A few days ago, I was on a television show arguing there was nothing wrong with ex-President Jimmy Carter visiting Cuba, and the host kept exclaiming, “But they’re making biological weapons, they’re making biological weapons.” Credit the Bush administration with a job well done–propaganda job, that is.

Several days before Carter’s trip, John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control, in a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said, “The United States believes that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort” and has “provided dual-use biotechnology to other rogue states.”

Those certainly are fighting words. If Cuba is indeed developing such weaponry and sharing it with the “axis of evil,” that would make it a target in George W. Bush’s war on terrorism. After all, why bother first with Iraq, if a rogue-sympathizer is producing weapons of mass destruction 90 miles from Miami? Such a threat should compel immediate attention.

But the Bush administration provided no evidence. When President John Kennedy took a stand against Cuba for accepting Soviet nuclear missiles in 1962, he produced overhead reconnaissance photos showing the missile bases. Bolton merely says the United States “believes” Cuba is developing these weapons. The issue of “dual-use” items (which can be used for weapon or non-weapon purposes) is often a slippery matter. Trucks, to be simple about it, can carry bombs or humanitarian relief. Incubators can cook up life-saving vaccines or deadly germs.

Cuban defector Jose de la Fuente, who was director of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana, has said Cuba sold sophisticated biotechnology to Iran that could be used to treat heart attacks and viral diseases and develop vaccines. And he has been concerned Iran could try to use these biotechnologies to develop weapons, But, according to the Miami Herald, de la Fuente also said that he had no cause to question the Cubans’ intent in this transaction and could not say the technology sold had been used for anything other than medical purposes.

When the Bush administration hurls such an explosive charge, it should offer proof, or, at least, further explanation. How advanced is any Cuban bioweapons program? Is it offensive, rather than defensive, in nature? (Who knows where the still-at-large American anthrax culprit will strike next?) What “dual-use” technology sales pose problems? Does the Bush administration know more than de la Fuente?

The fact that it was Bolton who unleashed this allegation does not inspire confidence. He is the conservative mole in Colin Powell’s otherwise not-so-rightwing State Department. He recently led the effort to have the administration renounce the United States’ endorsement of the International Criminal Court. Earlier this year, he single-handedly tried to change a cornerstone of US nonproliferation policy by declaring the administration no longer believed it was important to state that the United States, in general, would not use nuclear weapons against nations that do not possess such weapons. A State Department spokesman had to rush to the rescue and assert that Bolton had not really said what he said. [See Capital Games: “Bush’s New Nuclear Weapons Plan: A Shot at Nonproliferation”. And to learn how Bolton recently escaped a scandal, see Capital Games: “Taiwangate: A Fallout-Free Scandal”.]

If the Bush Administration had truly wanted to convince the public–and had the goods to do so–it could have had Colin Powell raise the subject and share the reasons for fretting. Even though Powell did support Bolton’s comments, after a dust-up ensued, cynics still had ample cause to believe the goal was to throw a handful of sand in Carter’s face before he hit Havana. Powell, according to the Orlando Sentinel, told reporters the Bush administration was “concerned” because Cuba “has the capacity and capability to conduct such research.” Possessing the capability is different from doing the deed.

Last year, Ken Alibek, a senior scientist who defected from the Soviet Union’s biological weapons program, told a congressional committee that he believed Cuba, with its advance biotech abilities, could produce genetically modified germ weapons. But he did not claim this was being done. In a 1999 book, Alibek said his boss in the Soviet weapons program thought Cuba was engaged in bioweapons activities, but Alibek acknowledged that was unconfirmed opinion. When Alibek’s book came out, the State Department said, “We have no evidence that Cuba is stockpiling or has mass-produced any BW [biological warfare] agents.”

Carter maintains that before his visit, he repeatedly asked Bush administration officials if any evidence showed Cuba “has been involved in sharing any information to any other country on Earth that could be used for terrorist purposes.” He says, “the answer from our experts on intelligence was no.”

There may well be cause for worry. Perhaps there have been recent developments. Carter visiting a biotech site and saying he saw no sign of weapons activities does not mean much. But the manner in which the administration has handled this topic smacks more of Florida-centric politics than national security. It also is reminiscent of a tactic used by the Reagan administration: the Exaggerated Claim. (I am being polite by not using the more common but cliched term, the Big Lie.) During the 1980s, when the Reaganites were supporting the anti-Sandinista contras in Nicaragua and the leftist-fighting armies of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, they often made wild allegations that proved to be untrue. At one news conference, President Reagan claimed the Sandinistas had forced “the entire Jewish community” to flee. Not true–said Jews in Managua. Reagan claimed “top Nicaraguan officials are deeply involved in drug trafficking.” His own Drug Enforcement Administration said otherwise. When reporters at The Washington Post and The New York Times revealed (all-too accurately) that the El Salvador military had massacred hundreds of peasants, the Reagan administration denied the reports and tried to discredit the journalists. With plenty of former Reaganite warriors holding positions in the Bush the Second administration–including Bolton–the Bush gang does not deserve to be taken at its word on these sort of hot-button controversies. As Reagan famously said, “Trust, but verify.”

After Bolton’s speech, The Washington Post reported, “Some administration officials, convinced that Cuba has an active germ warfare program, have been pressing to make the evidence public, but guardians of the information have worried that its release would compromise US intelligence sources, according to more than one official.” This is common for Washington. We’d like to tell you, but we can’t. It is also a dodge for governing responsibly. As with Iraq, should the Bush administration be inclined to lead the nation into confrontation with another country–and justify its actions before the world–it has to offer more than words, more than “we believe.” If the US government declares another nation a threat to Americans, it ought to present a case, not merely an assertion. Fidel Castro may be able to rule by proclamation. George W. Bush–and John Bolton–should not.