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Former U.S. official and wife charged with spying for Cuba

For nearly 30 years, a now-retired State Department official and his wife conspired to provide classified information to the Cuban government, starting with secrets squirreled away in grocery carts and culminating in encrypted e-mails sent from Internet cafes, federal authorities said Friday.

Walter Kendall Myers, 72, was known to his handlers as “Agent 202,” according to an indictment and criminal complaint unsealed in federal court here. Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers, 71, was “Agent 123.”

Justice Department officials said that, based on what they might have passed on to Cuba over the years, the couple -- especially Kendall Myers -- posed a grave danger to national security.

“The clandestine activity alleged in the charging documents, which spanned nearly three decades, is incredibly serious,” said David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security.

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The couple pleaded not guilty at a court appearance Friday afternoon to charges of acting as illegal agents of the Cuban government and wire fraud. They were ordered to remain in custody pending a detention hearing Wednesday.

Washington representatives of the Cuban government could not be reached for comment. Thomas Green, a lawyer identified as the couple’s defense counsel, could not be reached either.

The charging documents suggested in dramatic and extensive detail that the Myerses spied out of a love for Cuba and its leader, Fidel Castro, and a desire for adventure.

The pair received little in the way of payment, the documents contend. Instead, they reportedly earned medals from the communist government -- and even had a four-hour meeting with Castro in 1995. According to the documents, Castro visited the couple at a small house in Cuba where they were staying after traveling through Mexico under false names.

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Prosecutors allege that the couple also traveled to Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina to meet with Cuban contacts.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has ordered an internal investigation into the case, a “comprehensive damage assessment in coordination with the intelligence community,” and a thorough review of past and current State Department security procedures to prevent such breaches in the future.

“The secretary of State takes this matter, like any allegation of criminal wrongdoing, seriously,” the department said in a statement.

The Myerses’ arrest, the department said, came after a three-year joint investigation by the FBI and the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Office that began as an internal probe of Kendall Myers as a “probable” Cuban agent.

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He and his then-girlfriend were recruited in 1978, after they visited the island at the invitation of a New York-based Cuban government official. Kendall Myers was a contract instructor at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute at the time.

“Cuba is so exciting!” Kendall Myers wrote in a journal he brought on the trip, according to the charging documents. He also allegedly wrote about how much better Cuba was than the United States at providing healthcare and other social services.

Intelligence agents in Cuba allegedly assessed Kendall Myers and found him vulnerable to recruitment, then sent an operative to visit the couple in North Dakota. Allegedly, the two soon agreed to become clandestine agents.

Cuba then directed Kendall Myers to go to Washington and get a job at the State Department or the CIA so that he would be in a better position to spy on the U.S. government, the documents allege.

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The alleged plan apparently worked better than anyone in Cuba could have imagined.

“He works his way in, and literally they are receiving shortwave radio broadcasts in their apartment here on Cathedral Avenue from Cuba,” said one Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Kendall Myers first tried for a job at the CIA but didn’t get one. But he soon began working for the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. From 2001 until his retirement in October 2007, he was its senior analyst for Europe -- where he had a top-secret security clearance and specialized in intelligence analysis.

In just his last year at the State Department, Kendall Myers viewed more than 200 sensitive or classified intelligence reports on Cuba, most of them marked “Secret” or “Top Secret,” the charging documents said.

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Steingraber Myers, who worked at a bank, was never granted a government security clearance. But she is alleged to have done much of the grunt work of the spy operation, especially the handing off of information.

At one point she stopped passing information hidden in shopping carts, the charging documents quote her as saying, because “now they have cameras” in the markets around town.

In recent years, the two allegedly stopped spying and were afraid of getting caught. They indicated an interest in going “home” to Cuba one day on a sailboat, the charging documents say.

But on April 15, a man claiming to be an associate of Kendall Myers’ Cuban handler showed up on the street, gave him a birthday cigar and proposed a meeting.

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He met several times with the couple, who appeared to again be interested in helping Cuba and agreed to accept a new device to encrypt e-mails, the documents allege.

The couple reportedly regaled their new handler with tales of their exploits, but when they arrived for a meeting with him at a Washington hotel on Thursday, they were quietly arrested. The handler, the documents say, was an undercover FBI agent.

The arrests come as the Obama administration is making overtures to Cuba and relaxing some decades-old restrictions, including visits there by Cuban Americans.

If convicted, the Myerses face maximum sentences of 20 years in prison each on the wire fraud charges, and as much as 15 years each on charges of serving as an illegal agent of a foreign government and conspiracy.

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josh.meyer@latimes.com


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