THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS
The Briefing Room
2:35 P.M. EST
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi. I'm going to walk through a carefully prepared script and take a few questions afterwards. Let me start.
Information from U.S. Customs indicates that two U.S. civilian aircraft shot down by a Cuban MiG 29 were in international airspace. The lead plane, however, which returned safely to Opa Locka did enter Cuban airspace as part of an operation conducted by the Florida-based emigre group, Brothers To The Rescue, which I will refer to as BTTR from here on in -- not BCI or BNL, but -- (laughter.)
Q Are you saying there were three planes, and one went into the airspace?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, let me walk through it. The MiG 29 apparently made no effort to contact the emigre pilots, wag its wings, or escort them from the area before requesting permission to fire. As you know, the U.S. government has determined that this action by the Cubans was in violation of international law.
Now I'm going to walk you through a time line of events as we understand them at this moment in time. Some of these details may change, and there will be more details available tomorrow, I believe, but this is where we are at this moment.
Yesterday roughly from the 10:00 a.m. to noon time frame, during the hours leading to the shoot down we know that Cuban fighter aircraft had been conducting air patrols in reaction to what they believed to be an incursion of Cuban airspace. We know that the Cuban aircraft returned to their base making no contact with any aircraft.
In the 1:15 to 2:00 p.m. time frame we know that according to U.S. Customs three BTTR aircraft took off from Opa Locka Airfield in Florida. The next event is at 2:57 p.m. The BTTR aircraft contacts the Havana civilian air traffic controller and informs them that the BTTR aircraft plans to operate south of the 24th Parallel. The Cuban air traffic controller informs the aircraft of the danger involved in operating south of the 24th. The BTTR aircraft made it clear that it was aware of the danger, but flying in anyway.
At 3:01 p.m. we believe that the three BTTR aircraft were operating south of the 24th Parallel. At 3:09 p.m. we believe that one MiG 23 and one MiG -- Cuban, they're both Cuban -- MiG 23 and MiG 29 Cuban aircraft are airborne. At 3:18 p.m. the lead BTTR aircraft -- I'll refer to as aircraft one, this is the aircraft which later returned to Opa Locka safely -- is approximately one nautical mile north of Cuban airspace and heading south. The other two BTTR aircraft are approximately eight nautical miles north of Cuban airspace and heading east.
At 3:20 p.m. the MiG 29 reported the sighting of a small red, white and blue aircraft flying at a low altitude. The MiG pursued and identified the aircraft as a Cessna 337. At 3:22 p.m. we believe that the lead BTTR aircraft, aircraft one, penetrated three nautical miles into Cuban airspace. At 3:24 p.m. the MiG 29 pilot requested and received permission to destroy the second aircraft. The pilot quickly noted that the aircraft had been shot down. This occurred approximately five nautical miles north of Cuban airspace.
At 3:31 p.m. the MiG pilot noted another aircraft in sight, requested permission, received permission and reported the third aircraft destroyed. This occurred approximately 16 nautical miles, I guess, north of Cuban airspace.
This is a preliminary set of times and information, as I said when I began. More accurate times and additional information I hope will be available tomorrow. And that concludes my prepared remarks.
Q When the Cuban air patrols took place in the morning, because they apparently believed that there had been some violation of Cuban airspace, the Cuban Interest Section is putting out now a statement from the foreign ministry saying that these particular planes or some other planes from this group had violated Cuban airspace in the morning. Do we know anything about that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have no other information about this morning event.
Q Is it possible that this would have taken place and we would not have known about it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I simply don't know the answer to that question. I don't have any more information about that.
Q Does the U.S. follow all such planes like this headed south on radar? Is there an indication of -- radar indication of what happened?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: My assumption is that we pay careful attention to air traffic in this region, people file flight plans and we pay attention to them.
Q Would there have been a warning that you received if these guys were straying too close to Cuba? Would that have sent up a red flag where the Coast Guard or somebody would have been notified?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You'll have to ask the FAA how they operate in this instance.
Q There's an international law question which may be beyond the scope of what you know, but if the first --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The CIA doesn't do international law. (Laughter.)
