BETTER THAN US
I confess that many times I have meditated on the dramatic story of John F. Kennedy.
It was my fate to live through the era when he was the greatest and most dangerous adversary of the Revolution.
— Fidel Castro, April 24, 2009
WE SPOKE SOFTLY, SEATED AT A CORNER TABLE IN A RESTAURANT a few miles from CIA headquarters in the northern Virginia hamlet of Langley. My friend had retired several years earlier, but I still considered him the foremost Agency expert on Fidel Castro's remarkable intelligence services. I was seeking insights and anecdotes, stories of success and failure in the CIA's decades of jousting with Cuban spies. But my old colleague, a classically trained operations officer, was uncomfortable talking about his work. So, I wasn't prepared for what he eventually volunteered, sheepishly to be sure: "I believe the Cubans have the best intelligence service in the world."
Since then, I have heard variations of that judgment from other qualified intelligence veterans more times than I can remember. Many retired CIA officials stand in awe of how Cuba, a small island nation, could have built up such exceptional clandestine capabilities and run so many successful operations against American targets. As another CIA officer told me, "Boy, did they do a job on us!"
Current and former FBI officers agree. They share a grudging admiration for Cuban intelligence and the ease with which it burrowed spies and moles and agents of influence into significant American institutions. A former FBI officer who tracked Cuban intelligence told me, "They outperformed us by any objective measure." Indeed, for years they ran circles around both the Agency and the Bureau.
The Cubans were underestimated for more than a quarter of a century. From New Year's Day in 1959, when Castro won power, until the summer of 1987, they were viewed as bush-league amateurs, Latino lightweights in the conspiratorial sweepstakes of superpower espionage. And that was exactly the way the cunning Cubans wanted to be perceived. It allowed them to work clandestinely, in the shadows, largely beyond the sight and even the cognizance of their American adversaries.
Another American intelligence official who worked against the Cubans in the 1970s and 1980s admitted to me: "We just didn't think we needed to be that good against them, but we did. They were better than us. In truth, we lost during most of the Cold War to the Cubans."
They simply were not taken seriously. After all, as the thinking went at CIA, how could an impoverished third-world country — a Caribbean one at that, and in the grips of a chaotic revolution — possibly compete with the best intelligence service in the world? The fun-loving Cubans would not make good spies or spy-masters. They had no experience in espionage or international intrigue and, until Castro took power, Cuba had never run a foreign intelligence service. His neophyte spies had to learn the complex, rarefied world of intelligence tradecraft from scratch. Surely they would need many years to acquire real competence. Or so the Americans believed.
The reality was different. The General Directorate of Intelligence, or DGI, and other Cuban intelligence and security services got up and running in record time. Like besieged Israel following its independence in 1948, Castro and his communist revolution — under mortal threat from the United States during the early 1960s — developed a foreign intelligence service that quickly rose into the ranks of the half dozen best in the world. And in some covert specialties, particularly in the running of double agents and counterintelligence, my friend was right: For decades Cuba's achievements have been unparalleled. There, as in Israel, the government knew that perfecting undercover capabilities, for both offensive and defensive purposes, would be essential for survival.
Yet for about three decades Washington remained ignorant of Cuban capabilities. A document prepared in the CIA in the 1960s and recently declassified highlights the foolishly patronizing attitudes of an Agency officer involved in Cuba operations. "Cubans generally constitute very poor agent material," the anonymous author concluded. "They do not know the meaning of security. They do not take orders well, and the lonesome courage required for espionage is rarely part of their make-up. They make good fighters but poor spies."
It would not be until June 1987 that the Agency finally came to rue such self-defeating nonsense. It was on the first Saturday of that month when Florentino Aspillaga Lombard, the most informed and highly decorated officer ever to defect from Cuban intelligence, thrust himself into CIA hands through the American embassy in Vienna.
In 1985 he had been honored by the Cuban leadership as "intelligence officer of the year." He was so consistently good that a year later he was runner-up for that award. He had also once received a handwritten commendation from Fidel, a rare honor few others experienced. He had to keep it locked in a safe, however, because the document was classified Muy Secreto, Top Secret. It singled him out for the crucial role he had played in July 1979 helping to ensure the military victory of the Marxist Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua. Fidel did not want the extent of Cuba's role in that intervention to be known beyond Cuban military and intelligence circles.
