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Deal Between U.S., Cuba Culminated 18 Months Of Secret Talks

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)

Hundreds Gather For Memorial Service For Beheaded Journalist Steven Sotloff

By Glenn Garvin, The Miami Herald

MIAMI — Hundreds of mourners began arriving Friday for a memorial service for Steven Sotloff, journalist whose murder was revealed earlier this week by Muslim militants in Syria.

About 800 were in the Temple Beth Am synagogue as the service, open to the pubic, began at 1 p.m.

Crowds began arriving two hours earlier, and their numbers — combined with a huge number of journalists — slowed traffic near the synagogue to less than 10 mph.

Many of the mourners were clad head-to-toe in black, despite the oppressive heat, and few of them wanted to talk to journalists. Those who did expressed an ineffable sadness.

“I just hope he didn’t die in vain,” said one, Rona Kritzer of Miami, whose children went to pre-school with Sotloff.

Sotloff, 31, of Pinecrest, Florida, was a freelance journalist covering the Middle East when he was kidnapped just inside Syria in August 2013. Except for a single phone call to his parents in December, he was never heard from again. On Tuesday, the fundamentalist Muslim militia Islamic State posted a video on the Internet showing his decapitation.

He had attended Temple Beth Am’s religious day school as a child before going to boarding school in New Hampshire and later, for three years, the University of Central Florida, where he pursued a journalism degree for three years.

But after a trip to Israel, Sotloff dropped out of UCF and moved to Tel Aviv, where he enrolled at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private college. He graduated in 2008 and started covering the Middle East’s hot spots.

Miami Herald staff writers Kathryn Varn and Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Etienne de Malglaive

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For Sotloff Family, Quiet Waiting For News Of Kidnapped Journalist

By Glenn Garvin, The Miami Herald

It was a day of quiet waiting Thursday for the family of Steven Sotloff, a Pinecrest journalist abducted by Muslim jihadists in Syria who on Tuesday threatened to kill him.

“He’s still alive, so there is nothing to say,” his mother, Shirley Sotloff, told a crowd of reporters assembled outside the family home when she emerged briefly to shop for groceries.

Steven Sotloff, 31, disappeared a little over a year ago, shortly after crossing from Turkey into Syria to report on the civil war there.

His abduction by the fundamentalist rebel group Islamic State was kept almost entirely secret until Tuesday, when the organization posted a video of the decapitation of another American journalist, followed by footage of Sotloff and a threat to kill him next.

Kidnappings of reporters — usually for ransom or prisoner exchanges — have become a common tactic in the three-cornered civil war.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that the Islamic State demanded a ransom of 100 million euros (about $132 million) for the life of James Foley, the 40-year New Hampshire journalist whose videotaped murder was posted on the Internet on Tuesday.

Whether a ransom has been asked for Sotloff is unknown. But friends said he has called his family at least once — last December — since his kidnapping.

Miami Herald staff writer Matias Ocner contributed to this story.

AFP Photo

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Secret Terror: Fate Of Journalist Steven Sotloff Now On World Stage

By Glenn Garvin, The Miami Herald

MIAMI — A grisly recording of Islamic jihadists decapitating an American journalist that was posted on the Internet Tuesday revealed more than just the group’s pitiless, homicidal soul. It also uncorked one of the Middle East’s dirty little secrets: that a Florida man has been held hostage in Syria for a year by militants who now threaten to kill him.

Thirty-one-year-old Steven Joel Sotloff, a former University of Central Florida student who has spent years reporting from Middle Eastern hot spots for Time magazine and other news media, was kidnapped in Syria near the Turkish border last August.

Except for a single phone call to his parents in December, he hadn’t been seen or heard from again until he appeared in the video purportedly posted by the militant Islamic group that calls itself the Islamic State, shortly after the scenes of the decapitation of another American journalist, 40-year-old James Foley of New Hampshire.

Sotloff was shown atop a sand dune, his head shaved, his arms bound behind his back, and his expression grim as an Arabic caption flashed across the screen: “The life of Steven Joel Sotloff depends on Obama’s next move.”

