Spy wars: a wilderness of mirrors in U.S.-Cuba swap

Jose Cohen, pictured at Little Havana’s Versailles Restaurant in 2000.
Jose Cohen, pictured at Little Havana’s Versailles Restaurant in 2000. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

More than two weeks have passed since the White House announced that it had traded three imprisoned Cuban intelligence officers — including one convicted of conspiracy to murder — for a super spy held in a Havana prison whom President Barack Obama labeled “one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba.”

But since the president’s announcement, there’s been only silence. Nothing more has been said of the spy or his accomplishments. Of the people released from prison as part of the deal between Washington and Havana, the three Cuban spies and U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross have all appeared on television to talk exultantly about their release.

Yet Washington’s master spy has remained anonymous and incommunicado. The only man who seems to fit the handful of clues the White House provided about the spy’s identity — former Cuban Interior Ministry Lt. Rolando Sarraff, jailed since his arrest in 1995 — has disappeared from the Havana prison where he was being held, and his family members say they’ve neither heard from him nor been told his whereabouts.

The Obama administration won’t confirm Sarraff’s name, much less why he could be out of reach.

But a man who claims he is a former member of Sarraff’s spy ring speculates there’s a good reason for Sarraff’s disappearance: that Sarraff was a fake, feeding the CIA false or trivial information as part of a Cuban scheme to disrupt U.S. intelligence.

“They were acting on behalf of Fidel Castro,” insists Bill Gaede, an Argentine engineer who says he carried information to the CIA from Sarraff and other Cuban intelligence officers. “They weren’t genuine. They were full of caca.”

What’s more, Gaede contends, the CIA and FBI suspected that Sarraff was a fake — a “dangle,” in intelligence parlance — right from the start, and never believed anything the ring of putative spies passed along. U.S. officials, he says, are calling him a valuable agent now only to make the Gross-for-Cuban-spies swap more palatable to U.S. conservatives. “It’s just public relations,” sniffs Gaede.


But Gaede’s claim is hotly disputed by another member of the spy ring — Jose Cohen, also a former lieutenant in the Cuban Interior Ministry, who defected from Cuba in 1994. “Bill Gaede is not a [credible] source. He was an enemy of the United States. He’s at Cuba’s service,” says Cohen, now living in southwest Miami-Dade, where he’s a highly successful Amway salesman.

“I think what Bill is looking for is publicity. ... He’s mocking the press, he’s mocking the government.”

The heated war of words between Gaede and Cohen is a striking — and befuddling — example of why the intelligence business is often referred to as a wilderness of mirrors, where separating reality from illusion is difficult and often impossible. No matter what angle is examined, this is a tale full of gaps and contradictions.

A U.S. government counterintelligence official contacted by the Miami Herald in 2009, when rumors first began to swirl about the circumstances of Cohen’s departure from Cuba, portrayed him as a bona fide defector who brought important information with him. And a retired senior CIA official contacted last week confirmed that the agency considers Cohen legitimate.

But Gaede has secretly made audio and video tapes in which FBI agents imply the opposite. And the mere fact that the FBI was interested in Cohen suggests that at least some American officials were suspicious of him — the FBI is not a welcome wagon for defectors but the agency in charge of preventing foreign spies from stealing U.S. secrets.

What’s (relatively) certain is this: Gaede, Cohen and Sarraff worked together for two years in the mid-1990s, passing secret information from Cuban intelligence in Havana to the FBI and CIA. Then their spy ring dissolved. Cohen escaped from Cuba; Sarraff was jailed there; and Gaede went on to further misadventures in the spy trade, serving three years in prison in the U.S. and then being deported after he was caught peddling stolen U.S. microchip technology to the governments of Iran and China.

What’s in hot dispute: exactly what secrets the three men gave to U.S. intelligence, how valuable the information was, and whether Washington regarded them as genuine or a Castroite provocation.

