Spy Swap Frees Unnamed U.S. Agent Jailed in Cuba for 20 Years

By Terry Atlas

The man, who provided intelligence to the U.S., was freed after being imprisoned in Cuba for almost 20 years. President Barack Obama today said he had furnished vital information used to break up Cuban spying operations in the U.S.

Beyond his gender and nationality – Cuban – officials were unwilling to provide any details about him, other than to cite his importance in the shadow struggle between the U.S. and Cuba that has gone on since the country’s revolution in the 1950s.

He is “one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba,” Obama said today, announcing a spy swap as part of a sweeping overhaul in U.S- Cuban relations.

The release of the mystery man made it possible for the U.S. to win freedom for Alan Gross. The 65-year-old American contractor was jailed for the past five years in Cuba after providing Internet-related equipment to Havana’s Jewish community as an element of a U.S. Agency for International Development program.

Gross’s imprisonment was a major impediment to Obama’s efforts to remake relations between the U.S. and the island nation, a communist enclave some 90 miles from Key West, Florida.

No Swap

Cuba considered Gross a spy, sentencing him to 15 years in prison on charges of undermining the state, and has sought repeatedly to link his case to five Cubans given jail sentences in the U.S. on espionage convictions. While two of the five had been released after serving their time, the U.S. refused to swap the remaining three for Gross, who the U.S. said wasn’t a spy and therefore shouldn’t be part of any such exchange.

Cuba’s willingness to do a spy swap involving the unnamed intelligence figure and its three agents in the U.S. made it possible for Gross to be freed on what officials called humanitarian grounds, citing his multiple health problems.

The disclosure of the long imprisonment of the unidentified agent – now safely in the U.S., Obama said – highlights the decades of hostile relations between the two nations.

U.S. officials said today the unnamed man had provided key information to the American government leading to the conviction of the so-called Cuban Five, who were incarcerated in 1998 for infiltrating groups in Miami that had been planning terrorist actions against the Cuban government, then led by Fidel Castro.

‘Five Heroes’

Cuba has said that the men, known as the “Five Heroes” in Cuba, were keeping an eye on anti-regime militants, not spying against the U.S. government. One was given a life sentence on murder-conspiracy charges related to the Cuban air force’s 1996 downing of two planes flown by a Cuban exile organization that dropped propaganda leaflets on the island.

The U.S. asset also provided key information leading to the arrest of Ana Montes, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst now serving a 25-year sentence for spying for Cuba, and retired State Department official Walter Kendall Myers, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for having spied for Cuba for three decades.

In addition, the mystery agent’s information was used to identify members of the Red Avispa network, or “Wasp Network,” in Florida in the 1990s, which included members of the Cuban Five.

Information provided by this person “was instrumental in the identification and disruption of several Cuban intelligence operatives” in the U.S. and led to a series of successful federal espionage prosecutions, according to a statement from the office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper.

“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,” the statement said.

–With assistance from Nicole Gaouette in Washington.

To contact the reporter on this story: Terry Atlas in Washington at tatlas@bloomberg.net To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net Mark McQuillan, Steven Komarow 12-17-14 1435EST