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White House repeats 'concerns' about Cuba, biological weapons

From Kelly Wallace
CNN Washington

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- One day after former President Carter challenged a Bush administration statement that Cuba may be sharing biological weapons technology with unfriendly nations, the White House vigorously defended its words.

"The United States has plenty of reason to be concerned" that Cuba has given such technology -- which could be used to develop weapons of mass destruction -- to nations hostile to the United States, said Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary.

But when pressed on whether the administration had any "hard evidence" that countries are using Cuban biotechnology to develop biological weapons, Fleischer said, "Nobody in the government said hard evidence. We said we have concerns."

Fleischer also said the administration first raised its concerns publicly back in March, when a senior State Department official testified before a Senate committee on the threat of biological and chemical weapons. Fleischer said that testimony by Carl Ford, assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, was "identical" to the comments made by Undersecretary of State John Bolton last week before a conservative group.

Fleischer said that both men said that Cuba "has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort." They also both said that Cuba has provided "dual-use biotechnology" to "rogue states" and that the administration was "concerned such technology could support biological weapons programs in those states."

"The point is the United States has plenty of reason to be concerned, which is precisely what those two gentlemen said," Fleischer said. "And one of the issues that is always difficult when dealing with bioweaponry is that it is hard to find."

Carter was briefed by State Department officials before traveling to Cuba. During his visit Monday to a biological research center, the former president said, "There were absolutely no such allegations made or questions raised (during the briefings). I asked them on more than one occasion if there was any evidence that Cuba has been involved in sharing any information with any country on Earth that could be used for terrorist purposes. And the answer from our experts on intelligence was no."

Fleischer said Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, spoke with the former president on May 9, three days after Bolton made his remarks, and that the subject of Cuba and biological weapons never came up.

"That topic was not raised by President Carter in his discussion with Condoleezza Rice," Fleischer said.

When asked why Rice did not bring the subject up to Carter, Fleischer said, "President Carter was visiting as a private citizen to talk about human rights, not United States policy on bioweaponry."

He could not explain Carter's comments suggesting that no U.S. officials raised the administration's concerns with him during his private briefings.

"You would have to ask the other agencies about any conversations they may have had with ... former President Carter and about why he may have come to any understandings that he did based on the repeated public statements of United States officials. I assure you that those public statements of Secretary Bolton and Secretary Ford are well known in the administration and are our public policy as well as our private policy," Fleischer said.

When asked if Carter's trip is helpful to the United States, Fleischer said, "He's there as a private citizen and I think what would be helpful is for Fidel Castro to get the message the world is looking to Cuba to free its people."




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