Thursday, September 24, 2020

92. NO CIGARS





Undercover with FBI Counterintelligence

Later 2000, early 2001


Despite Edward Lee Howard's best efforts with the Cuban DGI's Senor Deema in Havana and Edouard Prensa in Moscow, I never did hear from the mysterious Pedro; never received written material from Juan Hernandez in Havana.   

And since I’d been operating in passive move, I wasn't pushing it.

In December, my Caller ID tagged an incoming call Cuban Interests.  I picked up.

"Hello, man," said Luis Fernandez.  "Where are you?"

"I'm in Washington," I said.  "The entertainment capital of the world."  (Bill Clinton was in the midst of his Monica Lewinsky debacle.)

Fernandez howled with laughter.  Then he got down to business.  "Can you meet me tomorrow?"

I supposed so.


Flakester (my codename for Fernandez) looked heavier then when last I'd seen seen him, ages ago.  In his black blazer, white shirt and navy-blue slacks, he looked like a penguin as he waddled toward me in Starbucks, Westbard Center, near his home on River Road.

He did not immediately jump into a tirade about the United States, as with visits before. He'd had a communiqué from Luis Abierno in Havana.  They were ready for me.

"Ready for what?" I asked.  So much time had passed, I'd forgotten.

"To do your books," said Fernandez.  "Abierno asks you to Havana for few days."

I told Flakester that I'd gotten busy with other projects.

Pity, said Fernandez, because he wanted me to help him whip the U.S. media into a frenzy over an anti-Castro Cuban named Luis Posada Carriles.

"Who?"

"He's a terrorist!" Fernandez exploded. "We want him extradited to Cuba."  Flakester blathered himself into an apoplexy over Carriles's alleged connections to a) the anti-Castro Cuban conspirators in Miami, b) the CIA, and c) Iran-Contra, in that order.


Six weeks later, Fernandez wanted to see me again.  

He'd gained another ten pounds over Christmas and had morphed from a penguin into a walrus.  I bought him a fattening latte.

"Luis Abierno asks when you come to Havana."

"Why?" I said.

"They are very interested in project you suggest."

I told Fernandez I was busy, maybe I'd send Rick K in my place.

"But we don't know Rick," Flakester whined.  "We know you."

That is what concerned me at this juncture.  Robert Hanssen, a senior FBI counterintelligence official, had just been arrested for espionage.  Nobody knew what or who he had compromised, and everyone at the Bureau was paranoid as hell.  

The second-to-last place I wasn't going any time soon was Havana.  (Moscow was first).  Not least because, all of sudden, the Cubans were pushing it.

"Sure you know Rick," I said.  "You met him at that dinner party we had at Saigon Gourmet.  He's a good writer.  I'd assign him anyway, so it’s better he makes the trip and evaluates the material you have in Havana."

"Maybe I meet Rick again," said Fernandez. 

Next, the Flakester's own agenda, the reason he had phoned me three times to arrange this rendezvous:  

Fernandez handed me a photocopy of an invitation to a reception inaugurating the new offices in Washington, D.C. of a brand new outfit calling itself The Free Cuba Embassy, to take place February 6th, seven p.m.

Flakester launched himself into a spluttering fit about the audacious absurdity of such a so-called embassy.  

Then he made his pitch:  "We like you to attend this reception, meet some people."

"What people?"

"Jorge Garcia," said Fernandez.  "He is boss of this group."

Flakester requested that I ingratiate myself with Garcia for the purpose of infiltrating the Cuban American National Foundation.  

"Identify the guys," he said.  "Know the environment."

Fernandez recounted to me that on a recent flight to Washington from Miami he had found himself seated near Jorge Garcia. 

"I prepared myself psychologically," said Fernandez, a solemn expression on his droll face.  Garcia recognized Fernandez from Cuban Interests and struck up a conversation; they exchanged pleasantries while Flakester stained his shorts.

Once he had my tentative agreement to spy on the opposition for him, Flakester agreed to provide me with the names of others, beside Garcia, whom I should target.

That very afternoon, this e-mail from Imfdez@juno.com (Luis M. Fernandez):


       1.  Jorge Mas Santos (Chairman)

      2.  Denny Hays (Executive Director in Washington)

      3.  Joe Garcia (Vice-President)

      4.  Feliciano Foyo (Treasury)

      5.  Alberto Hernandez Sarduy (Staffer)

      6.  Jose Hernandez Calvo (President of CANF)

      7.  Ninosca Perez Castellon (Speak Person)

      8.  Kick Menedez (Staffer)

      9.  Abel Hernandez (New Jersey Directive)

           

Of course, the FBI went nuts.  This Cuban intelligence officer was asking me, a U.S. citizen, to help him spy on other U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, a request most incompatible with his status as a diplomat.  

