Seven lessons, brought to me by the Cold War spies

Seven lessons, brought to me by the Cold War spies

The recent disclosure by the Al Jazeera broadcast network and the UK’s Guardian newspaper of espionage and intelligence shenanigans, mostly connected to South Africa in some way, has triggered the author’s recollection of some nearly forgotten memories of his encounters with those in the shadow world, back in the depths of the Cold War. Ian Fleming’s world it most definitely was not. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Like many people whose early political adulthood in America was enormously influenced by the ructions of the 1960s – the civil rights revolution, the anti-Vietnam War protests (including a serious encounter with a police truncheon), and the standard battle cry, “Don’t trust anybody over thirty!” – joining the country’s diplomatic service might have seemed a contradiction. Still, it really came from the same wellspring that a new generation should begin to take over the levers of government to change it and make it better, and bring in more in sync with the country’s founding ideals.

In the fullness of time, the writer found himself learning the ins-and-outs of a career representing a big, sprawling, contentious, complex country – dealing with the media, universities and their students and professors, cultural organisations – and what we now call civil society. Some of the key tools were libraries, exchange programmes, cultural programmes, guest speakers, English teaching programmes and even, back in those ancient times, films. Information and ideas, just as Thelonious Monk famously had said, “jazz is freedom.”

While that effort made sense, even if it was sometimes hard to reconcile feelings about this new career with the tail end of the disaster that was American involvement in Vietnam, it wasn’t initially clear to me that one might also occasionally bump into some other folks as well. Those would have been individuals who called a certain building in Langley, Virginia, or a similar one on Lubyanka Square, Moscow, home base.

Only a few weeks after arriving in Southeast Asia, I woke up one Saturday morning to find three people I didn’t know, standing in the dining room of my small house, speaking a language I had never heard on the streets of Jakarta. When they were pushed to explain their presence, they eventually, and reluctantly, identified themselves as Rumanian Embassy officials looking at property to rent for some new diplomats in their mission. No way, out you go, guys. Great cover story, that one, since the house I was in actually belonged to the American Embassy and I wasn’t interested in subletting it. On Monday, after much discussion, I was finally told quietly to forget about the whole thing – after the house had been thoroughly checked for electronic bugs, of course. A Lesson Number One.

A few months later, while I was doing one of my usual quotidian tasks as a junior officer, trying to make some sense out of Indonesian trade statistics for a project I had been assigned, two Americans I had never met came into my small, cramped office to speak to me privately, very privately. Let’s call them Mutt and Jeff, or perhaps Stan and Oliver. Or maybe Og and Mog. They explained that they needed a small favour. There was a young Russian diplomat, a man they thought was the son of one of the people ousted during Stalin’s purges, and they wanted to get to know him a little better, and who he really worked for. Maybe I could find some points of common interest as two young men in Jakarta. Perhaps I might be able to join him for a game of tennis or a drink or a coffee…?

Before I said anything to the pair, I went to my senior supervisor for some guidance. That individual was a very senior man in the embassy, a nearly legendary one, in fact. As a young man he had parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, and given his knowledge of French and German, he had been involved in contacting the French resistance to help make some arrangements in advance of the Normandy invasion. Here was a man who consistently wore an immaculate suit even in Jakarta’s tropical steam. Never flustered. His response was immediate and furious.

On the phone he reminded someone I had also never met that there was a presidential directive that no one was permitted to ask press and cultural officers for that pair’s kind of work, without advance written permission from the office head and he had definitively not given any such undertaking. And to me he clarified that such contact would assuredly poison any effectiveness I might ever have in dealing with people who might already be skittish about America, given that unpleasantness in Vietnam. Second lesson.

A few years later, now working in Johannesburg, I came outside my house one night to greet a guest coming for a dinner, only to find a man in dark clothing, busily copying down the car licence plate numbers of all the cars of my dinner guests. My solution this time? Walk over, identify myself and ask him if I could help him write down the numbers, given the fact that it was dark and he was probably having trouble writing the numbers down. Man disappears down the street. Nobody inside the house is surprised. Lesson Three.

Back to Indonesia, a few years later, this time to Surabaya. Our cultural centre is located in an old colonial-style residence, now thoroughly rebuilt with an auditorium, library, classrooms and office spaces. When we arrived, I thought it looked a little scruffy and so a big clean-up, painting and new signs project was put in motion. Around the corner, on was the Russian cultural centre. Curiously, as we repainted, they began to paint their facility. When we added a new signboard to announce future programmes, they built a similar signboard.

Then, one day, we were invited to the Russians’ compound for a party – a film show and celebration of the upcoming Moscow Olympics (before the US decided it was going to boycott the games over the Russians’ little adventure in Afghanistan). Nice party, good food, lots of fun. Photographers at the party took lots of pictures of happy people and everybody seemed to be having such a good time. A few days later, someone hand delivered an envelope to our home and inside we found three photographs. But there is something curious about these pictures – there is a left side view, a right side view and a full-face view of me, clear as day, right in the middle of the larger picture. Hmm. They have taken the pictures they want for their “stud book”, the colloquial term for the reference folder that contains every picture they can take of the other side’s diplomats so they can track us through our various peregrinations and further assignments around the world. We are being watched – and kept track of – good and proper. Lesson Four.

