The Obama administration is hosting visits to U.S. Coast Guard facilities by Cuban Border Guard officials as part of its policy of seeking closer ties with the communist government in Havana.
The visits are raising concerns among officials and security analysts that closer ties with Cuba will benefit aggressive Cuban intelligence operations in the United States that have been underway for decades.
A delegation of Cuban officials arrives this week for visits to Coast Guard bases in Florida and Alabama following an earlier visit two months ago.
The Department of Homeland Security, which arranged the visits, refused to provide details of the Cuban delegation. But a spokeswoman said they are part of an exchange program.
"These visits represent professional exchanges between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban Border Guard to discuss issues of mutual interest such as at-sea rescue operations," DHS spokeswoman Gillian Christensen told the Washington Free Beacon, without elaborating.
Cuban officials on March 18 visited three Coast Guard port facilities in the south, including one near Mobile, Alabama. The group also toured an oil refinery in Alabama, according to a Coast Guard spokeswoman.
A State Department official said the Cuban Border Guard tours of Coast Guard bases are an outgrowth of the president’s pro-Havana tilt. "The administration’s new policy of engagement has enabled U.S. agencies to discuss and coordinate on topics of mutual interest as we work to normalize relations."
The official referred further questions to the Cuban government. A Cuban Embassy official did not respond to email requests for comment.
Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Comdr. David French sought to play down the security concerns posed by the exchange by saying the service holds similar visits with many nations.
"The U.S. Coast Guard recently met with a Cuban delegation at Coast Guard sector Key West as part of the continued professional exchange between the Coast Guard and the Cuban Border Guard," he said, declining to discuss past sessions or future visits.
President Obama traveled to Cuba in March as part of what the White House has called his rejection of "the failed, Cold War-era policy" of isolating the communist regime in Havana.
Alexandria Preston, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, said the March visit was arranged by Coast Guard headquarters as part of the International Port Security program.
The Cubans were given public information briefings and presentations about Coast Guard operations in Mobile followed by a question and answer session on the Maritime Transportation Security Act, she said. At the refinery, the Cubans were given a briefing and tour by the refinery’s security officer.
Cuba’s Border Guard troops are part of the Cuban Interior Ministry that directs the Intelligence Directorate, the political police, and an intelligence service modeled after the Soviet-era KGB intelligence service. The Border Guard in the past has been involved in liaisons with the U.S. Coast Guard.
Cuba’s intelligence services also cooperate with Russian intelligence services.
International drug traffickers are known to use Cuban waters and airspace to evade U.S. drug interdiction efforts.
The visits have raised concerns among security officials about Cuba’s role in conducting aggressive intelligence activities in the United States.
"Cuba—with historic, deeply held KGB connections—continues to command an enormous intelligence capacity and network to spy on America," said Rep. Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.), a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
"Hosting Cuban government officials and delivering them to ‘tour’ American national security facilities—as well as critical infrastructure sites in the United States—proves that this administration naively believes that Cuba has changed," Pompeo said. "It has not. And its espionage against the United States continues."
Tidd said a Cuban military medical team toured the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort during a port visit to Haiti in September. In January, Southcom co-hosted a Caribbean Nations Security Conference with 18 nations represented, including Cuba for the first time.
"The island of Cuba sits directly astride principal north-south trading routes. Those trading routes also happen to be smuggling routes and Cuba has concerns about illicit trafficking," Tidd said.
Engagement with Cuba will take time and the pace likely will be driven by the Cuban regime "because they're not prepared for that degree of openness, frankly, and I think it will take [time] to get to that point."
An FBI report two years ago warned that Cuban intelligence agents are targeting American academics for recruitment as spies.
"The Cuban intelligence services (CuIS) are known to actively target the U.S. academic world for the purposes of recruiting agents, in order to both obtain useful information and conduct influence activities," the Sept. 2, 2014 report says.
Cuban intelligence seeks out academics as agents because the Havana government lacks the funds to provide cash to recruits. "Therefore, the CuIS have perfected the work of placing agents that includes aggressively targeting U.S. universities under the assumption that a percentage of students will eventually move on to positions within the [U.S. government] that can provide access to information of use to the CuIS," the report said.
A key objective is "influencing American and Cuban-American academics, to recruiting them if possible, and to converting them into Cuban intelligence agents," the FBI said, adding that students also face recruitment.
"Unfortunately, part of what makes academic environments ideal for enhancing and sharing knowledge also can assist the efforts of foreign intelligence services to accomplish their objectives," the FBI said. "This situation is unlikely to change, but awareness of the methods used to target academia can greatly assist in neutralizing the efforts of these foreign intelligence services."
Fred Burton, a Stratfor analyst, stated in a recent report that CIA and FBI agents will be closely monitoring Cuban intelligence activities following the resumption of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties.
"U.S. intelligence agencies are well aware of the Cuban threat," Burton stated, adding that "the threat is real … and in a world full of hidden threats, there is no such thing as a friendly intelligence service."
U.S. intelligence agencies also were fooled for years by a long-term Cuban spy in the Defense Intelligence Agency, Ana Montes, who supplied U.S. intelligence secrets to Cuba, including the identities of four American spies. Montes, who spied for Cuba from 1984 until her arrest in 2001, also was blamed for disclosing to Cuba the location of a clandestine U.S. Army base in El Salvador. The disclosure led to the 1987 death of Army Green Beret Sgt. Gregory Fronius, who was killed in El Salvador during an attack by pro-Cuban insurgents.
Cuba also has close ties to North Korea, as disclosed by the seizure in July 2013 of a North Korean ship found to be illegally carrying Cuban military jets and missile guidance components. North Korea was hit with Treasury Department sanctions but Cuba was not sanctioned as part of the Obama administration’s policy of seeking closer ties.
Disclosure of the Cuban visits to the United States comes as a leading Cuban dissident, José Daniel Ferrer García, said political repression on the island located 90 miles from Florida is increasing as opposition to the regime is growing.
"We make advances, then the regime represses us and we have to take steps back," Ferrer told reporters in Washington this week.
"But the best thing we see is the change in the mentality of the people," he added.
Ferrer said he expects "periods of more repression" and that dissidents could take to the streets in pro-democracy protests like those in Poland in the 1980s.
Ferrer cautioned American businesses to be wary of setting up subsidiaries in Cuba.
"The Castros never negotiate for a win-win," he said. "They have a sick need to win and for the rest to lose."