As we approach the one year anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, imagine this scenario:
Five Navy Seals are left behind in Abbottabad, Pakistan. They are taken into custody, tried as spies in Pakistan courts and sentenced to "life in prison" and are still locked up 14 years later.
This would shock the conscience of the world. There would be justifiable calls to bomb Pakistan to smithereens. The CIA has hundreds of covert agents operating in Pakistan and other countries trying to uncover terrorist threats and protect American civilians.
How can a civilized nation in the 21st century protect and harbor known and self admitted terrorists?
And how can a civilized nation harshly, punish intelligence agents who are trying to prevent terrorism and innocent deaths?
This is precisely the situation of the Cuban Five -- Castro's intelligence agents, who came to Florida to try and thwart the ongoing terrorism against Cuban civilians. There is not much question about the terrorism of many of the right-wing Cuban exiles over the last few decades.
Orlando Bosch, a Cuban exile leader, confessed -- boasted to me about his role in blowing up a civilian plane killing 73, and organizing other terrorist bombings, in an exclusive jailhouse interview, as I testified before a Congressional Committee on Terrorism.
Bosch, a hero in the exile community, was pardoned by President George Bush in 1990 and lived a peaceful life in Miami for 20 years until his death last year.
Luis Posada, who was trained in explosives by the U.S. Army, admitted in an interview with Louise Bardach for the New York Times to planning a number of bombings in Havana, killing civilians and tourists. He also acknowledged his role to me personally in blowing up the civilian plane. Posada, a self admitted terrorist, was allowed to stay in the U.S. after a half-hearted attempt to extradite him last year.
After a particularly savage wave of bombings in 1997, Castro rightly felt that the U.S. was not doing much to stop exile Cuban terrorists from killing civilians. 3,400 Cubans, including some foreign tourists, have been killed by U.S. supported Cuban exile terrorism, according to the Cuban authorities.
So Castro sent a number of the anti-terrorist intelligence agents to Florida to see if they could contain the carnage,but the spies were soon caught.
After his arrest, one of the spies, Tony Guerrero, explained to the sentencing Judge why he had been sent to the United States.
"Allow me to explain my reasons, your Honor, in the clearest and most concise way: Cuba, my little country, has been attacked, assaulted, and slandered, decade after decade, by a cruel, inhuman and absurd policy. A real terrorist war... Where have such unceasing, ruthless acts been hatched and financed? For the most part, in the United States of America."
The Cuban agents did not try to infiltrate U.S. government agencies, nor did they obtain any classified documents, nor did they commit or plan any acts of violence.
Their purpose was to penatrate and gather evidence from the exile community, so that the FBI would arrest the terrorists. (One did count airplanes at a military base to try and see if the U.S. was planning another invasion of Cuba.) Indeed, in June of 1998, the FBI, with President Clinton's approval, met with Cuban officials who turned over nearly 200 pages of evidence about past 30 exile terrorist attacks.
They need not have bothered. As Stephen Kimber points out in a forthcoming book, What Lies Across the Water; The Real Story of the Cuban Five, everything the Cubans told the Americans, the FBI already knew. They had been following the Cubans for years, breaking into their apartments, hacking their computers, and tapping their phones.
For example, as one Cuban intelligence agent met clandestinely, he thought, with an officer from the New York Cuban Mission in a Wendy's, the FBI had seven video cameras and 35 of their own agents in the small fast food emporium.
The FBI knew from the beginning that the Cuban Five were not out to steal U.S. security secrets or to plan violent acts in the U.S.
The brother of one of the terrorists described his sibling, Rene Gonzalez, as not particularly political.
"He has said you can be a capitalist, and be a good person, or be a communist, and be good. What you can't be is a terrorist and a good person," said Roberto Gonzalez, 47.
This aversion to violence led Rene Gonzalez to infiltrate exile groups in Florida after returning to the United States in the early 1990s, his brother said. Attacks on Cuba, which later included a string of Havana bombings that killed a tourist in 1997, appalled him. Roberto Gonzalez said his brother felt the attacks originated in the Cuban exile community and that U.S authorities weren't doing enough to stop them.
Gonzalez first became a media darling when the 34-year-old pilot bid his wife and daughter goodbye and stole a plane from a Cuban Flying school. In a daring full throttled flight, Gonzalez flew low to avoid the Cuban jets and landed in Key West with 10 minutes of gasoline left.
With his story of heroism -- courage, feelings of love for the Cuban countryside -- the daring Gonzalez had no trouble being accepted by the anti Castro groups in South Florida, according to the Miami Herald.
Gonzalez was released on parole last October and was recently allowed a brief visit to Cuba to see his dying brother.
Four of the Cuban Five remain in prison serving life sentences, after being convicted in a Miami trial. In truth, they are certainly guilty of not registering as enemy agents and of carrying false IDs, surely a minor crime, something that hundreds of anti-terrorists CIA agents do every day in countries around the world.
But did they really deserve the harsh sentences that they got?
Consider the recent case of the 10 Russian spies, including media-darling Anna Chapman, who were recently caught in New Jersey, and were quickly traded for four US spies caught in Russia.
Could the Cuban Five have gotten a fair trial in Miami? Why wasn't the trial moved? This is the question that Amnesty International asked in a 2010 plea. The organization raised serious doubts about the fairness of the proceedings leading to their conviction and called for clemency.
On May 27, 2005, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights criticized the U.S. for not providing a fair trial to the Cuban Five as defined in article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a party.
Monday, a full-page ad in the Washington Post proclaimed: "Men who prevented terrorism do not belong in jail." Quoted in the ad are former President Jimmy Carter, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, and ten international Nobel Prize winners, including Desmond Tutu, Nadine Gordimer, and Günter Grass.
Four of the remaining Cuban Five have now been in prison for 13 years, and despite a worldwide movement to free them, media attention in the U.S. has been scant.
In most of the world, the Cuban Five are considered heroes, a cause celebre, because they risked their lives to protect innocent civilians from anti-Castro terrorists.
I would hope that our CIA has thousands of agents abroad infiltrating terrorist groups seeking to kill Americans. Imagine what the U.S. reactions would be if Italy or Egypt imprisoned anti-terrorist CIA agents for a long period of time?
If the U.S. hopes to convince the rest of the world that its campaign against terrorism is not one-sided and self-serving, the country must figure out a way to cut the long life sentences and harsh treatment of the four jailed terrorism fighters.
14 years in jail for trying to prevent terrorism is enough.
Follow Blake Fleetwood on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Blakefleet