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Biden Admin Flip-Flops on Chinese Spy Base in Cuba

After denying reports of Beijing's intelligence-gathering operation, White House shifts responsibility to Trump
Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: June 13, 2023
Demonstrators take part in the commemoration of May Day (Labour Day) to mark the international day of the workers in Havana on May 5, 2023. Without the mass mobilization of yesteryear, this Friday's Workers' Day rally was held in Havana in a reduced version and four days late. (Image: YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden administration has denied, then confirmed media reports that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) built and is operating a spy base on the island nation of Cuba.

On Thursday, June 8, The Wall Street Journal cited “U.S. officials familiar with highly classified intelligence” and whose names were withheld as saying that the CCP has newly struck a multi-billion-dollar deal with Cuba whereby Beijing would set up an electronic listening post for eavesdropping on “electronic communications throughout the southeastern U.S., where many military bases are located, and monitor U.S. ship traffic,” according to the report.

Initially, the White House and the Department of Defense claimed that the reports were inaccurate. Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder on June 8 said that the U.S. military was “not aware of China and Cuba developing any type of spy stations separately.”

While the two communist countries “maintain a relationship of sorts,” Ryder added that when it comes to the specific activities outlined in the press reporting, again, based on the information we have, that is not accurate,” he said at a press conference.

On Saturday, June 10, the White House revised its claims, saying that “This is an ongoing issue, and not a new development, and the arrangement as characterized in the reporting does not comport with our understanding.”

The White House statement said that the Chinese listening post was present in Cuba since at least 2019, when the “intelligence collecting facilities” were upgraded. It noted that the American authorities knew of the spy base prior to Joe Biden taking office as U.S. president, and that the Biden administration was “working to disrupt” Beijing’s activities at the site.

The Chinese facility is, or will be, about 100 miles from the Florida coast. Both Beijing and the Cuban authorities have denied the presence of a listening post.

Cuba was an ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, having been taken over by a communist revolution in 1959. It famously hosted Soviet nuclear weapons, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 in which the superpowers came close to nuclear exchange.

The revelations about the Chinese spy base came as Blinken was reportedly planning a high-profile visit to China. On June 14, the State Department confirmed that Blinken would travel to Beijing from June 18 to June 19.

In early February, a Chinese spy balloon flew across the continental U.S., having been detected near Alaska and then reported on by the media as it entered Montana. The intruder was only shot down after reaching the Atlantic Ocean.

That incident prompted Blinken to cancel his scheduled trip to Beijing, where he was supposed to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

A U.S. Air Force pilot lookes down at the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as it hovers over the Central Continental United States February 3, 2023. (Image: Courtesy of the Department of Defense)

‘Find a way to blame the Trump administration’

During a White House press briefing on June 12 (Monday), National Security Council spokesman John Kirby reiterated that “this is not a new development,” adding that “China’s been trying to achieve some intelligence gathering capabilities in Cuba and, frankly, elsewhere in the hemisphere,” Kirby said. “From day one, when we came in, we took this issue seriously.”

The same day, while meeting with Italy’s foreign minister Antonio Tajani, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken partially shifted responsibility to the Trump administration.

“It was our assessment that despite awareness of the basing efforts and some attempts to address the challenge in the past administration, we weren’t making enough progress on this issue and we needed a more direct approach,” he said, adding that Biden specifically “instructed his team to do to address the challenge.”

Former national intelligence director John Ratcliffe, who served the Trump administration, contradicted the Biden White House’s claims about there being a Chinese spy base in Cuba when Trump was in office, saying it was “absurd.”

Ratcliffe’s statements align with The Wall Street Journal’s reporting, in which the sources cited say the China-Cuba deal was struck recently.

“The strategy for the Biden administration is to deny it until we can’t deny it anymore, then find a way to blame the Trump administration for it,” he told Fox News on June 12.

Following the uproar with the Chinese spy balloon, the Biden administration similarly asserted that similar balloon flights had been made over U.S. soil during the Trump years.

Kirby, the national security spokesman, doubled down on his statements about the spy base’s time of construction when asked at the press conference. “Not an allegation. True. And our assessment is that the previous administration would have had the same access to that intelligence as we did.”

Posting on Truth Social, Donald Trump did not comment on the base directly, but said that Biden “China just, effectively, took over Cuba” on Biden’s watch, something that he claimed “would never have happened under the Trump administration!”