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By Glenn Garvin, Miami Herald (TNS)

MIAMI — During a 2007 campaign debate when his White House prospects still seemed mostly like a pipe dream, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was asked if, as president, he would sit down to talk to with leaders of countries like North Korea, Venezuela, Iran and Cuba. “I would,” he bluntly replied.

On Tuesday night, seven years later, President Obama finally carried out at least part of the pledge of Candidate Obama, talking with Cuban leader Raul Castro for 45 minutes by phone to put the finishing touches on 18 months of secret negotiations that restored diplomatic relations between the two countries for the first time in over five decades.

The process was carried out under an extraordinarily effective shroud of secrecy. “I hadn’t heard even the tiniest buzz that anything was up,” one senior State Department official who follows Latin American affairs confessed Wednesday after the president’s announcement.

In the clamor for the details of the agreement, which ranges from the number of cigars American visitors can bring home from Cuba to a spy swap involving a convicted murderer and a mysterious and unnamed CIA agent, relatively little has emerged about the negotiating process.

But interviews and statements throughout the day by officials in Washington, Havana and countries that lent aid to the process offer at least a glimpse of the road that led to the historic agreement.

Cuba seemed to drop off President Obama’s radar during his first term in office, aside from his occasional public complaint about the arrest of USAID official Alan Gross, charged with crimes against the Cuban state for distributing satellite phones to the island’s Jewish community.

But White House officials said Obama ordered a top-to-bottom review of U.S. policy toward Cuba after winning re-election in 2012. By June of 2013, talks between the two countries were under way, led on the U.S. side by Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security for strategic communications, and Ricardo Zuniga, National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere.

At least seven meetings took place in Canada. “I don’t want to exaggerate Canada’s role,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “We facilitated places where the two countries could have a dialogue and explore ways on normalizing relations. We were not trying in any way to direct or mediate the talks. We just wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to have the kind of dialogue they needed to have.”

But the host of two other meetings played a more active role. The Argentine-born Pope Francis not only welcomed the negotiating teams to the Vatican, he issued an extraordinary “personal appeal” for better relations in personal letters sent to Obama and Castro after a meeting last spring.

Their reaction was positive enough to schedule another meeting at the Vatican, where the deal was sealed. “The Holy See received delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October,” said a Vatican statement issued Wednesday, “and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both parties.”

Both leaders thanked the pope Wednesday. He “played a very important role,” Obama told ABC News, calling Francis “the real deal, a remarkable man.”

Much remains unknown about the talks, including who negotiated for the Cubans and whether they were carried out with the blessing of Raul’s 88-year-old brother Fidel, who ran the country for 50 years until his retirement in 2008.

The irascible Fidel torpedoed several attempts at rapprochement between the United States and Cuba during his rule, notably by sending troops to Africa in the midst of negotiations with President Gerald Ford’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, in the mid-1970s and unleashing a wave of 100,000 refugees on Florida in 1980, soon after President Jimmy Carter restored partial relations between the two countries.

The ill health that forced Fidel to step down has continued to take a toll, and the extent of his influence on the Cuban government and even the degree of his lucidity these days is unknown. Cuba watchers are waiting to see if he makes a statement about the agreement with the United States.

“If Fidel does not come out and endorse this fully, you’ve got to wonder what’s going on,” said Brian Latell, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies and formerly the CIA’s top Cuba expert. “Is this being done over his objections? Or is he completely comatose?”

Also shrouded in mystery: the identity of a spy being freed by Havana as part of the agreement. “We have decided to release and send back to the United States a spy of Cuban origin who was working for that nation,” Raul Castro said during his televised announcement of the deal Wednesday.

“We recovered a highly valued intelligence asset, probably the most highly valued intelligence asset on Cuban soil in American history,” confirmed White House press secretary Josh Earnest at a news briefing Wednesday. “And that individual is now on American soil.”

A statement released by the office of National Intelligence Director James Clapper said the spy “provided the information that led to the identification and conviction” of the so-called Wasp Network, the ring of Cuban intelligence officers arrested in South Florida in 1998. (Three convicted members of the Wasp Network were released by Washington Wednesday, the other half of the swap.)

His information also helped identify three other Cuban spies in the United States: Defense Intelligence Agency senior analyst Ana Belen Montes, former Department of State official Walter Kendall Myers and his spouse Gwendolyn Myers.

Those clues led some retired U.S. intelligence officials to speculate that the man released Wednesday by Havana is 51-year-old Rolando Sarraff, a former Cuban intelligence agent arrested by the Castro government in November 1995.

“He’s the only one who really fits those details,” said Chris Simms, a former Defense Intelligence Agency spycatcher who specialized in Cuba.

Former intelligence officials say Sarraff was a cryptography expert for Cuba’s Interior Ministry who, with two others, passed huge amounts of information to the CIA that allowed Washington to break Cuban spy codes, read their reports, and identify and arrest them. “He just destroyed their communications,” Simms said.

But Sarraff and two other men helping him eventually fell under suspicion. Noting Cuban government surveillance, they sent a message asking the CIA to rescue them. Two of the men were extracted from Cuba. (One, Jose Cohen, lives in South Florida, where he’s a top Amway salesman. He did not respond to Herald emails asking for comment. The other has never been publicly identified.)

Sarraff, however, was arrested and has been in prison ever since. “And at Cuban intelligence headquarters in Havana, a film of those guys leaving the message for the CIA to come to the rescue has been used in training ever since,” said Simmons.

Photo: Alan Gross speaks to the press at Gilbert LLP law firm after being released from a Cuban prison on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

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Rep. Bennie Thompson

Photo by Customs and Border Protection (Public domain)

Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) Friday afternoon announced the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack has issued subpoenas to 14 Republicans from seven states who submitted the forged and "bogus" Electoral College certificates falsely claiming Donald Trump and not Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election in their states.

