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    Sunday, March 03, 2024

    Ex-U.S. ambassador accused of being Cuba's secret agent since 1981

    This image provided by the Justice Department and contained in the affidavit in support of a criminal complaint, shows Manuel Rocha during a meeting with a FBI undercover employee. The Justice Department says Rocha, a former American diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, has been charged with serving as a covert agent for Cuba's intelligence services since at least 1981. Newly unsealed court papers allege that Rocha engaged in "clandestine activity" on Cuba's behalf for decades, including by meeting with Cuban intelligence operatives. (Justice Department via AP)
    Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, in Washington, about Manuel Rocha, the former American diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, being charged with serving as a secret agent for Cuba's intelligence services. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)

    The Justice Department unsealed charges Monday against a retired ambassador, accusing him of being a "clandestine agent" for decades - allegedly betraying his country by acting on behalf of Cuba's spy agency.

    The arrest of Manuel Rocha, 73, capped a year-long undercover sting operation in which an FBI agent pretending to be a Cuban intelligence operative secretly recorded Rocha making incriminating statements about his life of diplomatic deception.

    Attorney General Merrick Garland called the Rocha case "one of the highest-reaching and longest-lasting infiltrations of the United States government by a foreign agent," adding that in those secretly recorded conversations, Rocha repeatedly referred to the United States as "the enemy."

    The news of Rocha's alleged duplicity stunned his friends and colleagues in U.S. diplomatic and intelligence circles.

    "I never suspected, never had the slightest suspicion that he might be living a double life like the charging document describes," said Brian Latell, a former senior CIA intelligence official who met Rocha in the early 1980s.

    "I think I knew him as well as anyone else, and I never thought it was possible. I think Manuel was someone with many more talents, and many more facets, than frankly I had ever imagined, even as close as we were for so many years," Latell said. "He was obviously doing very useful work for the Cubans."

    Former FBI agent Peter Lapp said the Rocha case is "very disturbing and concerning" because of the amount and types of intelligence Rocha could access. Lapp - whose book "Queen of Cuba" recounts a case he investigated against a different Cuban spy, U.S. defense analyst Ana Montes - said the court papers in Rocha's case suggest that the FBI used the undercover agent to get Rocha talking, and that he apparently talked himself into criminal charges.

    "That is what the bureau seems to be trying to do with the Rocha case, and he just didn't bite fully," Lapp said.

    That technique was comparable to the FBI's successful work against Kendall Myers, another former State Department employee who was coaxed into admitting at least some of his crimes during an undercover FBI operation, Lapp said. Without such admissions, it is doubtful prosecutors could bring charges over suspicious conduct that happened so many years ago, he said.

    Myers, who admitted to dead drops and transferring information, was charged with espionage and sentenced to life in prison. Rocha, in contrast, is charged with conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the Justice Department, acting as an agent of a foreign government without such notification; and lying to obtain a passport.

    The criminal complaint does not accuse him of specific acts of espionage. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charge.

    At a brief court appearance in Miami on Monday, Rocha was ordered to remain in custody pending further hearings. His lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    Though a small country, Cuba has racked up some intelligence victories against the United States by finding people motivated to support the communist government against its capitalist and much larger adversary to the north.

    "Cuba is so good at finding individuals who aren't motivated by money," said Lapp. "They find people who have a visceral empathy for what Cuba is trying to do in Latin America and Central America, and those people are morally aligned with them."

    Court papers filed in Miami describe meetings in which Rocha discussed his secret work for Cuba, including one where he said that the "Direccion" - a reference to that country's General Directorate of Intelligence - "asked me ... to lead a normal life."

    Rocha allegedly said he followed that instruction by creating a public reputation as "a right wing person," when he in fact was committed to the cause of communist Cuba. He also allegedly spoke with pride of how much he was able to hurt the United States on Cuba's behalf, saying "What we have done ... it's enormous ... More than a grand slam."

    At one secretly recorded meeting between Rocha and the undercover agent, the diplomat allegedly described how he became a State Department employee: "I went little by little. ... It was a very meticulous process. ... I knew exactly how to do it and obviously the Direccion accompanied me. ... They knew that I knew how to do it."

