“I obeyed my conscience rather than the law,” ex-Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Ana Belén Montes declared on her way into a federal prison. Accused of spying for Cuba, she is a hero on the besieged island, where she foiled countless US destabilization operations.
On January 8, 2023 the US has to release a federal prisoner who is known as one its most notable opponents of treatment of Cuba since its revolution. She is Ana Belén Montes, and she will be freed after over 21 years in a federal military prison.
She was a top official on Latin America in the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) who, solely out of moral conviction, gave Cuba information on top secret US military plans and operations. Unrepentant in her trial, she defended herself saying, “I obeyed my conscience rather than the law. … I felt morally obligated to help the island defend itself from our efforts to impose our values and our political system on it.”
Ana Belén is one of the many Americans who have taken a moral stance in opposition to the actions of their government, and who were subsequently hunted as traitors or spies. Edward Snowden was another such figure, having exposed how the National Security Agency’s spying on the US population and leaders of other countries. Rather than spend much of his life in a federal prison, Snowden has opted to live in exile in Russia.
While the US movement in defense of Cuba did not champion the case of Ana Belén as with the very similar situation of the Cuban Five, she is recognized as a hero in Cuba. In 2016, the famed Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez dedicated a song to her, explaining, “The prisoner I mentioned yesterday… is Ana Belén Montes and she was a high official of the US secret services. When she knew that they were going to do something bad to Cuba, she would pass on the information to us. That is why she is serving a sentence of decades…Much evil did not happen to us because of her. Freedom for her.”
Ana Belén did not receive any money from Cuba for her 16 years of work. Knowing the dire risks she faced, she acted out of a belief in justice and solidarity with Cuba. For over 60 years, the country has suffered under a US blockade – repeatedly condemned by the United Nations – imposed in retaliation for choosing national sovereignty over continued neocolonial status. US supported terrorism against Cuba has killed 3,478 and caused 2,099 disabling injuries over the years.
One of the charges brought against Ana Belén was having helped assure Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that Cuba represented no military threat to the US, and therefore contributed to avoiding another US regime change war that would have meant the death of countless Cubans. She also acknowledged having revealed the identities of four American undercover intelligence officers working in Cuba.
“The Queen of Cuba” hailed from a family of feds
Born in West Germany on February 28, 1957, a Puerto Rican citizen of the United States, and a high official in the Defense Intelligence Agency, Ana Belén was convicted as a spy for alerting Cuba to the interventionist plans that were being prepared against the Cuban people.
In 1984 while working as a clerk in the Department of Justice, Ana Belén initiated her relationship with Cuban security. She then applied for a job at the DIA, the agency responsible for foreign military intelligence to the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The DIA employed her in 1985 until her arrest at work 16 years later. She became a specialist in Latin American military affairs, was the DIA’s principal analyst on El Salvador and Nicaragua, and later Cuba.
Because of her abilities, Ana Belén became known in US intelligence circles as “the Queen of Cuba”. Her work and contributions were so valued that she earned ten special recognitions, including Certificate of Distinction, the third highest national-level intelligence award. CIA Director George Tenet himself presented it to her in 1997.
“She gained access to hundreds of thousands of classified documents, typically taking lunch at her desk absorbed in quiet memorization of page after page of the latest briefings,” which she would later write down at home and convey to Cuba.
Avoiding capture through discretion, until the intercept came
On February 23, 1996, the Cuban Ministry of Defense asked visiting American Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll to warn off Miami Brothers to the Rescue planes that planned to again fly over Havana. Carroll immediately informed the State Department.
Instead of ending the provocations, the US let the planes fly, and two “Brothers to the Rescue” planes were shot down over Cuba the next day. The US exploited the flare-up to sabotage the growing campaign to moderate the US blockade of the island. The US official who arranged Admiral Carroll’s meeting was Ana Belén. Her explanation that the date was chosen only because it was a free date on the Admiral’s schedule was accepted.
