Collateral Abuse in the “Russian Agent” Case
It’s a well known fact that for a child, emotional trauma is every bit as damaging as the physical kind and often considerably more difficult to treat, given the fact that it leaves no physical marks. In the news about the tenth anniversary of Elian’s return to his father in Cuba there was a remarkable quote from Elian himself. Speaking about the Miami relatives who put him on display like a miniature human trophy and spared no effort to prevent his return to the father he’d been taken from without permission, he said, “Even though they didn’t support us in everything…I have no bitterness.” For Elian to emerge without bitterness after such suffering is a testament to the family who raised him and the society surrounding them.
Thinking of perfectly avoidable childhood trauma, one has to wonder about the U.S. government’s motivations in its warp-speed roundup of accused Russian agents, the majority of whom were also parents.
Eight of the accused were parents of young children and teenagers. The youngest children were only 1 and 3. At least two of them, Lisa and Katie Murphy, 7 and 11, were present when the FBI marched their parents away in handcuffs. The youngest were reportedly placed with social service agencies while their parents’ accusers performed background checks on the designated caretakers. Vicky Peláez was the only one granted bail to return to her 17 year old son; bail that the government vowed to contest and in the end became irrelevant as a plea bargain crafted by the Attorney General’s office was forced on the accused before their hasty deportation.
This kind of behavior is nothing new for the United States – the Rosenbergs were not only arrested but executed while their sons were 6 and 10 – and in Miami in 1998, the dual U.S./Cuban citizen René González was dragged away by a SWAT team in full view of his wife and young daughters, one just an infant, and then denied permission to see them again for an entire year. Adriana Pérez O’Connor, who has herself been denied permission for 13 years to visit her own husband, Gerardo Hernández (also dragged off by a SWAT team), described René’s situation:
They didn’t allow them to visit him in prison, unlike the families of other prisoners. One year later they allowed him to see his daughters, and they were very cruel about it, because they kept him chained to a chair. His littlest daughter who had never seen anything like it, confused him for a dog, because he was chained, but her mother told her that her father was not the dog, that the dogs in that place were the guards.
It’s worth recalling that against the accused Russian agents, there was never any charge of espionage (despite the New York Times’ hankering for one), simply the charge of conspiracy to work as foreign agents. And despite provocative press reports about safe deposit boxes filled with $100 bills, the accused were not charged with money laundering either. Only conspiracy to launder money.
But this was not a minor detail. As Vicky Peláez’s attorney pointed out, the current political climate in the United States is such that the presumption of innocence has vanished, especially where immigrants are concerned, and this made a terrible plea bargain preferable to a rubber-stamp trial that would surely conclude with long prison sentences.
Gerardo Hernández is a living testament to the fact that a conspiracy charge is a very effective way to incarcerate a person under extremely harsh conditions without having to prove their connection to a crime.
Hernández was an unregistered Cuban agent who was collecting information on Miami terrorist groups that were bombing tourist attractions in Cuba throughout the 1990’s. He reported to Cuba, but the FBI was also monitoring these same groups, reporting to the United States.
Similar to the Russians, Hernández was first arrested on the charge of being an unregistered foreign agent. Seven months after his arrest, an additional charge was thrown in: conspiracy to commit murder. The charge was a combined attempt by the families of the downed fliers and the U.S. government to avenge the downing of two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft that had penetrated Cuban airspace 20 times over the previous 25 months and were finally shot down. The Cuban government had given the fliers unambiguous warnings of the danger.
Close to the time of the downing of the aircraft, Hernández had sent a message to Cuba saying that it had been an honor for him to contribute to the success of a particular mission. The prosecutors knew very well which mission he was referring to, and it was not the shootdown, with which he was completely unconnected. But they selectively excerpted this message and others, to paint a picture for the jury of a conspiracy that suggested the opposite. And they succeeded. The jury, which had been hectored by the Miami community and media, some of whom were also on the government payroll, convicted Hernández of conspiracy to commit murder. As a result, he remains in a maximum security prison in California under a double life sentence, plus 15 years.
So the money laundering that the Russians had not actually performed? No problem. All the government would have had to do was selectively present the conversations it had taped (denying the defense access to the rest, under cover of national security), to convince a jury that at some point there was a plan to engage in it, and voilá. Goodbye children.
