True Spies Episode 5: The Spycatcher
NARRATOR: This is True Spies Episode 5: The Spycatcher.
ROBERT BOOTH: All foreign countries wish to know America's diplomatic and military intentions and capabilities. Ultimately, some classified information, if it got into the wrong hands, could compromise the identity and eventually the lives of American sources.
NARRATOR: This is the story of the hunt for one of Fidel Castro’s most effective and damaging spies: Kendall Myers. A US citizen and double agent for the Cubans. Myers operated in partnership with his wife, passing the secrets from the heart of the US government undetected and with impunity for 20 years. Your guide for this episode: Former deputy director of the State Department’s Office of Counterintelligence, Robert Booth.
ROBERT BOOTH: Some people would call me a spy hunter, and that would be relatively accurate.
NARRATOR: Not only was Robert responsible for finally revealing the identity of Cuba’s US mole, he was also part of the team that hunted Myers down and eventually caught him in the act. And it was Robert Booth who then spent hours alone with Myers, winning his trust to extract his secrets. Just how had Kendall - working in an unlikely partnership with his wife Gwendolyn - managed to get away with being a double agent for so long? What had made him turn against his country?
ROBERT BOOTH: I learned very early on in my career that there were things you needed to do, to look around you to see whether or not the individuals you might be working with are in fact potential spies. Information will always be sought clandestinely by almost every country in the world. People believe that the US government is not a good player and that the United States has attempted to betray other countries, so some Americans believe in helping level the playing field by allowing these countries to have our secrets.
NARRATOR: September 2001. It’s decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but one small section of the Cold War still rages on, albeit covertly. Fidel Castro, the man who brought the Cold War to the brink of a nuclear apocalypse, remains in near-total control of Cuba. As hostilities with the United States persist, Cuba’s government is on the hunt for information that could give them valuable leverage. Then - just 10 days after the attacks of 9/11 - a top Cuban analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency named Ana Belén Montes is arrested by the FBI. It turned out that since the 1980s she's been spying for Castro. And now, finally, she's been caught but it doesn’t end there. Montes was not working alone. Another top-level double agent is working inside the US government and is continuing to pass Castro secrets. And no one had any idea who they were. Fast forward to the spring of 2007, and the hunt for that mole was going nowhere fast. Their identity is still a mystery save a scant few facts. The target is passing secrets to Castro from deep inside one of the US intelligence agencies in Washington, DC. The FBI was leading the investigation but drawing blanks, growing increasingly frustrated and badly in need of help. So, they turned to someone unexpected. Not an operative at the peak of their career. Nor even someone in the FBI. Instead, the FBI turned to a retiree.
ROBERT BOOTH: It's very hard to establish your counterintelligence credentials in the intelligence community, but once it's established then people come to you. And I remember literally - up to the last day - other agencies were seeking my advice and how to do things. And that's always very satisfying when you have that reputation in the community that you're trusted and that you know what you're doing or most of the time.
NARRATOR: Now forget any ideas you might have conjured up of a stooped pensioner in a worn-out cardigan. This was not just any retiree. In this moment of crisis, the FBI had turned to a counterintelligence investigation expert who had worked all over the world establishing a very specific set of skills.
ROBERT BOOTH: Yes, I had a bit of a reputation as a true investigator.
NARRATOR: Robert Booth. Not just an experienced investigator with a proven track record of seeking out rogue spies. Working out in the field for decades, he was also an expert interviewer, extracting the crucial pieces of information from sources and captured spies.
ROBERT BOOTH: When you do interviews, the most important quality is to listen. Let the source talk. The more they talk, the more they reveal. And that's a skill that really takes time to develop, and you really don't learn that in the classroom. It's catching someone and listening carefully. Was that the truth? Did he just - he or she - just shave a bit off that last sentence. Something just doesn't sound right.
NARRATOR: Robert Booth’s investigating and debriefing abilities had seen him rise the ranks in the State Department's Office of Counterintelligence, a trusted and celebrated force in the world of rogue spy hunting. But he was about to meet his match. Robert’s involvement in this story all began with someone you might have heard about before on this podcast.
ROBERT BOOTH: I first became involved in the case when an FBI agent by the name of Kate approached me and told me that the intelligence community had been working on a counterespionage investigation for years without much success.
NARRATOR: That’s Special Agent Kate Alleman. If you heard our earlier episode on the Robert Hanssen case, you’ll know this wasn’t her only significant contribution to the world of spycatching.
