Fidel’s Secret Friends in DC

This week the Ana Belen Montes espionage case was back in the news, though few Americans likely noticed, since that sensational spy story never got the front-page coverage it merited when it broke nearly a dozen years ago. The absent spotlight on what was a pretty interesting and consequential espionage drama had something to do with the fact that Montes was arrested a mere ten days after the 9/11 attacks, when everyone’s attention was elsewhere.

But it also had something to do with the reality that few Americans today think of Cuba – yes, still Communist but broke and pathetic Cuba – as any kind of threat. Which is certainly true in military terms, as Havana’s armed forces are as dilapidated as everything else in the country. But in espionage, Cuba punches way above its weight, and ranks in the Big Four of intelligence threats to the United States. Russia and China’s place on that list is pretty well known, and Israel’s position as a major espionage threat to the US, while seldom discussed openly (this blog has gone where others dare not tread, more or less fearlessly), is not as secret as AIPAC would like it to be, but …. Cuba?

Outside counterintelligence circles, and groups of Cuban exiles who think Havana is behind everything including Bigfoot and global warming, the notion of Cuba being a major espionage threat to America seems a bit of a stretch. Yet in fact it is, and Cuban intelligence for decades has frankly run rings around its yanqui adversaries. It was a bad day in the Intelligence Community in 1987 when the most senior intelligence defector to ever leave Havana confirmed that every single source run by the CIA in Cuba since the 1959 revolution had actually been a double agent under Cuban control. Yet that disturbing revelation wasn’t exactly a shock to the CI crowd in DC, which had long feared the worst.

Cuban spying on US interests has been intense and focused for decades. Havana’s penetration of the exile community – which the regime views as an existential threat – is deep and broad, and agents in the US have always played a role in radicalizing an already bumptious bunch. Fidel’s spies have been effective at stoking paranoia and dissent, not to mention using provocations to paint Cuban exiles as violent looney-tunes (not a real stretch for many of them). Anytime you encounter a truly radical Cuban exile, spouting crazytalk about Fidel, you should ponder the possibility that s/he is actually an agent provocateur for Havana. The Cuban intelligence services have never had any difficulty recruiting agents in America among the exiles, in fact they have had a glut for decades, and they are nearly all volunteers: little if any actual recruitment is required. The only brake on the number of agents Havana can run in the US, a Cuban defector explained to me, is the limited number of case officers Cuba can place in this country.

It needs to be said, however, that Cuban foreign intelligence (DI) does not operate solely among exiles, even though some of their biggest operations have been built around Cubans in America, e.g. the “Wasp Network” run by five DI officers in Florida who recruited among exiles to penetrate numerous US institutions and political organizations. The DI recruits its agents mainly, though not exclusively, among Americans of Hispanic origin, and Anglos of ideologically correct views have spied for Havana too.

The impeccably WASP Kendall Myers, a career State Department official who admitted in 2009 to spying for Havana for 30 years, with his wife’s help, was motivated by lefty views, not money; indeed, the ridiculous Myers, who had quite a man-crush on Fidel, actually lost money while spying for the Cubans. Myers, who worked for several years for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), the State Department’s in-house analysis shop beloved of liberals for its allegedly “less biased” views on practically everything, got a life sentence. While Myers was not especially adept at hiding his treachery, it needs to be said that in the circles he frequented, such as the Foreign Service Institute (the State Department’s schoolhouse) where he worked for years, and Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (JHU/SAIS), where he taught part-time, Myers’s standard-issue-lefty take on Cuba, which he did little to hide, would not have stood out, indeed they would have appeared de rigeur.

But Ana Belen Montes was something else, indeed Havana’s jewel in the crown inside the Beltway, an accomplished intelligence analyst who, over the course of a successful career in the Intelligence Community, produced a lot of reportage on Cuba and actually influenced DoD policy too. She was recently the subject of a detailed, if long overdue, profile in The Washington Post Magazine which portrays the spy-turned-convict as totally unrepentant about her secret career helping Havana.

Of Puerto Rican background and the daughter of a US Army officer with right-wing views that she didn’t like, the young Montes imbibed the usual lefty opinions about Latin America and US foreign policy that you typically find in American academia, and while she was a student at JHU/SAIS in Washington, DC – them again – she was approached by a talent-spotter for Cuban intelligence; as CI hands are aware, US colleges have more than a few of these sorts, lurking around departments seeking bright young things who are so pissed off about all that yanqui imperialism their professors keep telling them about that, you know, they might want to actually do something about it.

