WASHINGTON — A former State Department official and his wife have been arrested on charges of spying for the Cuban government for nearly 30 years, using grocery carts among their array of tools to pass U.S. secrets to the Communist government in a security breach one official described as "incredibly serious."
An indictment unsealed Friday said Walter Kendall Myers, 72, worked his way into higher U.S. security clearances while secretly partnering with his wife, Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers, 71, as clandestine agents so valued by the Cuban government that they once had a private meeting with Fidel Castro.
The Myerses, whose luxury Washington co-op was home to Cabinet members, judges, congressmen and senators, were charged with conspiring to act as illegal agents, passing classified information to the Cuban government, conspiring to provide classified U.S. information to Havana, and wire fraud.
Walter Myers is the scion of one of Washington's most storied families. His mother, Elsie Alexandra Carol Grosvenor Myers, was the granddaughter of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.
The Myerses were arrested Thursday, pleaded not guilty Friday and were ordered held in jail until a hearing Wednesday.
The arrest comes as President Barack Obama has sought to improve relations with the Cuban government. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., a Cuban refugee, called on the administration to halt "any further diplomatic outreach to the regime," including the resumption of planned migration talks between the countries, "until the U.S. Congress has a full accounting of the damage these individuals have caused to our national security."
"This is a stark reminder that just 90 miles from our shores, there is a government hostile toward the people of the United States, a regime that seeks to do us harm."
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 documents describe the couple's spying methods changing with the times, beginning with old-fashioned Cold War tools: Morse code messages over a short-wave radio and notes taken on water-soluble paper. By the time they backed off 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 saying she would no longer use that tactic. "Now they have cameras, but they didn't then." Authorities say her comments came during meetings this spring with an undercover FBI agent.
The indictment charges that an official from Cuba's mission to the United Nations recruited the couple to spy for Cuba in 1979, visiting them at their home in South Dakota. The Cuba intelligence service directed Kendall Myers, who'd worked for the State Department in 1977, to resume his employment with the State Department "or the CIA."
The allegations are "incredibly serious and should serve as a warning to any others in the U.S. government who would betray America's trust by serving as illegal agents," said assistant attorney general David Kris.
The United States also has spied on Cuba, although with limited success. In 1988, a Cuban defector revealed that every one of the CIA's Cuba spies was a double agent for the Cuban government.