Puzzling figure

The most puzzling and paradoxical character in the study is Gaede, acknowledged as brilliant even by his enemies and treacherous even by himself. “My life has been, well, interesting,” he concedes by telephone from Germany, where he’s living in exile from both his native Argentina and his adopted United States.

Once a self-described “fanatic communist,” Gaede for six years delivered to Cuban intelligence agents “trunk loads” of secrets from his U.S. employer, the computer-chip manufacturer AMD, by one estimate worth $1billion.

After growing disillusioned with the Cuban revolution, Gaede spent the next two years working against the Castro regime, passing its secrets to the FBI and CIA. (Hedging his bets, he also covertly photographed his American intelligence contacts.) And finally, believing he’d been betrayed by everybody, Gaede went completely rogue, selling the plans for the then state-of-the-art Intel Pentium microchip to Iran and China.

Gaede came to the United States in 1977 as a tourist, fleeing a right-wing military coup in Argentina. Blue-eyed, blond and speaking American-accented English he learned during a childhood in Illinois, where his father worked for Coca-Cola, he easily acquired false documents that allowed him to stay when his visa expired.

In 1986, after making covert contact with Cuban diplomats in Argentina, he began his career in industrial espionage, driving cars packed with computer secrets across the border to Mexico from his home in Texas and handing them over to Cuban intelligence officers.

“I gave them just about everything,” he said. “Anything you can think of to build integrated circuits, from A to Z everything you would need. Blueprints for making the machines used in their manufacture, training manuals, the complete manufacturing specifications. ... I think ‘trunk load’ only barely describes it. Sometimes the trunk was so tightly packed I almost needed Vaseline to fit everything in.”

The Cubans, who not only built some of their own chips but passed the information on to the rest of the Soviet bloc, were so pleased with the material that they arranged for Gaede and his Colombian-born wife, Nila, to visit the island. When they arrived in 1992, they were assigned a lieutenant from the Interior Ministry’s industrial and scientific espionage division as a handler: Jose Cohen.

Which man first suggested that Cuban communism was not all it was cracked up to be depends on which one you talk to. Gaede says that, inspired by the reforms afoot in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, he was already wavering in his commitment to Marxism.

“I remember Cohen asking me, very proudly, well, don’t you think Havana is a nice clean city? And I said, in a country that can’t afford to make candy bars, I guess I didn’t expect to see a bunch of candy wrappers on the street,” Gaede recalls. “I was saying to myself, s---, how did I get into this? The people are starving, and Fidel is living like a king.”

Cohen remembers it as the exact opposite. “He thought he was helping a suffering people,” he recalls. “All of that was a lie.” Cohen took Gaede on tours of the seamy side of Havana, he says, showing him blocks of decaying buildings haunted by mobs of prostitutes.

Two strike deal

Whoever was subverting whom, the men became friends. And when Gaede returned to Cuba six months later, they struck a deal. Cohen and other Interior Ministry officers would provide Cuban intelligence secrets to Gaede, who would carry them to the CIA.

Who, exactly, was part of the group is in dispute. Gaede says it included Cohen’s old high school buddy Rolando Sarraff, then an Interior Ministry wiretapping expert, and Cohen’s wife, an Interior Ministry employee. Gaede says he met them both as the group assembled its package of secrets. Cohen adamantly denies that either his then-wife or Sarraff participated.

The first batch of information was divided into two lists.

Among the secrets on the two lists, according to Gaede, were the names of several Cuban spies and collaborators in the U.S.

There were also names of several Cuban intelligence officials stationed abroad, the model numbers of three U.S.-made cipher machines that Cuban code-breakers had penetrated, and a description of a Cuban computer program that looks for background information on foreign visitors.

Cohen confirms that he shared secrets with Gaede, but won’t discuss the content except to say that the names on the list may have been people Cuban intelligence intended to recruit as spies rather than confirmed agents.

Trip to CIA HQ

Gaede says he took the information to CIA headquarters in Virginia, where he discovered that applying for a job as a spy wasn’t as easy as he thought.