If the Bureau had not been so intent on assessing Flakester for possible recruitment, they would have PNG'd his butt back to Cuba, as in persona non grata.


On some Bureau-cratic level, someone decreed that I should attend the Free Cuba Embassy's reception.

I did not.

I explained my reasons to Special Agent Mike Stuberg when he telephoned me late in the evening to see how I'd made out.

"I didn't," I told him.  "As far as I can tell, we have no plan, no objectives.  What you’ve got is just an approval for me to waltz in there and start spying on U.S, citizens, ostensibly for Cuban Intelligence.  Then I've got to figure out what to tell Fernandez about the people I met and what we talked about.  If I make it up, we run the risk of pissing him off if he catches me out.  If I tell him who I met and what they said, it ends up in a Havana newspaper to expose these Free Cuba folks, and we piss off the good guys.  If we had an end-goal, I'd do it.  Otherwise, we’re just pissing in the wind."

My old friend, the late Walt Perry, had been an ace investigator for the Internal Revenue Service and chief architect of The Sting, or "illusions," as he liked to call his operations.  

Walt always told me:  Define your mission, establish objectives, determine timescale, decide budget, do it, win.  And always have an exit strategy.

Somewhere along the line, the FBI had quagmired into a bureaucracy that stifled a balladromic approach toward operational planning.


The chicken curry had gotten so bad at Saigon Gourmet, we could have been chowing down in Havana.

The we, Luis Fernandez and me.  

The chicken may have been rabbit.  Or cat.

Flakester was already seated, scribbling into a notebook, when I arrived.

I sat down, told him I’d been conceptualizing a TV situation comedy based around a spy bar called Spooky’s Safe House.  

"Above the bar," I explained, "a sign says Fake ID Accepted.  The only public phone has a plaque that says Secure Line.  Of course, it's bugged by the management."

Fernandez's eyes bugged; talk of espionage made this dandiprat nervous.

"And Ed Howard says he's going to give me the raincoat he used when he escaped from the FBI in 1985," I added.

Flakester's round head bobbed around in all directions, eyeballs popping from their sockets.  Then he chuckled about Robert Hanssen.  "The Cold War never ended," said Flakester.  He lowered his voice.  Had I attended the Free Cuba Embassy reception?

I told him I had planned to attend but got called out of town at the last minute, missed it, sorry.  I added that receptions are terrible places for making meaningful contact with people.  

"If you're really serious about this," I said, "I could phone one or more of the names on your list, go see these folks, really talk to them."

"You could do this?"  Flakester's eyes brightened.  He agreed that receptions are impersonal, and blamed that stupid idea on Luis Abierno.  "I would like you to meet Jorge Garcia."

"What is your objective for my making contact with Garcia?" I asked. 

(I wanted to see if these buggers were any better with real goals.)

"We like to expose how they orchestrate terrorist operations against Cuba," said Fernandez.  "They plan assassinations of our leader.  And economic espionage.  They have paramilitary branch.  Follow the money," he added, as if this were an original phrase.

"Okay," I said.  "Supposing I go see Garcia.  What's in it for me?  I think I deserve a box of Cuban cigars, at least."

"Of course!"  Fernandez bubbled with joy.  "I get you cigars."

Clinched:  I'd spy for the Cubans in exchange for cigars.  It would be the Double Ruse:  While rusing the Castro-Cubans for the FBI, I'd ruse the Free-Cubans for the Castro-Cubans, but I'd really be rusing the Castro-Cubans.

"When you come to Cuba?" asked Fernandez.  "Abierno is waiting for you."

"I don't know," I said.  "I'm busy with things.  Maybe Rick K will go instead of me.  He's coming into DC next week, would you like to see him again?"

"Yes, of course."

Fernandez, fat bastard, cleaned his plate.  And this time (for once) picked up the check.


When I met Fernandez a week later with Rick K, I began by promising him a six-foot tall blonde beauty with blue eyes. But only if he participated in a weekend getaway to Reykjavik, where young Icelanders go berserk every weekend. 

"Yeah?" said Flakester, eyes-a-bulge.

Yep.  But the hapless Fernandez lived in fear of his wife, who apparently kept him on a short leash.

Flakester should have been on a leash at The Daily Grill in Georgetown.  

He slobbered and whined, dipping into a large chicken potpie between diatribes, ultimately gobbling everything in sight.  

