Saturday, July 5, 2008

Cuban spies' ranks on rise in state

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Cuba's communist government has rebuilt its network of spies in Florida to the levels that existed before the FBI rounded up more than a dozen members of the Cuban spy Wasp Network, according to a U.S. Army expert on Cuban intelligence. Lt. Col. Chris Simmons, an Army counterintelligence officer, told The Miami Herald that within nine to 18 months of the network's 1998 dismantling, the number of Cuban agents and intelligence officers in the state was back up to pre-Wasp Network levels -- or about 210. ''The loss of any one network doesn't compromise anything outside its own structure,'' said Simmons, noting that Cuba's spies appear to operate within compartmentalized cells not directly connected to each other. Simmons' statement marks the first time a U.S. official has detailed the number of Cuban spies in Florida in recent years. He also outlined the spies' likely targets, including Cuban exile groups and U.S. military installations. The Cuban government's diplomatic mission in Washington did not take a question on the issue because the press officer's voice mail was full. He did not reply to an e-mail message either.

Judy Orihuela, an FBI Miami spokeswoman, declined to comment on the matter. But Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute on Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said Simmons' claim is ''within the realm of the possible in the nebulous world'' of intelligence. ''The Cuban government is interested in anything that deals with the security of Cuban leaders,'' Suchlicki said. ``They want to know what exile organizations are doing, and they're interested in U.S. activities and getting information and if they can steal technical data that they can then pass along to the Chinese, the Iranians or the Venezuelans.''

Simmons, a career counterintelligence expert, was in South Florida for interviews with local media -- part of an effort to publicize the book he is writing with Ana Margarita Martinez, former wife of Wasp Network spy Juan Pablo Roque. Roque eluded arrest because he fled to Cuba the day before a Cuban MiG shot down two small unarmed Brothers to the Rescue planes Feb. 24, 1996. Simmons and Martinez said the manuscript will be delivered to publishers next year but may not be published until 2010. They said the book, whose working title is The Spy's Wife: Beyond Betrayal, will chronicle Martinez's relationship with Roque and the then-secret spy ring that surrounded her -- without her knowledge. Simmons, who writes a periodic column for The Miami Herald's op-ed section, said he has been monitoring spies around the world since 1986 when he became a counterintelligence officer.

In the 1990s he ran Army counterespionage investigations in the United States and then switched to the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency or DIA, doing Latin America counterintelligence. Shortly after the Brothers to the Rescue shoot-down, Simmons became chief of Latin America for counterintelligence analysis at DIA specializing on Cuba. He retired from DIA recently and is now back at Army counterintelligence. While at DIA, Simmons played a role in helping to catch Ana Belen Montes, perhaps Cuba's most significant mole within the U.S. armed forces. Montes, who was a Cuban spy for years, became the U.S. government's top intelligence analyst on Cuba at DIA.


Simmons said that when he first started monitoring Cuban spies, Havana's agents and officers in Florida numbered about 300. But the loss of Soviet subsidies when the Cold War ended in the early 1990s forced Havana to ''downsize'' its spy force. Part of the downsizing, he said, involved laying off redundant agents assigned to monitor Cuban exile organizations -- among other targets. 'They likely said to themselves `Do we have seven agents reporting on Alpha 66 when we can probably do it with four now?' '' Simmons said. ``All right, shed the others.''

Simmons said Havana has not much varied espionage objectives since the Wasp Network setback. Five members were convicted in 2001 by a Miami federal jury and five others pleaded guilty earlier. At least four others, including Martinez's ex-husband, escaped back to Cuba. Since then, Cuba has spearheaded an international campaign aimed at persuading the United States to release the convicted men, known widely as the Cuban Five. Cuba's espionage targets include Cuban exile groups and individuals who might pose a threat to the Cuban regime and U.S. military installations from where an attack on Cuba might be launched or whose activities might be of interest to allied foreign intelligence services.


''Cuba [is] very focused on what they need to defend the regime and what they need to acquire from the United States in the role as an intelligence trafficker,'' Simmons said. ``So, the way they've configured their operation is anywhere there is a Cuban exile population, there will be a presence. New York, New Jersey, Florida, southwest California and you add in U.S. military operations. The major bases they are concerned with are overwhelmingly in the Southeast.'' In Florida, Simmons said, Cuban spies monitor military installations from Key West to Tampa to Jacksonville while agents in the Miami area track key Cuban exile organizations and individuals. He said that of the estimated 210 spies statewide, about two-thirds are in South Florida. Tactics described by Simmons are similar to those employed by the Wasp Network. Evidence uncovered by the FBI showed network agents had orders to spy on the Cuban American National Foundation, Brothers to the Rescue and Democracy Movement as well as the Boca Chica naval air station near Key West and the U.S. Southern Command in the Miami area.

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