When the FBI Came Calling
I did not anticipate when I traveled to Cuba for research in March 2006 that the trip would be of interest or concern to the FBI. The purpose of my trip was both transparent and legal. As a full time graduate student conducting research for my thesis, and directly related to my program of study, I’m legally authorized to travel to Cuba under the existing travel restrictions placed on United States Citizens prohibiting their travel to and from Cuba.
In light of the legality of travels, I assumed the call was a prank when a woman claiming to be from the FBI telephoned me at American University in Washington, DC in May 2006. Offering to call her back, I guessed that the number was likely to belong to Chinese take-out restaurant. In fact it was the number for the main FBI switchboard where they quickly connected me to Special Agent Alexandra Montiga. She was warm and friendly, saying she’d like to meet with me regarding my work and travel to Cuba. "This is standard," she claimed. "Something we do with everyone who travels to Cuba."
I’ve traveled to Cuba several times over the past four years and never heard anything about this. People I know travel to Cuba all the time, and are rarely if ever contacted by the FBI. This is not a "standard" I was aware of.
During a second conversation, the FBI agent asked me why I was hesitant to talk with her, and said that this was "very low-key" and "no big deal," she just wanted to ask me some questions about Cuba. She offered to take me out for lunch or dinner at a restaurant of my choice, stressing repeatedly that this was "informal" and "just the two of us meeting for lunch."
During our third conversation the following day, I told the agent I didn’t feel comfortable meeting with her without first discussing it with university officials and having a third party present. She asked who I had been talking to about this. Could I give her specific names? I declined.
The FBI agent acted personally offended, claiming I was making things more complicated than they needed to be by involving people from my university.
I responded that since I was contacted on campus, regarding my travel to Cuba on the university’s license, and being asked questions about other university faculty, I felt obligated to let the university know what was going on. I said I would be happy to cooperate, but would like more specific information on exactly why she wanted to talk to me and what she wanted to talk about.
The agent said she’d rather not go into it over the phone, but that basically, she wanted to help me. She informed me that the Cuban government had been known to target "certain types" of academics, and she’d like to warn me about things to watch out for, and find out from me if I had experienced any of the "targeting activities" while working in and on Cuba. She told me the meeting was "preventative" so I’d know what to look out for. She assured me, the meeting would be of more use to me, than her or the FBI. She said the FBI did this with all students traveling to Cuba. Again, this was news to me, and all the other people I know who travel frequently to Cuba.
I was encouraged by university officials to be cooperative and meet with the FBI, but with a lawyer from the university present and not down at the FBI offices, as had been requested. It turned out that the "informal" lunch invitation I received from Alexandra (just call me Alex), to "chat about Cuba," wasn’t extended to a third party. I received a call from Special Agent Montiga (no longer so friendly), confirming that she and her boss in the Counter Intelligence Unit, would meet with me in a conference room at the university with an attorney present.
What Agent Montiga claimed over and over again was just a talk between the two of us "more as friends really," to give me information, and help me out, quickly turned into two and a half hours of mostly being questioned by her boss, Fred Buckley. Special Agent Buckley, they made sure to tell me a number of times throughout the conversation, had been involved in the investigation and eventual prosecution of Ana Belen Montes, a Cuban spy who’d infiltrated the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. They didn’t want to see anything like that happen to me, they claimed. Not that they were suspecting me of anything, they just wanted to warn me what my work on Cuba could lead to if I wasn’t careful about who I worked with. The agents told me that students like myself, were exactly what the Cuban government was looking for.
They gave me a detailed step by step account of how a "recruitment effort" takes place between Cuban officials and cooperative or "sympathetic" American citizens. An agent might befriend me for example, maybe ask me out for lunch, or offer to take me to a restaurant of my choice, very "low-key" of course. Then the Cuban Intelligence agent would ask me seemingly innocent questions about my work in Cuba, to try to get a feel for my views and contacts. The Cuban official would try to play things off, they claimed, as though they were just trying to be my friend, trying to help me out and give me information.
"Has any of this happened to you or anyone you know?" they asked.
The early warning signs they claimed would help me "spot a recruitment effort" by the Cuban government, had been followed almost exactly by Special Agent Alexandra Montiga, during our initial conversations over the phone. Other than that potential "recruitment effort" or "targeting," no, nothing like that had ever happened to me before.
Their questions continued, ranging from the very basic to the more personal.
Could this be called a "fishing operation"?
Why do I go to Cuba?
How do I get there?
Who first got me interested in Cuba?
What are their names?
Who do I stay with when I’m there?
Am I followed or monitored?
Who is responsible for me in Cuba? Who do I report to?
Do I meet with members of the Cuban government?
Have I ever met Fidel Castro?
Would I like to?
How much contact do I have with the people at the Cuban Interest Section in DC?
Do I ever see them outside of the Interest Section, or invite them to campus?
What are their names?
Do I recognize any of the photos they have of Cuban Intelligence agents operating in DC and Havana?
Do other professors on campus work on Cuba?
Do they meet with people in the Cuban government?
What are their names?
Before the meeting ended they gave me a binder containing information on Cuban counterintelligence operations, articles on people convicted of spying for the Cuban government, the recruitment process used by Cuban intelligence, and a list of "helpful sources" for further reading about the "terrorist activities" conducted by Cuba targeting the United States.
In a final attempt to get names of people I was "involved with" who also do Cuba work, Agent Montiga, reiterated how "low-key" this was, and that she didn’t see why it was "such a big deal" for me to give them names, and that other students she’d spoken to had been significantly more helpful than I. I apologized but still refused to provide names without knowing the reason I was being asked. Regardless of this fact, they thanked me for my time, said to contact them if I remembered anything I might want to tell them in case something had "slipped" my mind, and that they would be in touch.
This was my first encounter with the FBI since I started focusing on Cuba several years ago. I assume it won’t be my last. I promise though, that it will be both the first and the last time I allow myself to be intimidated into staying quiet and being "cooperative" when my civil liberties are so blatantly challenged.
Margaruite Rose Jimenez can be reached at: email@example.com