Pentagon wants Guantánamo fiber-optic cable to someday serve Cuba

09/20/2013 12:14 PM

08/20/2014 11:25 AM

The Pentagon plans to one day extend to the entire island of Cuba its under-construction $40 million fiber-optic cable linking this base to Florida, a senior Defense Department official testified Friday at the war court.

Ronald Bechtold, the chief information officer at the office of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, was talking about Pentagon efforts to shore up computer security for defense attorneys preparing for the Sept. 11 death-penalty trial of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four accused co-conspirators.

He said the base now relies on slow satellite transmissions to the mainland. But, he added, in “probably two years” the base will be served by a fully functioning, fiber-optic cable funded by the U.S. Southern Command in South Florida — the Pentagon’s outpost for military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“It’s going to be for the entire island in anticipation that one day that they’ll be able to extend it into mainland Cuba,” he testified under questioning by the 9/11 case prosecutor Joanna Baltes, a Department of Justice secrecy expert.

The 45-square-mile base of about 6,000 military and civilian residents functions like an island, cut off from the rest of the country by a 17.4-mile U.S. Marine-run fence-line and Cuban military minefield.

The Navy outpost severed ties to Cuban utilities in the early 1960s amid tensions with Fidel Castro. Today, it’s a communications backwater with no U.S. cellphone service, limited military-run Wi-Fi and slow Internet service.

Defense officials have described the fiber-optic cable as a plan to bring base telecommunications into the 21st century.

Bechtold described it as a “gigantic bundle” well beyond the tiny base’s fiber-optic cable needs “because, frankly, when they do it, it’s just not cost-effective to do a tiny little fiber link for us.”

He’s a career Defense Department employee with the equivalent civilian rank of a general who leaves the job Nov. 1. He testified Thursday that he runs a staff of 14,000 members who keep the Pentagon’s Washington, D.C.-area computers running, as well as “shape our national policies, review our weapons systems, development programs, and to assemble our budget and defend our budget request to Congress.”

“There is no plan for the Southcom to provide fiber-optic communications support to mainland Cuba,” Army Col. Greg Julian said Friday afternoon by email from Southcom in Doral. He said the goal of the “enclosed [Department of Defense] fiber-optic node is to improve communications” for the workers actually stationed here.

The Miami Herald first disclosed plans for the undersea cable more than a year ago, quoting sources as saying it would be put under the sea from this base in southeast Cuba through the Windward Passage to an undisclosed link in South Florida. No official at that time described plans for island-wide expansion.

At that time, then-base commander Navy Capt. Kirk Hibbert told the Miami Herald he had alerted Cuban military officials that a surveyor ship would be off base waters and got no opposition from Cuba. He said he characterized it this way: The U.S. is setting up “reliable, more robust communications” to update the “antiquated system we have now.”

Even before that, Hibbert said, U.S. officials sent a diplomatic note to Havana, notifying Cuba about the fiber-optic program.

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