Gillian Gunn Clissold’s academic career resembles that of the many professors and researchers truly dedicated to their area of study.
During her 10 years at Georgetown, almost six of which were spent as director of the Caribbean Project within the university’s Center for Latin American Studies, she was considered one of the leading American experts on Cuba, having traveled to the island nation almost once a year for 14 years.
But recent reports have accused Gunn of being more than academically interested in Cuba – a U.S. colonel has named her as a spy for the Cuban government. Gunn has denied the allegation, calling it “preposterous.”
Lt. Col. Chris Simmons, a retired U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency counterintelligence officer and active lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, appeared on a Spanish-language television show in Miami three weeks ago. On the show, he named four people, including Gunn, as spies for the Cuban government. According to The Miami Herald, the other three Simmons named have been accused as spies before, but Gunn has never before been accused of working with Cuban intelligence.
In the course of his investigation, Simmons said he worked with a former Cuban officer who specializes in identifying academic spies in the United States. He said he also utilized declassified records and additional interviews in reaching his conclusion.
Simmons said that Gunn was not a spy in the traditional sense, but that she was what is called a spy of influence.
“The way [the unnamed Cuban officer’s] section worked academics was they would find sympathetic academics and provide them with opportunities to visit Cuba and [have] access to the highest government officials,” he told THE HOYA. “In exchange, [the academics] would discuss their meetings with U.S. government officials in an effort to change U.S. policy.”
Simmons said he is making these allegations as a private citizen, and he emphasized that his views do not reflect the views of the federal government. He added that he conducts his research primarily through his company, the Cuban Intelligence Research Center, which is located in Leesburg, Va.
Gunn countered that the very intimate nature of her research makes her an easy target for such accusations.
“Anyone who works on Cuba in depth and has higher-level access on both sides is vulnerable to those accusations,” she said. “It’s preposterous, and I’m really sick of it.”
Gunn said that she is used to these sorts of allegations, having been named a spy for the American government by current Cuban head of state RaÃºl Castro.
“I started working on controversial issues when I was about 22. I quit when I was 47 or 48. If you have a thin skin, it’s going to get to you. It comes with the territory,” she said.
Something that caught Simmons’ eye in his investigation was the Cuba Project, an organization that was set up at Georgetown by Gunn in 1992. Gunn said it was a group that brought together academics, government officials and sometimes journalists to talk about the political situation in Cuba.
“It was a study group that brought together academics and government people for off-the-record discussions about situations in Cuba, and occasionally discussions would wander into U.S. policy, but that was not the primary purpose,” she said.
Simmons argued that Gunn used the group to provide the Cuban government with possible sympathetic students. He said that that’s how Ana Belen Montes, a former analyst for the DIA who was convicted in 2002 of conspiracy to commit espionage and sentenced to 25 years in prison, was lured to the life of a spy.
“[For] every Georgetown student, every other college student that was a part of the Cuba Project, Dr. Gunn would have been responsible for providing their names and biographical info to Cuba,” he said.
Andy Pino, director of Georgetown media relations, said that while the matter remains unresolved, it does not affect the reputation of the university in any way.
“The basis of the allegations against Gillian Gunn Clissold remains unclear,” he said. “[She] is no longer affiliated with the university.”
Gunn left Georgetown in 2002 when the Caribbean Project moved to Trinity University and served as its associate director of Trinity’s Programs in International Affairs. She is now retired from academia and is working as a horse trainer in Virginia.