WASHINGTON -- A Pentagon report has concluded that Cuba poses no significant threat to U.S. national security, and senior defense officials increasingly favor engaging island counterparts to reduce existing tensions.
Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, in a classified report due to Congress by Tuesday, plans to portray Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces as severely weakened and to play down the dangers posed by chemical or biological weapons or by another refugee exodus, according to people briefed on the findings.
Retired Marine Gen. John Sheehan, the highest-ranking U.S. officer to visit Cuba since the 1959 revolution, has returned from a weeklong tour and is urging Clinton administration officials to "regularize contacts" between Cuban and U.S. military chiefs.
Sheehan said he "starts with the premise that the Cuban military is not a threat to the U.S." Sheehan, who spent several days with Cuban Defense Minister Raul Castro and dined with President Fidel Castro, said: "The question is, how do we institutionalize this? It doesn't mean diplomatic recognition in the near term."
Congress ordered the Pentagon report last year at the initiative of Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who has long warned of threats from the island. Graham aides, the three Cuban-American members of Congress and some Cuban exile leaders, expressed dismay at the dovish assessment.
They cite a record that includes Castro's recommendation that the Soviet Union launch a nuclear strike against the United States during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, defectors' accounts in the past decade that Havana had included a South Florida nuclear reactor among possible bombing targets, and the downing in 1996 of two exile planes over international waters.
"We are appalled by current attempts to downplay the Castro threat," the Cuban-American lawmakers -- Florida Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Rep. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat -- said in a March 19 letter to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
"There is a pathologically unstable tyrant in the final years of his dictatorship just 90 miles from our shores," stated the letter, which was signed by six other members of the House. "His four-decade record of brutality, rabid hostility toward the Cuban exile community, anti-Americanism, support for international terrorism, and proximity to the United States is an ominous combination."
But interviews with current and former Pentagon officials counter that it is the politicians who have misrepresented the security threat posed by Cuba, particularly since the Castro government lost its Soviet patron in the early 1990s.
The hawks say the Castro brothers are responsible for a host of dangers, including a Russian eavesdropping base at Lourdes, assisting drug traffickers, cooperating with terrorist nations such Iraq and Iran, cultivating anthrax and other biological weapons, and trying to finish construction of an "unsafe" nuclear plant at Juragua.
But military experts play down such concerns. They say they have no evidence of high-level Cuban complicity in drug-running to the United States; they do not think Cuba has biological agents for use as weapons; and they say that the best way to ensure that the Juragua plant is safe -- if Cuba ever obtains financing to complete it -- is to provide cooperation and scrutiny under the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The Pentagon refused to release details of the report or an assessment of Cuba's weapons programs. But a consensus among defense officials is emerging:
Castro is viewed as a rational player who does not want to provoke the United States, because he knows it would invite his annihilation.
The most immediate risk to U.S. interests is posed by unchecked emigration from Cuba, as during the rafter exodus of 1994, during which tens of thousands of Cubans set out across the Florida Straits.
The Defense Department has no stomach for being drawn into a Cuban civil war or an eventual occupation of the island.
Some U.S. military officials are uncomfortable with a U.S. policy that they say is predicated on provoking a popular uprising or economic ruin.
Pub Date: 3/29/98