TSA Subcommittee Chair: Obama's Cuba Flights Pose Security Risk

Friday, September 2, 2016
Statement by U.S. Rep. John Katko (R-NY), Chairman of the House Transportation Security Subcommittee, released the following statement on this week's first commercial flight departure from the U.S. to Cuba:

"In spite of concerns about the security of Cuban airports, the Obama Administration continues to push political goals at the expense of the safety and security of the traveling public by moving forward with commercial flights between Cuba and the U.S. This premature, and ill-advised opening represents a direct threat to our national security.

Cuba has long been tied to criminal and terrorist enterprises. The discovery of forged Cuban passports, used by Afghans and manufactured by Iranians, illustrates the dire need for additional, strictly enforced security measures before the resumption of commercial air travel.

Recent tragedies have shown us that insider threats to aviation are real – and it is clear that the U.S. government currently lacks sufficient information to ensure that Cuban airports are not vulnerable to the external and internal threats that prevail in today’s sensitive security environment. Nor has sufficient information been provided to U.S. air carriers about the ideological sentiments, criminal history, or foreign ties of Cuban airport workers. Further, the airlines will not be permitted to hire their own workers and all airport and airline functions will be performed by Cuban government employees.

The unilateral action by this Administration to open commercial air travel to Cuba completely disregards Congress’s oversight, and instead, prioritizes an ideological goal over the safety of the American public."

Security Concerns Remain on Commercial Flights to Cuba

From The Auburn Citizen:

Security concerns remain as U.S. commercial flights to Cuba resume

The first U.S. commercial flight to Cuba in more than 50 years arrived in Cuba Wednesday, but U.S. Rep. John Katko says he continues to have concerns about Cuban airport security and whether the island nation has the resources to properly screen passengers.

Katko, who chairs the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security, said Cuba and the Transportation Security Administration haven't publicly disclosed important details about airport security, including whether the Cubans have body scanners in all airports, what canine operations exist at these facilities and if the scanning equipment works. 

"They haven't told us whether or not there have been any inspections done," Katko, R-Camillus, said during an editorial board meeting Tuesday with The Citizen. "They haven't told us anything."

In May, Katko chaired a subcommittee hearing on the agreement reached between the United States and Cuba to resume commercial air travel. He invited officials from the Department of Homeland Security and TSA to testify on the state of Cuba's airport security.

However, the officials declined to publicly discuss any information about Cuba's airport security equipment, including whether there were body scanners, canine teams and explosive trace detection systems available at these airports.

A TSA representative said that information was considered sensitive and secure, so it couldn't be disclosed in a public setting.

One month later, Katko and other members of Congress planned a trip to Cuba to inspect the airports themselves. But the Cuban government didn't issue visas so the congressional delegation could enter the country.

Katko introduced a bill in July that would place a moratorium on all commercial flights between Cuba and the United States until the TSA can verify whether Cuban airports have the necessary security equipment in place.

There are other concerns. Katko said Tuesday that the only people who will be allowed to work at Cuban airports are "communist government employees." All of the employees, from the clerk working at a JetBlue counter to baggage handlers, will be Cuban government workers. 

"We have no idea whether they're screened," he said. "We have no idea whether they checked to see if any of these employees have any animus to the United States. We have no idea whether they've been trained, whether they allow criminals to work there. We don't know anything because they haven't told us, and they won't tell us."

Katko added that you won't see any TSA employees in Cuban airports. There may be a TSA employee who's embedded at the U.S. embassy, he said. But there won't be anyone based at the airport. 

"That's the best we're going to have," he said. "That's pretty scary."

Resuming commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba is a "legacy issue" for President Barack Obama, Katko said. He believes that's why the administration is pushing forward with the flights only months after reaching the agreement.

Obama, who is serving the final year of his second term in office, leaves the White House in January.

"I think it's insane that we don't take our time and do this," Katko said. "If they were so open about it and they were so unconcerned about it, why did they not let us go down there?" 

While Katko has many concerns about the flights and Cuban airport security, he's not opposed to resuming relations. But he noted that Cuba was listed as a state sponsor of terrorism up until last year.

"You've got to understand we've had 60 years of complete animosity with them and just flicking a switch overnight is dangerous," he said.

Who Wasn't on JetBlue's Cuba Flight

Thursday, September 1, 2016
Today, JetBlue inaugurated its commercial flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Santa Clara, Cuba.

