June 8, 2009
Fidel-ity: Three Decades of the Myers Spy RingBy Clarice Feldman
Last week a Department of State retiree and his wife were arrested and charged with spying for Cuba for thirty years. In this article I will sort out what we know, don't know and need to explore about this matter.
Walter Kendall Myers, Jr .and his wife Gwendolyn Steingarber Myers
Walter Myers comes from one of the most distinguished lineages in Washington . D.C. His father was a well-known heart surgeon. His mother, the granddaughter of Alexander Graham Bell, was herself a Grosvenor, the family intimately associated with the National Geographic. Her obituary in 2005 reveals her to have been a woman who played an exceedingly prominent role in the life of this city, which at the time of Walter's birth until about three decades ago, was socially a smallish city where such things mattered a great deal more than they do today.
He prepped at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, graduated from Brown University and got a Ph.D in 1972 in European history from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
From 1971-1977 he was an Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; later in his career at the Department of State he was a part-time Senior Adjunct Professor in Western European studies until arrest.
(This is the same school senior DIA spy for Cuba, Ana Montes, graduated from with a Masters degree in 1988. It would be interesting to know if Myers helped spot Montes for the Cubans, if they knew each other, if they had friends/Cuban contacts in common in the school at the time.)
Despite this fine education, he seems to have been rather underemployed in the late 1970's. The affidavit filed by the FBI at the time of the arrest indicates "From in or about August 1977, through in or about March
At the same time his life seems to have been in turmoil then.
While Myers was working as a contract instructor at FSI, a Cuban official at the UN spoke and extended to Myers an invitation to visit Cuba which he accepted. According to the FBI affidavit filed with the case, (All references to the affidavit are to this document attached to the complaint.)
Interestingly, the affidavit does not disclose the identity of the other Department of State employees who traveled with Myers on this trip, whether they like Myers were later formally recruited to work for Cuba, or whether they accepted such an offer. But giving the most generous explanation to the FBI's three decade long sleep on nabbing the Myers couple, that they first got suspicious of Walter three years ago, it appears the other State employees had not been any more forthcoming to their government than Myers was. Did the government inadvertently disclose the information about Myers' travel companions? (Apparently they disclosed inadvertently much they did not intend to in a similar affidavit respecting the spy Robert Hanssen.) Or are they signaling to these people their awareness and suggesting it's time to come in from the cold before they, too, are in the dock?
In any event at the time of the trip Myers had a secret clearance and was obligated to notify State of this trip but apparently was not forthcoming about it:
Myers was besotted with Cuba from the outset, writing such drivel in his diary as this:
When the Washington Post reported this on Sunday the article made it appear that the disillusionment was about Bush. Of course, the President of the United States at the time Myers was disillusioned was Jimmy Carter.
Others are entitled to their views about his motivation for what followed, but to me it was that he was at a low point in his life and his new companions, second wife Gwen, and the Cuban intelligence officers made him feel once again special, above the crowd. (His later comment to the FBI agent posing as a Cuban spy to the effect that Fidel should not want a lifting of the US travel embargo because too many North Americans would come there, further suggests to me that it was the uniqueness of his position and sense of entitlement and privilege that motivated him, not concern about the politics. His yacht is no big deal in the slip in Anne Arundel, but if he and Gwen succeeded in getting it to Cuba -- as they dreamed -- it would put them in a nonpareil class on that impoverished wreck of a place.)
We know far less about his wife Gwen's background. She was born in 1938. According to the FBI affidavit she was formerly known as Gwendolyn Trebilcock. I assume this is her maiden name and that prior to her marriage to Myers she was married to a man whose surname was Steingarber. According to the same affidavit and news accounts, Walter moved to South Dakota to live with her in about 1979 and lived there with her until 1980 when he returned to Washington. We have no reports of her education or how and when they met. Indeed, we have no idea how he was employed in South Dakota during that period, although one account mentioned he did some teaching.
The Washington Post says she lived in Aberdeen and was a legislative aide for then-Sen. John Abourezk (D), but unless there is some bizarre series of incidents, there is some conflicting evidence about for whom she worked, under what names and where she lived. (I think she might have used both her married name and maiden name for a while in South Dakota.)
(There is a man with the last name Trebilcock living in the same Condominium complex the Myers lived in at the time of their arrest. He refused to confirm to me that they are related once he established I was not a friend of hers. Under the circumstances I am assuming he is a close relative.)
Independent research online indicates that a Ms Gwendolyn Steingarber was employed by the South Dakota public utilities commission in 1979. She is listed as the Deputy Director of Fixed Utilities for the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission.
Myers and Steingarber were apparently were living together in Pierre, the capital -- a rather small place -- not Aberdeen. While in Pierre they seemed to have been involved in some unspecified criminal matter which may well have been drug related. There is a case in the South Dakota Supreme Court reversing a Circuit Court opinion which had suppressed evidence from their home gathered by the police in a search. No mention is made of the underlying offense though the dissent notes that Myers was handcuffed by the police to a juvenile found in the home at the time of the search. South Dakota v. Gwendolyn Steingraber and Walter Kendal Myers (No. 13017)296 N.W.2d543; 1980 S.D. LEXIS 385. I am unable to find out about the final disposition of this case.
