Ana Belén Montes, the convicted Cuba spy who is set to be released from prison in January, was willing to pass military secrets about the U.S. war in Afghanistan if requested by her spymasters in Havana, even if that resulted in the death of American soldiers on the ground, she told FBI investigators after her arrest in September 2001.
Montes, who before her arrest was the most senior analyst of the Cuban military at the U.S. Department of Defense, also passed classified information about a U.S. secret satellite program to Cuba that was so sensitive that prosecutors were banned from using it had the case gone to trial. That information was unrelated to Cuba, and investigators believe Fidel Castro likely passed it to other foreign adversaries like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
“That was the most damaging non-human intelligence she provided to the Cubans and likely to other adversaries. And I found it,” said retired FBI agent Peter Lapp, who led the covert operation to break into Montes’ apartment and copy the contents of her computer.
Montes, who went from being a highly respected analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency for almost 17 years to being sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for conspiracy to commit espionage, is set to leave prison on Jan. 6.
News of her much-anticipated release has been accompanied by new information provided by some of the main players in the notorious espionage case, shedding light on the real extent of the damage she caused.
Lapp, the co-author with journalist Kelly Kennedy of the forthcoming book “Queen of Cuba: The Inside Story on How the Perfect Spy Evaded Detection for 17 Years,” said he believes Montes’ primary motivation for spying for Castro was not, as she claimed, a sense of the injustice of U.S. policies toward the island and Latin America. Instead, he said, it was born of a deep anti-Americanism, proven by the fact that she passed information that did not primarily help protect Cuba from a potential U.S. aggression but that Castro likely traded with other U.S. enemies to his advantage.
“She is anti-American; she hates our country,” he said. “Cuba was just the conduit of that hate.”
Lapp found proof in her Toshiba computer that in 1997 Montes communicated information to her Cuban handlers compromising a multi-billion-dollar, highly restricted “Special Access Program” run by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, an independent agency so secretive that it hid its existence until 1992. The agency is in charge of developing and operating America’s spy satellites.
“In a separate message partially recovered from the hard drive of MONTES’s Toshiba laptop, the message reveals details about a particular Special Access Program (SAP) related to the national defense of the United States,” the original criminal complaint against Montes says.
Very few people knew about that program, and Montes told her spymasters she was one of them, according to the complaint. But neither the agency’s name nor what she shared with Cuba was mentioned in the complaint because of its secretive nature.
The National Reconnaissance Office never came up in relation to Montes’ espionage until it was finally declassified for a 2005 review by the Office of the Inspector General of the Defense Department that looked at how federal agencies handled the Montes investigation.
Lapp said Montes provided information about the satellite Special Access Program that would have jeopardized its intelligence capabilities. “I have no doubt that the Cubans would have shared that intelligence with other foreign governments hostile to the United States.”
When confronted with the evidence, Montes admitted to Lapp that she was aware that passing such material could carry consequences for her, even the death penalty. Before she could be briefed into the program, in May 1997, Montes signed a “Sensitive Compartmented Information Nondisclosure Agreement,” stating that unauthorized disclosure of such details could cause “irreparable injury” to the United States.
“‘It gave me pause,’ Ana told me,” Lapp recalled. “She said, ‘I know how serious it was and how bad it was for me legally, but if it was so important for the American government, I think Cuba should know about it.”
Only three months earlier in 1997 she had received the National Intelligence Certificate of Distinction from George Tenet, then-deputy Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet.
That was not the only instance in which Montes was willing to steal U.S. secrets that may have been sold or traded by Castro and did not directly help Cuba “defend itself,” as she claimed during her sentencing hearing in October 2002.
Back in 2001, Montes was in a romantic relationship with another Pentagon officer that she thought was getting serious. She told FBI debriefers Lapp and his partner Steve McCoy that she was “strongly” considering telling the Cubans she wanted to stop her espionage and leave the agency. “She knew she could not have it both ways,” Lapp said.
Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and Montes assumed new duties that put her in a position to learn about U.S. military plans to invade Afghanistan. According to Scott Carmichael’s book “True Believer,” the FBI surveillance team caught her trying to get in touch with her Cuban contacts on Sept. 14, 2001.
The top Defense Intelligence Agency leadership thought the risk of not arresting her and keeping her under surveillance was too high, Carmichael, a former DIA counter-intelligence agent who helped identify Montes as the mole chased by the FBI, wrote.
She was arrested on Sept. 21 at work, just 10 days after the attack on the Twin Towers.
Montes later admitted that the suspicions were not wrong.
During the interrogations, she told Lapp that despite her misgivings about the impact of her espionage on her personal life, if the Cuban intelligence services had asked her she would have continued spying for Havana and passing military secrets from the war in Afghanistan “because Cuba had the right to know how the United States wages a modern war,” Lapp said.
When he confronted her with the possibility that American combat troops could have died as a result, she answered: “That’s the risk they took,” according to Lapp’s recount of the exchange.
“Her callous disregard for their lives shows the depth of her anti-American sentiment and the risk she would have posed had she not been arrested,” Lapp told the Miami Herald.
Where will she go?
Montes, known as ‘the Queen of Cuba’ in the U.S. intelligence community, was one of the most damaging spies ever caught in the United States. Born in 1957 in Germany to Puerto Rican parents, she was recruited to spy for Cuba in 1984 while working at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Later, she sought employment at the DIA, where she climbed through the ranks and won many accolades. But for almost 17 years, she used her position to steal American secrets for Havana. She shared information about U.S. military plans and downplayed Cuba’s threat to national security in a widely circulated 1998 Pentagon report to Congress concluding that Cuba posed “a negligible threat to the U.S. or surrounding countries” —a report that years later continued to be quoted in the media and used by legislators.