The flight included more Obama Administration officials and fluff media than actual passengers.

But more interestingly is who wasn't on the JetBlue flight.

For starters, a journalist from The Miami Herald, who was denied a visa by the Castro regime to to join the flight. (See tweet #1.)

Not on the flight were Cuban-Americans critical of the Castro regime, who were similarly denied visas. (See tweet #2.)

Also not on the flight were various Cuban independent journalists, who were arrested as they sought to cover the flights arrival in Santa Clara.

Meanwhile, as the Obama Administration was celebrating its latest distraction at one Cuban airport (Santa Clara), the leader of The Ladies in White, Berta Soler, was being beaten, dragged and arrested in public view at another Cuban airport (Havana).

Obama's Cuba flights are not only outsourcing U.S security to the Castro regime, but further 'empowering' its censorship and repression.

Cuba Seeks Expanded Ties With Syria's Regime

Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Cuba to further expand ties with the Castro regime.

This week, Castro seeks to further expand ties with Syria's genocidal regime.

Wasn't Obama's new policy supposed to influence Cuba in the right direction?

Not a chance, particularly as they they view the U.S. President as a pushover.

From Cuban state media:

Syria, Cuba Ratified Potentialities to Increase Relations

Cuba and Syria ratified the existing potentialities for expanding relations, as ambassador Rogerio Santana and Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade, Adib Mayyaleh, respectively, discussed here today.

During the meeting, the Cuban diplomat delivered Mayyaleh an invitation so Syria can participate in the Havana International Fair, scheduled for late October and early November.

During the meeting, the two officials exchanged ideas and opinions about such participation and the possibilities that companies from this nation are present in several areas of economy, among other issues.

They also expressed satisfaction for the recent arrival in this country of a first shipment of Cuban vaccines. This opens new perspectives to the historical ties between the two countries as of the policies set between the historical leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, and former Syria's President, Hafez Al Assad.

They also reaffirmed mutual support and solidarity from Cuba with Syria amid the imposed war and the anti-terrorist struggle against the barrage of disinformation from the Western powers.

Mayyaleh recalled his recent visit to Cuba, where he led a delegation from his country to assess the economic and trade exchanges and increase them on the basis of the excellent relations at the political level.

Quote(s) of the Week: Iran, Cuba and Venezuela

Wednesday, August 31, 2016
The U.S. should be very aware of [Zarif's] mission to Cuba and what Iran’s plans are. Cuba is a very important player in regards to Iran’s relations with Latin America.  If Cuba gives the greenlight, the rest of the nations will follow suit.
-- Leah Soibel, executive director of Fuente Latina, on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif's trip to Cuba last week, Fox News Latino, 8/25/16

I've visited Iran more than 20 times, I deeply know the good nature, the good, deep spirit of the Iranian people and I love it. I love Iran as much as I love our Commander Chavez.
-- Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's Cuban-controlled leader, during Zarif's stop in Caracas last week, 8/30/16

How Cuba Got Away Smuggling Weapons to North Korea

Here's a fascinating new report on how North Korea used merchant ships to smuggle weapons and parts for its nuclear program.

It's also a reminder of how the Obama Administration allowed the Cuban military to get away scot-free with its rogue activities.

The same Cuban military that today is reaping the greatest benefit from Obama's regulatory relief.

From The Christian Science Monitor:

How North Korea’s merchant ships became a target for UN sanctions

A North Korea-flagged ship interdicted in Panama three years ago gave a glimpse into Pyongyang’s efforts to build up its military and nuclear capacity. Intelligence from the ship transformed how UN member nations are policing North Korea.

At a Cuban port in June 2013, the Chong Chon Gang took on secret cargo: some 240 tons of Soviet-era weapons.

Later, under the direction of diplomatic staff stationed in Cuba, the ship’s crew of 32 North Koreans layered thousands of bags of raw sugar over the weapons, concealing them from sight.

Many of the crew were employees of the state, according to a 2016 United Nations report, with salaries paid by a marine ministry in Pyongyang. They were tasked with smuggling home the load of arms by piloting the nearly 40-year-old merchant ship through the Panama Canal, where the ship’s officers had been instructed to declare only the sugar.

Acting on guidance from US officials, Panamanian authorities raided the ship as it waited at the canal’s mouth, arresting the crew and touching off multiple minor diplomatic crises.

