By Scott Stewart
Vice President of Analysis
On April 25, the U.S. government announced that it was unsealing an indictment charging Marta Rita Velazquez with conspiracy to commit espionage on behalf of the Cuban government. Velazquez, a former attorney adviser at the U.S. Department of Transportation and a legal officer at the U.S. Agency for International Development, fled the United States for Sweden in 2002 and was indicted in 2004. Velazquez apparently selected Sweden because the country considers espionage to be a political offense, therefore it is not covered under its extradition treaty with the United States. She and her husband also lived in Sweden from 1998 to 2000, so the country was familiar to them.
Though the Velazquez indictment is several years old, it provides a detailed and fascinating account of Cuban espionage activity inside the United States. It also raises some significant implications about the daunting challenges facing American counterintelligence agencies.
According to the indictment, Velazquez was born in Puerto Rico. She graduated from Princeton University in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in political science and Latin American studies, obtained a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 1982 and then received a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington in 1984. She was hired by the U.S. Department of Transportation in August 1984.
The U.S. government alleges that Velazquez was first recruited by the Cuban intelligence service in 1983 while a student at Johns Hopkins. She reportedly traveled from Washington to Mexico City where she met with a Cuban intelligence officer and was formally recruited as an agent. During her studies at Johns Hopkins, the government claims that Velazquez served as a spotter agent who helped the Cuban intelligence service identify, assess and recruit people who occupied sensitive national security positions or who had the potential to move into such positions in the future.
The indictment asserts that in this role, Velazquez identified and befriended Ana Belen Montes, a fellow student at Johns Hopkins, in 1984. In addition to their Puerto Rican heritage, the two students reportedly shared a strong disdain for the Reagan administration's policy toward Nicaragua's Sandinista regime. Velazquez reportedly told Montes that she had friends (the Cubans) who could help Montes in her desire to help the Nicaraguan people.
During the early 1980s, a left-wing movement developed in many American universities. The movement opposed Reagan's Central American policies, such as opposition to the Sandinistas, support for the Contra rebels and support of the regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala. This movement was perhaps most readily seen in one of its larger and more active organizations, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. The movement radicalized some students who went on to work with Marxist groups in Latin America, such as Christine Lamont, who joined the Salvadoran Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, and Lori Berenson, who moved to Peru to join the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. According to the FBI, the Cuban intelligence service also recruited students like Velazquez and Montes from within this movement.
The indictment alleges that in the fall of 1984, while Montes was working as a clerk at the Department of Justice, Velazquez took her to New York to meet a friend who Velazquez said could provide Montes an opportunity to help the Nicaraguan people. The friend was an intelligence officer assigned to the Cuban mission to the United Nations. The women again traveled to New York together in early 1985 and met the Cuban intelligence officer a second time. He arranged for the two women to secretly travel together to Cuba via Spain.
In March of 1985, Velazquez and Montes traveled to Madrid, Spain, where they were met by a Cuban intelligence officer, who provided them with false passports and other documents. They then used these documents to travel to Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia. Once in Prague they were met by another Cuban intelligence officer who provided them with yet another set of false documents, as well as new sets of clothing. The Cuban officer they met in Prague then traveled with the women to Havana.
Once in Havana, the women reportedly received training in espionage tradecraft subjects, such as operational security and secure communications, including receiving and encrypting high frequency radio transmissions. The women were also allegedly subjected to practice polygraph examinations and taught methods to deceive polygraph operators.
Upon completion of their training, the women then returned to Madrid via Prague using their assumed identities. Once in Madrid they took tourist photographs of each other to support the story that they had been in Spain and then returned to Washington.
Upon returning to Washington, Montes applied for a job at the Defense Intelligence Agency using Velazquez as a character reference. She was hired by the Defense Intelligence Agency as an analyst in September 1985. Montes would excel at the agency and eventually became the Defense Intelligence Agency's most senior Cuba analyst. She served at that agency until the FBI arrested her in September 2001. Montes pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit espionage charges in March 2002 and is currently serving a 25-year sentence.
Velazquez's trip to Havana with Montes occurred after she had been hired by the U.S. Department of Transportation in August 1984 and had been granted a Secret clearance in September 1984. In March 1989, Velazquez took a position as a legal adviser for Central America with the U.S. Agency for International Development. She was a regional legal adviser for the agency in Managua, Nicaragua, from 1990 to 1994, in Washington from 1994 to 1998 and in Guatemala City, Guatemala, from 2000 to 2002.
In June 2002, when it was announced that Montes had pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the U.S. government, Velazquez resigned from her position at the U.S. Agency for International Development and moved to Sweden, where she remains.
