15 years in prison for ex-US diplomat who secretly spied for Cuba for decades

Manuel Rocha appeared in a federal courtroom in Miami Friday to plead guilty to defrauding the U.S. government and conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government as part of a plea deal.

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A former career U.S. diplomat who admitted to working for decades as a secret agent for communist Cuba, in a case prosecutors called one of the most brazen betrayals in the history of the U.S. foreign service, was sentenced to 15 years behind bars Friday as part of a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

Manuel Rocha, 73, appeared in a federal courtroom in Miami Friday to plead guilty to defrauding the U.S. government and conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government under the plea deal.

The deal included a 15-year prison sentence with three years of supervised release, along with $500,000 in fines.

But Judge Beth Bloom rejected the initial plea deal, saying it lacked restitution for any possible victims and didn't include denaturalization for Rocha.

Bloom later approved the amended deal after language on restitution and civil denaturalization were added.

Rocha was allowed to speak at the hearing as the deal was accepted.

"I am a 73-year-old man. During my formative years, I was heavily influenced by the radical politics of the day," he said. "I no longer see the world in the radical eyes of my youth."

He also admitted he betrayed his oath of loyalty to the United States.

“I take full responsibility," Rocha said. "I know that my actions have also caused great pain to my family, former colleagues, and the closest of friends. I ask them all for my understanding and forgiveness."

Bloom didn't mince words while handing out the sentence, the maximum allowable under the law.

"Your actions were a direct attack on our democracy and our citizens," Bloom said. "You pledged your allegiance to that flag…and what you stated openly when you swore or affirmed you would defend the Constitution, that was a lie. Over and over again you gave an oath of office that you lied to. You turned your back on a country that gave you everything."

Officials with the Department of Justice held a news conference Friday evening to discuss the sentencing.

"Today's plea brings to an end more than four decades of betrayal and deceit by Mr. Rocha. For most of his life, Mr. Rocha lived a lie," Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for National Security David Newman said. "While holding various senior positions in the U.S. government, he was secretly acting as the Cuban government's agent. That is a staggering betrayal of the American people."

Rocha had agreed in February to change his plea to guilty. Prosecutors, in exchange, agreed to drop 13 counts, including wire fraud and making false statements.

Rocha worked at the State Department for two decades in a career that included stints as ambassador to Bolivia and top posts in Argentina, Mexico, the White House and the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

His post-government career also included time as a special adviser to the commander of the U.S. Southern Command and more recently as a tough-talking Donald Trump supporter and Cuba hardliner, a persona that friends and prosecutors say Rocha adopted to hide his true allegiances.

Typically in counterintelligence cases, the defendant is charged with espionage. But Rocha was accused of the lesser crimes of acting as a foreign agent, which carry maximum terms of between five and 10 years in prison, making it easier for prosecutors and Rocha to reach an agreement.

Rocha was arrested by the FBI at his Miami home in December on allegations he engaged in “clandestine activity” on Cuba’s behalf since at least 1981 — the year he joined the U.S. foreign service — including by meeting with Cuban intelligence operatives and providing false information to U.S. government officials about his contacts.

Rocha made a series of recorded admissions to an undercover FBI agent posing as a Cuban intelligence operative, praising the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro as “Comandante,” branding the U.S. the “enemy” and bragging about his service for more than 40 years as a Cuban mole in the heart of U.S. foreign policy circles, prosecutors said in court records.

“What we have’s enormous...more than a Grand Slam,” he was quoted as saying in one of several secretly recorded conversations.

Federal authorities have said little about what Rocha actually did to aid Cuba, and FBI and State Department investigators have been conducting a confidential damage assessment that could take years.

"The nature of the information that he held is, for those of us who work in the national security space, it is chilling, it is horrifying, and there will be a thorough assessment of everything he could have passed and everything he could have held," Newman said.

But an Associated Press investigation found there were plenty of missed red flags over the years.

Those included a tip that a longtime CIA operative received in 2006 warning that Rocha was working as a double agent. It was never pursued. And separate intelligence revealed that the CIA had been aware as early as 1987 that Castro had a “super mole” burrowed deep inside the U.S. government, and some officials suspected it could have been Rocha.

Rocha’s decision to plead guilty came just hours after the widow of prominent Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, who was killed in a mysterious car crash, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the former diplomat. The lawsuit accuses Rocha of sharing intelligence that emboldened Cuba’s communist leaders to assassinate a chief opponent.

"We really appreciated the judge. I think it is clear that there are victims and that’s why we continue with our suit, with our demand and we hope that this process will lead us to some truth," daughter Rosa Maria Payá said Friday.

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