Couple accused of spying for Cuba for 30 years

June 5, 2009 6:42:28 PM PDT
A retired State Department worker and his wife have been arrested on charges of spying for Cuba for three decades, using grocery carts among their array of tools to pass U.S. secrets to the communist government in a security breach one official described as "incredibly serious." An indictment unsealed Friday said Walter Kendall Myers worked his way into higher and higher U.S. security clearances while secretly partnering with his wife, Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers, as clandestine agents so valued by the Cuban government that they once had a private four-hour meeting with President Fidel Castro. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said that the arrest culminated a three-year investigation of Myers and that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has ordered a "comprehensive damage assessment" to determine what he may have passed to the Cubans. The Myerses' arrest could affect congressional support for easing tensions with Cuba dating back to the Cold War. Two months ago, the Obama administration took steps to relax a trade embargo imposed on the island nation in 1962. David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, described the couple's alleged spying for the communist government as "incredibly serious." Court documents indicate the couple received little money for their efforts, but instead professed a deep love for Cuba, Castro and the country's system of government. The documents describe the couple's spying methods changing with the times, beginning with old-fashioned tools of Cold War spying: Morse code messages over a short-wave radio and notes taken on water-soluble paper. By the time they retired from the work in 2007, they were reportedly sending encrypted e-mails from Internet cafes. The criminal complaint says changing technology also persuaded Gwendolyn Myers to abandon what she considered an easy way of passing information, by changing shopping carts in a grocery store. The document quoted her as saying she would no longer use that tactic. "Now they have cameras, but they didn't then."

Authorities say her comments came during a series of meetings this spring with an undercover FBI agent. A law enforcement official said the agent approached Kendall Myers on the street on his birthday, April 15, claiming to be as associate of his Cuban handler. The agent gave him a birthday cigar and proposed they meet later that evening at a Washington hotel. Myers fell for the ruse and said he'd bring his wife along. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the investigation.

The Myerses had been out of touch with their Cuban handlers for some time, according to court documents. The couple said they lived "in fear and anxiety for a long time." Kendall Myers feared his boss had put him on a watch list in 1995. They told the FBI agent that they were not interested in regular spying again but would help where they could.

Authorities said that led to three meetings with the agent, during which they shared their views of Obama administration officials who had recently taken over responsibility for Latin American policy. They also accepted a device to encrypt future e-mail. The undercover agent proposed a fourth meeting for Thursday at a Washington hotel, where the couple was arrested.

The couple pleaded not guilty Friday in U.S. District Court. They were ordered held in jail until a detention hearing scheduled for Wednesday. Their attorney, Thomas Green, declined to comment. A call to their home telephone was not answered.

The Myerses live in a luxury co-op complex in Northwest Washington that over the years was home to Cabinet members, judges, congressmen and senators, including the late Barry Goldwater.

W. Russell Pickering, a retired financier who said he has lived next door to the couple for eight to 10 years, called the charges "absurd."

"They're wonderful people," Pickering said, adding that he and Myers traded newspapers and cigars and drank together. "I feel like this is sort of the early stage of 1984," he said, referring to George Orwell's dark novel about government intrusiveness.

The Myerses were charged with conspiracy to act as illegal agents of the Cuban government and to communicate classified information to the Cuban government. Each is also charged with acting as an illegal agent of the Cuban government and with wire fraud.

Kendall Myers, 72, a former professor with a doctorate in international studies from Johns Hopkins University, was known by the Cubans as Agent 202, according to the indictment. His 71-year-old wife, a former bank analyst, reportedly went by both Agent 123 and Agent E-634.

The indictment says Kendall Myers disclosed to the State Department that he traveled to Cuba for two weeks in 1978, saying the trip was for personal and academic purposes. The next year, a Cuban government official visited the couple while they were living in South Dakota and recruited them to be spies, the indictment says. At Cuba's direction, authorities say, Kendall Myers attempted to get jobs that would give him access to classified information.

He applied for a position at the CIA in 1981. He didn't get it but later was able to get work at the State Department, where his security clearance rose over the next two decades.

Kendall Myers first worked as a lecturer at the Foreign Service Institute and later as a European analyst in the department's intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, from 2000 until his retirement in October 2007.

The indictment says in his last year of employment, Kendall Myers viewed more than 200 intelligence reports related to Cuba. Kendall Myers often took notes or memorized classified material to avoid the risk of removing the documents but concealed some documents he removed in a set of bookends, the court documents said.

During his time at the intelligence bureau, officials there were dealing with the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and response as well assessments in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Court documents say among the information they passed was economic intelligence, which the former intelligence official said makes up much of what information Cuba is interested in from the United States.

The indictment seeks the return of all $1.7 million Kendall Myers earned in his State Department career, along with his $174,867 rollover IRA account. The law enforcement official said all they appear to have gotten from the Cubans was a little expense money and their 1980s-era radio.

Court documents say Castro came to visit the couple in a small house in Cuba where they were staying in 1995, after traveling through Mexico under false names. Kendall Myers reportedly boasted to the undercover FBI agent that they had received "lots of medals" from the Cuban government.

They made other trips to Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina to meet with Cuban agents, the indictment says.

Myers apparently sympathized with the Cuban ideology and revolution that put Castro into power. Court documents say he wrote in a personal journal in 1978: "I can see nothing of value that has been lost by the revolution. ... The revolution has released enormous potential and liberated the Cuban spirit."

He praised Castro as a "brilliant and charismatic leader" who is "one of the great political leaders of our time." And he called the United States "exploiters" who regularly murdered Cuban revolutionary leaders.

One of the most damaging recent spy cases also involved a Cuban agent: Ana Belen Montes. She was a U.S. intelligence analysts who worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency for 16 years. Montes revealed the identities of four undercover agents to Cuban officials during her time as a spy. Like the Myerses, Montes used a short-wave radio to receive her orders.

Joseph Persichini, the FBI's assistant director in charge of the Washington field office that investigated the case, said that even as U.S. relations with foreign countries change, the clandestine hunt for secrets continues.

"When it comes to the intent of other nations pursuing our classified material, our research and development, the Cold War is not over, this activity does continue," Persichini said.


Associated Press writers Devlin Barrett, Matthew Lee, Pam Hess and Christine Simmons contributed to this report.

Follow Action News on Twitter

Get Action News on your website

Follow Action News on Facebook

Click here to get the latest Philadelphia news and headlines from across the Delaware and Lehigh valleys.