A high-ranking American diplomat who once served at the U.S. mission in Havana appears to have been a spy for Cuba during one of the worst diplomatic crises in years between the two countries.
Manuel Rocha, a former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia who has been arrested in Miami and charged with secretly working for Cuba as a covert agent, was a principal deputy in 1996 at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana when the Cuban government shot down two planes belonging to the Miami exile organization Brothers to the Rescue. Four people were killed in the Feb. 24, 1996, incident, prompting the Pentagon to draft plans about how to retaliate.
That was not the only time he might have provided crucial information to the government of Fidel Castro.
Rocha also headed the Office of Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council between July 1994 and July 1995, putting him in a unique position to shape the Clinton administration’s response to the balsero crisis, when 35,000 Cubans tried to reach South Florida in rafts after Castro opened up the island’s borders following a rare anti-government protest in August 1994.
In meetings with undercover FBI agents in Miami, Rocha, 73, said he had been working for Cuban intelligence for over 40 years, according to a criminal complaint made public on Monday. “What we have done…is enormous. More than a grand slam,” he is quoted saying of his work for Cuba to an FBI undercover agent posing as a Cuban intelligence officer.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said Rocha’s work for Cuba was “one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the United States government by a foreign agent.”
The State Department said it is assessing what damage Rocha’s actions might have caused to U.S. national security. If the accusations are true, Rocha may turn out to have been one of Cuba’s most successful secret agents.
“He was in a position sufficiently high that he could have done more damage to American policy and even to American intelligence activities than any previous Cuban spy. And I say that potentially because we don’t know yet,” said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst who was the National Intelligence Officer for Latin America between 1990 and 1994.
Though Rocha has not been formally accused of espionage, the criminal complaint says that “by his own admission, beginning no later than approximately 1981, and continuing to the present, Rocha secretly supported the Republic of Cuba and its clandestine intelligence-gathering mission against the United States by serving as a covert agent of Cuba’s intelligence operations.”
At a hearing Monday in Miami, prosecutors said they may file other charges against Rocha.
Several intelligence experts who spoke to the Miami Herald said the complaint was unusual in that it lacks details of the information authorities believe Rocha might have passed to the Cuban intelligence services. The complaint says Rocha took positions within the U.S. government that allowed him to access classified information and influence foreign policy to help Cuba.
“They are calling him a spy without really saying it,” said Peter Lapp, a former FBI special agent who arrested Ana Belén Montes, the analyst who spied for Cuba during her 17 years at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
“There’s no distinction between Rocha and Montes,” Lapp said. “He openly admitted to espionage, but they don’t appear to have enough to charge him for espionage like we were able to with Montes. It’s really quite unusual. Remarkable.”
The Department of Justice charged Rocha with defrauding the United States and acting as an illegal foreign government agent, a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act that requires those working under the control of foreign governments to notify the Attorney General’s office.
Those charges have been used to prosecute lobbyists and officials who have done the bidding of a foreign government without reporting it. But in Rocha’s case, the Department of Justice claims he did more than that, accusing him of working as an undercover agent of the Cuban General Directorate of Intelligence, known as the DGI for its initials in Spanish.
“From a government perspective, there are easier ways to get a spy out of the game without having to tip your hand into as to what they did. Think of it as getting Al Capone for tax evasion,” said Chris Simmons, a former Defense Intelligence Agency spycatcher who helped identify Montes as a Cuban mole at the Pentagon.
The intelligence experts believe that one of the reasons the Rocha case will be complex to prosecute is that the acts he allegedly committed to help Cuba happened many years ago. The FBI likely could not get direct evidence of his communications with Cuban intelligence agents or the secrets he passed to them. The experts believe the approach taken by the FBI — setting up an undercover operation to get Rocha to admit he worked for Cuba and that he was still willing to work for the Cuban intelligence services — also meant to bring the case to the present to comply with the five-year statute of limitations for violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Rocha told the FBI undercover agent that his last contact with the DGI was during a trip to Havana “in 2016 or 2017,” according to the federal complaint.
The complaint does not say what prompted the investigation, nor does it describe what kind of sensitive information he could have accessed in the several positions he held while working at the State Department. Still, Latell said Rocha had access to highly classified materials.
As ambassador to Bolivia, a position Rocha held between 2000-02, he would have had some knowledge of U.S. intelligence operations in the country, intelligence experts say. But he would also receive a digest of developments in the region, said Otto Reich, former assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere.
Simmons said Rocha’s career at the State Department seems to have been “scripted in Havana:” He held posts in Honduras, in Mexico City — believed to be a significant operation hub for Cuban intelligence — and at the Interests Section in Havana during the shoot down of the planes, a moment of “tension” he referenced in one of the meetings with the FBI undercover agent, claiming he was “in charge” of the U.S. mission at the time.
After Rocha left the foreign service, the complaint says, he was a special advisor to the head of the Pentagon’s Southern Command, based in Doral, between 2006 and 2012, another position in which he could get valuable knowledge and exert influence on behalf of Cuban intelligence services.
Beyond the secret documents he might have stolen, Rocha also socialized among people in Washington who could inadvertently provide insights into policies toward Cuba.
“All kinds of people like me…” said Latell, the former CIA analyst. “And when we met, we would usually talk about Latin America. And he was probably informing the Cubans.”
Latell, who developed a friendship with Rocha since they met in 1981 and was present during his swearing-in ceremony as ambassador, said the news about Rocha’s clandestine intelligence activities took him by surprise and that he never suspected his friend could be a spy.
“What is so terrible about his betrayal of the United States is that he received so many special benefits from the United States,” Latell said, retelling a story he heard from Rocha about how he came to the country from Colombia with his mother with few resources and later received scholarships to attend a college-preparatory school in New England and to attend Ivy League universities.
“An American aristocrat”
People who knew or interacted with Rocha describe him as highly confident and even arrogant. Latell said Rocha learned to dress and speak “as an American aristocrat.”
A person who interacted with Rocha frequently after he left the State Department and held profitable private jobs in business said he sometimes came across as pompous. Still, he was thoughtful and showed a nuanced understanding of U.S. politics, the person said, adding that as of late, Rocha was sharing “pro-Trump and anti-Biden” content.
Rocha told the FBI undercover agent that he had constructed “the legend of a right-wing” person while working for the DGI. But there were a few times he signaled otherwise.
In an event in 2009 at the University of Florida, he asked to make his remarks off the record. Still, a small business publication, Cuba News, reported without quoting him that Rocha “gave a specially insightful presentation calling for more openness toward Cuba.”
Yleem Poblete, a former assistant secretary of state for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, wrote on X that she was “not surprised” by Rocha’s arrest given her interactions with him when she was a House Republican staffer, “as his bias toward such communist, socialist regimes was evident.”
In another post, Poblete wondered how many foreign policy issues Rocha might have had his fingerprints on.
But a damage assessment seems almost “pointless,” Simmons, the former Pentagon analyst, says, noting the several years he carried on his alleged spying undetected.
“The bottom line is that this was an epic failure, which is going to be celebrated as a success,” he said. “Normally, I would say, any success is a success. But in this case, it’s too late.”
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