Federal prosecutors said Monday that a retired U.S. State Department official who worked as an undercover agent for Cuba for decades referred to the United States as an "enemy," a previously undisclosed breach of intelligence rules with potentially significant diplomatic and national security implications.
The New York Times writes about it.
In a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Miami, prosecutors said diplomat Manuel Rocha had secretly assisted Cuba's "covert intelligence-gathering mission against the United States" since at least 1981, when he rose through the ranks of the State Department and briefly served in a senior position in the White House.
Details of the high-profile case
According to prosecutors, Rocha, 73, met with the curators of the Cuban spy agency back in 2017 and boasted that he had been spying for the communist government in Havana for 40 years and "strengthening the revolution."
For more than two decades, Rocha worked on Latin America-related issues in various positions at the State Department under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, including ambassador to Bolivia from 2000 to 2002. A native of Colombia who grew up in New York City, Rocha served as an advisor to the U.S. military command, which includes the Cuba region, from 2006 to 2012.
Rocha's complaint charged him with acting as an illegal agent for a foreign government and two other crimes, but prosecutors said the investigation was ongoing and could end with more serious charges. According to senior officials, the case prompted an internal damage assessment to determine what secrets might have been revealed and raised serious questions about the effectiveness of counterintelligence programs set up to track down spies.
Manuel Rocha / X (Twitter)
"These actions expose one of the largest and longest-running infiltrations by a foreign agent into the U.S. government," U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland told reporters in Washington on Monday. He said Rocha was "looking for a job in the U.S. government that would give him access to non-public information and the ability to influence U.S. foreign policy."
John D. Feeley, a former career diplomat who worked alongside Rocha decades ago, said the case could be one of the worst intelligence breaches in recent history. Cuban intelligence has long had close ties to the intelligence services of America's adversaries, including Russia.
"Manuel literally had the keys to the kingdom," said Fili, who most recently served as ambassador to Panama. "If it was about Cuba, he was able to see it."
Rocha's arrest on Friday, December 1, was first reported by the Associated Press.
He burst into tears and watched in silence as his family left the courtroom during his first federal court hearing in Miami on Monday, December 4. The prosecutor said that new charges may soon be brought by the grand jury, and the judge in the case has scheduled a hearing on detention for Wednesday, December 6.
His mournful demeanor contrasted with the talkative, charming and elegant diplomat that his former colleagues remember him to be, and the steely, double cameraman depicted in government documents.
The complaint did not go into detail about how Rocha may have influenced U.S. policy, what information he may have sent to Cuba, or how long the government had been investigating him. But it describes three meetings in about the past year between Rocha and an undercover FBI agent who Rocha believes was a representative of the Cuban spy agency, the Directorate of Intelligence.
Victor Manuel Rocha, a former US ambassador to Bolivia from 2000 to 2002, has been charged with multiple federal crimes, Justice Department said, including acting as an illegal foreign agent, and using a fraudulently obtained passport https://t.co/MfYMcpWveH pic.twitter.com/yYqQ9GrUsx
— Reuters (@Reuters) December 5, 2023
On several occasions during these meetings, Rocha spoke of working on behalf of this agency and referred to the United States as an "enemy," according to an affidavit filed in court by Michael Haley, the FBI's special agent in Miami.
How it all began
According to friends, Rocha was a supporter of socialism in his youth, but appears to have become an anti-Havana conservative over the years at the behest of his handlers — perhaps suggested by federal authorities to avoid suspicion of sympathy for their cause.
During a meeting with an undercover agent in November, Rocha said that Cuban intelligence had ordered him to "lead a normal life" and that he had created an image of a "right-wing man" so that his work as a mole would not be exposed, according to his affidavit.
"All this time, he portrayed himself as right-wing," said Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of international relations at Florida International University who had known Rocha since the 1980s.
Rocha attended Yale University and earned graduate degrees from Harvard and Georgetown in the 1970s. He began his career at the State Department as a Honduran affairs officer in 1981, around the same time that prosecutors say he first started working for Cuba.
Over the years, he held various diplomatic posts in the Dominican Republic, Italy, Argentina, and Cuba, and in July 1994, according to the official biography of the State Department, he served for a year as director of inter-American affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.
Rocha held a senior position at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana during one of the most tense moments in bilateral relations in decades: Cuba's 1996 downing of two U.S. civilian planes flown by anti-Castro exiles.
At the time, the Cuban government was keenly interested in understanding how the United States might respond to the attack on the group that flew the planes, Brothers to the Rescue. The Miami-based group flew over the Florida Strait searching for Cuban migrants on rafts and occasionally entered Cuban airspace to drop anti-government leaflets over Havana.
Years later, Rocha served as ambassador to Bolivia during another tense period, the 2002 presidential race that featured Evo Morales, a staunch anti-American indigenous candidate who became known as the leader of a cocaine union. Morales lost that race, but was elected president in 2005.
Shortly before the 2002 vote, Rocha publicly warned that electing Morales would damage relations with the United States. "I want to remind Bolivian voters that if they elect those who want Bolivia to become a cocaine exporter again, it will jeopardize aid from the United States," Rocha said at the time.
Morales — Cuba's staunch ally who has sought medical attention in recent years — suggested Rocha's warning had helped his campaign and jokingly referred to him as "campaign chief."
Otto Reich, a former assistant secretary of state who served as Rocha's boss at the State Department, said the remarks frightened his superiors.
"He never got it coordinated with the State Department," Reich recalls. "I remember being irritated at the time, very irritated."
Ricardo Zuniga, a former senior State Department and White House official, called the move highly unusual for a veteran diplomat, saying the comments would clearly give Morales a boost.
"Maybe he's decided he's going to try to be a caricature of what he thinks the United States is," Zuniga said. "If that's the case, then it was 'a hell of a performance.'
In October, Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, was charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of Egypt, even when he served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The case came a month after Menendez was indicted on corruption charges. And last week, federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged an Indian citizen with the attempted murder of a U.S. citizen who supported Sikh independence.
The agency also filed charges against people accused of working for China, Russia and Iran.
Cuban Intelligence Service
Cuba's intelligence service is considered one of the best in the world, and for decades it has made it its mission to infiltrate U.S. federal institutions.
"It's a tremendous demonstration of what these guys are capable of," said Zuniga, who spoke with President Barack Obama about resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014. "For that reason, I've always been extremely careful."
So far, the most devastating infiltration has been the decade-long espionage career of Ana Belén Montes, who worked as a senior analyst in the Defense Intelligence Agency, where she specialized in Cuba, until her arrest in 2001.
Montes told investigators that she was recruited by Cuban intelligence in the 1980s while working as a clerk for the Justice Department. As her intelligence career progressed, Montes relayed information to her Cuban handlers through a shortwave radio station. Montes was released from prison this year after serving most of her 25-year sentence.
As part of a plea deal, Montes agreed to tell the FBI everything she knew about Cuban intelligence operations. This information led to the indictment of a former close friend, Marta Rita Velázquez, a former official of the United States Agency for International Development, who was charged in February 2004 with being a Cuban agent.
Chris Simmons, a former Defense Intelligence Agency investigator who worked on the Montes case, said it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to get an accurate estimate of the damage if Rocha did not provide this information himself.
"They're going to depend entirely on his cooperation," Simmons said. "Even if they know he's going to lie and belittle, it's still better than nothing."