Dick Hounds the Afghans
A Dick Avery Adventure Story
Sucked Down the Rabbit Hole
I was a Dick—truly. My name was Avery M. Dick III and I came from a long line of unremarkable Dicks. My parents were proud of the name and they should have been because they grew up when Dicks were respectable—Dick Tracy, Dick Cheney, and, of course, Dick Nixon. It was a wholly innocent time for Dicks. However, I wasn’t so pleased with the name since it caused me torment and teasing since I was a kid. It still smarted now that I was all grown up and sort of mature. It was also life’s not-so-little irony that I became a Special Agent with the U.S. Department of State’s, Diplomatic Security Service. And I was a bona fide Dick in most other respects too.
Yes, I knew—a Dick was a Dick was a Dick. Excuse me Gertrude for mangling your famous line, but that was the long and the short of it and I made no apology for the weak pun. That was because it had been the story of my life—one unending pun. It was all the more funny now that I was returning to work after being retired for the past 8 years. I’d been growing old and going crazy, not to put too dull a point on things. I had no money, pride, or regrets; at least until now. I’d been down on my luck and life for a long time. However, I was pleased to tell you that I had just turned the famous corner we’d all heard about. But I should’ve peeked first.
This was my first day back as a reemployed annuitant. That was government-speak for my new appointment to Diplomatic Security. However, retread, geezer, and retard were the appellations most often used in the biz for those who returned to feed at the organization’s generous trough. Mutant was also a popular tag among the DS pundits. It wasn’t an exact rhyme with annuitant, but near enough for government work as the bureaucrats liked to remind.
Keep in mind that horseshoes, inexactitude, and wordplay were serious pastimes in Washington. In the State Department, the ability to use malapropisms, double entendres, rhymes and puns was a prized trait where words—written words in particular—meant everything. Word usage was important because true actions and decisions sometimes had unintended consequences. And those could be career limiting and painful if you weren’t careful.
Speaking of limitations, my appointment limited the amount of money I could earn, but that shouldn’t be a problem. I didn’t plan to spend any more time than absolutely necessary to get the job over with. I only signed-on for a three month stint and I planned to stay that particular course. In any case, I had just returned to Washington to be briefed on my supposedly important overseas assignment. Yes, that was exactly how they described it—important. Perhaps in some sense that made me important too. Thank god they didn’t use the word plum in describing my assignment and sketchy role in their little drama. That would have been terribly misleading and totally inaccurate. The pits maybe, but I never would have been that fruity. That image would have been wholly out of character in such a manly-man organization as DS.
I was here because DS was desperate. I was here because I was desperate—a good fit, all things considered. Here, by the way, was the Diplomatic Security Service headquarters in Arlington, Virginia and I was waiting in the building’s lobby. I had an audience with Senior Special Agent Jersey Briggs, Director, Office of Investigations and Counterintelligence, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Diplomatic Security Service, U.S. Department of State. I’ll leave out the United States of America part for the sake of brevity. Jersey was making me wait, as usual. It was probably another case of petty payback for past tiffs. He was my junior by a few years and now it was his turn to lord it over me. Okay, yes, I knew. “What goes around.....”
The DS headquarters building was an unimposing brick and glass structure surrounded by like buildings in suburban Arlington. Indistinguishable was another descriptor. Truthfully, the words bland, plain, and dull also came to mind; much like the people hiding inside. The building’s most remarkable feature was its unremarkable location, meaning it was situated well-away from State’s main flagpole. That meant the department’s Black Dragons, by conscious design and discontent, made sure that DS would never again be quartered in the Main State building or Mother State for many of us. Please remember, I’d been away from her warm, embracing arms for awhile.
The perceptions of status and power were important commodities in Washington; almost as important as the real things. The Black Dragons were an institution within an institution. What was a Black Dragon? That was an all-powerful careerist in a key position in either the Civil Service or Foreign Service side of the house. They were creatures whose alliances and bonds were forged in shared experiences, exchanges of political favors, and fraternal handshakes. The Dragons, not the politicos, ran the department. They held sway over the whole machinery of the budgetary, personnel and foreign affairs processes. Their gnarled clutches embraced the institution’s body-politic tightly against their scaly bosoms. And they didn’t easily release their prey to others.
Here were some other descriptors of their scope of power. They were the puppet-masters of the government sideshow called the State Department. The term old boy didn’t quite fully describe the clout and prestige they wielded within the institution. They were modern day Knights Templar without the pretense of religiosity, the truth told. They swore loyalty and fidelity only to each other and their common vision of what the Department of State was and would forever be. A large part of that vision involved maintaining the status quo and their sinecures. There was simply too much at stake to allow the elected leadership of a given administration to decide weighty matters of state. Administrations came and went. The Black Dragons didn’t. They represented continuity and permanence in a dangerous Washington bureaucracy and an insecure world.
So why did the Dragons care where the Diplomatic Security Service was located? In a short phrase, it was pure bureaucratic animus. The two had a hate-hate relationship for many years. The very notion that the State Department, and its Foreign Service appendage, could have an international law enforcement and security apparatus in its midst was largely unthinkable in their view. That was even with the Dragons controlling DS’s budget, personnel systems, training regimens and operational programs—the whole shebang.
And yes, DS senior managers went forth every year at budget time, held out their collective cupped hands, and had the audacity to ask for more porridge. The humiliation and shame of the ritual was sometimes too great for DS to bear. However, the Dragons enjoyed the symbolic trappings of power and pomp. The pageantry dramatically reinforced and reminded the lesser department beings as to who was in charge.
For awhile, DS was led by a Judas lamb who slyly fed the organization into the Dragons gaping, hungry maws. DS was fodder for the insatiable appetites of the most reprehensible reptiles imaginable and their feeding frenzy knew no bounds. They gobbled up everyone and everything in their determined way—no one was safe. However, it was also an exercise in self-delusion and self-mutilation by the innocent babes-in-the-woods who believed the Dragons knew best. The DS rank-and-file didn’t comprehend the implications, hidden agendas and consequences at the time. They would learn painful lessons much later.
After all, the Dragons were gentlemen and gentlewomen who were global thinkers who truly believed that world strife and conflict were things that could be negotiated and tamed at the dinner table over drinks. They saw themselves as reasonable people talking to other reasonable people in a reasonable language in a reasonable manner. They resolutely detested change and challenge to their perquisites and authorities. With them, there was little room for open, honest discussions, disagreements or similar unpleasantness. In the end, only a thin veneer of professional rapport existed between the Dragons and their DS underlings. Mistrust was the major element that bound the two of them together.
The Dragons believed that security and law enforcement activities were low-brow endeavors best left to others. Well, if you have a thorn in your side, you should at least be able to pluck it, and that’s exactly what the Black Dragons did for many decades. The Diplomatic Security Service was plucked over and over again until it couldn’t be plucked any more.
DS’s pitiful whimpering failed to dissuade the Dragons’ from practicing their perverted sense of humor and expeditious style of management through control and containment. Maintaining their own equilibrium was of paramount importance to their survival. As a result, the security and law enforcement arm of the State Department was tightly bound in an institutional sling largely of its own making.
The Dragons simply looked down their scaly snouts and prescribed their own brand of astigmatic oversight for the organization. For awhile, rose-colored glasses were the fashion rage in Main State’s largely impotent corridors. These bureaucratic blinders were brazenly worn even as spectacular events continued to play-out abroad that argued for tougher security measures to protect people, buildings, and America’s honor.
DS’s treatment would change for the better over time, but not until embassies had fallen and people killed by terrorist acts caused by bureaucratic inertia and indifference. American prestige and credibility took a nosedive overseas. Adult leadership and vision were absent at the highest levels of the building. Benign neglect became the institutional watchwords of the day. We all patiently watched, but could do little to staunch the rise of international terrorism and its effect on American lives and interests abroad. Often overlooked, terrorist acts by Islamic extremists against U.S. interests overseas began in earnest at least two decades before the first such incident on American soil. Our embassies were bombed, our diplomats kidnapped and murdered, and our military attacked long before 9/11. We wondered when that terrible shoe would drop at home since it was all too predictable and inevitable.
But the Black Dragons game was about maintaining the status quo at all costs and ensuring they were safely ensconced in their loathsome lairs. The Dragons looked askance at the problems and hoped that whatever ugliness they saw disappeared of its own volition and good time.
Those who protected and served got a lot of practice whistling past graveyards in those days of yore.
Jersey Briggs: it was his name that got me; his first, not last. It wasn’t a true Foreign Service handle like Stape (for Stapleton), Bram (for Brampton) or Muffy (for whatever.) Avery Dick was certainly not a Foreign Service moniker either. I was still surprised that I was hired in the first place. Regardless, none of this stopped Jersey from playing-up the Ivy League, preppie image when it suited him. And suiting him entailed his wearing custom tailored garb of different stripes and colors. That was one of the things that I didn’t like about him. That and the fact he was fairly competent in what he did. However, Jersey’s faux, blue bloodline didn’t jibe with the facts.
He grew up on the far Southside of Chicago. His father was a ward boss under Mayor Daley (senior) when the Democratic Party had a stranglehold on the garbage collection contracts in the city. Jersey grew up in solid, upper-class comfort. His family was not just well-to-do, it was filthy rich. He went to name schools in the Midwest and was a decent athlete. I knew this to be true since I conducted his background investigation. There were no secrets here among friends, or enemies for that matter.
There were other reasons why I disliked him so much. He was a rising star and I was a dwarf by comparison. I knew that, and so did he. He made it all look so easy and I had to work hard just to shine. He didn’t want or need a job, even in the family business. He instead opted for public service; first with the Chicago Police Department and then with DS starting at the bottom as a junior agent like most of us. However, Jersey reveled in the life he’d created for himself. He thrived on overseas assignments as an embassy attaché, as a junior diplomat, as a mover in social circles, as a world traveler, and as someone who shared in the accouterments of a life to be lived to the fullest.
Of course, it was a life lived at taxpayer expense for the most part, but the fact never bothered Jersey or his peers in the Foreign Service aristocracy. When other agents would talk around the water cooler about tough times growing up, Jersey would quip that he had it hard too. In fact, the house where he grew up was so large it had two kitchens and he never knew where his next meal was coming from. That old joke pretty well summed up Jersey’s life; one of entitlement, privilege, and self-indulgence.
However, Jersey was now serving a hardship tour in Washington, DC and couldn’t wait to get back overseas. It could make him particularly prickly to deal with. That and the fact he had to meet with me and might be a wee bit testy. I wasn’t suggesting Jersey had balls; only that he might be crotchety as we said. He was also a very savvy operator when he wasn’t playing the slavish bozo for his superiors. Yep, that was my good friend Jersey Briggs.
Sometimes those who protected and served were much better at picking their noses than their friends.
I was escorted upstairs by Jersey’s assistant, Jim, a fresh-faced kid probably just out of the Special Agent Basic Training Course and doing penance at headquarters for some minor rule infraction during his short tenure. Nowadays, one had to be almost as clean as a Mormon’s white shirt just to get by. But DS didn’t tolerate the term butt boy anymore for subordinates like Jim. Such disparaging tags were much too politically incorrect in this day and age. Regardless, Jim was Jersey’s butt boy—no mistake about it. Personally, I thought stud bitch had more cachet, but that was just me. And I wasn’t being sexist in the slightest.
I didn’t get Jim’s last name, but I was friendly enough knowing at some future time and place I might have to deal with him since the old boy club, (and now girl), was still very much alive and well, thank you. Don’t confuse the old boys with the Black Dragons. They were two very distinct organizational creatures. The old boys were simply trying to survive the vast, or perhaps half-vast, bureaucracy known as the State Department. It was the old “one hand washing the other” sort of thing. On the other hand, the Black Dragons were the State Department.
Jersey greeted me cordially with a big, bullshit smile. I knew then things were not going to be pleasant. I couldn’t think of a wise-ass remark, so we shook hands ever-so-briefly. After which, I instinctively counted my fingers and wiped my hand on the seat of my pants for good measure and hygiene. You could never be certain what might be going around the building these days. We backed into our respective corners and awaited the bell—his opening gambit. It might not be worth much in Washington, but I didn’t kneel, kiss his ring, or buss his cheeks. There was already too much ass kissing in the outfit as far as I was concerned. But I also sheepishly admitted to myself that I’d forgotten to bring my kneepads.
Jersey threw the first punch and I knew he couldn’t resist. “Avery, it’s been awhile, hasn’t it? You retired from DS in your late fifties, about right?”
“No,” I countered. “As you damn well know, I took the short exit route; out at fifty with twenty years service.”
Those were the magic numbers for an immediate pension under both the Foreign Service and Federal Law Enforcement retirement systems. DS special agents actually fell into both categories. Jersey always looked for an edge, always a barb to deflate me. Did I mention I didn’t like the guy? Did I mention he was my friend?
“Still drinking and feeling sorry for your miserable self?” Jersey asked. I winced, but countered.
“Does Beth still enjoy my little gifts?” Two could play the pimping game of one-upmanship.
I would occasionally mail Jersey packages to his home. These contained women’s panties and scented notes of endearment. They were gifts from fictitious lovers with fictitious return addresses. I knew his wife Beth opened all the mail and would be furious with him. Jersey sometimes had no sense of humor whatsoever.
He shot me the finger and I responded in kind. This was how close friends bonded in DS; but so much for the social pleasantries. We then moved on to the main event.
Jersey continued without blushing. I couldn’t really tell if he was blushing given his deep tan. More image preening, I was sure.
“Avery, the director personally recommended you for the assignment,” but then added his own nasty licks to put me in my place.
“But I’m not sure this assignment is a good fit for you or the Service,” he continued. “You’ve been retired awhile and might have gotten a bit rusty so to speak.”
“I’m really not sure you’re up for the gig. One’s skills go stale, the focus wanes, and the drive slows. And I’m not referring to your sex drive. It’s just the normal aging thing, but without a large dose of Viagra in your case.”
“Well, in my less than humble opinion, I believe I’m a good candidate for the job. Also, who else in their right mind would take the assignment? I believe your choices are limited.”
“Well, you’ve never been right in the mind. But remember this Avery, opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.” Jersey shot back.
I thought about that remark and wondered if those who wore colostomy bags were, in fact, really without opinions. Or might a working asshole like Jersey be an exception to the rule? I decided not to argue the point.
Jersey then asked if I understood what he was saying. He must have thought I was hard of hearing too. I did understand the word gig and its varied definitions. I’d better be careful. Okay Jersey, my friend, back to the future. Yes, I certainly knew what he meant and resented the inference. With the Foreign Service, you didn’t realize you’d been stabbed in the back and were bleeding until you fell over dead. I kept calm, but I was pissed. It wasn’t a good start to a bad reunion.
I blasted back. “Jersey I still have most of my own teeth, get up in the morning breathing, and can remember the names of the kids I went to grade school with. I’ve already had my calling and career. I’m just looking to pick-up some pocket change. You’ve been directed to assign me to the case so let’s cut the crap and tell me what this is all about.” He really had no choice and he knew it. You’ve just been checkmated, my iffy friend. Game over.
As he thought about his retort, I glanced at the wall behind his desk; the Wall of Shame, as we called such things back in my day. Displayed for all to behold were the framed certificates of training, the awards, the plaques; all meaningless detritus of government service and ego. They were all very impressive and extremely vain.
The walls had become an embarrassment to most and a persistent joke for others in the organization. I saw a photo of Jersey with Colin Powell, a photo of Jersey with a embassy Marine Security Guard Detachment somewhere overseas, his Award for Valor and, of course, the ubiquitous copper and enamel plaques with the State Department and Diplomatic Security Service crests handmade in Chile. These plaques had become commonplace in Washington over the years. The embassy in Santiago was kept very busy with orders from Washington. Some things never changed.
I couldn’t pass up the shot. “Jersey, I see your wall has grown fat in the past few years, shame on you for being such an unabashed egotist, my vainglorious friend. Business and self-promotion must be good these days.”
Jersey accurately responded to the effect that he at least had awards to hang on the wall. I ignored his snotty reply while continuing to scan his office.
But some things did change. Not me necessarily, but certainly the quality of government digs these days. Yeah, I said digs. It rhymes with gigs. Two could verbally fence using lame, outdated words. Oh, oh, my advanced age was showing again.
Jersey’s office had pleasant, color-coordinated furnishings with carpeting and drapes, rather than standard, government issued Venetian blinds on the windows. Gone too were the gunboat gray furniture and the dingy, fly-specked fluorescent lighting.
There were no more floor ashtrays standing as solitary sentries. They’d been put into storage sometime ago, just like me. Regardless, the interior of the office was a welcome improvement over the exterior facade. Some changes were good, aside from the building-wide smoking ban. Yes, I was a smoker. Disclosure was important in my business; not too much though, just enough to get by and conceal the important things.
Jersey slowly disclosed. He said that I’d need to get the details from the IG, but he reluctantly sketched the case outline for me.
“Avery, about two months ago, the Office of the Inspector General opened a broad fraud case against certain security contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its investigation was prompted by several anonymous allegations that seemed to have legs. The potential loss to the department through bribes, kickbacks, bill-padding, and other schemes is thought to be in the many millions of dollars. It’s not the usual chump-change crimes the IG typically deals with.” He then reminded me of one obvious cause of the problems.
“The department noncompetitively contracted with a number of international security firms to provide security services to State Department facilities, operations, and personnel during the Middle East ramp-up. The contractors were also tasked to train host country law enforcement and security personnel.” He casually cited the President Karzai protective training program in Afghanistan as an example. Jersey continued his monologue since it was his show. And showmanship was always one of his strong traits.
“As always, the department is especially paranoid when it comes to adverse publicity. It doesn’t want to be caught short and embarrassed. As you’re aware, it doesn’t have many supporters on the Hill and this disclosure, if true, could undercut what little support it has.”
“The Hill could move programs and funds to other agencies and the department would once again lose credibility, support, and confidence within the administration. Most importantly, it might lose funding. It badly doesn’t want that to happen.”
