government says the plane was five miles inside Cuban airspace at the time; Basulto denies this, producing a series of maps and charts to support his argument that it was possible for him to dump the leaflets in international airspace and still have them fall on Havana. That evening and the next morning residents of the Cuban capital found their streets littered with leaflets noting that the Cuban government is a signatory to the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and quoting Article 19 of the declaration: "All individuals have the right to freedom of opinion and expression . . ." Cuba's government decried the leaflets' "subversive character." The Cuban military lost whatever patience it had with Basulto. Brig. Gen. Ruben Martinez Puente, the chief of the Cuban Anti-Aircraft Defense and Air Force, later told international investigators that the January 13 incident convinced the Cuban government that Brothers to the Rescue was beyond the control of the U.S. government. In mid-January 1996, Puente said, he was given authorization to intercept and shoot down any Brothers to the Rescue plane that came into Cuban airspace. The Cuban government sent formal notification to the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington that violators "should be prepared to face the consequences." In Washington, U.S. policymakers recognized a dangerous situation was developing. The State Department replied in a formal diplomatic note that the "U.S. government has consistently discouraged such activity, and has issued several public statements warning of the potentially serious consequences of entering Cuban territorial waters or airspace without prior authorization from the Government of Cuba." The note also said that the FAA was continuing to investigate Basulto. The FAA's administrative process was lackadaisical, at least in the eyes of Cuban government officials unfamiliar with the due process protections of U.S. bureaucracies. The FAA had suspended Basulto's pilot's license after his flight over Havana in July 1995, but Basulto went to court and obtained the right to fly while the complaint against him was investigated. When a delegation of retired U.S. military officers visited Cuban military headquarters on February 8, their Cuban hosts quickly raised the issue of Brothers to the Rescue, according to a videotape of the meeting. "Up to now nothing has happened," said Cuban Brig. Gen. Arnaldo Tomayo, "because we have simply refrained from acting. We have the means -- antiaircraft and aircraft means -- to bring them down at any moment. We haven't done so precisely because we do not want to overheat the situation, because then, of course, Cuba will be presented as a culprit . . . and those who . . . stimulate these acts of piracy against us will get off scot-free." Basulto was busy on a new political mission: uniting the South Florida exiles with Castro's opponents on the island. It was not easy. Cuba has a long and rich tradition of vicious, petty political infighting. On February 11, Basulto publicly presented a $2,000 donation from Brothers to the Rescue to a new coalition of independent political groups on the island called Concilio Cubano. The members of the Concilio were hoping to hold a convention in Havana, thus creating a legitimate political presence in Cuban society that was not beholden to Castro's Communist Party. Support from exiles in Miami was an unprecedented development -- and a disturbing one for Cuban communists. In the unfolding confrontation between Brothers to the Rescue and the Cuban government there was a conspiratorial wrinkle, a secret dimension that provides a typically Cuban plot twist: There was an informer in the ranks of Brothers to the Rescue. It was Pablo Roque, the pilot who helped Basulto dump the leaflets on January 13, 1996. Roque had been a pilot in the Cuban Air Force. In March 1992, when members of his family got in trouble with the law, he defected to Miami. He married a local girl and volunteered for Brothers to the Rescue. A weightlifting fanatic, he soon became Basulto's personal trainer as well as a trusted protege. He wrote a memoir titled Deserter, which was published by the Cuban American National Foundation. On the back cover, there was a complimentary blurb from Basulto. Roque was also, unbeknownst to Basulto, a paid informer of the Miami office of the FBI. He reported on the activities of anti-Castro groups, as well as on drug trafficking and anything else he could learn. According to the FBI, Roque received more than $6,700 over two