Missile that turned up in Cuba ignites backlash

Miami Herald Staff and Wire Reports

A dummy U.S. Hellfire missile was mistakenly shipped from Europe to Cuba in 2014 as the United States and Cuba were in the midst of secret negotiations that led to the current rapprochement, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The inert missile did not contain any explosives, the Journal said Thursday, but there are concerns that Cuba could share the sensor and targeting technology with potential U.S. adversaries, including North Korea or Russia.

The Journal report was attributed to anonymous “people familiar with the matter.” A U.S. official with knowledge of the situation, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity, confirmed its veracity to the Associated Press.

According to the Defense Department, the Hellfire, which is manufactured by Lockheed Martin, is a laser-guided, air-to-surface missile that weighs about 100 pounds. It can be deployed from an attack helicopter like the Apache or an unmanned drone like the Predator.

South Florida congressional representatives demanded answers Friday.

In a joint statement, Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Díaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo, and New Jersey Democratic Rep. Albio Sires said they considered the misplaced missile “a very serious breach” of security.

“Congress must provide oversight to determine how the U.S. export control system failed to prevent this gross violation from occurring, and if Cuba’s espionage apparatus played a role in this Hellfire acquisition,” they said.

For more than a year as the relationship between the United States and Cuba thawed and the two countries reestablished diplomatic relations, the United States has tried to get the missile back, The Journal reported.

The U.S. official told the AP that Lockheed was authorized to export the dummy missile for a NATO training exercise. The inert Hellfire left Orlando International Airport in early 2014 and was sent to Rota, Spain, for the NATO exercise, according to The Journal.

People familiar with the case told The Journal that after the exercise, for reasons that are still unclear, the missile began a roundabout trip through Europe. It was loaded onto a truck in Spain by a freight forwarder that was supposed to put it on a Madrid-Frankfurt flight, and in Germany the missile was supposed to be placed on another flight that would return it to Florida. Instead, the missile was loaded onto a truck operated by Air France and wound up at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.

The Journal said by the time the freight-forwarding firm in Madrid was able to track down the missile, it was on an Air France flight en route to Havana.

Now the United States is working with Lockheed to try to get the device back, and The Journal reported that the United States is also investigating whether the missile’s disappearance was a deliberate act of espionage.

Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Doral, appeared surprised to learn that a dummy missile containing sensitive U.S. technology had ended up in the region where he is responsible for U.S. military activities. He said he had “no idea” about its current location.

The U.S. official told AP that the United States doesn’t want any defense technology to remain in a proscribed country, whether that country can use it or not. The official said there is greater concern that Cuba could give more technically advanced countries access to the dummy.

“If true, this is another grotesque example of the utter ineptitude, bordering on criminal negligence, of this administration in its approach to the conduct of foreign relations,” said Everett E. Briggs, senior Latin America adviser at the National Security Council during the George H.W. Bush administration.

Not only would the lapse be an “unacceptable threat to U.S. security,” but it “would represent the administration's failure to make the return of the missile a non-negotiable condition for reestablishing diplomatic relations with the Castro regime,’ said Briggs, who also served as U.S. ambassador in Honduras, Panama and Portugal.

The United States and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations on July 20, 2015 — some13 months after Lockheed Martin officials realized the dummy was missing and likely in Cuba, according to The Journal. The Journal said the company notified the U.S. State Department in June 2014.

U.S. Sen. and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio of Florida said it was “disgraceful” that the administration didn’t tell Congress of the wayward missile.

In a letter to Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said that “the fact that members of Congress are reading about Cuba’s possession of a U.S. missile in the newspaper rather than from you or other State Department officials is astounding and inexcusable.”

He posed a number of questions, including why the return of the missile wasn’t a condition of Cuba’s removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and for reestablishment of embassies in Washington and Havana. Rubio also asked for a list “of the specific occasions on which you or other U.S. government officials have raised this issue with the Castro regime.”

He said it was “disgraceful” that “the administration, including you, have apparently tried to withhold this information from the congressional debate and public discussion over U.S.-Cuba policy.”

A State Department spokesman declined to comment Friday, saying he was “restricted under law from commenting on specific defense trade licensing cases.”

The Hellfire case isn’t the only weapons controversy involving Cuba in recent years.

In July 2013, Panamanian officials found a Soviet-era anti-aircraft missile system hidden underneath 200,000 sacks of brown sugar in the hold of a North Korean freighter that had come from Havana and was preparing to transit the Panama Canal en route to North Korea — a violation of U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

A United Nations panel of experts said in its incident report that the hidden cargo amounted to six trailers associated with surface-to-air missile systems and 25 shipping containers loaded with two disassembled MiG-21 aircraft, 15 engines for MiG-21 aircraft, components for surface-to-air missile systems, ammunition and miscellaneous arms-related materiel.”

The Cuban government said the equipment was being sent to North Korea for repair and would be returned to Cuba.

But the report said the incident revealed a comprehensive, planned strategy to conceal the existence and nature of the cargo” and its examination of the shipment suggested “that some, if not all, of the consignment was not expected to be returned to Cuba.’’

The Associated Press and Miami Herald staff writers Mimi Whitefield and Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.