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Journalists and diplomats in the crosshairs: The dirty...

World

SPOOK STREET

Journalists and diplomats in the crosshairs: The dirty games that intelligence agencies play

(Photos: Adobe Stock)

Daily Maverick colleague Marianne Thamm’s deeply unsettling experiences with SA intelligence operatives got me remembering our own interactions with intelligence services during a 30-year diplomatic career.

While Thamm’s recent and my earlier work circumstances obviously were different, if for no other reason than that my earlier work was as a diplomat and the work the two of us now do is journalism, the goals and methods of intelligence services can have real similarities, wherever and against whomever they operate. While classics like Kim, A Small Town in Germany, The Secret Agent, or The Quiet American may offer some insights, along with lots of exciting intrigue and adventure, the actual truth can be so much more nuanced that you can barely detect what has happened, unless you watch closely.

A traditional pattern for those in the intel community, everywhere and probably throughout history, has been to sow doubts in the mind of the target — whether he or she is a journalist or foreign diplomat — about things he or she thinks they already know or are working hard to figure out. This is particularly appropriate for investigative journalists, since they are already fishing in murky, choppy waters.

When an intelligence service wishes to build influence over a potential source, they seek to compromise that person in his or her work if they possibly can. It often doesn’t have to be much of a compromise — just the possibility of some reputational damage if an intimation of their relationship were ever disclosed. Similarly, those in that world aim to ensure the object of their interest comes to understand and to internalise the reality that those people can interfere with their target whenever they choose to do so. Finally, if they are skilled and lucky, or both, the intel service can give rise to doubts about the perceptions of their own target in the minds of yet others. That is worth a few bonus points. The cumulative intention of all of this, of course, is to reduce a target’s effectiveness in doing their job. Those storied brown envelopes may never even make an appearance.

Right at the first days of working at an embassy overseas, I was informed our own intelligence “colleagues” had hoped to engage me in helping them with one of their projects. It was pretty benign stuff, to be sure, but it would have had some real consequences had I gone along with the idea. They told me that there was a young Soviet diplomat assigned to the same city in Indonesia I was in, whom our “friends” believed was the son of a former senior member of the Soviet Communist Party, someone who had been killed in one of Stalin’s purges.

Over time, obviously, his surviving family had been rehabilitated, but there was a feeling that, just perhaps, he might be encouraged to become much friendlier to Americans than he seemed to be. The logic of asking my participation seemed to be that since the two of us were about the same age and both of us were single, perhaps I could form a link with him that might make it that much easier for someone else to do a more formal pitch, down the road a bit, after familiarity and friendship evolved.

I was young and inexperienced at this business, but given an earlier history of protest against the Vietnam War as a university student, I had an ambivalence, an uneasiness even, with the way this whole thing was being proposed. This was not what I had signed up for. Fortunately, I had the common sense to ask my senior supervisor for his advice, before I did anything foolish. His reaction was a barely contained fury I had never seen from him before. He had always seemed so totally under control and soft-spoken. This man was actually somewhat of a legend from his exploits in World War 2, when he had been one of those young operatives airdropped behind German lines to coordinate Allied actions with the partisan groups operating in occupied Europe.

From him, I learnt intelligence folks were never supposed to approach diplomats who were serving in public affairs posts (ie, relations with the media, supervising educational and cultural exchanges, and so forth) without the express, written approval from the head of section in advance, in accord with an executive order that had been issued by President John F Kennedy, back in the early 1960s. And that kind of cooperation was precisely the kind my boss would never be granting, a view he explained rather precisely in a phone conversation with the head of the intel office where we were serving, as I sat quietly in my boss’s office. Learning how things were done.

The reason, of course, is that word about such cooperation would inevitably get around among people in the host country. They would realise an individual had this kind of relationship and that would probably thoroughly compromise that individual’s reputation and effectiveness — and probably the whole section as well. This would be particularly worrisome in a country such as the one we were in, a place that had only recently come through a violent, near-civil war with support flowing in from both China and the US to various sides in that nation. People were nervous about anything that might lead to a repetition of any large-scale violence and death. Lesson learnt: Once it has occurred, reputational damage is very hard to undo.

