The Miami Herald
September 16, 1998
Alleged Cuban spies did little damage, Pentagon says

             Herald Staff Writers

             The 10 suspected Cuban spies did not steal any critical U.S. military secrets,
             federal authorities said Tuesday, but the FBI arrested them last weekend because
             agents feared the group would flee the country following the theft of a computer
             allegedly used in espionage.

             ``They did not succeed in breaking into the bases as I understand it,'' Pentagon
             spokesman Ken Bacon told The Herald. ``One of them worked in a military base,
             obviously. But there are no indications that they had access to classified
             information or access to sensitive areas.''

             This morning, eight of the defendants are scheduled to appear for a bond hearing
             in federal court in Miami. Two others are scheduled for court Thursday.

             The goal now for prosecutors is to persuade the alleged agents to cooperate, two
             sources familiar with the case said. Investigators want to know how involved
             Cuban government officials were. Investigators also hope to determine whether the
             alleged spies participated in the downing of two Brothers to the Rescue planes by
             Cuban MiGs in February 1996.

             The arrests also revealed some disturbing questions -- like how much of a spy ring
             it really was. Manuel Viramontes, the alleged ringleader who used an alias,
             sometimes missed his rent payments. Another alleged spy worked two unrelated
             jobs to make ends meet. Some of their scanners, radios and laptop computers
             were old.

             The FBI in Miami said Tuesday that the alleged spy ring failed to penetrate military
             bases during its two years under federal surveillance. ``They had no successes,''
             FBI spokesman Mike Fabregas said.

             But in Washington, senior FBI investigators called the group ``an extremely
             sophisticated ring'' and, on a scale of 1 to 10, rated the ring an 8.5. The FBI told
             staffers that some parts of the operation were basic, but other operations --
             technology and encryption -- were sophisticated.

             On Monday, federal prosecutors charged the 10 South Floridians, alleging the
             organization sought to infiltrate U.S. military bases in South Florida and sow
             discord among exile groups in Miami.

             Those arrested are: Viramontes, Luis Medina, Rene Gonzalez-Sehweret, Antonio
             Guerrero Jr., Ruben Campa, Alejandro Alonso, Nilo Hernandez-Mederos, Linda
             Hernandez, Joseph Santos and Amarylis Silverio.

             A complaint to Havana

             State Department spokesman James P. Rubin issued a tough complaint to Havana
             at his daily briefing in Washington.

             ``We condemn in the strongest possible terms the Cuban government's attempts to
             exploit the very openness of our society, while continuing to deny the Cuban
             people fundamental freedoms and human rights,'' Rubin said. ``The great irony
             here is that here is the Cuban government trying to exploit our openness while
             denying their very people any modicum of democracy for so long.''

             Calls to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington were not returned.

             In Miami, the arrests brought cheers in the Cuban exile community. Many exiles
             said the government was aiming at the right target. Earlier this month, scores of
             exiles complained that federal prosecutors focused on members of the Cuban
             American National Foundation in an alleged plot to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

             Rubin sought to dispel any notion that the arrests of the Cubans was an attempt to
             appease the exile community.

             ``There have been some suggestions that, you know, there are some quid pro
             quos going on, or many different conspiracy theories generated by some, and let
             me say this: There is no basis to any such allegation,'' Rubin said.

             Reaction to arrests

             On Tuesday, reaction to the arrests generally played well from the
             Spanish-language radio stations in Miami to Congress and the White House.

             Said White House spokesman Mike McCurry: ``It doesn't change our view that,
             as the lone communist holdout in this hemisphere, they pose a threat to the values
             and to the ideals that we in this democracy hold very dear.''

             Also Tuesday, Bill Doherty, the FBI's chief for counterintelligence, gave
             congressional staffers a synopsis of the case.

             The FBI said Medina recently had his computer equipment and diskettes stolen
             and agents feared the group would flee and all would be lost.

             At one point, the FBI considered arresting only group members who were
             attempting to penetrate exile groups while continuing to watch those spies involved
             in military intelligence gathering. The FBI hoped to gather more evidence but
             quashed the idea after the computer theft.

             Praise and criticism

             In Miami, Jose Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue, called a press
             conference at La Ermita de la Caridad, the most sacred exile gathering place. He
             initially praised the FBI for making the arrests, but then criticized federal
             investigators for waiting so long to make the arrests -- or not tipping the Brothers
             off that they had an alleged spy among them.

             Basulto said the arrests confirmed that Gonzalez-Sehweret participated in the
             downing of the Brothers' planes. Basulto said Gonzalez-Sehweret was a close
             friend of Juan Pablo Roque, a former Brothers pilot who defected to the United
             States then returned to Cuba shortly before the shooting.

             The U.S. attorney's office declined to respond to Basulto's comments or to answer
             any questions about the timing of the arrests. But law enforcement authorities
             pointed out that they did not know about the infiltration of Brothers to the Rescue
             until six months after the February 1996 shoot-down.

             They noted that according to the complaint they filed Monday against the alleged
             spies, the FBI did not obtain access to information that appeared on seized
             computer diskettes until August 1996. Those diskettes showed that one of the
             defendants, Gonzalez-Sehweret, had been directed by the Cuban government to
             infiltrate and report on the Brothers, the Democracy Movement and four other
             exile organizations.

             Seeking cooperation

             The government apparently is trying to persuade the alleged spies to cooperate
             with investigators.

             Miami lawyer Richard Diaz, who, with an associate, Vincent Farina, represents
             Nilo and Linda Hernandez, said agents invited his clients' cooperation after they
             were arrested Saturday.

             ``I met with my clients today and the other day, and they did tell me that at the
             time of their arrest that the agents put a lot of pressure on them, tried to get them
             to make post-arrest confessions and tried to get them to cooperate,'' Diaz said.

             ``I'm certain in this case they will try to flip one, if not more,'' he added.

             Diaz said neither Hernandez is prepared to cooperate. He said both deny the
             charges against them and he believes there is a compelling case for their release on

             ``They have no criminal history,'' Diaz said. ``It will be very interesting to find out
             what information the government alleges these two people provided that went to
             the Cuban government.''

             Herald staff writer David Lyons contributed to this report.