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U.S. intelligence office on Cuba, Venezuela reported dwindling

WASHINGTON—A Pentagon request for more military-to-military contacts with Cuba has been denied, and a special intelligence office that monitors Cuba and Venezuela has "practically disappeared" because of staff and budget cuts, the former head of the office said Wednesday.

Norman Bailey, who until March was the mission manager for Cuba and Venezuela at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the State Department recently blocked Pentagon requests for its overseas military attaches to contact their Cuban counterparts, presumably to try to gather information about events in Havana.

John Negroponte, then the national intelligence director, established the Venezuela and Cuba mission manager post last year. He acted on President Bush's instructions amid concerns over Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez's potential threat to U.S. interests and the consequences of Fidel Castro's undisclosed intestinal illness.

After three months on the job, Bailey, an economic consultant and Cold War expert, was fired by Mike McConnell, who replaced Negroponte in the job of coordinating the work of 16 government intelligence agencies and programs.

Bailey said he initially was told the position was being eliminated, but McConnell denied this in a March 14 letter to six House of Representatives members. He wrote that he was searching for Bailey's replacement and that the position has "not been diminished in any way."

But at a gathering at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, Bailey painted a different picture.

"The fact is, that office has practically disappeared," he said, noting that with his dismissal and one resignation, its staff has dropped to one full-timer and one part-timer.

He later said the office had its "budget taken away."

ODNI spokesman Ross Feinstein declined to comment on personnel matters, but he reiterated that a replacement search is under way and that Patrick Maher, the national intelligence officer for the Western Hemisphere and a 33-year CIA veteran, is the acting mission manager for Cuba and Venezuela.

Bailey also said that the State Department had recently blocked a longstanding Pentagon request to allow U.S. military attaches in third countries to become friendly with their Cuban counterparts.

The State Department and the Defense Department declined to discuss the matter, but other U.S. government officials confirmed the request.

In the past, U.S. military attaches abroad were reprimanded if they even entered into casual conversations with their Cuban counterparts.

Only a Coast Guard representative at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana is allowed to talk to Cuban government officials, on matters such as migration and drug trafficking. The U.S. commander at the Guantanamo Naval Base also talks periodically with Cuban military officers to avert tensions.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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