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Did love of Cuba drive U.S. couple to spy for Castro?

Kendall and Gwendolyn Myers are accused of spying on the United States for the Cuban government for 30 years.

Courtesy of the Myers family (1997)

Kendall and Gwendolyn Myers are accused of spying on the United States for the Cuban government for 30 years.

Kendall Myers was a bookish history professor hailing from elite Washington society. Gwendolyn Steingraber was an alternative energy advocate doing solar energy workshops for the Public Utility Commission in South Dakota.

In 1979, sheriff deputies raided their home in Pierre, S.D., and found marijuana growing in the basement.

The incident didn't raise too many eyebrows at the time and was quickly forgotten when the couple moved back to the starchy, civil service world of Washington.

Looking back, the episode serves as a helpful metaphor for an underground double life that became public on June 4 when the couple, now in their 70s, were arrested on charges that for 30 years they had been spying for the Cuban government.

The evidence so far — diary entries, taped statements and intercepted conversations — appears to leave little doubt about the couple's guilt. Instead, discussion of the case has focused on what motivated the Myerses, neither of whom was known to speak Spanish and rarely, if ever, displayed any interest in Latin America.

From court documents and public records, what emerges is a picture of a very private couple who hid a fervent admiration for Fidel Castro, as well as deep disdain for the U.S. political system.

"They were true believers," said Brian Latell, a former Cuba analyst with the CIA, noting that Cuba rarely pays its spies. "They seem to have done it out of love for an idyllic notion of Cuba's socialist society."

• • •

Kendall Myers' mother was the granddaughter of inventor Alexander Graham Bell. She belonged to the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, which promotes national heritage and patriotic service.

After graduating from Brown University, Myers went on to get a doctorate in European history from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. He drifted into academia, teaching at the school and working part time as an instructor at the State Department's training institute for young diplomats.

A series of events in the 1970s altered the course of his life. In 1975, he was driving a car near his home when he hit and killed a 16-year-old girl. He and his first wife were divorced soon after.

In December 1978, Myers took advantage of a brief warming of relations between Cuba and the United States to visit the island for two weeks. It was a personal academic trip at the invitation of Cuba's United Nations mission, he told his superiors.

He was immediately smitten by Cuba's socialist revolution, according to excerpts from a diary he kept at the time, cited by the FBI. "Everything I hear about Fidel suggests that he is a brilliant and charismatic leader," he wrote.

He was also scathing about his own country. "I have become so bitter these past few months," he wrote, complaining about "the abuses of our system, the lack of decent medical system … the complacency about the poor."

After returning from Cuba, he moved to South Dakota to be with his new girlfriend, Gwendolyn Steingraber, a divorced Capitol Hill staffer for Sen. James Abourezk, D-S.D.

"She worked in Aberdeen, handling constituent affairs," Abourezk recalled in a phone interview. "I knew her as a very generous, caring person."

Myers also left a favorable impression. "He was a very good guy, very compassionate, humanitarian," Abourezk said.

At the time, Abourezk was one of the most outspoken critics of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. In 1977, he made headlines when he took a South Dakota college basketball team to Cuba, with the approval of the Carter administration. "I was interested in normalizing relations," Abourezk said.

When Abourezk chose not to stand for re-election, Steingraber returned to a job in South Dakota with the Public Utility Commission, promoting solar energy. Myers went with her.

"She was very committed to social issues. She was very exciting to work with," said utilities Commissioner Ken Stofferahn, now 75 and retired in Nebraska.

It was while in South Dakota that Myers was visited by a Cuban official and recruited to spy, the indictment says.

The marijuana case was dropped and soon after the couple moved back to Washington. Myers rejoined the State Department after being turned down by the CIA. Soon he had a top secret security clearance. Meanwhile, Steingraber went to work for Riggs Bank. They were married in 1982. The Cubans gave them spy ID codes: Kendall Myers was "202," while his wife was "123," court documents say.

Though he worked as a European analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Myers' security clearance gave him broad access to classified information.

The couple began passing along information over a shortwave radio and by exchanging shopping carts with Cuban handlers in grocery stores, according to court documents. Later they switched to encrypted e-mails sent from Internet cafes.

They also met Cuban officials in other countries, including Brazil, Ecuador, Jamaica and Mexico. Yet, during those years, they almost never indicated any interest in the island, according to friends and colleagues.

Myers also continued to teach at the School of Advanced International Studies. His classes on British politics were "pretty balanced," said Tom Murray, a student in 1992.

He did appear to harbor some antiestablishment views. He wrote a dissertation defending British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement toward Hitler. He also had a more sympathetic take than most on a famous group of British spies who became Soviet double agents in the 1950s.

The Myerses were very careful. In 1995, they allegedly flew to Cuba using fake identification, where they met Castro. (Last week, Castro wrote that he could not recall meeting the couple, dismissing the case as an "espionage comic strip.")

Not until 2006 did the FBI begin to suspect the State Department had a spy in its midst.

By then the couple had begun to wind down their spying activities, according to documents. They bought a yacht and went sailing on weekends.

In November 2006, Myers made a rare slip. In what he thought was an off-the-record gathering at Johns Hopkins, he criticized U.S. treatment of its close ally Britain. His remarks created an uproar in the British press, and Myers was summoned by his superiors to explain the remarks. A year later, age 70, he quietly retired.

But the net was closing.

Two covert searches of the Myerses' Washington apartment and their sailboat by the FBI in 2008 turned up incriminating evidence, including Myers' 1978 Cuba diary, as well as a sailing guide for Cuban waters and a book titled On Becoming Cuban. The FBI also found a shortwave radio identical to one used by another Cuban spy, Ana Belen Montes, busted a few years earlier at the Pentagon and sentenced to 25 years in jail.

But it wasn't until early this year that the FBI decided to dupe Myers into revealing himself. On April 15, an undercover FBI agent approached Myers in the street before class. Pretending to be from Cuban intelligence, the agent offered Myers a cigar, with birthday greetings from one of his old Cuban handlers.

Over the course of three meetings at Washington hotels — all recorded by the FBI — the coupled opened up, describing their entire spying career in detail.

Asked if he had supplied information that was more than "top secret," Myers replied: "Oh yeah … oh yeah." During his last 15 months at the State Department he downloaded more than 200 classified documents related to Cuba, according to the FBI.

Myers and his wife told the undercover agent they were "burned out" after so many years. Myers asked to be considered as "a reserve army — ready when we're needed."

"It was our life," he said. "You know, it's like Fidel … it's forever."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

Did love of Cuba drive U.S. couple to spy for Castro? 06/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 22, 2009 12:04am]

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