Again, he made a pitch for me to travel to Havana.  A bit strong, I thought.

I told him I'd already spent enough time and expense on Cuban project development; that Luis Abierno should get his butt to Washington with all the material they promised me long ago through Pedro.  

I sipped my dry martini, Beefeater, olives and smoked a Hemingway Short Story, the flavorful Arturo Fuente cigar.

Fernandez insisted they needed something more from me.

Like what?

"I'd like you to meet Hays," said Fernandez.

"Who?  I thought you wanted me to meet Jorge Garcia?"

No, the plan had changed.  "We like you to talk to Hays."

Denny Hays was executive-director of the Cuban-American National Foundation.

"What do you want me to talk to him about?" I asked.

"We want to know about his motivation and plans."

Most astonishing, Flakester said this in front of Rick K, whom he barely knew.

Had he brought payment, like, my cigars?

"No, I forget," said Fernandez.  "You drive me back to my office?"

This was calculated on his part, the only sign of cleverness I ever discerned in Flakester.   A free ride back to his car.

I drove Fernandez to Sixteenth Street but declined his invitation to enter the building with him for my "payment" at this late hour.

Bottom line:  He thought he'd recruited a spy, but no cigars.

However, this perk:  The FBI provided me with tickets to see the Baltimore Orioles play an exhibition game with the Cuban National Team at Camden Yards, on defector watch.

           

I never did try to see Denny Hays.  And I never saw Luis Fernandez again.  

This operation no longer had legs. Because of Hanssen, I would not visit Cuba again, nor would the FBI have sanctioned such a trip, for the same reason.  

And without a well-conceived forward-thinking game-plan from the Bureau, I wasn’t about to place myself between Cuban Intelligence and the anti-Castro Cuban community. 

The FBI discussed bouncing Flakester's butt back to Cuba but, ultimately, he was so ineffectual, it wasn’t worth the trouble.



Wednesday, September 23, 2020

91. THE DINNER PARTY







Undercover with FBI Counterintelligence

September-October 1999



So far as the Edward Lee Howard case was concerned, things looked bad.  

Not for Howard, but for the United States of America:  

FBI Special Agent John H opted for early retirement, effective the first week of September 1999.  

He would not have folded ahead of schedule had he not been signaled by Headquarters that the "related conflict" holding up a Howard rendition would never be lifted by the Justice Department; it had been John H’s intention to remain at his desk until the Howard case was resolved.

(A couple years earlier, John H’s boss, Jim S, who had provided enthusiastic support for capturing Howard, left Albuquerque for a U.S. embassy legat position in Athens, Greece.  Not long after that, Jim S retired from the Bureau.  Bob G, the gung-ho assistant U.S. Attorney, had also left public service and gone into private practice.)

Once retired, John H would be out of the loop, exempt from learning anything more about the Howard case, which would be absorbed by another Albuquerque-based special agent for whom Howard would be a nuisance, not a priority.

Although I did not realize it yet, I had become the de facto advocate for keeping the Big Cheese Family aware that a) the Howard case still existed and b) the Howard case was important.

The day I could no longer phone John H with new developments evolving from the Howard case was terribly sad for me.  

We had been a good team; he, an extraordinary special agent.  I did not appreciate till I started working with others just how skilled John H was with what he called Bu biz.  

In his low-key manner, John H knew how to work the system with finesse; how to walk the labyrinth of Headquarters, take the knocks, and get back up for a return bout with never a sour word about anyone.  

He was one of very few who knew how to operate within a bureaucracy that had become ridiculously disconnected.  Everyone I worked with thereafter paled in comparison to the soft-spoken but very savvy John H.


But life goes on, and so did my Cuban operation, still administrated by FBI Albuquerque, if managed by Washington Field Office.

At the request of Luis Fernandez, I organized a dinner party on October 1st to introduce him to new media people:  

A British journalist of Indian descent and a producer from NBC News (both unwitting to my FBI role), and Rick K, whom I'd taken to Moscow and now signed on as an asset in my Cuban coversion.

The venue, as usual, Saigon Gourmet, as stipulated by Fernandez, very much a creature of habit.

Luis Abierno had left Washington and returned to Havana.  

So in his place Fernandez brought along the oddly-named Reuben de Wong Corchou, who had arrived one week earlier from Cuba.

Couchou was better dressed than Fernandez, who wore a paisley tie with striped shirt and (to quote the NBC producer) "looked like he just got off a boat from Bangladesh."

