London: Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro was a supreme, unchallenged spymaster whose double agents duped the CIA for decades, a veteran CIA analyst has claimed in a new book.
For almost three decades after 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 the book.
It was not until June 1987, when a Cuban spy defected to the US embassy in Vienna, blind-siding US intelligence services, that the CIA learned how badly it had been duped, writes Brian Latell, a retired veteran CIA analyst and Cuba specialist.
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,” the Daily MAIL quoted Latell, author of Castro’s Secrets, the CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine, as saying.
Latell began watching Cuba in the mid-1960s and served as US 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 favoured 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 stated.
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 US 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 said, and his defection was a turning point in the CIA’s attitude toward Cuba.
Counter-intelligence operations were subsequently stepped up. After only four Cubans spies were arrested between 1959 and 1995, that number rose more than 10-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,’ said Latell, who interviewed him over several days in 2007.
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.
First Published: Tuesday, May 29, 2012, 14:41