ROBERT BOOTH: This is a bit unusual, that Kate came to approach me. And that’s because the information that was guiding the FBI in this counterespionage investigation came from another intelligence agency and that intelligence agency had made it very clear that its information could only be shared with intelligence community components whose employees had sat and successfully passed a polygraph or lie detector test. And state Department special agents do not take polygraph examinations.
NARRATOR: Okay sidenote: There is a very long and complicated reason for this. It is - I’m afraid - classified. What I will tell you is that it dates back to an argument between Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover in the early '70s, and the actions of some very overzealous CIA agents. Some State Department officials may have had some rough polygraph treatment at the hands of their colleagues. Some of them may have gone on to become influential US Senators with a determination that none of their State Department colleagues should ever again be humiliated in polygraph interviews. But that’s not important right now. What is important is the fact that the State Department is the only agency in the US intelligence community where officials don’t always take polygraph examinations. And that was one reason for the FBI not wanting to bring in Robert.
ROBERT BOOTH: It was critically important because that meant the FBI could not share the intelligence community's information with us.
NARRATOR: There might have been a slight pride issue here too. I mean, the world of counterintelligence is not that different from any other workplace. No one ever wants to admit they need help from someone in a rival department even if they’re on the same side. But Robert Booth wasn’t just ‘someone’ from a rival department.
ROBERT BOOTH: Kate knew me, and understood what my background was, and my access, and an understanding of information. She also actually broke the rules by bringing me over to the FBI headquarters and allowing me to see the information that the other intelligence agency would not have allowed me to see.
NARRATOR: And Kate, a known mediator for resolving counterintelligence turf disputes among the NSA, CIA, FBI, and others, was persuasive. So Robert was allowed inside the hunt for the Cuban mole.
ROBERT BOOTH: It was at that point with the FBI that I was notified that this counterespionage case was codenamed: Vision Quest.
NARRATOR: But he wasn’t necessarily on the team. And there was pressure on him from the moment he arrived on the case. A newcomer to an ongoing investigation, already on borrowed time to prove himself. How would you react? State Department stature doesn’t mean much with these new colleagues. You’ll have to hit the ground running. After all those years on the job, your reputation is now on the line, not to mention Kate who broke the rules to bring you in. And all you have to do is find a needle in the haystack - a haystack that America’s finest needle hunters have been searching for for years. Are you ready? You arrive at a Brutalist low-rise office on Pennsylvania Avenue Washington, DC. The J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. You're guided through security as an outsider. You’re met by agents who accompany you to join the FBI’s analysts. They tell you that the mole has evaded them for years. All eyes turn on you. What is it that you can do that all the people in this room cannot? What’s your plan?
ROBERT BOOTH: When I initially entered the little conference room at the J. Edgar Hoover building to see the information that Kate wanted me to see, I had three FBI analysts in front of me. By bringing me over there, I understood that this had some kind of importance. Well, what happened was, I was told that since this case had been going on for at least seven years, that meant that this penetration agent or spy had been working for - and we knew it was the Cubans at this point - for over 10 years. And that meant he had to be a valuable source for the Cubans.
NARRATOR: Despite the tension in the room, Robert immediately had some ideas of where they should be looking and so he set to work.
ROBERT BOOTH: When I initially was given the information, I had concluded that the most likely suspect was someone who had worked inside the State Department for 10 years and had to meet a certain profile - had to be a male, had to be married, had to work domestically for 10 years - and I actually ran a computer run. And it came up with only some 20 odd names so I had to have the personnel files for all 20 people pulled quietly, without arousing any suspicion, and I had to read them. And the first 12 files I went through, nothing else seemed to come up.
NARRATOR: Robert’s initial confidence started to falter but then...
ROBERT BOOTH: I opened Kendall Myers' file for the first time. All of a sudden, a lot of the pieces started to fall into place.
NARRATOR: So who is Kendall Myers?
ROBERT BOOTH: Kendall Myers is the great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.
NARRATOR: Yes. You heard that right. His great grandfather was one of the most famous inventors in human history. This isn’t your average mole.
ROBERT BOOTH: He's an American blue blood, highly educated. Got his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and then went on to have a very successful career with the US government. And Gwen, his wife, never worked for the government. His wife never had top-secret clearance. She actually worked for a local bank. One thing I can guarantee you, they were truly in love with each other from the moment they met up until the moment they left each other. Kendall Myers is working in the Office of Intelligence and Research.
NARRATOR: This is the department of the US government that handles the most sensitive information that's passed between different intelligence agencies. So the CIA, the NSA, and the other intelligence components gather together information in one place. It’s almost the perfect target for a double agent.
