A retired State Department worker and his wife have been arrested on charges of spying for Cuba for three decades, using grocery carts among their array of tools to pass US secrets to the communist government in a security breach one official described as "incredibly serious."
An indictment unsealed Friday said Walter Kendall Myers worked his way into higher and higher US security clearances while secretly partnering with his wife, Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers, as clandestine agents so valued by the Cuban government that they once had a private four-hour meeting with President Fidel Castro.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said that the arrest culminated a three-year investigation of Myers and that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has ordered a "comprehensive damage assessment" to determine what he may have passed to the Cubans.
The Myerses' arrest could affect congressional support for easing tensions with Cuba dating back to the Cold War. Two months ago, the Obama administration took steps to relax a trade embargo imposed on the island nation in 1962.
David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, described the couple's alleged spying for the communist government as "incredibly serious."
Court documents indicate the couple received little money for their efforts, but instead professed a deep love for Cuba, Castro and the country's system of government.
The documents describe the couple's spying methods changing with the times, beginning with old-fashioned tools of Cold War spying: Morse code messages over a short-wave radio and notes taken on water-soluble paper. By the time they retired from the work in 2007, they were reportedly sending encrypted e-mails from Internet cafes.
The criminal complaint says changing technology also persuaded Gwendolyn Myers to abandon what she considered an easy way of passing information, by changing shopping carts in a grocery store.
The document quoted her as saying she would no longer use that tactic. "Now they have cameras, but they didn't then."
Authorities say her comments came during a series of meetings this spring with an undercover FBI agent. A law enforcement official said the agent approached Kendall Myers on the street on his birthday, April 15, claiming to be as associate of his Cuban handler.
The agent gave him a birthday cigar and proposed they meet later that evening at a Washington hotel. Myers fell for the ruse and said he'd bring his wife along. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the investigation.
The Myerses had been out of touch with their Cuban handlers for some time, according to court documents. The couple said they lived "in fear and anxiety for a long time." Kendall Myers feared his boss had put him on a watch list in 1995. They told the FBI agent that they were not interested in regular spying again but would help where they could.
Authorities said that led to three meetings with the agent, during which they shared their views of Obama administration officials who had recently taken over responsibility for Latin American policy.
They also accepted a device to encrypt future e-mail. The undercover agent proposed a fourth meeting for Thursday at a Washington hotel, where the couple was arrested. The couple pleaded not guilty Friday in US District Court.
They were ordered held in jail until a detention hearing scheduled for Wednesday. Their attorney, Thomas Green, declined to comment. A call to their home telephone was not answered.
The Myerses live in a luxury co-op complex in Northwest Washington that over the years was home to Cabinet members, judges, congressmen and senators.
W Russell Pickering, a retired financier who said he has lived next door to the couple for eight to 10 years, called the charges "absurd."
"They're wonderful people," Pickering said, adding that he and Myers traded newspapers and cigars and drank together. "I feel like this is sort of the early stage of 1984," he said, referring to George Orwell's dark novel about government intrusiveness.