Published in The Miami Herald Saturday, September 29, 2001

 

Cuba spy suspect was rising into senior intelligence ranks

BY TIM JOHNSON
[email protected]

WASHINGTON -- Before her arrest as a spy for Cuba last week, Ana Belen Montes was rising rapidly into the senior ranks of the U.S. intelligence community and appeared to have made a direct impact on U.S. policy toward the island, according to a variety of sources who knew or worked with the 44-year-old defense analyst.

Her job allowed Montes to work with dozens of policymakers and intelligence analysts. She conducted briefings on Capitol Hill, regularly met with CIA counterparts, and had access to the Intelink computer network of secret intelligence reports on a gamut of issues.

Her most recent effort, according to these sources, involved an intelligence appraisal that attempted to soften a 1999 ground-breaking Pentagon assessment that declared Cuba no longer a threat to the United States militarily.

The portrait that emerges from talks with colleagues and acquaintances is of a woman who was often quiet, sometimes prickly and stand-offish in bearing, but apparently in a position to do considerable harm.

``There has not been what is a called an assessment of damage of what she might have known and been able to compromise by making it available to the Cubans,'' said Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.

``The offense that she committed is a capital offense,'' Graham told The Herald's editorial board Friday. Graham said several months may elapse before prosecutors determine if Montes will provide details about the extent of her alleged espionage to avoid the death penalty.

Other sources believe her role was very harmful. As the highest-level accused spy for Cuba, Montes did ``substantial damage'' to the United States, and probably knew the identities of U.S. spies in Cuba, one former intelligence officer said.

Another said her arrest shows that Cuba's foreign intelligence apparatus is ``very sophisticated and very aggressive.''

In 2000, Montes took part in inter-agency briefings during the seven-month international saga over the custody of Elián González, the young castaway from Cuba.

As a senior intelligence analyst on Cuba for the Defense Intelligence Agency, Montes traveled to Havana, first in 1993 on a CIA-paid leave to study the Cuban military, again in January 1998 during Pope John Paul II's visit, and perhaps other times, colleagues say.

One of the mysteries surrounding the case is what drove Montes to commit her alleged betrayal of the United States. She lived in an apartment -- not beyond her means -- in a leafy, residential neighborhood of northwest Washington popular with professionals.

Colleagues offer sharply differing assessments of her ability.

``She was superb,'' said one senior retired intelligence officer. Another dismissed her as ``very weak'' and prone to depression. Laughter was foreign to her.

``She's certainly not a warm person,'' said Edward Gonzalez, a retired UCLA professor who knew her. ``She is not a happy person. She was always scowling.''

The daughter of a military psychologist from Puerto Rico, Montes was born in Germany and educated at top schools in the United States. She spoke English and Spanish beautifully. She obtained a master's degree from the prestigious School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

NEVER GOT TOO CLOSE

Though she knew many people, she left little wake.

``We're trying to reconstruct who her friends were, and we can't,'' said Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere Studies at the university. ``I took a look at her transcript and she took two of my classes.'' Even so, Roett said he only ``vaguely'' can recall Montes.

In 1985, Montes got a job as a junior analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, which provides the Pentagon with military and political analysis. A supervisor there at the time, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described Montes as introverted.

``She was very private. She never attended parties. When we had office parties, she might show up for only a little while.'' he said.

During her first years, Montes worked on issues related to Central America.

``When I was posted to Nicaragua in 1990,'' said a former State Department diplomat who knows Montes, ``she was part of a team of two or three who came down to brief [President Violeta] Chamorro on the military apparatus.''

Chamorro, a widow, was struggling to deal with the Sandinista People's Army, which was commanded by the brother of Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista president she upset in 1990 elections.

By then, Montes seemed to lead a charmed professional life.

In 1992, Montes was plucked by the CIA along with a handful of intelligence analysts who were deemed exceptional talents worthy of a year-long sabbatical at the Center for the Study of Intelligence. After a trip to Cuba, Montes published a DIA paper in 1993 on the Cuban military's efforts to adopt Western managerial tactics to cope with the island nation's economic crisis.

``I found her study useful,'' said Gonzalez, who has co-authored reports for the Pentagon on U.S.-Cuba policy. ``It shed light on an aspect of the Cuban military that I didn't know about.''

Some of her former colleagues are shocked to learn she may have been a turncoat.

``It's a huge puzzle,'' says a former senior CIA officer who had frequent contact with her. ``She was considered a very well-respected analyst. She had a superb record. There was no agenda that she was pushing.'' He paused a moment and repeated: ``She was superb. I hope you can find her motivation [for her alleged betrayal] because I'd like to know what it is.''

Unlike the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency does not require its analysts to undergo regular polygraph tests to ensure they remain loyal, several sources said.

In its criminal complaint, the FBI said it believes Montes betrayed a U.S. intelligence officer working in Cuba. Intelligence sources said no harm befell the U.S. officer. The complaint also said Montes may have begun spying for Havana in 1996.

If so, said Richard Nuccio, a White House advisor on Cuba at the time, Montes would have been positioned to pass detailed analysis to Havana of U.S. military capabilities following the Cuban shootdown in February 1996 of two small aircraft belonging to the Brothers to the Rescue exile group.

At the time, the White House asked the Pentagon to review scenarios that included the bombing of Cuban runways, and other possible U.S. military action.

``Going through that review would have been very useful to a Cuban spy,'' Nuccio said.

BROAD ACCESS

Montes had a security clearance that allowed her broad access to documents from several intelligence agencies, not only DIA, and not only on Cuba, although that remained her focus. She attended sessions of Georgetown University's Cuba Study Group, a regular gathering of 70 or so scholars, intelligence analysts and others involved professionally on issues related to Cuba.

``I don't recall her ever expressing an opinion in that study group, and asking questions only once or twice,'' said Wayne S. Smith, a former U.S. diplomat in Cuba and senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. While Cuba has made no public pronouncement about Montes' arrest, Smith said Cuban diplomats in Washington privately justified running spies like her in the United States.

``One of the Cubans at the Interest Section was saying the other day, `You have people you run [as spies] in Cuba. We have to know what your plans are. We have to know what kind of operations you are running against us,' '' Smith said in an interview.

After her trip to Cuba in early 1998, Montes helped the Pentagon settle on a reassessment concluding that Cuba was too weak after the fall of the Soviet Union to present a military threat to the United States.

Montes' conclusion in the reassessment was toughened up at the Pentagon.

``The original version was much softer,'' said a source on a Capitol Hill intelligence committee.

Montes regularly briefed officers at the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, which oversees military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, two sources said.