Did the case get dismissed, were the parties found not guilty, did they plead to a lesser offense? I don't know, but it seems to me that with minor misspellings in the title of the case taken into consideration, these are the same parties and the arrest should have been disclosed on any employment application to the Department of State.
The Pair are Recruited to Work for Cuba
In any event about 6 months after the search of their home, the handcuffing of Myers and the seizure of unspecified evidence from it, the Cubans sent someone to South Dakota to recruit the pair.
As the affidavit recounts:
Let's stop and consider this. We are to believe that a Cuban official working at the UN travels to someplace (probably Pierre) in South Dakota and talks the pair into spying for them. This suggests two things to me :
(1) The Cuban official was very certain that he would not be turned down. After all what defense could the Cubans have for the appearance of one of their people in Pierre, South Dakota if the offer was rejected and the authorities notified? It is altogether possible from the florid tripe in Myers' diary at the time of the first visit that he wore his heart on his sleeve and the Cubans knew they could reel him in, but what about Gwendolyn?
(2) I think it likely that they'd not have approached the two as a couple if she was not previously known to them. Was she working for them at the time she was on Abourezk's payroll? There is nothing in the affidavit to indicate that she was with Myers at the time of the original trip in 1978. Did Myers persuade her to work with him for Cuba, or was she somehow onboard first?
I do not know when she began working for Senator Abourezk but if she was working for him in 1977 she may have first made contact with Cuban intelligence then:
According to the FBI, Myers returned with Gwendolyn to D.C. in 1980.He taught briefly at Georgetown University and George Washington University. He applied for an analyst position at the CIA on September 1,1981 but was rejected.
In 1982, two years after returning to D.C., they married.
In that period of time Myers provided classified information to Cuba, received numerous awards from Cuba, met with Cuban officials and Fidel himself outside the United States and in numerous and sundry ways, along with his wife Gwendolyn engaged in traitorous activities for the benefit of Fidel and his minions.
When caught, he was found to have some 200 classified documents about Cuba "on his computer." It's not clear to me if this means his personal or work computer but in any event his area was Western Europe and it is hard to see how any proper security arrangement would allow specialists in one area to have unfettered access to such highly sensitive matters they have no need to know.
Gwendolyn was not employed by the government but by Riggs Bank. According to the FBI affidavit:
Not much is made of this in the affidavit, but employment by Riggs also placed her in a position where she could have provided valuable information on her own to the Cubans. At that time Riggs bank was the premiere banking institution in the Washington metropolitan area. It had branches in many big embassies, laundered money for people and governments, had CIA officials on its payroll and otherwise was the repository of significant amounts of information which would be of considerable use to Fidel.
See for example this story:
In any event Riggs now no longer exists having folded in the wake of a significant money laundering scandal.
A pressing question to me about this case, is why was the bust made now, thirty years after the couple began spying for Fidel and after Myers retired from government service. Government sources are quoted saying they were tipped off to a spy in the Department three years ago and focused in then on Myers. I don't know about that. It is certainly possible. It is also certainly possible that the government would be less than candid about when and why they focused in on him as a spy. To be forthcoming would certainly reveal methods and means best kept close to the vest.
Some are making much of the fact that the arrests will interfere with the planned lifting of the embargo. Before the arrest Mickey Kaus suggested that the lifting of the embargo would bring so many Western tourists to Cuba (oddly echoing Myers' remarks to the FBI's undercover operative, that it would hurt the Castro regime and that they had a motive to do something to kill the planned relaxation):
Others have suggested that the timing of these arrests was dictated by those opposed to the easing of the embargo who do so because they believe it will help the Cuban regime to whom they are opposed .
Maybe there is some connection to the institution of this case and the embargo lifting but maybe not. There are so many modifiers of the proposal to lift the embargo that it seems more Obama rhetoric than a likely move in any event.
There's some suggestion that the case was instituted now because of some transmission the U.S. recently intercepted, in which case it would be interesting to know when the Myers' stopped transmitting classified materials to Cuba, but it is unclear when the Myers' stopped transmitting materials to Cuba:
There is also always the possibility that there is a double agent or defector who found out the information that put the FBI on the trail of this couple and that this information came in relatively recently or even that the State Department has a new system for tracking unauthorized surfing of its classified materials. And there's always the possibility that the Myers' grew careless and revealed information to someone that put the FBI onto them.
I am informed, however, that sending an undercover agent under a false flag (that is pretending the FBI agent was working for Cuban intelligence) to trap the Myers' is something that would normally be done only with lots of preparation. The agent approaching the spies must have enough credible information to be believed, so the claim that the government was working on this for three years has some common sense backing. Myers' own statement about why he retired when he did seems in a way confirmation, too:
Only one thing is certain. To the end of their spying career, the Myers' were unrepentant and still in love with Fidel.