National Security

Swap of former Cuban intelligence official at heart of U.S.-Cuba deal

Cuba
Cuba MCT

At the core of the breakthrough to normalize U.S.-Cuba ties was the swap of three Cuban spies for a former Cuban intelligence officer who sent information to the CIA that led to the exposure of agents who infiltrated U.S. military intelligence, the State Department and anti-Castro exile groups.

U.S. officials didn’t identify the individual who President Barack Obama called “one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba, and who has been imprisoned for nearly two decades.”

McClatchy, however, determined that he is Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, an expert on cryptography who worked at the Interior Ministry’s Intelligence Directorate. He was convicted in 1995 of passing state secrets to the U.S. government and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Sarraff’s name appeared on a list of Cuban intelligence officers convicted of spying for the United States that the Miami Herald published in January 2009 in an article on the Castro regime’s push for a spy swap. His conviction date most closely matched Obama’s reference to his imprisonment of nearly 20 years.

A former U.S. defense official with an expertise on Cuban espionage confirmed that Sarraff was the U.S. intelligence agent released by Havana.

Sarraff worked for Department M-XV, the unit of the Cuban Intelligence Directorate that maintained encrypted communications with Cuban agents in the United States, said the former defense official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The Cuban funneled information about Cuban spy operations in the United States to another Cuban agent working for the United States, Jose Cohen, who in turn passed the material to the CIA, said the former U.S. defense official. Cohen escaped to the United States after learning that he was being watched by Cuban counterintelligence officers, but Sarraff was arrested.

“Had his (Sarraff’s) parents not been senior officials in the Cuban government, he would have been executed,” said the former U.S. defense official. “He caused significant damage to Cuban intelligence operations in the United States.”

The CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the identity of the U.S. agent released by Cuba, which has run some of the most successful espionage operations ever conducted against the United States.

An ODNI statement, however, said that information provided by the agent was “instrumental in the identification and disruption of several Cuban intelligence operatives in the United States and ultimately led to a series of successful federal espionage prosecutions.”

Those cases included the convictions of Ana Belen Montes, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who rose to become the Pentagon’s top expert on Cuba, and Walter Kendall Myers, a State Department official, and his wife, Gwendolyn Myers, the ODNI statement said.

The Cuban agent’s information also led to the uncovering of the so-called “Wasp Network” of more than 40 Cuban spies who infiltrated anti-Castro exile groups in Florida. The spies included the “Cuban Five,” three of whom were those swapped for the U.S. agent.

In announcing the deal aimed at ending more than five decades of hostility with Havana, Obama said in a nationally televised address from the White House that the U.S. agent “is now safely on our shores.”

The normalization deal included the release by Havana of Alan Gross, a subcontractor who was arrested in Cuba in December 2009 for smuggling into the country satellite communications gear as part of a pro-democracy program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development. It was his fifth trip to Cuba to work with Jewish communities on setting up Internet access.

The Obama administration went to great pains to stress that Gross was freed on “humanitarian grounds,” making clear – at least in its view – that he wasn’t part of the spy-for-spies swap.

U.S. officials said that the Cubans at first insisted that Gross was a U.S. spy and that they offered to swap him for the three Cubans.

“The Cubans began from the premise that Alan Gross should be exchanged for the three Cuban agents and we rejected that premise. It took them some time to move them off of that position,” said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity in order to speak more freely about the deal. The Americans insisted that Gross was not a U.S. spy.

The negotiations began in June 2013, but “it wasn’t until well into this year that we arrived at some general agreement, including our intelligence asset,” the official said. “The Cubans were certainly aware of who he was. They didn’t learn from us that he was an intel asset of the United States.”CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Rolando Sarraff Trujillo.

Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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