Cuban Exile Group Says US Erred in 1996 Shoot Down

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - The Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue released government documents showing that, three hours before two of the group's aircraft were shot down in the Florida Straits in 1996; the United States launched fighter jets from Homestead Air Force Base in Florida to respond to Cuban MIGs flying toward the United States.

However, Brothers to the Rescue President Jose Basulto, one of the survivors of the shoot down, said that when the Cuban MIGs were launched again that same day, resulting in the fatal crash with the Brothers planes, no US jets were scrambled and two F-15s on the runway at Homestead were told to back down.

However, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), according to a spokesman from its headquarters, said the information isn't new and has been in the public domain for several years.

The official NORAD explanation: "A duty officer for NORAD misinterpreted an order from NORAD's commander in chief that the US planes not be provocative and told the Southeast Air Defense Sector Command at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Florida, to take the Homestead planes off alert.

However, the Miami Herald reported the Southeast Air Defense Sector Commander realized the mistake and ordered the planes back on alert 15 minutes later, but by then, the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft had already been shot down.

Basulto said, "We were denied the protection this government could have afforded us."

But a NORAD spokesman said that, even if the F-15s at Homestead had remained on alert, they probably would not have been deployed to intercept the Cuban MIGs. "We're a defensive organization against anything that comes into our sovereign air space," the spokesman said.

Basulto is demanding that presidential candidates George W Bush and Al Gore declare their positions on pushing for a criminal indictment against Cuban leader Fidel Castro for the shoot down.

"We sent a letter to both presidential candidates asking if they would, if they are elected, indict Fidel Castro for murder because of the amount of evidence that exists that Fidel Castro is the one that ordered the thing to happen. And this (indicting Castro for murder) hasn't happened under Bill Clinton," Basulto said.

Basulto also accused President Clinton of being an accomplice to Castro in the incident.

"Unfortunately, the government of the United States was an accomplice to Castro under Bill Clinton. I'm not blaming the mailman, the armed forces or anybody within the government itself, but, the Administration itself," Basulto said.

According to reports, US military officials said at the time of the 1996 incident that American aircraft were not scrambled to challenge the Cuban MIGs because they turned back before reaching the boundary of US controlled airspace. The boundary of US controlled airspace is a zone marked by the 24th parallel in the Florida Straits, halfway between Key West and Havana.