Last of the ‘true believers’ or harbinger? Ana Montes and the future of espionage against the West
27 Feb 2024|

Ana Montes was US Intelligence’s ‘Queen of Cuba’. The Defence Intelligence Agency’s leading Central America analyst; go-to voice on Cuban intentions and capabilities; eldest daughter of a family dedicated to US Government service. She was also a Cuban spy her entire professional life, until arrested 10 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Now, after almost 21 years in prison, Montes resides in Puerto Rico, an unrepentant critic of US policy towards Cuba.

Montes represents an apparently extraordinary case of espionage. She is a Hispanic woman, recruited at university, while most spies have been white, middle-aged, middle-career men. As an agent, she not only stole secrets but shaped assessments and influenced policy in an adversary’s interests—and then there’s the sheer audacity of penetrating the heart of US military intelligence. But she was also a ’True Believer’ –motivated not by material rewards but by commitment to Castro’s revolution and opposition to US policy in Latin America. In her words:

‘I felt morally obligated to help [Cuba] defend itself from our efforts to impose our values and our political system on it.’

She was the ‘I’ in the traditional schema of espionage motivations: MICE (Money, Ideology, Coercion/Compromise, Ego). Acknowledging that espionage cases are rarely singular in character and Montes’ ideology was buttressed by psychological issues around her early (and on her account, abusive) family life.

Montes might therefore be regarded as a throwback to ideologically-motivated spies of the interwar years and early Cold War—the ‘Cambridge Five’, George Blake, Karl Fuchs, the Goldbergs, etc. This espionage threat was meant to have been killed off by the atrocities and contradictions of communist reality; swept away by purges and by 1956 in Budapest (and Krushchev’s repudiation of Stalinism), 1968 in Prague and finally in 1989. Isn’t spying now a function only of the venal and disturbed? By grubby malcontents like Hanssen, Ames, Walker and Nicholson? Surely by the 1990s neoliberalism and the dollar’s pursuit had triumphed in the treason market as much as in attitudes to state ownership or to international financial transactions and currency conversion?

Of course, this is too narrow a perspective. Ideologically motivated spies continued to operate in Western Europe late into the Cold War. Norwegian diplomat and rising star of left-wing politics Arne Treholt was arrested in 1984 and convicted of spying for the Soviets and Iraqis. Furthermore, while appropriate categorisation of self-directed insider threats like Edward Snowden is problematic in a traditional counter-espionage context, their motivations are often (including in Snowden’s case) at least partially ideological.

Alternatively, might the Cuba-US dynamic be too unique a circumstance, stuck in Cold War aspic? Cuban recruited spies inside the US have typically been ideologically committed: eg Carlos Alvarez, Walter and Gwendolyn Myers, plus former US Ambassador to Bolivia Manuel Rocha, currently awaiting trial. After all, Cuba has always existed simultaneously within and without the Cold War paradigm—as much about more 21st century notions of power, privilege, race and hegemony, than about control of the means of production.

More provocatively, the Montes case is a reminder of a challenge we’d rather not contemplate—given its implications. Western liberalism’s triumph at the ‘end of history’ is looking threadbare in 2024 but it’s the CIA and MI6 who are appealing to men and women of principle inside Russia to work clandestinely against Putin. It’s a former ASIS Director-General who stated publicly and optimistically that ‘… closed societies run the risk of a greater number of individuals willing to betray the secrets of their country, because they are not happy, they don’t get a voice’. The idea of the reverse: an American, a Briton, an Australian betraying their country on principle seems discordant.

We should not be so complacent. Yes, psychological disturbance, ego and money characterise those few instances of espionage against Australia in the last 45 years (ie Peacock, Wispelaare and Lappas). But ideology’s not alien. In the 1940s and 1950s some Australians were indeed motivated to do just this in assistance to the Soviet Union, a brutal dictatorship and obviously bloody ideology. Now, think about the weird realignments of ideology occurring today. The melding together of domestic and international politics. The ‘horseshoe theory’ of convergence between left and right extremes. Circumstances in which the aforementioned Treholt was an advocate for Putin’s Russia before he died.

Furthermore, the question as to what degree Australia should be concerned about insider threat motivations is now pertinent. We’re currently seeing wide-ranging reforms in how the Australian Government manages personnel security and combats insider threats—including through a more central role for ASIO. National security agencies are needing to transform to meet operational requirements and industrial realities: contemplating and implementing multiclassification workspaces and workforces; rapidly growing staff numbers; embracing greater openness and leveraging relationships beyond traditional security frameworks. All this is happening amidst accelerating strategic circumstances faced by Australia—and our resulting attraction as an espionage target—and changes amongst some younger people in attitudes to traditionally intrusive security clearance processes and maintenance regimes.

The implications can be profound. Leaving aside direct effects, ideological spying invariably causes—contrary often to naïve intentions—collateral damage. Montes spied for Cuba for reasons specific to US policy in Latin America. She still ended up likely betraying sensitive (and expensive) US intelligence sources and methods to the Soviets (and latter-day Russians), via her Cuban handlers.

It’s for these reasons that further research on evolving motivations for espionage, associated insider threat consequences for Australia, and effective mitigations is a future priority for ASPI’s Statecraft & Intelligence Centre.

Questions that such research will seek to answer include:

  • What ‘principles’ might motivate Aussies to betray their country in 2024 (or the future)? What’s the political analogue now to motivating ideologies of the past? Might it be found in extreme right-wing alignment with authoritarian regimes and models? Conflicted national identifications? A sense of the ‘future’? Environmental anxiety? Pervasive leftist narratives about power and justice (exhibited in relation to Gaza)?
  • How should related security thinking categorise and accommodate self-directed leakers motivated by ideology, eg Snowden?
  • What do concepts like treason and nation actually mean in 2024, amidst public trust deficits and disputed notions of national identity?
  • What’s Australia’s equivalent of Cuba, in this context?

A future grasp of this might help us prevent our own Ana Montes—before they do the same thing…