ROBERT BOOTH: It puts the information together and disseminates it within the State Department to the office as needed. They see everything. When I started to review his personnel file, the thing that struck me was his eventual move from the Foreign Service Institute - where he was involved more in education - to the office, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
NARRATOR: Kendall had deliberately moved to where the most sensitive information would be gathered, and once he’d succeeded in doing that he stayed there.
ROBERT BOOTH: And that's when I knew we were in deep trouble because he'd been working there for almost eight years. Seeing and reviewing the most sensitive intelligence community assets, including technical operations and human-sourced operations.
NARRATOR: Then came the key piece of information to indicate that the mole was Kendall.
ROBERT BOOTH: The most critical part was that he had a Cuban connection and the fact that he had traveled to Cuba while he was a contract employee of the US Department of State. That led me to conclude that, if the information and my analysis were correct, it could be no one other than Kendall Myers. I was absolutely convinced. When I finished reading his personnel file, and I remember I was in a small windowless cubicle, and I laid the file on top of the others and I just thought to myself: “My goodness, I think I've identified a Cuban spy.” It was a great sense of satisfaction.
NARRATOR: It appeared that Robert Booth had achieved what the FBI and CIA analysts had failed to uncover in years. The name of a mole with his hands on the US’s most sensitive intelligence assets. But would the FBI accept his analysis? He’d only been working on the case for a matter of days and he just swans in - on their turf - and blows the whole thing wide open. He’s either going to look like a genius or his colleagues are going to look incompetent. How are they going to handle this?
ROBERT BOOTH: The FBI was a bit hesitant because, frankly, I did this in less than 10 days. Now they've been doing this for eight years, so I can understand there was a bit of hesitation and reluctance on the part of my FBI colleague to accept this. But very quickly, in using their information and their methods and sources, it became clear to them that it was Kendall.
NARRATOR: Robert was on the team but this was just the beginning.
ROBERT BOOTH: And there's a difference between an inquiry and an investigation. An inquiry, you’re just trying to establish basic facts. Once the fact leads you to identify a suspect, then the case goes into the investigative mode.
NARRATOR: This stage of a spy hunting operation is all about getting watertight evidence. Robert - and his newly won-over FBI colleagues - set about trying to catch Kendall in the act. Without that piece of the picture, Kendall Myers might get away with his years of betrayal.
ROBERT BOOTH: It's very difficult to catch a spy. It's one thing to have a suspicion and even a strong suspicion, but it's totally another thing to eventually have enough evidence to prosecute. A really good, smart person like Kendall will always avoid detection for years and years, if maybe not forever. I mean, there are State Department employees who I know successfully evaded us and retired and got away with it. From the moment we identified Kendall Myers by name, we implemented all sorts of activities to physically catch him in the act of passing classified information to a foreign intelligence service. But we never did.
NARRATOR: Kendall and his wife Gwen were able to keep passing information to Castro right under the noses of Robert and his team. This strange partnership - an elderly duo in their early 70s, hardly Bonnie and Clyde but clearly very much in love - working as an unlikely but devastating team, compromising the US government’s diplomatic initiatives with Cuba for the last two decades, not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars worth of technical operations. Now they continued to live out seemingly normal domestic lives while out-foxing numerous highly trained intelligence operatives. How were they doing it? No one could work it out. Were they really that far ahead of the game?
ROBERT BOOTH: Now in the past, they employed what we call ‘brush passes’. And that would be... a Cuban intelligence officer would enter a grocery store. Gwendolyn would enter the grocery store. They'd both have carts. They'd have one chicken, one thing of eggs, one loaf of bread, similar. And as they would pass each other in an aisle, they'd quickly exchange carts. And in Gwen's cart would be some classified information in the form of microfilm or whatever. We would have loved to film that. We'd have loved to film one going in, one coming out. By the time we came onto Kendall and Gwen, all that information was being passed electronically on laptops and internet cafes - which is incredibly difficult to catch. There was very little physical passing, very little meeting face-to-face in the United States. They would only meet face-to-face outside the United States, and by the time we identified them, they were not meeting face-to-face outside the United States anymore, so they couldn't even follow them in South America where they normally met their Cuban handlers once every six months.
NARRATOR: And, as time passed, the situation got worse. Kendall announced his retirement from the State Department so the clock was now ticking on his spying days and, with it, any opportunity to catch him in the act. And then things got worse. And when they did it came in the form of every maverick spy hunter’s number one nemesis: protocols.
