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US Diplomat’s Double Life Revealed: Spying for Cuba for 40 Years

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In a shocking revelation, federal prosecutors announced on Monday that a retired State Department official, Manuel Rocha, had worked as a secret agent for Cuba for decades, posing a significant intelligence breach with potential diplomatic and national security implications. The criminal complaint filed in federal court in Miami outlined Rocha’s clandestine involvement in aiding Cuba’s intelligence-gathering mission against the United States since at least 1981.

The complaint detailed Rocha’s extensive career within the State Department, where he handled matters related to Latin America under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Rocha, a native of Colombia who grew up in New York, served as an ambassador to Bolivia from 2000 to 2002 and later as an adviser to the U.S. military command covering the Cuba region from 2006 to 2012.

The prosecutors revealed that Rocha, now 73, seemed to have met with handlers from Cuba’s spy agency as recently as 2017, boasting that he had spent 40 years spying on behalf of the communist government in Havana, claiming he had “strengthened the revolution.”

The criminal charges against Rocha include acting as an illegal agent of a foreign government and two other crimes. However, prosecutors indicated that the investigation is ongoing and could result in more serious charges. The case has triggered an internal damage assessment to determine the extent of the secrets that might have been revealed and has raised questions about the efficacy of counterespionage programs designed to identify spies.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland addressed the severity of the situation, stating, “This action exposes one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the U.S. government by a foreign agent.” Garland highlighted Rocha’s deliberate pursuit of U.S. government employment to gain access to nonpublic information and influence U.S. foreign policy.

Former colleagues, including John D. Feeley, a former career diplomat who worked alongside Rocha, expressed shock at the case, considering it among the worst intelligence breaches in recent history. Feeley emphasized that “Manuel had the keys to the kingdom,” particularly concerning matters related to Cuba.

Rocha’s arrest, first reported by The Associated Press, revealed a stark contrast between the charming diplomat remembered by colleagues and the double-dealing operative portrayed in the government’s filings. During his initial appearance in federal court in Miami on Monday, Rocha broke down in tears as his family left the courtroom. A prosecutor hinted at additional charges, scheduling a detention hearing for Wednesday.

The criminal complaint did not delve into specific details of how Rocha might have influenced American policy or what information he may have shared with Cuba. However, it outlined three meetings over roughly the last year between Rocha and an undercover FBI agent, whom Rocha believed to be a representative of Cuba’s spy agency, the Directorate of Intelligence.

In these meetings, Rocha referred to the United States as “the enemy” and spoke of working in the interest of Cuba’s spy agency. The affidavit filed by Michael J. Haley, an FBI special agent in Miami, quoted Rocha stating that “what we have done” was “enormous” and “more than a grand slam,” without specifying the details. The conversations, conducted in Spanish, were translated by the FBI.

Rocha’s background revealed a shift from embracing socialism in his youth to adopting an anti-Havana conservative stance, possibly at the direction of his handlers to avoid suspicion of sympathy toward Cuba. In a November meeting with the undercover agent, Rocha claimed he had been instructed by Cuba’s spy agency to “lead a normal life” and had created the persona of a “right-wing person” to conceal his role as a mole.

The criminal charges against Rocha represent the latest in a series of cases brought under Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, targeting foreign government attempts to spy on, infiltrate, and influence American institutions. The case underscores the significant challenge posed by Cuba’s intelligence service, widely regarded as one of the best in the world, in penetrating American federal agencies.

Until now, the most damaging infiltration was the decades-long espionage career of Ana Belén Montes, who served as a senior analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, specializing in Cuba, until her arrest in 2001. Montes, released from prison this year after serving most of her 25-year sentence, provided critical information about Cuban intelligence operations, leading to the indictment of others involved.

Chris Simmons, a former Defense Intelligence Agency investigator, highlighted the challenges of obtaining an accurate damage assessment in Rocha’s case, emphasizing the dependence on his cooperation, despite expectations of lies and minimization. Rocha’s revelations could provide crucial insights into the extent of Cuba’s infiltration within U.S. government circles and the potential ramifications for national security.

Image by Gobierno Danilo Medina on Flickr

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