May 13, 2003: The U.S. expelled 14 Cuban diplomats for espionage. Seven diplomats were based at the Cuban Mission to the United Nations (CMUN) and the other seven at the Interests Section. At the time, 37 Cuban diplomats were assigned to CMUN and 26 at the Interests Section.
This action was the largest expulsion of Cuban Intelligence Officers and the third largest ejection of diplomats in U.S. history. All previous efforts against Cuban diplomat-spies had been very small, consisting of only one to four officers. The FBI stated that the carefully planned expulsion was led by the State Department and the Bush administration, rather than as a direct result of US Counterintelligence activities. Intended to send a very strong message to Havana, President Bush may have personally approved the expulsion.
Media reports mistakenly speculated that the expulsions were a result of the growing tensions between Havana and Washington. The real reason remained concealed for another eight months. The US and its coalition partners attacked Iraq on March 19, 2003 in a mission called Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). After the war, a senior Pentagon official told Washington Times columnist Bill Gertz that Cuba shared intelligence on the U.S. with Iraq. Havana provided Iraqi Intelligence with information on U.S. troop movements and associated military activities.
The expulsions occurred less than eight weeks after the war started. This fact, coupled with the deadly nature of the intelligence Havana provided to Baghdad, strongly suggests that Cuba’s passage of time-sensitive intelligence on U.S. forces pre-dated the start of the war. Cuba’s high-risk adventurism occurred on the heels of the revelations of Aba Belen Montes’ treachery, including her efforts to kill U.S. and host nation soldiers during the war against leftist guerrillas in El Salvador. Cuba arrogantly assumed it could again put the lives of U.S. military personnel at risk. This strategic blunder made a major U.S. response a fait accompli.
The expulsions crippled Cuban intelligence operations in the United States, since — according to defectors — Havana generally maintains approximately about 35 spies under diplomatic cover. Cuba is allowed a permanent staff of 26 officials at the Interests Section and 51 at the CMUN. Officials on temporary tours often augment the permanent staff.