By Del Quentin Wilber and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 6, 2009
A former State Department official with top-secret security clearance and his wife have been charged with spying for Cuba over the past three decades, passing information by shortwave radio and correspondence exchanged in local grocery stores, federal prosecutors said.
State Department officials said last night they were still assessing the potential damage to the government's security and intelligence operations and declined to comment further.
Within hours of the couple's appearance yesterday at U.S. District Court in the District, a novel-worthy tale began to emerge from court documents and law enforcement sources, depicting an elderly couple of famed lineage, living in a Northwest Washington neighborhood and traveling abroad under code names, motivated by ideology to pass information to Cuban agents.
The couple, Walter Kendall Myers, 72, and his wife, Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers, 71, were charged with conspiring to act as illegal agents and to communicate classified information to the Cuban government. They pleaded not guilty and were ordered held in jail pending further court proceedings.
Myers is the scion of one of Washington's most storied families. His mother, Elsie Alexandra Carol Grosvenor Myers, was the granddaughter of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.
The allegations are "incredibly serious and should serve as a warning to any others in the U.S. government who would betray America's trust by serving as illegal agents of a foreign government," said David S. Kris, assistant attorney general for national security.
A spokesman for the State Department said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton "takes this matter, like any allegation of criminal wrongdoing, seriously."
A senior administration official said counterintelligence experts discovered three years ago that there was a Cuban spy at the State Department. The department's diplomatic security bureau looked at "a fairly large population" and began winnowing it down. By the time of Myers's retirement, authorities were reasonably confident he was the suspect, the official said.
"We have since built what we consider to be a strong case," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
In court papers, FBI agents said they recently sent an undercover agent, posing as a Cuban intelligence officer, to meet with the couple. The court papers describe several conversations in which Myers and his wife express their strong emotional ties to the communist country.
"So how is everybody at home?" Myers allegedly told the agent during their first encounter, asking the agent to pass on "our love" to a Cuban intelligence official.
Myers began working for the State Department as a contract instructor at its Foreign Service Institute in 1977, authorities said.
In late 1978, he traveled to Cuba after receiving an invitation from an official at the Cuban mission in New York. His guide in the communist country was an unidentified Cuban intelligence official, the FBI said in court papers.
In a diary obtained by the bureau, Myers wrote that he toured a museum and got a "lump in my throat" after learning about the "systematic and regular murdering of revolutionary leaders" by the United States, the FBI said.
"Cuba is so exciting!" he wrote in the diary.
About six months later, while Myers and his wife were living in South Dakota and he was no longer a State Department employee, the Cuban mission official visited them, and they agreed to become spies, the court papers allege. They were given code names for their correspondence and radio traffic with Cuba: Myers became "202" and his wife became "123."
They returned to Washington, and Myers resumed working at the State Department. He and his wife felt that joining the CIA would be too dangerous, the FBI said.
He later obtained a top-secret clearance and a high-level job at the department's sensitive bureau of intelligence and research before retiring in 2007. Two months ago, an undercover FBI agent approached Myers outside Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, where he has been a part-time faculty member for 20 years. He told Myers he had been sent by an unnamed Cuban intelligence officer to get some information.
It was Myers's birthday, and the agent gave him a cigar, the court papers say. Later, Myers and his wife met the agent at a downtown hotel.
During the lengthy meeting and two others that month, Myers and his wife told the agent that they had been working for Cuba for years and that they had communicated using a shortwave radio given to them by the Cuban government, the court papers allege. The couple also changed shopping carts in a grocery store as a way to pass information. More recently, they sent encrypted e-mails to their handlers from cybercafes, according to the documents.
They had met regularly over the years with Cuban officials in third countries and made a secret trip, using fake names, to the Caribbean nation in 1995. They even spent an evening that year with Cuba's then-president, Fidel Castro, they told the agent. They received "lots of medals" from the Cuban government, apparently for passing along secret information, the court papers allege.
"Fidel is wonderful, just wonderful," Myers told the agent, according to the affidavit.
Myers said he removed information from the State Department by memory or by taking notes. "I was always pretty careful," he told the agent, according to the court papers. "I didn't usually take documents out."
FBI officials said they reviewed Myers's computer hard drive and found more than 200 sensitive or classified intelligence reports concerning Cuba. They said they also intercepted e-mails between the couple and a Cuban agent, "Peter Herrera," urging them to come to Mexico to pick up some "art pieces."
The Myerses wrote back, saying they were "delighted to hear from you and learn that your art gallery is open for us," the affidavit said.
The charges come as the Obama administration is reaching out to Cuba, lifting restrictions on visits there by Cuban Americans and offering to hold talks on immigration and regular mail service. However, the U.S. government says it will not lift the 47-year-old economic embargo until the island undertakes democratic reforms. Cuba's spy service is regarded as one of the best in the world, according to former U.S. intelligence officials.
Research editor Alice Crites and staff researchers Madonna Lebling, Meg Smith and Julie Tate contributed to this report.