Jersey pointed out it was all about face or dirty laundry in this instance. If there was any dirty laundry, the department wanted to be the first in town to air it. It wanted to tell everyone about the great and effective corrective actions it was now taking to prevent further instances of abuse. Internal controls would be tightened and the guilty would be punished, and the rhetoric would never end. The department needed to accentuate the positive. It needed to be proactive. In short, it needed a damn miracle to disengage from this messy tar baby of its own making.
“It’s all about spin and who gets the message out to the public first. Remember Avery, the sin is never the act itself, but not disclosing it quickly enough and making amends—mea culpa, maxima mea culpa. It’s the way Washington does business.”
“You know as well as I, the IG has the lead role in the department for waste, fraud, and mismanagement allegations. DS was asked to detail a special agent to the IG team given our law enforcement powers and experience in the overseas arena. It’s as simple and straightforward as that.”
He finished his spiel by telling me I was the agent being seconded to the IG. What’s the translation for me? DS, and the IG, needed someone to take the heat for them if anything went wrong during the investigation. I suspected that’s why I was being offered the big bucks and I wasn’t surprised in the slightest. Fortunately, Jersey telegraphed his punches well and he landed one last blow.
“And Avery, don’t screw-up this time. You’re representing DS and we have our own face to worry about. Best wishes pal and all that collegial crap.” He then ordered me to snap back into the system before I met with the IG.
I was pleased to see that cynicism and real-politick were still very much alive and well in the department. Yes, I understood the dynamics; actually much too well for my own good. Moreover, these things were never as simple or straightforward as Jersey had just asserted.
I left after the customary and banal exchanges of unpleasantness. I didn’t let the door hit me on the way out. Sometimes even I had some pride left. I also didn’t bother smoking and joking with my former buds hanging out at the DS-designated smoking chamber by the building’s front entrance because I was too depressed. I was also having serious third and fourth doubts about reenlisting in the cause.
I now fully understood why I was being offered this prune assignment. Nobody else in their right mind wanted to go to a hot war-zone to investigate massive contract fraud. Iraq or Afghanistan, it was all the same in terms of risk to one’s backside. If the bad guys didn’t kill you, the other bad guys would. My guess was that other agents had turned down the offer cold.
But I had swallowed the bait, hook, line, and sinker; actually, the whole trawler. I was both vulnerable and conveniently expendable to the starched collars in the tailored suits. I was needy and it must’ve shown: shame on me for being so obvious and oblivious. I’d be playing the patsy to the fall guy riding the scapegoat to oblivion in this little psychodrama. The expected role didn’t get much clearer or more cynical in this biz.
It made no difference to me since I wasn’t in my right mind these days anyway. I also realized that some of the things Jersey mentioned about my outdated skills were true. The remarks hurt, but they were still spot on. It had been awhile since I played in the big leagues and I doubted my ability to keep up with the heavy hitters. However, I desperately needed the money.
I also needed to be a hero at least once in my sketchy, blurred life. What to do? There would be consequences, regardless. Decision time Avery, I thought. It’s time to shit or get off the pot, my friend. And remember the old saw and be careful what you wish for. That was when I decided to carry the department’s water and go quietly overseas for the miserable pricks to do their bidding. I didn’t have much choice at this point. I certainly didn’t want my name etched on the Main State’s C Street lobby memorial wall, but I couldn’t punk-out at the last minute either. All in all, it was a choice Hobson’s choice.
Sometimes those who served, protected and procrastinated recognized that indecision was often decidedly decisive.
I had a good feel for the way the IG did business having sparred with the office for so many years. I grudgingly admired their technical skills and professionalism. I respected and secretly envied the high morale and sense of camaraderie among its investigators.
I met with Dan Sykes and his top aides in the main IG conference room in Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the District. Dan and I had worked together off and on over the years. I believed we genuinely respected one another. The IG, like DS, always had to scramble for bodies for the large, complex investigations. Fortunately, those didn’t come along too often. The exchange of personnel between the two investigative operations had been happening more frequently in recent years and maybe represented a permanent thawing in relations. Maybe the wall between the two would soon come down. Sure, maybe when all the Dragons in this world were slain.
To underscore DS staffing problems in 1978, my deputy and I covered twelve diplomatic posts in East Africa. We were based at the embassy in Nairobi and traveled from Djibouti to Zambia, just like the circuit judges of old. We put out small fires at best since we simply didn’t have the resources to do more. People, money, and equipment were always in short supply. Nowadays, each embassy in the world had at least one DS agent and many had more than one, along with a fat budget.
Because of this situation, we had to improvise in those days. One of the techniques to bolster our resources was to do the good cop, bad cop routine. However, our twist was doing it with only one person playing both roles. It was a force-multiplier as the military would say. We got pretty good at it after awhile. For example, I might be doing a subject interview with a department miscreant in say Uganda and I’d start off playing the good cop. I would then leave the room, take off my jacket, and return as the bad cop. I would continue the interrogation then once again leave the room. You guessed it. I came back wearing my jacket as the good cop—the jacket shtick was particularly effective.
We took our cues from DSM-V, specifically the chapter on multiple personality disorders. The routine would continue until we had the truth or what passed for the truth. We weren’t too particular except when it came to the stats. Those were important for the purposes of promotion: either the institutional or self variety. We actually obtained a couple of confessions or what we now politely called statements against self-interest. I had no idea if these people were guilty of anything, other than gullibility. However, it was the way we stretched our scarce resources in those days.
For the purists, I know what you’re thinking about our less than tenuous interrogation techniques. They might have involved a little bending of the due process rules. I readily admit that we should’ve also advised them of their rights under the Privacy Act of 1974 before questioning them. But for what it was worth, Mr. Miranda didn’t mind our egregious gaffes in the slightest. Our investigative shortcomings and shortcuts were clearly evident to anyone who bothered to look.
Sometimes those who protected and served must bewitch, bother, and bewilder their less duplicitous Foreign Service opponents and colleagues.
The briefing started at 9:00 AM on the dot, as scheduled. Its promptness reflected the new professionalism exhibited by the organization. Those who investigated the fraud, waste and abuse of others must not cast the first stone. Dan had put together a Power-Point presentation on the fraud situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. His first click showed a piece from the Christian Science Monitor. A former senior advisor to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which ran the country until the election of an interim Iraqi government, said the U.S. government’s refusal to prosecute U.S. firms accused of corruption was turning the country into a free fraud zone. That was a nice starting point, I mused. The term also had a catchy ring to it.
The official compared Iraq to the Wild West and with only $4.1 billion of the $18.7 billion the U.S. government set aside for the reconstruction of Iraq having been spent, the lack of action suggested that the corruption would only worsen over time. More than money was at stake though. The administration had harshly criticized the United Nations over the hundreds of millions stolen from the Oil-for-Food Program under Saddam Hussein. But the program’s successor, created under the occupation, and called the Development Fund for Iraq, involved billions of potentially misused dollars.
“The IGs of all the federal agencies with a major stake in this situation have united to conduct a massive, coordinated investigation of waste, fraud, and mismanagement in both Iraq and Afghanistan,” Dan explained, clicking to the next slide, which showed a list of the agencies involved.
“Let me guess,” I cut in. “Iraq’s the nine-hundred-pound gorilla in all this, right?”
Dan grimaced like his stomach hurt. It was funny how many higher-ups tended to look like their ulcers were paining them when I was around.
“Right,” he replied. “The vast majority of government funding is going to contracts there.” He clicked to a slide of a pie chart with a big red slice marked Iraq and a very large sum of money below the label.
“I’ve already got a team of auditors on the ground going over the books of several companies,” Dan went on, clicking to a list of the companies in question. “Confidential sources have come forward alleging that these companies have committed significant misdeeds.”
“Hold on,” I interrupted again. I wasn’t too concerned about breaking into the Assistant IG’s train of thought; after all, he had his little slide-show to remind him where he’d left off. “What does ‘significant misdeeds’ mean? Embezzlement? Slave labor? Mass murder?”
“Our sources claim that billing invoices are being padded, local officials are being bribed, services and products aren’t rendered, yet we’re still charged for bogus, nonexistent deliverables under the terms of the contracts.” Dan answered stiffly, brushing an imaginary fleck of dirt from the sleeve of his custom-tailored gray suit. “Needless to say, we’re taking all such allegations very seriously, as they may add up to millions of dollars in losses to the department.”
Sure enough, Dan had a slide about the alleged misdeeds, too. As his precise voice continued summarizing the contents of the newspaper article projected on the screen, I tried to stay focused on the information, but the dimmed lights were making it difficult to keep my eyes open, and I found my mind wandering.
Is this all I have to look forward to? I asked myself. Solving white-collar crimes for pencil-pushers like this guy? And how long will even that last, before I’m recalled to get fat behind a desk until too much junk food, too much booze alone at night, too many cigarettes, and too little activity of body and mind bring on a stroke that’ll kill me if I’m lucky? Jesus, how long will I rot in my bed before anyone finds my body? I took a sip of coffee to clear my head. Hey, cheer up, I told myself. It might not be so bad. Maybe you’ll be fatally shot while trying to prevent the escape of a desperate corrupt CEO on this mission—go out in a blaze of glory. It’ll be almost like the old days. Smirking at that idea, I forced my attention back to the briefing.
The Washington Post reported that both the Clinton and Bush administrations knew that monies used in the Oil-for-Food Program were lining the pockets of Saddam Hussein—and that both administrations had done little to stop it. Allegations surfaced, in unclassified State Department documents sent to congressional committees with oversight of U.S. foreign policy, strongly hinting that Turkey and Jordan were ignoring the sanctions against Iraq. One corruption case had already drawn particular attention in government circles. This involved the case of two former employees of Custer Battles, a high profile, private security firm operating in Iraq to provide security services to the U.S. government.
The whistle blowers alleged that the company had set up shell companies in the Cayman Islands to falsely bill the government on two Iraq contracts. The Justice Department gave strong support to the civil suit brought by the two. It concluded that the company had defrauded the authorities out of tens of millions of dollars. Twice before, the U.S. government had declined to participate in the case when asked by the plaintiffs’ lawyers. The judge, however, had asked if federal fraud law applied only to when the contract was administered by the Coalition Provisional Authority that governed Iraq for a year prior to the establishment of an interim government?
Lawyers for Custer Battles argued that the CPA was an international authority and thus U.S. laws could not be applied to the case. They asserted that the U.S. government had privately stated that the CPA was actually a multinational entity, not an arm of the U.S. government. Therefore, the U.S. government could not be defrauded. Lawyers for the whistle-blowers pointed out, however, that President George W. Bush had signed a 2003 law authorizing $18.7 billion to go to U.S. authorities in Iraq, including the CPA, as an entity of the U.S. government. Several Custer Battles contracts also referred to the other party as the United States of America. So the CPA was, in fact, a U.S. government entity or that was argument to be decided.
A comprehensive examination by the CPA’s own inspector general had uncovered evidence of millions of dollars’ worth of fraud, waste and abuse. Its final report noted that U.S. civilian authorities had failed to keep track of nearly one billion dollars in Iraq money spent for reconstruction projects and couldn’t produce records to show whether they got the services and products they paid for.
For example, it found that the CPA had paid nearly two hundred thousand dollars for fifteen police trucks without confirming that they were delivered. Auditors could not locate them. Officials also didn’t have paperwork to justify the $24.7 million price tag for replacing the Iraqi currency, which used to carry the face of Saddam Hussein. In one case, a U.S. senior advisor manipulated the contracting system to award a $7.2 million security contract. The contract was subsequently voided and the money returned to Uncle Sam.
In another incident, a contractor billed for nonexistent personnel working on an oil pipeline repair project. Moreover, the security firm guarding the pipeline overcharged the CPA a measly twenty thousand dollars. Besides more than two dozen criminal cases opened by the CPA’s Inspector General, thirty-five others were referred to other U.S. agencies for further investigation.
The report was the most sweeping and damning indication that some U.S. officials and private contractors had repeatedly violated the law in the free-wheeling atmosphere that pervaded the multi-billion dollar effort to rebuild the war-torn country. Before Dan could transition to a new topic, I put up my hands in a “T’ shape indicating it was time for a break. We’d been going non-stop for at least ninety minutes. I badly needed to smoke and pee, and in that order.
Recess was soon over and it was back to the classroom. Dan, the schoolmarm, said that the corruption problems went far beyond U.S. contractors and international firms. The head of the Commission on Public Integrity, an agency set up by the CPA to fight fraud committed by Iraqis, said he faced many obstacles in fighting corruption in Iraq, especially from high government officials urging him not to work so hard.
Dan then changed direction and mentioned that his focus was primarily on the security contractors operating under State Department contracts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. These were the places where mega-bucks were at greatest play. He said that virtually all of the fraud allegations his office had received so far had originated in Iraq and involved the companies working there.
He noted most of the security service contracts, and most others for that matter, were sole-source, meaning they weren’t competitively bid prior to being awarded. Most contracts fell into the category. The contractors had to satisfy unrealistic government-set timetables for reconstruction projects. Time was of the essence in rebuilding Iraq. In one massive, fell-swoop, weapons of mass destruction had to be found and dismantled, terrorism rooted-out and thwarted, and democratic institutions and infrastructures established in the troubled region.
He pointed out that the United States had gradually increased the types of tasks and roles for which it contracted private companies in Afghanistan and Iraq in military theaters. It was generally accepted that using private, unarmed contractors to carry out supply, support and logistical operations were appropriate and cost effective ways for the military and the State Department to operate. But Iraq, and to a much lesser extent Afghanistan, now employed upwards of twenty to thirty thousand U.S. citizens and third country nationals to supply a wide variety of security services. The actual numbers were squishy and hard to come by.
Given troop shortages, private security contractors were widely viewed as vital to U.S. efforts to stabilize and reconstruct the countries. Circumstances often forced these contractors to take on tactical combat roles traditionally handled by the military. The practice came with a price tag though. Approximately two hundred and fifty security contractors had been killed, mostly in Iraq. Many more had been injured as a result of their duties. For many, the adrenaline-rush was intense and the money plentiful. However, the ultimate cost of employment could be extraordinarily high.
Dan said there were a number of major U.S. and international security firms operating in both countries. He ticked-off the names of Blackwater, DynCorp International, Custer Battles, Ajax Security and Protective Services, Armor Group, Aegis Defense Services, and Triple Canopy. These were the big dogs of the kennel. Lesser firms only got scraps from Uncle Sam’s abundant, overflowing table. But only Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp could perform under the State Department’s Personal Protective Security contract in Iraq. That was an interesting approach to fostering competition and literally getting the best bang for the buck for Uncle Sam.
Dan concluded his briefing by telling me that I was going to Afghanistan to look into the contracts awarded to Ajax Security and Protection Services. I’d be the only investigator assigned to the country since the monies at risk, along with potential losses, were much greater in Iraq. Resources were divvied up accordingly and I would be a one-man show in Afghanistan’s big-top circus. I generally enjoyed standing tall in the center ring, but not as a bulls-eye. I hoped nobody screamed fire during my performance. That could mean a premature curtain call. I wanted to gracefully bow-out of this bureaucracy of the absurd, but eventually and on my own terms.
There hadn’t been any serious allegations of fraud against Ajax, just the garden variety complaints about waste of taxpayer monies. Of course there was waste because it was the federal government after all. Citizen expectations of their public servants were just too damn high and overly demanding. My job was to sort out the legitimate waste from the illegal variety. That meant I would have to sharpen my pencil and get my hands dirty.
Dan provided me with all the files he had on Ajax to review. I spent the next three hours taking notes. I noticed a few things suggesting fraud, but couldn’t be sure until I got to Kabul and hit the ground running. However, I would treat them as potential Title 18 criminal code violations until disproved.
I now had my orders. I’d bravely march to Afghanistan to track down and apprehend any overtly greedy, naughty people who might be skimming taxpayer money. I’d be a hero, at least in my own, impressionable mind and that was good enough for me.
Sometimes those who served and protected realized that white collar thugs preferred button-down shirts to black ski masks.
Paladin, Paladin — Are you
I was going to roam a long way from home, perhaps for a long time. Okay, for the record, I wasn’t going to Rome and I most certainly wasn’t being received at the Vatican by the Pope. I’d be doing penance for my sins elsewhere. How long I’d be gone depended on what I found in Afghanistan. My marching orders were clear: find out what was going on and identify the bad guys. Oh sure, easy-peasy.
I walked directly to Continental’s First Class counter and presented my tickets. The agent looked at them and pointed out that I was in the wrong line, politely informing me I was ticketed for Business, not First Class. I had to go over to the next line and wait my turn. Fortunately, she didn’t add like the other little people. I told her there must be some terrible mistake since my employer, the U.S. Department of State, United States of America, was infallible and omniscient. I insisted that I was most certainly booked into First Class and that I had to contact my home office for clarification of this most distasteful and shocking matter. My harrumphing didn’t help a bit.
I then stepped aside from the counter and pulled my cell phone from my jacket pocket. I hit the speed dial button for 867-5309/Jenny. (That wasn’t the number for Jenny Craig for those weight challenged.) It was the number popularized by Tommy Tutone in his 1982 one-hit song. I’d stored the number in my cell phone many years before knowing it would never be answered. It had been disconnected due to the overwhelming number of phone calls to the actual subscriber. I’d run this ruse once or twice before and now tried again.
Within earshot of the agent, I pretended to speak with the State Department’s Travel Section. I was very adept at this given my days doing the “good cop, bad cop” routine overseas. I asked to be connected to a supervisor. No, I wouldn’t accept anyone else. I don’t deal with little people. I did the obligatory wait, fussing and fidgeting as I did.
I walked in small circles, but always close enough for the agent to hear my side of the conversation. I finally got the imaginary supervisor on the line. I detested waiting for others. I calmly explained my circumstances; specifically, that someone had obviously screwed up my reservation. I made it clear that I was very disappointed with Continental’s attitude and agent’s demeanor. The State Department should seriously reconsider its relationship with the airline.
I told my phone that the treatment I was receiving at the counter was wholly unacceptable since I was a diplomat and deserved better. I made several furtive glances at the agent to see if she were listening. Given her demeanor and body language she was—big-time. She was also warming up and she shot me a smile or two.
