Cuba is hosting a Chinese spy station, White House says

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JUNE 10, 2023

The Biden administration on Saturday disclosed the existence of a Chinese eavesdropping post in Cuba, and officials said the facility is one of dozens that Beijing has established, or sought to establish, as it seeks to expand intelligence gathering and other military operations throughout the world.

The spy station in Cuba dates back to at least 2019, when it underwent unspecified upgrades, a Biden administration official said, citing newly declassified intelligence. This official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, declined to say when the facility was built.

The revelation followed a report Thursday by the Wall Street Journal that said Beijing and Havana had reached a “secret agreement” to build an eavesdropping station in Cuba, allowing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to harvest electronic communications throughout the southeastern United States, where many military bases are located, and monitor U.S. ship traffic.

The Journal, citing officials familiar with the arrangement, said that China had agreed to pay an economically stressed Cuba several billion dollars to allow the station to be built. White House and Pentagon spokesmen later called the report inaccurate without elaborating, but on Saturday, citing the newly declassified information, the National Security Council clarified that the spy facility was in fact “well-documented in the intelligence record.”

“It’s not a new, more aggressive action” by the Chinese, the official said. “It’s certainly a troubling and concerning pattern of behavior. We have a problem with it and are working to counter it.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin on Friday said he was “not aware” of China setting up any facility in Cuba to monitor American communications.

“It is well known that the U.S. is an expert on chasing shadows and meddling in other countries’ internal affairs,” Wang said. “The U.S. is the global champion of hacking and superpower of surveillance.”

The United States maintains an extensive system of eavesdropping facilities hosted by partners around the world, including stations in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Australia. These sites, dating back to the Cold War, are aimed at collecting, in particular, electronic communications from China and North Korea.

Cuban officials, citing a 2014 agreement declaring Latin America and the Caribbean a “zone of peace,” have denied the existence of a military pact with China.

In acknowledging the Cuba facility’s existence, the White House appeared to fault the Trump administration, which rolled back much of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba, for not adequately dealing with the matter. Despite campaign promises to restore openings to Cuba, President Biden has left much of Trump’s restrictive Cuba policy in place.

“This is an issue that this administration inherited,” the White House said in an emailed statement. “It was our assessment that, despite awareness of the basing efforts and some attempts to address this challenge in the past administration, we were not making enough progress and needed a more direct approach.”

The statement suggested that, through diplomatic efforts directed by Biden, his administration has “slowed” China’s bid to “enhance its presence” in the region.

Republican lawmakers chided the administration for appearing to downplay the development’s significance.

“Why did the Biden Administration previously deny these reports of a [Chinese Communist Party] spy base in Cuba?” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Select Committee on China, said in a statement apparently referring to the administration’s earlier description of the Journal’s report of a “new” agreement as inaccurate. “Without a coherent explanation, we must conclude they are deliberately misleading the American people and whitewashing CCP aggression.”

Soon after coming into office, the Biden administration was briefed by the U.S. intelligence community on China’s wide-ranging basing and intelligence-gathering program. “They were considering a number of sites spanning the Atlantic Ocean, Latin America, the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific,” the White House statement said.

Biden’s strategy called for engaging governments considering China’s overtures, the statement said, and “we have been executing on that approach quietly, carefully, but with results ever since.” That includes seeking to dissuade countries that might be considering hosting a Chinese eavesdropping facility, the administration official said.

Separately, a senior administration official said the facility in Cuba is not the most concerning of China’s activities, noting its attempts to expand its military presence in the Indian and Pacific oceans. And as The Washington Post reported in April, U.S. spy agencies detected fresh construction late last year at a suspected Chinese military facility in the United Arab Emirates — after the UAE announced it was halting the project because of U.S. concerns.

Such efforts are part of an ambitious campaign by the PLA to significantly expand its reach by establishing at least five overseas bases and 10 logistical support sites by 2030, including in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and throughout Africa, The Post reported. The PLA’s code name for the initiative is Project 141.

“There are a series of places the Chinese seek to put listening posts for advanced espionage,” the senior official said. “They seek places for ground based assistance to support space operations. They seek ‘steaming ports,’ which are places they can come in and refuel. Then they also look for more established traditional military basing rights.”

What the Chinese are doing in Cuba “they’re trying to do” in dozens of other places around the world, the official said.

Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the intelligence committee chairman and vice-chairman, issued a statement after the Journal’s report saying they were “deeply disturbed” by the prospect that “Havana and Beijing are working together to target the United States.”

“We must be clear,” they said, “that it would be unacceptable for China to establish an intelligence facility within 100 miles of Florida and the United States, in an area also populated with key military installations and extensive maritime traffic.”


Courtesy/Source: Washington Post