Attacks Expedited Arrest in Espionage Case; U.S. Feared Passing Of Response Plans

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post  
The Washington Post
September 28, 2001

Walter Pincus and Bill Miller, Washington Post Staff Writers

The FBI accelerated the arrest of a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst on charges of spying for Cuba because of concerns that she would pass along classified information about the U.S. response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, government sources said.

FBI agents arrested Ana Belen Montes, the DIA's senior analyst for matters involving Cuba, at her office last Friday, abruptly ending more than four months of surveillance.

Prosecutors said they have evidence that Montes was working for the Cuban intelligence service and providing classified information. The surveillance, however, had not revealed who her contact was, sources said. The FBI wanted to catch her in the act of meeting someone or picking up money, but it decided to halt the surveillance and arrest her because of the terrorist crisis, the sources said. The investigation ended because Cuban intelligence could pass along information provided by Montes to other countries, "particularly some in the Middle East," one government official said. Government sources said Cuba has been known to share information with Libya, Iran and others that might be sympathetic to Osama bin Laden, identified by the Bush administration as the architect of the attacks.

The DIA, which produces military intelligence about foreign countries in support of U.S. planning and operations, could not risk keeping Montes on its staff at a time when President Bush had declared war on terrorism, another government source said.

"These are the people who prepare military intelligence," the source said. "It's untenable to have someone you know who is passing on information to a hostile country when you're preparing to go to war. . . . They were forced to close the investigation before they would have liked to."

While under surveillance, Montes continued to have access to classified materials, particularly through Intelink, the computer site maintained for the U.S. intelligence community. Montes had access to the highest level of classified material on the site, allowing her to see top-secret information and other sensitive material.

Intelink would not contain any operational plans for a possible response to the terrorist attacks, one Pentagon official said, but it would carry such things as requirements from regional planners and top-secret intelligence reports. Montes "would have access to everything," the official added.

Although authorities had the ability to secretly track Montes's activities on Intelink, cutting her off would have been a problem. Removing her classifications and denying her access to sensitive materials and Intelink would have given away the investigation, government sources said.

The potential for abusing Intelink -- a concern among some in the counterintelligence community when the computer site was created in 1994 -- was driven home a month ago by the arrest of retired Air Force Master Sgt. Brian P. Regan, who allegedly tried to sell to Libya documents he had downloaded. Creation of the site prevailed in part because of the system's safeguards, including its automatic recording of exactly which government workers view what information.

The FBI had had Montes under surveillance since May, according to an FBI affidavit, when agents obtained information from her laptop computer during a court-approved surreptitious entry into her apartment in Northwest Washington. They retrieved text from her laptop hard drive that appeared to tie her directly to Cuban intelligence, the affidavit said.

Montes was observed making a series of questionable calls from pay telephones, including several the weekend after the terrorist strikes, the FBI said. While more time could have provided investigators with additional leads, sources said surveillance might not have produced a face-to-face meeting between Montes and her contact. Cuban intelligence avoids those kinds of meetings, depending instead on coded telephone messages, computer diskettes and shortwave radio.

Montes, 44, began work at the DIA in 1985 and was assigned to analyze Cuban matters seven years later. The charging documents allege that the spying activities began in 1996. She has been in custody since her arrest on a charge of conspiring to deliver U.S. national defense information to Cuba.

Montes is being represented by the federal public defender service, and lawyers there declined comment on the case yesterday. She is due in U.S. District Court on Thursday.

Court documents filed yesterday show that agents seized a shortwave radio, two computers, a diary, foreign currency, letters and other items from Montes's residence; a Rolodex, notebooks and classified and nonclassified documents from her office; and a list with information about foreign mission license plates from her car.

"Shock" was the reaction of Montes's colleagues at the DIA when they heard of her arrest, according to a Pentagon official familiar with the situation.

"She was the go-to person on Cuba when a briefing was needed," the official said.

Staff writer Sylvia Moreno contributed to this report.