Then it was on to Japan, for some interesting years in the northern city of Sapporo, the place famous for an earlier winter Olympics. One night we were invited to a conference that had brought together philologists and linguistics specialists interested in the many ancient, Far East Asian indigenous languages (and the possible connections to Native American languages, just by the way).

At the reception for the conference, just as always, there was a healthy buffet table and a lovely open bar. We got along famously with a Polish linguist that evening and, perhaps a little too loudly, we said to him that we hoped to see him later. (We meant at the next session of the conference, but clearly someone else lurking in the room, keeping careful track of all the Eastern Europeans in the meeting, didn’t quite get that memo.) On our way home, when we were driving back, my wife looked up and said, “We are being followed.”

“By whom?” I asked her, since such things were hardly usual in Japan. And sure enough there was a Russian consulate vehicle following us, carefully staying two cars behind, all through the suburbs of Sapporo in the night, and that car only veered away just when we are about to stop at our garage so we can open the door to park. Lesson Five.

By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union has begun to change dramatically – perestroika and glasnost are in the air and on the lips of every Soviet Union area studies academic around the world. We decided that for our next big project we would work with an important university research institute that specialised on Russia and Eastern Europe in order to organise a big international conference on these changes – and their implications for nations like Japan. We invited several important Soviet specialists from the US and, as word got out about this upcoming meeting, the university organisers started to hear from scholars in Korea, China – and even a few from Eastern Europe who want to attend – in addition to the Americans and all the Japanese scholars.

The conference went off without a hitch; the discussions were fascinating and I was taking furious notes so that I could write a thorough review of discussions that might end up as an introductory essay in the proceedings when they were eventually published. As I was editing this document, I got a telephone call from someone in the Embassy in Tokyo who didn’t exactly give his name – it was one of those guys who answered their phones without mentioning what office they were working in. He said, ever so cautiously, that he and his colleagues would like a special briefing on the discussion, and perhaps some insights on the various foreign participants.

And I, now just as cautiously, responded that they could easily wait another few days until I finished this document I was writing – it would, after all, be a very public document – and then they would learn everything they needed to know. Of course, they could have simply attended along with everybody else interested in the topic, and thereby listened and learned lots, I also suggested. Lesson Six.

Then, in the fullness of time, we were transferred back to South Africa at the end of the 1980s, a country on the cusp of monumental changes. One night, as a family, we have driven from Pretoria to Johannesburg – our children to spend a weekend with their relatives and the two adults to take in a relaxed dinner and some good theatre. We returned to Pretoria very late, only to find our dog sitting outside of the gate, waiting mournfully to be let back into the property and to be able to access some food. Most gates were not, then, like they are now. This one was about 1.5 metres high and there was just a simple electric release for the lock, with just one obvious wire to control it.

I was oblivious to more dramatic possibilities, all while wondering how our dog had learned to levitate, but my more attentive wife, a person who had grown up in South Africa, said something was clearly wrong; the dog was on the wrong side of things. I got out to check the gate and, sure enough, the wire was cut and put back together to look as if everything was as normal. Now rather more concerned, we went up the driveway, entered the house (curiously, this was the one night we actually used the burglar alarm, but it failed to summon the guard service), but we noted that nothing seemed amiss, that is, until we got upstairs to the bedrooms. The jewellery was where we had left it, the electronics were all in place, our loose cash was still on the dresser – but every piece of paper in our personal file cabinet had been strewn down the hall. What manner of burglar was this? Ah, of course, the penny dropped. This had been the leaving of a calling card from a certain South African office, just letting us know that they wanted us to know that they knew we were back and that they were watching what we did, whom we met, and where we went. And this was directed at a cultural officer. Lesson Seven.

And so, looking back over all these varied experiences, what does all this mean? The first conclusion that must be drawn is that intelligence agencies and their staffers are, as someone said, recently, “your basic bureaucrats in bad suits” – far more than they are a tribe of James Bonds. More often, they have a couple of beers rather than one of those vodka martinis – shaken, not stirred. A second conclusion is that they are often curiously unaware of what they are looking for, and uncertain what they need to know – or even how to figure it out. Further, the picture these documents make is one that is sure to be embarrassing for all concerned.

But perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn is that pretty much everybody does it, and it sometimes gets rather murky over who is looking for what, and with whom. And so perhaps that is how this newest cache of purloined secret diplomatic documents must really be read, rather than mined for any truly startling revelations about international relations. But then you might have already known – if you had been a devotee of the bureaucratic travails of one George Smiley. DM


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