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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Retired US diplomat accused of working as a secret agent for Cuba


Manuel Rocha, a former ambassador to Bolivia, secretly aided Cuba’s “clandestine intelligence-gathering mission,” U.S. authorities said.

By Glenn Thrush, Ernesto Londoño, David C. Adams and Frances Robles


Federal prosecutors earlier this week said that a retired State Department official worked for decades as a secret agent for Cuba and was heard referring to the United States as “the enemy,” a previously undisclosed intelligence breach with potentially significant diplomatic and national security implications.


In a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Miami, the prosecutors said that the diplomat, Manuel Rocha, had secretly aided Cuba’s “clandestine intelligence-gathering mission against the United States” since at least 1981 as he rose through the ranks at the State Department and worked briefly in a top White House role.


Rocha, 73, appeared to have met with handlers from Cuba’s spy agency as recently as 2017, prosecutors said, and boasted that he had spent 40 years spying on behalf of the communist government in Havana and “strengthened the revolution.”


For more than two decades, Rocha handled matters related to Latin America in a series of roles at the State Department under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, including a stint as ambassador to Bolivia from 2000 to 2002. A native of Colombia who grew up in New York, Rocha served as an adviser to the U.S. military command that includes the Cuba region from 2006 to 2012.


The complaint charged Rocha with acting as an illegal agent of a foreign government and two other crimes, but prosecutors said the investigation was ongoing and could result in more serious charges. The case has prompted an internal damage assessment to determine what secrets might have been revealed and raised serious questions about the effectiveness of counterespionage programs created to ferret out spies, senior officials said.


“This action exposes one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the U.S. government by a foreign agent,” Attorney General Merrick Garland told reporters in Washington on Monday. He said that Rocha had “sought out employment with the U.S. government that would provide him with access to nonpublic information and the ability to affect U.S. foreign policy.”


John Feeley, a former career diplomat who worked alongside Rocha decades ago, said the case might be among the worst intelligence breaches in recent history. Cuba’s intelligence service has long had close ties with the security agencies of the United States’ adversaries, including Russia.


“Manuel literally had the keys to the kingdom,” said Feeley, whose last government posting was as ambassador to Panama. “If it had to do with Cuba, he got to see it.”


Rocha’s arrest Friday was first reported by The Associated Press.


He broke down in tears and watched wordlessly as his family left the courtroom during his initial appearance at the federal courthouse in Miami on Monday.


A prosecutor indicated that more charges might soon be presented to a grand jury, and the magistrate in the case scheduled a detention hearing for today.


His mournful demeanor contrasted with the garrulous, charming and dapper diplomat that former colleagues remember — and the steely, double-dealing operator portrayed in the government’s filings.


The complaint did not delve into details of how Rocha might have influenced U.S. policy, what information he might have sent to Cuba or how long the government had investigated him. But it described three meetings over roughly the past year between Rocha and an undercover FBI agent whom Rocha believed to be a representative of Cuba’s spy agency, the Directorate of Intelligence.


Several times during those meetings, Rocha spoke of working in that agency’s interest, and he referred to the United States as “the enemy,” according to an affidavit filed in court by Michael Haley, an FBI special agent in Miami.


He was quoted saying that “what we have done” was “enormous” and “more than a grand slam,” although the affidavit did not specify what he was referring to. The conversations were in Spanish and translated by the FBI.


Rocha embraced socialism in his youth, according to friends, but seems to have shifted into an anti-Havana conservative at the behest of his handlers over the years — possibly, federal authorities suggested, to avoid suspicion that he was sympathetic to their cause.


In a November meeting with the undercover agent, Rocha said that he had been instructed by Cuba’s spy agency to “lead a normal life” and that he had created the persona of a “right-wing person” to keep his work as a mole from being uncovered, according to the affidavit.


“The entire time he portrayed himself as a guy on the right,” said Eduardo Gamarra, an international relations professor at Florida International University who has known Rocha since the 1980s. “He got more and more Trumpian.”


