Canadian diplomats spied on Cuba for CIA in aftermath of missile crisis: envoy

In a little-known chapter of the Cold War, Canadian diplomats spied for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in Cuba in the aftermath of the 1962 missile crisis – and for years afterward.

A major part of that story is told in a forthcoming memoir by retired Canadian envoy John Graham. Mr. Graham was one of a series of Canadian diplomats recruited to spy for the CIA in Havana. The missions went on for at least seven years, during the 1960s.

“We didn’t have a military attaché in the Canadian embassy,” explained Mr. Graham, who worked under the cover of Political Officer. “And to send one at the time might have raised questions. So it was decided to make our purpose less visible.”

Mr. Graham said he worked as a spy for two years, between 1962 and 1964. His mandate was to visit Soviet bases, identify weapons and electronic equipment and monitor troop movements.

The espionage missions began after President John Kennedy asked Prime Minister Lester Pearson – at their May, 1963, summit in Hyannis Port, Mass. – whether Canada would abet American intelligence-gathering efforts in Cuba.

As a result of the crisis, which brought the superpowers to the brink of nuclear war, the Soviets had agreed to withdraw nuclear missiles from Cuban territory, in exchange for Washington’s pledge to remove its own missile batteries from Turkey and Italy.

To monitor Russian compliance, the United States needed to supplement data gleaned from almost daily U-2 reconnaissance flights. It had few assets on the ground. Its networks of Cuban agents had been progressively rolled up by Castro’s efficient counterintelligence service. And having severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, it had no embassy of its own through which to infiltrate American spies.

Soon after the summit meeting, Ottawa sent diplomat George Cowley to Havana.

Now deceased, Mr. Cowley, who had served in the Canadian embassy in Japan and sold encyclopedias in Africa, spent about two months in Havana in the late spring of 1963.

He was followed by Mr. Graham, seconded from his post as chargé d’affaires in the Dominican Republic.

His formal training, he told The Globe and Mail, was minimal – a few days at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. At the end of it, an agency officer offered him a farewell gift – a sophisticated camera with an assortment of telephoto lenses.

He declined the present, arguing that if he were ever caught with it, he’d surely be arrested.

“But how will we know what the Soviet military convoys are carrying?” a CIA officer asked him. “We need precision. Configuration is essential for recognition.”

“I’ll draw you pictures,” Mr. Graham said. “It was a bit like the character in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, but that’s what I did.”

In the Greene novel, an inept salesman, recruited to spy for Britain, sends illustrations of vacuum cleaner parts to his handler, calling them drawings of a military installation.

Mr. Graham’s sketches, however, were the real thing. To get them to Canada, he flew to Mexico City – the only regional air connection – and deposited the drawings at the Canadian embassy. From there, they were dispatched by diplomatic courier to Ottawa. Copies were subsequently sent to the CIA and, Mr. Graham later heard, to the Kennedy White House.

His written reports, sent by ciphered telegram to the Canadian embassy in Washington and then to Ottawa, contained details of electronic arrays in use at Soviet bases. “That information,” he said, “could tell an expert what weapons systems they had.”

Although Moscow had removed its nuclear arsenal by the time Mr. Graham arrived, it maintained a significant military presence. Russian soldiers typically dressed in civilian clothes, usually in plaid sport shirts, khaki pants and running shoes.

To fit in, Mr. Graham adopted the same ensemble – purchased at a Zellers store in Ottawa. Although many missions involved early morning surveillance of naval facilities, he was never followed. He was stopped only once by the police, roaming through a secure section of a communications building. He pretended to be a bumbling tourist and was let go.

On several occasions, Mr. Graham conducted joint reconnaissance with an agent of another Western country that he declines to identify. “He was brilliant and altogether remarkable. At parties, he composed Monty-Python-like lyrics to pet and lingerie commercials, accompanying himself on the piano.”

To relieve the stress of their missions, they would stop for seaside picnics on the way home. “Mr. X would pull out two crystal goblets and a Thermos of premixed martinis. I supplied the olives.”

Canadian officials, he said, went to extraordinary lengths to protect his identity as an agent. He stamped his sketches with the words, “For Canadian Eyes Only, Confidential.” But in Ottawa they were given an additional security designation – “Secret, Ottawa Only, Protect Source,” a classification he had never seen, before or since.

In 1964, Mr. Graham was promoted within the embassy and replaced in his espionage work by Alan McLaine.

