Spy suspect wasted no time relaying FBI's false story
Spy bait taken instantly
Alleged Cuban agent phoned contact after receiving false FBI information
February 20, 2000, Miami Herald - Amy Driscoll And Juan Tamayo
A top U.S. immigration official charged with spying for Cuba waited just 12 minutes before divulging classified information about a possible defection of a Cuban intelligence officer to a New York businessman with ties to the Castro government, the FBI said Friday.
Mariano Faget, 54, telephoned the Cuban-born businessman after he was told of the possible defection by FBI and INS officials in what turned out to be an elaborate trap. The story was a sham, but the phone conversation was taped and provided the evidence that federal authorities needed to charge him with violating espionage laws.
The sting -- code-named False Blue because of what an FBI official called Faget's lack of "loyalty to the Red, White and Blue" -- came after agents had been shadowing Faget for at least a year, Paul Mallett, the FBI's second in command in Miami, announced at a news conference Friday.
FBI agents began their investigation after learning a year ago that Faget had telephoned Havana's diplomatic mission in Washington, the Cuban Interests Section, from his home. During the course of the case, FBI agents witnessed Faget meeting with at least two Cuban intelligence officers in Miami hotels and in other cities, Mallett said.
On Feb. 19, 1999, an FBI surveillance team trailed an Interests Section diplomat identified as an intelligence officer to a meeting with Faget at the Pitchers Bar at the Miami Airport Marriott Hotel, where the two men greeted each other like old friends, said an FBI affidavit in the case.
With the FBI watching, Faget toasted the Cuban agent -- the same agent whose name they would later use in their sting -- with a drink and went on to talk to him for some 90 minutes, the court affidavit added.
In October, Faget met with a second Cuban agent, this time in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel on Blue Lagoon Drive in Miami. Faget greeted the Cuban agent, and the two moved to a more secluded area of the lobby for a two-hour conversation, the FBI said. Portions of the meeting were videotaped.
"This speaks to the heart of public trust," Immigration and Naturalization Service District Director Robert Wallis said Friday. "I have zero tolerance for this."
TEN AND FIVE YEARS
Faget was arrested Thursday, charged with violating the federal Espionage Act and making false statements to a federal officer. The first charge carries up to 10 years in prison, the second a possible five years.
Agents served search warrants on his Kendall town home and his office, seizing two computers and his automobile.
The arrest comes at a time of heightened tension between the United States and Cuba over the custody of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, found clinging to an inner tube off the Florida coast Nov. 25. INS officials repeatedly said Friday that Faget had no part in any of the INS decisions on the boy. Those decisions were made at a much higher level, Wallis said.
State Department officials declined comment on whether they would expel one of the Cuban intelligence officers at the Interests Section who met with Faget, although such expulsions are normal when a spy case breaks.
A second intelligence agent who met with Faget finished his tour of duty in Washington and returned to Havana last year, a knowledgeable U.S. official said.
FBI officials said they could not comment on Faget's motivation for spying for Cuba -- his father, Mariano Faget, was a colonel in the Batista regime overthrown by Fidel Castro in 1959 -- but hinted he was looking for extra income after his retirement.
SENSE OF URGENCY
"We had to do this," U.S. Attorney Tom Scott said, because Faget was planning to retire in about 30 days. Mallett said the FBI had looked into Faget's bank records but declined to reveal what they showed or whether the Cuban agents had paid him for his services.
The sting against Faget was set up by the head of the Miami office of the FBI, Hector Pesquera, and the assistant district director of the INS, James D. Goldman.
According to the FBI affidavit, the two met with Faget on Feb. 11, telling him they needed his help in arranging for the defection of a Cuban intelligence officer who had been working for the FBI for the past two years. The meeting was videotaped.
Pesquera showed Faget an authentic FBI document classified SECRET that contained the Cuban's photo and other biographical information. He told Faget that the information was "secret and very sensitive, that it could not be disclosed to anyone."