A black tweed sportcoat made Couchou look more like a mortician than a diplomat.  His pockmarked, funereal face glistened with grease and came adorned with thick, Soviet-era spectacles.  He wore his dark hair slick-backed (with natural perspiration).  

I almost asked if I could hire him out for Halloween to scare the kids.

Even worse than his countenance, Couchou possessed a grim and dour personality, totally devoid of humor.  He did not smile, could not laugh.  

Within two minutes it became clear this guy was the dinner guest from hell.  Getting him to talk was harder than pulling teeth. More like root canal.

Under pressure from me to loosen his tongue, Couchou divulged that he had studied English and Cuban History at Havana University then taught these subjects for ten years before joining the foreign ministry through the 1990s.  

As for foreign travel, Couchou had taken a grand tour of the Soviet Union in 1981, and spent much of 1998 in Tokyo, during which he visited China.  

This tour in Washington was his first time in the United States.

Although he professed himself to be a staunch Marxist ideologue, Couchou wore a Rolex Submariner wristwatch, though I reckoned this extravagance was a counterfeit bought on the cheap in Asia.

I asked Couchou, and Fernandez, to speculate what Cuba would be like five years from now.

Both men seemed at a loss to respond.

The British journalist asked Fernandez what he thought of Castro.

Fernandez choked up, composed himself, and said, "He is my father."

("Does this mean we should add Luis's name to the list of Fidel's illegitimate children?" I posed in my written report to the FBI.)

I sensed that Fernandez was showing off for Couchou, as if he thought the new guy was in town to audit his behavior and spy on him. 

The British journalist, a loquacious chap, asked both Cubans, "So what's your problem with the USA?"

Fernandez straightened himself and said, "Two words."

This should be good, I thought, as Fernandez poised himself.  

What two words could possibly sum it all up?

But, alackaday, Fernandez had mistaken this expression for meaning something else because what actually spewed from his mouth was a two-thousand word diatribe on how Cuban people are deprived of food and medicine because of U.S. policies.

"Why don't you do what China does and hire Henry Kissinger to lobby in Washington?" asked the British journalist.

Fernandez did not understand the question.

The Brit re-phrased it.

Fernandez still didn't get it.

I re-jigged the question myself.

"Ah," said Fernandez.  "We have no money for this.  We are effective in our own way."

The British journalist asked about Che Guevara's standing in contemporary Cuba.

Couchou, the historian, fielded this question by reciting Che's birthday:  “June 14th, 1928.”  

(Could this get any more comical? For a moment, I thought Couchou might stand and sing Commandante Che Guevara. Mercifully, this did not happen.) 


I asked Fernandez if my package from Juan Hernandez had arrived.  (Earlier, Hernandez confirmed by e-mail from Havana that he had finally sent material by diplomatic pouch, as promised seven months earlier.)

Yes, he had phoned Hernandez, said Fernandez.  The material, he was told, had been sent to someone in the United States named Pedro.

"Who's Pedro?" I said.

Fernandez shook his head.  He did not know.  It remained unclear whether Pedro was supposed to contact me or what.

When the bill came, Fernandez did not remember that this dinner party had been his idea.  Nor that it was his turn.  So the FBI took another hit.

           
I next met Fernandez, whom I codenamed Flakester, four weeks later, on October 30th, in the Pavilion, Chevy Chase, a coffee morning at Starbucks.  

Luis trudged in bleary-eyed, wearing a Nike windbreaker, black polo shirt and freshly trimmed crew-cut. 

He launched into another harangue about how a small minority of anti-Castro Cubans in Miami and three Congressmen can manipulate U.S. policy toward Cuba.  

Again, he implied that they were funded by a mysterious source.  

My earlier request for leads, said Fernandez, had been sent to Havana.  

Their reply:  Instruct Eringer to get started, show us results, we'll help fill the holes.  

"You go to Cuba," he said.  "We give you facilities."

Fernandez added that he had to be careful because the Cuban Interests Section was not supposed to assist writers.

As we parted, I said, "Happy Halloween.  Go spook a few people."  (And take Reuben de Wong Corchou with you.)


Almost six weeks later, I still hadn't heard from Pedro.  

I phoned Fernandez, who was sick with flu.

 "Who's Pedro?" he asked, preempting me.

 "Exactly," I said.  "What have you heard?"

"Nothing, man.  Who was that guy who was supposed to do this?"  Fernandez was flakier than a dandruff attack in a blizzard.

"Juan Hernandez."

"Right, Hernandez," said Ferndandez.  "I will phone Hernandez."

"Excellent," I said.  "Phone Hernandez.  Find out who the hell Pedro is."