WASHINGTON — The United States has unwittingly employed double agents loyal to Cuban President Fidel Castro to conduct a number of ongoing and sensitive intelligence operations in recent years, a high-level Cuban defector has told American officials.
The defector, Maj. Florentino Azpillaga, has outlined to CIA debriefers a Cuban espionage capability far more sophisticated than was commonly believed, according to U.S. intelligence officials who spoke on condition that they not be identified by name.
His disclosure about the double agents was said to have cast doubt on the quality of U.S. intelligence operations involving Cuban sources, which had been considered productive and of excellent quality.
It also has embarrassed an intelligence community already shaken by last spring's U.S. Embassy security scandal in Moscow and the Soviet KGB's resulting mop-up of American espionage operations there.
One official said that Azpillaga's revelations may focus renewed scrutiny on the CIA's foreign counterintelligence capacity, which has been under congressional criticism for some time.
"Anytime that happens, it is a surprise and a disappointment to us," one official said of the Cuban double agents.
"A lot of people are hot under the collar about this," another official said. "We certainly underestimated the Cubans. We never realized that the operations we thought were so good were theirs all along."
It was not possible to establish the number of espionage operations that appear to have been compromised by the Cuban agents or whether the operations were inside or outside Cuba.
However, Azpillaga is reported to have told U.S. debriefers that an undetermined number of Cuban government officials, once believed by the United States to be secretly working for the CIA, were in fact feeding the agency misleading or useless information prepared by the Cuban DGI, Castro's foreign intelligence directorate.
Officials said that Azpillaga recited the details of several supposedly successful U.S. intelligence operations employing Cubans, telling startled debriefers that the Cuban government, not the Americans, was in control of the missions.
"Several of these guys were polygraphed by us and passed," one official said of the Cubans employed by the CIA. The fact that they went undetected, that official said, is "poor trade-craft, poor counterintelligence. We were had."
Information from the compromised intelligence operations presumably was used by the CIA and the White House to analyze and direct U.S. foreign policy. Officials said it now must be re-examined and probably discarded.
The extent of damage to American interests abroad, if any, could not be learned.
Damage Extent Not Known
Azpillaga, 40, is said to have headed Cuban intelligence operations in Czechoslovakia. He defected June 6 but did not surface publicly until this month, when Radio Marti, a Voice of America radio station, began beaming taped interviews with him to the Cuban mainland.
Officials said he has proven "a very significant intelligence figure, providing excellent information" since he and a girlfriend slipped over the Czechoslovakia-Austria border and sought asylum in the United States. The CIA is reportedly continuing to question him about his career in the Cuban intelligence service.
One source described him as a "gold mine" of information and said that U.S. officials have been surprised by the sophistication of the Cuban DGI as outlined to them by Azpillaga.
Another official, while agreeing that the double-agent scheme was a shock to American experts, played down U.S. dismay over the slickness of the Cuban spying apparatus.
"They--the DGI--are direct surrogates of the Soviets and the Soviets are the best. They (the Cubans) train with them. Why do you expect less?" he asked.
Azpillaga worked in the American targets section of the DGI, where one primary duty was the selection of U.S. citizens, agencies and operations as likely espionage targets. One official said he is an expert on codes.
Radio Marti broadcasts have portrayed his defection as a coup for American intelligence. Transcripts of the interviews depict the Cuban espionage agency as ridden with traitors plotting against Castro and the Cuban president as a high-living, corrupt dictator.
In an interview broadcast by the station Tuesday, Azpillaga said that his defection prompted Castro last month to begin an anti-CIA campaign in which the identities of Cuban officials who had posed as CIA agents were revealed on state television.
Radio Marti said he defected to the United States out of disgust that Castro spent so much money on espionage while the standard of living in his island nation had declined. He also accused Panamanian military chief Manuel Antonio Noriega of funneling arms from Central America to Cuba and said that Noriega helped the Cubans smuggle high-technology goods out of the United States.
Azpillaga is the second high Cuban official to defect to the United States this summer. Cuban Brig. Gen. Rafael del Pino Diaz, a ranking member of the government's armed forces ministry, fled in late May. It was not known whether the two defections were in any way linked.