I continued the conversation along these lines for a couple more minutes and raised my voice once or twice for the desired effect. At one point, I directly turned to the agent and made a circling motion with my finger around my right ear. I shrugged and raised my eyebrows a couple of times as well.
I finally hung up and walked to the counter. This time, the agent didn’t suggest that I go to the next line. I explained things to her that she already knew: the government was fucked-up. It was comprised of pinheaded people afflicted with anal-cranial-anal, double inversion. They were all a bunch of incompetent fools. Yes, I knew we had to tolerate them, regardless of the heavy burden they placed on the American working class taxpayer. I didn’t know what one of those looked like, but it sounded pompous and appropriate.
I told her that I was going to Afghanistan to serve our country for these worthless bastards. It was a dangerous assignment, but we all needed to serve our great nation as best we could under difficult circumstances. Down deep, we were all patriots and compatriots, I reminded her. Fortunately, she readily agreed with my somewhat logical and entirely jingoistic reasoning. My ploy actually worked to my surprise.
I ended up getting a free upgrade to First Class. As it turned out, the flight was only half empty, or half full, depending on how you see the glass. I was entitled to use the First Class lounges in Newark and Delhi, if I wished. I certainly wished. I also snagged double bonus miles for my efforts.
Sometimes life was fair and good for a change for those who served and protected themselves first and foremost.
I located a Starbucks, got my coffee, and headed to the nearest dual-gender handicap restroom. I entered, locked the door behind me, and put down the toilet seat. I reached for my pack of cigarettes. Fourteen hours and twenty minutes was a damn long flight—not to mention the give or take. I needed a super nicotine fix that would help me get through the ordeal. Like many, I’d quit smoking innumerable times over the years. I had tried the patch but found I couldn’t get it lighted after rolling it. I also couldn’t get it to draw despite how hard I sucked on it. I finally gave up the patch after experiencing severe groin pain. Going cold turkey was no better. The thought of walking around holding a twenty pound, frozen Butterball was simply too much for me. I was afraid of frostbite, but more afraid of premature thawing. I was worried about that groin thing too. Moreover, I did have a certain personal image and professional stature to maintain as a Foreign Service officer and, much more importantly, a special DS special agent.
I chain-smoked six cigarettes in about twelve minutes. Maybe it was close to a record. I didn’t care; it was still my personal best. I was wired and feeling on top of the world until the knock on the door—Jiggers, the cops, I thought. I quickly turned up the fan, but it was too little, too late. It turned out to be the attendant who wanted to clean the bathroom. I immediately seized the high-ground from her. Kindly remember, we liked all things of action in the department, as long as they were verbal, and not overly aggressive or offensive in tone or manner. As diplomats, we were usually amiable, personable sweet-talkers; unless there were personal agendas at stake.
I told her that some thoughtless smoker had just left. I did some coughing to suggest that I was suffering. I asked her if there wasn’t some ordnance or law prohibiting smoking in airports. I told her that the crime was especially heinous since it occurred in a restroom for the handicapped. I mentioned that, if I were in charge, such things would most assuredly not happen. The guilty would be swiftly punished for their unspeakable acts, serving as a strong deterrent to others so inclined to break the rules. The nation’s health was at risk and such behavior shouldn’t be tolerated by law abiding citizens. After I put her in her place, I dramatically stooped over, drooled a bit, and limped off to my gate; at least until I turned a corner.
I can’t tell you much about the flight since I slept most of the way. The Xanax-wine combo must have helped me sleep. I awakened about two hours out of Delhi and felt relaxed. The flight and its arrival in Delhi were unremarkable and I went straight to the Radisson near the airport and checked-in.
The next morning I got up and had breakfast in the VIP lounge. This was one sweet deal since my special room rate included a full breakfast, plus free snacks and drinks throughout my stay. It almost was like being comped at Vegas, but without the glitter. Elvis must’ve already left the room, I thought.
I figured I could shave a little off my per diem and pocket the difference. I liked being special, both as a VIP and as a special agent. I checked out the next morning with the Indian desk clerks and bellmen lining up and cheerily waving me good-bye. The natives really were friendly; once you figured out how to correctly connect the dots.
There must be an amazing number of Ash Wednesdays in Delhi, I mused. I dutifully paid homage to a statue of Lord Ganesh in the lobby and crossed myself on my way out the door. I liked to hedge my bets. I then caught the Air India flight to Kabul.
Sometimes those who protected and served were just savvy, wise-ass, world-weary travelers.
The flight to Kabul lasted two hours. We flew over rugged mountain ranges and dun-colored earth. As the plane dropped into the Kabul valley, I recalled the Kam Air flight that had crashed in 2005 approaching the same airport with all 105 souls aboard killed. Thank God I’d paid my respects to Lord Ganesh and Lord Jesus shortly before. I wasn’t superstitious in the slightest, but I still tightened my seatbelt another notch.
We touched down safely and taxied to the terminal while the attendants rolled out the hard-stand stairs. I then deplaned and walked the short distance to the terminal while tightly clutching my orange goodie bag and briefcase. I entered the building and stood in the immigration line and presented the officer my passport. He unceremoniously inked and initialed an entry stamp next to my visa. I waited for my single suitcase for about twenty five minutes. But time was apparently an elusive thing in Afghanistan. I then proceeded through the customs checkpoint without even a cursory glance from the lounging officials.
I had just missed another great opportunity to act-out and spar with the natives. I enjoyed playing the role of an overly-officious official. I’d had a lot of practice over the years. The local gatekeepers were customarily a bunch of spoiled-sports when it came to matters of diplomatic protocol. I’d always hoped to be PNG’ed early-on to avoid the inevitable pain and misery I would suffer later in these backwater shit-burgs. By the way, that was the host government’s official act of declaring a diplomat persona non grata—clearly an offensive Latin term in my opinion. No, I was not referring to shit-burgs.
I hailed a taxi just outside the main entrance to the terminal. My driver’s name was Mohammed and I called him Moe for short. We Americans were nothing if not casual and friendly. Moe didn’t speak the King’s English. Truthfully, Moe really spoke no English to speak of. However, I quickly established rapport because that was important in my business. To that end, I leaned over and hawked a sizable Loogie on the front passenger seat for Moe to see. By the surprised look on his face, I could tell I had achieved my objective.
I knew that this was the proper way to chase away evil spirits and bring good luck. (I later found out this quaint custom was only practiced in certain parts of remote China.) I then used internationally recognized and accepted hand signals and body gestures to tell him where I wanted to go. I tugged on my left ear indicating sounds like as in charades. We were all good at playing charades in the department. We then took off towards the embassy. I hoped to God we were heading in the right direction.
Moe’s taxi was an ancient Russian Neva sedan he’d bought from a Soviet army major some years earlier. It’d been totally wrecked in a road mishap with a herd of goats. The Afghan Ministry of Transportation’s Rules-of-the-Road booklet always gave right-of-way to the kids. His vehicle lacked many basic amenities: no air conditioning, operable brakes, radio or glass for two of its windows. All of its tires were scalped to their casings. I felt safe since I figured we couldn’t go more than ten miles an hour—tops. I figured wrong.
I guessed Moe got his money’s worth out of his Afghan Automobile Association membership. We got no further than a block from the terminal before the car stalled. Moe yelled something in a foreign language to two youngsters playing nearby. They got behind the taxi and pushed it until it reached a speed fast enough for Moe to pop the clutch and get it started. I now understood how Triple-A worked here. However, there was no such thing as an AARP chapter in the country. To survive, Afghans could neither be shy nor retiring.
Driving in Kabul was like playing Russian roulette with a loaded Smith Sixty and correctly guessing the outcome. Goats, donkey carts, people, dogs and other flotsam and jetsam freely co-mingled. Curbs, sidewalks, and road dividers were largely missing from the scene. Few traffic signals could be seen in the downtown. There were no posted or enforced speed limits. Might means right, alright. The most aggressive drivers in the largest vehicles had the right of way. Gas tankers got particularly wide berth since the recent uptick in vehicle suicide attacks.
Driving at night in Kabul was even more suicidal. Vehicles without headlights, brake lights or fear meandered and careened through the streets without any discernible purpose or destination. My throat soon got hoarse from yelling out all the padiddles and I quickly lost interest in the game. I adamantly refused to play punch buggy while riding with overseas natives. I had a reputation and shoulder to uphold, thank you. The passing scene reminded me of one humongous, overly-crowded souk. In other words, the whole thing was hugely bizarre.
As Moe and I continued to bond while driving to the embassy, I looked at the humble stalls and shops lining the busy city streets. Many of the buildings were simple mud brick hovels with wood-shuttered windows. Wares were displayed outside for all to see and buy. The people wore a mix of Western-style clothing and traditional Muslim garb. The former didn’t mean cowboy hats and chaps. The latter meant that few women wore dresses in public and most wore the traditional burkas. However, those only came in two colors—black and blue, the newly-adopted national colors of this bruised and battered country.
Moe dropped me several hundred yards from the embassy compounds. We couldn’t go any farther because of the massive security barriers and controls. As we pulled to a stop, I took off my wristwatch and presented it to him. In my best Arabic sign language, I told Moe it was a gift from one friend to another. I told him that true friends don’t ask money of each other for such favors. That’s simply not what friends do. Moe was confused, so I explained that the watch held great sentimental value. It had been passed down on my father’s side of my family from eldest son to eldest son over several generations, a family heirloom and a great source of timeless joy.
I explained to him that it was a Timex, a precious treasure that takes a licking and keeps on ticking—just like the proud people of Afghanistan. It had actually stopped working several years ago, much like Moe’s country. All things had value and utility under the right circumstances, I mused. He finally understood what I was saying and thanked me for my generosity and friendship. Moe actually beamed at me and I beamed too. We shook hands and embraced as strong men do in this part of the world. I’d just made another friend for America.
The taxi ride ended up costing the government eighteen dollars and forty-two cents, plus tip. I was typically a generous tipper with other people’s money. Fortunately, receipts were considered passé and a waste of scarce paper in Afghanistan. I was sure Mohammed would be an easy name for the auditors to track-down. Men lived by their words, not deeds, here.
Moe didn’t have to watch out for himself; in fact, he didn’t really need a watch to tell time. The mosques’ mullahs called daily prayers precisely at sunrise and sunset. In his culture, Moe would never consider buying such an extravagant luxury like a watch for himself. That would be a terrible sin of hubris. Importantly, hubris and Jews were not tolerated in the Muslim faith. So with this gift, I not only gave him a special remembrance, but also saved him from the hellish fires of eternal damnation. As a result, I did Moe a huge favor. I felt proud as I always do under such circumstances. Good deeds should always be rewarded.
Sometimes those who served and protected were culturally aware, sensitive people who were shining paradigms for others of this ungracious world.
Embassy Redoubt, No Doubt
I sometimes had difficulty remembering the difference between Afghans and Afghanis. My colleagues would sometimes chide me on my little grammatical lapses. But I finally figured the difference out. The bad guys were Afghan hounds who sniffed out illicit money, Afghanis or Euros or whatever coin of the realm. It made no difference to them. I would only learn this little bit of local trivia later.
I rolled my bags and myself to the chancery located on one of two compounds, about two hundred yards distant. The chancery, or the chancellery, or the head-shed, is the building housing the chief of mission and staff, more commonly called the ambassador and the worker bees. Embassy generally referred to all the buildings, people, authorities and other things falling under the authority of the chief of mission. The terms were often used interchangeably.
Nobody particularly cared and everyone understood the meanings. They were still terms referring to Old Glory flying from a pole firmly implanted in the soil of a foreign country. The receiving nation got the power and prestige of United States presence and its largesse. Those nations not only shared in its proud symbiotic symbolism, but sometimes had to endure our stiff shaft. That was because there were no free lunches anymore. Foreign friendships and dining out could be expensive these days. Sometimes we Americans needed to be careful what we wished for ourselves and others of this world.
I was stopped at the outer perimeter check-point manned by three, uniformed Afghan police officers. The checkpoint controlled further access to the street and pedestrian entrances. It consisted of stacked sandbags about six feet high encircling a guard shack. The vehicle drop-bars, gates, and barbed wire completed the picture. The police were carrying the all-so-common AK-47 assault rifles; probably donated by the Soviets some years earlier. They looked bored and tired. I tried to look the same to put them at ease. It was easy since I was already terribly tired and bored.
I promptly presented my State Department photo ID to them. They couldn’t read English, but immediately noticed the age difference between me and the person in the photograph. They looked at each other, at me, and then again at each other. They shrugged and I shrugged in return. I had anticipated this problem, so I decided to wear the same shirt and tie I’d worn for my 1974 picture. I pointed out this fact to them and was waved through without being searched. Don’t forget: everything had value or utility under the right circumstances.
Fifty yards on, I came to the inner perimeter check-point. It was manned by gringos carrying ubiquitous M-4 assault rifles; probably to be donated by the Americans a few years in the future. These guys were contractors working for Ajax. In addition to the standard physical security accouterments, there was a Hilux pickup truck with a fifty-caliber machine gun mounted in its bed and it was impolitely pointing in my direction. I promptly presented my diplomatic passport for inspection. That document spared me the indignity, but also the pleasure, of being strip-searched and body cavity-probed.
Sometimes luck cut both ways for those who served and protected.
I walked the next hundred yards or so and came to the chancery’s pedestrian entrance, an enormous single door fitted into the massive nine foot high stone and brick wall surrounding the compound. I hit the intercom button and was shortly greeted by a burly Gurkha guard smartly dressed in a pressed, clean uniform. Had I known this would happen, I would’ve insisted on banging on a huge doorknocker to announce that I’d arrived safe and sound at the chancery’s outer gate. Then I’d click my heels together three times and gotten the hell out of there, but no such luck. No Dorothy, this wasn’t Kansas, my dear. Once inside, the guard checked my passport and pointed me towards the Visitors Reception Center, a short walk away. The center was a fortified building designed to receive and verify the credentials of all visitors to the chancery compound. There was an armed guard who operated the magnetometer and X-ray equipment. Everything and everyone was searched before further admittance. A hand-held metal detector was passed over a person’s body. All items were x-rayed and personal belongings were also swabbed for explosives residue. All in all, it was a very thorough, demeaning, but necessary, experience.
Of course, everything and everyone excluded those VIPs holding a diplomatic passport, a State Department ID card and a set of DS agent credentials. I presented all three items to the clerk inside the bullet proof glass enclosure. I next dutifully filled out the visitors log and was issued a temporary embassy ID. I’d swear to wear it at all times, although I had my fingers crossed behind my back—scout’s honor.
Before entering the chancery, I stopped by the small memorial to Spike Dubbs, our ambassador to Afghanistan who had been kidnapped, tied to a chair, brutally tortured by his terrorist captors, and then, by an ironic twist of fate, killed during a failed rescue attempt by the Soviets in 1979. The memorial was a simple bronze plaque laid in the ground that eloquently spoke of Spike’s service and dedication to his country. Spike was never a Black Dragon. He had too much integrity, dignity, and class for such nonsense. Yes, bad shit happened to good people, especially overseas in violent lands. I dutifully paid my respects and entered the chancery. My due diligence was now done and there was nothing more to do.
The chancery lobby was configured as a man-trap. No, it wasn’t a place for embassy women to hook-up; it was a term that described its physical security controls. The lobby exterior and interior doors were constructed of ballistic armor and met stringent forced-entry standards. All walls were equally hardened. In the event of an incident, the Marine security guard on duty flipped a switch and locked down all entry points. The bad guys couldn’t enter the chancery proper and the good guys couldn’t enter the lobby and inadvertently walk into a dangerous situation. I presented my credentials and identifications once again, but this time to the Marine on duty. This location was called Post #1 in embassy-speak. I then asked to see Larry Bumpkiss, the embassy’s senior regional security officer. Unfortunately, I couldn’t put off meeting with him any longer. I braced myself for what was likely to be an unpleasant encounter.
Larry and I were both alpha silverbacks in DS-speak: old and grizzled agents who wholly disdained department rules and regulations. His DS nom de guerre was Larry the Fairy. But it wasn’t intended as an unkind reference to his masculinity. Rather, he acted like Tinker Bell: he would sprinkle pixie dust over himself and wish real hard for his problems to go away. They miraculously disappeared and he continued to live a charmed life. We were not friends to put it mildly. We kept our respective distances when we could, although this time we couldn’t. Like Jersey Briggs, I was in charge of DS’s Office of Investigations and Counterintelligence before I retired. That was when Larry had appeared on the radar screen for a youthful indiscretion. That’s what the DS pundits called such things in my day.
Larry was then assigned to DS’s Foreign Dignitary Protection Division. He also had his federal firearms dealer’s license from the ATF and had developed the little sideline of selling guns, and other less lethal gear, over the years to supplement his meager department salary. He did well at the trade through cultivating a wide network of federal law enforcement officials, police officers, and other customers who could discreetly buy their off-duty, or off-the-record, firearms from him at a fairly reasonable price.
My interest was in the firearms he was shipping overseas through the diplomatic pouch system; a no-no, to put it ever so bluntly. Through his reputation and contacts, Larry shipped guns abroad to DEA agents, DS agents, Customs Service agents, FBI agents, and others assigned to our embassies. Larry’s business model got around sales taxes, export licensing regulations, shipping costs, customs inspections, and other unnecessary unpleasantness.
What Larry didn’t anticipate was that those weapons sometimes ended up in the hands of foreign police and security officials as gifts; specifically those officials friendly with the alphabet agents already mentioned. Occasionally, these foreign officials were linked to human rights violations in their respective countries.
Sometimes those who served and protected were unknowing entrepreneurs by arming others abusing and torturing innocent people.
Larry should have joined the Disney on Ice show, since he skated on that one, and lesser technical infractions over subsequent years. He was what we called a Terminal One. Foreign Service-one was his pay grade or class in the personnel system. It was the rough equivalent to a GS-15 for those OCD’ers compelled to compare numbers to the Civil Service pay scale. It was a senior position, but he would never get through threshold review to enter the Senior Foreign Service.
His colleagues knew that to be true, those who served on his promotion panel each year knew that. And Larry knew that as well. That was the reason he volunteered for a one-year assignment in Kabul. He would retire from here. By doing so, he would substantially boost his pension since his danger pay and hardship allowances would be factored into his overall highest three years of service. He planned to retire to Sandpoint, Idaho and live with other right-minded Americans.