years. U.S. officials, academic specialists on Cuba, and Roque's former wife are convinced that Roque was also a Cuban intelligence asset, even while he was working for the FBI and Brothers to the Rescue. Basulto, for his part, says he does not believe Roque was a Cuban agent, simply a misguided man. Roque, too, has denied the allegation that he spied for Cuba as well as the FBI during this period. On the morning of February 23, 1996, Roque told his wife he was leaving "on a mission." He took all his clothes and caught a flight to the Bahamas and then to Havana. After being accepted back by the Castro government, Roque later told Cable News Network that Basulto's humanitarian mission was simply a cover for more subversive activities. He said that Basulto's incursions into Cuban airspace were part of a larger "plan to introduce weapons to carry on attacks against many targets {in Cuba} including Fidel Castro." Roque said that he conveyed this information to his FBI handler on February 20, an assertion that a bureau spokesman declines to confirm or deny. In any event, on the afternoon of Roque's re-defection to Cuba, the FAA's Office of International Aviation received a request from a State Department official asking that the FAA warn Basulto not to attempt an unauthorized flight into Cuban airspace the next day. "The FAA cannot PREVENT flights such as this one," one FAA official replied testily in an e-mail message back to State. The next morning, February 24, Basulto and his followers gathered at the Brothers to the Rescue hangar at Opa-Locka Airport, north of Miami. They decided to send six planes to the Straits of Florida to look for rafters -- although they weren't likely to find many, since refugees had almost completely stopped fleeing Cuba after the May 1995 U.S. immigration accord. Brothers to the Rescue filed a flight plan indicating the planes would take off at 10 a.m. As a matter of routine, these plans were relayed to Cuban aviation authorities. At 10 a.m., the Cuban government sent up MiGs to search the skies off Havana. But Basulto and company abandoned their plan and remained at the hangar trying to figure out what to do. They discussed the fact that Cuban security agents had detained 100 members of Concilio Cubano. They ate hamburgers. In Washington, concerned State Department and National Security Council officials conferred via telephone while running their Saturday morning errands. One suggestion, according to one U.S. official familiar with the conversations, was to have Joseph Sullivan, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana, contact the Cuban government to urge restraint. Sullivan was reached via secure telephone and advised against sending such a message. "These guys are in such a miserable, piss-angry mood," the official quoted Sullivan as saying, "that it may actually make things worse." Around noon, Brothers to the Rescue filed a revised flight plan, calling for three planes to fly due south until they were at the edge of Cuban airspace, 12 miles off the island's coastline, and then west. Again, the Miami Flight Control Office passed notification of Brothers to the Rescue plans to aviation authorities in Havana. At 1:15 p.m., the three Brothers to the Rescue planes took off from Opa-Locka. The electronic eyes of the U.S. government were watching closely. In Southern California, U.S. Customs Service technicians were attentive to their radar screens covering the Straits of Florida. So, too, were the technicians at the Southeast Air Defense Sector facility at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City in northern Florida. The latter were reporting to their superiors at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), buried under Cheyenne Mountain outside Colorado Springs, who were also watching their radar screens. And the men and women at Cheyenne Mountain were in touch with commanders at Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami. Basulto says that, at least from the point of view of Brothers to the Rescue, there was nothing special or unusual going on that day. "We were setting out for a search-and-rescue mission, like the 1,800-plus missions that we had done in the past," Basulto says. He insists that Brothers to the Rescue "intended to do nothing provocative or spectacular or anything." As the three planes approached Cuba, Basulto was in the lead in Seagull One. Flying a few miles behind him was a second plane, Seagull Charlie, piloted by 29-year-old Carlos Costa. A few miles behind Seagull Charlie was a third plane, Seagull Mike, piloted