In fact, he said, Canada’s role as CIA surrogate in Cuba continued for several years, even under the government of Pierre Trudeau, who had developed a personal friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

MICHAEL POSNER

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Published Monday, Oct. 15 2012, 9:56 PM EDT

Last updated Tuesday, Oct. 16 2012, 5:02 AM EDT

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Fidel Castro was a ‘supreme, unchallenged spymaster whose double agents duped the CIA for decades’, according to new book

For almost three decades after Fidel Castro took power, Cuba’s budding intelligence service fielded four dozen double agents in a world-class operation under the nose of the CIA, according to a new book by a veteran CIA analyst.

It was not until June 1987, when a Cuban spy defected to the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, blind-siding U.S. intelligence services, that the CIA learned how badly it had been duped, writes Brian Latell, a retired veteran CIA analyst and Cuba specialist.
‘Castro was a supreme, unchallenged spy master,’ Latell told an audience at a recent book reading.

The revelations in Latell’s book help explain how Castro survived several well-documented assassination attempts and the impoverished island of Cuba weathered the changes that toppled other communist regimes in the late 20th Century.

‘In the annals of modern spycraft it’s a pretty extraordinary accomplishment. It’s difficult to keep one double agent in play, and he managed them all … down to the minute details,’ added Latell, author of Castro’s Secrets, the CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine.

Latell began watching Cuba in the mid-1960s and served as U.S. National Intelligence Officer for Latin America before retiring from the CIA in 1998.

All four dozen double agents were recruited in Cuba and other parts of the world and personally run by Castro. He favored young, rough-hewn, impressionable teens without a university education.

‘Castro wanted them to be uncontaminated by the old Cuba. He wanted them to be malleable and enthusiastic,’ Latell says.

While Cuba has trumpeted its success with double agents in the past, Latell’s book shows the penetration was more extensive than previously known, and compromised U.S. intelligence sources and methods.

The defection in 1987 of Florentino Aspillaga finally alerted the CIA to the extent of Castro’s spy network. ‘They were in a state of shock. Nothing like this had ever happened to us before,’ said Latell.

Aspillaga was ‘the most informed and highly decorated officer ever to defect from Cuban intelligence’, Latell says, and his defection was a turning point in the CIA’s attitude toward Cuba.

‘Until that point we grossly underestimated the Cubans. We never imagined that little Cuba could run an intelligence service that was world class,’ he says.

Counter-intelligence operations were subsequently stepped up. After only four Cubans spies were arrested between 1959 and 1995, that number rose more than ten-fold between 1998 and 2011, Latell writes in his book.

Aspillaga was recruited as a spy at age 16 and spent 25 years in Cuban intelligence. His defection provided ‘some of the most precious secrets including the double agents,’ says Latell, who interviewed him over several days in 2007.

The interview was conducted at the request of Aspillaga, who said he simply wanted to tell his story.

Aspillaga also shared an unpublished memoir with Latell, asking for no payment or favor in return.

The former agent now lives with a new identity after surviving an assassination attempt in London in 1988.

Aspillaga is just one of a dozen defectors Latell interviewed in the book, which relies on thousands of pages of declassified CIA documents the author reviewed at the National Archives in Maryland, as well as interviews with several CIA officers.

In the book, Latell reveals that Cuban intelligence knew more about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy than they admitted at the time, including information about the shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Aspillaga told the CIA that in his first year he was trained to do radio intercept work, listening for CIA transmissions to spies on the island and incursions by sea.

On November 22, 1963, the day of the assassination, he was ordered to stop all CIA tracking efforts and redirect his antennas away from Miami and direct them toward Texas.

Castro knew Kennedy was to be fired upon, Latell says Aspillaga told him.

The Warren Commission never attributed a motive to Oswald but Latell argues Oswald was fascinated with Castro and ‘his motive was to protect Fidel’.

It is well known Oswald met Cuban officials during visits to Cuba’s Mexican consulate in the summer of 1963, but there is no evidence he ever worked directly for Cuban intelligence.

Latell says that while Cuban agents had kept track of Oswald, his research found no evidence linking Castro to the assassination. Instead, Latell has his own more nuanced theory.

Castro and his intelligence officers ‘were complicit in Kennedy’s death’, Latell writes, ‘but … their involvement fell short of an organized assassination plot’.

Cuban intelligence officers ‘exhorted Oswald’ and ‘encouraged his feral militance’, he writes, ‘but it was his Oswald’s plan and his rifle, not theirs’.

Castro had plenty of reason to want Kennedy out of the way. A Senate Committee found in 1975 that the CIA had pursued assassination as an instrument of foreign policy, with Fidel Castro as one of its prime targets.

The Committee’s first documented plots against Castro began in 1960, when the CIA contacted organized crime figures eager to return to the good old days of gambling, extortion and corruption in Cuba.

Subsequent plots involved poison, an exploding seashell and marksmen with high-powered rifles.

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