06.09.09

The Spies at State

The case surrounding Fidel’s alleged mole, says spy novelist Joseph Finder, is less important for the breach—Cuba?—than the huge security hole it exposes at the lie detector-averse State Department.

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned spy story. Especially a real-life one: Last week, a retired State Department official, Walter Kendall Myers, and his wife, Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers, were arrested and charged with spying for Fidel Castro for almost three decades. The espionage they allegedly conducted was “incredibly serious,” said David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, “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. We remain vigilant in protecting our nation's secrets and in bringing to justice those who compromise them.”

Well, the FBI’s recently enhanced counterespionage squad and its Washington field office deserve credit for an admirable job of entrapping the couple. But you’ve got to wonder: 30 years? What the hell took so long?

The FBI’s recently enhanced counterespionage squad deserves credit for an admirable job of entrapping the couple. But you’ve got to wonder: 30 years? What the hell took so long?

Myers was a senior Europe analyst for the State Department’s elite intelligence unit, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. In 1999, he was granted a clearance above Top Secret: Top Secret/SCI, or Sensitive Compartmented Information, which pretty much unlocked the vault door to some of our government’s most closely held secrets. He viewed at least 75 Secret or Top Secret reports about Cuba that were demonstrably outside his area of responsibility. Yet he was uncovered as a spy only after his hard drive at work was audited— after his retirement, in October 2007. (We don’t yet know what caused State Department security to look at his hard drive; the tip, I’m told, came from a recent Cuban defector.)

Here’s the real scandal, which for some reason no one is talking about: In every other branch of intelligence, officials with access at this level are given periodic polygraphs and subjected to updated background investigations. But at State? Not so much. The State Department has been notoriously resistant to polygraphing their employees. They use the polygraph only for administrative investigations (such as internal affairs) and in certain pre-employment screenings. But when it comes to those in high-level, sensitive positions, the State Department has always preferred to protect their employees’ privacy. Their official policy: “An employee of the department may be asked, after high-level approval, if he or she is willing to take a polygraph examination on a voluntary basis in certain specified circumstances.”

Voluntary?

Of course, the polygraph is hardly foolproof, but it can be useful in pointing out “lifestyle” issues — sudden unaccounted wealth, for instance, like Aldrich Ames buying a new Jag with cash.The Myerses wouldn’t have been caught this way, because they were largely unpaid (just reimbursed for travel expenses) and allegedly spied out of fealty to Cuba. But the polygraph, along with regulary updated background checks, can call attention to other discrepancies. The couple’s travel pattern alone should have raised an eyebrow: They visited Ecuador, Jamaica, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, and Argentina, all to meet their Cuban handler. They met with a Cuban agent in South Dakota. They traveled to Cuba (via Mexico) where they spent the evening with Fidel. (As far as we know they weren’t freelancing work for the “Let’s Go” guides.)

Kendall Myers was well aware of this security loophole at State, which was why (according to the affidavit filed by an FBI Special Agent on the case) he and his wife rebuffed Cuban Intelligence’s request that one or both of them seek employment at the CIA. They both preferred the State Department because, Myers said, “you had to be a good liar to pass” [the CIA’s polygraph]—and he was “not a very good liar.”

I’m not casting blame on INR, a little-known think tank within the state Department that employs some of the smartest, most independent-minded analysts in Washington. INR is a tiny shop, with a mingy budget of $50 million and staff of around 300, but they were the only members of the intelligence community who objected to the infamous National Intelligence Estimate of 2002, which wrongly asserted that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear-weapons program. Remember those aluminum tubes shipped to Iraq, which Condi Rice (she of the “smoking gun” in the form of a “mushroom cloud”) declared were "only really suited for nuclear-weapons programs”? INR pointed out that no, in fact these were the exact same aluminum tubes that Iraq had been using for years to build conventional rockets. The security problem lies not with the curmudgeons at INR, but with the State Department’s ridiculously lax security in the handling of classified intelligence.

Granted, no one cares about who’s spying for a failing regime like Cuba. That’s Graham Greene stuff. No doubt this is why we’ve heard so little about this case since it first broke. Cuba? Who cares?

But is it really so far-fetched to imagine a government employee with a Top Secret/SCI clearance who chooses to work not for Cuba’s geriatric communist regime but for, say, Iran? Or North Korea? As long as he worked at State, he could pretty much count on getting away with it for decades—at least until his retirement.

If you’re in the spy business, that’s not a bad gig. The State Department makes it easy.

Xtra Insight: The Daily Beast's Tom Murray: Was My Professor Really a Spy for Castro?

Joseph Finder is the bestselling author of numerous novels including Power Play, Killer Instinct, and Vanished (coming August 2009). Visit his Web site.