“I rented a car, drove into the compound and said, ‘I’d like to talk to a case agent,’” Gaede says. “I got kicked out right away. I kept calling them, and finally, we met at around 10 p.m., outside the main building. This lady came out, I told her everything, and she said, ‘We’ll be in touch.’ I thought I had failed, and I would never hear from them again.”

But he did, sort of. About 45 days later, Gaede got a call from the FBI. Two agents came to his house, unaware that Gaede had rigged it with hidden cameras and recorders.

The fact that it was the FBI getting back to him rather than the CIA, say former U.S. intelligence officials with no personal knowledge of the case, suggests that the Americans regarded Gaede and his Cuban friends as fakes — the FBI is a law-enforcement organization in charge of catching foreign spies, not an intelligence agency that commits espionage overseas.

And in long conversations over three days, the agents made it clear they indeed were skeptical about Gaede’s Cuban friends. Their skepticism only increased when Gaede pulled out a list of equipment that the Cubans wanted the CIA to supply, including a computer, a shortwave radio and codes — all things that would give Cuban intelligence valuable insight into CIA operations.

Gaede was so freaked out by the FBI visit that he went into hiding in Europe for several months. When he returned in March 1993, he sent his wife alone to Cuba to collect another load of secrets. He gave her a message to relay to Cohen: “They don’t believe us; you’ve got to send better stuff.”

But the FBI agents — who were joined this time by two CIA officers, who said little but made it clear they shared the FBI’s skepticism — were no more impressed with the second shipment, which consisted more of letters from the Interior Ministry officers expressing their sincerity than it did of secrets.

“There are certain ways, certain procedures, certain protocols, that a genuine intelligence officer follows when he wants to defect and these guys know that,” said one of the FBI agents. “Why didn’t they send something valuable like a crypto card [a key to Cuban intelligence codes]? Here they are in the heart of the Interior Ministry, they are worth more than a general because they are into the day-to-day details that are important to us, and they don’t send anything that is earth-shattering to make their case. They send us ‘love letters,’ philosophical garbage about their about-face. Some of the information is good, but it just raises more suspicions. It’s like Fidel Castro is setting a trap for us.”

“The CIA and the FBI believed this was all being run by Fidel Castro,” says Gaede. “And, by the time they finished talking to me, I agreed.”

The FBI, evidently trying to build a criminal case, told Gaede to stay in touch with Cohen. The agents tapped Gaede’s phone and gave him a post-office box that he could tell Cohen was secure. And over the next year, Gaede says he was contacted several times by friends and relatives of the Interior Ministry officers, offering fresh secrets of ever-diminishing value.

“Finally, the whole thing just petered out,” Gaede says. Feeling bullied by the FBI and betrayed by Cohen, Gaede disappeared again, this time to Argentina, where he sold Iran and China secrets stolen from his latest employer, Intel, including the design of its new Pentium computer chip. Argentine intelligence spotted him leaving the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires one day in 1994, arrested him, and turned him over to the CIA for interrogation. His secret life quickly unraveled.

Cohen flees Cuba

Cohen, meanwhile, fled Havana in 1994 — on a raft, not as part of a CIA extraction, as has been reported in some fragmentary accounts of his escape, he says. “I wish it had been an operation,” he says ruefully. “Because had I been caught at sea, I would have been executed.”

He says his defection led the Cuban government to dismantle his old department of the Interior Ministry, and to arrest his friend Sarraff — perhaps out of suspicion that he, too, planned to defect, or perhaps as an act of petty vengeance.

What he’s absolutely certain of: Bill Gaede is a malicious liar.

“He has said, for example, that I was a double agent. If that were true, I wouldn’t be in this country, free, for 20 years, living in this country,” Cohen snaps. “That’s why what Bill Gaede says has no credibility. The ones who know what information I turned over are the FBI or the CIA.”

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this report.

Related stories from Miami Herald