The 16-year career of Ana Belen Montes as an agent of Cuban intelligence came to a prosaic end the morning of September 21, 2001.
Her supervisor at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), where she was the top Cuba analyst, directed her to a conference room to discuss a fictitious problem involving one of her subordinates.
FBI agents were waiting there. Within 20 minutes Montes was departing in handcuffs after hearing her Miranda rights and declining to divulge any part of her story until she saw a lawyer.
In time, she did tell her story to the government, unrepentantly. She pleaded guilty in 2002 to a single count of conspiracy to commit espionage, agreed to cooperate with investigators, and received a 25-year prison sentence.
She told the judge that she worked for Cuba – without compensation – out of a sense of obligation “to help the island defend itself from our efforts to impose our values and our political system on it…I did what I thought right to counter a grave injustice.”
Happily for the government, there was no trial and no spilling of secrets that could further harm U.S. security or embarrass DIA.
Unhappily for those of us who knew her and wanted to know how she was recruited and how she served the Cubans, that story is known only to the U.S. investigators who compiled a classified study of this major intelligence debacle.
Scott W. Carmichael, the DIA investigator who pursued the Montes case from initial suspicion to arrest, has now written the first account of the Ana Montes story from within the government.
True Believer: Inside the Investigation and Capture of Ana Montes, Cuba’s Master Spy (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2007, 179 pages) puts the reader inside the disquieted mind of the professional counterintelligence officer, someone paid to suspect the worst about his colleagues.
Carmichael writes breezily, with humor and a good dose of self-deprecation. He evinces a deep patriotism, dedication to his profession, and great fair-mindedness in carrying it out.
Carmichael first interviewed Montes in 1996 after one of her colleagues reported suspicious behavior to him. The interview came to naught, but Carmichael’s suspicions were revived in 2000 when he learned that the FBI was seeking to identify a Cuban agent in the U.S. government. At that time, agents and electronic surveillance directed at Cuba were being thwarted so consistently that it seemed that someone was tipping the Cubans off.
Carmichael examined the FBI’s profile of the unknown Cuban mole and found, bit by bit, that Montes fit the profile – but frustratingly, this turning point in his narrative lacks detail. Both the FBI profile and Carmichael’s clues remain secret.
True Believer goes on to describe Carmichael’s ultimately successful effort to convince the FBI to focus on Montes. Here again, readers learn about Carmichael’s meetings, phone calls, memos, and personal worries – but nothing about their substance.
With the FBI on board for a full investigation, Carmichael played a key role. He ensured that Montes’ colleagues were kept in the dark, thwarted her temporary assignment to another agency, and choreographed a series of diversions of Montes and her colleagues that allowed investigators to pluck her tote bag from her workstation and search it. Inside was an investigative prize: the codes she used to communicate with her Cuban handlers.
Carmichael examined Montes’ desk one night during the investigation and found that it matched her taciturn personality: It was orderly and devoid of personal items with the exception of a Shakespeare couplet, written in script and pinned to the wall:
The king hath note of all that they intend
By interceptions which they dream not of.
To Montes’ colleagues, this citation from Henry V might have indicated pride in their profession; to Montes, it seems the king was Fidel Castro and the “interceptions” her own.
This delicious detail and a few others are overshadowed, however, by Carmichael’s apparent decision not to address – or his inability to do so, due to DIA restrictions – the burning questions that remain in the Ana Montes case.
How did Montes come to spy for Cuba? Carmichael provides just one sentence indicating that she was recruited before her DIA career, while she was working at the Justice Department and attending graduate school at night.
What about the damage Montes caused to U.S. national security? Here, except for a brief indication that Montes raided a database shared by U.S. intelligence agencies and passed information to Cuba, Carmichael provides less information than is already in the public domain.
In a court affidavit, the FBI affirmed that Montes alerted Cuba to the arrival of a U.S. agent, and a message from Cuban state security found on her laptop reported that when the agent arrived, “we were waiting here for him with open arms.” She also told Cuba when U.S. intelligence spotted weapons in Cuba, and relayed details of a 1996 war game exercise.
Carmichael lists cases where Montes, with her wide access to secrets, could have betrayed classified information of military value: the 1990 U.S. military action in Panama, the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, a 1987 guerrilla attack on a Salvadoran military base in which an American soldier was killed, the liberation of Kuwait. But Carmichael writes that he does not know if she did so.
Finally, did Montes disinform U.S. policymakers by skewing her analysis of Cuban capabilities and intentions?
Here, Carmichael provides only conjecture. He writes that he conducted no formal interviews for his book, but he might have profitably interviewed the CIA’s former top Latin America analyst, Brian Latell.
Montes, Latell writes in his book After Fidel, accepted Cuba’s explanation that the conviction of senior military officers in 1989 was due to drug trafficking (Latell believed it was a purge of political rivals).
Latell also writes that in 1993, contrary to evidence available at the time, Montes argued that the Cuban military desired closer relations with the United States.
As for Cuban capabilities, the U.S. government seems to have answered the question with regard to two key issues: Cuba’s military strength and its possible development of biological weapons. Montes worked on a famous 1998 unclassified Pentagon report that called Cuba’s military capability “residual” and “defensive” and its threat “negligible.”
That report has not been updated, even though a less benign assessment would suit the Bush Administration’s political interests.
And U.S. intelligence agencies have downgraded their assessment of bioweapons activity in Cuba, concluding unanimously in 2005 that it is “unclear whether Cuba has an active offensive biological warfare effort now, or even had one in the past.”
The full story of how Ana Montes betrayed her country remains to be told, either through declassification of the intelligence community’s own damage assessment, or through publication of a book other than the personal investigative story contained in True Believer.
Peters is vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia and a prominent analyst of Cuban affairs who was profiled in the November 2006 issue of CubaNews. He wrote this book review exclusively for CubaNews.
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