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MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) — Alan Gross wasn’t the only American returned during Wednesday’s historic prisoner swap with the Cuban government. An unidentified spy, with massive intelligence information at the highest levels of the Cuban government, was also exchanged.
His information was so good, officials said Wednesday, that it helped American authorities ferret out a number of Cuban spies in the United States, including two senior U.S. government officers who were among Cuba’s most prolific operatives.
The spy, whom American officials declined to name, spent nearly 20 years in prison after he was caught.
President Barrack Obama said his “sacrifice has been known to only a few,” and called him “one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba.”
The man is now “safely on our shores,” Obama said, along with Alan Gross, the American aid contractor also released Wednesday. Their swap came as Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced steps to fully normalize relations between their countries.
Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 while working in the Communist-run country to set up Internet access, which bypassed local restrictions and monitoring. At the time, Gross was working as a subcontractor for the U.S. government’s U.S. Agency for International Development, which promotes democracy on the island. Cuba considers USAID’s programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government, and Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
“They (Obama Administration) assert Gross was released on humanitarian grounds and once he was freed that allowed the administration to make other moves of a conciliatory nature – including but not limited to the release of three Cuban intelligence officers,” according to CBS news correspondent Major Garrett.
Many of the details surrounding the unidentified spy will remain classified officials said.
According to Brian Hale, spokesman for the director of national intelligence, the spy’s information helped lead to the prosecution of Ana Belen Montes, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who is serving a life sentence after spying for Cuba for 17 years; and former State Department official Walter Kendall Myers, serving life after spying for three decades.
“I think this is a tremendous gain for the intelligence community,” said Fran Townsend, a former senior national security official in the George W. Bush administration. “This was a very productive asset who was well placed, trusted by the Cuban government and helped us in a number of ways.”
She said it “really is extraordinarily important to ongoing intelligence efforts when you are able to secure the release of an asset like this. It tells the world we remain loyal, we don’t forget and we never abandon those who help us.”
The spy also helped the U.S. expose the “Wasp Network,” in Florida, Hale said, a Cuban spy ring that included members of the Cuban Five, the last three of whom were released in exchange for the Cuban spy. Cuba also released 53 other prisoners.
The Cuban Five were convicted in 2001 of being unregistered foreign agents, and three also were found guilty of espionage conspiracy for failed efforts to obtain military secrets from the U.S. Southern Command headquarters.
“In light of his sacrifice on behalf of the United States, securing his release from prison after 20 years — in a swap for three of the Cuban spies he helped put behind bars — is fitting closure to this Cold World chapter of U.S.-Cuban relations,” Hale said.
Three of the Cuban Five — Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino and Antonio Guerrero — were sent home to Cuba as part of the swap. Hernandez had been convicted of murder conspiracy in the deaths of four Miami-based pilots whose small, private planes were shot down on Feb. 24, 1996, by a Cuban MiG in international waters off Cuba’s northern coast.
Montes, who was arrested in September 2001, is considered one of the most damaging spies in recent history, because she had access to — and betrayed — U.S. intelligence activities in Cuba.
(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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