Q If the first plane violates Cuba --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As you all know. (Laughter.)
Q If the first plane violates Cuban airspace, okay, that's a violation of international law. Does the MiG have a hot pursuit option under law?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I do not know the answer to this question.
Q Can you take that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll entertain that later.
Q One plane came back safely?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, ma'am.
Q And it was able to report on all this and give you the time sequence?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: My assumption is just the pilot is being debriefed and more information will be available.
Q And the only one that actually entered Cuban airspace is the only one that came back?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Throughout this -- I can only tell you that we know when the two other planes were shot down that they were not in Cuban airspace. I know that they may have come close to being in Cuban airspace prior to this time, but I have no information to indicate that they actually entered Cuban airspace.
Q Did they try to rescue them in any way after they had been shot down?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not familiar with all the details of the search and rescue.
Q Doesn't Cuba claim 12 miles of their own space?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, sir.
Q They do?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And we're talking about beyond this -- beyond that limitation is where these events occurred.
Q And is that where the airspace begins, 12 miles from the coast of Cuba?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, that's correct.
Q And what's the distance between the 24th Parallel and that space?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the question of the Cuban ADIZ, the Air Defense Identification Zone, they claim a primary ADIZ that goes out to 12 miles, which is the territorial limit that they claim. They also claim an ADIZ that goes up to the 24th Parallel, similar to the United States -- we have an Air Defense Identification Zone that ranges out 200 miles from our coastline. So they -- below the 24th Parallel they would notify -- as Havana Center did notify these pilots that they were operating in an area that they considered dangerous.
Q Twelve miles is not the 24th Parallel?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, 12 miles is the territorial limit that goes -- that tracks the coastline of Cuba, and the 24th Parallel -- the secondary ADIZ goes up to that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If you looked at a map, depending -- it's not uniformly the equidistant from any point, but it could be between 40 and 60 miles, the delta between.
Q Could you just explain what's international airspace and what's Cuban airspace?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You can -- the customary international law in aviation allows nations under similar aviation procedures to establish these air defense identification zones in which individual nations pursue procedures that they follow. We do the same thing ourselves, so that's why they were -- the Havana air traffic controllers were then in contact with the pilots.
I want to make one comment on the aspects of international law that we've looked at with respect to this. The Chicago Convention, which dates back to 1944, governs international civil air traffic. And under that Convention it's quite clear that individual nations who are party to that treaty -- and the United States is and so is Cuba -- are required to exercise due regard for the safety of civil aviation. There are number of steps that have to be taken when civil aircraft are intercepted, including visual identification of the aircraft; an attempt at radio communications; visual communication, which can include flight maneuvers such as tipping of the wings. And there's no indication, as you just heard, that those procedures that are part of customary international law were followed in this instance.
Q When the Secretary said that this was a clear violation of international law, is that what you're talking about --because the MiGs didn't tip their wings? You're not talking about the fact of whether or not they violated Cuban airspace?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Where this occurred, whether it was within or outside Cuban territorial airspace is not the issue. These are the clear requirements here, under international law, of what procedures are to be followed if they are intercepting a civilian aircraft.
Q So even though Havana aircraft center --
Q Below the 24th Parallel, it isn't technically in Cuban airspace?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, it's in an area of operations in which the Cubans assert some right to warn civilian air traffic of certain dangerous procedures.
Q You said they were warned of the danger and went ahead anyway?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's what I said, yes.
Q The fact that they were warned by Havana air control that they were in danger, and they said, yes, we know we're in danger but we're going to continue to do that. In your reading of international law that was not enough, according to that Chicago Convention?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There is nothing that can justify the steps the Cuban military aircraft took under international law.
Q So if a civilian plane went into American airspace and was warned by American air traffic that -- or whether it was military, civilian -- warning them that this was a dangerous thing to do, they said, yeah, we're going to go ahead and do it anyway -- we would consider it a violation of international law if we shot those planes down?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We would follow those procedures that are required by the Chicago Convention.
Q And the particular procedures you're saying is that they didn't wag their wings and give them further warning?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And establish visual identification and there are other ways that you can escort aircraft of that nature to some destination.
