New Book: “Code Name Blue Wren”

Ana Montes is about to get out of prison [see previous post Ana Montes Top-spy Freed in US]. In “A DC Resident Spied for Cuba for Years. How Did She Get Away with It?” (Washingtonian) Sylvie McNamara interviews Jim Popkin about his forthcoming book Code Name Blue Wren (2023). The book is described as “The incredible true story of Ana Montes, the most dangerous female spy in US history, drawing upon never-before-seen material and to be published upon her release from prison.” McNamara underlines that Popkin’s new book reveals how she operated under the government’s nose for so long.

For 17 years, Ana Montes was a diligent employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the US military’s spy arm. By day, she was its top Cuba analyst, with access to some of the nation’s best-kept secrets. By night, Montes passed those secrets to the Castro regime: the identities of American spies, details of a crucial surveillance satellite. Until her arrest in 2001, Montes was perhaps the most effective spy Cuba ever recruited, and—according to Jim Popkin’s rollicking new book, Code Name Blue Wren—the most dangerous female spy in American history. 

In Code Name Blue Wren, Popkin tells a DC story. Born to Puerto Rican parents, Montes grew up outside Baltimore, attended UVA, then, in 1979, moved to Washington to work for the Justice Department. In 1985—after her recruitment by Cuba—she found a job at the DIA. Outside of work, Montes would hole up in her Cleveland Park condo to decrypt shortwave radio broadcasts from Havana or meet her handlers for dim sum across Upper Northwest, growing isolated and paranoid as her double life progressed toward arrest. Now, after 21 years in prison, Montes is scheduled to be released this week. We spoke with Popkin about his book, the Washington spy scene, and what to expect when Montes gets out.

How did you first get interested in Ana Montes? This story has fascinated me for years now. Ana rose up the ranks within the Defense Intelligence Agency and kept getting promoted and promoted—but the whole time, for nearly 17 years, she was secretly spying for Cuba. To me, that would be interesting enough. But on top of it, she had four family members working for the FBI. That includes her sister, Lucy, a translator who coincidentally was assigned to a unit that was dedicated to finding Cuban spies. 

One of the reasons that I got into this is that one of my best friends, my college roommate, lived at 3039 Macomb Street. So as a younger person, I hung out there a lot. And after Ana was arrested, he reached out to me. He’s like, Do you realize she bought our condo? The exact unit, she bought it from him. That’s what got the story in my head. This spy lived in an apartment where I’ve been.

Right, and that apartment is important to the story—she’d do her work for Cuba there, then cross the street to call her handlers on the payphone outside the zoo.  Yes, she was in and out of all those shops on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park. And she was trained in Havana on counter-detection, so she used the zoo to try to evade detection—she would go in and double back to see who’s watching. That’s a classic maneuver to see if someone’s following you. You’d think she was just browsing and looking at animals, but she wasn’t. Then she’d make a call on a payphone to the Cubans with pre-programmed codes. 

Backing up, how was Ana initially recruited to spy for Cuba?  Ana was radicalized in college, her junior year abroad, living in Madrid. She fell for a guy from Argentina, sort of a political revolutionary, and she became outspoken in her views about—in her words—US atrocities overseas. Then she entered [Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies], and one of her classmates—another American woman of Puerto Rican descent, Marta Velazquez—heard her and befriended her. Marta, it turns out, had already been recruited by the Cubans. So she encouraged Ana. 

The Cubans have a brilliant intelligence service. They were trained by the Soviets. And one of the things that they did early on was to get Ana to write an autobiography. Once she did that, two things happened: One is that it was collateral the Cubans could use against her if she ever tried to get out. Number two, they now knew what buttons to push, because they kind of understood her psychology, more than they would have otherwise. And so they were able to manipulate her—play up to her desire for grandiosity and her desire to serve a greater good. 

[. . .] What will happen when Ana is released?  Ana gets out this week. Her official release day is Sunday, but her family believes she’ll probably get out on Friday. My understanding is that Ana likely will go to Puerto Rico where she has sympathetic family. And there’s also a small but vocal community of Puerto Ricans who support Cuba and revolution and have been in Ana’s corner ever since she was arrested. My hunch is that she will go to Puerto Rico to get her bearings and restart her life. 

She’s on probation for five years under very strict restrictions. I think she’s going to be very careful about what she does. She’s been living in one of the toughest prisons in the country for women. She will not want to return to that environment. I write in the book that she did not get the Martha Stewart treatment at all—she’s done hard time for 21 years. [. . .]

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