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Reporter: Evidence of Cuba terror ties unclear

New York Times reporter Judith Miller
New York Times reporter Judith Miller  

Editor's Note: CNN Access is a regular feature on providing interviews with newsmakers from around the world.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former President Jimmy Carter is at odds with the Bush administration over allegations that Cuba is exporting technology that could be used to make biological weapons.

Last week Undersecretary of State John Bolton said that the Caribbean island nation is trying to develop biological weapons and is sharing that expertise to countries hostile to the United States. But Carter -- in a historic visit this week to Cuba -- said Monday that U.S. intelligence officials had not briefed him about any alleged terrorist problems before his trip.

CNN anchor Paula Zahn discussed the potential threat Tuesday with New York Times reporter Judith Miller, co-author of the book "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War."

Carter questions timing of accusations against Cuba 

CNN: All right, you have just heard what President Carter told reporters, that in his briefings for this trip no one from the Bush administration warned him of any of the things we just heard the undersecretary of state say. What do you make of this disconnect?

MILLER: I think what I make of it is that the same debate that went on during the Clinton administration is now continuing in the Bush administration. I was struck by Secretary of State Colin Powell's remarks [Monday] night, which also seemed to be backing away from what Mr. Bolton said last week.

I think what you have here is a problem with how to interpret information about what Cuba is doing. Yes, there is a lot of activity that is suspicious. There's a lot of circumstantial evidence. And there are a lot of very unsavory contacts, as the administration regards them, between Cuba and especially Iranians who are involved in biological weapons.

And this kind of information led Mr. Bolton and before him another senior State Department official to say that there is a limited offensive effort. Specifically, the State Department said Cuba was experimenting with anthrax and that, of course, got our attention in the press.

But the debate is over how to interpret this information.

CNN: Well, then -- I'm still trying to understand where the administration splits on this because even Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, last week basically said, when asked a very specific question about this, "I have not seen the evidence that led Undersecretary Bolton to make this pronouncement."

They've all seen the same stuff, haven't they?

MILLER: Exactly. But that's what's so difficult about biological weapons. When analysts are looking at nuclear facilities, for example, most of them will agree on what they see. But when you're looking at what could be a biological weapons facility, it's the same kind of facility that could be used to make drugs or vaccine, and, in fact, Cuba is a leader in this area.

But there are and have been troubling indications such as Ken Alibek's assertion -- this was the former Soviet scientist who defected here 10 years ago -- and he said that he taught the Cubans and his people taught the Cubans everything that they now know.

So I think this debate is going to go on for some time. Cuba signed the biological weapons treaty in 1972. So it's very important that eventually the administration present some more evidence than they have to date.

CNN: So help me understand the confusion about how to interpret this. Is the bottom line when you're manufacturing legitimate vaccines that in many ways in the beginning process it looks very similar to the techniques you would use to develop biological weapons?

MILLER: Yes. Exactly.

CNN: That's this whole dual use conundrum?

MILLER: Exactly. And the problem, Paula, also is that they could take Mr. Carter to one part of a facility and say, "Look around. Do you see any weapons activity?" And in another part of the same facility, there could be secret research ongoing. So unless you're actually inside the facility, there's almost no way to know. And that's why this debate has been so fierce within this administration and the previous administration as well.

CNN: Do you have reason to believe that President Carter got duped [Monday]?

MILLER: Well, I think that really how you see this issue depends on what you would like to see. I mean I think that there are many individuals who would like to see a loosening of the four-decade-old embargo against Cuba. And I think that President -- former President Carter may be in that camp.

But I think that he is also very concerned that just before a trip like this, why wouldn't the administration present such evidence to him, if in fact they had it? And I think he's annoyed that he wasn't told about these allegations before his own trip.

CNN: A final question for you. You mentioned the Soviet defector Alibek, who you mentioned actually trained some of those researchers in Cuba.


CNN: What exactly do we know about their biological weapons capabilities?

MILLER: I think what we know is that the capability is enormously impressive. That is, the Cubans are real leaders in biotechnology. They can make recombinant drugs and vaccines, that is, drugs and vaccines that have been genetically altered.

And what that means is if they chose to make biological weapons, they could certainly do so. The debate now is over their intention, whether or not they have in fact decided to have this kind of program. And that's where you get really intelligent people disagreeing.

But the contacts between Cuba and especially Iran are of enormous concern to this administration and even to some very skeptical people in the previous administration.

CNN: And just to close this off, we should point out that the undersecretary at one point noted that President [Fidel] Castro, while at Tehran University, said that Iran and Cuba together could "bring America to its knees."




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