Q Are there penalties for violation of the international law?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Under the Convention, itself, I believe, establishes procedures for resolution of conflicts that are adjudicated by the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO. You'll recall that we have just recently settled some claims that resulted from the downing of the Iranian airbus. We take very seriously those claims to compensation and others. Among the range of options the President could pursue, of course, is what type of action that we would seek from the International Civil Aviation Organization or other bodies.
Q You said that they didn't establish visual identification. Are you saying, then, that the planes were shot down with a missile or were they strafed, do you know?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, no, no. Those are the procedures -- let me go back to --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we indicated -- first let me say when we talked about out of Cuban airspace, we're talking about 12 nautical miles and within is what we're working from here. The second thing you should know is that this is not the first time this group has flown. So there's a history here and what they -- I don't know whether this is the first and only time they've ever talked to the controller, whether they believe that this is a dialogue that's fairly routine. But you'll have to talk to the FAA, who has some insight into this group and it's previous -- I believe they have some investigation going.
Q What is their mission?
Q With regards to how the plane was downed, do you know whether it was strafed, whether it was a missile?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They were brought down with air-to-air missiles.
Q What is their mission?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have no idea.
Q You have no idea why they fly?
Q Can you rule out that the other two planes crossed into Cuban air space, or did not cross --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I cannot rule it out, no.
Q Can you take us back to 3:22 p.m. on your time line to make it clear which MiG identified which aircraft?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, there's a MiG 23 and a MiG 29, I think I referred to, and at 3:22 p.m. -- excuse me, I'm sorry -- at 3:20 p.m. the MiG 29 reported sighting a small red, white and blue aircraft flying at a low altitude, which I said here, identified as a Cessna 337. At 3:24 p.m. the MiG 29 pilot requested and received permission to destroy the second aircraft. So I think it was the MiG 29.
Q Were planes two and three headed into Cuban air space at the time they were shot down?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's not -- as I said, they're well north of their air space, but we do not know the answer to that question.
Q How do you know the stuff with such precision to say it happened at 3:22 p.m. or 3:24 p.m.? (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, is this a question to check how dumb I am in answering a question like that, or the job I'm in? (Laughter.)
Q I mean, you must -- can you give us some idea --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I went to church this morning. I want you to trust me. (Laughter.) No, no.
Q You're citing Customs for this.
Q Whether it's electronic or human --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Customs has provided a great deal of information.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I want to make one observation. We are providing you some fairly extraordinarily detailed information here and I hope you will understand that there are some limits as to how we can describe our ability to pull together such helpful information.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Can I go now? (Laughter.)
Q There was a report on one of the wires this morning quoting an unnamed Pentagon official who said that they had information there to suggest that these planes might have been planning to land in Cuba, pick people up and take them out again. Do you have any such information?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have no such information.
Q Do we know if they were carrying any leaflets or anything to drop over Havana?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm telling you everything --
Q Why don't we know any of this? Why don't we know what they were going to do?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we know an awful lot about what happened here, and I don't know the answer to that question. I think more information will be available to us over the course of time here.
Q And we know one plane penetrated their air space and the other two may have, we just don't know.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We just do not know; that's correct.
Q And the lead plane --
Q Why are you so sure about all the other details, but you don't know whether they actually penetrated --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can only tell you what I know in very precise terms.
Q The lead plane, the one that did penetrate, now, was that ever targeted or the subject of conversation between the MiGs and their superiors?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have no information to that effect.
Q Can you give us details on what these witnesses saw, these people who were on the boat?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have not seen any of that reporting. Do you have any of that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Coast Guard may be able to provide you with some information they've had based on discussions they've had with captains of vessels that were in the region. I think most of you know there's also a wire account now quoting some people who were, I believe, on some type of cruise ship in the region who reported seeing some things as eyewitnesses.
Q You've got more than just the cruise ship, you have fishing boat captains and all those other kind of stuff.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, the Coast Guard has been making efforts to gather what information is available from vessels that were in the region.