Nevertheless, a DIA colleague reported to a security official that he felt Ana Belén might be under the influence of Cuban intelligence. He interviewed her, but she admitted nothing. She passed a polygraph test.
Ana Belén had access to practically everything the intelligence community collected on Cuba, and helped write final reports. Due to her rank, she was a member of the super-secret “inter-agency working group on Cuba”, which brings together the main analysts of federal agencies, such as the CIA, the Department of State, and the White House itself.
The Washington Post reported, “She was now briefing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council and even the president of Nicaragua about Cuban military capabilities. She helped draft a controversial Pentagon report stating that Cuba had a ‘limited capacity’ to harm the United States and could pose a danger to U.S. citizens only ‘under some circumstances.'”
Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a US agent in Cuba’s Ministry of Interior that Cuba had uncovered and imprisoned, was released and traded for three of the Cuban 5 in 2014. He had “provided critical information that led to the arrests of those known as the “Cuban Five;” of former State Department official Walter Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers; and of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top Cuba analyst, Ana Belén Montes.”
In 1999 the National Security Agency intercepted a Cuban communication. It revealed a spy high in the hierarchy, who was associated with the DIA’s SAFE computer system. It meant the spy was likely on staff of the DIA. The suspect had also traveled to Guantánamo Bay in July 1996. Coincidentally, Ana Belén worked in the DIA and had traveled to the Bay on DIA business. The spy was using a Toshiba laptop, and it was discovered she had one. A decision was taken to break into her flat and copy the hard drive.
Since the case being put together indicated she was providing information to Cuba, she was arrested by FBI agents on September 21, 2001 while in her DIA office. She was charged with conspiracy to commit espionage for Cuba. “She told investigators after her arrest that a week earlier she had learned that she was under surveillance. She could have decided then to flee to Cuba, and probably would have made it there safely.” But her political commitment made her feel “she couldn’t give up on the people (she) was helping.”
Nigerian commentator Owei Lakemfa presented ten reasons he thought Ana Belén Montes avoided detection during her 16 years in the DIA. Among the most important was that she was extremely discreet and kept to herself. She lived alone in a simple apartment north of the US capital, and memorized documents, never taking any home. And she never received unexplainable funds.
Ana Belén avoided the death penalty for high treason, highly likely in the post September 11 atmosphere, by pleading guilty before the US federal court handling her case. Since she acknowledged her conduct, and told the court how she worked, she was sentenced to “only” twenty-five years. However, she was imprisoned in conditions designed to destroy her, as the case with Julian Assange today. She was sent to special unit of a federal prison for violent offenders with psychiatric problems.
“There is an Italian proverb that is perhaps the one that best describes what I believe: The whole world is one country. In that ‘world country’, the principle of loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself, is an essential guide for harmonious relations between all our ‘nation-neighborhoods’.
This principle implies tolerance and understanding for the different ways of others. It mandates that we treat other nations the way we wish to be treated – with respect and compassion. It is a principle that, unfortunately, I believe we have never applied to Cuba.
Your Honor, I got involved in the activity that has brought me before you because I obeyed my conscience rather than the law. Our government’s policy towards Cuba is cruel and unfair, deeply unfriendly; I feel morally obligated to help the island defend itself from our efforts to impose our values and our political system on it.
We have displayed intolerance and contempt for Cuba for four decades. We have never respected Cuba’s right to make its own journey towards its own ideals of equality and justice. I do not understand how we continue to try to dictate how Cuba should select its leaders, who its leaders cannot be, and what laws are the most appropriate for that nation. Why don’t we let Cuba pursue its own internal journey, as the United States has been doing for more than two centuries?
My way of responding to our Cuba policy may have been morally wrong. Perhaps Cuba’s right to exist free of political and economic coercion did not justify giving the island classified information to help it defend itself. I can only say that I did what I thought right to counter a grave injustice.
