Monday, January 12, 2009

The Spy Who Had Sense Enough To Come In Out Of The Rain

I got hooked on spy novels about the time I turned 21, when John le Carre published The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. I’ve grown old with Smiley and his people. I enjoyed Graham Greene, too, but le Carre is the best. I am a sucker for those far away places with strange sounding names, the international political intrigue, slightly seedy characters, ripe for disillusionment again, despite knowing better. At one time, I actually knew some spies. I worked for several years with the U.S. Department of State as a Telecommunications Specialist. When John le Carre’s characters visit the Embassy code clerk, I actually know what one does, because my job description included being one. I was not a code clerk for the spies; they had their own code clerks. I just knew some of the spies. And suspected others.

While I was working at the American Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, I bought a new reel-to-reel tape deck from the U.S. military P.X. mail order catalog. Consumer indulgences such as electronics did not exist in the shops of Cairo in those days. I had also ordered several reels of blank tape, but I had neglected to stock up on empty reels. I played catcher on the American Embassy softball team, sponsored by TWA. Our best pitcher was also a big country music fan, like myself, and an audiophile. I asked him did he know where I could get some empty take-up reels. He shifted his red baseball cap with the white letters TWA and said he would get back to me. There was a one-foot square door like a wall safe between his office and mine. One day the door flew open, and he shoved a box through it that was full of empty tape reels. I was overwhelmed.

“Where did you get these?” I asked.

He just put his index finger to his lips. “I didn’t get them, and you don’t have them,“ said TWA.

Let’s call him TWA, because alternative initials might violate the half-life of security clearance paperwork I once signed. He was one of many embassy personnel listed as working in my office but who did not, highly skilled and intelligent people, often multi-lingual, who just did not have known titles or offices. Beyond TOP SECRET, they did not openly exist. Like wire-tapping, arms smuggling, tampering with governments, rendition, torture, and airplanes full of money that take off but never land.

President-elect Obama has named Leon Panetta as his Director of the CIA, an appointment which has met with some criticism, because Panetta is not a member of the traditional defense and intelligence establishment. Obama is keeping as Secretary of Defense a former CIA Director, in addition to other high level national security posts that have gone to CIA and military intelligence careerists. Panetta was White House Chief of Staff for Bill Clinton, after serving as Director of the United States Office of Management and Budget before the last balanced budget. President Nixon appointed Panetta to the Office of Civil Rights, which Panetta believed included enforcement of Civil Rights Laws, creating controversy in the Nixon Administration and resulting in Panetta’s switching to become a Democrat when he ran for Congress, where he served as chairman of the caucus of Vietnam Era Veterans. Congressman Panetta was a budget wonk. CIA budgets traditionally get little scrutiny and less publicity, information available on a Need To Know basis only. If secrecy corrupts, and it surely does, absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely.

Copyright 2009 by William C. Cotter


Tina said...

Reel-to-reel ! Yes, I remember too. I used to have a VM (Voice of Music) reel-to-reel player & thought it was the grandest thing to save a few bucks by borrowing a favored LP from a friend and recording it. For me, at least, this involved playing the LP and being very very very quiet while the recording took place. Thank goodness for CDs and internet radio!

Anonymous said...

Just in case you wanted to know ... The current phrase for what you called "beyond Top Secret" (like the identities of clandestine officers) is "Top Secret/SCI." The SCI stands for secure compartmentalized information. It is still Top Secret, but with the added safeguard that the information is not just need to know, but also that only a limited number of people can know, anyone who has access to that piece of information has to be specifically granted it, and those with access to that piece of info are logged. It is most often tied to information gathering (people and technologies), where revelation could jeopardize life or capabilities.


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