- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

Iran, Cuba and Venezuela are working together against the U.S. by undermining democracy in Latin America, allowing trafficking of illegal drugs and creating safe havens for extremist groups, intelligence officials said.

Testifying before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday, National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell said that influence from the three countries — led respectively by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez — has spilled into Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador, which “are pursuing agendas that undercut checks and balances” of democratic governments.

“Moreover, each of these governments, to varying degrees, has engaged in sharply anti-U.S. rhetoric, aligned with Venezuela and Cuba — and increasingly Iran — on international issues, and advocated measures that directly clash with U.S. initiatives,” said Mr. McConnell, whose department oversees all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.

Mr. McConnell’s statements only scratch the surface, according to interviews with U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement officials.

Federal law-enforcement officials contend that Islamic extremists and well-financed Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia groups in Latin America are recruiting members and using highly effective routes to smuggle narcotics to raise funds for their counterparts in the Middle East. Hezbollah, founded in 1982, is a Shi’ite Muslim group that believes in the creation of Iranian-style Islamic republic.

“We’ve known for some time that Islamic extremists groups were gaining momentum and exploiting the region,” said one U.S. federal law-enforcement official, on the condition of anonymity, who worked drug operations in Central America. “Iran is no exception — now with Cuba and Venezuela, the door is open. ”

Web sites advocating Hezbollah and other Islamic extremist groups in Central America are used to recruit members and espouse extremist ideology.

On one Web page — now removed from the Internet — “Hezbollah Latin America” displayed photographs of members, with their faces covered and weapons raised. The Web site contained links to Hezbollah group members in Venezuela, El Salvador, Argentina and as north as Chiapas, Mexico.

As for Cuba, Mr. Chavez “will continue to seek to unite Latin America, under his leadership, behind an anti-U.S., radical leftist agenda and to look to Cuba as a key ideological ally,” Mr. McConnell told the committee.

The Cuban Armed Forces’ intelligence agents have been operating in South Florida for the past 48 years and “you are talking about intelligence agents who are training to smuggle anything that can help their government to destroy democracy and the U.S., and they know what they are doing,” said another U.S. law-enforcement official, on the condition of anonymity.

“The alliance between the Cuban government and Iran, makes them a terrorist proxy group like Hezbollah and others terrorist groups working for Iran with the capability to smuggle almost anyone or anything into the U.S.,” the official added. “Venezuela’s alliance with Iran, influenced by Cuba’s support, is a problem the U.S. must face now.”

In 2005, Venezuela became a major transient route for South American — predominantly Colombian — cocaine destined for the U.S. market and it continues to grow, U.S. intelligence officials said.

Mr. Chavez’s lack of counterdrug cooperation “undermines efforts by other countries, particularly Colombia, by giving traffickers access to alternative routes and transit points Chavez is likely to remain unengaged on the counternarcotics front unless the drug trade is perceived to damage his international image or threaten his political longevity,” Mr. McConnell said.

Mr. McConnell said Mr. Chavez and Mr. Ahmadinejad have established a rapport, visiting each other seven times since 2005.

“Military cooperation between Tehran and Caracas is growing,” Mr. McConnell testified. “There are growing signs of anxiety among Venezuela’s neighbors about this military buildup.”

Both countries are making strides on economic and energy fronts, “negotiating agreements in such areas as agriculture, automobile and tractor manufacture, petrochemicals, and oil exploration in Venezuela’s Orinoco region,” U.S. intelligence officials said.

In October, U.S. officials were made aware that government-run oil companies in Iran and Venezuela were planning a joint venture to create a fully integrated oil company. The investment in Iran is estimated at roughly $1 billion.

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, urged the Bush administration yesterday to investigate whether Venezuela’s $1 billion joint venture with Iran can be cited under the Iran Sanctions Act.

“Our country has a clear and growing interest in making sure Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doesn’t obtain the resources or capacity needed to support a nuclear weapons program,” he said.

Venezuela’s influence in the region was made apparent yesterday when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega proposed a military alliance with Mr. Chavez that would establish a “mutual defense” in case of any attack. Mr. Ortega, who challenged Colombia’s control of a small group of Caribbean islands with possible untapped oil, spoke angrily against the U.S. and Colombia.

Intelligence officials said, “the inauguration of Nicar-agua’s Daniel Ortega in January 2007 has given Chavez another staunch ally and a location from which to expand Venezuela’s activities in Central America.”

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