Cuba's repeated denials of U.S. charges of involvement in the rebel invasion of Zaire have divided administration officials between those who believe Cuba President Fidel Castro is lying, and those who believe President Carter has been misled.
Even those in the administration who have seen portions of intelligence files that reportedly document the charges are at odds over whether they conclusively point to Cuban complicity.
While strongly defending Carter's personal integrity, several high-level administration officials who find the evidence inconclusive have said they suspect the Central Intelligence Agency is not above manufacturing evidence to support the claims that have now caused strong international repercussions.
Despite a personal denial by Castro, Carter has said Cubans trained Katangan rebels involved in the May 11-12 raid on Shaba (formerly Katanga) Province. In a verbal battle that has substantially escalated over the past week, Cuban Vice President Carlos Rafael Rodriguez accused Carter's closest aides, specifically national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, of feeding the president inaccurate information.
State Department spokesman Hodding Carter III subsequently accused Rodriguez of launching a "personal attack" on President Carter.
Beyond the immediate issue of the Zaire invasion, there is deep disagreement on the value of a Cuban denial among U.S. officials who have followed Cuba's growing African presence over the past three years.
A senior White House official who strongly defends the current administration charges said he is happy to test the credibility of President Carter on the Cuban role in Shaba against the credibility of Castro.
This official said the Cubans have a long record of lying about their activities in Africa, particularly in Angola and Ethiopia. They have lied about whether Cuban troops were present, about what they were doing and about their plans, he said.
It is precisely this belief, which they admit governs current U. S. policy, that infuriates and perplexes other administration officials.
"To say that Castro has misled us all along is just not true," said another administration official with long involvement in the Cuba question.
"There are those who are convinced of it," he said, but "the Cubans have never misled us on Angola or Ethiopia."
What does appear to be beyond dispute is that, since then-Cuban Cabinet minister Che Guevars traveled to Africa in 1965, Cuban has made no secret of its commitment , as Castro told Cuba's First Communist Party congress 10 years later, to "shed blood . . . in other countries threatened by imperialist aggression" in Africa.
Since Cuba first sent troops to Angola in late 1975, however, what has perhaps angered first the Ford and later the Carter administrations as much as the actual combat presence has been Castro's refusal to keep the United States apprised of what he was doing, and his lack of acknowledgment of and response to U.S. concern and threats.
At the same time, the United States has at time appeared to have misread those few signals Castro has sent.
In September, 1975, Castro and the President of the Congo (Brazzaville) issued a joint communique offering support to the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), one of three groups hoping to lead independent Angola.
In early November, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made headlines when he told the House International Relations Committee that Cuba was aiding the MPLA.
While U. S. estimates of Cuban troop presence in Angola rose to 6,000 within two months, Cuba repeatedly stated it was proud of its support and made no denials.
In April, 1976, after Cuban support had effectively placed the MPLA in power, Castro told Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme that he planned to begin withdrawal from Angola.
"They did start a drawdown that ran through the summer of 1976," said an administration official opposed to the current pressure on Cuba. "It was hard to tell how substantian it was since our intelligence was set up to count troops moving in, not out, of Angola."
The withdrawal apparently started to slow in the fall of 1976. In March, 1977, when the first Katangan invasion of Zaire drew French and Morocan troops to the area, this official said, the Angolan government asked for the received more Cuban troops.
In May, 1977, Castro told television Journalist Barbara Walters that he had halted the withdrawl announced nearly a year before. It was not until last November that Carter angrily reacted to the halt, calling it a danger to further normalization of relations with Cuba.
Those officials who believe Castro deceived the United States note his broken commitment to withdraw from Angola. They believe his failure to announce a renewed troop buildup the midst of normalization talks constituted deception.
Those who trust the Cuban leader's honesty say troops were at least temporarily withdrawn, but there was never a Cuban commitment not to return. Similarly, they say that during normalization negotiations the Cubans were "brutally frank" in their refusal to discuss Africa under any circumstances.
In Ethiopia, where a Cuban presence was first reported in mid-1977, the situation is more confused.
According to the White House official, Castro denied that Cuban troops were fighting in Ethiopia until he felt the time was right to announce the "victories" of his forces.
According to one official, who feels Castro has played it straight, however, "no commitments were ever made to us" by the Cubans.
Most of the charges, and denials of early Cuban involvement in Ethiopia came from the African participants in the conflict. In August, 1977, when the United States maintained there were only about 50 Cuban advisers in Ethiopia, Somalia charged that 5,000 foreign troops, presumably Cubans, were on their way to the Horn of Africa.
During the same period, Castro acknowledged the Cuban medical personnel and technicians were in Ethiopia, although he did not differenciate between medical and other "technicians."
"At that time," said an administration official, U.S. intelligence reports indicated that medical technicians were all there were. Up until September, there were very few" Cubans in Ethiopia, he said.
When Cuban combat troops began pouring into Ethiopia a short time later, however, the United States felt it had been deceived. With normalization talks proceeding, the Carter administration, by the end of last year, was put in the uncomfortable position of criticizing Cuba on one hand for Africa, and appearing to appease Castro by talking about friendly bilateral relations on the other.
Castro did not help matters by his few public statements on the issue. On Dec. 7, he noted that Cuba's activity in Africa had "nothing to do with Carter . . . nothing to do with the United States. We can neither discuss nor negotiate our relations with Africa."
So far, he has not. Although Cuba appears to have accomplished its goal - helping the Ethiopians throw out invading Somalis - there has been no reported Cuban troop withdrawal from either Ethiopia or Angola.
U.S. officials opposed to current harsh administration censure of Cuba say they do not expect withdrawal in the near future, and certainly do not expect Castro to discuss the matter with the United States.
The consistent refusal to talk about Africa, those officials say, is what makes Castro's unprecedented direct denial of involvement in the recent Zaire raid all the more believable.