    Rocha was born in Colombia and became a U.S. citizen in 1978. He joined the State Department in 1981. The criminal complaint against him says that at least as early as that year, he "secretly supported the Republic of Cuba and its clandestine intelligence-gathering mission against the United States by serving as a covert agent of Cuba's intelligence services."

    Authorities say Rocha pushed false and misleading information within the U.S. government and met with Cuban intelligence operatives. In the secretly recorded conversations with the undercover FBI agent, Rocha allegedly insisted he was still committed to the revolutionary cause of communist Cuba, according to the court papers unsealed Monday. Rocha's arrest late last week was first reported by the Associated Press.

    Over the years, Rocha rose through the ranks of the State Department to serve in positions at the U.S. embassies in the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico and Argentina before ascending to more sensitive government posts. From mid-1994 to mid-1995, Rocha served on the National Security Council, with a portfolio that included Cuba. From there he worked for the State Department in Cuba.

    Rocha was sworn in as the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia in July 2000, according to his State Department biography. He served in that role for about two years. That job and others gave him access to U.S. government secrets, including classified information. Authorities say Rocha repeatedly lied when answering security questions that determined whether he could keep those jobs.

    "Those who have the privilege of serving in the government of the United States are given an enormous amount of trust by the public we serve," Garland told reporters. "To betray that trust by falsely pledging loyalty to the United States while serving a foreign power is a crime that will be met with the full force of the Justice Department."

    From 2006 to 2012, Rocha served as an adviser to military officials at U.S. Southern Command - a part of the military whose area of responsibility includes Cuba.

    John Feeley, a former U.S. ambassador to Panama who earlier had worked under Rocha at the embassy in the Dominican Republic, described him as a charming, confident and successful Latin America expert - known as a "ladies man ... somebody who was going places." Rocha's arrest and charges are "a real John le Carré story," Feeley said, referring to the late spy novelist.

    Rocha and Feeley met again in 2018, when they were both retired, Feeley said. "He had gone full-on Donald Trump," said Feeley. "He was a MAGA Republican." In hindsight, Feeley added, "it was a perfect cover."

    Judith Bryan, who worked at the U.S. Interest Section of the Swiss Embassy in Havana when Rocha was a senior diplomat there in the late 1990s, said she "never would have imagined in my wildest dreams this was going on."

    At the time, staff members at the U.S. mission were trying to create bridges between civil society groups in Cuba and the United States, said Bryan, who served as a deputy public affairs officer at the mission. She said Rocha was "very supportive of that official policy" but did not seem sympathetic to Fidel Castro's government.

    The charging documents don't describe how the FBI came to suspect Rocha - only that the agency received a tip about him before November 2022.

    Espionage and intrigue, much of it centered in Miami, have roiled the U.S.-Cuba relationship since Cuba became a communist state after Castro's 1959 takeover. Rocha's arrest is unlikely to significantly affect relations between Washington and Havana, which have been at a low point since the Trump administration.

    President Barack Obama reestablished diplomatic ties with the country after a break of more than a half-century and used executive power to circumvent many economic restrictions and lift a long-standing designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.

    Many of the lifted sanctions were reimposed by President Donald Trump, who also reinstated the terrorism sponsor designation several days before leaving office on grounds that Cuba had refused to extradite several Colombian guerrilla leaders sought by Bogota's then-right-wing government. Colombia's current leftist leader, President Gustavo Petro, rescinded the extradition requests last year and has reopened Cuban-sponsored peace negotiations with the group, the National Liberation Army.

    President Joe Biden as a candidate pledged to return to the Obama-era policies but has made few moves to do so. Although some restrictions have been eased, allowing more Americans to visit Cuba and permitting more trade, Biden has retained the terrorism designation and criticized the government in Havana for imprisoning political activists.

    The Cuban government made no immediate comment on Rocha's arrest.

    Rocha had barely any involvement in electoral politics in the United States, public records show. He contributed to just one federal candidate last year, sending $750 to Rep. María Elvira Salazar, R-Fla., according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

    Salazar seized on his arrest to portray Cuba as "a danger to our national security," while also taking a swipe at Democrats in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, writing, "Biden administration, wake up!" A spokesperson for Salazar said the congresswoman had no relationship with Rocha and had instructed her campaign to return the money.

    - - -

    Sheridan reported from Mexico City. Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.

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