USA Today Column:
Swap 'Cuban Five' for U.S. contractor
by DeWayne Wickham
Sept. 5, 2011
Reprinted from USA Today
When the FBI arrested 10 Russian spies last year, this country quickly traded them for four ailing men held by Russia and accused of being espionage agents for the United States and Britain.
It took just more than a week for the U.S. government to cut the deal that sent the Russian agents, who had been in this country for more than a decade, to Moscow. After a brief appearance in a federal courtroom to plead guilty to a single charge of conspiring "to act as an agent of a foreign country" the Russian spooks were whisked from the country.
Of the four men who were released to the U.S. — all of them Russians — in return for this grand gesture, two were taken to Britain; the others landed in Washington and then disappeared in a caravan of black SUVs.
The U.S. government should do the same for Alan Gross. Seven months before the U.S.-Russia spy swap, Gross was arrested in Cuba and charged with committing "acts against the independence and territorial integrity" of that communist nation. Gross worked for Development Alternatives, Inc., a U.S. State Department contractor. The charge against him stems from his efforts to provide satellite phones and unrestricted Internet access to some people in Cuba, whose government the United States has tried for more than half a century to topple.
Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Gross told an appeals court he had been a "trusting fool" and didn't know his actions violated Cuban law, according to a transcript released recently by his American lawyer.
Maybe he didn't, but the State Department must have. By engaging the company that hired Gross to help implement its "Cuba democracy program," the diplomats in Foggy Bottom surely knew the risks they were running in privatizing a portion of their efforts to bring regime change to that island nation. They had to have known that if caught, Gross would be treated like a spy.
Now, nearly two years after his arrest, Gross — reportedly in poor health — languishes in a Cuban prison. But he could be home in a few days if the U.S. will exchange the five Cuban spies it imprisoned 13 years ago for the 62-year-old Gross.
The so-called Cuban Five— espionage agents whom Cuba had sent here to spy on Cuban exiles who want to overthrow the Castro regime — received sentences ranging from life to 15 years. One of them was accused of conspiracy in the 1996 shoot down of two U.S.-based civilian planes by Cuban MIG fighters. Cuba says those planes violated its air space — a claim that is denied by Brothers to the Rescue, the Cuban exile group that operated those flights.
Spying is a nasty business that, unfortunately, produces a lot of collateral damage. Keeping the Cuban Five in prison won't bring back the lives lost in that shoot down. But swapping them for the ailing Gross could save the life of a man who says he was tricked into the spy game.
Such a humanitarian gesture, probably, will only generate widespread resistance from those Cuban exiles who clamor for the U.S. to do for them what dissidents in Syria and Libya have taken to the streets of those countries to do for themselves.
Gross should not be left to suffer a long prison term for their sake. He should be swapped for the Cuban Five with as much dispatch as was used to get those ailing spies out of Russia.
DeWayne Wickham writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.