Every October, the department published the list of Foreign Service officers promoted during the year’s review cycle. It was an extremely competitive system. Each year, all employee performance appraisals were reviewed by the promotion panels convened for each pay grade or class in the Foreign Service. It was not only competitive, but it ranked people rather than positions.
The system was much like the military in that regard. It was also like the military as it was an up or out system. If you were not promoted through the class system within prescribed time limits, you would not be up, you would be out. That rarely happened, as the time allotted in class, and at each grade level, was fairly generous. You really had to go out of your way to be what was politely called selected out of the Foreign Service for time-in-class.
The Foreign Service promotion list, or The List, was a source of great discussion and speculation in the weeks before publication. Everyone wanted to know if he or she had made it. They also speculated who else might be on it. These were critical things since they carried not only personal remuneration, ego reward, onward assignments and career aspirations, but their very lives—the guessing never stopped.
Someone would claim that so and so had made The List or wasn’t on The List. It was gospel. He or she had heard it directly from a friend of someone whose bother-in-law was serving on the promotion panel. It didn’t get any better than that as a reliable source; a done deal and a slam-dunk. Sometimes the guessing turned out to be correct, but most often it did not.
In DS, we had a special way of congratulating the lame sycophants who were promoted on The List over much more deserving peers. We anonymously mailed them Hallmark greeting cards to their homes. These were the ones with the audio chips that spoke or played a little song or both when you opened the card. The intended recipient would open the card and be bombarded with some sentimental crap about his birthday or Mother’s Day or expressions of deep sorrow about his passing. Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy Birthday dear Johnny, happy birthday to you, how old are you? This quaint practice became known as gifting.
The cards were reserved for the not-so gifted agents of the organization. Larry had been so honored a couple of times over the course of his career. Unfortunately, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service subsequently put an end to our little fun. We considered it spirited, good natured joking among colleagues. The inspectors considered it a potential violation of federal law.
Sometimes those who served and protected didn’t always share a droll sense of humor.
Larry and I didn’t even bother to shake hands. Such things were not condoned in the department between old enemies. He immediately slugged me, verbally speaking.
“Look what turned up on my doorstep. I must’ve forgotten to wipe my shoes this morning,” chuckling at the thought and image. “You shouldn’t be here without permission. You know the rules, bucko. Why didn’t you request a country clearance like every other swinging dick?”
A country clearance was the formal embassy process granting approval for my visit. A swinging dick was an unkind reference to me. I purposely avoided alerting the post about my arrival in order to secure a small advantage over the opposition. The opposition consisted of anyone opposing my investigation; especially a DS special agent named Larry Bumpkiss.
To clear the air, I quipped “I’ve already got security and medical clearances and don’t need any more, thank you. Larry, I’m no longer bound by the rules governing mere mortals like you since I’m now working under the aegis of the IG and its independent authorities and powers.” I was being my usual caustic, clever, and obnoxious self.
Larry didn’t like my reply, but he couldn’t do a damn thing about it because it was true and he knew it. I had broad independence and discretion in conducting my investigation. Besides, I didn’t care what Larry thought, as long as it thoroughly pissed him off.
I went straight to the obligatory explanation of why I was here. I didn’t have to do this, but it was good form on my part under the circumstances.
“Larry, I’m investigating Ajax Security and Protective Services for possible Title 18 criminal violations relating to fraud, bribery and any other corruption I might come across. Any indiscretions most likely happened on your watch so any fallout is going to come down on your neck, my friend. By the way, how close are you to retiring.”
Larry grimaced. I smirked and farted loud enough for him to hear.
Larry had already heard the rumblings of the investigation through the department’s overly-ripe grapevine. If more than one person knew a secret in Washington, it was no longer a secret. I disingenuously asked for his support and cooperation. He genuinely told me to go fuck myself. We fingered each other as I left his office.
Larry grudgingly assigned me one of his nine assistant RSOs to help me settle into the routine. He was honor bound to do no less for a DS colleague. The assistant’s name was Chuck Tanner who had been at post for about ten months, with two more to go.
Chuck had mistakenly loaded a bit of software on his computer to track his time left in country. It was a colorful, animated picture of a wall clock. The big hand would automatically and graphically count-down the days and hours remaining on Chuck’s tour. To boost his sagging morale, it randomly generated audio pop-ups which impolitely reminded him what a fucking retard, dumb-shit and/or jerk-off he was for accepting the assignment to Kabul. These were exemplars of the more kindly appellations the twisted timepiece subjected him to. Its canned voices always tried to uncannily one-up Chuck at every turn. It would speak in especially harsh tongues late in the day when he was tired and most vulnerable.
The clock constantly spewed cruel and unrelenting putdowns. It also maliciously skewed the true time so Chuck would think he had more days to serve on his sentence. “Ha, ha, Chuck,” the voices would nastily taunt. He couldn’t wait for his clock to be cleaned or for his onward assignment to Paris. Whichever came first was okay with him. He was one of the walking-wounded; a classic burnout case, but he didn’t realize it. That was because he fit in so well with the other embassy staffers.
Chuck snapped my photo for a permanent embassy pass that would allow me virtually unrestricted access to both compounds. I asked him to issue me a Remington 870 pump shotgun and rounds of #4 buck and he did so. He also handed me a large stack of paper regarding embassy security and safety protocols. I signed an acknowledgment form attesting I had read and understood every single word. I swore on my boy scout’s honor that every attestation was true and correct, to the best of my knowledge. My veracity was once again being tested by the system. I wouldn’t let it fail me again.
He then took me to my assigned living quarters located on the other compound. We passed the barber shop, the post office, the expendable supplies office, and the currency exchange. Each was housed in a converted CONEX box, a large shipping container modified for office use.
We continued walking, but instead of exiting the way I had entered, we passed through an underground tunnel connecting the two compounds. This had been created as a security measure to keep staff safe from the Taliban’s improvised explosive devices and any contact with our allies and wards: the Afghan people. We exited the other side and were immediately confronted by more shipping containers that served as housing for contractors, visitors, consultants, and lesser beings in the embassy hierarchy. Real Foreign Service personnel lived in new apartments on the other compound near the swimming pool and tennis court.
We turned a corner and that’s when Chuck uttered that dreadful word—hooch. That was where I would live: in a hooch! I stopped in my tracks, broke out in a cold sweat and tried to regain my composure. Any word or thing Vietnam caused a flashback to that troubled time in my life. Just the merest hint or suggestion of anything V and I would awaken screaming at the top of my lungs in middle of the night.
I tried to control my night terrors, but just couldn’t seem to make them stop. The truth really did dramatically emerge from the subconscious mind in such situations. In my case, I had a terrible fear of being drafted and shipped-off to V. I sometimes wondered if I suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. In retrospect, I should’ve applied for a disability pension when I retired from the department. That would have been the financially honorable thing to do. Jeez, that old hindsight thing had just raised its ugly head again to remind me of a missed opportunity.
Chuck looked at me with raised eyebrows. That was standard DS nonverbal code-speak indicating that someone was having a major panic attack and emotional meltdown. I pulled my shirt over my head and breathed deeply to stop hyperventilating. We all had used this remedy just prior to the annual posting of the promotion list. I popped a Xanax and lit a cigarette to calm my nerves. In a few minutes, I started to mellow-out from my bout of extreme anxiousness. Thank God for the curative powers of drugs and good, common DS sensibility. I was saved from further humiliation, at least for the moment.
My CONEX had all the comforts of white trash trailer home. It had a private bathroom with a shower, a separate sink for washing up, cable TV and a DVD player, a small fridge, a telephone, and an internet connection. I was set for the duration. I thanked Chuck for his help and unpacked my suitcase and opened the orange goodie bag; the small classified pouch. I was now home.
My compound was situated on five acres and roughly the same size as its identical twin across the street. It was also surrounded by a massive brick and stone wall with a top-guard of razor ribbon. This measure was intended to prevent climbers from breaching the perimeter—nearly everyone who lived inside its confines. Some weeks before, there was a tragic incident about a hundred yards outside the compounds at a busy traffic roundabout. A suicide bomber rammed an American military Humvee. At the point of impact, the bomber detonated his heavily-laden vehicle of explosives with devastating effect.
Two American soldiers were killed and one was seriously injured. Three Afghan civilians were killed and eighteen injured in the blast as well. The suicide bomber fortunately died and was greeted by those many virgins in Muslim heaven. The blast was so large it shook the CONEX containers and forced everyone to take shelter. Kabul was no place for the faint-of-heart; only for those avaricious contractors and neo-cowboys needing to make obscene amounts of money in a short time. It was also a perfect safe-haven for those ducking personal responsibility, reality, and a normal life back home.
I walked the compound from one end to the other. In addition to the CONEX box housing, it had a cafeteria, a snack bar, and a concessionaire selling liquor, cigarettes, condoms, toilet paper and life’s other little necessities. The embassy’s motor pool and fuel tanks were located at one far corner. The U.S. Agency for International Development also had offices there. There was a volleyball court and a fitness center for those so inclined. Guard posts were located in towers at each corner, at the vehicle entrance, and at other spots. Security patrols of the compound were regular and frequent. I felt relatively safe and secure for someone in a war zone light-years away from home.
The whole place seemed to be well-guarded, but I wondered who guarded the guards? All of them were employed by Ajax. Who was watching over them? I’d meet the person the next day and his name was Tommy Thompson.
Sometimes those who served and protected pulled their security blankets so tightly over their heads they couldn’t see the enemy in front of their eyes.
About Face Time
I was met at the door by Irena Kommuniski. She was one of the assistant project managers for Ajax specializing in human resources. She was a Slav from one of the former Soviet bloc countries. She also was the sexiest woman on the embassy block and I was already smitten. I think that meant tumescent in Russian. Obviously, I needed to bone-up on my language skills.
I had spotted Irena the previous day working-out in the fitness center and had closely watched her on the treadmill. She was a beautiful young woman with brains who kept her body cut and toned to perfection. That was clever if you’re looking for a wealthy husband or sugar daddy with a big package to satisfy your needs and desires. She didn’t sweat, she glistened. Jesus, she sizzled. Her body moved to some unheard rhythm blaring in her headphones. Mine moved to some unheard rhythm blaring in my jeans.
Irena introduced me to Tommy Thompson, Ajax’s project manager for Afghanistan. As such, he was in charge of all personnel, contracts, tasks and operations throughout the country. Tommy was a Brit. I tried not to hold that fact of accidental birth against him. He was considered a mysterious character by most accounts; not unfriendly, just very quiet, unassuming and circumspect. In other words, Tommy was very reserved and proper as the British said. He’d retired some years prior from the Special Air Service, the elite military counter-terrorism arm of the UK’s military.
Ajax recruited him for special operations it contracted with the governments of South Africa, Angola, and Sierra Leone to maintain law and order. That meant keeping the insurgents, freedom fighters, patriots, dissidents, rebels, and ordinary bandits away from their gold and diamond mines; the main sources of wealth for these countries. He’d been in Afghanistan for about eighteen months and was already an “old hand,” as we said on the job.
In that time, he had gotten to know government officials, drug lords, warlords, and some Taliban leaders. Sometimes they were one and the same persons. He was wired by all counts and the embassy heavily relied on him and his company’s operatives to feed it tactical intelligence from time to time. Given his tenure and connections, he was also tight with a number of embassy officials. He knew more about what was going on in the country then they did so he was a valuable asset to the embassy.
Irena served us strong coffee and a tray of biscuits. She had been around Foreign Service officers long enough to learn their little quirks and desires and was one smart cookie—just like the Girl Scouts in short, pleated shirts, braids, white knee socks and Mary Jane’s who came around every year back home, I mused.
I briefed Tommy about the reason for my visit, but I sensed he already knew. I explained the department’s IG was looking at the security services contracts of all companies in Iraq and Afghanistan given the fact that they represented huge amounts of government monies and had not been competitively bid before award. The opportunity for waste, fraud and abuse was enormous under the circumstances. The department simply wanted to confirm that all was well so it could convince the Hill that it had done its due diligence. I assured him that Ajax was not being targeted in any sense. My orders were to conduct a cursory review of payroll records, copies of invoices, contract modifications or amendments, and other relevant documentation supporting the contract. I told him it was all very dull and boring scut work in my view.
I promised Tommy that I wouldn’t take up much of his time, but needed access to all contract records for the past six months. I asked for his full support and assistance in making my job easier so we could both get on with our lives. My nose grew about ten inches during our conversation. I also felt like I was preaching to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Tommy knew the score and knew I knew what he knew or should have known.
Sometimes you couldn't bullshit a bull-shitter; especially those who also served and protected.
Tommy spent the next hour or so outlining Ajax’s missions and operations in Afghanistan. He first pointed out that the U.S. embassy contract was one of several Ajax had in the country. Ajax also provided security services for United Nations personnel and those of various non-governmental organizations working in the hinterlands. He explained that the embassy contract had three separate task orders under one umbrella agreement.
The first order provided for the personal protection of the ambassador, the deputy chief of mission, and any visiting U.S. government officials. The second covered services to protect the two embassy compounds. It also provided for the running of protective security details for regular staff and visitors while they were traveling. The last task was the training and equipping the Afghan nationals who protected President Hamid Karzai. That task involved training the Afghan Presidential Protection Force, the APPF. The trainers also acted as mentors to the APPF to bring them up to a respectable and acceptable level of performance.
It was all very interesting and all known to me. I thanked Tommy for his time and asked him to put me in touch with his team leader for the Karzai operation. I needed to start my orientation somewhere. I much preferred the ring of the word presidential to ambassadorial. That’s just me, but you need to excuse me since I’m a bit tone deaf. My next appointment was with the embassy’s deputy chief of mission, more or less a courtesy call.
Sometimes those who served and protected had to tolerate protocol pretentiousness.
There had been an important change in the embassy pecking order since I retired. It was a good one, but the Black Dragons screamed bloody murder. It overturned the natural order of things in their highly parochial wisdom. For decades, the regional security officer position reported to the administrative officer who, in turn, reported to the deputy chief of mission. The security, procurement, housing, contracting, budget and fiscal, personnel, general services, telecommunications, and medical support functions also reported to the administrative officer.
Former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, changed the batting order out of frustration with the system and the Dragons control of it. She moved the regional security officer, and all related operations and programs, out-from-under the administrative officer and assigned the supervisory function to the deputy chief of mission.
That resulted in two very positive things from the DS perspective. Firstly, it gave the RSO greater access to the front office and the senior decision makers. The admin officer could no longer spin security recommendations or threat assessments or influence the outcomes of employee malfeasance investigations since the RSO now sat at the same table with the big boys or girls during deliberations. Secondly, the decision recognized the fact that the scope of the RSO’s operations and relationships with the host government had significantly evolved over the years. He or she now managed high-dollar programs with significant political impact, especially given the expanded role of antiterrorism training for foreign security and law enforcement officials.
Money, power, and influence had shifted to the RSO and often far-exceeded those of the administrative officer. The department’s undersecretary for management at the time made his displeasure known when he was forced to announce this change to the Foreign Service establishment. It was a distasteful departure from the norm. The deputy chiefs of mission weren’t thrilled with the decision either. It meant one more performance appraisal to write each year. My close, personal buddy, Larry Bumpkiss, now wielded more political clout at post than many of his colleagues.
Ambrose M. Pierce III was the deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. A deputy chief of mission, or DCM, was the number two guy or gal in the embassy organizational structure. He or she acted much like a CEO to the board chairman of a U.S. corporation. He or she was the mission’s de facto chief of staff and reported directly to the ambassador. As such, the position exercised power. The power was mainly derived from the fact he or she wrote the annual performance appraisals for all senior direct reports. Keep in mind, the Foreign Service operated under an “up-or-out” system—career advancement was of critical importance. This control mechanism represented real clout in the government bureaucracy. Most importantly, he or she protected the backside of the ambassador and punished those who might be audacious or foolish enough to step out of line.
Ambrose Pierce had been at post for eight months and had a reputation as a tough taskmaster. He was married, but his wife sat safely at home since Kabul was an unaccompanied assignment. He was a Yale graduate who had earned two Meritorious Honor Awards during his career. He was a senior Foreign Service officer with the personal rank of minister-counselor.
I knew these things as gospel since I had looked them up in the department’s biographical register—a.k.a. stud book. The book contained biographical sketches of all Foreign Service officers. Each entry contained the officers’ name, date of birth, colleges attended with degrees awarded, date entered on duty, assignment history, promotion history and marital status. The stud book was a great reservoir and resource of personal data for curious colleagues and foreign spies.
Ambrose Pierce stood and shook my hand across his desk. I took a chair nearby. Ambrose was a short, stocky, white male in his early fifties. He had a round face with a perfectly shaped Poirot-style mustache. He was balding and had steel gray eyes and wore pince-nez glasses which he periodically removed for effect when trying to make a point. He was wearing a navy blue wool blazer with a pink Ralph Lauren shirt underneath and his cuffs were monogrammed with his initials. His perfunctory school tie was fitted with a Windsor knot and he looked the perfect gentleman, straight from the pages of an early issue of GQ.
I started the conversation with the word sir since I always used that word when groveling with my cap in hand. I told him I had been assigned by the IG to investigate allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse involving the security services contracts held by Ajax. I emphasized that these were only allegations as nothing had been proven yet. My role was essentially limited to a fact-finding mission to determine if a formal investigation and audit of Ajax’s books were warranted under the circumstances.
I had this stuff down pat at this point. Besides being prim and proper statements, they were also flat-out lies. I was here to identify the guilty and bring the perps to justice, but I didn’t want to tip my hand with Ambrose or anyone else at post. I only reluctantly confided in Larry Bumpkiss as to the true scope of my mission. I believed he would keep my secret safe despite our differences. I wanted to be up-and-running before documentation went missing and memories got fuzzy.
Sometimes those who served and protected realized the incidence of Alzheimer’s was exceedingly high among those under investigation.
