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By Mary Anastasia O'Grady
Ana Belen Montes could have gotten the death penalty. Instead the former U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who spied for Cuba got a 25 years sentence two weeks ago. The lenience was part of a plea whereby she agreed to tell the Justice Department about her espionage since 1985.
Justice has so far declined to publicize what Ms. Montes told interrogators. Fair enough. After all, U.S. intelligence would certainly not want Cuba and its allies in the Middle East to know what Ms. Montes revealed about her work on behalf of the communist regime.
Nonetheless, it is reasonable for Americans, now living under serious threats of aggressive terrorism, to wonder how much damage Ms. Montes did to homeland security. One reason she was picked up on Sept. 21, 2001 was because in her position at the Pentagon she had access to highly classified intelligence not limited to Cuba. Normally, a discovered spy might be left in place for months and tailed in order to uncover more information about her contacts and modus operandi. But Ms. Montes was quickly arrested after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for fear that she might further compromise U.S. security.
Aside from her ability to tell Cuba secrets that might be passed along to terrorists, there was another risk posed by Ms. Montes' penetration of the DIA. In her role as the key Pentagon intelligence analyst on Cuba, Ms. Montes could influence the National Intelligence Council and thereby put her stamp on consolidated NIC reports. Those reports combine the findings of separate agencies but Ms. Montes could have overshadowed other analysts if her views were more highly valued by the higher-ups who consolidate the information.
In fact, Ms. Montes held considerable sway over the Pentagon's opinion of Cuba. In 1998 the Defense Department released a high-profile report claiming that Cuba posed no military threat to the U.S. It discounted risks that Cuba was developing chemical and biological weaponry. Ms. Montes was the key drafter of that report, which means not only that it is pretty much useless to U.S. intelligence but that it may have contained disinformation damaging to U.S. security interests.
Ms. Montes is the 45-year-old daughter of Puerto Rican parents and was born on a U.S. military base in Germany. In 1979 she earned a degree in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and in 1988 she finished a master's degree at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. In 1985 she began working as a junior analyst at the DIA, focusing on Nicaragua. She became a Cuba analyst in 1992 but reportedly worked for Cuba as far back as 1985.
According to an affidavit filed by FBI Special Agent Stephen McCoy and posted on the Justice Department Web site, "during the course of her employment, Ms. Montes has had direct and authorized access to classified information relating to national defense." He also says that she "was a clandestine CuIS [Cuban Intelligence Service] agent who communicated with her CuIS handling officer" through encrypted messages on short wave radio.
Ms. Montes blew the cover of four U.S. agents working in Cuba and she shared numerous classified documents with Cuban intelligence. But it is her role in declaring Cuba harmless to the U.S. national security that may have had the biggest yet unappreciated effect.
Not surprisingly, the 1998 report grabbed big headlines in the U.S. Anti-embargo types used it to back their agenda for making nice with Fidel. Journalists and academics soft on totalitarian Cuba were longing for a more accommodating posture toward the regime, and so was Castro. Evidence from the Pentagon that no Cuban threat existed seemed to boost the chances for engagement with the dictator. "The Pentagon has concluded that Cuba poses no significant threat to U.S. national security and senior defense officials increasingly favor engaging their counterparts to reduce existing tensions," said Knight Ridder News Service.
William Cohen, then secretary of defense, did in fact have reservations about the report but pro-Cuban elements complained that he was merely responding to political pressure from Cuban-Americans. The Knight Ridder report referring to Cuban exile politics said, "That's why [Mr.] Cohen held off presenting the DIA report on Capitol Hill, which had been scheduled for Tuesday."
As it turns out, Mr. Cohen was only exercising good judgment and common sense, perhaps even with input from other analysts who understood Castro and had far different opinions from those of Ms. Montes.
Yet, Ms. Montes had done her job well. Top U.S. military brass enthusiastically embraced the report. Marine General Charles Wilhelm, then head of U.S. Southern Command, was quoted in the Miami Herald saying that the Cuban military "has no capability whatsoever to project itself beyond the borders of Cuba, so its really not a threat to anyone around it." In a long-winded op-ed piece in the Palm Beach Post in 1998, retired Marine Gen. Jack Sheehan told of a trip to Cuba where he shared rum and cigars with Fidel. He argued that the U.S. needed a kinder, gentler attitude toward the regime. "Our intelligence data also supported the conclusion that Cuba was not a military threat to the U.S.," Mr. Sheehan wrote.
It is logical to suspect that one of Ms. Montes" jobs may have been to discredit defectors from Cuban intelligence who were telling stories of a less-than amicable Cuban agenda. Since then, State Department analysts have reported that Cuba has at least some bioweapons technology and has expressed concern that Cuba could share the science with rogue states. Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya come to mind.
The claims that Cuba is no threat to the U.S. may have seemed believable in the sense that, for what it's worth, Cuba is in no position to mount a military attack on the U.S. But that is a long way from saying that Castro is a benign presence or is incapable of doing harm to the U.S. through indirect means. That's why it is important to know to what extent information Ms. Montes shared with Cuba may have made its way to other U.S. enemies.