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How a spy for Cuba got away with sharing America's secrets for 17 years

The Americans spying for Cuba in the U.S.
Ambassador, Pentagon official among the Americans who spied for Cuba | 60 Minutes 13:04

A woman known as the Queen of Cuba lived a lie for nearly two decades.

Ana Montes was already a spy for Cuba when she left graduate school and started a job at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Montes exposed American secrets to Havana for years, escaping suspicion as she told handlers about undercover agents and a top secret American satellite program. Montes is considered one of the most damaging spies in U.S. history, but she's not the only Cuban spy caught in the U.S. She's part of a notorious legacy of Cuban espionage in the U.S.

Cuba doesn't have advanced technology to spy with, but they're successfully using human intelligence to find out secrets, Brian Latell, who was the top Cuba analyst at the CIA at the height of the Cold War, said. 

"Their officers, their intelligence agents and officers are very, very good," Latell said. "They know their tradecraft. They practice it with great skill and with discipline. And when they recruit, they're very careful about how they recruit and how they communicate." 

How Cuba recruits spies

Montes was recruited while she was a student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in the 1980s. She was outspoken about her anger toward U.S. policy in Latin America when she first met a Cuban intelligence officer. Her father was a U.S. Army doctor and her siblings worked for the FBI.

Peter Lapp, a retired FBI special agent who was on the team that led the Montes investigation, said Havana doesn't pay its spies, so Americans who spy for Cuba don't do it for money, but rather are driven by ideology.

Peter Lapp, a retired FBI special agent
Peter Lapp, a retired FBI special agent 60 Minutes

"I feel that what I did was morally right. That I was faithful to principles that were right," Montes told FBI investigators after her arrest, according to a declassified transcript obtained by 60 Minutes through a public records request.

Former U.S. Ambassador Victor Manuel Rocha, who in April was sentenced to 15 years in prison, was also recruited by Cuba around the time he was in college. He said he was influenced by the radical politics of the day when he was traveling in Chile in the late 1970s. Rocha served in the U.S. government and as a government consultant for 40 years. In all that time, he was also a covert agent for Cuba. Rocha was the No. 2 diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires, he served on the National Security Council and he became the ambassador to Bolivia.

While Cuba is known for cigars and rum, its main export may be American secrets, which the country barters and sells to America's enemies around the world.  

Jose Cohen, a Cuban intelligence officer who defected to the U.S. in 1994, shared vital information with the FBI that led to the investigation of more than 100 suspected Cuban agents. He also handed over an encryption code, which helped unlock communications between Cuban Intelligence and their agents in the United States. Ultimately the trail led investigators to Montes. 

What spies told Cuba

Montes spent years memorizing classified information at work, Lapp said. When she got home, she'd write it down or type it up. She'd have lunch meetings with her Cuban intelligence handler every two or three weeks.

"Everyone who works for the intelligence community goes home with classified information in their head," Lapp said. "And you can't stop that with guards and technology. It's just undefeatable."  

In her years as a spy, Montes revealed the existence of a satellite program used by the U.S. to spy on other countries. She also gave the Cubans the names of roughly 450 American intelligence officials working on Latin American issues, including four undercover agents on the island. 

Lapp, one of the agents who arrested Montes, sat across from the spy in an interrogation room for seven months. He said one of the most sobering moments was when she said how far she would have been willing to go for Cuba in the week after 9/11.

"She said, 'If the Cubans asked me to provide them with intelligence about what we were doing in Afghanistan, I absolutely would have done that. And if men and women were killed as a result of my intelligence in Afghanistan,' she told us, 'that's the risk that they took,'" Lapp said.

It's unknown just how many state secrets Rocha gave to Cuba. Nearly all the details of his case remain classified.

Experts say Cuba shares the information it obtains with other countries, including Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

Cecilia Vega and Jose Cohen
Cecilia Vega and Jose Cohen 60 Minutes

"All of that was what made me realize this is a battle between good and evil," Cohen, the Cuban defector, said. "Cuba was at the service of all the enemies of the United States."

How the spies were caught

Rocha was caught after he met with an undercover FBI agent. The agent, claiming to be a Cuban intelligence officer, asked to meet with Rocha in 2022. The FBI agent recorded Rocha with a hidden camera over three meetings in Miami. According to the criminal complaint, Rocha bragged that he'd gotten away with decades of spying by memorizing the secrets he stole. Rocha described the U.S. as "the enemy" while speaking with the undercover agent.

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Rocha's arrest last December, describing it as exposing "one of the highest reaching and longest lasting infiltrations of the U.S. government by a foreign agent."

Rocha, 73, told a judge he was deeply sorry. He pleaded guilty in February to acting as an agent of the Cuban government. Rocha is currently cooperating with investigators.

Montes was surveilled by the FBI for a year before her arrest. Lapp and his partner, Stephen McCoy, took her into custody in 2001. She pleaded guilty to espionage and, in exchange for not spending the rest of her life in prison, Montes agreed to tell the FBI everything she'd done. Montes told the agents her only regret was that she was forced to cooperate with the FBI as part of her plea deal.

She was released in January of last year after serving 20 years in federal prison. She's now living in Puerto Rico, where she's been celebrated by some as a hero.  Montes, through a lawyer, declined 60 Minutes' request for an interview. She's yet to publicly express any remorse.

Even with Rocha cooperating and Montes having served her time in prison, Lapp said he's certain there are other spies who've infiltrated the U.S. government.

"There's no doubt that the Cubans and the Russians and others are still penetrating our government with individuals who are loyal to them and not to us," he said.

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