The Chairman appeared to suggest the existence of a conspiracy as well, noting the "the planning and coordination of efforts," saying "these so-called alternate electors met," and may know "who was behind that scheme."

Keep reading... Show less

Chris Cuomo

News Literacy Week 2022, an annual awareness event started by the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to making everyone “smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy” has closed out. From January 24 to 28, classes, webinars, and Twitter chats taught students and adults how to root out misinformation when consuming news media.
There’s no downplaying the importance of understanding what is accurate in the media. These days, news literacy is a survival tactic. One study estimated that at least 800 people died because they embraced a COVID falsehood — and that inquiry was conducted in the earliest months of the pandemic. About 67 percent of the unvaccinated believe at least one COVID-19 myth, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
It’s not that accurate information isn’t available; people are rejecting reports of vaccine efficacy and safety because they distrust the news media. A third of Americans polled by Gallup said they have no trust at all in mass media; another 27 percent don’t have much at all.
Getting people to believe information presented to them depends more on trust than it does on the actual data being shared. That is, improving trust isn’t an issue of improving reporting. It’s an issue of improving relationships with one’s audience.
And that’s the real news problem right now; some celebrity anchors at cable news outlets are doing little to strengthen their relationships with their audiences and a lot to strengthen their relationships with government officials.
The most obvious example is how CNN terminated Prime Time anchor Chris Cuomo last month for his failure to disclose the entirety of his role in advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on the sexual harassment accusation that unfolded in Albany, a scandal that eventually led to Andrew Cuomo’s resignation.
But there are others. Just this month, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol revealed that another anchor on another cable news network, Laura Ingraham of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, texted then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows last January, advising Meadows how Trump should react to reports of possible armed protests at state capitols around the country. This revelation followed the story that Sean Hannity, host of the eponymous news hour at Fox News, also texted Meadows with advice last year.
And while he didn't advise a government official, CNN anchor Don Lemon revealed information not available to the public when he texted embattled Empire actor Jussie Smollett to tip him off about the Chicago Police Department’s wavering faith in his story about an assault. That’s from Smollett’s own sworn testimony.
When English philosopher Edmund Burke joked about the press being the Fourth Estate — in addition to the First, Second and Third (the clergy, nobility and commoners, respectively) — his point was that, despite their influence on each other, these “estates” — bastions of power — are supposed to be separate.
The Fourth Estate will always be an essential counterweight to government. But, since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, we’ve been so focused on stopping an executive branch from pressing the press to support an administration's agenda — either by belittling journalists or threatening to arrest them for doing their jobs — that we’ve ignored the ways that it affects and influences other Estates, and not necessarily through its reporting.
That is, we have news personalities-cum-reporters who are influencing government policy — and not telling us about it until it’s too late.
The United States has fostered an incredible closeness between the Second Estate — which in 2021 and 2022 would be political leaders — and the Fourth Estate. About a year ago, an Axios reporter had to be reassigned because she was dating one of President Biden’s press secretaries. Last year, James Bennet, the former editorial page editor of the New York Times and brother of Colorado Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Michael Bennet, had to recuse himself publicly from the Gray Lady’s endorsement process. In 2013, the Washington Post reported at least eight marriages between Obama officials and established journalists.
To be clear, there aren’t any accusations that anyone just mentioned engaged in anything other than ethical behavior. But I, for one, don’t believe that James and Michael Bennet didn’t discuss Michael’s campaign. I don’t think the Axios reporter and her West Wing-employed boyfriend — or any journalists and their federally employed spouses, for that matter — didn’t share facts that the public will never know. Such is the nature of family and intimacy.
And as long as those conversations don’t affect the coverage of any news events, there’s nothing specifically, technically wrong with them. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t damaging.
As these stories show, when we don’t know about these advisor roles, at least not until someone other than the journalist in question exposes them, it causes a further erosion of trust in news media.
What’s foolish about the Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon improprieties is that they don't necessarily need to be the problem they’ve become. Cuomo’s show contained opinion content like 46 percent of CNN’s programming. An active debate rages on as to whether Fox News is all opinion and whether or not it can rightly even be called opinion journalism since its shows are so studded with inaccuracies and lies.
What that means is that Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon are allowed to take a stand as opinion journalists; Cuomo and Lemon never really worked under a mandate of objectivity and Ingraham and Hannity likely wouldn’t honor it if they did. Indeed, a certain subjectivity — and explaining how it developed for the journalist — is part of an opinion journalist’s craft. To me, little of these consulting roles would be problematic if any of these anchors had just disclosed them and the ways they advised the people they cover.
But they didn’t. Instead, the advice they dispensed to government employees and celebrities was disclosed by a third party and news of it contributes to the public’s distrust in the media. While personal PR advisory connections between journalists and politicians haven’t been pinpointed as a source of distrust, they may have an effect. Almost two-thirds of respondents in a Pew Research poll said they attributed what they deemed unfair coverage to a political agenda on the part of the news organization. No one has rigorously examined the ways in which individual journalists can swing institutional opinion so it may be part of the reason why consumers are suspicious of news.
Cleaning up ex post facto is both a violation of journalistic ethics and ineffective. Apologies and corrections after the fact don't always improve media trust. In other credibility contests, like courtroom battles, statements against one’s interests enhance a person’s believability. But that’s not necessarily true of news; a 2015 study found that corrections don’t automatically enhance a news outlet’s credibility.
It’s a new adage for the 21st century: It’s not the consulting; it’s the cover-up. Journalists need to disclose their connections to government officials — up front — to help maintain trust in news media. Lives depend on it.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.


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