ROBERT BOOTH: Some of the protocols are that, at some point, you must let some senior people in the State Department know that there's an ongoing counterespionage investigation. And the focus is on a State Department employee, and normally the secretary of state, or her deputy, would be notified. But someone said the deputy assistant secretary state that controls the Office of Intelligence and Research needs to be told.
NARRATOR: And when that happened, it resulted in every maverick spy hunter’s number two nemesis: politicians.
ROBERT BOOTH: I was violently opposed to that. The person who occupied that position was a political appointee and I felt there was no value in it.
NARRATOR: It usually signals danger for a spy operation when a politician gets involved in a case. Maybe it’s their ego? Maybe their enthusiasm to help? (It’s definitely their ego.) But either way, Robert knows if they are let in on the operation they are a threat because frankly, they haven’t been trained in the subtleties needed for spy hunting.
ROBERT BOOTH: But I was overturned. At that point, I was only a consultant. I was not the deputy director anymore, and he was informed. And being a political person and not someone very well learned in counterintelligence, he started to do things that would indicate to Kendall that he might be under suspicion. After that point, everything we had done in monitoring Kendall - even going into his house when he wasn't there - Kendall had never detected. But at one point, when Kendall was considering retiring - and what you always do when an employee says: “I'm going to retire”, his fellow employees or her fellow employees will throw a farewell party. So his fellow employees learned that Kendall may be retiring. So they went to the assistant secretary, a gentleman [named] Mr Fort. And they told him: “We want to throw a retirement party.” And Fort said: “Over my dead body. You'll never have a farewell party for him. Trust me on this.” And when the fellow employees heard him say that, they were flabbergasted. They'd never heard that before. So they went to Kendall and said: “Hey Kendall, did you do something to piss off Mr Fort?” And at that point, Kendall suspected that something was amiss.
NARRATOR: As Robert predicted, the politician had made a key mistake. He had outwardly shown hostility towards Kendall that couldn’t be logically explained. That behavior had put the double agent on alert. Not wanting to risk their actions being watched so close to the date of their retirement, Kendall and Gwen completely shut down their clandestine life. They really became a normal retired couple. They even started devoting themselves to the pleasures of learning to sail a 38-foot sailboat complete with luxurious mahogany-lined living quarters - the kind of boat that could easily make a short trip over to... say... Cuba, should the situation arise. Surely the final opportunity to catch Kendall and his accomplice passing secrets to Castro had now passed?
ROBERT BOOTH: Eventually, after he had retired, we realized he did not have access to classified information anymore so we'd never physically catch them in the act of trying to pass information.
NARRATOR: After almost 18 months of intensive, expensive, and exhaustive surveillance, Kendall, Gwen, and Castro seemed to have won. Years and years of tireless hunting all ending in a situation that amounted to nothing. How would you feel? The injustice. Would you just walk away? Or would you try and make one last high-risk play? There’s no time left. And precious few options. But sometimes that drives you to think up the best ideas. In spring 2009, Robert and the FBI developed a plan to lure Kendall back into the secret life that he had abandoned.
ROBERT BOOTH: We would employ what's called a false flag operation. And a false flag means someone would approach Kendall claiming he's a Cuban, when in fact he's an asset of the US intelligence community. The reason why this is a high risk is that if Kendall were to suspect that this false flag, this Cuban agent was, in fact, a US intelligence asset, he would then know that his cover was blown - that he was a full-time suspect of the FBI - and that he [would] undertake no future activity to endanger himself.
NARRATOR: It was raining on the morning of Kendall Myers’ 72nd birthday. And - as he was waking and opening his presents from Gwen - Robert and his team were preparing their own surprise. Once final preparations were in place, Robert and his team nervously made the short trip to Baltimore, Maryland. Their destination was a university campus. After retiring from US intelligence, Kendall had taken up lecturing at Johns Hopkins University, teaching the next generation his take on international relations and foreign policy. But, on this damp April day in 2009, Robert and his team were ready to plant their false flag.
ROBERT BOOTH: When it was all agreed that we believed Kendall might be susceptible to a false flag, an individual, an asset of the intelligence community poses as a Cuban intelligence officer and approached the campus of John Hopkins University where Kendall was teaching.