We spoke for only ten minutes or so. He asked a few innocuous questions about my investigation and name dropped several senior DS officials who were close, personal friends in order to intimidate me. He said the embassy would fully cooperate with my inquiries as long as they didn’t disrupt operations or the delicate sensitivities of the staff members. In other words, he told me not to make waves. This was how such things were conveyed between superiors and inferiors in the Foreign Service. He made it clear who was in charge around here and I’d better not step out of line. He wasn’t cowed by me in the slightest and dismissed me with a quick, derisive wave of his hand. Needless to say, I didn’t like the cut of his jib one bit.
Ambrose was not only an affront to sensible fashion, he was a Dragon. He was a dark gray one who aspired to be an ambassador somewhere, anywhere, before he ended his career. He was bright, strong, clever and cunning and would make a good adversary. I sharpened my lance later that night to a sharp point. I didn’t know if he was guilty of anything except overweening pride and arrogance, but those attributes alone were good enough for me to dislike him.
I walked to my room and freshened up before dinner. I poured myself a glass of wine and watched a few minutes of CNN before heading to the cafeteria. The cafeteria was decent sized, holding about forty people seated comfortably. I got in line at the hot table and looked at the specials on the menu: lamb stew, leg of lamb or lamb cutlets. I chose the lamb, a side of beets and a can of RC Cola and ordered my meal to go. I must have been a bit restless since I liked to eat my lamb on the lam. Depressed by the abundance and variety of menu selections, I sheepishly waddled back to my room. I mentally lambasted myself for my choice of food. Ok, I could have said chided instead, but I wasn’t lamenting my feeble efforts to wordsmith one wit or bit.
I went to sleep fairly early, but later that night I awoke to the sounds of mortar shells or rockets. I wasn’t sure which, because they sounded much the same when they exploded. The embassy and its next-door neighbor, the headquarters of the Multinational Force for Afghanistan, were frequent targets of Taliban displeasure with our foreign policy goals for Afghanistan. The bastards simply couldn’t take a joke!
Of course, these weapons were notoriously inaccurate. They rarely hit their intended targets and usually fell harmlessly on Afghan schools or medical clinics some distance away. We were fairly well protected as the roofs of our CONEXes were piled high with sandbags, just in case the bad (or good) guys got lucky (or unlucky, as the case might be). How could misdirected shelling be called friendly? It must be an age-dependent thing since I never understood the punch line.
The RSO held frequent duck and cover drills, usually early in the morning before the regular start of business. The drills were intended to familiarize us with the locations of our reinforced shelters. There, we would gather together to wait-out an attack. Misery truly does love company in such circumstances.
Posted on the back of each room door were concise instructions as what to do in the event of attack. In addition, each set of instructions depicted the nearest shelter and a diagram directing us to it. Some wiseass had penned a large mushroom cloud over my shelter. I didn’t understand how people could joke about such things. Life was much too precious and important to be trivialized in such a manner. I guessed that some people had no sense of gallows humor.
We diligently practiced and perfected our responses to a mortar and/or rocket attack against the embassy compound. Once we heard the alarm announcing another drill, we’d immediately duck under our blankets and cover ourselves while waiting for the exercise to end.
Sometimes those who served and protected were much too sleepy, lazy, and stupid for their own damn good.
A Casual Walkabout
I got up early and put on my cleanest leisure suit and dusted-off my wingtips. I wanted to click with the people I would be meeting later. I got a cup of Joe at the cafeteria and lit my fourth cigarette of the morning. I needed sustenance. I would be meeting Vince Young, Ajax’s team leader for the Karzai training operation and his crew at the presidential palace. I still had plenty of time to kill and Afghanistan was a perfect place for such activity.
The palace was only about five blocks from the embassy and on the same street. Ordinarily, the drive would take about three minutes, but these days it took twenty minutes or so to get inside. One now had to contend with all the vehicle check-points and security inspections. I still had time for another cigarette.
I hitched a ride with an embassy motor pool driver who dropped me outside the main entrance to the presidential compound. Walking the streets, even during the day, was highly discouraged. It had nothing to do with terrorism or the Taliban and everything to do with the lurching hordes of street urchins begging, polishing shoes, washing car windows, watching vehicles or selling trinkets to an unwary passerby.
These unwashed, uneducated, and unfed children would swarm around a person and beg for food or money or anything else of value. They’d sometimes go much further and distract the befuddled person and pick a pocket or grab a purse, briefcase, camera, or anything else not nailed down. They’d be gone in a flash with the cash or whatever they could get their grubby mitts on. The children were a common sight on the streets of Kabul and a huge embarrassment for the Afghan government. Clever pedestrians would throw virtually worthless Afghan coins into the street and watch the urchins play dodge-ball with the oncoming traffic in the ensuing scramble to scoop up the money. Some became very adept at the game, but others were less talented. It was all fair play and good sport here.
I was ushered into the team’s modest standalone building located at the back of the compound. Vince Young was a thirty-nine year old ex-Army Special Forces operator who had joined Ajax and the Karzai operation about two years prior, quadrupling his Army pay overnight. He was thin and wiry and walked like a panther stalking its prey. He moved with methodical purpose and economy of scale and had the looks of someone who could be dangerous. He was also very intelligent and well-spoken and I envied his style and essence of danger—things that were not standard issue for DS agents in my day. In short, he was squared away as the Army would say. In short, he had his shit together as I would say. I did my little soft-shoe thing explaining what I was up to. He wasn’t overly impressed with my forthrightness and he told me so to my face; at least what little I had left at the time.
Vince began his briefing. Some information was old, but much of it was new to me. Regardless, I listened intently. This was interesting stuff, but I asked to him to start at square two. I already knew this was a State Department-funded operation. Still, he explained that the operation was entirely funded through DS’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program in Washington. Ajax had the contract to train the Karzai protective detail.
The ATA funded, supported, aided, and facilitated the training of the security forces of those countries friendly to the U.S. government. Under the guise of training, it had even funded security details to protect the heads of state in Haiti and Liberia. It wasn’t only about the United States fighting the war on terrorism. In these instances, DS agents worked hand-in-glove with their foreign counterparts to keep key allies alive and in power.
The Karzai training program had been in place for about three years. That was also how long the APPF had existed. Its force consisted of about two hundred seventy-five agents and security officers. Despite its name, the Afghan Presidential Protection Force provided security for the president, the king, high ranking government officials, and visiting foreign dignitaries. Functionally, it had features and responsibilities similar to the U.S. Secret Service and Diplomatic Security Service, but all rolled into one organization. Its people worked in plainclothes or uniform depending on circumstances. Its tenuous existence, funding, and authority solely depended on the whims and largesse of the Afghan National Security Council.
Vince and his team had two primary functions under one combined mission. First, he oversaw the American operatives or trainers who were embedded with the APPF. These were specialists in explosive ordnance disposal, K-9 operations, VIP protection, mobile and fixed guarding, emergency medicine, vehicle fleet maintenance, intelligence, sharpshooting, counter-sniper fire, and physical security measures. There were about sixteen independent contractors working for Ajax on this side of the house.
The second function consisted of managing a formal training academy for APPF recruits. All candidates had to successfully complete an eight week training regimen blessed by DS’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program. Twenty-two American and eight local contractors staffed the academy’s operation located outside Kabul. The combined functions were costing the department (and American taxpayers) close to eighteen million dollars a year. I would tour both facilities and operations today.
The team’s unofficial slogan was KKA or Keep Karzai Alive. He was the Bush administration’s one bright spot in the region; one the then president could point to when things were not going so well in Iraq. Bush would proclaim that a freely and democratically elected president and constitutional government now governed the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. However, the word Islamic was often quietly dropped by the current administration in references to the nation. Unlike Bush, President Obama had kept Karzai at bay and at arm’s length during his terms in office. In retrospect, it was probably a wise choice on his part.
What the president didn’t tell the public was that President Karzai tried his best to govern a dysfunctional and fractious country. It was a crazy quilt of warlords, drug lords, religious lords, tribal lords and Lord knows who else. Hamid Karzai had an impossible job and had quietly threatened to resign his office on more than one occasion out of sheer frustration. However, he was dissuaded by two very determined U.S. ambassadors and one very anxious U.S. president. He wasn’t called the Mayor of Kabul for nothing.
As Vince was talking, I noticed a box of matchbooks on the table. As a smoker, I understood their importance. As a former DS director of investigations, I understood their significance in fighting terrorism. The Diplomatic Security Service managed the U.S. government’s Rewards for Terrorist Information Program. It was established in 1979 to offer monetary rewards to those persons providing information as to the whereabouts of wanted fugitives. Such informants might score a green card too if the information was particularly actionable. Of course, these were serious terrorists who kidnapped, killed, and maimed U.S. citizens abroad through acts of so-called political violence. These were very bad actors that were wanted by our government to stand trial for horrific crimes, if captured alive. In the end, it didn’t make any difference though. They were still wanted, dead or alive.
Special Agent Brad Smith worked in DS’s Protective Intelligence Division at headquarters. In 1989, he came up with a novel idea to track down the bad guys. He correctly reasoned that much of the Arab world smoked. He knew that the ubiquitous matchbook was a necessary tool to do so. Why not publicize the Rewards Program by putting the terrorist’s likeness and bio data on matchbook covers distributed freely by the United States abroad? He sold the idea to me and my seniors and went to work to implement it. He and his colleagues started by targeting the top terrorists on the list. Their work would pay off handsomely more than once.
Those countries believed to be harboring terrorists were initially targeted, but the initiative was expanded to other countries over time. The campaign was designed to get the message to the local populace that Uncle Sam would pay big bucks to anyone providing information as to the whereabouts of one of the terrorists on the Rewards Program hit list. Matchbooks, each with the likeness or photo of a wanted terrorist on the cover, were flooded throughout these countries.
In Arabic and other languages, the matchbooks would explain how a person could earn extra money in their spare time by reporting certain information to the closest U.S. embassy or consulate. If the information turned out to be credible and useful, a bundle of green would be discreetly deposited into the person’s bank account anywhere in the world. Simple quid pro quo—if the snitches lived to spend it.
One payoff would be Mir Aimal Kasi who was responsible for the attack on CIA employees arriving at work on January 25, 1983 at their offices in Langley, Virginia. Kasi patiently waited at the main entrance to the facility with an AK-47 automatic rifle hidden under his trench coat. He calmly walked up to several cars waiting in line to be admitted and opened fire. Two male CIA employees were killed and three wounded in the attack. Kasi fled the scene and then the States. He later would comment that he could never kill a woman because his religious tenants strictly forbade him to do so.
In May 1997, an informant, having read a matchbook cover and its offer of riches, walked into the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan. He claimed he could help lead the United States to Kasi. As proof, he showed a copy of a driver’s license application made by Kasi under a false name, but bearing his photo. Apparently, the Pathan tribal elders who had been sheltering him were now prepared to do a deal in return for the multimillion dollar bounty on his head. Kasi was in the Afghan border regions, so the informant was told to lure him into Pakistan where he could more easily be apprehended. The U.S. government had just found a willing Judas goat.
Kasi was tempted with a lucrative business offer: smuggling Russian electronic goods into Pakistan. That hook brought him to Dera Ghazi Khan, a small city in the Punjab, where he checked into the Shalimar Hotel. At 4:00 am on the morning of June 15th, an armed team of FBI agents, aided by Pakistani ISI agents, raided Kasi’s hotel room. His fingerprints were taken on the scene, confirming his true identity. Kasi was then transported to a disputed location. U.S. authorities claimed it was a holding facility run by Pakistani authorities. The Pakistani’s claimed it was the U.S. embassy in Islamabad.
Kasi was flown to the United States on June 17th aboard a C-141 transport. During the flight, he made a full oral and written confession. Kasi’s extrajudicial rendition was controversial in Pakistan as no formal request for his extradition was made to the government of Pakistan. Moreover, no extradition proceedings were ever initiated in the nation’s judicial system. U.S. authorities would later assert that the extradition was wholly legal under an extradition treaty signed between the U.S. and United Kingdom back when Pakistan was under colonial rule.
Our American courts had no problem with this imaginative interpretation of the law. Kasi was found guilty of capital murder and executed by lethal injection in 2002. Hopefully, he was now with many virgins fitted with impregnable chastity belts.
Sometimes those who protected and served did make perfect matches in heaven.
While reminiscing about my remembrances, Vince finished his briefing and we then toured the presidential compound. It was approximately forty-five acres in size. Its perimeter was surrounded by high walls and fixed guard posts. It housed the offices of the president, his official residence, offices and barracks of the APPF, and the king’s residence and associated offices. The king had no governmental authorities or powers. He merely carried out honorary, ceremonial functions for his country now. The Kingdom of Afghanistan was abolished in 1973 following a coup d’état when his majesty, the king of Afghanistan, Muhammed Zâhir Shah was traveling abroad.
The king lived in exile in Rome until his permanent return to his homeland in 2002. King Zahir Shah acceded to the throne in 1933 upon the assassination of his father, Nahir Shah. Zahir Shah was respected by the Afghan people and served as a stabilizing, but insignificant unifying figure in the country. His health was poor and he wasn’t expected to live much longer and he frequently visited Dubai for medical treatment. The death of this popular figurehead would be mourned, but would not impact the government’s leadership succession one iota. The stability of the nation, or lack thereof, was not at stake by his passing.
We toured the grounds and reviewed the APPF barracks, the mess hall, the motor pool, the armory, the medical unit, the physical training facilities and the football, sorry soccer fields. I was then introduced to the Engineer. Abdullah bin Abdullah was the commander of the Afghan Presidential Protection Force. He had been snatched from obscurity some years before because of his loyalty to the Karzai regime. He was a civil engineer by education, training and vocation, until now. He had absolutely no experience in managing a large organization of any type. His unswerving loyalty to President Karzai was his only qualification and claim to fame. That was all that was needed these days since one could not distinguish a Taliban player or sympathizer without a scorecard. There was a constant worry about the APPF being infiltrated by the opposing side.
President Hamid Karzai was a fascinating person; even more so because of his relationship with the United States. He was an ethnic Pathan born in Kandahar, Afghanistan and came from a family who strongly supported King Zahir Shah. He earned a post graduate degree in political science in India. In 1983, he returned to Afghanistan to work as a fundraiser for the anti-Soviet Mujahideen. After the fall of the Soviet-backed government in 1992, he served as a deputy foreign minister in the new government. When the Taliban emerged in the 1990s, Karzai was initially among its supporters; however, like many other loyalists, he eventually broke with the Taliban, citing distrust of its links to Pakistan. After the Taliban drove out the newly formed government in 1996, he lived in exile in Quetta, Pakistan where he worked to reinstate King Zahir Shah. His father was assassinated during that time, presumably by the Taliban. He swore revenge against the Taliban by working to overthrow them. He made good on his promise and was elected the president of Afghanistan in 2004.
In 2005, an attempt was made on Karzai’s life while visiting Kandahar. A gunman wearing a newly minted uniform of the APPF opened fire, wounding the Governor of Kandahar and an American special operations officer assigned to the security detail. The gunman, one of the President’s bodyguards, and a bystander were killed when APPF agents opened fire on the assailant. The president continued to be a favorite target of the radical fundamentalists and needed all the protection he could muster to keep him alive.
In late 2004, Karzai rejected a U.S. proposal to end poppy production in Afghanistan through the aerial spraying of chemicals on the crops. He feared it would harm the economic situation of his fellow Pathans in the southern tribal regions. Moreover, Karzai’s younger brother was rumored to be involved in the drug trade. He had financed Karzai’s presidential campaign. The situation was particularly delicate since he and his administration were not financially or politically equipped to influence reforms outside the capital of Kabul. Other regions, particularly the remote ones, had been under the influence of various local leaders for generations. Karzai had been wooing them for the benefit of the whole country with relatively little success. However, he never aggressively challenged them for fear of a full blow civil war.
It was almost lunch time. I was ravenous and looked forward to the noontime meal at the DS training academy located some thirty clicks outside Kabul. We said clicks, not kilometers, overseas. We got more testosterone fueled mileage out of the word that way.
Sometimes those who served and protected often slipped and said mikes for miles, but the conversion tables drove us crazy.
The nine of us saddled up and rode in three lightly armored Toyota Land Cruisers. They wouldn’t protect us from high-order, improvised explosive devices, but would prevent small-arms fire and some shrapnel penetrating the skins of the vehicles. We did not want to be stranded under any circumstances and, if need be, we would abandon a vehicle and worry about it later. We also wanted some firepower if we couldn’t evade an attack on our stunted motorcade.
Naturally, I rode shotgun in the second vehicle and I was well-protected from hostile fire. I wasn’t so sure about friendly fire though. I wore my soft body armor and carried my shotgun. Truth be told, I looked dressed to kill. The ride was fairly scenic and totally uneventful and we pushed our way through lesser traffic with ease. We largely avoided the potholes and rubble in the roads by taking a short-cut through the grounds of the international airport. That move not only saved us a few minutes time, it bought us additional protection as the facility was heavily guarded. We arrived safely and on time, just as lunch was being served to those who protected and served themselves.
John Teeter was the academy commander, usually just referred to as “the camp,” but not in the presence of APPF recruits. Perhaps it was too campy even for DS, I guessed. He gave us his brief over lunch. The academy had been operating for almost three years. In that time, they had trained and qualified over three hundred recruits in basic firearms techniques, VIP protection measures, high speed and evasive driving maneuvers, hand-to-hand combat scenarios, first responder medical procedures, some basic fire safety techniques, and a lot of physical fitness. Each class consisted of about thirty students. There was both classroom and practical instruction on how to protect themselves and their principal. John mentioned that the washout rate was about ten percent for each class. These men left of their own volition or at the instructor’s polite request.
The training was strict and intense, consisting of early morning PT, followed by breakfast, followed by classroom instruction, followed by lunch, followed by practical demonstrations, followed by firearms re-qualifications with the standard-issue AK-47 and Glock pistol, followed by more PT, followed by dinner, followed by homework, followed by complete exhaustion and sleep. Time was always allowed throughout the day for prayers though. We might be agnostically inclined in DS, but we always respected the primitive and misguided religious beliefs of others. Actually, agnostic was the proper word. That was an atheist without balls, as we all knew.