Officials involved in the investigation concluded Montes revealed the identities of at least four American intelligence agents and might have been responsible for the death of an American Green Beret in El Salvador in 1987.
She was methodical and disciplined. “Her decision to spy was coolly deliberated,” the Pentagon Inspector General’s report concluded.
She did not show repentance, defending her decision to spy as motivated by her “conscience.”
“I believe our government’s policy toward Cuba is cruel and unfair; profoundly unneighborly,” she said at her sentencing hearing in 2022. “And I felt morally obligated to help the island defend itself from our efforts to impose our values and our political system on it.”
Echoing Cuban propaganda, she added: “We have never respected Cuba’s right to make its own journey towards its own ideals of equality and justice. I do not understand why we must continue to dictate how the Cubans should select their leaders, who their leaders cannot be, and what laws are appropriate in their land.”
Twenty years later, she is about to walk free.
As part of her sentence, she will be supervised for five years. In addition, the judge ordered her to perform 500 hours of community service, allow random searches of her devices by law enforcement and even pay the FBI for surveillance software to monitor her online activities if she were to buy a computer.
Her probation officer must also approve her internet use and some financial transactions.
As the January date comes near, speculation has mounted about whether she would flee to Cuba in a final show of allegiance.
But over the years, the island’s authorities have shown lukewarm public support for their American asset.
In an internet chat in 2002, the country’s then-foreign affairs minister Felipe Pérez Roque wrote that he felt “profound respect and admiration for Ms. Ana Belén Montes.”
“Her actions were moved by ethics and by an admirable sense of justice,” he said.
As the years passed, however, high-ranking officials and national state media have rarely mentioned her, and the Cuban government has not publicly commented on her impending release.
From time to time, her name resurfaced in Cuban blogs, and “solidarity” Marxist groups in Cuba and other places have signed petitions and letters calling for her liberation. But Fidel Castro didn’t make it a foreign policy priority to free her, in stark contrast with the years-long, expensive propaganda campaign he orchestrated to free the so-called “Cuban Five,” as he labeled five of the several Cuban agents comprising the Wasp espionage ring captured in Miami in 1998.
Castro’s brother, Raúl, eventually struck a deal with the Obama administration to free the three spies who remained imprisoned by 2014. They were exchanged for American contractor Alan Gross and, in a twist, for Rolando Sarraf, a former Cuban intelligence officer who is believed to have passed cryptography secrets to the American intelligence agencies that helped dismantle the Wasp network and arrest Montes herself.
But unlike the Cuban spies, Montes was not a Cuban intelligence officer, and she ultimately betrayed Havana by cooperating with U.S. intelligence agencies, passing along information about Cuba’s spy tradecraft as part of her plea deal.
For her immediate family, her release marks a difficult time, as media chatter about Montes and the damage she caused resurfaces again in Florida, where Montes’ siblings and elderly mother live.
A statement from her sister, Luz Montes, obtained by the Herald, suggests the family still reels from what she did.
“Our sister committed treason against this country and the people of our nation,” the statement says. “None of us were ever aware of her actions at the time, and we have never agreed or supported her position in any way. We continue to disavow what she did and any statements she has made or may make.”
Luz Montes, known as Lucy, and one of her two brothers have worked for the FBI, and the agency cleared them of any wrongdoing linked to their sister’s espionage. The FBI’s Miami field office employed Luz Montes as a translator, where she helped to uncover the Wasp network.
In their statement, the siblings also pushed back against accounts putting too much weight on Montes’ accounts of her childhood and the mark left by clashes with the “very strict disciplinarian” father, as her mother, Emilia Badillo, described him in a 2002 Miami Herald article.
“We were all raised to be law-abiding citizens, with a strong moral sense of right and wrong,” the Montes family statement says. “Ana’s decision to commit espionage was based solely on her own convictions and was not in any way a reaction to or a reflection of our parents.”
But outside Florida, Montes is not entirely without support.
In Puerto Rico, Montes’ actions have been framed quite differently by a few relatives and pro-independence activists, who portray her as an anti-imperialist fighter.
Her cousin Miriam Montes-Mock, an author and contributor for the San Juan newspaper El Nuevo Dia, said on social media that Montes was imprisoned “for trying to protect the Cuban people from the attacks planned and perpetrated by the U.S. government” and described her actions as “an humanitarian mission.”
On Feb. 28, the cousin hinted that Ana would be welcome in Puerto Rico.
“This is the last birthday you will ‘celebrate’ behind bars,” Montes-Mock wrote in a Facebook post in Spanish. “A life awaits you to redo your days under a blue sky and without barriers, with a conscience clearer than ever, fulfilled with the hugs from the many who love you.”
The Herald could not immediately contact Montes-Mock. She did not respond to a comment request sent via Facebook. A phone number for the advertising agency she works for was answered by a man who identified as her business partner and said, “we have been instructed not to comment.”
But as the former spy moves on, her release has again brought attention to the penetration of the U.S. government by the Cuban intelligence services, which Lapp believes continues to this day.
“At the time that we got information about Montes, there were multiple UNSUB [Unknown Subject] cases that were looked at and opened as a result,” Lapp said. “And the majority of them have never been identified. I have absolutely no doubt that the Cubans to this day have agency in the U.S. government.”
“Queen of Cuba: The Inside Story on How the Perfect Spy Evaded Detection for 17 Years,” can be pre-ordered in January at petelapp.com.