Faget prepared a travel document related to the Cuban's alleged defection, even volunteered that he had once met the Cuban at a dinner party, but told Pesquera and Goldman it had been an accidental contact.
Then, Faget returned to his office and quickly used his cellular phone to call the businessman in New York, identified in the affidavit only as a Cuban American who was known to have contacts with Cuban intelligence agents.
Using guarded terms, Faget told the businessman that "a person we both know" was "working with the Americans." He told the New York man that they would discuss the matter later, when he was "nowhere near" his office.
Later that evening, Faget telephoned the businessman from home and gave the Cuban's full name. He apologized for speaking cryptically in the earlier phone call and stated that the Cuban "has been working with the FBI for the last two years, giving them information, and the time has come to get him out of Cuba," the affidavit said.
In his conversation, Faget also noted that Pesquera had told him that "this was a very sensitive matter from Washington." He confided that he had told Pesquera and Goldman of his earlier meeting with the Cuban agent "at a dinner for people who want to do business with Cuba," adding, "just in case."
THREE CALLS TAPED
Both of those calls were recorded by the FBI, the affidavit said, as was a third conversation the following Monday, when the New York businessman called him from the Chinese capital of Beijing.
In the FBI affidavit, the unidentified New York businessman is described as chief executive officer and president of a Florida-registered firm he shares with Faget. Florida state records list Faget as executive vice president of America-Cuba, a Miami firm whose chief executive and operating officer is New York businessman Pedro Font.
Font could not be reached for comment. His office in New York said he was in China.
State of New York business records link Font to Protele and Global Media Distributors, two Manhattan firms involved in advertising and the sales of TV programming. Protele has a branch in Miami that a secretary said was recently sold to the Mexican TV giant Televisa.
HIRED AS CONSULTANT
An investor in America-Cuba, Nicolas Villalba of Miami Beach, said the company was established in 1993 with an eye to doing business in a post-Castro Cuba. He said Faget was brought into the company "as a consultant, for the time when Castro would be gone," but owned no part of the firm.
Faget's son, also named Mariano, works for a Font-owned advertising firm in New York City, Villalba added.
On Friday, the far-reaching ramifications of the arrest were just beginning to sink in at the INS.
As a high-ranking supervisor -- Faget's job placed him on the third tier from the top on the services side of INS -- he had access to information about Cuban defectors and confidential law enforcement sources. He was responsible for overseeing decisions that affected the residency status and naturalization of immigrants, including political asylum requests.
His position and security clearance also won him easy entree into the files of Cuban double agents working for the United States, according to court documents in the case.
'VERY SERIOUS BREACH'
"This is potentially a very serious breach of security," the FBI's Mallett said. "As of now, we are not aware of any harm that has come to anybody as a result of Mr. Faget's activities."
The INS is reviewing all cases and files on which Faget worked, a massive task after his 34 years in the INS, where he worked his way up from an entry-level clerk to his current $82,000-a-year position, Wallis said.
"He seemed to be a fine manager and a valuable member of the team," said Wallis, who usually met with Faget once a week.
It's not Faget's first time in the headlines. In 1979, the Havana-born Faget came under fire for granting a permanent visa to Esteban Ventura, a feared member of the Batista regime's police.
Ventura had been living in the United States for 20 years without a visa. Faget, an INS examiner at the time, granted him a visa making him eligible for citizenship without ever looking into Ventura's background in Cuba.
On Friday, Faget appeared in federal court before U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen T. Brown. The paunchy, balding Faget was denied bond after prosecutors said he would be a flight risk and a danger to the community. On his way into court, he caught the eye of relatives and friends and held his left hand to his heart.
Family members, many of whom cried during the hearing, refused to comment. Defense attorney Joel Kaplan said he did not know enough about the case to make a statement. Another hearing was set for Thursday.
Herald staff writer Elaine de Valle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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