The Velazquez case, when studied in conjunction with those of Montes and Walter and Gwendolyn Myers, provides a fascinating window into the scope and nature of Cuban intelligence efforts inside the United States. With Velazquez at the U.S. Agency for International Development, Montes at the Defense Intelligence Agency and Myers in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the Cubans had incredible coverage of the American government's foreign policy and intelligence community. Even after Montes was arrested and Velazquez fled to Sweden, Myers remained at the State Department until his retirement in 2007.
It is also quite interesting that all three of these cases are linked to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Velazquez and Montes were students in the program in the early 1980s, and Myers taught there until 1977, after receiving a Ph.D. from the school in 1972. He returned to the school following his retirement in 2007 and worked as a professor of European Studies until his arrest in June 2009. The school is a high-profile institution that has a proven track record of placing graduates in the American foreign affairs and intelligence communities -- and of hiring former government personnel to serve as professors. Still, it is not the only program with such a profile, and the Cubans would almost certainly have recruited a promising agent from Georgetown's Walsh School, Harvard's Kennedy School or any other program if provided the opportunity. The fact that there were three high-profile Cuban agents who penetrated the U.S. government and who were all associated with the School of Advanced International Studies would seem to be an incredible coincidence. The FBI is probably still looking for potential agents who Myers could have spotted for recruitment when they studied there from 2007 to 2009.
When considering espionage cases, we often refer to an old Soviet KGB Cold War acronym -- MICE -- to explain the motivations of spies. MICE stands for money, ideology, compromise and ego. Traditionally, money has proved to be the top motivation for Americans arrested for espionage, but as seen in the Velazquez, Montes and Myers cases, the Cubans were very successful in recruiting American agents using ideology. Like the Montes and Myers complaints, there is no indication in the Velazquez complaint that she had ever sought or accepted money from the Cuban intelligence service for her espionage activities. While Velazquez and Montes were both of Puerto Rican descent, Myers' recruitment shows that Cuban intelligence officers did not just confine their recruitment activity to Hispanics.
In addition to the Cuban preference for ideologically motivated agents, this case also shows that the Cuban intelligence service is very patient and is willing to wait years for the agents it recruits to move into sensitive positions within the U.S. government rather than just focus on immediate results. It took several years for Velazquez to get a job with access to Top Secret information. Although it must be recognized that this is often the case with ideologically motivated agents who are commonly recruited while students. It is also clear that Cuban espionage efforts against the United States did not end with the Cold War and continue to this day.
Perhaps the most disturbing revelation from the Velazquez case for American counterintelligence officials, though, is the fact that Velazquez was not caught due to some operational mistake or intelligence coup. The only reason she was discovered is because of Montes' arrest and confession, which uncovered her activities. This means that her espionage tradecraft was solid for the nearly 18 years that she worked as a Cuban agent within the U.S. government. Furthermore, the background investigations conducted for the security clearances she held with the Department of Transportation and the Agency for International Development did not pick up on her anti-American sentiments -- even the "full field" investigation that would have been conducted prior to her being granted a Top Secret clearance.
It is not surprising that the background investigations failed to uncover Velazquez's espionage activities. Background investigations often are seen as mundane tasks, and thus are not given high priority -- especially when there are so many other "real" cases to investigate. Furthermore, these investigations are most often done by contract investigators whose bureaucratic bosses emphasize speed over substance, meaning important leads are often ignored because of a case deadline. In fact, contractors who do attempt to dig deep are sometimes accused of trying to milk the system in an effort to acquire more points (the basis upon which contract investigators are paid) by running additional leads and interviewing additional people.
Quite frankly, when it comes to background investigations, the prevalent attitude is to do the minimum work necessary to check off the prerequisite boxes and get the investigation over as quickly -- and as superficially -- as possible. Background investigations have become perfunctory bureaucratic processes that lack the ability to uncover the type of information required to catch a spy who does not want to be caught.
Velazquez would not have been required to pass a polygraph at the U.S. Agency for International Development like Montes had to at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Nevertheless, the portion of the indictment that discussed the training in deceiving the polygraph that Velazquez and Montes received during their first trip to Cuba underscores the limitation of polygraph examinations -– they only work really well on honest people.
Finally, it is interesting to look at these Cuban cases in light of what they may tell us about the larger challenges facing U.S. counterintelligence officials. If a small, poor nation like Cuba can successfully recruit so many agents and place them in critical positions within the U.S. government for so long, what does this portend about the efforts and successes of larger or richer countries with aggressive intelligence agencies like China, Russia, Israel and India?