by Jim Popkin, Washington Post magazine
Ana Montes has been locked up for a decade with some of the most frightening women in America. Once a highly decorated U.S. intelligence analyst with a two-bedroom co-op in Cleveland Park, Montes today lives in a two-bunk cell in the highest-security women’s prison in the nation. Her neighbors have included a former homemaker who strangled a pregnant woman to get her baby, a longtime nurse who killed four patients with massive injections of adrenaline, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, the Charles Manson groupie who tried to assassinate President Ford.
But hard time in the Lizzie Borden ward of a Texas prison hasn’t softened the former Defense Department wunderkind. Years after she was caught spying for Cuba, Montes remains defiant. “Prison is one of the last places I would have ever chosen to be in, but some things in life are worth going to prison for,” Montes writes in a 14-page handwritten letter to a relative. “Or worth doing and then killing yourself before you have to spend too much time in prison.”
Like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen before her, Ana Montes blindsided the intelligence community with brazen acts of treason. By day, she was a buttoned-down GS-14 in a Defense Intelligence Agency cubicle. By night, she was on the clock for Fidel Castro, listening to coded messages over shortwave radio, passing encrypted files to handlers in crowded restaurants and slipping undetected into Cuba wearing a wig and clutching a phony passport.
Montes spied for 17 years, patiently, methodically. She passed along so many secrets about her colleagues — and the advanced eavesdropping platforms that American spooks had covertly installed in Cuba — that intelligence experts consider her among the most harmful spies in recent memory. But Montes, now 56, did not deceive just her nation and her colleagues. She also betrayed her brother Tito, an FBI special agent; her former boyfriend Roger Corneretto, a Cuban-intelligence officer for the Pentagon; and her sister, Lucy, a 28-year veteran of the FBI who has won awards for helping to unmask Cuban spies.
In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the FBI’s Miami field office was on high alert. Most of the hijackers had spent time in South Florida, and FBI personnel there were desperate to learn whether any more had stayed behind. So when a supervisor asked Lucy Montes to come to his office, she didn’t blink. Lucy was a veteran FBI language analyst who translated wiretaps and other sensitive communications.
But this impromptu meeting had nothing to do with Sept. 11. An FBI squad leader sat Lucy down. Your sister, Ana, has been arrested for espionage, he informed her, and she could face the death penalty. Your sister, Ana, is a Cuban spy. Lucy didn’t scream, didn’t storm out in disbelief. Instead, she found the news strangely reassuring. “I believed it right away,” she recalled in a recent interview. “It explained a lot of things.”
Major news organizations reported on the arrest, of course, but it was overshadowed by nonstop coverage of the terrorist attacks. Today, Ana Montes remains the most important spy you’ve never heard of.
Born on a U.S. Army base in 1957, Ana Montes is the eldest child of Emilia and Alberto Montes. Puerto Rico-born Alberto was a respected Army doctor, and the family moved frequently, from Germany to Kansas to Iowa. They settled in Towson, outside Baltimore, where Alberto developed a successful private psychiatric practice and Emilia became a leader in the local Puerto Rican community.
Ana thrived in Maryland. Slender, bookish and witty, she graduated with a 3.9 GPA from Loch Raven High School, where she noted in her senior yearbook that her favorite things included “summer, beaches … chocolate chip cookies, having a good time with fun people.” But the bubblegum sentimentality masked a growing emotional distance, grandiose feelings of superiority and a troubling family secret.
To outsiders, Alberto was a caring and well-educated father of four. But behind closed doors, he was short-tempered and bullied his children. Alberto “happened to believe that he had the right to beat his kids,” Ana would later tell CIA psychologists. “He was the king of the castle and demanded complete and total obedience.” The beatings started at 5, Lucy said. “My father had a violent temper,” she said. “We got it with the belt. When he got angry. Sure.”
Ana’s mother feared taking on her mercurial husband, but as the verbal and physical abuse persisted, she divorced him and gained custody of their children.
Ana was 15 when her parents separated, but the damage had been done. “Montes’s childhood made her intolerant of power differentials, led her to identify with the less powerul, and solidified her desire to retaliate against authoritarian figures,” the CIA wrote in a psychological profile of Montes labeled “Secret.” Her “arrested psychological development” and the abuse she suffered at the hands of a temperamental man she associated with the U.S. military “increased her vulnerability to recruitment by a foreign intelligence service,” adds the 10-page report. Lucy recalls that even as a teenager Ana was distant and judgmental. “We were only a year apart, but I have to tell you that I never really felt close to her,” Lucy said. “She wasn’t one that wanted to share things or talk about things.”