NARRATOR: It was almost evening now and the campus was emptying of students for the day. The ‘Cuban intelligence officer’ was on his way to approach Kendall. The plan was for him to engage as a comrade from Casto’s Cuba. But would Kendall take the bait? Robert and his colleagues waited out of sight. Breaths held. Pulses racing. Intently listening in to the events about to unfold. They were utterly powerless in this moment. It all came down to how convincing their undercover Cuban intelligence officer could be. In spy operations, it often comes down to crucial moments like these. If Kendall walked away, it was over. The undercover officer strode decisively across the campus, under his arm a small wooden box. He saw his target: Bespectacled, standing 6' 6" tall, with a receding white hairline and a mustache that draped over his mouth. Looking every bit the professor these days…
ROBERT BOOTH: He walked up to him, offered him a Cohiba cigar, and said a passcode word, which Kendall then accepted could only come from a genuine intelligence officer, and agreed to meet for a drink after class at a hotel close to the Johns Hopkins University campus. And we were listening in on this and we all just looked at each other and said: “He's admitting it. He's acknowledging a clandestine relationship where the suspected Cuban asset is talking to this Cuban asset about his career as a spy.” It may not have been enough to prosecute, but for us, we knew we finally had them.
NARRATOR: Kendall Myers might have thought he was receiving the best birthday present possible. After years of lying low in retirement, out on the sidelines, he was being called back into the spying game. In his excitement, he made another fatal error - incidentally, one that could have been prevented if it wasn’t for the inventiveness of his great grandfather Alexander Graham Bell.
ROBERT BOOTH: And, even better than that is that he called Gwendolyn up on the phone and said: “Gwen, you have to come down to the hotel here. I've got something going. It's really important.” And so he's going on and on. He wouldn't tell her what was going on. And we actually had FBI agents monitoring Gwen at her house. And she got so nervous about it she jumped in the car and almost had five accidents driving down to the hotel. This phone call then confirmed the fact that she was a full-time co-conspirator. And so, when they went to the hotel and initially started talking - and he started talking about his previous work for the Cubans - we knew we were onto something good.
ROBERT BOOTH: But still no arrests. More meetings between the undercover Cuban agent and Robert and Gwen were arranged. Each time Robert and his team listened out for new pieces of evidence that would come together to form a watertight prosecution.
ROBERT BOOTH: The Department of Justice and the Department of Justice lawyers have to examine all the information we had gathered, all the evidence we had gathered to determine whether or not an arrest would hold up. And the FBI had been asked: “Can you get the asset on a final meeting to start to reveal even more sensitive information?” It was a bit of a Hail Mary pass.
NARRATOR: So the final meeting was arranged. One last attempt to hold Kendall and Gwen accountable for years of betrayal. Could their spy get Castro’s spies to fully incriminate themselves?
ROBERT BOOTH: Luckily, the Cuban asset was skillful enough to get Kendall to start revealing even more sensitive information. And the Cuban asset started asking for even more probing sensitive information, Kendall started to hesitate. And at that point, the FBI realized enough is enough. And the FBI entered the room. And the amazing thing is the FBI walks in, says: “We're FBI.” And Gwen realized all along that now that Cuban asset really was FBI asset, and looks over at Kendall and points her fingers, as: “I told you so Gwendolyn.” Always deep down, [she] had a real suspicion about the Cuban, [that he was] really an FBI asset. Luckily for us, Kendall did not share her beliefs, nor did he listen to her. He really wanted to get back into the spy business. He'd been gone for almost one year, and he missed being a spy. Kendall enjoyed going to parties and dinners surrounded by senior State Department people, knowing deep down he had a secret that they did not know and that he was a spy. And he really thoroughly reveled in that secret life.
NARRATOR: Kendall and Gwen’s secret life was now over. But many of the secrets themselves - what they had actually revealed to the Cubans and how they evaded detection for so long - were still a mystery. Again, America’s intelligence community turned to Robert Booth.
ROBERT BOOTH: Something that's not well known is that after the arrest of a suspected spy, that as you go forward with prosecution, one of the things we - the spycatchers - really want to get to is a debriefing. And that is an interview with a spy to talk to him or her about his or her life. It's very important for us. And, in most cases - in which a spy who is convicted and pleads guilty in order to have his or her sentence reduced - they agree to be debriefed by special agents of the FBI, and diplomatic security, and then maybe by other intelligence community components. It's important to do these interviews. To learn from him or her, how they were so successful for so long in evading us. We also want them to tell us the tricks of the trade. How did they steal the information? How do they go unnoticed? How do they get it out of the building? And how do they send that information onto their handlers? It is all-important. You really want them to tell you how they were able to achieve what they did, and maybe why they did it, and some of the efforts they took to mask and disguise how they went about doing their clandestine information-collecting. I think why I was picked to be the lead State Department debriefer is because I've had thousands and hours of debriefing State Department people, and others. And I had previously debriefed Rick Ames, the CIA betrayer who is in prison for life, and Jim Clark, a non-State Department employee who had successfully had two State Department people provide him with classified information. I think people who read my reports were very satisfied with what I was able to get out of both of those individuals.
