TOPICS > Politics

American Couple Faces Charges of Spying for Cuba

June 10, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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A former U.S. State Department official and his wife are accused of spying for Cuba for nearly 30 years. A Washington Post reporter updates the story.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a spy story, Havana’s man in Washington. Gwen Ifill has our report.

GWEN IFILL: For nearly 30 years, State Department intelligence analyst Walter Kendall Myers was privy to top-secret information about Cuba. Today, that knowledge landed Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn, in court, where they faced charges of spying for the Cuban government.

The couple has pled not guilty to wire fraud, conspiracy, and acting as agents of a foreign government. If convicted, the 72-year-old Myers and his 71-year-old wife each face up to 35 years in prison. Today the judge ordered them held without bond.

According to prosecutors, Cuban intelligence officers recruited Myers during a 1978 trip to the island nation. They also allege he shared secret information with Cuba until 2007, when he retired from the State Department’s intelligence bureau.

The indictment charges that entries recovered from Myers’ personal journal show he was angry at U.S. government policies. The couple received no money.

“I am so bitter these last few months,” Myers allegedly wrote in 1978. He also expressed his admiration for Cuban leader Fidel Castro, writing, “He is one of the great political leaders of our time.”

The government says Myers and his wife received coded instructions by short-wave radio in their apartment in Washington, D.C. They then met Cuban spies in supermarkets, handing off secrets by switching shopping carts.

Myers and his wife allegedly met personally with Castro in 1995. After news of their arrest last week, Castro wrote that, if the charges prove true, he admires the couple’s, quote, “disinterested and courageous conduct.”

Friends and some former colleagues are in disbelief, like former Senator James Abourezk from South Dakota. Mrs. Myers once worked for him.

FORMER SEN. JAMES ABOUREZK, D-S.D.: Kendall and Gwen are very good people, very humane, humanitarian people, and it’s hard for me to believe they would do anything to hurt the United States. I can understand they might have been angry at the government, but the United States itself, I just can’t believe they’d hurt them.

Government case 'extremely strong'

GWEN IFILL: Secretary of State Clinton has ordered an assessment of what damage the couple might have done, as well as a review of State Department security.

Mary Beth Sheridan has been covering this story for the Washington Post, and she joins us now.

Welcome, Mary Beth.

MARY BETH SHERIDAN, The Washington Post: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: How were they caught?

MARY BETH SHERIDAN: Well, it seems that the FBI approached the State Department in 2006 and they had learned that there was a spy. And so at that point, there was a fairly broad number of people who could have been the spy, and they went slowly winnowing it down. And by the time Myers retired in 2007, they were fairly sure it was him.

But it seems from the evidence that what really sort of nailed the case was that, in April, an FBI agent, posing as a Cuban intelligence official, approach Myers outside of Johns Hopkins where he teaches and invited him to a meeting, offered him a cigar, said, "Happy birthday," said, "So-and-so sent me," and they had a number of meetings after that that Myers and his wife attended in which allegedly they poured forth all sorts of details of their alleged espionage.

GWEN IFILL: When they got to court today, they were asking to be allowed free on bond, on bail, but that was denied. Why?

MARY BETH SHERIDAN: Well, the magistrate judge said that the government's case was extremely strong and that, therefore, they would have a real motive to flee. He also talked about how Cuba might try to actually help them get out of the country or at least get into the Cuban interests section in Washington. And U.S. authorities can't go in there and grab someone out.

And he also referred to one small piece of new information, which was that the Myerses had a calendar indicating that they were going to go to the Caribbean, take their yacht down there in November, and there was no return date in the calendar on their trip.

Probably they had talked before about sailing off to Cuba. So at any rate, the judge argued that this was very serious and there were too many possibilities that they could leave.

Untangling motivations

GWEN IFILL: We know the "what" of the government charges, what they're being charged with. Is there anything in the indictment that tells us why this couple, this upper-middle-class, you know, he's a great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, why would they have done this?

MARY BETH SHERIDAN: You know, I think this is a huge mystery to their colleagues, to their neighbors, to their friends. They see him, in particular, as this -- you know, a son of privilege from one of Washington's most elite families, prep school, elite universities, State Department, apparently lovely people, rarely if ever gave any hint of anything amiss.

You know, the only thing I have heard is that he was -- some people have described him as a rather idealistic guy, but others say, well, how he could have fallen for this rather rosy-eyed view of Cuba when he was such a kind of a hard-nosed analyst in so much of his work was difficult to say.

He did have a few really difficult personal moments in the '70s, in the years right before this allegedly began. His marriage fell apart. He was driving a car that killed a 16-year-old girl, a traffic accident, apparently. So there is some indication that his life was in some turmoil at that point, but it's still -- the dots don't completely seem to connect.

Access to sensitive information

GWEN IFILL: In the years that he worked at the State Department with this top-secret clearance, do we know whether he had access to information so sensitive that anything he would have given the Cubans would have actually been dangerous?

MARY BETH SHERIDAN: Well, there's some disagreement about exactly how damaging this could be. One thing most people seem to agree on who have worked in the intelligence field is that he would not probably have had names of U.S. agents who were working in Cuba, so there's no thought that -- or little thought that they could -- they could be harmed or exposed or something like that.

But he did have a very high clearance, and he would have had access to these huge databases of information from the CIA, the National Security Agency, you know, the military, U.S. embassies.

And the question is both, what did he pass on and what did Cuba do with that? In other words, were they then either selling it or providing it to governments that they were friendly with? You know, Cuba itself is not seen as really a security threat to the U.S., but where was that information winding up?

GWEN IFILL: Well, surely the government had access to, say, the hard drive of his computer. They could know where he was looking. Any evidence of that?

MARY BETH SHERIDAN: Right. Well, they found -- in the last 15 months that he was on the job, they found over 200 documents related to Cuba, secret documents, and a lot of them dealt with Europe, which was his area, but about 75 of them didn't. So I think they're been poring over those, but they haven't really released a lot of information yet about what the damage might have actually been.

Not motivated by money

GWEN IFILL: Over the years, we have heard about American spies who have been charged with spying for Israel, spying for Russia, spying for China, but not Cuba. Is this unusual?

MARY BETH SHERIDAN: Well, there have been a number of them. A number were arrested in South Florida in the exile community, and there was a very high-ranking woman at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Ana Belen Montes, who was convicted in 2001.

What's interesting is very few of them seem to do it for the money. It seems like it's a real ideological commitment, as is the allegation in this case.

GWEN IFILL: So we don't think they were paid in any way for this?

MARY BETH SHERIDAN: Apparently not, no, no sign of that. And, in fact, in their meetings with this undercover agent, they professed just this tremendous love for Cuba, how they want to go home some day, how they've missed providing information, that their lives have felt somewhat empty over these past few years. And it's very odd, because a lot of their friends -- no one seems to be sure they even speak Spanish, so it seems a very idealized vision.

GWEN IFILL: Are there more charges likely in this?

MARY BETH SHERIDAN: That is possible. The prosecutor said today that, as the State Department and the intelligence agencies begin to try to unravel and go through more of the information that may have been compromised, that there could be stiffer charges.

GWEN IFILL: OK, we'll be watching for that, Mary Beth Sheridan. Thank you very much.