by Mario de la Pena. At 2:57 p.m., the air traffic controller in the tower at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana came on the air. "We inform you that the area north of Havana is activated," he said to Basulto. That was a technical way of saying that, about one minute earlier, Brig. Gen. Puente had given the order for two MiG fighter jets to take off from the Cuban military air base at San Antonio de los Banos, 20 miles southwest of Havana. "You are taking a risk," the controller said. "We are ready to do so as free Cubans," Basulto replied. As the Brothers to the Rescue planes continued south, the lead Cuban jet, a new MiG-29 trainer with exceptional maneuverability, passed the Cuban coastline and skimmed northward over the sea at 500 mph. At the helm was Lt. Col. Perez, a veteran of 40-plus combat missions during Cuba's intervention in the Angolan civil war in the 1970s and '80s. The Brothers to the Rescue planes continued to fly, single file, straight toward the Cuban capital. Basulto did go briefly inside the 12-mile boundary of Cuban airspace at 3:17, but promptly did a hairpin turn to the north and east, according to a reconstruction of the day's events by international civil aviation investigators. Within a minute, he had returned to international airspace. The other two planes behind him were turning east at the same time, and they never entered Cuban airspace. Not long after the Cessnas turned east, the colonel in the MiG spotted Seagull Charlie and started to slow down. "Contact in sight," he radioed to Havana Center. "Small plane." Three thousand miles away, Jeffrey Houlihan picked up the telephone. A radar specialist for the U.S. Customs Service, Houlihan had been watching his radar screen at the Domestic Air Interdiction Coordination Center at March Air Force Base in Riverside, Calif., for the previous 45 minutes. Now he was seeing two fast-moving blips that, he knew from their speed and location, had to be Cuban MiGs. Houlihan punched in the speed-dial number that linked his office to a senior technician at Tyndall Air Force Base. It was, Houlihan later told international investigators, "the equivalent of a 911 call." The senior technician answered the phone. He was seated at a screen receiving the same radar signals as Houlihan's. "Well, it looks like a MiG-23 to me heading directly towards the United States," Houlihan said, as he later recalled it. "I think that's important." Houlihan recalls the Air Force man's reply as being, "Yes, we're handling it. Don't worry." Houlihan assumed that the U.S. Air Force would send a couple of jets to the scene. In fact, F-15A fighter jets from the Florida Air National Guard had been called out to the runway at Homestead, where they waited with engines running. At some point, airfield commanders at the base received an order from a still-unidentified person at NORAD headquarters in Cheyenne Mountain that the F-15As were to be taken off "battle stations," the maximum level of alert, and put on a lower level of readiness. The director of plans for NORAD, Brig. Gen. Rodney Kelly, who later conducted an investigation of the incident, reported that the decision to take the F-15As off battle stations was "due to a communications error at Cheyenne Mountain," according to the unclassified executive summary of the general's still-secret account. The general did not explain in the summary what the error was; military spokesmen decline to elaborate, but they assert that the error did not affect the outcome of the day's events. Whatever the reason, the F-15As stayed put on the runway, engines idling. As Houlihan was hanging up the phone, Basulto was cruising east, talking again to the Havana air traffic control tower and admiring the skyline of the Cuban capital, visible from his vantage of just over 12 miles out. Then he saw the Cuban jet. "We have a MiG," Carlos Costa said from Seagull Charlie. Costa was a good-looking young man who had come from Cuba to the United States as a teenager. He joined Basulto's group as a volunteer pilot in 1992. He spent many weekends over the Straits of Florida and had been credited with rescuing 456 people at sea. He was married and had a daughter. Seated next to Carlos Costa in the Cessna was Pablo Morales, 29. He had left Cuba in 1992 and come to the United States on a raft that was spotted and helped to safety by Brothers to the Rescue. The MiG was now a little more than a kilometer above and behind Seagull Charlie. "We have it in lock-on. Give us authorization!" Perez cried into his radio. "It is a Cessna 