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Why Cuba Targets American Universities


By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security

“My job was to bug their rooms with both cameras and listening devices. Most people have no idea they are being watched while they are in Cuba. But their personal activities are filmed under orders from Fidel Castro himself. And Castro’s undercover agents don’t wait around hoping the famous visitors might randomly engage in these things. They tempt them, bait them with offers.” – Cuban intelligence defector Delfin Fernandez.

As Mr. Fernandez correctly points out, Cuba’s General Directorate of Intelligence (DGI) has no qualms about using unseemly measures to gain cooperation from people who may be of service to the Cuban government. Though Fernandez is specifically speaking about celebrities in this instance, the tactics employed are not exclusive to a certain subset of American culture, rather the DGI, like most intelligence services, use a variety of methods to acquire information from people who may have access, or even among those who will have access, to sensitive information.

While using recruits to gather information is a common method used by nearly every intelligence agency, there are other reasons Havana seeks out celebrities and academics alike – to influence U.S. public opinion or policy towards the island nation. In other words, these recruits are known as agents of influence. For decades, the Cuban government has racked up a string of impressive successes in penetrating the U.S. government and society. Turncoats such as Ana Montes and Walter Kendall Myers are perhaps two of the better known moles operating on instruction from Cuba, but Carlos Alvarez, a professor at Florida International University, was working with the DGI to keep tabs on Cuban dissidents and defectors living in Florida. Though no classified material was accessed in the Alvarez case, it underscores the utility of having such an unassuming person to conduct intelligence activities.

In a private sector advisory released September 2, the FBI stated that Cuba remains interested in recruiting agents at U.S. colleges and universities. This advisory follows the FBI warnings of the past few years that openly stated the desire of foreign intelligence services (FIS) to gain access to sensitive material, whether government classified or company proprietary, through recruitment at institutions of higher learning. In fact, former Cuban intelligence officer Jose Cohen stated in a 2002 paper that Cuba considers recruiting at U.S. universities a “top priority,” and actively seeks those candidates who are likely to “occupy positions of importance in the private sector and in the government.” Cohen defected to the U.S. in 1994, but his analysis has proven accurate. It’s interesting to note that both Myers and Montes were first approached by Cuba’s DGI while at college. According to open sources, Montes may have been approached while attending Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies through a facilitator vetting good recruits for Cuban intelligence collection. Without a formal diplomatic presence in the U.S., Cuba relies on other avenues to move intelligence officers into the U.S. One such avenue is the Cuban Mission to the UN which is the third largest mission in New York and it is estimated that nearly half of the employees at the mission are actually DGI. Other avenues include cultural centers and an extensive ‘illegals’ program.

Cuba is a small nation with limited resources and it cannot always rely on cash to entice new recruits. Instead, Cuba plays on ideological sympathies, blackmail, or even promises of favorable investments in the Cuban economy once the U.S. embargo is lifted. Recruiting agents while they are young and unaware of the consequences of their actions is a tried and tested methodology that has paid dividends for Havana.

Colleges and universities rely on openness and sharing of information to facilitate learning, but this also represents a vulnerability that is easily exploited by those with impure intentions. Though Americans often consider Cuba to be a bygone threat of the Cold War era, the island nation still resides a mere 90 miles off of Florida and Cuban cooperation with Russia or China certainly help to raise the level of concern. Furthermore, many leaders of the U.S. intelligence community have repeatedly stated that the presence of foreign spies in the U.S. is outpacing that of the Cold War. Indeed, espionage costs the U.S. economy a substantial amount of money – nearly a trillion dollars annually according to some estimates. Cuba may only represent a single threat among the many challenges facing U.S. national security, however each threat takes its toll and an educated public that is sensitive to the threat is often the best defense.