Properly instructed by Cuban intelligence, Montes got a job with the Defense Intelligence Agency, perhaps because DIA is known to be softer on the polygraph than CIA and NSA, and she got down to work as a Cuba analyst. In that position she was a success, churning out lots of assessments that tended to be softer on Havana than the DoD norm; within a decade Montes was the top DIA expert on Cuba, which perhaps says as much about DIA as about her talents.

Needless to add, she was passing everything classified she could get her hands on back to Havana, thanks to regular covert communications (COVCOM) with her secret bosses in Cuba. She revealed the identities of US intelligence personnel to Havana and, according to some CI investigators, she got Americans killed. Of particular concern was Montes’s increasing ability to influence DoD policy, not just intelligence matters, vis-a-vis Cuba. Yet her careful COVCOM efforts over time exposed her to US scrutiny, since the need to communicate is the greatest vulnerability of every secret agent, and by the late 1990s it was clear to American counterspies that there was a whole Cuban espionage network in the DC area, including multiple penetrations of the Intelligence Community and related Federal agencies. Montes was eventually identified as one of the biggies in that spy-ring, and the dark view of the DIA counterspy who led the investigation of what she did, that Havana had DC swiss-cheesed with agents, which was broadly pooh-pooed at the time, has been pretty well borne out by subsequent events.

The Montes debacle led to a lot of leads pointing to more Cuban spies swimming in the waters of the US Government, only some of whom have been revealed to the public, and not always as spies, exactly. Back in 2005 there was a minor scandal surrounding Alberto Coll, a former senior Pentagon official in the Bush 41 administration and a dean at my very own Naval War College. An exile possessing the usual right-wing views regarding the Castros, Coll nevertheless moderated his opinions as he entered middle age, and some hardliners smelled a rat. An investigation revealed that Coll had all sorts of Cuban contacts he had not revealed, and although he was never convicted of espionage, CI experts familiar with Cuban MO believed he had gone to the dark side. As has often been the case with Cuban espionage matters, left-of-center journalists were quick to paint Coll as a martyr to the cause, obviously innocent of anything nefarious or unpleasant like espionage.

But the question remained: Who recruited Montes to work for Havana? At long last the answer has been revealed by the Department of Justice, who this week released a formerly sealed indictment against Marta Rita Velasquez, a onetime attorney with the US Agency for International Development, where she once possessed TOP SECRET clearances, no less. DoJ’s indictment alleges that Velazquez, who like Montes is of Puerto Rican background, met her target while they were both students at – you knew this was coming – JHU/SAIS back in the early 1980s. Discussions about their mutual anger regarding Reagan-era policies towards Nicaragua led to more than just talk. Velasquez was working for the Cubans as far back as 1983 – how she was brought into Havana’s spyweb isn’t publicly clear – and she spotted and assessed her friend, whom she introduced to a Cuban intelligence officer in New York in December 1984. A few months later both women took a secret trip to Cuba, where they were schooled in tradecraft matters that enabled them to be effective spies in Washington, DC for the next decade-and-a-half.

Like Montes, Velasquez kept in regular contact with her Cuban handlers via COVCOM and had occasional face-to-face meetings too, as the DoJ indictment makes clear. Yet Velasquez escaped the dragnet that caught her friend and co-conspirator, and in 2002 she left the United States for Sweden and has not returned. Stockholm will not extradite her for espionage, which the Swedes consider a “political” crime, so it seems nothing will happen to Velasquez; it probably doesn’t hurt that she’s married to a top Swedish diplomat.

Why Velasquez worked diligently for Cuban intelligence for many years isn’t hard to decipher. Motivated by ideology, not greed or vanity, like Montes she possessed the usual anti-American views that one finds in most Latin American studies programs and, unlike most alienated left-wing grad students, she decided to do something about it more than the occasional demo. During her Princeton days, the class of 1979 student was active in the campus Third World Center and wrote her undergraduate thesis on race relations in Cuba. I suspect that not many academicians will want to dwell on motivations here, but experienced counterspies are aware that Velazquez was far from the only Cuban agent recruited out of such a milieu, and neither was JHU/SAIS the only grad school where such things were going on.

You can expect the latest revelations about Cuban espionage against the United States to more or less disappear down the memory hole, since it’s not something polite people want to unravel too deeply. Which is unfortunate for many reasons, not least that Cuba passes a lot of the information it purloins from its spies in America – only the naive think they’ve all been caught – on to other countries, many of them more powerful than Cuba and quite unfriendly to the United States. This story’s not over yet …

[The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and certainly not reflective of the views of any of his employers.]


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