Ana Belen Montes, The Spy Unknown in Cuba
In a maximum-security prison in Texas, more than 900 miles from Cuba, Ana Belén Montes, former Pentagon military-intelligence analyst, is serving 12 years, incarcerated with some of the most dangerous women in the United States.
She shares a cell with a disturbed housewife who strangled a pregnant women to take her baby, a nurse who killed four patients, and a follower of Charles Manson who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford.
According to a report written in 2013 by Jim Popkin, life in a harsh Texas prison has not softened the aging child prodigy of the Defense Department. Years after she was caught spying for Cuba, Montes maintains a defiant attitude. “I don’t like being in prison, but certain things in life are worth the price of going to jail,” writes Montes in a 14-page letter to a relative. “Or are worth the price of committing suicide after doing them, in order not to have to spend all that time in jail.”
Ana Belén, like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen before her, surprised the intelligence services with her audacious acts of treason. By day, she was a buttoned-down GS-14 agent in a Defense Intelligence cubicle. By night, she worked for Fidel Castro, receiving encoded messages by shortwave radio that she then passed on to her contacts in crowded restaurants, and making secret trips to Cuba when she was able to leave the United States, with a wig and false passport,
Montes spied for Cuba for 17 years. She passed on many secrets about her colleagues, defense strategies, and advanced listening platforms that the American special services had installed in Cuba, so that experts in the field consider her one of the most damaging spies in recent times.
You would think that a spy of such stature would be a national hero in Cuba. When the urbane British double agent Kim Philby defected to the old Soviet Union, the KGB treated him royally for his valuable services rendered.
Until his death in Moscow, Philby wore fancy clothes and drank his favorite malt whiskey. Richard Sorge, the Soviet agent who from Tokyo whispered to Stalin the date and time of the Nazi attack on the USSR, continues to receive posthumous honors as a hero and red carpet ceremonies in Russia.
But Castro’s intelligence service has cast its elite spy aside. Right near Obispo Street, the noisy and crowded commercial artery in the old district of Havana, lives a man who worked for Cuban counterintelligence for 25 years.
Following the defection to the United States of the intelligence officer Florentino Aspillaga on June 6, 1987, like the domino effect, many agents in Aspillaga’s circle were retired.
The man who lives near Obispo Street was one of them. Diario las Americas (a Miami daily) was interested in knowing why the case of Ana Montes was handled with complete secrecy and scant media coverage in Cuba.
“The Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu said in his famous book The Art of War, that a spy network has five levels. There are the provocateurs, the disposables, others that do dirty work, the propagandists, and the ace of aces are those that are planted in the heart of the enemy. Those, like Ana Belén Montes, are a top priority. By the media coverage of the press, led by the Communist Party, one might think that the work of the five agents of the Wasp Network was important for Cuban intelligence and Montes was a disposable spy. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The former officer goes on to explain. “Espionage services are a game of mirrors. The reality is that the Wasp Network was truly sloppy in intelligence matters. Its mission was to penetrate anti-Castro groups in Miami. That has only propaganda value. Anyone in Florida can enroll in one of those groups. Usually they are open and joining is very simple. The Network also had among its objectives to work on military bases in Florida to send information from military and air movement in the area. These investigations were of little value. With intelligence estimates obtained through electronic eavesdropping through the Russian base in Havana, Fidel Castro and military counterintelligence knew that information.” He adds:
“The greatest merit of the five spies is that they weren’t traitors. The Wasp Network consisted of twelve or thirteen. All of them except the five made deals with the FBI. That is their value. Everything else is a smokescreen. The important spies are those like Ana Belen Montes. But when they are caught, the intelligence services they sent information to will never acknowledge them.”
I asked him how the new situation could influence the world of espionage. “I think that despite the thaw with the United States, Cuban intelligence will continue to have a high number of active agents in that nation. Interests have shifted. The Cuban community in Florida continues to be important. But most important are the agents of influence in the academic and business communities, and in the political lobby. They are the ones plotting strategies and they can change strategic policies. Hector Pesquera, a former FBI official in Florida, was not far off when he calculated that 3,000 of Castro’s agents are spread throughout the United States. I bet there are more.”
Senior officials of the Obama administration revealed that during the 18 months of secret negotiations to exchange prisoners, the Cubans never once requested the release of Ana Belén Montes. They had simply abandoned her.
While the headline and stories in the national press go to former agents of an incompetent spy network, Ana Belén Montes, the former “Queen of Cuba,” sleeps surrounded by criminals in a maximum security penitentiary in Texas. A complete unknown on the island. Those are the perks of the job.
Image: Artwork accompanying reporting about Ana Belén Montes published in 2013 in The Washington Post Magazine.