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State Department fallout? A former ambassador is charged with spying

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Think about it. A former colleague, someone well respected in your field, is accused of doing something that goes against everything you believe in, everything you thought you were both working for. That's what the State Department is facing after a former ambassador was charged with being a foreign agent. Federal prosecutors allege that Victor Manuel Rocha secretly worked for the Cuban government for decades. He had served as the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia and as the No. 2 at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana in the 1990s.

We wanted to consider what the fallout might be at the State Department now, so we've called Bill Miller for this. He is a former director of the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, which, among other things, is responsible for counterintelligence operations within the department. Good morning, Mr. Miller.

BILL MILLER: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So this was shocking to those of us sort of in the public. Was it surprising to you to hear these allegations against somebody who was able to rise to that level, to the level of ambassador?

MILLER: It's always alarming, but never surprising. The fact that we have so many folks with the Diplomatic Security Service paying attention to national security interests around the world - they're there because of these things happening routinely, or I won't say routinely, but quite frequently. We did have, if you recall, Ana Montes actually released after 20 years in prison for spying on the U.S. by Cuba just this last January.

MARTIN: So what happens in the wake of something like this, since you're saying this is not the first time that something like this has happened? What happens now? Do people get scrutinized more closely now who are currently serving, or does something happen specifically in response to something like this?

MILLER: Sure. Thank you. The FBI and the Diplomatic Security Service will take a good look at when they believe his spying did begin and what markers we could have missed during that career and during his lifetime in accessing so much classified information. After they identify that, they'll start with a damage assessment of what potential information was passed and then what damage control may need to be done as a result.

The fact that he left U.S. government service in 2002 means that there's quite a long time lag. And for first-order sources, those who would have had access to him and would have known about the information that he had access to specifically, that's now much more difficult. There will be a real look at what the fallout could have been if he had released information to the Cubans about sources or methods of gaining information. Because there has been so much time lag, they'll have to take a look at the fact that he was a mole, in essence, for 40 years and was able to lay dormant for all that time. Others, as a result of his release of this information, could be doing the exact same thing. So that will be one piece of it. I think we have to remember too, though, the government has changed the way that it's scrutinized its employees, and our world has changed so much over the last 20 years since he left government service.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. Would it be more difficult to secretly work as an agent today, as he is accused of doing?

MILLER: I believe so - because our technology has advanced to the point where we can do more routine monitoring, especially of social media, those things which could prove what we would refer to as undue influence, being put - you know, a lot more money in your bank account than you should have had access to as a government employee.

MARTIN: Briefly, very briefly - I would imagine this has some effect on morale. Is that accurate?

MILLER: It does. And when we look at so much of the rhetoric that we've seen over the last several years about the swamp and the deep state, that's already affected morale. Now this just causes a concern about greater scrutiny, especially for those who are perhaps foreign born but naturalized U.S. citizens who are serving faithfully in the U.S. government.

MARTIN: That's Bill Miller. He was director of the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service from 2013 until 2017. Mr. Miller, thanks so much for sharing this expertise with us.

MILLER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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