By Fred Burton
Editor's Note: The following piece is part of an occasional series in which Fred Burton, our vice president of intelligence, reflects on his storied experience as a counterterrorism agent for the U.S. State Department.
After decades of hostility, the United States and Cuba finally seem to be reconciling. On July 1, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that Washington will reopen its embassy in Havana. For the first time since 1961, when the two countries severed ties, U.S. diplomats and staff will fill the embassy and the surrounding city streets, as will a U.S. Marine detachment working security detail.
But even as the embassy in Havana now stands as a monument to improved U.S.-Cuban relations, it will make the United States much more vulnerable to monitoring and infiltration by Cuban intelligence agencies. And today foreign spies pose as real and immediate a threat to U.S. interests as they did during the Cold War.
A History of Espionage
In the 1970s and 1980s, counterterrorism agents like myself witnessed the United States gear its entire national security apparatus toward countering Soviet influence. Looking back, I believe our fixation on the Soviet Union actually caused us to underestimate other countries' agencies. We believed Cuba's Directorate of Intelligence, trained by Moscow though it may have been, was significantly less effective than Russia's KGB.
Indeed, our preoccupation with the Soviet Union blinded us to the fact that Cuba quietly operated assets inside the United States. Among the many spies they recruited were Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers. When the Cubans first recruited the Myerses in 1979, Kendall Myers was a part-time instructor at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute, where U.S. diplomats and other professionals train before they receive their overseas assignments. He later became a senior analyst at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). From my own time in the intelligence business, I know that INR analysts have access to highly classified information from virtually every government agency — and since Myers was working for Havana, so, too, did Cuban intelligence.
The Myerses were finally discovered and put on trial in 2006. But as we would learn four years after the trial, the Cubans had someone with even more insight into the United States' national security apparatus: Ana Montes, a double agent who worked as an analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Cuban intelligence turned her in 1985, and she passed classified information to Havana for years thereafter.
In the 1980s, when Montes was spying for Cuba, I worked in the burgeoning counterterrorism arm of the Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service. I was far more concerned with Libya and Iran than with Cuba, since so many of my cases involved Soviet actors and KGB agents. Like the rest of the U.S. intelligence community, I saw the Soviet Union as the primary threat. But all along, despite all our efforts to defend U.S. intelligence and assets, our national security agencies were being repeatedly infiltrated by Cuban intelligence.
Now, with the U.S. Embassy opening in Havana, Cuba will monitor and attempt to recruit U.S. employees as actively as it did during the Cold War. Cuban intelligence will build case files on every American official who travels in country. It will surveil diplomatic staffers as it looks for potential recruits and as it tries to identify U.S. agents.
Cuban intelligence will do so using techniques new and old alike. In the past, the Cuban Directorate of Intelligence employed tactics it learned from the Soviet KGB to collect information and communicate with its operatives. Spies such as Myers and Montes received encrypted radio messages from their Cuban handlers and passed information using dead drops, in which agents leave information at a secret location, and brush passes, in which they physically hand over material in a brief encounter.
Havana will also likely plant listening devices in hotel rooms, taxis and rental cars to monitor on the U.S. diplomatic mission. Operatives will take photographs of the embassy staff as they come and go, locate employees' homes and even plan honeypots and male raven operations, during which an undercover agent acts like a love interest to collect intelligence. In short, with a reopening embassy, the Cubans will have ample opportunity to undermine U.S. national security.
U.S. intelligence agencies are well aware of the Cuban threat. As the embassy opens in Havana, CIA and FBI agents will constantly be briefing State Department staff on situational awareness and counterintelligence. Those who are unaware of long history of espionage may call the countless warnings excessive and deem Washington's intelligence community over-cautious. But the threat is real, regardless of whether embassy workers heed the warnings. As those in the intelligence business often say, the Cold War, in a sense, never really ended. Foreign policy can change at a moment's notice. Strategic alliances never mean absolute trust. And in a world full of hidden threats, there is no such thing as a friendly intelligence service.