Aspillaga had spent much of his earlier career in the DGI's sister service in the Ministry of Interior, the even more obscure General Directorate of Counter-intelligence, the DGCI, known on the island as Contra Inteligencia. His last assignment was as the commanding DGI officer — the Center chief — in Bratislava, in what was then communist Czechoslovakia. He went there late in 1986 under light cover as a Cuban trading company official but was actually in charge of all intelligence and counterintelligence. He was the only DGI officer in that region, now the nation of Slovakia, handling all the Cuban agents operating from there and conducting counterintelligence operations across the border in Austria. He also had monitoring responsibility for the four thousand Cuban workers toiling in local factories as restitution for the economic subsidies Cuba received from Czechoslovakia.
Although no one in the DGI ever doubted Aspillaga's loyalty, he had been seriously contemplating defection intermittently since the late 1960s. He is not certain when those subversive thoughts of flight first developed or what provoked them. But as James Angleton, for decades the paranoiac head of the CIA's powerful Counterintelligence Staff (CI) and an expert on moles and defectors, once observed — long before anyone heard of computer viruses: "You never know when a worm goes into someone's head."
None of the motives that typically move defectors seem to have applied in Aspillaga's case. He was at the top of his form, respected and honored. Barely forty when he switched sides, he already held the rank of major — comandante — and was all but assured of further promotions. He had been a member of the Communist Party and its Marxist predecessor organizations since he was twenty. He had suffered no personal humiliation, was not an alcoholic or seeking fame or fortune. He had not stolen from his service, and suffered from no financial problems. He does not speak of any bolt-from-the-blue realization that instantly turned him against Castro or communism. He loved Marta Plasencia, a beautiful young Cuban woman working in one of the Slovak factories, and he took her with him when he defected, but she was not why he decided to flee. He could have divorced his wife — also a DGI officer — and married Marta in Bratislava.
There were precipitating events, however, "push" and "pull" factors that motivated him to commit treason. A few weeks before Aspillaga's run across the Austrian border, Rafael del Pino, a two-star general and one of Cuba's most decorated military officers, defected by flying a military Cessna to Key West. He was the highest-ranking Cuban military officer ever to seek asylum in the United States. Aspillaga admired this aviator hero and was moved to emulate him.
And, to the CIA's enduring credit, Aspillaga told me of another reason for his decision. It may in fact have been the most compelling motive. He had greatly admired from a distance an Agency officer — handsome and dashing, and deeply involved in covert Cuba operations. Aspillaga told me that when he was in Havana running counterintelligence operations against the Agency, he had regularly observed this man, whose identity cannot be revealed here.
American intelligence officers played a similar role in unknowingly inducing at least one other high-level Cuban defection. A second former DGI officer I have interviewed extensively told me that he decided to leave communist Cuba because he also admired individual CIA officers. Another dozen defectors from Castro's intelligence and security services who are quoted or cited here fled for a variety of other reasons. For nearly all of them, however, a slowly nurtured hatred of the oppressive communist system, a coalescing fear and loathing of Fidel Castro, and admiration for American freedoms and opportunities were the "worms" wriggling in their heads. Two have settled in Paris, others in Latin America, but the United States — though not necessarily the Cuban exile mecca of South Florida — is the preferred destination for nearly all the rest.
For the complex and brooding Aspillaga, there were still more reasons for his defection. Slowly, during the many years he served Fidel, he was being alienated by his narcissistic commander in chief. A jolting experience occurred in 1977 in Angola, on the west coast of Africa. Aspillaga was present one night at a Cuban military base near Luanda, the Angolan capital, when Fidel arrived, strutting and preening like a conquering Roman legionnaire. It was in fact a triumphal moment worthy of celebration: Two years earlier, Cuban intelligence and military forces had played the decisive role in assuring the victory and rise to power there of an allied Marxist revolutionary movement. The Cubans had fought and defeated powerful South African military forces and put down a coup against the leader they had secured in power. The lengthy intervention had been a heroic and dangerous undertaking thousands of miles from home.
Castro delivered a speech late that night to hundreds of his military and intelligence officers, all standing before him in uniform and at attention. Aspillaga recalls being in the front echelon, no more than twenty or thirty feet from his commander in chief. Fidel was exhausted after traveling several thousand miles by air. Fatigue might explain why he said things he would never want on the public record.