NARRATOR: So how did Robert plan on getting all this out of Kendall? After all, it was largely down to Robert that Kendall had been caught. You’d think he was the last person in the world Kendall would want to be in a room with, let alone give up vital information that could help catch other spies.
ROBERT BOOTH: So the most important thing is to develop rapport. The primary goal of my debriefing was to have Kendall explain to me how he was so successful in hiding his clandestine activities and for him to tell me what we could do better to protect ourselves from people like him. You can't sit down and talk to them in an accusatory tone. I'm not there to point my finger and say: “You're a bad person.” I'm there to establish a relationship.
NARRATOR: Of course, that sounds good in theory. But, in the heat of the moment, things are different. When you’re there, finally in the same room, having hunted them down for years, investigating every possible angle and aspect of their life - from what time they brush their teeth in the morning to the side of the bed they go to sleep on at night - yet you’ve never actually met them, they can attain almost mythological status in your mind. And then, suddenly, you’re sitting across from them smelling their heavy breath in the same airless room, looking into their eyes.
ROBERT BOOTH: During the course of the investigation, I had seen Kendall Myers numerous times on videotapes. I listened to his voice. But I never actually met Kendall face-to-face until the first time of the debriefing. And I open up the door and as I start to step in the FBI agent interrupts and says: “Let it be noted that Robert Booth has stepped into the room.” And Kendall Myers now has a smile on his face. I mean, the individual sitting across the table from me, that person is going to jail, and they're never getting out. I remember walking into the room and realizing he's a very tall guy. He's 6’4”, very slender, very soft-spoken, and highly educated.
NARRATOR: You’re sitting across from this imposing figure. Stripped of all his freedom because of your relentless work. Because of you. Of course, you feel justified in putting him there. But he certainly doesn’t see it like that. Yet, here, right now, in this moment, if you don’t connect and develop some kind of rapport you’ll never learn his secrets. Gone forever. How did he manipulate himself into a position of power? How did he obtain information? How did he smuggle it out from under your nose? How did he evade capture? Getting all that information is going to require him wanting to spend time with you. And you desperately need to learn his secrets so you can protect future US intelligence from getting into the hands of people like him. This is exactly the kind of information that saves lives. But first of all, though, you have to form a kind of connection. But how? What do your years of experience tell you? How do you get him to want to sit down with you?
ROBERT BOOTH: Kendall Myers enjoyed talking to me because I let him talk. I fed into his ego. I always reminded him how good he was, how successful he was, and explained how he did it. So he was willing to talk to me.
NARRATOR: And after you’ve fed his ego?
ROBERT BOOTH: He was getting terrible prison food. So every time, at lunch break, I knew he liked carrot cake and pastrami, hot pastrami sandwiches, which you will never get in prison. So, during the break, I'd walk down to the local deli, which is right down from the FBI field office there in Washington, DC, and I get a carrot cake and a pastrami sandwich. And then, we'd go off the record, and we talked for 15-20 minutes about life in general. And then he'd have his carrot cake in his pastrami sandwich in his belly and get the recording devices up, and he would talk. And there was no acrimony between him and I. We sat down and I got on with my business. What we eventually learned was that when he traveled to Cuba as a guest of the Cuban government, he had kept a diary with him of what it was like to live in Cuba or stay a couple of weeks in Cuba. The Cuban intelligence services went into his hotel room and they read his passages and they saw that he was enamored with the Cuban revolution. Now, they could have taken a guess that it might've been a provocation that he was looking to be recruited because he actually worked for the intelligence services. But, eventually, they would conclude that the entries in the diary were genuine, and it gave them the opportunity to eventually approach him in the United States by knocking on his door and inviting themselves inside his house. And, at that point, they pitched him to become a spy for the Cuban intelligence service. His wife was a full-time, 100 percent co-conspirator. She had first been exposed to Cuba in the office of the Senate when she worked with Senator [James] Abourezk, who was someone who believed in rapprochement with the Cubans. So it was there that started developing and gained the same sentiments towards Cuba that her husband shared.
NARRATOR: Having learned the story of how Kendall and Gwen were recruited, they moved on to how Kendall and Gwen operated as a partnership - obtaining the secret information and then smuggling it out of the US to Cuba.
