The Miami Herald
Tue, Sept. 8, 2009

FBI investigated ex-defense official for espionage


Alberto Coll, a Cuban American who lost a senior job at the Navy War College after he was convicted of lying about a trip to Havana, was also investigated for espionage, according to an FBI document.

Coll was never charged with espionage, and has long denied any wrongdoing beyond the 2004 trip, which he declared was to see a sick aunt. His lawyer acknowledged he had visited a ``girlfriend.''

Five years after the trip, the Department of Justice refuses to release details of the investigation of the former deputy assistant secretary of defense, saying the files are classified as ``Secret.''

In a response to a Miami Herald request for all FBI records on his case, a bureau official wrote an Aug. 25 declaration explaining why the documents were classified.

``Specifically, the FBI's investigation focused on espionage and censorship in violation 18 USC 793, fraud and false statements in violation of 18 USC 1001 and foreign registration act'' wrote David M. Hardy, head of the Record/Information Dissemination section at FBI headquarters' Records Management Division.

The ``foreign registration act'' requires agents of foreign governments to register with the State Department, and is sometimes used to accuse spies.

Coll told The Miami Herald in a telephone interview Wednesday that he was aware of how the investigations into his actions began, but insisted he did nothing wrong other than lying about the visit.

``We have known that's the kind of investigation the government started,'' Coll said. ``In the case of Cuba, the [U.S.] government is going to investigate everything, including the possibility of espionage. . . Obviously, at the end of the day, there was no evidence.''

Coll, who was born in Cuba in 1955 and came to the United States in 1969, served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflicts under President George H. Bush, and later as head of the strategic studies department at the Navy War College in Rhode Island. He held a secret clearance in both jobs.


On June 7, 2005, he pleaded guilty to the charge of lying about his trip to Cuba. He was sentenced to one year's probation and received a $5,000 fine, left the War College and now teaches at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. The majority of people accused of illegal travel to Cuba face fines, not criminal charges.

Although he was perceived as a conservative when he worked at the Pentagon, while at the War College he often advocated for improved U.S. relations with Cuba. After his conviction, he continued to argue for easing or lifting U.S. sanctions on the island.

A month after his conviction, The Miami Herald filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for all documents related to his case held by the Justice Department. The department answered that no documents could be released because of Coll's right to privacy.

The Herald filed suit in U.S. court in Miami arguing that the documents were part of a criminal investigation that should be made public; that Coll has a much diminished right to privacy because his government jobs and advocacy on Cuba issues makes him a public figure; and that the investigation relates to his position as a public figure.


The Justice Department turned over several documents to Judge Adalberto Jordan last year, but asked they be kept under seal for his review on what documents or parts of documents could be made public. And on Aug. 25 the department filed a memorandum arguing a broad range of reasons for why no part of the documents should be made public.

Among those reasons were the need to protect: the privacy of Coll and others; ``the interest of national security or foreign policy;'' ``internal personnel rules and practices of a [government] agency;'' confidential sources and information; techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations and prosecutions; personnel and medical files.

``In the absence of bad faith, or some other compelling showing that there has been an abuse of discretion, Court should not second guess the agency's judgement,'' the memo added.

In a 2006 book, Washington Times defense writer Bill Gertz described Coll as ``an apparent spy'' and said officials had told him they believed Coll had been ``recruited'' by Cuba. The book, Enemies: How America's Foes are Stealing Our Vital Secrets and How We Let it Happen, offers no evidence and doesn't say Coll leaked any secrets.

``The FBI has a job to do. . . investigate wild, scandalous allegations,'' said Coll's Rhode Island defense attorney, Francis Flanagan. ``Simply put, if you investigate someone for murder and they are not found culpable, they call that an innocent man.''