An Improbable Spy?
Friends Old and New Stunned by Arrest Of Reserved, Frugal Defense Analyst
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
In Washington's world of top-level intelligence briefings, Ana Belen Montes was the go-to person on Cuba.
She told people how the communist nation worked.
But all the while, federal authorities say, the 44-year-old Defense
Intelligence Agency analyst was telling Cuba just how the United States
operated, from the identity
of undercover agents sent to infiltrate the island to details on military exercises.
Today, Montes, held without bond since she was arrested at her Bolling
Air Force Base office on Sept. 21, is due in U.S. District Court in Washington
for a hearing
on a charge of conspiracy to deliver U.S. national defense information. The crime is punishable by death.
Yesterday, she was in discussions with one of Washington's top criminal defense lawyers, Plato Cacheris, who has handled numerous high-profile cases.
Cacheris and co-counsel Preston Burton represented FBI counterintelligence
agent Robert P. Hanssen, who pleaded guilty in July to 15 counts of spying
Moscow, and CIA officer Aldrich H. Ames, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1994, also for spying for Moscow. The lawyers also represented Monica S.
Lewinsky during independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of President Bill Clinton.
The charges against Montes, said friends and colleagues, came as a shock.
They said they knew Montes as a devoted aunt to her nieces and a loving
daughter to her
mother in South Florida, whom she helped support. She was helping her mother research a Spanish-language memoir about growing up in Puerto Rico. Her father,
also from Puerto Rico, was a psychiatrist on military bases, and Montes was born in Germany. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her father died a year
She pursued international studies in college and, friends said, eventually
made it clear that her career focus was Central America or the Caribbean.
She majored in
foreign affairs at the University of Virginia and then received a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in
Montes worked a few years in the early 1980s at the Department of Justice,
then moved to the DIA in 1985. The agency's duties include analyzing countries'
capabilities and troop strengths for the Pentagon.
At the DIA, her fluency in Spanish and familiarity with Latin America
helped her fulfill her career goals. She first focused on Nicaragua, then
in 1992 moved to
full-time analysis of Cuba.
She went to Cuba more than once on business for the U.S. government
in the 1990s and played a key role in writing a 1997 DIA report that determined
military posed no significant threat to the United States or other countries in the region. Friends said she told them only that she got the chance to go to Cuba in 1998
during the historic visit of Pope John Paul II. She described the trip as any other awe-struck tourist would, one recalled. At least six years ago, authorities say, she
started spying for Cuba.
That seems improbable to her friends.
"The only secret she gave us was her mother's luscious flan recipe,"
Gideon Gil, an editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal, wrote in a column
expressing dismay at
the arrest of his former houseguest. Gil's wife, Lisa Huber, has been friends with Montes since they met as freshman roommates in 1975.
Montes, slender with ramrod-straight posture, dressed conservatively
and attended Kennedy Center performances of the National Symphony Orchestra.
her brown hair plain and short, mainly, she once told a friend, because as a civilian, she needed to blend in among her mostly male military colleagues at Bolling.
If she was a risk-taker, she didn't act like one. She once passed up
a promotion at the DIA, a friend said, so she could remain an analyst.
But she made it clear that
her career was paramount. As an analyst she traveled and wrote reports.
"Her reputation and her job were really important to her," Huber said. "That's the thing I can't believe -- that she would ever do anything to jeopardize that."
Montes was not a glad-hander. Some government officials who attended interagency meetings on Cuba with Montes described her as humorless, even brusque.
"She was reticent, not outgoing or garrulous," said Gillian Gunn Clissold,
the director of the Georgetown University Caribbean Project, which ran
a Cuba study group
that Montes belonged to for several years. "She was scrupulously polite, but very quiet and reserved. Very bright, but quiet and reserved."
"Like fellow members of the Cuba specialist community, we were both shocked and disturbed by the alleged activities of Ms. Montes," Clissold said.
Montes, friends said, was organized and frugal. She drove a Toyota and
was proud that she had been able to buy her sunny but small cooperative
Northwest Washington on her own almost a decade ago.
This past summer, she almost single-handedly lobbied the co-op board
-- some of the members had no idea Montes spoke fluent Spanish or was interested
American culture -- to rescind a special assessment fee that was to pay for recent renovations.
As a single woman in charge of her own future, said Huber, Montes seemed to be conscientiously saving for her retirement.
If Montes had deeply held political or partisan views, she didn't express them over the years, friends said.
"She didn't seem to be anyone who thought of heavy issues," recalled
Nargis J. Cross, a friend from the University of Virginia for whom Montes
had been a
bridesmaid in the late 1970s but with whom she had lost touch.
When FBI agents raided her apartment after her arrest, they seized two
computers, a shortwave radio, foreign currency, tape recorders and five
passports. But if
Montes was attracted to the netherworld of espionage, she never indicated that she found her work as an analyst unsatisfying or onerous, friends said. "She liked her
job. She seemed very happy and busy," Huber said. "I never got the sense there was anything very dark or dramatic or so forth. She didn't seem to be someone who
would be drawn to that."
Montes did engage in a moment of drama after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In a response to an e-mail message from Huber after the attacks, Montes wrote on Sept. 14:
"I could see the Pentagon burning from my office. Nonetheless, it pales
next to the World Trade Center," she wrote. "Dark days ahead. So much hate
self-righteousness on all sides."
Exactly a week later, Montes was arrested by FBI agents at her office.
Staff writer Bill Miller contributed to this report.