The interdiction was a watershed moment for UN investigators, putting them on the trail of how North Korea used its shipping operations to support its weapons programs. Intelligence produced from the ship’s capture also transformed how UN member nations are policing North Korea, narrowing a once-significant channel for state smuggling.

In March of this year, tough new sanctions effectively instituted a worldwide stop-and-frisk of North Korean ships, requiring members to inspect all cargo passing to or from there, regardless of the vessel’s flag. In practice, that can mean seizing a ship and deporting its crew, as in an incident in the Philippines coming days after the sanctions were announced.

“It was like shining a flashlight very brightly for a few seconds,” says a person familiar with UN investigations into North Korea’s arms programs. “It was massive, key.”

New details about how US intelligence agencies took notice of the ship and apprehended it, and a deeper look at how the UN refocused its efforts in subsequent years, underscore why the interdiction was viewed as a watershed moment. And it gives a glimpse of the serious labors behind the West's containing of a state whose sporadic missile tests and bombast are often shrugged off by many Americans.

The case of the Chong Chon Gang exposed the imbalance of power between North Korea and its international adversaries. Not all the weapons seized from the ship were dilapidated, according to experts consulted by the Monitor, but even those still in their packaging dated back to the Soviet years – more like museum pieces than the stuff of a modern military.

Still, North Korean leaders have continued to forge ahead with weapons development in spite of such sanctions. On August 24, North Korea's military fired a ballistic missile into Japanese waters for the second time in a month, compelling South Korean president Park Geun-hye to say that the North's "nuclear and missile threats are not imaginary threats any longer."

Some say that the ship’s cargo was linked to the state’s nuclear ambitions, pointing to indications that surface-to-air missile systems found on board were designed to defend its fledgling nuclear program.

“A nuclear weapons capability has to be viewed from a complete system perspective,” explains Graham Ong-Webb, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “In order to have a full-fledged capability, you have to have real system to protect assets.”

Dr. Ong-Webb served as an expert witness in a 2015 case stemming from the ship’s interdiction. In that case, Singapore-based Chinpo Shipping Company, Ltd. was fined $180,000 for transferring tens of thousands of dollars on behalf of the Chong Chon Gang’s North Korean operator.

Two surface-to-air missile systems recovered from Chong Chon Gang, the SA-2 and SA-3, could have been used by North Korea to guard nuclear production, storage, and missile sites, he testified then. 

“The role of the SA-2 and SA-3 is very simple: to take down incoming fighter aircraft that can strafe and destroy these sites or bomb them,” he says. 

“As it stands, North Korea has a significant number currently deployed to protect a range of critical infrastructure. It’s not a stretch to make this suggestion, because any government with nuclear weapons would want to protect them from being taken out by an adversary.”

The decades-old missiles "are not as dependable as newer systems. There are more misfires," he explains. "But one can imagine that Pyongyang would want to get hold of these missiles, because they’re relatively cheap. They will get the job done.”

The same could apply, he suggests, for two MiG-21s fighter planes also found on the ship. "They were training models, but we know through precedent that the MiGs on the vessel could be armed to take down other planes."

How the smugglers were caught

The Chong Chon Gang’s undoing may have been the proximity of its route to the US's heavily monitored underbelly. One person with direct knowledge of the incident, who did not wish to be identified because of sensitivities around intelligence in the case, said that the ship had been tracked by the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF), a surveillance unit based in Key West, Fla., and composed of staff from more than a dozen different law enforcement agencies.

“That was North Korea’s big mistake, doing this in the US’s backyard,” says the source.

The ship first came under suspicion by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a potential drug trafficking case, the source adds.

While the Chong Chon Gang sat in a Cuban port, JIATF called a meeting to discuss intelligence on the ship, says Dan Scott, a retired special agent for the DEA who was a member of the task force.

“I believe an initial informant told the DEA about a load of dope that was on the boat,” he says. A North Korea-flagged boat in Cuba was far from the agency’s profile of a typical drug-smuggling case, though. “The info didn’t get to JIATF until after it was suspected to be something else – that there were nefarious items on the vessel."

JIATF reached out to authorities in Panama, he recalls. “We asked the Panamanians, ‘Do you guys see this?’ ”

When the Chong Chon Gang reached the mouth of the Panama Canal, it lined up behind other vessels at the Port of Cristobál, near where the UN Office on Drugs and Crime kept an office. As it waited for its turn to pass, authorities from a Panamanian anti-drug unit asked the crew to let them aboard.

