True Believer: Inside the Investigation and Capture of Ana Montes, Cuba’s Master Spy
By Scott W. Carmichael
(Naval Institute Press, 179 pages, $27.95)
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and an insufficient sense of urgency about Cuban espionage among his U.S. intelligence colleagues, drove Scott Carmichael to take the unusual step of writing a book about his work as a mole hunter.
The author of True Believer is also a longtime (20 years) counterintelligence investigator for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the Defense Department’s counterpart to the CIA. Carmichael was the driving force behind catching Montes, a DIA analyst, who had spent her 16-year career sending top-secret information to Cuba.
The successful investigation and capture of one of U.S. intelligence’s prized employees was pushed deep inside the pages of newspapers — if it appeared at all — due to 9/11. The lapse in intelligence that led to those attacks overshadowed a rare instance when a mole was successfully outed.
Montes, who was arrested ten days after 9/11, was an unlikely suspect. She had no previous connection to Cuba. A child of Puerto Ricans, she was born the daughter to a career U.S. Army officer on a base in Germany. Her teen years were spent in Baltimore area public schools, and she graduated with a degree in foreign affairs (with a Latin America emphasis) from the University of Virginia. While rising quickly through the Justice Department as a paralegal she earned a master’s degree from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “She was a model of self-discipline, drive and focus,” Carmichael writes, adding that she received glowing employment reviews everywhere she worked.
Those qualities carried her ultimately to her position as the DIA’s top political and military analyst on Cuba. Candidates for jobs in the intelligence community undergo extensive background reviews, but Montes had already earned a high-level security clearance in her Justice Department position. Such credentials “can be used like currency,” Carmichael says, providing near-instant access to sensitive information for those new in their jobs. Unfortunately it was during her time at Johns Hopkins that the Cuban Intelligence Service had already recruited Montes.
Even though it was the Castro regime that approached Montes, Carmichael writes that her motives stemmed from ideological concerns more than anything:
Like many other Americans, as she told me openly in our interview, she believed the U.S. approach to Cuba was counterproductive and oppressive. Ana was also a Puerto Rican and was raised in a family that advocated achieving the political independence of Puerto Rico from the United States by peaceful means. The political independence of Puerto Rico is an emotional issue for many Puerto Ricans. Fidel Castro has often tried to play upon the sentiments of those who favor political independence by championing the cause of Puerto Rican independence against the oppressive Yankee colonizer of the north, presented as a mutual foe.
Ana Montes clearly viewed herself as a lonely heroine, willing to risk her freedom and her family’s good name to serve the righteous cause of lifting oppression from the masses in secret league with her king, Fidel Castro.
True Believer shows that catching spies within our own intelligence structure is a painstaking process. Carmichael, as much as he is able (given that agencies like DIA just can’t let certain information out), walks readers through each step of evidence gathering and case development, while illustrating the challenges in convincing his higher-ups that Montes was a problem. What begins as a co-worker’s hunch and Carmichael’s quick understanding is followed by several instances of extremely slow realization by upper-level DIA officials and the FBI. Montes’s clean record and stellar performance reviews fed others’ skepticism about the possibility that she was a spy.
Carmichael’s passion for his full-time work is exhibited throughout the book, as is his pride in cracking the case. At certain points he seems to share frustration with the reader in that there is only so much he can divulge. But he tells enough to show why Montes is now serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison as the result of a plea agreement.
Carmichael makes a persuasive, if not slam-dunk, case that Montes’s betrayal contributed to the death of Sgt. First Class Gregory Fronius, whose family receives all profits from the book. Sgt. Fronius was a Green Beret who in 1987 provided special infantry training for the El Salvadoran armed forces. At the same time Montes was DIA’s El Salvador and Nicaragua analyst, “an expert on the military capabilities of both countries, with detailed and extensive knowledge of their militaries,” Carmichael writes. Sgt. Fronius was killed in a surprise early-morning attack on a heavily protected Salvadoran military compound by rebel FMLN forces. Carmichael explains why Montes, who made a five-week visit to El Salvador just weeks before Fronius’s death “to acquire some sense of the ‘ground truth’ in the country,” could have provided crucial information to the communist revolutionaries via Cuba.
Even more convincing are Carmichael’s arguments about why it is important that the U.S. be on alert against Cuban espionage — a seriousness that he says many of his colleagues don’t share. He cites several cases in which Montes could have, or was likely to, have an influence on the lives (or deaths) of Americans and their allies. It’s not hard to argue that in our current time, in which most Americans are on heightened alert over our border security, that they should be equally concerned about spies accessing our national secrets.
“It’s a good thing we stopped [Montes] in time,” Carmichael writes. “Cuba is not our friend. Fidel Castro opposes the United States’ current counterterrorism initiative. He’s aligned with some states that may support, sponsor, or harbor terrorists, or have done so in the recent past. In the months preceding the September 11 attacks, Castro toured Syria, Libya, and Iran. While in Iran, he crystallized his goals regarding the United States when he said, ‘Iran and Cuba, in cooperation with each other, can bring America to its knees.'”
Carmichael adds that when Montes was arrested, she was on the verge of accessing many details of the U.S.’s war plans in Afghanistan. She may not have been captured at the best time for publicity purposes, but it was a crucial time nonetheless.