After spending more than five years in a Cuban jail, former USAID contractor Alan Gross is probably in possession of a lot of information that the United States government would like to know. How did Cuban officials become aware of his work bringing internet access to the island’s tiny Jewish community? What were the conditions like inside the Valla Marista prison, where he was held? What were the mannerisms and interests of his interrogators? What was the content of the conversations he had with his fellow prisoners?
Yet according to an authoritative source, no U.S. government official has debriefed Gross since he was released from a Cuban jail last December as part of a broader deal normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba. That political thaw reached a symbolic milestone Wednesday when both governments announced they would open embassies in each others’ capitals, 54 years after the severing of diplomatic relations.
Asked whether Gross had been debriefed by the United States government, both Jill Zuckman, Gross’s spokesman, and Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman, declined to comment.
After a citizen has been held against their will by an adversarial government, terrorist organization, or rogue group, it is standard procedure for their own country’s government to sit them down and try to extract as much useful information as possible. This process is known as a “debrief” in intelligence and diplomatic parlance. An American aid worker rescued from Somali pirates by Navy Seals in 2012, the former Army sergeant held by the Taliban for five years, even non-American hostages released by ISIS—all have been debriefed by U.S. government officials following their periods in captivity.
In the one media interview he’s given since his release, Gross—charged by the Cuban government with subversion and sentenced to 15 years in prison—told Moment magazine that, during his years in detention, he received once-a-month visits from an official with the U.S. Interests Section in Havana (what the American legation was called when diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States were partly reconstituted in 1977). Gross also met with several congressional delegations visiting the communist island. But all those meetings took place under the eyes and ears of watchful Cuban officials, not exactly the discreet environment in which a proper debriefing occurs.
The most charitable explanation for the U.S. government’s failure to debrief Gross could be sheer incompetence: the bureaucratic left hand assuming that the bureaucratic right hand is doing the job. That is the conclusion some may arrive at after reading a long Buzzfeed investigation into Gross’ work in Cuba, which portrays him as an innocent abroad left to deal with the consequences of a naïve and dangerous democratization policy dictated by ideologues sitting comfortably in Washington and Miami. Adding to this impression of government ineptitude will be the monetary settlements Gross reached with both his employer and USAID after suing them for negligence. A cable sent by a consular official from the Interests Section who had visited Gross three weeks after his arrest, unearthed by Wikileaks, reveals that the State Department wasn’t even aware of Gross’s work on behalf of USAID.
Incompetence can never be ruled out as an explanation for U.S. government actions, of course. But an equally likely rationale for Washington’s decision not to debrief Gross—to glean whatever information it can about the Castro regime, its intelligence apparatus, and its penal system— is that the Obama administration isn’t at all eager to do so.
After all, the failure to debrief Gross fits into a pattern. So determined is the Obama administration to normalize relations with the Castro regime that it resists treating Havana as an adversary. This is not to say that Washington has stopped gathering intelligence on Cuba altogether; the United States collects intelligence across the world, including on close allies like Germany and France. But the choice not to debrief a man who spent five years holed up in a Cuban prison, and who had frequent interactions with Cuban officials, suggests that the State Department does not consider the information he has to be worth hearing.
It’s not only standard-issue intelligence that Gross might have provided his country. Surely his testimony about Cuban prison conditions, for instance, could have featured prominently in the State Department’s latest human rights report, released last month. No matter. This administration sees the normalization of relations with Havana as righting a grave, historical wrong perpetrated by the United States against the Cuban revolution and, by contrast, the gathering of intelligence that could be used to assist dissidents on the island and undermine their oppressors as superfluous. “When we insert ourselves in ways that go beyond persuasion, it’s counterproductive, it backfires,” Obama admitted in April, sitting across from a smiling Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.
And despite what some have whispered, debriefing Gross would not in any way lend credence that he was a CIA agent working under cover. A debrief (the occurrence of which would not even be publicized), could be performed by officials from the State Department, not Langley.
Unsurprisingly, the administration’s lackadaisical approach to intelligence collection is going unreciprocated. As recently as last September, the FBI issued (PDF) an advisory to American institutions of higher learning warning them about the Cuban government’s ongoing attempts to recruit spies on university campuses, where sympathy for the regime and its failed revolution remains potent.
This insatiable desire to normalize relations with Havana—regardless of whether or not the regime changes its behavior—is a major reason why dissidents in Cuba are complaining that the administration has caved to Castro’s demands without extracting anything in return. It is why Obama removed Cuba from the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors despite the fact that the island is, as I wrote in this space not long ago, “a Star Wars cantina of violent Cold War-era radicals” and a collaborator with the Columbian FARC. And it’s why Obama celebrated the official opening of the American embassy in Havana Wednesday morning—lauding a “new chapter” in relations—while the Cuban regime continues to harass and arrest dissidents by the hundreds and shows no signs of loosening its monopoly on power.
Gross, perhaps ironically, has emerged as a vocal supporter of the administration’s opening to Cuba. Why doesn’t anyone in the administration bother to find out what else he has to say?