337. That one. Give us authorization, dammit!" "Authorized to destroy," came the voice of Havana Center. "First launch," Perez announced a moment later. The first heat-seeking missile dropped away from the MiG's wing. In its nose were 15 pounds of explosives that detonated on or just before impact, sending out a deadly ring of shrapnel and flames. Seven hundred fifty feet below, carefree vacationers were gathered on the weather deck of a Norwegian cruise ship, the Majesty of the Seas. They had been watching these planes buzzing overhead and they had a clear view of the fireball that engulfed Carlos Costa and Pablo Morales. Moments later, a passenger pointed a video camera at all that was left of Seagull Charlie: a shower of debris and a billowing tower of ghostly gray smoke tinting the Caribbean sky. Meanwhile, in Seagull Mike, Mario de la Pena, the least-experienced Brothers to the Rescue pilot in the air that day, and Armando Alejandre Jr., a Vietnam veteran who served as chief of operations for Brothers to the Rescue, were trying to warn Basulto about the Cuban jets. "Seagull One. There's a MiG in the air, bogie in the air. Where are you?" "The bogies are north of us at this time," Basulto replied. "They dropped a, er, flare apparently to take reference -- " "Have you heard from Charlie?" Seagull Mike interrupted. "Negative," Basulto replied. Lt. Col. Perez found the plane piloted by Mario de la Pena less than seven minutes later. It was hardly a fair contest. The two planes were outside the 12-mile limit of Cuban airspace but inside a buffer area around Cuba that is known to aviators as the air defense identification zone, or ADIZ. Civilian planes are free to pass through the ADIZ as long as they are announced, as the Brothers to the Rescue planes had been. The MiG still had 11 heat-seeking missiles left. The Cessna was unarmed. "You are authorized to destroy the plane," the radar operator in Havana said. After Perez had pushed the button, the flash of a fireball caught Basulto's eye. "Look over there," he said. "Another . . ." one of his passengers said. ". . . flare," said another, trying to make the best of it. In the cockpit of the MiG, Perez was exulting with patriotic profanity. "The other one destroyed! The other one destroyed!" he cried. "Motherland or death! Cojones {Balls}! The other one is down, too!" Basulto, on a different radio band, tried to raise his friends. "Charlie, is that you?" he said. "Seagull Mike." There was no answer. "Well, I guess we have to get the hell out of here," Basulto shouted a moment later. He turned off the plane's transponder and radio and climbed toward the scattered clouds above him, heading north and west as fast as he could go, which was not very fast, by the standards of a MiG. Lt. Col. Perez gave up the chase because he was running low on fuel. As he returned to San Antonio de los Banos, another pair of MiGs took off. At 600 mph, the planes only needed nine minutes to catch up to Basulto's Cessna. The speeding MiGs may have actually overshot Basulto's plane as it was weaving through the clouds at about 6,000 feet, according to the live dialogue recorded during their flight and later provided to international investigators. "Above to the right," said one MiG pilot to the other. "You passed it at 90 degrees. Do you have it?" "It is a Cessna 337 approaching from the right," one pilot radioed back to Havana Center. "We've lost it," one MiG pilot said. "You passed over the target," Havana Center told the lead MiG. "You are leaving it behind." "It is below and ahead of me," he radioed back to his spotter. Havana Center wanted to be absolutely sure they had the right target: "Let's see if you can get the registration." "It is maneuvering," the MiG pilot replied. "It is not that easy." If the Cuban jets kept chasing Basulto, they would buzz downtown Key West in a matter of minutes. "Stop mission," Havana Center ordered. "We're coming back home." "Copied," the MiG pilot replied. "Stop mission." It was 3:52 p.m. The MiGs veered off to the east. In the Cessna, there was silence and weeping. Jose Basulto had escaped. His friends Carlos, Armando, Pablo and Mario were gone. Within 24 hours, the United States and Cuba were at the brink of vio- lent conflict. On Sunday, February 25, Clinton was presented with a memo outlining his options for U.S. policy. Time magazine and the Miami Herald later reported that the Pentagon gave the White House a choice of a cruise-missile attack or bombing raid on the MiGs' air base at San Antonio de los Banos. Clinton's closest Cuban