The crew panicked, cutting the electrical lines of the on-board crane so that the bags of sugar would have to be unloaded one by one, according to an account from the Panamanian security minister. After Panamanian anti-drug authorities pushed their way aboard past a resistant crew and uncovered containers of arms beneath a layer of sugar, the captain tried to commit suicide, possibly to avoid punishment, an expert later speculated. The captain and other members of the crew were eventually detained. Charges were brought against the three officers aboard, who were later determined to be the only sailors fully briefed on the mission.

Law and disorder

With Panama's favor to the US already done, authorities there may have wanted the courts to tread lightly with the sailors, so as not to inflame tempers in Pyongyang.

The three officers were initially convicted of arms-trafficking charges. A circuit court judge in Colón later struck down the verdict and ordered their release from a Panama City prison.

Roberto Moreno Obando, a prosecutor in the Panamanian organized crime unit who was assigned to the trial, says he filed an appeal shortly after the conviction was overturned, as well as a request to keep the three officers from leaving the country. But by the time the appeals court ruled, the three men had flown home. A year later, the captain and first mate were re-sentenced, in absentia, to 12 years in prison.

“This was not an issue to deal with in a small court in Panama,” says Mr. Obando.  “Asylum or the human rights question [of their treatment upon returning to North Korea] was not discussed. They weren’t deported, they just left. They were free men.”

The boat's interdiction created diplomatic difficulties for the Cubans, too, revealing an ongoing barter agreement between Cuba and North Korea, under which their respective militaries would repair arms and swap items – in violation of sanctions, the UN later concluded.

Andrea Berger, deputy director of the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy program at the Royal United Services Institute, says the sugar used to hide the arms was also probably a form of payment for North Korean railway parts dropped off in Cuba by the ship upon docking.

“Meaning, the weapons and related parts had to be paid for,” says Ms. Berger. “There would’ve been something else that had to be negotiated.”

That squared with what a 2014 UN report had earlier concluded about North Korea’s prominence in the global black-market arms trade.

“Since 2009, the Panel has gathered evidence showing that [North Korea] is active in the refurbishment of arms produced in the former Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s,” according to the report. Customers tended to be authoritarian or rogue states, including Eritrea, Uganda, Tanzania, Myanmar, and Iran. North Korea's position in the market was “advantageous” because its prices were lower and its competitors fewer, concluded the eight experts who authored the report.

The UN experts also noted that North Korea sometimes turned to merchant ships, with their veneer of legitimacy, for illegal transactions. In March 2013, Japan seized five aluminum alloy rods from a Singapore-flagged ship, suspecting that they may have had application in nuclear centrifuges. Authorities in China later concluded that the rods had come from North Korea.

But documents recovered from the Chong Chon Gang in the aftermath of the Panama interdiction allowed investigators to peel away the layers of front companies under which Pyongyang's merchant ships were registered. They traced the companies – some corresponding to a single ship – to their operator, Ocean Maritime Management, which oversaw ships from offices based in China, Russia, Singapore, and even Brazil.

To avoid being tracked, investigators found, companies frequently changed their names. So did vessels, which also had the habit of periodically turning off their AIS signal, which is used by international maritime organizations to track ships.

The direct link to North Korea’s government came to light in late 2015, when Chinpo Shipping was fined by Singapore for facilitating payments for the Chong Chon Gang.

A representative of Ocean Maritime Management’s Singapore office told prosecutors that he had been appointed to the branch by the North Korean Ministry of Land and Marine Transport, adding that he “reported directly” to superiors in Pyongyang, according to the 2016 UN report.

“Ocean Maritime Management was a shell company for the North Korean government,” says Sandy Baggett, a prosecutor in that case who is now in private practice. “If a North Korean ship was going to carry freight from Russia to Sweden, or wherever, the person who wanted to ship the goods couldn’t pay North Korea directly, so OMM would instruct them to send the payment to Chinpo,” she says.

The high seas are a notoriously lawless place, and UN inspections requirements for North Korea-flagged ships may often go unheeded or partially enforced in some countries.

Still, sanctions likely caused North Korea to cut back on relying on its merchant fleet for military smuggling, says Ms. Baggett. “It’s become much, much harder for them to do what they did with the Chong Chon Gang, simply because their ships don’t have as much free access to ports anymore.”