John finished his brief and I had finished my lunch. I correctly closed my plate by placing my utensils precisely at the four o’clock position as we had been taught in the Miss Manners segment of our agent training course. The Indian waiter looked at me and pleasantly asked if I had finished and could remove the plate. I hated it when the ignorant and unwashed of this world were exceedingly efficient and polite. I’d lick my psychic wounds and fingers later when no one was watching.
We walked around the compound afterwards. We saw the student CONEX boxes, the staff CONEX boxes, the classroom CONEX boxes, the office CONEX boxes, the latrine CONEX boxes, and the weight room and arms room CONEX boxes. We had already seen the chow hall CONEX boxes and I declined an invitation to return. We visited the bar and swimming pool, looked at the generators and the various physical security measures to protect the camp. OK, DS finally had me boxed-in. It simply couldn’t tolerate those agents who thought outside the organization.
After the guided tour, John suggested a ride to the top of a nearby hill that provided an impressive 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside. I agreed and we rode all-terrain vehicles to the top of the hill and parked below its summit. The camp had established a 24/7 guard post atop because the insurgents had thoughtlessly fired rockets and mortars into the camp. Things had been quiet since. However, this was a standard DS security maneuver. We would take a hill, but then give it up because of a lack of sufficient funding. In truth, the green visor men, and their bean-counter conspirators, really ran the department under the watchful eyes of the Dragons.
John was right; the view was spectacular. The sun was beginning to set, I think in the west, but I wasn’t sure given the nine hour time difference between the United States and Afghanistan. I had him take several photos of me in my vest holding the shotgun. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. I would download the photos on my laptop and send them to both my kids. I thought they would be proud of their old man since they’d never seen me in mufti before, only in flagrante delicto. They might be pleased by the change.
One could see for miles and miles in every direction. It was one enormous expanse of light brown, sandy, dun-colored landscape. In one valley, I could make out an enormous graveyard of Soviet military equipment. Destroyed tanks, trucks, rocket launcher platforms, artillery pieces, armored personnel carriers and all manner of military ordnance had been collected and deposited in this spot. Acres upon acres of war materiel had been left to slowly rust in the arid climate. I believed it was a fitting tribute to Soviet arrogance and its godless, ambitious foreign policy in Afghanistan. Importantly, there was probably still enough space to accommodate American war materiel as well.
Manifest destiny was a uniquely American experience. It was ours and ours alone. To borrow the concept, someone must first get our permission and agree to the payment of royalties. It was the only proper course of action in such matters. “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” I exultantly yelled to the wind. In retrospect, maybe I should’ve used a more manly declaration to express my displeasure. But those listening still got my wimpy message loud and clear. I prayed to God that these grotesque instruments of war would find better use in the future. Perhaps they could be recycled into ashtrays by enterprising Afghan craftsmen to sell to the tourists.
The scenery really was an incredible sight to behold so I took a couple of snapshots with my camera. God or Allah, I felt totally alive and invigorated by the sights. I was a free bird flying free in a not-so free land. I gazed over this vast domain once more before pulling myself away from its breathtaking vista. I was on top of the world and someone to be reckoned with. I was Avery of Afghanistan, I fuzzily thought. At least the alliteration was OK.
Ecce homo, you lesser planetary beings! Of course, I might just be delirious, suffering from cerebral hypoxia, but I didn’t give a damn at the moment. Regardless, I felt absolutely fantastic and attuned to the wonders of the universe. I didn’t quite understand any of them, but I still felt full of myself. It then dawned on me that I’d forgotten to take my lithium carbonate today. Oh well, so much for the manic bravado. It must have been that time difference thing acting up again.
Sometimes those who served and protected were never too full of themselves or their psychotropic medications.
We motored back to town and as they dropped me at the embassy, I asked Vince to snag me a signed photograph of President Karzai. A thoughtful note to his good friend Avery Dick would be an especially nice touch. I asked Vince to politely tell the president not to use indelible ink so I could easily correct any spelling errors. I was a hellion when it came to English grammatical details, especially with uppity, illiterate foreigners. It’d be a keepsake I actually might keep. It could have some intrinsic or, more importantly, monetary value someday. However, that would likely only happen after the guy died. That bit of historic memorabilia just might sell for a pretty penny if that were to happen. But I would never accept Afghanis for payment. That would be much too risky given the tenuous state of the war and the future of the country.
Sometimes those who served and protected tried to short the markets in war-torn countries like Afghanistan.
Avery’s Day Off
I slept late because I’d been working my butt off for the past few weeks and it was time for a break from reality. I badly needed to do some sightseeing. That was reason enough for a typical Foreign Service officer, but never a DS agent. Therefore, I would wear my Foreign Service persona today. We were well-trained in the arts of disguises, costumes, and cross-dressing. I got dressed, crossed myself, and strapped my fanny pack over my stomach.
I filled it with my room key, embassy ID card, passport, money, and my Smith Sixty. I then grabbed a cup of Joe at the cafeteria. Coffee was called Joe here. There was no room for wimpy things or people in a war zone. Next, I gamely strutted my stuff to the motor pool that was located just behind the cafeteria, all the while walking proud and erect as an American should.
The Foreign Service national staff, or Afghan employees, or more commonly the locals, served as the backbone of the embassy infrastructure. Most spoke passable English. Many spoke fluent English and several other languages as well. They typically possessed more language skills than many Foreign Service officers they worked for. More importantly, they performed invaluable work on behalf of the U.S. government. Among other things, they provided vital administrative and logistical support to the embassy. That often required subtle, sophisticated negotiating with their countrymen for our benefit.
They also provided important continuity during the frequent turnovers of the Foreign Service officers and acted as translators, interpreters and guides for their American masters. Sometimes they were injured and killed performing their duties on behalf of the United States. Often it was simply a matter of being caught in the wrong spot at the wrong time. In the Foreign Service, the good ones were highly-coveted colleagues and respected resources. Sometimes they ended up as lifelong friends too.
On rare occasions, you’d run across a local employee who was an officious, arrogant prick. Invariably, these turned out to be men who were brought up in male-influenced and male-dominated cultures. The embassy’s General Services Office had one of these characters—Barbrak Kamal. It wasn’t only the Americans who disliked him. His Afghan coworkers probably used less charitable words to describe his demeanor. Well, in point of fact, they hated his freaking guts.
Like virtually all Afghans, Barbrak was a devout Muslim who visited one of the empty offices or conference rooms in the building several times a day. There, he would spread out his small prayer rug on the floor. He would kneel, face toward Mecca, and pray as a sign of his sincere devotion to Mohammed, Allah, and the teachings of Islam. However, aside from being arrogant and officious, Barbrak was not particularly quick on the uptake. He was downright stupid about most things, but he had a knack for keeping the expendable supply room fully stocked with needed items. It also didn’t hurt that his brother was a very senior official in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense; the reason that Barbrak got hired in the first place. And yes, cronyism did raise its ugly head from time to time. But it was explained away as simply facilitating U.S. national security interests abroad. I was sure that his colleagues appreciated this wholly logical and sophistic argument.
Over a period of several weeks, his coworkers convinced him that he was actually facing the wrong direction while praying. They did this by doctoring maps on their computers and discreetly dropping copies on his desk. They would all point in the same direction when asked which way Mecca laid. He was skeptical at first, but the evidence continued to mount and it seemed to be overwhelming. In his presence, colleagues would stare out the window and lovingly gaze in the direction of the new Mecca.
With the preponderance of evidence, it finally dawned on Barbrak that he’d been facing the wrong direction for his entire life. He panicked and turned his prayer rug around ninety degrees and pleaded with Allah for forgiveness. I was sure his prayers were answered, but he was now praying five times a day to the Norse gods in Scandinavia over the North Pole.
Sometimes those who served and protected possessed moral compasses that others didn’t share.
Ahmed Challowby was a Foreign Service national working as an embassy motor pool driver. He had returned to Afghanistan following the routing of the Taliban to help his people recover from years of Soviet, Taliban, and American rule. He spoke pretty good English for a‘79 Dartmouth grad. He also spoke Arabic, Pashto, and Farsi. He held a genuine green card so he could easily move back and forth between his native country and his adopted one.
I hired Ahmed on the side and off the embassy’s books because I was required to follow the embassy’s strict rules for travel off the compounds. That meant I would have to travel in an armored Suburban with a gaggle of heavily armed security guards trailing my every move. I opted to ignore the rules, so I could keep a low profile. That was a critical security precaution in high-terrorist threat environments.
One wanted to blend into the local populace and not draw unwanted attention to yourself, especially if you are an American in Kabul. We left the embassy in a black Chevy Suburban displaying diplomatic tags and a small flag stanchion affixed to the left front fender. I sat in the front passenger seat like a normal human being.
I told Ahmed that I really needed some good-old, American food. I’d been away from home for several weeks now and I was tired of the local cuisine; something called lamb. Bah! He suggested a restaurant in Chinatown in central Kabul. I agreed and we parked the Suburban close to the restaurant. I gave a couple of cigarettes to one of the street kids to watch the vehicle. One could never be too careful or health conscious these days. The Taliban were renowned for placing improvised explosive devices in the wheel-wells of vehicles they didn’t like. Don’t worry about a few measly carcinogens in the smokes here. Life expectancy was low. This was Marlboro country, cowpokes.
I looked up and down the street to trying to detect anything threatening or unusual. I saw several things that bothered me. There were open sewers and uncollected garbage rotting under the hot sun. But what worried me the most was the absence of street dogs since I had seen plenty of them elsewhere in the city. These scrawny creatures barely survived on scraps of discarded gristle, bone, and the unwanted entrails of slaughtered animals. Truth be told, it was just plain offal. But where were the dogs in Chinatown? Not even a Pekinese could be found wandering about. Somehow that fact dogged me and nagged at the back of mind. But no worries, I was famished and looked forward to my meal. My canines ached to chomp down on some delectable food, despite my worries.
Ahmed and I found a table at the far rear of the restaurant. I customarily sat with my back to the wall. Good tradecraft was never ignored or forgotten. It was also the closest spot to the bathroom. We both ordered the specials of the day, wonton lamb and collard greens. We both washed it down with RC Colas. We finished our meals and asked for the check. I suggested we go Dutch out of respect for Ahmed’s developed sense of American hospitality and he hesitantly agreed. I left a pack of unopened Juicy Fruit gum as a tip.
Sometimes those who served and protected were big promoters of U.S. products and values overseas.
Next was a visit to the souk, the main open-air market of Kabul. I was looking forward to mixing and haggling with the locals. Everything in Afghanistan could be found here for the right price, or so I was told. There were people and animals, both living and dead, everywhere in sight. Dissected, naked chickens were hanging next to boxes of aged Christmas cards. These sat next to live capuchin monkeys dancing on short ropes for the amusement of the onlookers.
The whole place smelled of spices, butchered livestock, and the stench of disgusting trash. I deeply breathed it all in. The aroma was strangely powerful and, at times, overwhelming. This was one of the reasons I joined the Foreign Service. I wanted to see the world, to experience different and exotic cultures, and to revel in the mysteries and diversities of life. I also liked the cheap booze and cigarettes overseas—not to mention the easy women.
On our disappointed rounds, I bought a brass ashtray hammered out of an old, discarded Soviet artillery shell. I thought earlier that turning swords into plowshares was a great idea. And now those Afghans with enough brass were doing it. The ashtray would be a great conversation piece with my DS colleagues. I could prove to them that I hadn’t given up smoking. I skillfully haggled down the price and happily moved onto the next stall. I knew it wasn’t exactly kosher, but old habits were hard to break. Ahmed and I continued my shopping for the next two hours.
I noticed that Ahmed didn’t buy anything and asked why. I was shocked when he told me that he needed his money for food for his wife and eleven children. I reminded him of the Planned Parenthood course the embassy offered every two weeks to its employees and their spouses. All he had to do was schedule the appointments. There were even special makeup sessions for those wives who missed their periods. Of course, those would be during the Lamaze classes.
We turned a corner and that was when I spotted Fred. It was love at first sight. Fred was a noble, peregrine falcon, a bird who would soon have a new noble name—Fred it would be. By the way, I was an avid aficionado of all things aviary and Avery. I didn’t even glance at the many other birds on display because most lived like filthy, caged animals. The pigeons were an especially sullen bunch. The surly homies and stools eyed me warily. When they thought I wasn’t watching, they’d crane their necks and flex their wings to show off their gray and white gang tats. I wasn’t impressed in the slightest.
They’d intimidate and shake down the parakeets and other songbirds. The parrots were the nastiest, though. They wouldn’t let another bird get a word in edgewise. This gag and gang ruled the roost. The leader of the posse was an old, wizened peacock surrounded by a gaggle of young chicks. He not only ruled the flocks, but ran all the multicolored birds in the joint.
But for me, it was Fred and he alone. I only had eyes for him. The falconry fad had been around the Middle East and Central Asia before the time of Christ. Shrewd Afghan traders feathered their own nests by breeding, training, and selling the birds to wealthy Bedouins who would pay top dollar. To make sure Fred was, in fact, a male, I asked the shopkeeper to spread his wings and then his legs. He was a male all right and he had a big set, just like his future owner.
I had plans for Fred. One was to tether him to the clothesline behind my room where he’d guard my backside by alerting me to any wannabe intruders. It was a well known fact that conventional security alarms were notoriously prone to false alerts. It was what Sherlock Holmes famously said in the 1944 film The Pearl of Death: “Electricity is the high priest of false security.” So I guessed I was a dyed-in-the wool Luddite at heart.
Sometimes those who served and protected were technically disinclined towards technology.
Fred’s wants would be few. His tether would be just long enough to swoop down on hapless stray cats that were nervy enough to slink by. Those weren’t his only value-added benefits. I had more in mind for Fred. I’d find him a good home when his services were no longer useful to my plan. Just perhaps, I’d donate him to the embassy’s Marine security guard detachment. The globe and eagle were strong symbols of Marine Corps power and pride. A falcon was pretty close in my birder book. We haggled over Fred’s worth and I finally relented and paid the piper his price.
My arms were tired from carrying the heavy ashtray, so I allowed Ahmed to carry Fred. The shopkeeper had hooded Fred’s head, wrapped a piece of leather around Ahmed’s forearm and tied the package in place. We walked on, bumping and jostling our way through the crowds. Ahmed was careful to hold my magnificent bird straight in front of him lest he get pecked. I laughed as he resembled a Hitler Youth marching past his Fuhrer during the anniversary parade of Kristalnacht.
Our last stop was the rug section of the souk, the reason I came here in the first place. The dealers had the very finest quality Afghan rugs, and some Iranian ones, on sale. I was in heaven. I couldn’t believe the selection of chobi, Baluch, and sherwan carpets. I didn’t bother looking at the Iranian rugs because I’d never buy one. I still remembered when the bastards had stormed our embassy in Tehran in 1979 and kept our diplomats hostage for 444 days. The event had been seared into my mind and those of other Americans at the time.
I recalled how the Revolutionary Guard had conscripted the finest weavers in the country to reconstruct hastily and poorly shredded classified documents owned by the embassy’s station. The weavers had meticulously pieced together a number of highly sensitive documents containing the identities of covert CIA agents and operatives in the country. Those Iranians paid a terrible price for their well-intentioned nationalism and/or greed.
I thought the Pentagon should have carpet bombed the motherfuckers back to the Stone Age when we had the chance. Where was General Curtis Le May when you really needed him? The act was the equivalent of the State Department sending a formal protest note to the nation’s foreign ministry stating in no uncertain terms how affronted and displeased the U.S. government was with its unseemly conduct. In the department, we took tough stands and backed-off as we had to.
I spent nearly an hour looking at the rugs. Each was magnificent in its own right but I finally settled on a nine-by-twelve foot chobi. It would look great on the hardwood floors in my living room back home. I could properly and legally ship it home free through the embassy mail system. I would use it as wrapping material to cushion my Smith Sixty when I pouched it home at the end of my stay. It was important to respect and protect U.S. government property. It was also a matter of setting the right example for others.
Sometimes those who served and protected were not very frugal with other people’s money.
Ahmed and I had finished our shopping, or at least I had. I tipped Ahmed with a pack of Marlboros and heartily wished my new friend salud. There was still plenty of sun and time left in the day so I secured Fred and went to the pool—the embassy swimming one, not the motor one. I sat on one of the chaises lounges and immediately noticed Irena Kommuniski sitting about ten yards away wearing a skimpy, French-cut, two-piece swimsuit. I was wearing an old pair of boxers since I had forgotten to pack my trunks. I didn’t notice anyone else at the pool. She quickly acknowledged my presence by giving me a big smile.
Irena then dropped to the concrete deck and did five quick pushups. These were followed by fifteen slow and highly accentuated squat thrusts in my direction. I really admired this young woman’s form. I eventually tired of Irena oiling her gorgeous body from head to foot, pausing suggestively at her breasts and upper thighs. She made me think of the fried chicken served last night at the cafeteria: hot, greasy, spoiled, and totally tasteless. She was likely a chick that needed to be boned before eaten. However, before I left, I said goodbye to her. I gingerly walked from the pool with my towel tightly tied around my waist. There was no reason for her to see my ardor; at least I thought that was the word one applied to these awkward situations.
Sometimes those who served and protected should be embarrassingly humble, modest, and limp in the presence of foreigners.
I went directly to my room since I was bushed—correction, I meant I was tired. It had been a long day of lunch and shopping. Like my colleagues, I’d developed several techniques to conserve my energy on the job. I never could seem to apply those same things to my personal time.
In DS, we had cut our teeth as young agents by conducting background investigations of applicants to the department. These were done for employment and security clearance purposes. The Washington Field Office caseload was brutal in those days and we had quotas to meet, always running to catch up. Our overseer’s strident drumbeat for ever-greater production forced us to take shortcuts because he kept increasing the tempo by insisting on more case-closures. Conducting interviews over-the-phone, instead of in-person, became commonplace. However, the incessant, never-ending beat for more of the same never ended. We risked being drummed out of DS if our production numbers fell too low.