American supporters, including Hillary Rodham Clinton's sister-in-law, a Cuban American attorney in Miami, favored an attack, according to these reports. On Monday morning, February 26, Clinton met in the White House Cabinet Room with Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with other national security officials. According to one U.S. official, most of the discussion focused on "non-diplomatic" responses, as the military contingency plans were described. After Shalikashvili argued against an attack, Clinton dropped the idea for the time being. That left Helms-Burton. Clinton had already decided to abandon his earlier opposition to the bill. In a public statement delivered that afternoon, Clinton condemned the shootdown as cowardly and said that he was amenable to compromise on Helms-Burton. Three White House officials went up to Capitol Hill the next day to negotiate Clinton's capitulation. Sixteen days later, the president signed the bill, which now included a tough new provision insisted upon by congressional Republicans that declared that all presidential executive orders concerning Cuba since 1962 could now only be changed by an act of Congress, rather than simply by a new presidential order. Jose Basulto, it turns out, isn't deeply interested in Helms-Burton. He takes no credit for its passage. He approves of it, but describes it as a weak measure that would have eventually passed regardless of what happened on February 24. Basulto is very much interested in a computer printout from the U.S. Air Force. Sitting in a hotel coffee shop, he explains the meaning of this color photocopy document that purports to show the flight paths of Basulto's Cessna and the Cuban MiGs in the final minutes of the chase. It indicates that the MiG's final chase of Basulto never happened -- at least not at close proximity. As Brig. Gen. Howard G. DeWolf, director of the Air Force Inter-American Region, told Rep. Burton in a letter last fall, "the last pair of MiGs came no closer than 40 nautical miles from the remaining {Brothers to the Rescue} aircraft." NORAD's secret study of the shootdown made the same point, stating that "at no time" did the MiGs get within 48.1 miles of Basulto's plane. If the generals are correct, when Jose Basulto was maneuvering desperately in the clouds and the MiG pilots and Havana Center were saying things like "It is a Cessna 337 approaching from the right," and "Let's see if you can get the registration," and "You passed over the target," the planes were actually nowhere near each other. Investigators from the International Civil Aviation Organization, based in Montreal, were the first to note the discrepancy between the voice communications and the radar records. They collected evidence from both governments but did not resolve the contradiction. The transcripts of the U.S. and the Cuban tape recordings of the MiG pilots talking on the radio about their pursuit of Basulto both seem to indicate that the MiGs were quite close to Basulto's plane at several different points just before giving up the chase. U.S. radar records show that Basulto's plane was close to Florida at the time the MiG pilots turned back. If the radar records are accurate with respect to the location of the MiGs and the chase never happened, then the Cuban MiG pilots and radar operators who said they could see Basulto's plane were confused, were looking at a different plane, or were perpetrating some kind of sham, the purpose of which is difficult to imagine. Basulto says the radar records have been doctored and that Air Force officials are being "untruthful" in order to cover up evidence that the MiGs came close to U.S. territory without advance notice and the U.S. military failed to take normal defensive measures. U.S. officials categorically reject this allegation. "At no time did the MiGs in the air in that particular part of the world meet our normal launch criteria," says Maj. Robin Alford, deputy director of public affairs for NORAD. Alford says that the radar records are "the absolute record of where the MiGs were." They show conclusively that the MiGs never entered the U.S.