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Why Spy for Cuba?

Analysis: The 2001 trial of five Cubans caught spying in Florida might provide some insight into the case of Kendall and Gwendolyn Myers.

While watching The News Hour on PBS the other night, I was struck by how perplexed journalists are about the possible motives of Kendall and Gwendolyn Myers, the septuagenarian Washington, D.C., couple arrested June 5 on charges they had worked as spies for Cuba for the past 30 years. "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?" The News Hour's Gwen Ifill asked Washington Post reporter Mary Beth Sheridan.

Sheridan replied: "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 some people have described him as a rather idealistic guy, but others say, 'Well, how could he 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?'"

Later that evening I was on the phone with my 80-year-old mom and she brought up the news about the Myerses. "Friends of yours?" mom joshed — an inside joke playing on my objective coverage of violent Cuban exile groups over the past decade. I had to confess I didn't know the Myerses.

They're not the first American couple enraptured by the Cuban Revolution, despite its violence and repression over the decades. (Kendall and Gwendolyn were 20-somethings in the 1960s, after all.) Fidel Castro has many American fans who would jump at the chance to hang out with him for an evening, as the indictment alleges the Myerses did during a 1995 trip to Havana.

But while rummaging through some of my old spy articles, I stumbled over some explanations of why someone might spy for Cuba. The articles had covered a six-month federal trial in Miami in 2001 resulting in the conviction of five Cuban men for spying, or attempting to spy, on anti-Castro exile groups and U.S. military bases in Florida. (On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on the case.)

Lawyers for those five Cuban spies had crafted a paradoxical and unprecedented defense strategy that would be a stretch any place but Miami. Yes, their clients were spying, they conceded in opening arguments, but for good reasons: to protect Cuba from incursions, bombings and assassination plots by violent members of Miami's Cuban exile community.

"God almighty," Axel Kleiboemer exclaimed to me over the phone from his law office in Washington, D.C., back in March 2001, after I outlined the strategy. Kleiboemer co-wrote the textbook used by the University of Virginia's Center for National Security Law in Charlottesville. "I'm racking my memory to see if anything of this nature has ever been asserted before as a defense. I can't think of a parallel case."

After a few seconds of reflection, he said the closest parallel to the protect-the-homeland defense would be a "keeping the peace" claim. "Many of the people who did espionage on behalf of the former Soviet Union maintained at one point or another that they wanted to preserve the balance of power so as to prevent war, to make sure that the Soviets had access to the type of information that the United States had."

For example Aldrich Ames, a former CIA agent now serving a life sentence for passing classified information to the Soviet Union, told a Washington Post reporter in 1994 that his motivation was money, but that he wanted to "level the playing field" for Moscow in the hopes of accelerating the end of the Cold War.

Most spies who are caught in the United States never stand trial; they tend to bargain for a reduced sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. (If they are U.S. citizens, this likely means avoiding the death penalty.) The U.S. intelligence establishment likes this arrangement because it assures that classified information won't be divulged during an accused spy's trial. Robert Philip Hanssen, an FBI agent arrested in Virginia in February 2001 for selling U.S. intelligence to the former Soviet Union and Russia, followed the lifesaving guilty plea tradition.

While the eyes of the nation were transfixed on the Hanssen case that year, they largely overlooked the protect-the-homeland defense that was developing in the Miami spy case, U.S. v. Hernandez et al.

It was the first time Cuban nationals accused of trying to obtain defense information for Havana had ever stood trial in a U.S. courtroom. The trial touched on the shooting down of two of three small aircraft flying toward Cuban airspace despite repeated warnings by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Havana's foreign ministry that they risked just that fate. Pilots belonging to the anti-Castro Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue were flying the two Cessnas destroyed by Cuban MiGs on Feb. 24, 1996. The two pilots and two other BTTR members were killed. BTTR founder José Basulto and three others escaped in the third plane.

At the trial five years later, one line of attack used by Paul McKenna, the lawyer defending the Cuban spy ring's leader, Gerardo Hernandez, was to elevate Brothers to the Rescue's role in the shootdown. That wasn't very hard since Basulto had often publicly boasted about violating Cuban airspace, including a flight over Havana in July 1995 in which he dropped leaflets urging anti-government protests. McKenna also drew from a flurry of FAA and State Department records showing that U.S. officials had warned Basulto at least seven times that Cuba was threatening to use deadly force if BTTR persisted in violating Cuban airspace.

Especially illuminating was an e-mail written by Cecelia Capestany, an FAA liaison to the State Department, and sent to the FAA office in Miami. She wrote it soon after learning of another unauthorized BTTR flight on Jan. 20, 1996. "This latest overflight can only be seen as further taunting of the Cuban Government. State is increasingly concerned about Cuban reaction to these flagrant violations," she wrote, adding that State Department officials wanted to know what steps the FAA was taking against Basulto. "Worst-case scenario is that one of these days the Cubans will shoot down one of these planes, and the FAA better have all its ducks in a row," she warned about a month before the shootdown.

Throughout this debacle, Kendall Myers was employed as an analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. One can see why Fidel and Raul Castro might have wanted a sympathetic figure like Myers keeping them posted in early 1996.

Beyond BTTR's activities, one could fill an encyclopedia with all the assassination plots, armed incursions and bombing sprees that Cuban exiles have devised over the decades to avenge the Castro dictatorship. And Hernandez et al.'s lawyers did a thorough job of informing the jury of this, especially latter-day actions, from Alpha 66 machine-gun attacks on Cuban resort hotels on the coast of Cayo Coco in the early 1990s to Luis Posada Carriles' 1997 bombing campaign on hotels and restaurants in Havana.

Like Ames, the Myerses could probably make a reasonable claim they were in some way trying to keep the peace. Or, like Hernandez et al., trying to protect the national security of friends and loved ones in Cuba. Even minimally compassionate people could probably get their heads around that. But, as the five Cuban spies still doing time in U.S. prisons learned eight years ago, motives like those don't necessarily capture the hearts and minds of an American jury, or the judges on the U.S Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. In the end, they broke U.S. laws that prohibit espionage, whatever the justification.

Another Cuba-related spy trial would certainly be entertaining political theater and educational for journalists and others in the United States. But if the Myerses are smart, they'll avoid one and plead guilty, and spend their golden years in prison writing a book about why they spied.

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