Underestimating Cuba's Espionage Threat
“Cuba no longer poses a military threat to the United States.” So concluded a 1998 report produced by U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Problem is that the report was produced, in large part, by a DIA analyst that was actually a Cuban intelligence agent. Most Americans are blissfully ignorant of the name Ana Belen Montes. They shouldn’t be.
The case of Ms. Montes is one of the most important espionage stories of the last fifty years. Unfortunately, Ms. Montes’ arrest was overshadowed by other, bigger, events. You see, she was arrested on Sept. 20, 2001, just nine days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The timing of her arrest was no coincidence. Ms. Montes was about to be made privy to American battle plans for Afghanistan. The authorities that were secretly accumulating a case against Montes, while allowing her work as normal, could not allow that to happen for obvious reasons. Clearly American battle plans in the hands of Taliban commanders could have resulted in additional deaths of American servicemen and women in Afghanistan.
Perhaps Cuba doesn’t pose a military threat to the United States but in September of 2001 it posed an intelligence threat that certainly had military consequences.
Cuba is what U.S. counterintelligence officer Lt. Col. Chris Simmons calls an intelligence trafficker. Cuba barters intelligence it has acquired about the U.S. and its allies with other rogue and terrorist states. Sometimes intelligence is traded for cash and sometimes it’s traded for things like votes at the United Nations. And the case of Ana Belen Montes is just the tip of the Cuban espionage iceberg.
Anyone that has ever surfed the web sites of the official Cuban media has surely seen provocative banner ads that say, “Free the Cuban Five”. In fact, there’s a billboard with that slogan emblazoned on it in San Francisco. The “Five” are actually Cuban agents that were part of a spy ring called the “Wasp Network” that was spying on Cuban exile targets as well as U.S. Military bases across the southeast. They were convicted in 2001, just a few months prior to Montes’ arrest. According to Simmons there were actually 37 members of in the Wasp Network. In a recent interview he explained:
Eighteen agents and officers were arrested, known to have escaped or [diplomats that were] declared persona non grata. ... There were, according to the court documents, at least 37 officers and agents in that network, so … despite the success, no one ever wants to stand up there and say we arrested a lot of them but most of them got away.
If there were 37, then why does Cuba only shower attention on the “Five”? Simmons sheds light on the matter:
Thirteen officers and agents were arrested. All but five went state's witness and testified against Cuba. And so the last thing the regime wants is for these last five, who include its hardest officers within the Wasp Network, they don't want them to roll over on the regime. And so everything you hear about "free the five" is simply propaganda to let those five know that they're not forgotten and ... From Havana's perspective, do not betray the regime. That is the one and only reason that whole campaign exists.
So when Lt. Col. Simmons, one of the country’s foremost experts on Cuban espionage, who was involved in the identification and investigation of Ana Belen Montes, says that she was not alone in her spying, he should be taken very seriously.
Lt. Col. Simmons recently sent shockwaves through Miami when he revealed the names of four persons he asserts flatly are, or were at one time, Cuban agents of influence. The alleged agents include a former Undersecretary of Defense who taught at the Naval War College and a university professor who is an editorial contributor to the Miami Herald.
Simmons states that agents of influence are committing the crime of espionage just the same as other types of agents like Ana Belen Montes and those in the Wasp Network. The “agent of influence” title just refers to their area of expertise. He clarified that it’s not illegal to sympathize with the regime or advocate in favor of it, but by definition Cuban agents “are trained, they are tasked, they receive guidance and feedback from the Castro regime and they manipulate U.S. policy in support of a foreign power.” It’s that training and preparation that turn activists and advocates into agents of a foreign power.
Two such agents, Carlos and Elsa Alvarez, university professors both, are currently serving 5- and 3-year sentences respectively for reduced espionage-related charges that they pled guilty to. Among those they spied on was the Cuban-American president of Florida International University, where they worked. Both were also actively involved in groups advocating for changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Lt. Col. Simmons, who claims to have ended the careers of some 80 foreign agents, has taken some heat for releasing the names of alleged Castro agents who have not been charged with the crime of espionage, but when challenged he coyly responds that there’s more than one way to end an agent’s career. Indeed, I suppose there is. And remember that justice delayed isn't always justice denied. Elsa Alvarez was fingered as a Cuban agent in a congressional hearing back in 1982 but wasn't arrested until January of 2006.