By Brian Latell, The Latell Report
At the height of the Cold War, when Miami was a cauldron of international intrigue and conspiracy, intelligence agents and services abounded. Enemy operatives stalked one another, competing, carrying out high stakes missions, recruiting spies, and mounting counterintelligence dragnets. But it is scarcely known even today that from 1961 until 1975 two of the rival espionage services that operated here were Cuban.
The larger and more aggressive was Fidel Castro’s General Directorate of Intelligence, the DGI, run by Manuel Pineiro, the notorious Redbeard. The other service, lean and obscurely proficient, was staffed entirely by courageous Cuban-American men and women. Collectively they were known –inside the CIA at least– by a curious cryptonym. They were the AMOTS.
The shadow intelligence service they staffed was intended to relocate to Havana following the expected collapse of the Castro government, and then to serve the security needs of a democratic Cuba. They would form the agile, ready core of a much larger intelligence service. The AMOTS were a “miniature CIA,” according to an Agency veteran who worked with them.
Members were recruited, tasked, and funded by the Agency, and managed by JMWAVE in Coral Gables, the largest CIA station anywhere in the world in the early 1960’s. A few CIA officers were posted at the separate AMOTS headquarters building near Miami International Airport but for security and cover reasons there was little personal interaction between the two.
“Telephone contact with JMWAVE was frequent,” the resident CIA case officer at the AMOT installation, recalled. He said his visits to the CIA station “were rare.” “Each day I would meet with a station courier to pass on all of our processed materials and to receive station requirements.” The AMOTS were obviously highly productive, operating in secrecy largely on their own.
There were about 150 of them, veterans of many professions in their previous lives in Cuba, trained in virtually the entire spectrum of operational and analytic tradecraft. Many were intellectuals and scholars, not inclined to volunteer for the dangerous infiltration and commando operations run by JMWAVE into Cuba. But their unsung contributions were of enormous value.
What did they do? Ted Shackley, the legendary chief at JMWAVE testified about their work before a Senate committee, citing what may have been a hypothetical example. “We’d say, we are looking for a Cuban diesel engineer with a license, and they’d come up with one.” Miami exiles with special or exotic skills needed by JMWAVE were identified and recruited this way.
Another CIA officer involved in Cuba operations testified that the AMOTS served as access agents, as “eyes and ears in the Cuban community.” They helped CIA, he said, in targeting potential agents, “hand holding defectors, and compiling personal and psychological information.” Some AMOTS, extensively trained in espionage tradecraft, “were sent overseas to help prepare other (intelligence) services.” He said that AMOTS managed safe houses and listening posts.
They performed information-gathering and counterintelligence functions on a large scale. Dossiers were kept on prominent Cuban leaders. A monthly analytic newsletter about developments on the island was issued. Most refugees arriving from Cuba were first screened and interviewed by teams of specialists that provided raw intelligence that was valued by Washington analysts. Reporting about Cuban leadership dynamics, the economy, military maneuvers flowed into analysts’ inboxes. New arrivals from Cuba were also screened for counterintelligence purposes by specially trained AMOTS.
Occasionally they provided American law enforcement with information used to detect and prosecute criminal activities. The most dramatic case centered on Che Guevara when he delivered an anti-American diatribe at the United Nations in New York in December 1964. AMOTS in Miami learned of a military-style attack against him planned by an exile faction. JMWAVE informed the FBI and arrests were subsequently made.
In fact, nonetheless, the militants managed to fire a remote-controlled bazooka at the UN building just as Guevara was in the midst of his harangue. The shell fell harmlessly into the East River a few hundred yards short of the building, causing a geyser and rattling the windows of the building. No one was hurt, but had the UN been struck, casualties would have been likely.
Until now, with the declassification of once highly sensitive intelligence records, the existence of the AMOT operations was known to few beyond the confines of the CIA. Sadly, therefore, the contributions of these anonymous Cuban-Americans have never been properly acknowledged. They served their new country –and the free Cuba they desired– with dedication, enthusiasm, and modesty. I am not aware that any former AMOTS have ever sought credit or fame by violating the secrecy oaths they swore to many years ago.