Terror Alert, Miami Style

Clandestine meetings and a hungry press

"It didn't feel ethically comfortable to me," Goodnaugh says. "I talked to my editor in New York about it and we decided we don't play by that kind of rigid term-setting." Did Alvarez demand she wear a blindfold for the car ride? Goodnaugh laughs, "It wasn't a safety issue. I wasn't worried about being kidnapped. I just felt like I was becoming an accessory to their stunt move." Her story the next day noted she'd refused to attend the press conference "because of the terms, which included being driven by Mr. Posada's associates to an undisclosed location and agreeing to ask questions only on certain topics."

The Chicago Tribune's Gary Marx received the same offer from Alvarez but took a different tack. "I didn't think twice about the ground rules," he says. "A suspected terrorist-in-hiding agreeing to meet with reporters? What more can you say?" Marx promptly flew to Miami from Havana, where he's stationed as the Tribune's Latin-American correspondent. "I also have enough experience to know that ground rules often break down when reporters begin firing questions. Officials refuse all the time to answer questions, so my view was that it would be no big deal if we asked Posada about the hotel bombing and he refused to answer."

For Marx the experience was more surreal than menacing. The morning of May 17 he was bundled into an SUV outside his Miami hotel, along with a CNN crew and a Sun-Sentinel reporter. Cell phones were confiscated; then they were driven to a cavernous Hialeah warehouse, where "a half-dozen beefy guys" in dark sunglasses guarded the door. After the rest of the twenty or so invited reporters had been delivered to the warehouse from various sites around town -- and camera equipment collected the day before had been returned to the TV crews -- Posada entered. Nattily attired in a white summer suit and navy tie, Marx felt he looked "more like a Florida retiree than a feared terrorist."

Posada at his media circus: "Look at my face. Do I look like a monster?"
Posada at his media circus: "Look at my face. Do I look like a monster?"

True to Marx's hunch, the gathering soon became a free-for-all, almost comically so. Sitting calmly behind an old wooden table, an interpreter at his side and Alvarez hovering nearby, Posada began by insisting that morning's Herald interview with him was based on an "off the record" conversation. Then, calling the 1976 airline bombing "abominable," he brandished a lie-detector test that supposedly cleared him of any involvement in it. He was no terrorist, he offered earnestly: "My only objective is to fight for the freedom of my country."

But members of the press corps were growing restless with Posada -- and with each other. As one reporter began bantering with Posada in rapid-fire Spanish, several Anglo TV correspondents groaned, turning frantic in their quest for usable sound bites. "We need it in English!" hollered one repeatedly, though Posada was virtually unintelligible in any language. A 1990 assassination attempt in Guatemala (Posada blames Cuban agents) had sent bullets slicing through his jaw and tongue, leaving his speech little more than a gravelly rasp. Eventually Posada mustered a solid English quip, only to have the roar of a nearby passing train drown him out.

Kofman waded into the muddled fray with his question -- the strictly forbidden one -- but he was barely able to utter the words "hotel bombings" before Alvarez cut him off. "We're answering questions about the planes only and about this situation here," he snapped as Posada sat mutely. Kofman pressed on and Alvarez shot back that his questions were "not relevant."

Kofman, who says he never agreed to any query restrictions, recalls this back-and-forth as truly bizarre. "If he's going to talk about his involvement in alleged terrorist acts, he can't pick the ones he talks about: 'I'll tell you about this bombing but not that one.' They're trying to protect him like he's a pop star." Kofman was also distressed by the behavior of CNN's Susan Candiotti, who chose to deploy Oprah Winfrey's warm and fuzzy approach, gently asking Posada: "Are you a monster?"

"Look at my face," Posada replied, smiling at Candiotti as laughter broke out. "Do I look like a monster?"

The exchange made Kofman cringe. "If you've covered, as I have, stories of war criminals, old people never look like they've done horrible things," he says. "But that doesn't mean in their past, when they were younger and more spry, they haven't been capable of horrendous things. [Posada] looks very dapper in his linen suit, and he showed a sense of humor. He can be a charming man to spend time with. But that isn't the reason we're there. The reason we're there is that this is a man who has been implicated in terrorist acts, who has publicly admitted to his involvement in terrorist acts, and who is trying to get residency in a country that says it has no room for anyone with a terrorist past. That's the issue."

In the end, Alvarez's cloak-and-dagger maneuvers came to naught. Two hours after the media circus, as Posada was packing his belongings in a safe house and preparing to leave the country, he was nabbed by federal agents. He's now being held at a detention center in El Paso, Texas, awaiting a June 13 hearing.

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