Q This question of intent, and you said we don't know what their precise intent was, but does that figure into the administration's response? If these people were doing something or intending to do something that was illegal under international law, and therefore, the Cubans, in their view, they shouldn't have been there -- does that have any influence over whether the administration thinks this -- what the appropriate response would be?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The question that we would address would be what violations of federal air regulations may have pertained to deviating from a flight plan that had been filed with the FAA. That's what our government would look at in connection with Brothers To The Rescue. We've had concerns in the past about some of the reported deviations from flight plans that they have filed in the past. There have been some incidents, as most people here know, back in January concerning alleged dropping of leaflets over Cuba, so there has been a pattern of activity here that has been of some concern. But we can only speculate, and so we can't speculate about how this incident yesterday related to any of that prior activity.
Q Does flying south of the 24th Parallel deviate from the plan they filed?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, the flight plan they filed came south out of Opa Locka and went down to the territorial limits, which is all perfectly proper under international law and under federal air regulations that the United States enforces. And then the return back up to Opa Locka. So they came down -- in other words, the flight plan they filed came down just to the edge of the territorial limit, the 12-mile limit, and then returned back up to Opa Locka.
Q Do Cessnas have black boxes? They don't, do they?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't believe so. Do you know whether Skymasters have black boxes? I was told yesterday it would be unlikely that they would maintain that. It's not a passenger, commercial passenger aircraft. So it's not likely. But what type of flight data recorders they have I do not know.
Q If the Cubans are right and there had been a flight into Cuban air space yesterday morning, and one of the Cuban planes had chased it out or responded in a warning fashion, how would that affect your reading of how international law applies in this particular situation?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You'll see from the time line that we give you that according to U.S. Customs officials, the three aircraft that took off took off around 1:15 p.m. yesterday afternoon. We have no information that I'm aware of about any flights during the course of the morning yesterday. The flight plans that were filed for these three aircraft and three that I believe did not take off -- there was an original flight plan filed for six aircraft -- was filed at approximately 9:15 a.m. yesterday morning.
Q You can rule out based on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can't rule out civilian air traffic in that region, but I can just tell you we don't have information to that effect here.
In any event, back to the thrust of our question, Mark, regardless of whether or not these aircraft deviated from the flight plan they filed with the U.S. federal authority, there are customary law, international law provisions that the Cuban government would be required to adhere to, and they did not, which makes this a totally unprovoked and unjustified attack.
Q Beyond condemnation, what will we ask the U.N. to do?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I don't want to get into the -- this again, we've made it clear to you there are a range of options that we can consider that have been considered and now the recommendations have gone to the President and the President will review them. Once the President reviews them and makes a decision it will be appropriate for us to talk about it.
Q What are some options that were not presented to the President? (Laughter.)
Q Nice try.
Q When will the President have some sort --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Shortly.
Q Do you mean today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't expect -- the President, as I just indicated now for the second time, will get this discussion action memorandum late in the day today, and I expect he'll be in a position to say more about it tomorrow.
The chronology that my fellow backgrounder gave out we have available here for you.
Q Since you're on background, can you give us any indication as to what we're considering? Claire's already reported that you've got three things planned -- to cut off long-distance calls, that kind of stuff.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: She can't know and I can't know what actions the President might endorse. A lot of them fall in the range of things that, if you follow the debate about U.S. policy toward Cuba and some of the actions taken in October, it's not hard to imagine what some of the options are. I'll just leave it at that.
Q One clarification. Nautical miles and territorial miles are different. When you talk about -- is it 12 nautical miles?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know. On law of the sea, is the 12-mile territorial limit, is that a nautical mile?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q Are they same, nautical and land --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: A nautical mile is longer than a land mile, a little bit longer.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: A little bit longer than a land mile.
Q Did I understand you to say that the MiG also reported the third plane had been destroyed, it was fired upon also?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This chronology designates the three planes that traveled as Plane One, Plane Two,and Plane Three. Plane One is the one we believe entered Cuban air space and then turned back. Plane Two is the first plane that was destroyed. Plane Three is the second plane that was destroyed.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 3:00 P.M. EST