To get a breather, we would condense a source interview with a coworker or neighbor or reference to its bare-bone essentials. We would simply ask two questions: “Did the interviewee have any knowledge to suggest the applicant was not a loyal American and member of the Republican Party?” and “Was the applicant a dues paying member of NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association?”
That was all we asked—relevant, concise questions. It made the job a lot easier while still weeding out perverted, disloyal citizens looking to sup at Mother State’s bountiful table. No queers, pinkos, or pedophiles could be seated in those days. But nowadays, things are done on a first-come, first-served basis with open-seating for all. Just grab a chair folks and belly-up to the table.
Many interviewees were at a loss for words under our direct questioning. That was good for our overly abbreviated reporting system. Of course, we had to give the obligatory warning. They were advised that anything they might say could be used against them in a court of law in accordance with the Privacy Act of 1974.
Our reports were very concise and usually boiled down to one of three succinct statements: “Get off my porch you dumb fucker or I’m calling the cops,” “No, I won’t watch while you’re doing your wife,” and “You’re in the wrong county, jackass.”
Don’t be too quick to judge our investigative acumen. We were severely constrained by the federal government’s Paperwork Reduction Act of 1969. We also didn’t want to incur any personal liability by denying security clearance and employment to undesirable candidates. The risk of being slapped with a lawsuit was too great. We diligently followed the department’s standard line of least resistance and increased our completed case numbers accordingly.
Back in my room, I showered and then turned on the TV to catch the BBC news. I needed to unwind from my shopping trip. I poured myself a glass of wine from the box in the fridge. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught some movement in my bed. It was ever-so-slight, but I clearly saw it. The comforter had twitched and rippled and I immediately knew what it was. I’d experienced such things a couple of times during my time overseas. Using a sharp Occam’s razor, I suspected that a rat or a mouse had gotten into my room to escape the chilly Kabul evenings. I was actually pretty good at correctly deducing such things.
I gingerly lifted the comforter to expose a snake, a large, nasty looking snake: a highly venomous asp! They were the worst and especially deadly for those people with pronounced lisps who needed to urgently yell for help.
With the butt of my shotgun, I ruthlessly beat the crap out of the snake and realized that guns really do kill. My many long years of terrorism training and on-the-job experience had finally come in handy. I eventually picked up the thing with the barrel of my shotgun, carried it ever so carefully down the path and deposited it in the nearest trash container. I did the same with my sheets and comforter. I left a note in plain English for the Afghan trash collectors warning them to be careful opening the container’s lid since the snake might have survived the beating. It might be a little rambunctious as a result.
In Afghanistan, nothing went to waste these days. The garbage men would sell the snake’s skin to the souk’s craftsmen. These artisans would skillfully create beautiful billfolds and key chains to keep up with the market demands of their countrymen. The collectors would feed its meat to their desperately hungry children who lacked protein and fiber. They would then sell its venom glands to apothecaries who would turn them into aphrodisiacs for limp and hopeful Afghan eunuchs. At that moment, I was terribly proud to be an American. I was always thoughtful and considerate of the feelings of others too. Regrettably, my handwriting was mostly illegible.
I searched my room from top to bottom looking for any evidence of other critters or other friendly gifts of a lethal nature. I found none, the place was clean—well sort of. But I was now concerned about life-and-death matters rather than cleanliness; despite the fact it was next to godliness. Who would put an asp in my bed to kill me or scare me off the case? I wondered.
This was very serious stuff. It was the attempted murder of a federal official on official, federal business, assigned to an official U.S. government facility, officially dealing with overly officious people. Things didn’t get much worse in the game of snake or mouse.
Those responsible for the reprehensible and dastardly deed would pay dearly. I was honor bound not to say I was going to “find the sleazy fucks that did this, cut off their balls and shove them down their miserable throats until they choked to death.” There was no place for such vulgar language in proper diplomatic discourse.
Sometimes those who served and protected were much too prissy and polite for their own good.
I didn’t like the little snake routine because it was a rude, crude and cruel act of intimidation. Its untimely death was also contrary to the spirit of the ASPCA. I knew who arranged this little caper—Mr. Tommy Thompson. His guilt was as plain as the nose on his face. Well, in fairness, it wasn’t his nose I was picking on. I found him guilty by virtue of his facial tics and his smarmy British accent. As an American, I detested foreigners who spoke better English than I did.
However, I vowed that I would hoist him by his own petard, meaning I would thrust my lance into his guts and watch him squirm while he screamed in terrible agony. I would not listen to his abject pleas for mercy. It was obvious that I was a tad bit out of sorts as we said in the Foreign Service. That was the rough equivalent of anyone else saying that they were totally pissed; sorry, I meant miffed. As an offensive guy, I didn’t like to be on the defensive. I liked to seize the initiative and screw other people over first. Tommy was going to pay a very big price for his ill-considered misdeed. Payback wasn’t a bitch, it was an angry Dick.
I kept a close eye on Tommy; what we called close quarters surveillance in the biz. A little before eight o’clock one night, I noticed him leaving his CONEX wearing a black burka. I was immediately suspicious since the blue ones were much more popular on the compound. I discreetly followed him through the tunnel to the other side. He walked straight to one of the staff apartment buildings and went inside. I snuck in through the door and saw him enter the building’s recreation room and I did the same. It turned out to be the weekly embassy AA meeting. Main State had several chapters and I had attended meetings there off-and-on over the years. So it was no big surprise that there would a chapter in Kabul.
Tommy sat in the first row of chairs and I sat in the back. The fifteen or so people in the room were also wearing burkas, mostly blue, but there were a few black ones as well. They also wore niqabs, the traditional Arab face covers. I was the only person not wearing a costume. I didn’t have proper attire for the occasion. As a Foreign Service officer, I was thoroughly chagrined. I later learned the burkas and niqabs were worn to protect the identities of the attendees. The embassy was fairly small and people knew each other. This chapter took privacy, anonymity, and confidentiality quite seriously. I decided to stay despite my deep embarrassment.
The next thirty minutes consisted of stories of addiction, sorrow, and remorse: of marriages and careers ruined, of recurring bouts of depression, self doubt, and searing thoughts of suicide. I’d heard it all before: simply a different time and place for such recriminations. These poor souls clung to the flimsy hope that they could overcome their addiction and lead happy, normal lives free of self-destructive behavior—lives free of pain and anguish.
When it came to my turn, I stood, cleared my throat, and clearly announced the obvious. “I’m Avery and I’m an ASSHOLE!” My voice quavered when I spoke the word.
The group came back with an enthusiastic “Hi Avery.” I felt the sincerity and warmth in their voices and I gave a little wave of my hand in appreciation.
“I’ve been an asshole most of my life, not a complete one, but an asshole nonetheless. My problem started almost immediately after joining the department. I found my colleagues and coworkers constantly joking, punning, pimping, and laughing at the inner workings of the foreign affairs establishment. The most tragic world events, along with the State Department’s equally tragic responses, would bring tears of laughter to their eyes. The offensive wordplay never stopped and it was excruciating. I couldn’t avoid hearing the incessant Polack jokes and the little sexist, racist, and ethnic slurs, and double entendres. I eventually picked up the nasty habit and it’s been downhill ever since. May God forgive me!”
I wiped my brow with my sleeve and continued my confession. “My gag reflex was just too damn strong. I’ve been sober now for over forty-five minutes, but I’m feeling very edgy.”
I sat down and rested my chin on my chest for the rest of the meeting. I was loudly applauded for my disclosure and candor. Their warmth and acceptance of my problem, my addiction, was overwhelming. I now didn’t mind looking like a frumpy, out-of-place clothes hound. If I weren’t such an unrepentant bunghole, I might have been able to shed a few tears. Of course, they would have been crocodilian if I could’ve removed the scales from my eyes.
Drinks were served after the meeting. We might all be assholes in the Foreign Service, but we still enjoyed our booze. I ordered a wine because I was still on the wagon and I couldn’t have anything stronger. Real men didn’t need anything stronger because it was all about taking one step at a time. I observed Tommy and a shorter nun talking in a far corner of the room. I couldn’t overhear what they were saying, but their dervish-like movements suggested a heated argument. I confidently reached this conclusion by the looks of their swirling burkas.
I vowed then to never wear a burka because my body language would be too easy to read and I also didn’t want to get into another bad habit. I later followed Tommy back to his digs and then I went to mine. I was exhausted and emotionally drained.
Sometimes self-disclosure was a distasteful, painful exercise for those incorrigible assholes that served and protected.
I continued with my education and orientation over the next few days and learned the operations of the Ajax local guard task force from top to bottom. I now knew the ins-and-outs of its recruitment procedures, fixed and mobile deployments, salary and benefits structure, time and attendance regimens, firearms qualifications and re-qualifications data, billing arrangements and numerous other mind numbing details. I counted how many angels Ajax could fit on the head of a pin. I had serious trouble keeping my face from hitting the desk.
I walked the guard posts with Ajax supervisors and rode the guarded convoys that transported staff to the military commissaries and PXs in the city. Virtually every guard was a non-American. They were recruited from a wide variety of countries where jobs were scarce, pay was low, and a strong work ethic still existed. Many came from the ranks of their country’s police agencies and the military. They arrived in Kabul with high expectations, certain basic levels of training, some experience, and a shared desire to make big bucks. Disciplinary problems were few because nobody wanted to fuck-up the apple cart.
It was Friday night and that meant the Fire Pit on the chancery side. Fridays and Saturdays were days off for Muslims. Foreigners had great difficulty getting their workweeks straight here. There could be no “Saturday Night Fever” when you knew you had to get up early the following morning and go to work. The Pit was the social gathering spot for embassy employees and guests. It also held bingo and karaoke events on alternating Fridays.
These casual get-togethers were the embassy highlights for the week. The Pit was the place for outrageous drinking and equally outrageous behavior for those who needed to chill. It was a popular, local R&R spot for embassy staffers and their friends and it served as hub-central for weekend hookups as well. One never could be sure about the future, so people partied with wanton abandon. In this dangerous environment, people never knew when or where they might go down for their country.
I easily spotted Irena in the crowd. She was the woman surrounded by all the guys wagging their tongues and tails. I went to the bar and ordered a glass of Zinfandel, my drink of choice. I sat at an empty table towards the bottom of the Pit and listened to ABBA, Boney M, and the Stones being played in the background. It must have been oldies night and a fitting tribute to a guy like me. The music didn’t seem to interfere with the calling out of the bingo numbers to a less than rapt audience.
I caught Irena glancing my way a couple of times. She was a gorgeous woman, actually drop-dead hot in the parlance of those slightly younger than me. I was drop-dead in heat for her despite her nasty antics at the pool. Well, truthfully, because of her nasty antics, perhaps. Eventually, she joined me at my table.
For the next two hours, we drank and talked about nothing in particular. She shared some of her experiences growing up in Minsk. She said she had been a member of the 2000 Belarus Olympic gymnastics team and enjoyed all sports, especially water sports. I shared nothing with her. However, when I could get away with it, I stared at her face and body.
Unfortunately, I couldn't remember the color of her eyes, but they must have been pretty. She caught me looking at her several times and knew what I was thinking. She laughed at all of my stupid, little jokes because she thought I was particularly urbane and witty. I knew this to be true because she told me so several times. At one point, she reached over and squeezed my upper thigh. The drinks made us mellow and giddy and we soon became best friends. By the way, Irena bought all of the rounds. That was the way it was done between new best friends. That was also the way it was done between government contractors and government officials.
Of course, it was all too obvious what Irena was up to. It was the oldest ploy in the book and I was offended both personally and professionally. This was nothing more than a crude attempt to entrap me in a compromising situation. I found the ploy almost laughable. The department had dealt with honey pot operations for decades during the Cold War. The Soviets, and their commie lackeys, had frequently used this intelligence technique against American officials and businessmen traveling and working abroad.
In short, the KGB would dangle attractive, often vulnerable appearing, women before naive and unsuspecting officials. These pretty harpies would flit and flutter around their targets. They would coo softly about deep love, carnal desires, and thoughts of world peace. Next, they would fly off with raw meat clasped in their talons to secluded dovecotes. There, they would devour their meals, usually over several feedings.
The pictures and/or videos would then be shown to the officials at a private screening. These were never held at locations of their choosing. The bad guys would threaten to expose their body parts and functions for all to see. In this instance, that meant their wives, kids and employers. Their careers and lives would be finished and they would go straight to jail and then to Hell for their indiscretions. Sometimes these scams worked like in the cases of Marine Sergeant Clayton Lonetree in Moscow in 1987 and much earlier with Irvin Scarbeck, a Foreign Service officer. Remember, those were the days of strict non-fraternization with the locals.
Bangkok and Manila were popular R&R destinations for unattached Foreign Service males serving in Soviet bloc countries, especially for those with intense hormones and little patience for courting department-approved women. Actually, they were popular destinations for all Foreign Service officers who enjoyed sex on the cheap. In my day, these female spies were aptly dubbed swallows. Most of us in the Foreign Service were much too sophisticated to fall for such obvious entrapments.
I let Irena fuck my brains out later that evening and we had great sex. The Tantric maneuvers, coupled with my raging priapic condition, kept her begging for less all night. She felt like raw meat the next morning, but I couldn’t wait to see the video. I only hoped the production values would be good. I already had some clever ideas about marketing it to one of the major fluffers in LA.
Sometimes those who served and protected were seminal entrepreneurs when it came to matters of the heart.
I continued my walkabout for almost another week. I reviewed all documentation relating to Ajax’s task to protect the ambassador and other high ranking officials. I learned that most of their security personnel had a background in VIP protection, gained through service in the military or prior federal experience. They were well trained by Ajax and commanded higher pay and benefits than the regular security guards. Their retention rate was high since they received bonuses for staying and returning, if invited back by Ajax. It seemed to be a professional, well- run operation.
I laid on my bed thinking, but I tried to limit this activity as much as possible to preserve my precious bodily fluids. I needed to maintain my strength because the case would be solved by clear thinking and not just good strokes of luck. They had tried to kill me with the snake bit. They had tried to co-opt and seduce me through Irena. What next, a hefty bribe to back off the case? Yes, that was exactly what these arrogant jerks did!
When I opened the door to my room the next morning, I was greeted by ten large boxes that had been carefully stacked outside. I borrowed a ladder from maintenance and brought down each one. There were neatly wrapped bundles of Afghani scoots in each box totaling $9,453.11. In one box was a note with words and letters cut from the embassy’s newsletter, The Cobbler. It was called a night letter in the local lingo.
The Taliban would leave notes on the doorsteps of the homes of the embassy’s local staff warning them to quit working for the infidels or face the wrath of Allah. These sometimes worked. Regardless, my missive was plain, simple, and to the point. I was to immediately stop the investigation. It actually used the words quit fucking with us, asshole. That might have been a subtle clue that the note wasn’t written by the Taliban. The syntax just didn’t seem right. If I didn’t stop, I would suffer a tragic accident: one that would be life threatening.
I had the boxes, sans note, taken to the embassy disbursing office. I made a donation to the government by telling the clerk to credit the money to the embassy’s general account ledger. I got a signed receipt because I would need it at tax time.
These guys were offensive, miserly, and not overly clever. They could have simply slipped an envelope stuffed with large green under my door. I might even have accepted it. Well, that wasn’t true; it wasn’t nearly enough. It was now time to contact my good friend, one Mr. Jersey Briggs.
I emailed Jersey later that day from my laptop using his personal AOL address. Regrettably, the embassy’s complex and sophisticated telecommunications system was too insecure. I told Jersey that someone had ordered one very serious fatwa on me. I didn’t think it came from the Taliban. I asked for backup as soon as possible because I couldn’t concentrate on my investigation and watch my backside at the same time. He later emailed back saying he understood and would come up with a game plan for my protection.
I also emailed Dan Sykes since I owed him a status report. I used his personal email account as well. As Secretary of State Henry Stimson famously said in 1929, “Gentlemen do not read each others’ mail.” Of course, he was full of crap, to put it diplomatically.
Sometimes those who served and protected found there were no gentlemen or women in this disingenuous game of spy versus spy.
I bided my time while cooling my heels. I continued to read the documentation provided by Tommy Thompson on Ajax’s operations in Afghanistan. They were making a tidy sum off their efforts and I was green with envy.
Jersey finally got back to me with a plan and the name of someone who would be my alter ego and backup on the ground. That someone would protect my butt. And I couldn’t have wished for a better agent. My stars were finally aligning. Or so I hoped.
Rex Gallant was his proper name. His DS nom de guerre was Ramboy, a Rambo-like action figure who’d stick it to someone without a moment’s hesitation. Rex had been a U.S. Navy Seal, assigned to Team Six for eight years. He joined the Navy straight out of high school like many of his classmates who couldn’t find jobs in the rust belt of Ohio. During his career, he was assigned some of the most demanding and dangerous jobs around the world. He protected high value foreign officials friendly to the United States. He and his team tracked down and captured or killed foreign terrorists and insurgents on America’s hit list. He was good at what he did without any remorse. Maybe sociopath would serve as a good handle for Rex too.
Rex resigned from the Navy because he became bored with the military mindset and rigmarole—a maverick at heart. He used his GI bill to get his bachelors, and later masters, degree in international relations from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Affairs. He had been with DS for just over seven years and had graduated first in his basic agents’ class of twenty-eight students. He had undergone virtually all types of tactical intelligence, anti- and counter terrorism, security and protection training known to man and the U.S. government, and a few foreign ones as well.
He was a crack shot, a black belt in karate, a paramedic, and a Para-jumper. He was a highly effective killer of men when circumstances required it. DS even put him through the Stranger-Danger course offered by the Fairfax County school system so he could spot and neutralize any pedophiles in the department. He successfully zeroed in on several childish Foreign Service officers over several months by trolling the Internet on the kiddie porn sites. Like the rest of us, he could take on the role of a pubescent girl seeking sex from a 50 plus year old gentleman when the job called for it. Carnal, as well as other, knowledge came in handy from time-to-time in this biz. In sum, Rex was a consummate covert operator skilled in all the black arts of the trade. I now felt secure.