ROBERT BOOTH: How Kendall took the information out of the State Department and got it to Gwendolyn was fascinating. He was very scared of ever being caught, taking documents out of the building, maybe an unexpected search by the guards. So what Kendall did is learn to memorize very well. He learned to write down keywords on a piece of paper, which he'd put in his pocket when he left the building. He would then go home. Gwendolyn would break out the laptop computer and - based on his memory and keywords he had written down on a piece of paper - he was able to recreate whole conversations and classified documents, and spoke them out. Gwendolyn would type them up on a computer, download the information to a flash drive, take the flash drive to the internet cafe. And then send the messages to a handler, a name guy named Peter in Mexico City, for onward transmission to Cuba.
NARRATOR: Robert and Kendall talked. Hours passed, and Robert started to recognize some familiar traits in the motivations for his betrayal.
ROBERT BOOTH: It's kind of hard to believe that someone would spy for, let's say, Cuba or China, given the human rights record that they have, or a place like Russia. The two primary reasons are for money or for ideology. When an intelligence service attempts to recruit an American, they do a full profile of that American, and one of the best reasons you can recruit an American is for money. And they identify people who need money, or those American citizens will approach the foreign intelligence service clandestinely saying: "I will give you information for money." Almost every one of these people shared something in common, and that is their ego. We have an acronym, which we call MICE; money, ideology, compromise, and ego, and they all share the ego thing. They believe they're smarter than anybody else. They believe they know more than anybody else. They're arrogant. They're deceitful. They're narcissists. And in the end, they're unrepentant. So, it's an interesting phenomenon, but nowadays, most Americans who are recruited do it for monetary reasons. The other reason why foreign intelligence services have been able to recruit State Department people, specifically, is for ideological reasons.
NARRATOR: That acronym you heard Robert mention just then, MICE - money, ideology, coercion, ego - it’s such an important concept in the world of spycraft. It’s all about getting into the mindset of what motivates people. And Robert had discovered that it wasn’t the motivation of money that made Kendal a turncoat. It was ideology that had turned him against his country.
ROBERT BOOTH: He didn't take a penny. Kendall Myers didn't take a penny. An ideological spy’s no different to me than one who accepts money. It's a betrayal. The fact that they have taken a trust. They've taken an oath and then they betray it. And the thing that got me about Kendall Myers [was], if they were so enamored with Cuba, why didn't they just get up and go and live there? So that was always something hard for me to understand.
NARRATOR: The information that Robert was able to extract from Kendall had crucial implications about how the US defends secret information.
ROBERT BOOTH: There were a couple of primary themes that I got, and one was the ease by which Kendall was able to get information physically out of the State Department. That was just stunning. It's all little pieces of paper and in his mind. The second thing was how easy he was to seduce his colleagues into having them reveal information that they otherwise should not have been revealing. As I was interviewing him, I'm realizing how easy it was for Kendall to do this, to go to a fellow colleague to the Cuban specialist guy by the name of Jim, and he'd say: “Oh, how's our buddy Fidel doing today?” Jim, wanting to be a good colleague, would say: "Oh you know, this is what we see, Castro doing this.” What was the Cuban government doing? And literally, give a 10-minute synopsis of what our office and what the intelligence community was thinking. He writes down keywords that Jim had told them on a piece of paper and then goes home and recreates Jim's entire conversation. And that point we realized Kendall was revealing incredibly sensitive information to the Cuban intelligence service.
NARRATOR: Just picture Robert seated across from Kendall in that tiny room. Kendall relaxes into the conversation as he talks with increasing abandon about the depths of his treason. And Robert? Outwardly passive. Interested but calm. Always polite and friendly. But inside? How would you feel? If, like Robert, you’d devoted your entire professional life to helping the US government, hearing the extent of this treachery revealed by someone who seems proud of what they have done.
ROBERT BOOTH: Well, as he's disclosing this and we're understanding it, you do get angry because he has betrayed your country. He took the same oath I did, and if you really disagree with the government and the way they're doing something then, my attitude is, you just resign. You retire. But that personal feeling, you have to let go. You've got to sit there professionally. And whether you like to admit it or not, you have to admire the fact that this guy was a good spy for what he wanted to do. He was very successful and he almost got away with it. So professionally, there's a bit of admiration. He did his job. This is my professional adversary so give him his due. I mean, afterward, it was all said and done. It's still really hard to accept the fact that the only difference between him and me was that he became a spy. I mean, I had seen him at a State Department function. I would've accepted him as a good man.