Obama's Cuba Policy is 'Empowering' Castro's Military

Tuesday, August 30, 2016
This week, former British Ambassador to Cuba, Paul Hare, wrote a column about the Cuban military's takeover of Old Havana -- the heart and soul of the island's tourism activity.

However, this not simply about the Cuban military "outmaneuvering" a fellow regime apparatchik, Eusebio Leal. It's about the Castro regime gaming Obama's policy.

Not only have Cuban democracy activists been relegated by the new policy, but so have the lauded intended beneficiaries -- the "self-employed" ("cuenta-propistas"). It is making the playing field more uneven than before.

From Old Havana, to the Port of Mariel, to Varadero beach resorts, to the Sierra Maestra cruise terminal -- the Castro family's military monopoly, GAESA, has taken absolute control to ensure it's the sole beneficiary of Obama's regulatory relief.

Regardless of your views, it's time analyze the consequences rationally.

The new policy is strengthening the wrong people in Cuba. Moreover, Obama's green-lighting hotel and other deals with GAESA is wrongheaded and inconsistent with U.S. law.

It was precisely this concern that led Congressional leaders last year to introduce the Cuban Military Transparency Act, as a safeguard measure.

Their foresight has proven to be correct.  

By Amb. Paul Hare in The Miami Herald:

More bad news for new ideas in Cuba

Very few without Castro in their name have survived in the leadership of the Cuban Revolution as long as Eusebio Leal. And he didn’t do it by the conventional means of silence and obedience. He brought loyalty but also ideas to the Castros. Now the military-run business empire has asserted itself in Old Havana as elsewhere and Leal appears to have been outmaneuvered.

Uniquely among Cuban leaders Leal has cared about other things beyond preserving the Castro Revolution. He has been as fascinated by Cuba’s past as its future. He has received numerous overseas cultural awards but his stature in Cuba has been that he thought differently.

In 2002 the British embassy in Havana staged a two-month-long series of events to commemorate 100 years of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United Kingdom. We were told it was the largest such festival by an overseas country ever held in Cuba. Leal was our indispensable ally for venues, organization, contacts and vision. At times the Revolution’s agenda surfaced and he negotiated hard. But his heart was in the history of both our countries. Leal even created a garden in Old Havana in memory of Princess Diana. And as a historian he loved the story of the British invasion of Havana in 1762.

The military conglomerate GAESA will now assume business control over Leal’s beloved Old Havana project. This has been a labor of love and ingenuity. But it has also depended on his versatile role at the heart of revolutionary politics. He proved a man of taste, of determination but also shone as a contemporary entrepreneur in a Cuba which despises individualism.

His versatility served him well. A teenager at the time of the Revolution, he chose to prove that innovation and a love of past cultures and elegance could coexist with the new era. He admired Fidel, a fellow intellectual, and — not accidentally — he was chosen by the official Cuban media to eulogize his old friend again on his 90th birthday. Typically, the Revolution was extracting a declaration of loyalty from a man who was feeling pretty disgruntled.

Times are changing in Cuba and the undermining of Leal’s control has wider implications. He may not be a household name outside Cuba and he may be in failing health. But his project showed he knew the Castros would never allow private sector growth to restore the largest area of Spanish colonial architecture in the Western Hemisphere.

His only chance was to harness funds from tourist visitors and foreign investors. There is still much to do but the current rush of tourists to Cuba owes much to achievement.

Leal’s fate is nothing new. Set in the 57-year context of the Cuban Revolution, many able and loyal leaders have been discarded. Felipe Pérez Roque, Carlos Lage and Roberto Robaina are recent examples. But Leal had survived and appeared to be growing in stature with Raúl. His walking tour of Old Havana with Obama received worldwide publicity.

Leal’s bonding with the U.S. president may have irked the Castros. The disintegration of Venezuela and loss of subsidies under Nicolás Maduro gave the military companies the opening they needed to swoop for Old Havana. Now, effectively Raúl Castro’s son-in-law will rule the roost and U.S.-operated cruise ships will soon be occupying many berths in the Old Havana harbor.

But perhaps the saddest lesson from Leal’s marginalization is the signal it sends to Cuban innovators and foreign investors. The restoration of the Revolution is still more important than the architectural jewels of past eras. Almost at the same time as Leal’s demise, a far less visionary but unquestioning loyalist, Ricardo Cabrisas, was promoted. These are indeed depressing times for Cubans hoping for some new ideas and less of the same.