-controlled airspace, he says. He adds that audio communications are not a reliable indicator of location but he declines otherwise to comment on the transcripts. "We are not in the business of escorting U.S. citizens who choose on their own to travel in and out of another country's ADIZ," Alford says of the U.S. military response that day. Basulto's brooding mistrust of the U.S. government, which dates back to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, leads him to the most sinister possible interpretation of the evidence. The words of radar technician Jeffrey Houlihan especially stick in his throat. We're handling it. Don't worry. That's what the U.S. Air Force was saying at the very moment that the MiGs were stalking him and his friends. "The police were there," he says bitterly. "They were watching and they let it happen." Certain people in the U.S. government, he theorizes, have tampered with the radar records to hide evidence of their intention to let Castro's MiGs have a free hand to assassinate the members of Brothers to the Rescue. "Four of my friends are dead," he says coolly. "I can't bring justice. I leave that to God. The least I can do is bring truth." The truth, says Ariel Hidalgo, a Cuban human rights activist in Miami, "is that when the rafters stopped, Basulto wanted to change into something more political. He wanted contact with dissidents inside Cuba, to fly in Cuban skies. The result was politicization, and the solution to the Cuban problem is not political. It is contact with people: religious, artistic, cultural and humanitarian." Hidalgo, who describes Basulto as a "friend," sounds like a quiet older brother defending an impulsive, trouble-prone sibling. The two men couldn't be more different. Whereas Jose Basulto is a soldier, a pilot, a man of action, Ariel Hidalgo is a writer, an intellectual. Basulto took a shot at Fidel Castro with a cannon. Hidalgo wrote a Marxist critique of Castro's government that landed him eight years in prison. "What we have now, here in surreal Miami," Hidalgo continues, "is a Potemkin village, just like the one in Havana. In both cities, you have a political leadership that claims to have the overwhelming support of its people. In Havana, Fidel claims the people will defend the revolution, and in Miami, the Mas Canosas and the other exile leaders claim the Cuban people want Castro out, full embargo, no negotiations, etc. Behind these two facades, the people are going their own way." The truth is that Jose Basulto is feeling hoarse and sick. After a hectic week of public appearances and radio talk shows to rally support for the victims of Hurricane Lili, which hit Cuba last fall, he is at home, waiting to leave on a long-scheduled, often postponed three-day religious retreat, including a day of silence and meditation. The living room of the Basulto home is dominated by a large oil painting that depicts a young man wrapped in a Cuban flag, a Christ-like trickle of blood on his face. "I know what you are thinking," Basulto says, gesturing to the painting. "It's not me. I don't have green eyes like that. That is my best friend, Manuel Guillot Castellanos. He was the chief of the underground network in Cuba. He was arrested after the Bay of Pigs." Basulto shows me a souvenir of the attack on the Hornedo de Rosita Hotel: an eight-inch cannon shell, the only one that he didn't fire that night so long ago. Basulto's wife, Rita, arrives with their newest grandson, Rogelio, who is barely a year old. Basulto puts the bullet down and plucks the babe from his stroller, hugging him, cooing over him, murmuring endearments. "This is my treasure," he says. Basulto wants to say one more thing. It concerns his attack on the Hornedo de Rosita Hotel 35 years ago. "Did you know that a few weeks after we hit the hotel," Basulto says, "Castro sent Guillot, my best friend, to the firing squad. In revenge for our attack. "You think I don't have a burden?" he asks. The truth is that Jose Basulto has a lot of dead friends. Jefferson Morley is an editor in The Post's Outlook section. CAPTION: Jose Basulto, a co-founder of the Miami-based pilots organization Brothers to the Rescue, has campaigned against Fidel Castro's communist regime since coming to the United States in 1959. CAPTION: Brothers to the Rescue traces its roots to the early '60s. Counterclockwise from right: Brigade 2506, an exile army sponsored by the CIA; Juan Salvat, left, and Basulto in August 1962; a satirical anti-Castro publication; an as-told-to Miami Herald article by Basulto; and Felix Rodriguez, a friend of Basulto's who served with him in the U.S. Army. CAPTION: Brothers to the Rescue, or Hermanos al Rescate, was all but put out of business by a U.S. immigration deal with Cuba in 1995, but Basulto, left, continued his anti-Castro flights. Opposite page, top to bottom: a memorial to the four pilots killed in the 1996 shootdown; an oil painting depicting a friend of Basulto's who was executed in 1962; and a recovered raft.