“It was Steve, 100 percent, the guy I roomed with at the University of Central Florida for three years,” said Emerson Lotzia, a sports anchorman and reporter for the Fox and NBC television affiliates in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I wish I could believe it wasn’t.”

Lotzia was horrified by the video, but not entirely surprised. He was part of a small circle of family friends, government officials, and journalist rights’ advocates who were aware of the kidnapping. At the behest of Sotloff’s parents, there was no public disclosure of the abduction.

“There was a blackout on his case enforced by his parents, a very effective one, and we honored it,” said Sherif Mansour, a program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists’ headquarters in New York.

Most members of the South Florida congressional delegation knew of the kidnapping as well, said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and were trying to aid State Department efforts to free Sotloff and other American hostages.

“We did what we could, but to be honest, we had very limited ability,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It’s not like we have a diplomatic channel to the Islamic (State). It’s a heinously evil terrorist group.”

The Sotloff family maintained a polite but firm silence on Wednesday, refusing comment to a crowd of 20 or so journalists — some from as far away as New York — who staked out their Pinecrest, Fla., home. When family friend Chris Castle emerged from the house in the early evening to buy groceries, he would say only, “Please pray, sign, and share,” a reference to a Facebook petition for Steve Sotloff’s release.

Sotloff, if he were free, would probably have been covering the airstrikes. Colleagues called him astute, insightful, and fearless, a journalist fluent in Arabic who did not shrink even from bloody, lawless landscapes like the one in Libya, from which he reported regularly. But neither was he a cowboy.

“He struck me as thoughtful and mature, no war junkie,” said Anne Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute who met Sotloff when she was working as a reporter in Benghazi, Libya. He was “committed to the Arab Spring and very respectful of Islamic culture,” she added.

Like most journalists who worked with Sotloff, Marlowe chose her words carefully Wednesday, mindful that his life may be dangling by a thread. But on her Twitter account, the rage she and many of her colleagues feel at the week’s events in Syria bubbled through.

“Steve Sotloff lived in Yemen for years, spoke good Arabic, deeply loved Islamic world … for this he is threatened with beheading,” she wrote.

Sotloff and his doomed video companion Foley were hardly the first reporters to run afoul of the confusing and deadly political landscape in Syria, where the tyrannical dictatorship of Bashar Assad is fighting a civil war against an equally ruthless coalition of Islamic opposition groups, while the Islamic State seizes territory for a fundamentalist Muslim nation. All of them regard journalists as potential targets rather than neutral observers.

At least 70 journalists have been killed in Syria over the past two years, and another 80 or so kidnapped. “We know of at least 20 reporters who are still being held by their kidnappers,” said CPJ’s Mansour. “Syria has been the most dangerous place in the world for journalists over the past two years.”

It’s a landscape remote not just geographically but culturally from those in which Sotloff grew up. He went to high school at Kimball Union Academy, a New Hampshire prep school where he played on the football and rugby teams, then attended the University of Central Florida for three years before dropping out short of a diploma to pursue a journalism career.

“We were just a bunch of bachelor guys, enjoying a bachelor life,” said Lotzia. “He got me to join the rugby team, and we played hours and hours of video-game football.”

Sotloff’s fanaticism about sports would persist through the coming years. “Is it bad that I want to focus on Syria, but all I can think of is a Heat finals repeat?” he wrote last June as the NBA playoffs entered their final stretch. His final tweet, on Aug. 3, was about Heat personnel moves.

But, Lotzia added, his roommate also had a serious side, putting in long hours at the school newspaper and talking about his ambition to report from the Middle East.

“I always wanted ESPN on the TV, and he always wanted the news networks,” Lotzia recalled. “And he usually won that battle.”

Lotzia said the past 48 hours have been a blood-curdling roller-coast ride for the Sotloff family.

“I talked to Steve’s dad Tuesday night,” he said. “He was in the best of spirits, then he was in the worst of spirits, he told me. ‘At last, I know my son is alive,’ he said. ‘But look at the situation.’ It’s killing him, and he’s trying his best to stay on an even keel.”

AFP Photo

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