Active Measures, Havana Style

One of the hardest things for normals – meaning those uninitiated to the world of espionage – to grasp is just how devious and nasty some intelligence agencies actually are, particularly if they are Russian or have been trained by Russians. For years, I’ve contended with uninformed people who simply cannot believe that the Kremlin’s special services, as they call them, actually do espionage, propaganda, sabotage, subversion, and terrorism, despite there being mountains of evidence that they do exactly that, most recently in Ukraine. And it’s not just the Russians doing these sorts of things.

You may recall the scandal that ensued back in the fall of 2012 when The Daily Caller, a right-wing news website, published sensational allegations that Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) had been cavorting in the Dominican Republic with underage prostitutes. The bombshell dropped just days before the senator faced reelection. In the months that followed, the story — which Menendez firmly denied — began to fall apart as sources recanted their accounts, and the mud began to sling inside the fishbowl of Washington, DC reporting. The damage to the senator’s reputation, however, had been done.

Some people smelled a rat from the start, and it seems that such doubts were well placed. A detailed new report in The Washington Post, which is based on solid research, makes clear that the effort to smear Sen. Menendez was actually a Cuban intelligence operation. What Havana, specifically its powerful Intelligence Directorate (Dirección de Inteligencia — DI), did here is a classic case of an Active Measure, to use the proper Chekist term. The Russians trained Castro’s spies, and their modus operandi is similar at many points, particularly in the dirty tricks department. Havana’s spies excel at espionage and political warfare, and they have successfully smeared many foes abroad over the decades, and the DI’s dislike for Sen. Menendez, a strong opponent of the Castro regime, is well known. So they engineered a complex propaganda operation to damage an enemy.

As elaborated in the Post‘s account, U.S. counterintelligence for some time has known that Cuban spies were behind the Menendez smear, which bears the hallmarks of a classic DI operation. They created a fake tipster, “Pete Williams,” who “told FBI agents and others he had information about Menendez participating in poolside sex parties with underage prostitutes while vacationing at the Dominican Republic home of Salomon Melgen, a wealthy eye doctor, donor and friend of the senator.”

None can say the DI, which as I’ve explained before is a very competent spy service that has customarily run rings around U.S. intelligence, didn’t work hard at this operation:

According to the former U.S. official familiar with the intelligence, the information suggested that Cuban operatives worked through business allies and lawyers in the Dominican Republic to create the fictitious tipster. The former official said the U.S. intelligence community obtained information showing that Cuban operatives allegedly attempted to lend credence to the timeline of the prostitution allegations by tracking flights on Melgen’s private plane that Menendez made for visits to the elite Casa de Campo resort, where the eye doctor has a home.

How this all got started is a textbook case of an Active Measure, using anonymous sources and cut-outs:

The FBI’s Miami field office began its probe into the Menendez prostitution allegations in August 2012 after receiving copies of e-mails that “Pete Williams” sent to a liberal watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. CREW said the tipster began corresponding with its investigators that spring, but they told the FBI they were unable to meet Williams in person or corroborate the claims.

“My duty as a US citizen obligates me to report what I consider a grave violation of the most fundamental codes of conduct that a politician of my country must follow,” the tipster, identified as Williams, wrote to CREW in an April 2012 e-mail, claiming “first hand information” about Menendez’s participation in “inappropriate sexual activities with young prostitutes.”

The FBI investigated these allegations for months, particularly after they exploded in the media in November 2012, only to find there was nothing to them. Instead, it bore the hallmarks of a DI operation, as was obvious to those who are familiar with their tradecraft. As explained by Enrique Garcia Diaz, a senior Cuban intelligence defector to the United States, “From the moment that article about Senator Menendez was published, I suspected that it was an invention of Cuban intelligence, because that is the way they work. It is their modus operandi … They fabricate lies. They look to create intrigue.”

Sen. Menendez has been briefed on the Cuban intelligence operation waged against him, and he is pressing the Department of Justice for a full investigation of the matter, and I hope DoJ does due diligence here. In response to the realization that he got played by Havana’s spies, Tucker Carlson, editor in chief of The Daily Caller, expressed skepticism: “I really can’t assess it without more information … It’s bizarre on its face, but also fascinating.” If he’s waiting for a personal brief by the DI on how they smeared Sen. Menendez, Mr. Carlson will be waiting a long time. In the interim, he should read up on the real world of espionage and learn the term Active Measure.




13 thoughts on “Active Measures, Havana Style

  1. It was a perfect op, starting with tie to Melgen.

    Melgen is one of the top Medicare billers in the country — $21 million in 2012 alone — so his ties to Menendez had potential for political embarrassment. The link to child prostitution made the Melgen/Menendez relationship too juicy to ignore. The old “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” theory.

  2. What does one do if one becomes a victim to ‘Active Measures’? MANY have be trained to use Active Measures. Various Net based businesses exist to support Active Measures. Internet anonymous sources create a jurisdictional nightmare for people to get help. Data brokers provide entire maps to everyone in your life and their life and their life…..

  3. You only have to llok at what they have done in the Uk poisonings men cut up in suitcases,I have had two run ins with them in the last ten years

  4. An interesting article, but one wonders whether ‘Active Measures’ are not far more widely used – perhaps increasingly – by many different countries, organizations and political parties . After all the recent IRS shenanigans against conservatives groups can be construed as a form of ‘Active Measures’ too designed to hobble the opposition.

    My impression is that in the age of the Internet ‘Active Measures’ are almost the norm.

    • Agreed! I believe Active Measures are more the norm. And we need recourse.

  5. Too bad they rolled USIA into the Department of State. There were some sharp folks who spent their time understanding public opinion but also understood how Soviet active measures worked.

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