Rocha attended Yale as an undergrad, and obtained graduate degrees from Harvard and Georgetown in the 1970s. He began his career as a desk officer for Honduras at the State Department in 1981, around the time prosecutors said he first began working for Cuba.


Over the years, he occupied a wide range of diplomatic posts in the Dominican Republic, Italy, Argentina and Cuba, and served as director for inter-American affairs at the National Security Council for a year starting in July 1994, according to his official State Department biography.


Rocha held a senior role at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana during one of the most tense moments in bilateral relations in recent decades: Cuba’s shooting down in 1996 of two American civilian planes operated by anti-Castro exiles.


At the time, the Cuban government had keen interest in understanding how the United States might respond to an attack on the group that flew the planes, Brothers to the Rescue. The group, based in Miami, was flying over the Florida straits looking for Cuban migrants aboard rafts and at times entering Cuban airspace to drop anti-government leaflets over Havana.


Years later, Rocha served as ambassador in Bolivia during another tense period, the 2002 presidential race, which included Evo Morales, an ardently anti-American Indigenous candidate who gained prominence as the leader of a union of coca growers. Morales lost that race but was elected president in 2005.


Shortly before the 2002 vote, Rocha publicly warned that electing Morales would sour relations with the United States. “I want to remind Bolivian voters that if they elect those who want Bolivia to once more become a cocaine exporter, it would jeopardize assistance from the United States,” Rocha said at the time.


Morales — a staunch ally of Cuba who has sought medical treatment there in recent years — suggested that Rocha’s warning had helped his campaign and jokingly referred to him as “chief of campaign.”


Otto Reich, a former assistant secretary of state who was Rocha’s supervisor at the State Department, said the remarks had startled his supervisors.


“He never cleared that with State,” Reich remembered. “I remember at the time being annoyed, seriously annoyed.”


Ricardo Zúniga, a retired senior State Department and White House official, called the action highly unusual for a seasoned diplomat, saying such comments would provide an obvious boost to Morales.


“He may have decided he was going to try to act as a caricature of what he thought the United States was,” Zúniga said. If so, “it was a hell of a performance,” he added.


The criminal charges were the latest in a succession of cases brought under Garland, stemming from attempts by foreign governments to spy on, infiltrate and influence American governmental, law enforcement and business institutions.


In October, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., was charged with conspiring to act as an agent of Egypt even as he served as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That case was filed a month after Menendez was indicted on corruption charges. And last week, federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged an Indian citizen with the attempted assassination of a U.S. citizen who backed Sikh independence.


The department has also brought charges against people accused of working on behalf of China, Russia and Iran.


Cuba’s intelligence service is widely regarded as one of the best in the world, and for decades, it has placed a high premium on penetrating U.S. federal agencies.


“It’s an extraordinary testimony of how capable these guys are,” said Zúniga, who negotiated President Barack Obama’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014. “I was always extremely careful for that reason.”


Until now, the most damaging infiltration was the decadeslong espionage career of Ana Belén Montes, who served as a senior analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, where she specialized in Cuba, until her arrest in 2001.


Montes told investigators that she had been recruited by Cuban intelligence personnel in the 1980s while she had a clerical job at the Justice Department. As her intelligence career advanced, Montes fed information to her Cuban handlers using a shortwave radio. Montes was released from prison this year after serving most of her 25-year sentence.


As part of her plea deal, Montes agreed to tell the FBI everything she knew about Cuban intelligence operations. That information led to the indictment of a former close friend, Marta Rita Velazquez, a former official at the U.S. Agency for International Development who was indicted in February 2004 on charges of being a Cuban agent.


Chris Simmons, a former Defense Intelligence Agency investigator who worked on the Montes case, said it would be very difficult — if not impossible — for the United States to get an accurate damage assessment if Rocha did not provide that information himself.


“They are going to be totally dependent on his cooperation,” Simmons said. “Even though they know he’s going to lie and minimize, it’s still better than nothing.”

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