BY PABLO BACHELET | Miami Herald
As Fidel Castro appears to be growing more active, and U.S. reports that he has cancer increasingly seem off the mark, Cuba watchers are questioning just how much American spies know about what’s happening on the island.
The U.S. intelligence community—despite having spy satellites and ships—is now too shellshocked from past intelligence setbacks on Cuba and the Iraq weapons of mass destruction debacle to aggressively spy on the island, some Cuba observers say.
Washington, as a result, is now largely ignorant of what is happening within the inner circles in Havana as Cuba undergoes a transfer of power from Castro to his brother Raúl, according to several people familiar with U.S. intelligence on the island.
The U.S. intelligence community’s current assessment is that Castro is more ill than Havana is admitting, and that change in Cuba is unlikely in the near term, though a power struggle is possible further down the road.
But nearly a dozen people knowledgeable about U.S. intelligence on Cuba—who all spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss classified materials—painted a mixed picture of the capability to spy on Cuba.
U.S. spy satellites and ships can monitor such things as troop movements and some, mostly civilian, telephone conversations in Cuba, said one retired intelligence official. Occasional senior defectors can provide some insight into Cuba’s inner workings.
Washington’s spies also have good relations with friendly nations that operate in Cuba. One former U.S. government official said that Spanish intelligence agencies have obtained good information in Cuba, especially under conservative Prime Minister José María Aznar, who left office in 2004. The Canadians are also viewed as capable.
One person with access to U.S. intelligence materials on Cuba said Washington has a ‘‘pretty good’’ understanding of public sentiment in Cuba, thanks to interviews with arriving migrants and contacts with nongovernment groups in Cuba.
But there is little credible information on events at the top levels of the government, the armed forces and security services, the person added.
And Cuban counterintelligence’s tight monitoring of U.S. diplomats in Havana makes it difficult for them to meet privately with top Cuban officials. The Bush administration’s policy is to curtail all contacts with the Cuban government to a minimum, further isolating U.S. diplomats in Cuba.
‘‘They are on the outside,’’ said Phil Peters, a Cuba watcher at the conservative Lexington Institute in Virginia.
It is impossible to know the full extent of U.S. intelligence capabilities on Cuba. Even senior government officials may not have access to details such as whether any U.S. spies are operating in Havana or if Washington is listening to Fidel Castro’s telephone chatter.
But some previous U.S. assessments on Cuba seem likely to have been off the mark.
After Castro underwent surgery in July for a still officially secret intestinal ailment, some U.S. intelligence officials looked at his dramatic weight loss and concluded he had cancer. But in December, a Spanish doctor who saw the Cuban leader flatly denied he had cancer.
In 2002, a top State Department official said Cuba ‘‘has at least a limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort.’’ But last year, a State Department report acknowledged that analysts were divided on the issue.
There has been no evidence to contradict a 2005 CIA assessment—based largely on Castro’s muffled speech, apparent stiffness and trouble with balance—that he has Parkinson’s disease. Neither Castro nor the Cuban government have denied that report.
Since Castro fell ill, the U.S. intelligence community has been trying to bolster its capabilities in Cuba.
Last year, President Bush instructed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to appoint a new ‘‘mission manager’’ for Cuba and Venezuela to oversee all U.S. spy agencies’ efforts on the two countries. Norman Bailey, a former Reagan administration official, was named to the post but was later dismissed. No replacement has been named.
‘‘There’s no rigor, no drive. There’s no motivation behind our collection,’’ said Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere under President Bush.
John Sullivan, who spent 31 years with the CIA giving polygraph tests, including to many Cubans who were supposed to be spying for the United States, considers Havana’s main spy agency, the Intelligence Directorate, or DIA, as the most formidable U.S. foe after the former East German Stasi.
For instance, he said, the Cuban intelligence service would allow its double agents to give information to Washington ‘‘that actually hurt them’’ to bolster the agents’ credibility.
U.S. spying on Cuba suffered a serious setback in 1987, when Florentino Aspillaga, a top Cuban intelligence officer, defected in Europe and revealed the names of hundreds of Cuban agents worldwide. Castro retaliated by airing videos of CIA agents communicating with about 20 ‘‘U.S. agents’’ in Cuba who, in fact, were double agents working for Havana.
The CIA decided to wind down human espionage efforts in Havana after that, and has since relied more on information provided by defectors, according to one former U.S. intelligence community official.
But that is also problematic.
‘‘Castro has planted a lot of phony defectors,’’ said Otto Reich, a former special envoy to Latin America for the Bush White House who believes that Washington should step up its intelligence efforts against Cuba.
In the case of the five Wasp Network Cuban spies rounded up in Miami in 1998, Cuban officials have said that their spying was merely defensive, aimed at averting any attacks on the island by Cuban exiles in the United States.
But the biggest blow to U.S. intelligence capabilities against Cuba came from Ana Belen Montes, a former Cuba analyst with the DIA convicted of spying for Havana in 2001.
During her 17-year career at the DIA, U.S. officials believe, Montes revealed the identity of numerous U.S. agents in Cuba, accessed hundreds of thousands of secret documents and provided Havana with highly valuable information on the United States’ ability to intercept internal Cuban communications.
Scott W. Carmichael, a DIA counterintelligence agent who helped hunt down Montes and wrote a book on the case, says she used her position to produce reports that played down Cuba’s threats to the United States and intimidated more junior analysts who did not agree with her conclusions.
Asked how deeply Montes’ spying could have influenced U.S. intelligence thinking on today’s Cuba situation, Carmichael referred back to the United States’ ‘‘damage assessment’’ carried out after her arrest.
‘‘We had to go back,’’ he said, ``and reevaluate every single collection effort the U.S. had against Cuba.’’