One also has to wonder in what other country besides the United States of America, could people be arrested this way? In Venezuela, where international agencies are dumping $40 – $50 million annually to fund opposition to the Chávez government – not simply sending agents down with a few thousand dollars and an assignment to “develop ties with policymaking circles,” as the U.S. Government contended in this case – has there been a single instance of a foreigner being forcefully hauled away in full view of children who were then turned over to government social service agencies? In Bolivia? In Cuba, Alan Gross was detained at the airport, but he went there alone, and it is impossible to imagine that had he been accompanied by small children, he would ever have received the treatment meted out to René González in Miami or Richard and Cynthia Murphy (Lydia and Vladimir Guryev) in New Jersey.
Neighbors of the Russian couple reported seeing their 11 year old daughter Katie returning from a pool party just in time to see her parents being taken away while she was left standing on the front lawn holding a balloon animal. One of the neighbors told the press: “There’s sadness for the kids, who seem completely innocent and absolutely lovely…You wonder how parents can get so caught up into that kind of life. Look at the damage they’ve done to the children.”
But does anyone seriously believe that the CIA only hires single, unattached, childless agents to do its work outside the country?
Leaving aside present suspected CIA agents, let’s think for a moment about past known agents, like Winston Scott, CIA station chief in Mexico City between 1956 and 1969. Jefferson Morley’s excellent book on Scott, “Our Man in Mexico,” details how the CIA man had the Mexican president, interior minister, and secret police chief on the CIA payroll at the same time Mexican students were being slaughtered at Tlatelolco. Scott was also, ironically, a devoted family man. His high-level Mexican connections ensured that he would never have had to trouble himself with worries about arrest, but put that aside for a moment and imagine the scandal that would have erupted if the tables were turned and he’d been frogmarched out the family mansion in Chapultepec with his wife and son looking on? Scott was most certainly not registered in his real capacity as a spy with his hands on the levers of Mexican power.
The FBI toiled away for ten years on the “Russian agent” case, and still not coming up with anything beyond comparatively small amounts of money in safe deposit boxes and clicking noises picked up by hidden bugs, finally concluded that ten years was long enough. One official leak to the press suggested that the timing was based on the fear that some of the Russians were ready to move on. But in the current context, with ratification of the START nuclear arms treaty pending, and Russian support recently achieved at the U.N. Security Council on sanctions against Iran, the U.S. administration (Obama particularly) would seem to have more to lose than gain by a high profile display of police power and cold war xenophobia against its new Russian best friend. Possibly, as the Wall Street Journal suggested, the Oval Office was convinced that the arrests were unavoidable and the bizarre Russian/Russian swap was planned months ago to neutralize the damage. Or perhaps Obama believed the arrests could actually perform a useful function, sending a peculiar reminder to Russia about who is calling the shots. Or maybe it was out of his hands. It’s impossible to know.
What is certain is that as with the case of the Cuban 5, the media kept to their well scripted calendar. The first stories were full of shock and outrage, quickly followed by others about the “spies” as bumblers, fabricators and (who knew?!) deceivers. And finally, in the most transparent revelation of the executive spin that would soon be parroted by official U.S. media (that of U.S. victoriousness), Joe Biden was sent to Hollywood to deliver pathetic jokes to Jay Leno’s aging audience: “It wasn’t my idea to send [Anna Chapman] back…We got back four really good ones. And the 10, they’ve been here a long time, but they haven’t done much.”
Four so good that two of them were dropped off in the streets of London, halfway through their all expense paid voyage to the U.S.
If the 10 hadn’t “done much,” why again, the theatrics, the threats, the totally unnecessary trauma inflicted on the children? While most of the children have finally been reunited with their parents in Russia after enduring several weeks of completely avoidable anxiety, Vicky Peláez’s son, Juan Lázaro Jr., remains in New York, homeless, parentless, reportedly dependent on Red Cross assistance. Meanwhile the press is salivating over the upcoming federal auction of his former home and all its contents.
Collateral damage, that sanitizing, desensitizing term to which we’ve become so accustomed, doesn’t touch the issue; it’s not meant to. This is collateral child abuse facilitated by the U.S. government, and whether it happens to one child, or the thousands of anonymous children whose parents have been snatched away in equally propagandistic immigration raids, there’s no excuse for it, and it’s nothing to joke about.
Machetera, Manuel Cedeño Berrueta and Manuel Talens are members of Tlaxcala, the international network of translators for linguistic diversity. This article may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the author, source and translators are cited.