He was euphoric, glorying in what he had accomplished in Angola and elsewhere in Africa and other Cold War conflict zones. The speech was all about his triumphs, his valor, his audacity, his exceptional leadership qualities. He said almost nothing about the contributions of the uniformed men arrayed before him or the sacrifices of the many Cuban dead. Aspillaga was repulsed; it was the first time he had been in Castro's presence. He told me Fidel compared himself to the Nazi propaganda chieftain Joseph Goebbels: "Castro said he could lead the multitudes better than Goebbels. That's how he said it ... how to guide people to do what you want them to do." It was fidelista hubris in the most heinous extreme. "I knew he was evil," Aspillaga said. "I told myself, this man is crazy." It was the first staggering blow to the unqualified loyalty Aspillaga had felt for Fidel and the revolution since childhood.
Personality factors no doubt also influenced the decision to defect. Like so many of his former colleagues — indeed, like the best intelligence officers anywhere — he is strong spirited, adventurous, iconoclastic, and inclined to risk taking. So, perhaps, like not a few defectors, he was drawn to the danger of the act, the sheer excitement of switching sides and running the gauntlet to get there: a moth drawn to a flame. That morning when he made the fateful decision to seek out the CIA in Austria, he knew that a death sentence would be imposed on him in absentia. And because of the extraordinary and sensitive secrets he would share with his new American friends, he had no illusions that he would ever receive a reprieve from Fidel.
Aspillaga was in his early sixties when we sat down together on three different occasions in safe, out-of-the-way places, talking in extended recorded conversations. I was impressed with his intensity, religious convictions, and exceptionally good memory. He was always loquacious and cheerful, although, like most defectors uprooted from their countries, I knew he also suffered bouts of emotional turmoil.
He asked nothing of me in exchange for sharing his personal history and many remarkable insights into the inner workings of Cuban intelligence. During our first session he gave me an English-language copy of a nearly two hundred-page typed manuscript of analysis and recollections of his work. He had finished composing these untitled memoirs in 1990, three years after his arrival in the United States. In its pages, and in our conversations, he chose to put on the public record for the first time some of Fidel Castro's most closely guarded secrets.
Scarcely any of his spectacular revelations have been openly discussed before. He told me, for example, about the DGI's most valued acquisition, at least until the time of his defection: a penetration agent, or mole, in the upper reaches of the government in Washington. This man was so sensitive and influential an inside source that only Fidel and a single DGI case officer ever knew his identity.
The Cuban case officer had no other responsibilities but to meet with the American spy when he traveled abroad, where clandestine rendezvous could easily be arranged. This was before the introduction of sophisticated computer-based communications systems the DGI later would use with its top American agents. Back in Havana, the case officer brought the man's reports directly to Fidel, who then decided whether any information could be shared with others in the DGI, including its director, or in the political leadership. Aspillaga told me, having been told by the case officer, that even Ramiro Valdés, Fidel's trusted minister of interior who had oversight responsibilities for all Cuban intelligence and security agencies, was rarely if ever informed.
The American spy was Castro's personal supermole in the Washington establishment. Fidel made every decision about how to deal with him: where and how clandestine meetings would be conducted; what questions the DGI officer should put to him; how to use him in deception and influence operations. This was the ultimate in compartmentalization and source protection, rare in the intelligence practices of other countries but not in Castro's Cuba. It was probably because only Fidel and the Cuban case officer knew the American spy's name and position that he was never prosecuted in the United States. Aspillaga did not know his name or where he worked in Washington, but told me he suspected the man was burrowed in at either the CIA or the Pentagon.
Judging from the extreme care taken in handling the spy, he must have been an equally or even higher level penetration than Ana Belen Montes, Cuba's other star Washington mole. She spied for nearly sixteen years, most of them in the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, before being arrested in September 2001. By then she had achieved high rank, enjoyed top-secret and other special clearances, and worked in a position of considerable responsibility. If, as it seems, the earlier penetration was an even more treasured Cuban source, he must have occupied an important subcabinet or comparably sensitive position.
Fidel and the mysterious mole apparently developed a long-distance affinity. Castro may even have met secretly in Cuba with this traitor to congratulate and encourage him and to revel in their success at duping the American "imperialist" enemy. As his country's supreme spymaster for a few months short of forty-eight years, Fidel always delighted in personally meeting with his best foreign agents.