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Cuba spy couple arrested

A former US State Department official and his wife have been arrested and charged with spying for communist Cuba for almost 30 years,

A former State Department official with top secret security clearance and his wife have been arrested and charged with spying for communist Cuba for almost 30 years, US officials said Friday. Walter Kendall Myers, 72, and his wife Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers, 71, are accused of conspiracy to hand over classified information to Cuba, serving as an illegal agent for a foreign government and wire fraud, the Department of Justice said in a statement.

The Washington couple were arrested on Thursday after an undercover FBI sting operation having allegedly passed on secrets for decades to Washington's Cold War foe via short-wave radio and in shopping carts. If found guilty, Mr Myers, known as Agent 202 by Cuban intelligence officials, and his wife, Agent 123, face a maximum of 20 years in prison. "The clandestine activity alleged in the charging documents, which spanned nearly three decades, is incredibly serious and should serve as a warning to any others in the US government who would betray America's trust," said David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security.

Mr Myers first began working for the State Department in 1977 as a lecturer at the department's Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia. But from 1988 to 1999 he began to work for its bureau of intelligence and research. In 1985, he was given top-secret security clearance which was then upgraded to a higher level in 1999. By the time he retired, Mr Myers was working as a senior Europe analyst for the department's intelligence bureau and had daily access to classified information stored on computer databases, the Justice Department said.

A scan of his computer showed that from August 2006 until his retirement in October 2007 Mr Myers had viewed more than 200 sensitive or classified intelligence reports on Cuba, which has been under a US embargo since 1962. The couple were first recruited after Mr Myers travelled to Cuba in 1978 at the invitation of the Cuban mission to the United States in New York. Six months later he was visited in his South Dakota home by a Cuban official from the mission, and the couple allegedly agreed to spy for Cuba.

They were encouraged to seek a job in Washington at the State Department or CIA, the Justice Department said. The couple would allegedly get encrypted messages from Cuba via short-wave radio, and Gwendolyn Myers, who worked as an analyst at a local bank, would pass on information to her contacts by exchanging shopping carts in stores because she said it was "easy enough to do," it added. Mr Myers told the undercover FBI agent that he usually smuggled information out of the State Department by memorising it or by taking notes.

"I was always pretty careful. I didn't usually take documents out," he told the operative who was pretending to be a Cuban intelligence officer. Apart from being contacted via coded messages on short-wave radio, the couple travelled all over South America and the Caribbean to meet with Cuban agents. They received medals from the Cuban government and apparently met with then-president Fidel Castro in 1995.

News of the arrests came as the new administration of US President Barack Obama is seeking to open a new era of ties with South America and has lifted travel restrictions on the communist-run Caribbean island. "This should serve as a stark reminder that while some seek to entice the Castro regime into behaving like the rest of the free world, Havana only seeks to threaten and undermine US interests at every turn," warned Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House foreign affairs committee.

And Frank Calzon, from the Center for a Free Cuba agreed, saying the arrests were a wake-up call, which "should be a matter of great concern to the Congress because of the ongoing efforts by Cuban diplomats and others to influence the perception of both congressmen and senators about US Cuba policy." The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has ordered a review of the case, and an assessment of the department's security procedures.

The state department spokesman Philip Crowley said the arrests were the culmination of a three-year joint investigation with the department's security service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. *AFP

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