On Friday, 12 March, I celebrated my birthday; on Saturday, 13 March, someone wearing gloves broke into my house

Meanwhile, in the same city, one Saturday morning when I was sleeping in after a tough week, I was awakened by four strange men wandering through my house (it was actually just a small cottage, semi-detached from another building that housed two flats occupied by other Americans). In those days, residential security was a distinctly modest affair. There was a front gate that opened manually, and then it was two steps up and then one was in the house via a door with a lock that could be opened so easily that almost anybody could enter. Just as they did that morning. In my best version of the local language, I asked these people who they were, and what in the world they were doing in my small dining room.

Ah, they explained, they were from the Romanian embassy in Jakarta and they were looking for conveniently located residences for some of their officers as they were in the process of expanding their staffing. Since this particular building was actually owned by the US embassy, it seemed unlikely they would be subletting it to Romanians (a stalwart member of the Warsaw Pact at the time) and I encouraged them to find an actual estate broker instead and let me get back to sleep. Monday morning, I was in conversation with that same office I had brushed off earlier, as we looked carefully at a “stud book” of Warsaw Pact diplomats, or individuals operating as diplomats, but who might also have other, parallel tasks.

Stud book, you might ask? Back then, a fair bit of energy went into gathering photographs of potentially inimical foreign diplomats so that they could be kept track of as they cycled through various assignments in countries around the world. As it happened, I never positively identified any of the supposed Romanian apartment seekers from the pages of tiny black and white, smudgy, passport-size photographs, since every one of them looked similar to the unsmiling men. High resolution, digitalised photography was not yet a product. Another lesson learnt: There were those things colloquially called stud books being kept by pretty much everybody who worried about the bona fides of all the others. This was an introduction to the real-life version of “Spy v Spy.”

Move forward some years later, and, now married, we were back in Southeast Asia after time in South Africa and the US. Our major task was to run something called a binational centre — a combination of a cultural centre, library, and English teaching school, chartered under local law, but with a subsidy from our embassy to help cover the bills.

As an interesting coincidence, the Soviet Union’s own cultural centre in this city was right around the corner from ours. They must have been following our programmes with great interest, because whenever we repainted our building or did some other external improvements, they did the same to theirs. For example, when we set up one of those illuminated street-side display boxes for notices about upcoming events, they installed one for their facility as well.

One day, they delivered an invitation for us to attend a party in honour of the upcoming 1980 Moscow Olympics. (We had been invited before the US government decided to boycott those Games in response to the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan). Naturally, we went to the party in the service of proper diplomatic decorum and we had a nice time while watching some rather odd Soviet cartoons about a superhero mouse, but we also enjoyed some excellent vodka and nibbles.

A few days later, we received a hand-delivered letter, thanking us for attending their party and enclosing three photographs each of my wife and me at the event. They were headshots. The photos just happened to come out of the envelope in a particularly telling order: Face — left side, full face — looking forward, face — right side. For both of us. Such an array was exactly the same pattern used in all those stud books. Next lesson learnt: The other guys were always checking you out, wanting to make sure they could track your whereabouts wherever you went in the world, and especially as you changed jobs. (Or even names!)

A few years after that, we were assigned to the northern Japanese city of Sapporo. This city maintained an active schedule of international events and encouraged conferences and meetings on all manner of subjects, especially if they could attract influential foreigners to visit.

On one occasion, they supported an international conference on the linguistic, genetic, historical, and cultural relationships between the aboriginal populations scattered across Siberia, in northern Japan, and even into Alaska and northern Canada. The meeting drew a large and interesting assortment of specialists from Japan, Eastern Europe, the USSR, North America, and China. And the evening receptions and parties were great fun with all these bright minds. We had a particularly enjoyable time speaking with a Polish sociolinguist, and by the end of the evening, we were volubly agreeing to meet up the next day to continue our conversation about saving the world, once the formal conference broke up and attendees began to depart. 