My greatest wish would be to see a friendly relationship emerge between the United States and Cuba. I hope that my case in some way will encourage our government to abandon its hostility toward Cuba and work together with Havana in a spirit of tolerance, mutual respect and understanding.
Today we see more clearly than ever that intolerance and hatred – by individuals or governments – only spreads pain and suffering. I hope that the United States develops a policy with Cuba based on love of neighbor, a policy that recognizes that Cuba, like any other nation, wants to be treated with dignity and not with contempt.
Such a policy would bring our government back in harmony with the compassion and generosity of the American people. It would allow Cubans and Americans to learn from and share with each other. It would enable Cuba to drop its defensive measures and experiment more easily with changes. And it would permit the two neighbors to work together and with other nations to promote tolerance and cooperation in our one ‘world-country,’ in our only world-homeland.”
Brutal prison conditions aimed to destroy Ana Belén
Jürgen Heiser of the German solidarity Netzwerk-Cuba reported that “Ana Belén has been isolated in conditions that the UN and international human rights organizations describe as ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ and torture. Her prison conditions were further exacerbated after her trial, when she was placed in the Federal Medical Center (FMC) in Carswell, outside of Fort Worth, Texas. The FMC is located on a US marine compound and previously served as a military hospital… It includes a high security unit set aside for women of “special management concerns” that can hold up to twenty prisoners. A risk of “violence and/or escape” are specified as grounds for incarceration in the unit. This is where the “spy” Ana Belén is being held in isolation, in a single-person cell.”
Her cell neighbors have included one who strangled a pregnant woman to get her baby, a longtime nurse who killed four patients with massive injections of adrenaline, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, the Charles Manson follower who tried to assassinate President Ford.
The Fort Worth Star Telegram has regularly covered the abuses against the women inmates at Fort Carswell Carswell prison, which has also housed two other political prisoners Reality Winner and Aafia Siddiqui. Detainees have suffered gross violations of their human rights, including documented cases of police abuse, suspicious deaths where the investigations into them have been blatantly obstructed, deaths due to the denial of basic medical attention, rape of prisoners by guards, and exposure to toxic substances. In July 2020, 500 of the 1400 prisoners had Covid. The Star Telegram reported “the facility showed a systemic history of covering misconduct up and creating an atmosphere of secrecy and retaliation…”
Ana Belén wrote, “Prison is one of the last places I would have ever chosen to be in, but some things in life are worth going to prison for, or worth doing and then killing yourself before you have to spend too much time in prison.”
She has been subjected to extreme conditions in that prison, akin to those imposed on Assange. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has reported that:
She can only have contact with her closest relatives, since her conviction is for espionage.
No one can inquire about her health or know why she is in a center for people with mental problems, when she does not suffer from them.
She cannot receive packages. When her defenders sent her a letter, it has been returned by certified mail.
Only people on a list (no more than 20 who have known her before her incarceration and have been approved by the FBI) can correspond, send books, and visit Ana. Few people have visited her besides her brother and niece.
She cannot interact with other detainees in jail, and was always alone in her cell.
She is not allowed to talk on the phone, except to her mother once a week for 15-20 minutes.
She could not receive newspapers, magazines or watch television. After a dozen years in prison, the restrictions were slightly relaxed.
Karen Lee Wald noted in 2012, “If she is taken out of her cell in the isolation unit for any reason, all other prisoners are locked in their cells so they cannot speak to her. Basically, she has been buried alive.”
David Rovics, the renowned leftist songwriter, was moved to pay tribute to her in song. Oscar Lopez Rivera, who was jailed by the US during his fight for Puerto Rican independence, said, “I think that every Puerto Rican who loves justice and freedom should be proud of Ana Belén. What she did was more than heroic. She did what every person who believes in peace, justice and freedom and in the right of every nation to govern itself in the best possible way and without the intervention or threat of anyone, would have done.”