BY: Christopher Marquis The New York Times


A few days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, Ana Belen Montes, a top Defense Department intelligence analyst, sent an e-mail note to an old friend saying she was all right and had not known anyone who died at the Pentagon.

"I could see the Pentagon burning from my office," she wrote. "Nonetheless, it pales next to the World Trade Center. Dark days ahead. So much hate and self-righteousness." The days darkened especially quickly for Montes. A week after she signed off, sending love to her friend's family, federal agents surprised her at work and charged her with spying for Cuba. She is the highest-ranking official ever accused of espionage at the Defense Intelligence Agency, which, as a sister agency to the CIA, handles analysis for the Pentagon.

The arrest, on Sept. 21, left her friends and colleagues at a loss to explain what might have motivated her to risk everything, should the charges prove true. Friends described Montes, who is 44 and single, as a loyal companion, a doting aunt, well educated and an avid traveler. She had no evident money problems and was apparently content dating a man who either was in the military or did business at the Pentagon, they said.

She was warm and funny, friends said, and seemed apolitical, even back in college. Her remark about "self-righteousness" was as ideologically pointed as she had ever been, said Lisa A. Huber, who had attended the University of Virginia with Montes and received the e-mail message.

"I can't picture her being involved in something like this," said Huber, a Louisville, Ky., resident who had seen Montes at least twice a year since their college days. "It goes against everything I know about her. She has a lot of integrity."

Montes, who had been the DIA's top intelligence analyst for Cuba since 1992, left a different impression among colleagues. She came off as rather severe, they said; at meetings, she sat rigidly in her chair and rarely spoke. Some associates viewed her as struggling to advance in a culture dominated by men.

"She was a very strange person, very standoffish, extraordinarily shy," said an American diplomat.

But professionally, Montes seemed above reproach. She spoke fluent Spanish because of her Puerto Rican heritage, and in 1990 she was tapped to brief Nicaragua's new president, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, about the Cuban-backed Sandinista military.

In 1992 or 1993, she pulled off what seemed to be an intelligence coup. She traveled to Cuba and interviewed Cuban generals about economic reforms on the island. In 1998, she played an important role in drafting a widely cited analysis that found that Cuba's much diminished military posed no strategic threat to the United States. As recently as the week before last, she briefed top Pentagon policy-makers on Cuba.

Yet despite her immersion in Cuba issues, virtually no one in the Cuba policy community -- perhaps two dozen officials, academics, nongovernmental advocates and congressional aides -- can recall her venturing an opinion on topic A: U.S. policy toward Havana.

According to the FBI affidavit, Montes, who had a high-level security clearance, spied for Cuba for at least five years, and possibly longer. She identified at least one U.S. undercover agent to the Cubans, disclosed a top-secret intelligence-gathering program and reported on U.S. training maneuvers in the Caribbean, the FBI said.

Current and former U.S. officials say she was in a position to tell Havana virtually everything the intelligence community knew about Cuba's military and might even have disclosed U.S. contingency plans for taking the island by force.

"I would think, if damage was done, it would be about what she learned about the U.S., how it was militarily prepared vis-a-vis Cuba," said Richard Nuccio, who was President Bill Clinton's special adviser on Cuba.

Alberto R. Coll, a top Pentagon official in the first Bush administration, said that the damage could be multiplied if Cuba shared stolen intelligence with other governments hostile to the United States. Montes had access to a daily synopsis of U.S. intelligence worldwide.