Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Q&A with Jim Popkin




Jim Popkin is the author of the new book Code Name Blue Wren: The True Story of America's Most Dangerous Female Spy--and the Sister She Betrayed. A former NBC News producer and correspondent, his work also has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post Magazine and WIRED. He lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: What inspired you to write this book about the spy Ana Montes, and how long did you work on this project?


A: I first heard about Ana Montes right after 9-11, when Ana was arrested in Washington. But since I was covering the terror attacks at the time for NBC News, I didn’t have the bandwidth to pursue her story.


It wasn’t until I learned that Ana had bought my college roommate’s condo in Washington that I really began to focus on her story. I had spent so much time in that apartment, in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, and it made me feel a personal connection to the story.

Several years later, I interviewed the main investigators who had tracked down Ana. And I connected with Ana’s sister, Lucy Montes, who was working for the FBI in Miami as a translator.


Lucy informed that that, completely coincidentally, four of Ana’s family members worked for the FBI while Ana was secretly spying for the Cubans. They are all patriotic Americans and had no idea that the greatest Cuban spy of all was sitting right next to them at Thanksgivings, baptisms, and weddings.

I wrote a cover story on the Montes sisters for the late great Washington Post Magazine in 2013 and then, later, decided to write Code Name Blue Wren. Off and on, I’ve reporting on this story for 15 years.


Q: How would you describe the relationship between Montes and her sister, Lucy?

A: Lucy and Ana Montes have a complicated relationship, for obvious reasons. They were extremely close as little girls, and Ana played a protective, motherly role with her younger sister, Lucy. But as they grew, there was more and more of a distance between them.


It got so bad, and so strained, once Lucy was at the FBI and Ana was deep into her spying career with the Cubans (and simultaneously working as a top military analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA). Ana refused to share any details of her professional or personal life with Lucy, which Lucy found extremely odd. And then Ana began to feel the strain of keeping a lie all to herself, which led to psychological problems.


When Ana finally was arrested after 9-11, one of Lucy’s immediate emotions was relief. She was relieved to at long last understand why her sister had been so abrasive, so secretive, and so miserable for so long.


Q: Reporter Carol Leonnig said of the book, “Jim Popkin takes us deep into a long-ignored story of an intel officer who went rogue, spilling US secrets to Cuba, endangering US operatives, and tricking presidents and her own sister at the FBI in the process.” What do you think of that description, and why do you think Montes’ story didn't receive more attention?


A: Ana became an important analyst in the US intelligence community, and one of the US government’s top subject-matter experts on Cuba. She is smart and diligent and was really good at her day job.


She kept getting raises and promotions and very few of her colleagues ever suspected that she was turning around and sharing with Cuba all that classified information she devoured every day, legally, as a DIA rising star.


But Carol is right. Ana had them all fooled. If it weren’t for a very brave NSA analyst who, ironically, is Cuban-American, this case might never have been solved. She worked with DIA investigators to identify Montes as a spy and then had to convince the FBI they were right.


Why didn’t the case get more attention? It’s all about timing. The FBI arrested Ana 10 days after 9-11, and her story simply got lost in the shuffle. The headlines quickly came and went. I’m convinced that Ana would be thought of in the same rogue’s gallery with spies Rick Ames and Robert Hanssen if she had been arrested before the 9-11 attacks.

Q: Ana Montes is set to be released in the next few days--what do you see looking ahead for her?


A: Ana will be on probation for five years after her release, and under tight restrictions. I believe she will keep her head down and move in with sympathetic relatives who will help her. The last thing she wants is to be sent back to prison. She was housed for decades in one of the toughest women’s prisons in the nation, and will not want to risk going back.


Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m actively looking for my next nonfiction book idea. I loved the process of writing Code Name Blue Wren, and have the bug now.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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