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How Victor Manuel Rocha got away with spying for Cuba for so long

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To the story now of a former U.S. ambassador who allegedly was also an agent of Cuba's government. Here's Attorney General Merrick Garland briefing reporters on the case, trying to capture how big a deal prosecutors think it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: This action exposes one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the U.S. government by a foreign agent.

KELLY: The ambassador in question's name is Victor Manuel Rocha. He is facing criminal charges of conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the Justice Department, also acting as an agent of a foreign government without such notification and lying to obtain a passport, all of which prompts a couple of questions. How did this alleged double life go undetected for so long? And what happens now in U.S. intelligence circles to assess the damage done? For some insight, we have called former CIA case officer and author Robert Baer. Welcome.

ROBERT BAER: Thank you.

KELLY: Start with the first piece of what I just raised there, how this could have gone undetected for so long. How are diplomats, people with security clearances - how are they supposed to be vetted?

BAER: Well, it depends. The State Department doesn't polygraph people, and they go through security background checks periodically but not very often. And once they get to a higher rank, it's very rare. They're very cursory. But more than that, it's Cuban intelligence, which I think is - very few people understand - is remarkably good. It's probably one of the best intelligence services in the world, bar none. And their ability to locate targets and put them in positions, important positions, is incredible.

KELLY: And to play the long game, it would appear. This guy...

BAER: Yeah, exactly.

KELLY: ...Was in place for decades. The charges go back to 1981.

BAER: Well, even before that. So as a young man, he was put into the system - brilliant, apparently, if you look at his credentials - passes the Foreign Service exam, gets into the State Department, was probably a very good diplomat. But he was leading a double life. His loyalties, from what I've read, were to Cuba. It's an ideological recruitment. It wasn't for money. So, I mean, there's one thing. The FBI - if there's no money trail, it's very hard for them to catch a spy.

KELLY: Robert Baer, who investigates now? Does this fall to - you mentioned the FBI. Does this fall to FBI, CIA, state, who?

BAER: The FBI. What they're going to do is sit down - and the Department of Justice. They're going to sit down with him.

KELLY: And what's the first priority as they start to question? Is it trying to assess what damage was done and contain that?

BAER: Oh, exactly. Damage assessment - because don't forget that he worked in the White House. He worked for Southern Command. He had access to the crown jewels, essentially, in terms of intelligence intercepts, agent reporting, CIA reporting, the whole gamut. He would have seen that. And the question is, what did he pass? Did he pass documents? Did he betray our abilities to intercept communications in Russia or Cuba? From the sounds of it, from what Garland said, I imagine he did. That's their suspicion, at least.

KELLY: And then this must prompt all kinds of questions about who else may not be what they seem to be. Do they go around and start to question everyone who was in regular contact with him, try to sense how wide the spiderweb may be?

BAER: Well, there's a rule with the Cubans and the Russians, and that is you always - once you have a spy in place, he always looks for his replacement. But an agent like this is compartmented. He's not told about other sources. He's not told about what else the Cubans are doing, DGI - he's not - or what the Russians are doing. So he's sort of going to know what he passed or didn't pass. And if he tried to spot somebody else, he might be able to tell us what that was. I just can't tell you how damaging a source like this could have been. This is like - we've seen nothing like this. It's worse than Hanssen. It's worse than Ames. You'd have to go back to the beginning of the Cold War.

KELLY: Hang on. Worse than Robert Hanssen of the FBI or Rick Ames of the CIA - how so?

BAER: Hanssen had limited knowledge of Russian collection and the same with Ames. But don't forget sitting in the White House, you get an overall view. Hanssen and Ames was a geographic location that they could betray assets. But with this guy sitting in the White House, he's seeing it all. And then Southern Command - because Southern Command has all sorts of abilities to collect intelligence in South America, for instance, that somebody like Ames or Hanssen would never have known about. So I would say offhand, until we hear about what the damage was - and I'm waiting from the Department of Justice and FBI to say - and this will take a couple years - is this is probably the most damaging spy scandal or penetration of the U.S. government, you know, going way back to Roosevelt. And I don't say that lightly.

KELLY: Former CIA officer Robert Baer. Thank you.

BAER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marc Rivers
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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