How an American couple came to be spies for Cuba

Kendall and Gwendolyn Myers were recruited from academia by Fidel Castro's intelligence service - one of the best in the world.

Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Kendall Myers, a retired intelligence analyst at State Department headquarters (pictured here) and his wife Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers, were arrested on charges of spying for Cuba. They used shortwave radio, Morse code, and grocery carts to pass US secrets to Cuban agents in a security breach one official described as "incredibly serious."

A retired State Department official -- aided by a top security clearance, a shortwave radio, and his wife -- passed on secret information to the Cuban Intelligence Service for nearly three decades.

That’s the gist of a grand jury indictment unsealed by federal prosecutors on Friday. The State Department is still working on a damage assessment, but federal prosecutor David Kris describes the alleged spy activity as “incredibly serious.”

The arrest of Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers, is the latest in a series of high-profile Cuban spying cases. This latest federal indictment, the result of a three-year joint investigation by the FBI and State Department, came just days after Cuba accepted a US offer to renew talks on immigration.

"These talks are part of our effort to forge a new way forward on Cuba, that advances the interests of the United States, the Cuban people and the entire hemisphere," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a press conference in San Salvador on June 1.

Spy case could stymie US-Cuba talks

But the Myers’s arrest is at the very least a stumbling block to any rapprochement.

On Friday, the State Department reported that Secretary Clinton has ordered a "comprehensive review" of security procedures and practices to protect sensitive and classified information and a "comprehensive damage assessment in coordination with the intelligence community.”

Citing Friday’s arrests, Rep. Mel Martinez (R) of Florida called on the Obama administration to postpone the talks with Cuba.

“Today’s arrest of two Americans alleged to have spied for Cuba is reason enough for the administration to halt any further diplomatic outreach to the regime including postponing the migration talks until the U.S. Congress has a full accounting of the damage these individuals have caused to our national security,” he said in a statement.

Myers recruited 30 years ago

Kendall Myers first traveled to Cuba in December 1978. He was 41 years old, a contract instructor at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute and, by his own account, a disillusioned man – driven to spy, not by a desire for money or other personal gain but by a changing attitude about the United States and its communist neighbor.

“I have become so bitter these past few months. Watching the evening news is a radicalizing experience,” he wrote in a diary entry from the trip released in court documents Friday. “The abuses of our system, the lack of decent medical system, the oil companies and their undisguised indifference to public needs, the complacency about the poor, the utter inability of those who are oppressed to recognize their own condition.”

By contrast, Cuba was “so exciting!” he wrote. “The revolution has released enormous potential and liberated the Cuban spirit.”

Walking past exhibits in the Museum of the Revolution in Havana “left me with a lump in my throat. They don’t need to try very hard to make the point that we have been the exploiters,” he wrote.

US academics targeted for spying

The Cuban Intelligence Service has a well-established program aimed at “spotting and assessing persons within the United States academic community who may be suitable for recruitment,” according to an FBI affidavit. The recruitment of Myers and other recent Cuban agents fit that pattern.

Myers and his wife first visited Cuba on “unofficial personal travel for academic purposes” at the invitation of an official with the Cuban Mission to the United States in New York City. Six months later, they were visited by a Cuban agent [“co-conspirator A”] in South Dakota and recruited as clandestine agents. Myers was urged to find a job at either the State Department or the Central Intelligence Agency.

They returned to Washington. After failing to get a job as an analyst at the CIA, Myers(“Agent 202”) resumed employment with the Department of State's Foreign Service Institute. Gwendolyn (“Agent 123 and Agent E-634”) worked at a branch of the Riggs National Bank. She was never granted a security clearance.

Shortwave radio and Morse code

Together, over nearly 30 years, they communicated with the Cuban Intelligence Service by picking up encrypted radio messages in Morse code on a shortwave radio. In 1985, Kendall Myers received a top secret security clearance, upgraded in 1999, that gave him daily access to classified information through computer databases until his retirement in October 2007.

In January 1995, they traveled to Cuba via Mexico and met with Fidel Castro. They spoke through interpreters, according to court documents. Over the years, they had secret meetings with Cuban “handlers and representatives” in Trinidad, Tobago, Jamaica, Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, and Argentina.

A birthday cigar

But the agent who met Kendall Myers outside his office at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on April 15 this year did not work for Cuban Intelligence. Instead. He was working undercover for the FBI, posing as a Cuban agent and assigned to determine the nature and scope of the Myers’ clandestine activities. The agent told Kendall Myers that he had “instructions to contact him” to get information, because of the “change that is taking place in Cuba and the new administration.” He congratulated Kendall on his birthday and offered him a cigar.

At a meeting later that day, Kendall told the undercover agent that he opted to leave the State Department a year early because he had felt “more or less threatened” his last months at the State Department.

“We have been very cautious, careful with our moves -- trying to be alert to any surveillance,” he said. The plan, he said, was to sail to Cuba on their sailboat. In an April 30 meeting, Kendall said that he and Gwendolyn are “a little burned out.”

“We lived with the fear and the anxiety for a long time, and still do,” he said.

“[We] would like to be a reserve army -- ready when we’re needed. But I think, honestly, we don’t want to go back into the regular stuff,” he said, according to court documents.

Cautious spies

Describing their activities, the Myerses said that the most secure way to transmit information to illegal agents was “hand to hand.” Kendall said that the best way to take information out from his job was “in your head.” He said that he kept notes locked in his office safe.

“I was always pretty careful. I didn’t usually take documents out,” he said.

Gwendolyn added her favorite way to pass information was by changing shopping carts in a grocery store, because it was “easy enough to do.” But she added that she wouldn’t do it now, because “now they have cameras.”

They told the undercover agent that their last personal contact with a Cuban agent was in Guadalajara in December 2005. Since then, they said they had received “lots of e-mails.”

In a court appearance on Friday, the couple pleaded not guilty to charges of serving as illegal agents of the Cuban government and wirefraud. If convicted, they face a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison.

Extent of spying damage unknown

Federal prosecutors have not detailed the full scope of the intelligence that they say was passed on to Cuba. In the indictment, the Justice Department alleges that an analysis of Kendall Myers’s classified State Department work computer hard drive shows that from Aug. 22, 2006 until his retirement in 2007, he viewed more than 200 sensitive or classified intelligence reports concerning Cuba.

But intelligence analysts say this could be just a small portion of the secret information he could have passed on to Cuba.

“We as a nation grossly underestimated how good Cuban intelligence services were and still are,” says Chris Simmons, a former US counter-intelligence official and founder of the Cuban Intelligence Research Center in Leesburg, Va.

“Cuba is an intelligence trafficker. Cuba knows that US secrets are a valuable commodity around the world. Their view is that intelligence is a commodity and it can and should be sold or bartered to anyone who has an appropriate offer, as long as Cuba can not be tied as a source of information,” he says.

Until this case moves forward, the full scope of the damage to national security won’t be known, he adds. “Once we start seeing the documents, we’ll be able to see how bad it was and where their areas of focus were.”

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