NARRATOR: A good man? Well, it turned out Kendall’s deceptions had not stopped at the point of his arrest.
ROBERT BOOTH: Oh, I did not get the full truth out of him during the debriefing at all. Oh, I know. You lied to me on several occasions. We have a videotape of him doing something on the final day that he was in the State Department. I have it on videotape. I saw it. When I questioned him obliquely about it, he denied everything. It puts it into perspective that he still is an intelligence officer. Now, he may be an exposed intelligence officer, but he's not about to give up all his secrets. “Mmm. I'm at the conclusion of the 18 hours,” I think. I said: “I want to thank you for cooperating with this.” Although I know he lied to me, but we stood up. He did not shake hands. We stood up and I said: "Good luck." And I meant that sincerely because where he was going, his life is pure hell. It's hell on earth. After Kendall and Gwen had pleaded guilty as part of the plea bargain agreement, he agreed to get life in prison without the possibility of parole. And Gwen got 80 months, which is the longest prison term for any co-conspirator in an espionage case in the United States. And he ended up in Florence super-max [in Colorado] - which is the most restrictive prison in the United States - where he is now, and where he will be for the rest of his life.
NARRATOR: Robert’s involvement in the life of Kendall and Gwen Myers had finished. Another case closed. In the dark dark world of turncoats and American betrayers, another double agent was brought down. And for Robert, after a career of spy hunting, after the fact maybe their betrayal felt more sadly inevitable than shocking. But what about those close to the Myers, who knew them as just a quiet, friendly, and loving couple about to begin a long happy retirement together? How would you feel if you found out that people close to you who fit that description were, in fact, spies?
ROBERT BOOTH: No one initially could accept the fact that Kendall was a spy. They all thought it's not possible - that we had got the wrong person. One of the things you must do upon the arrest of a spy is, you have to do interviews. This is something I felt I was pretty good at. And I remember the first person I talked to was the former ambassador in Bulgaria or Romania. She actually was my boss in Paris, France. Her name was Avis Bohlen. And when I went to talk to Avis - because we knew from following Kendall who his friends were socially and professionally - and because I knew Avis, I felt very comfortable going to talk to her. I remember going into her office and I said: “I haven't seen you in some time. I'm here because of the arrest of Kendall Myers and understand you knew him.” And she looked at me and said: “You know, Robert, he's only a suspect. I mean, he's not been convicted of anything.” And I looked at her and I said: “Even now.” Even after the arrest - and arrests are only allowed after the Department of Justice has carefully examined the information - she could not believe that this friend of some 20, 30 years was, in fact, a spy. The reason why, I think, is because, first, they cannot believe that a friend that they have - both professionally or socially for so long, someone who's glib, cheerful, thoughtful, intellectual, sharing the same values - could possibly have a double or secret life. It is just not possible. And worse, then they start to think about some of the conversations they've had in the past with him. They start to think about some of the questions he may have asked. What he was talking about. And, all of a sudden, all those activities now fall under suspicion. So then they realize their entire lives or social interaction with him may have only been motivated by his conceit and his spying activities. That is a terrible revelation. It's an incredible betrayal.
NARRATOR: So does that ‘incredible betrayal’ fade away as the dust begins to settle on another closed case? Can you just turn it on and off? That highly tuned sensitivity to the honesty and integrity of actions of those you spend your time with. If your entire working life was spent second-guessing people’s loyalty, how could you trust anyone? Knowing what you know about deception?
ROBERT BOOTH: It's always there. It's always hard to believe it, but I have to trust people and you can't let that guide your relationships. Trust. But verify, I think, is what President Reagan said a long time ago. I think that if you have access to top-secret information, you're always going to be targeted by foreign intelligence services. I think that you have to make judgments about a lot of people in my life. I mean, I trust my wife. I trust my wife and my daughter. There's nothing they hide from me. But the betrayal that comes from a colleague who was a government employee, someone who shares top-secret information, someone who's taken an oath of loyalty to the government, deep in the back of my mind I always have to say: “Could this person be a spy?”
NARRATOR: I’m Hayley Atwell. Join us next week for another rendezvous with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
In 1974, Robert D. Booth became a special agent of the State Department’s Office of Security. He investigated numerous information leaks, losses of classified documents, and instances of espionage as a member of the Special Investigations Branch Booth also had a pivotal role in three major counterespionage assignments, including the unmasking Fidel Castro’s most damaging US citizen spy.