CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez said Venezuela has caught four people spying for the U.S. government, but he gave few details and did not announce any retaliatory measures as he did in one case earlier this year.
Speaking at a campaign rally Friday night, Chavez referred to the four after reading aloud a news report about the U.S. naming a "mission manager" for Cuba and Venezuela to oversee U.S. intelligence efforts for the two countries.
Without offering specifics, Chavez said one woman was caught not long ago while taking photos — of what it remained unclear — in the north-central city of Valencia.
"The gringos in intelligence are fools," Chavez told the rally in western Venezuela. "I've caught four of their spies, four, and I've put them back in their hands. Not long ago we caught a very beautiful woman in Valencia, taking photos. Taking photos because they're fools."
U.S. Embassy spokesman Brian Penn said Saturday that more than a year ago, a clerical official working in a military office at the embassy had her purse stolen in Valencia and that inside it was a disposable camera.
He said she was on a temporary assignment in Venezuela and eventually moved on to other duties. She was never detained or formally accused of spying, Penn said.
"I have no idea what the president is talking about," Penn said.
Chavez apparently was counting among the four a naval attache at the U.S. Embassy whom he accused of spying in February and ordered out of the country. The U.S. government responded to that move by expelling a Venezuelan diplomat from Washington.
Penn said he didn't recall any other case in which a person has been formally accused of spying.
Chavez consistently accuses the U.S. of conspiring to oust him and often asserts the CIA is working to destabilize his government.
Speaking to a sea of supporters, Chavez read the name of the official appointed by U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte to head the Cuba and Venezuela mission, 32-year intelligence veteran J. Patrick Maher, and laughed.
"They selected 'Jack the Ripper,"' Chavez said. "What a little problem this is."
"These are signs that the (U.S.) empire doesn't rest," Chavez said. "The plan to try to destabilize us has already begun."
He predicted the U.S. could try to discredit the results of Venezuela's Dec. 3 presidential election, in which Chavez is seeking another six-year term, or could try to provoke violent unrest around the time of the vote.
U.S. officials have denied trying to overthrow the leftist Chavez, who is Cuban President Fidel Castro's close ally and friend. President Bush's government has repeatedly labeled Chavez a threat to democracy.
Chavez warned that Venezuelans should be prepared for a "war of resistance" in case U.S. troops one day invade — a possibility Washington calls preposterous.
"In a way, it's an honor that they put us alongside revolutionary Cuba" in naming an espionage point man for both countries, Chavez said.