US wins release of spy held for years in Cuba jail

AP News
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Posted: Dec 17, 2014 3:26 PM
US wins release of spy held for years in Cuba jail

WASHINGTON (AP) — This much is known about the Cuban man who spied for the United States and was released Wednesday in a historic prisoner swap: He had access to closely held intelligence information at the highest levels of the Cuban government.

His information was so good, officials said Wednesday, that it helped American authorities ferret out a number of Cuban spies in the United States, including two senior U.S. government officers who were among Cuba's most prolific operatives.

The spy, whom American officials declined to name, spent nearly 20 years in prison after he was caught.

President Barrack Obama said his "sacrifice has been known to only a few," and called him "one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba."

The man is now "safely on our shores," Obama said, along with Alan Gross, the American aid contractor also released Wednesday. Their swap came as Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced steps to fully normalize relations between their countries.

Officials said many details about the spy in Cuba remain classified.

According to Brian Hale, spokesman for the director of national intelligence, the spy's information helped lead to the prosecution of Ana Belen Montes, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who is serving a life sentence after spying for Cuba for 17 years; and former State Department official Walter Kendall Myers, serving life after spying for three decades.

"I think this is a tremendous gain for the intelligence community," said Fran Townsend, a former senior national security official in the George W. Bush administration. "This was a very productive asset who was well placed, trusted by the Cuban government and helped us in a number of ways."

She said it "really is extraordinarily important to ongoing intelligence efforts when you are able to secure the release of an asset like this. It tells the world we remain loyal, we don't forget and we never abandon those who help us."

The spy also helped the U.S. expose the "Wasp Network," in Florida, Hale said, a Cuban spy ring that included members of the Cuban Five, the last three of whom were released in exchange for the Cuban spy. Cuba also released 53 other prisoners.

The Cuban Five were convicted in 2001 of being unregistered foreign agents, and three also were found guilty of espionage conspiracy for failed efforts to obtain military secrets from the U.S. Southern Command headquarters.

"In light of his sacrifice on behalf of the United States, securing his release from prison after 20 years — in a swap for three of the Cuban spies he helped put behind bars — is fitting closure to this Cold World chapter of U.S.-Cuban relations," Hale said.

Three of the Cuban Five — Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino and Antonio Guerrero — were sent home to Cuba as part of the swap. Hernandez had been convicted of murder conspiracy in the deaths of four Miami-based pilots whose small, private planes were shot down on Feb. 24, 1996, by a Cuban MiG in international waters off Cuba's northern coast.

Montes, who was arrested in September 2001, is considered one of the most damaging spies in recent history, because she had access to — and betrayed — U.S. intelligence activities in Cuba.

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Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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Follow Ken Dilanian on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KenDilanianAP and Nedra Pickler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nedrapickler