Both investigative journalists and diplomats have intangible but very real reputations to guard, and sources and relationships to protect. To ignore these fundamental truths means those who would do them or their work harm can sometimes have their way, just by dropping a veiled reference, here or there, about you, or via a staged break-in that sends a message. 

As my wife and I were driving home after that particular reception, she remarked that someone clearly was following us. Each time we turned a corner, the other car slowed down, then quickly sped up to stay close with us in the nighttime, light traffic. Just like in the movies. A short distance before we reached our home and slowed down to park, the mysterious car suddenly sped away, but not before we caught sight of its licence plate — ah-ha, a Soviet diplomatic car. 

Afterwards, the pieces of the story started falling into place. They were obviously concerned that our new-found friend, the Polish linguist (or whoever he really was, since Soviet delegations certainly had at least one watcher, keeping track of the real delegates), might be preparing to defect. Such things actually did happen in Sapporo. Earlier, a Soviet ballet dancer had wandered into our library (again, well before security became a really big thing) and had announced quietly he wanted asylum. Ultimately, he received it from the Finns, but such an event clearly must have got Soviet antennae twitching about future, further possibilities. And thus another lesson learnt: During the Cold War, in many circumstances, everybody watched everybody else. And our guess is that almost certainly they still do, even if there are many more players and more variables to consider, and very little in the way of Ian Fleming-style drive fast, bang-bang make-believe going on.

A few years after that event, we were back in South Africa. Having just arrived in August 1989, my wife and I decided to drive to Johannesburg from Pretoria to take in a play and drop off our two children with their grandmother for an eagerly awaited sleepover. Then we could return on Sunday for lunch and pick up the children and return in time so that they could get ready for school on Monday.

But when we returned to our Pretoria home on Saturday evening after the play, we found our dog, a really sedate pooch, sitting on the outside of the garden fence, whining away to be allowed back to the comfort of his shelter and blankets — a Jock of the Bushveld or White Fang he definitely was not. A close examination of the gate showed the electric wire connected to a simple lock release had been cut, then carefully eased back into position, but not quite touching. That explained why we had to manhandle the gate open manually. Clearly, something was not right.

We drove up the driveway and went inside the house and found the burglar alarm was on but had not tripped (it was the one and only time we actually used it), but nothing on the ground floor was awry. Upstairs, jewellery left out was still on the dressing table, along with money, and the stereo and television were in their places. But, in a little storeroom/linen closet off the hall, our personal file cabinet had been opened and it looked like every single document that was in it was now strewn all over the floor. It didn’t seem like anything was missing, just a big mess had been made.

On Monday, my first task was to speak with the embassy’s security officer. He asked me what kind of robber might have done such a strange thing, but when I suggested it was the South African Special Branch, he recoiled at the idea, saying his office had a good relationship with them. He asked me why they would have been bothering me. 

When I explained that one of my primary responsibilities in my job was to stay in touch with the artistic, intellectual, academic and cultural communities and understand their thinking at that crucial time in our host country’s circumstances, a tiny flicker of a light bulb seemed to go on for our security officer colleague. Security was not just a matter of cypher locks on file cabinets. But I certainly wasn’t going to change my pattern of work simply because of a break-in. And so, a final lesson learnt: Sometimes the other team just wants to leave a kind of “calling card”, to “mess with your head” a bit. But we never did figure out how they managed to bypass the security alarm.

The moral of this tale should be clear. Both investigative journalists and diplomats have intangible but very real reputations to guard, and sources and relationships to protect. To ignore these fundamental truths means those who would do them or their work harm can sometimes have their way, just by dropping a veiled reference, here or there, about you, or via a staged break-in that sends a message. 

Ultimately, the only thing that may really protect reputations could be the ideas that stand behind that bit of laminated plastic that is a press or diplomatic ID card. And, just by the way, there’s never a silver Aston Martin with hidden, fitted machine guns in place. Neither diplomats nor journalists get paid well enough to own such a legendary vehicle. DM

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  • Just awful. How did we get back here again so soon? Awful. Just awful. Nobody should have to live like this in a democracy. Too terrible.

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