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Manuel Rocha, charged with being a Cuban agent, appeared in federal court today


In Miami, a former State Department employee and ambassador was formally charged today with being an agent of the Cuban government. Manuel Rocha pleaded not guilty to the charges. Rocha is 73. He has been in federal detention since his arrest in December. Prosecutors say he was recruited by Cuba in the 1970s and acted as an illegal foreign agent throughout his two-decade career as an American diplomat. NPR's Greg Allen is following the case and joins us from Miami. Hey, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right. Fill us in. What happened at this arraignment today?

ALLEN: Well, Rocha was there in federal court in Miami. His attorney filed a waiver this week saying he wasn't going to be there, but he showed up anyway. He was handcuffed, dressed in a khaki prison jumpsuit with a full beard. It's the first time we've seen him since his arrest on December 1. The arraignment took just, of course, a few minutes. His attorney said he was pleading not guilty and was requesting a jury trial. The magistrate judge asked Rocha if he understood the charges against him, and he said, I do, Your Honor. Rocha hasn't requested a bail hearing, so he'll remain in detention. And the judge set a trial date in late March.

KELLY: And fill in a little bit more detail, a little more color about what exactly he is charged with.

ALLEN: Right. Well, you know, he's charged with acting as an illegal foreign agent for Cuba. And there's other charges in there, a conspiracy charge and numerous counts of fraud. The indictment says after he was recruited by the Cuban intelligence agency, he became a U.S. citizen and then applied for work at the State Department. And from 1981 to 2002, he served in a variety of diplomatic posts. He was in the Dominican Republic, in Argentina, in Cuba, and then finally ended his career as ambassador to Bolivia. The indictment doesn't indicate what secrets or other information he may have transmitted to Cuba, but he's charged with being an illegal agent. At this point, he's not been charged with espionage.

KELLY: And have we learned any more about how they finally identified him as a possible agent?

ALLEN: It's still not clear. Intelligence experts who've weighed in say it likely came from a tip from a Cuban defector. In November is when this sting began, when an undercover FBI agent contacted Rocha on behalf of what he said were, quote, "your friends in Havana." This undercover agent and Rocha then began a series of meetings in Miami. And the indictments say that Rocha bragged to the informant about the work he did for Cuban intelligence in these meetings. At one, he said, quote, "what we've done is enormous, more than a grand slam."

But then there's new reporting from the Associated Press that says U.S. intelligence officials may have dropped the ball on information that they received about Rocha nearly two decades ago. In 2006, a Cuban defector tipped off a former CIA operative about Rocha. He told the agency, but the CIA never followed up. One reason could be that for his whole career, the Colombian-born Rocha was an outspoken anti-communist conservative, what he said later was a cover.

KELLY: You know, Greg, I'm thinking on how Rocha has been in custody, we said since early December. He's only just being formally charged now. Is that unusual? Any idea why?

ALLEN: Yes. His arraignment was postponed twice, which was kind of surprising. We've had some legal experts who suggest that his lawyers may be in discussions with the government about a possible plea agreement. His lawyer wouldn't comment on that today following the arraignment. She also wouldn't talk about an incident that happened here where Rocha apparently transferred the titles of four condo units he owns in Miami to his wife in January. That was more than a month after he was arrested. And if he's found guilty on these charges and the government begins forfeiture proceedings against him, it's not clear those transfers are going to stand up.

KELLY: That is NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Thank you.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.