For three decades, accused spies Walter Kendall Myers and his wife shuffled secrets to their Cuban contacts in such fear of being caught, authorities say, that he memorized top-secret documents rather than bring them into their home.
Their downfall came simply and swiftly, lured by a stranger who offered Myers a cigar.
Obama administration officials say Kendall Myers had access to highly sensitive material while working for the State Department’s intelligence arm, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has ordered a damage assessment of what the couple may have revealed. Their methods of communicating with the Cubans included Morse code on shortwave radio, changing shopping carts at the grocery store and a face-to-face meeting with President Fidel Castro himself, court documents say.
David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, described the couple’s alleged spying for the communist government as "incredibly serious."
State Department officials say Kendall Myers had been under investigation for three years, since before he retired in 2007. The FBI made its move on him on April 15, on the street outside the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, where he had gotten a doctorate and taught classes.
An undercover agent approached Kendall Myers, claiming to be an associate of his Cuban handler, according to a law enforcement official speaking on a condition of anonymity about the ongoing investigation. The agent offered Kendall Myers a cigar and birthday wishes since he turned 72 that day and proposed they meet at a Washington hotel later that night. The ruse worked, and Kendall Myers said he’d bring along his wife, Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers.
The Myerses had been out of touch with their Cuban handlers for a while, according to court documents. The couple reportedly told the agent they lived "in fear and anxiety for a long time" and feared Kendall Myers’ boss had put him on a watch list in 1995. They said they were not interested in regular spying again but would help where they could, court documents say.
Authorities said over the course of three meetings with the agent in April, they shared their views of Obama administration officials who had recently taken over responsibility for Latin American policy and changing conditions in Cuba. They also accepted a device to encrypt future e-mail. The undercover agent proposed a fourth meeting for Thursday at a Washington hotel, where the couple was arrested.
The couple pleaded not guilty Friday in U.S. District Court to conspiracy to act as illegal agents and to communicate classified information to the Cuban government. Each is also charged with acting as an illegal agent of the Cuban government and with wire fraud. They are being held in jail until a detention hearing scheduled for Wednesday. Their attorney, Thomas Green, declined to comment.
The Myerses’ arrest could affect congressional support for easing tensions with Cuba dating back to the Cold War. Two months ago, the Obama administration took steps to relax a trade embargo imposed on the island nation in 1962.
Court documents indicate the couple received little money for their efforts, but instead professed a deep love for Cuba, Castro and the country’s system of government. The couple was planning a sailing trip to Cuba, which Myers considered "home."
The documents say Castro came to visit the couple in a small house in Cuba where they were staying in 1995, after traveling through Mexico under false names. Kendall Myers reportedly boasted to the undercover FBI agent that they had received "lots of medals" from the Cuban government.
The Myerses lived in a luxury co-op complex in Northwest Washington that over the years was home to Cabinet members, judges, congressmen and senators, including the late Barry Goldwater.
William Simpson, a security guard at the co-op, said the Myerses regularly asked him to clean their windows and would offer him something to eat or drink. "They treated me real nice," he said. "It shocked me when I heard" the news, Simpson said.
Kendall Myers was known by the Cubans as Agent 202, according to the indictment. His 71-year-old wife, a former bank analyst, reportedly went by both Agent 123 and Agent E-634.
The indictment says Kendall Myers disclosed to the State Department that he traveled to Cuba for two weeks in 1978, saying the trip was for personal and academic purposes. The next year, a Cuban government official visited the couple while they were living in South Dakota and recruited them to be spies, the indictment says. At Cuba’s direction, authorities say, Kendall Myers attempted to get jobs that would give him access to classified information.
Court documents describe the couple’s spying methods changing with the times, beginning with old-fashioned tools of Cold War spying: Morse code messages over a short-wave radio and notes taken on water-soluble paper. By the time they retired from the work in 2007, they were reportedly sending encrypted e-mails from Internet cafes.
The criminal complaint says changing technology also persuaded Gwendolyn Myers to abandon what she considered an easy way of passing information, by changing shopping carts in a grocery store. The document quoted her as telling the FBI agent she would no longer use that tactic. "Now they have cameras, but they didn’t then."
Kendall Myers first worked for the State Department as a lecturer at the Foreign Service Institute and later as a European analyst in the department’s intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, from 2000 until his retirement in October 2007.
The indictment says in his last year of employment, Kendall Myers viewed more than 200 intelligence reports related to Cuba. Kendall Myers often took notes or memorized classified material to avoid the risk of removing the documents but concealed some documents he removed in a set of bookends, the court documents said.
Associated Press writers Devlin Barrett, Matthew Lee, Pam Hess and Christine Simmons contributed to this report.