The family of a Cuban man believed to be Washington’s superspy in Havana says he has disappeared from prison without a trace — and if he was really flown to the United States as part of Wednesday’s historic rapprochement between Washington and Havana, they wish somebody would pick up a phone and let them know.
“We are desperate because there is no official information,” said a distressed Odessa Trujillo by telephone from Havana on Thursday afternoon. “We don’t know if he arrived in the United States. The uncertainty is affecting us, we are older people.”
Her 51-year-old son, Rolando Sarraff, is widely believed to be the spy that National Intelligence Director James Clapper called “the most highly valued intelligence asset on Cuban soil in American history,” who was released Wednesday in a spy swap at the heart of Wednesday’s historic announcement that Washington and Havana will resume diplomatic relations that ruptured five decades ago.
The Obama administration still has not identified its spy by name. But former U.S. intelligence officials say the description of the man matches only Sarraff, who was arrested in Havana in 1995 and has been serving a 25-year prison sentence for espionage ever since.
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“You know intelligence guys, they can’t keep a secret,” cracked former Defense Intelligence Agency spycatcher Chris Simmons. “They’re all talking. I’m now 100 percent certain that it’s Sarraff.”
The former intelligence officials say Sarraff passed top-secret Cuban cryptographic secrets to the CIA that allowed the United States to read radio traffic between Cuban agents in the United States and their spymasters in Havana.
His family members don’t know anything about that — “my brother has always told us he is innocent,” said his sister Vilma, who lives in Spain — but they are worried sick over his whereabouts in a country where the disappearance of a prison inmate rarely signifies anything positive.
The last Sarraff’s family heard from him was a telephone call to his parents Monday from Villa Marista, the Cuban State Security headquarters in Havana where he has been held for the past year. He said nothing about any impending release. When his parents showed up at Villa Marista for their regular weekly visit Wednesday, he was gone.
“The only official response we got at Villa Marista is that he was taken in the wee hours on Wednesday, but they didn’t know where to,” said Sarraff’s father, whose name is also Rolando Sarraff. “They said we should wait for a phone call.”
When no call came, his sister Vilma began furiously demanding to know his whereabouts on a blog she maintains calling for his release. “We continue to condemn manipulation, trickery, falsehoods, mysteries,” she wrote on the blog. “We are alarmed by the secrecy and such an unjust lack of humanity.”
Sarraff studied journalism at the University of Havana before joining the Cuban Interior Ministry’s intelligence directorate, family members said. He was a 29-year-old first lieutenant when “one day he went to work and never came back,” his sister said.
Former U.S. intelligence officials say that when he was arrested, Sarraff for a year or more had been working with two other men to supply the CIA with Cuba’s cryptographic secrets.
When the three spies began fearing the Cuban government had detected their espionage, they sent the CIA a pre-arranged signal to sneak them off the island. But something went wrong and Sarraff was left behind. Film of one of their associates loading the “dead drop” — the location where they passed messages to their CIA handlers — is used by the Cuban government to this day in training its intelligence personnel, Simmons said.
One of the two men who worked with Sarraff has never been publicly identified. The other, Jose Cohen, lives in South Florida, where he’s a top Amway salesman. He declined to discuss the spy ring with the Miami Herald on Thursday.
“I can’t say anything about that right now,” Cohen said. “I don’t know what the situation is in Cuba. I know Rolando has family there. Until I have information that he’s arrived in the United States, I can’t say anything that might jeopardize the security of his family in Cuba.”
In his Wednesday announcement that the United States was getting back its top spy in Cuba, National Intelligence Director Clapper said the man “provided information that led to the identification and conviction” of eight Cuban spies in the United States arrested between 1998 and 2009.
Though that seems to contradict the idea that the released man is Sarraff, who was in a Cuban prison years before any of those arrests were made, former intelligence officials said the key word in Clapper’s description was “information.”
“They aren’t saying that [Sarraff] turned over the names of the spies,” Simmons said. “They’re saying the codebreaking secrets he provided the CIA enabled American investigators to track down the spies.”
The massive amount of cryptographic information Sarraff passed along to the CIA, Simmons said, helped American codebreakers to break into high-frequency radio transmissions (the same type used by ham radio operators) between Cuban agents in the United States and their spymasters in Havana.
That enabled U.S. investigators to read not only new messages, but old ones recorded by the National Security Agency because it suspected they were spy traffic. Even then, however, it took some time to identify the agents who wrote them.
“Catching spies is like assembling pieces of a puzzle,” Simmons said. “You start with the signal footprint, the information of where the signal is coming from. So maybe you know that the agent in operating in Florida on the Atlantic coast. That’s a piece.
“Then maybe you’re able to decode only a single sentence of a message, but it tells you the agent was in Toronto in February. That’s a second piece. You get three or four pieces of the puzzle, or maybe 10, and then, bang!
“But it takes time. It took three years before we had the breakthrough on the Montes investigation.” Ana Belen Montes, a senior analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, confessed in 2002 to spying for Cuba, one of the cases Sarraff is credited with helping to crack. “We were able to add a new piece of the puzzle one day, and suddenly everything started to make sense.”