Rex was fast-tracked for overseas assignment given his intelligence, skills, background and experience. He served as an assistant regional security officer in Monrovia and Haiti during the bad times. He was now the deputy RSO in Islamabad; just a short hop, skip and jump from Kabul. Rex had also done a stint more recently in Afghanistan protecting President Hamid Karzai. As a result, he knew the country fairly well. This experience would be invaluable for what I had in mind. Rex would be my shadow; my eyes and ears away from the embassy. He’d watch my backside when I couldn’t. Better yet, I would no longer have to carry a pocket mirror around with me. More than simple vanity, the mirror was a useful tool of the trade. In DS, hindsight was believed to be much clearer and more focused. Objects always appeared much smaller and less intimidating in the rear view. In any case, Rex would be my very own Ramboy.
Rex would enter the country without embassy knowledge or permission. I’d put him up at the Serena Hotel downtown under an assumed name. I thought Mohammed M. Mohammed would be a good choice. In DS, we liked to keep things simple and memorable. I would arrange for a meet and assist at the airport since he would be bringing a large goodie bag. Ahmed picked up Rex at the airport two days later and ensconced him in the hotel as planned. He enjoyed a quiet afternoon at the pool, but it would be some time before he could relax again. The needs of the service dictum would soon fully occupy his time and talents.
Sometimes those who served and protected didn’t get many respites from danger or sunburn.
I was frustrated and piqued. No, I was pissed. I was going nowhere less than fast. I knew I wasn’t going to crack the case by poring over invoices, contract amendments, and payroll data submitted and manipulated by Tommy. I had to get the goods on him the old fashioned way. I’d steal those goods and let the legal beagles sort things out later. U.S. case law was a little skimpy and sketchy on the subject of reasonable search-and-seizure procedures in war-torn Afghanistan. Maybe my investigation would set a new precedent. Regardless, Ahmed had told me that Tommy Thompson had a home away from home downtown. The locals didn’t miss a thing.
I prepared for my evening’s entertainment by donning a black, hooded jumpsuit. I attached my tool bag to my utility belt and forcefully shoved Ms. Smith, butt-up, down into my crotch. I had sewn a hidden pocket there because I didn’t want my gun discovered if I were stopped and frisked. Muslim cops were terribly squeamish about searching one’s privates, regardless of rank. Not only India had untouchables tucked into unmentionables.
I blackened my face with axel grease and put on a black nikab just to be safe. I looked at myself in the mirror and was pleased with its reflection. It was a perfect guise for a perfect role: a Nubian religious pilgrim lost and confused in a strange land. I was hoping it might fool the local authorities if I got caught, inshalla. I slunk out of the compound and met Ahmed and Rex on the street.
As a team, we would maintain a very low-key and subtle profile; meaning that we wouldn’t ride in a tricked-out Chevy Suburban. Ahmed had arranged for his brother, Rashid, to take us in his taxi since we didn’t want to draw any undue attention. I noticed that Rashid had mounted a bobble head of Joe Camel on his dashboard. Joe had gained a cult-like following in much of the Middle East. He had come to symbolize the virtues of loyalty and steadfastness, especially for those Arabs who would walk a mile for their camels. We needed to embody those same virtues for our mission and Joe’s presence had a calming effect on all of us. He would be our St. Christopher, our St. Jude, as we went forth this night in a Jesus-less land.
We cautiously negotiated the dirty, narrow, crowded back streets of the city. Not so coincidentally, the front streets looked much the same. We parked down the block from Tommy Thompson’s pied-a-terre. It was going to be an easy black bag job for someone with my talents, experience, and skills. Ahmed, his brother, and Rex would serve as lookouts and intercept anyone who might enter. That would be done by ruse, bribe or lead sap, depending on the circumstances.
Tommy’s pad was in a two-story walkup building in a neighborhood located fairly close to the embassy. His unit was on the middle floor and as I entered the foyer, I unscrewed the single 40-watt light bulb. I immediately bit down hard on my lower lip to stifle a scream. I’d forgotten to put on my black driving gloves. I wisely put on my gloves along with my night vision goggles. Those let me see clearly in otherwise dark places. The gloves didn’t make any difference since the building’s Braille signs were in Arabic.
I stealthily took the stairs by twos and stood outside Tommy’s door. The door looked old and the lock even more so. It was an old skeleton key design. I opened my toolkit and removed a large piece of newspaper and a slim ballpoint pen. DS agents were well-versed in the arts of lock-picking since we were required to take the DAME course at the DS Training Academy in Dunn Loring, Virginia.
DAME was not a derogatory, sexist term. It stood for Defense against Methods of Entry. The course taught DS agents the latest in locking mechanisms and devices. This tradecraft was taught so we could apply the most advanced security techniques and technology in deterring, detecting or mitigating forcible or surreptitious entry to our embassies. Of course, the training taught us how to use the dark side of such things as well. For example, we knew how to pick, bypass or otherwise compromise door locks; attack and manipulate combination locks on safes and vaults; and, most importantly, how to quickly open locked liquor cabinets without being caught.
I slid the newspaper under the door and pushed the pen through the keyhole. As I had hoped, Tommy had left the key in his door. The key dropped on the paper and I carefully pulled the paper to me. I now had his key in my hand and inserted it into the lock and slowly and quietly pushed the door open. It abruptly stopped after about six inches. Tommy had installed a chain lock for added protection, but it was no problem for us DAMEs.
I took out a rubber band, a paperclip, and a piece of adhesive tape from my toolkit. I put the pieces together by bending the paperclip into a hook and attaching it to the rubber band. These were attached to the tape. I put my arm through the door opening and placed the bent clip into a link of chain. I stretched the contraption and secured the tape to the back of the door. I closed the door and the chain was easily pulled out of its keeper. The door was now open.
I crept into the apartment and didn’t even consider searching any room other than Tommy’s bedroom. I didn’t want to waste my time. I shot several strands of Silly String high in the air and watched them harmlessly float to the floor. I wanted to make certain that Tommy hadn’t set up any alarm trip wires to alert him to intruders. He hadn’t. I slowly opened the door to the master bedroom and saw Tommy sleeping with his back to me and snoring loudly.
I tiptoed by him and went straight for his drawers since these were classic hiding places for things of great import, such as the family jewels, especially for men. I went directly for his underwear, not even bothering with the other drawers in the chest. People naturally were very queasy about opening someone else’s underwear drawer. It was much too rude, personal, and offensive, so it was often overlooked during law enforcement searches. I think it had to do with our innate sense of propriety.
We had been taught an important investigative trick during basic agents training. The instructor had us remove our underwear in class to break this aversion. It made no difference if you were a male, female or a metro-sexual agent. All of us had to undergo this humiliating treatment in front of the others. We had to deposit our boxers, briefs, panties or whatever in a dresser drawer located at the front of the classroom. Those not wearing underwear were immediately washed out of training. The organization had a strict dress code. Involvement in a serious traffic accident or other incident could place the individual agent, and DS, in a most embarrassing and compromising situation.
The instructor would hide a gun, a classified document, passport, maybe a framed photo of J. Edgar Hoover, or other contraband in one of the drawers to hone our tactile abilities. We were blindfolded and told to open the correct drawer and find the item. Those who exhibited the slightest reluctance to do so were ridiculed by the instructor. He made us practice this technique over and over until we sated his sick sense of humor. My classmates and I became very close during training and we remained so to this day. We still did a little panting routine on the phone to tease each other and reminisce about that special time in our careers.
I had the advantage of owning the night with my goggles. I could clearly see the neatly arranged pairs of Kirkland tightie-whities in the drawer. Tommy and I were kinsmen in this regard. I saw two CDs with the word Ajax written on their covers. I also saw a CD of the latest Jenna Jameson flick and quickly liberated all three.
Suddenly, the bedside phone rang. Initially, I froze, but was able to dive under the bed before Tommy fully awoke. The conversation lasted less than a minute. Tommy mentioned Kandahar, snow, visitors, and other things I couldn’t make out from under the bed. Until then, I hadn’t fully appreciated just how far the Afghan economy had come in the past few years. A ski resort in the south of the country would bring tourist dollars to this impoverished nation. This was a classic example of American business enterprise being practiced outside our borders. Well, maybe not exactly. In a very real sense, we were the loco parents for this troubled country.
Tommy eventually went back to sleep. He was intermittently snoring and grinding his teeth, except when he was babbling about Irena and her sexual prowess. I whispered back that I’d already had a taste and she was sweet. I firmly believed that subliminal suggestions were often the most tasteful. However, Tommy badly needed a Breath-Right nose strip, a mouth guard, and a large dose of saltpeter. I quietly slipped out of his apartment and out of the building.
It was all high-fives back at the taxi. Rashid didn’t understand, but he gave us a hand anyway. We celebrated our exploits later at the embassy’s Marine House bar. Due to strict Muslim law, liquor was absolutely forbidden; except on sovereign U.S. soil in a foreign country. I was very impressed that the Koran clearly recognized this important exception to the rule.
Sometimes those who protected and served had to bend the rules and elbows to meet their own high standards of conduct.
I woke up early the next morning because I couldn’t wait to look at the computer disks I had borrowed from Tommy. I loaded the first disk marked Ajax into the CD slot of my laptop. I planned to get through both Ajax disks today, but would keep the Jenna Jameson docudrama for later when I was up for it. I spent the next four hours examining the information on the CDs.
It seemed Tommy and his cohorts had developed a very clever and lucrative scam to defraud at least two U.S. government agencies of close to twenty-seven million dollars by my quick guesstimate, maybe more depending on the full extent of the matter. He was also guilty of incredible arrogance thinking he could get away with this nonsense. For his arrogance alone, he would feel the merciless blade of Avery Dick’s terrible, swift sword.
The scheme, or I should say schemes, had interrelated elements to maximize Tommy’s profits. It started with the fact that Ajax had over sixty-five ghost employees on its payroll. This was out of a purported total of 328 guards, trainers, and protection agents assigned under contract to the embassy. The State Department was being billed month after month for nonexistent people and services. Padding the old payroll was not a particularly remarkable defalcation. Money, especially U.S. government money, was plentiful and ripe for taking under the circumstances. It was a not so uncommon business practice in Afghanistan and Iraq, although wholly unethical and illegal. If you weren’t clever and lucky, you did not pass GO—you went directly to jail.
Ajax, like all other contractors, billed the department at what was called a loaded hourly rate. The rate included a base rate of pay for each security position specified in the contract. The rate then greatly swelled with the inclusion of pro rata medical, disability and life insurance benefits, housing costs, meal allowances, hardship differentials and danger provisos. A modest (or immodest, if you prefer) profit and administrative fee were then added on top—also known as a billable hour.
In this instance, the department was billed forty-five dollars per hour for every Ajax employee, 24/7, 365 days a year. One ghost guard position was costing the department $394,200 a year. Of course, supervisory ghost positions were billed at a higher loaded rate. Those numbers added up to about twenty-five million dollars annually in fraudulent charges by my quick count. The typical Ajax gate guard made about twenty dollars an hour and received a dorm bunk along with meager food chits for the embassy cafeteria.
Tommy submitted his monthly Ajax invoices to RSO Larry Bumpkiss. Larry would check them for accuracy and certify their correctness for payment. Obviously, Larry was asleep at the switch. On a spot check basis, he should have matched names and hours worked with a real body. He hadn’t and he was negligent and maybe culpable as well. The bill was then sent to disbursement for processing and payment. A check was then cut to Ajax Afghanistan, Ltd. The payment would go into the local Ajax bank account controlled by Tommy Thompson. Tommy would later send a wire transfer of funds to Ajax London, less the money he’d skimmed for the ghosts. He kept the existence of their nonexistence secret from the home office. The books always balanced since they were well-cooked.
Tommy found even greater utility for his phantoms. Merely billing the department for their loyal service to the United States didn’t satisfy his greed. He also killed them off when he had the chance. He forced them to commit suicide or experience horrendous traffic accidents on the notoriously dangerous roads of Afghanistan. These terrible things invariably occurred on the job. After all, it was a war zone and bad things did happen to good people. Death benefits, medical costs, and monthly disability allowances had to be paid to these employees or spouses and/or children.
Sometimes it was only right and fair to justly compensate those who served and protected.
The Defense Base Act of 1941 was passed by Congress to protect all civilian contract personnel, regardless of nationality, working overseas for the U.S. government. It was essentially an extension of U.S. workman compensation laws for those working abroad. It was especially important for those living and working in war zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Don’t let the word defense fool you though. Through many amendments, the work didn’t have to be related to defense or national security. Someone only needed to be an employee or an independent consultant working for a U.S. contractor who was working for Uncle Sam overseas.
The law required all such companies to participate in the act’s provisions or face severe penalties. Companies contributed a modest sum for each employee into a pool of money administered by the U.S. Department of Labor. Labor handled all claims and other matters concerning the act. Like workmen’s comp, the act covered deaths and injuries resulting from on-the-job accidents. Its rules for compensation were unusually liberal in defining a work-related incident. Everything in Afghanistan was work related. It was an American war zone and a place of unlimited financial opportunities for those willing to seize them. The disks disclosed at least nine incidences of fraud perpetrated by Tommy against the U.S. Department of Labor.
Moses Amdulla was a ghost Nigerian who died in a terrible car accident while driving to an Ajax meeting held at the embassy. His wife and children in Lagos received a lump sum payment of $152,000, plus the costs to send his body home and a flat $3,000 stipend to cover his funeral expenses. The family, if it had existed, would live handsomely off the U.S. government’s largesse.
In reality, the money was wired to a fictitious bank account in Lagos opened by one of Tommy’s cronies. He or she would withdraw the cash and keep a fee for services rendered. The rest would be wired to a numbered account in the Grand Caymans for Tommy and his associates. I said associates because the logistical dimensions of this scam were too big for one person. Several cretins were involved in ripping off Uncle Sam.
Filipino Hector Arroyas died by his own hand or I should have said gun. He swallowed his pistol while standing post. He was suffering severe depression over being separated so long from his lovely wife, Emilia. She and Hector had nine children from their six year union. Emilia visited the consular section at the U.S. embassy in Manila to pick up the check. She later dutifully wired the $181,000.43, less her fee, to the Caymans. It was one tragic, heartrending story after another.
These fairytales alone ended up costing the government approximately 1.2 million dollars. It was small change for Tommy and his buddies, but it was largely a game for him to see just how far he could push the pay envelope. Tommy would fill out the claim forms with great authority and imaginative flair. As Ajax’s local representative, he would certify the information to be true and correct to the best of his knowledge.
He would take the completed paperwork to the embassy’s consular section where one of the officers would notarize each document and emboss it with the U.S. Seal. It didn’t get more authoritative or official than that. Tommy was determined to feed his piggy bank until it broke under its own weight.
Tommy then added insult to his injury to U.S. coffers. Once a month, he would have tens of thousands of U.S. dollars wired from the Caymans to his private account in Kabul. He would withdraw the money in cash and take it to the big money-changers in the city. There he would exchange his green for Afghanis at a highly favorable rate of exchange. The black market rate was typically 30 to 40 percent higher than the artificial, but official, rate set by the government of Afghanistan to prop up its currency. Tommy would then take the scoots to the embassy’s currency exchange and do what was called a reverse accommodation of funds. He would convert the scoots back into U.S. dollars at the official rate and make a tidy profit from the transaction.
Large, reverse accommodations were usually only permitted at the end of a Foreign Service officer’s tour. That was when the officer would sell his or her car, furniture, first born and anything else of value before leaving post. He or she would price everything in scoots and insist on selling at the current black market rate, not the official exchange rate. This represented the true value of the merchandise in the local economy. I had no idea how much money Tommy made off this scam. Much later, I found he had been granted a special dispensation for these transactions by the embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Ambrose Pierce.
I was ecstatic! I had cracked the case wide open. Book him Dan-o, I mentally exclaimed. I poured myself a glass of Zinfandel to celebrate. The IG’s forensic accountants could easily piece things together and build a solid case against these guys. The names, dates, amounts of money, and bank account numbers in the CDs were damning. More importantly, the evidence would be actionable and persuasive in court. The rest of my investigation would be routine. I could wrap-up the loose ends within a week or so and I’d be home with my sons for Christmas.
I sent Dan Sykes a lengthy email message about what I had found. He said he was pleased and would forward the information to his team in Iraq. If it was going on here, it was certainly going on in Iraq. I decided not to write Jersey Briggs. I didn’t want this discovery to leak to the department Dragons or news media.
Sometimes silence was the better part of valor for those who wished to continue to serve and protect.
Rude and Crude Awakening
I had a date tonight with Jenna and admitted to myself that I was a bit nervous. I’d been having impure thoughts since rescuing her from Tommy’s apartment and was worried that she could sense my anxiety and urgency and it would be a turnoff for her. I’d met her briefly before, but had run out of quarters before consummating a close friendship. However, from our brief encounter, I was already strongly drawn to her bright smile, cute Midwestern accent, and other coming attractions. Tonight would be different though. Tonight would be the night!
I stripped off my filthy clothes and headed to the bathroom. I brushed my teeth, shaved, and flossed. I trimmed my eyebrows and nose and soaked my fingers in a solution of Arm & Hammer baking soda to remove the nicotine stains. I carefully Q-tipped my ears since I wanted to be aurally desirable for her. I then took a long shower, shampooing with the soap that I taken from the Radisson in Delhi. It had a manly scent of sour apples.
I paid special attention to my knees and the palms of my hands, my erogenous zones that I callously guarded. That was because in my position I sometimes had to get down on all fours and beg. I slicked my hairs back across my forehead. Lastly, I administered a coffee enema because I enjoyed a stimulating, low-colonic regimen of Joe now and then. It was relaxing except for the incessant reminders from Mrs. Olson that ‘it was good to the last drop.’
I vigorously toweled off to unleash my most powerful endorphin agents. I’d only release the pheromones as backup, just in case—I needed all the help I could get. I then put on my smoking jacket. I think coming clean with one’s partner was important in a relationship. It wasn’t only a matter of good hygiene, but a sign of respect. I wanted her to want me. I wanted so much from her. I only prayed she wouldn’t find me too needy and vulnerable.
I was extremely stiff since I hadn’t done this sort of thing in awhile. I had to be fluid and supple for Jenna so I did a couple of sit-ups and windmills to loosen up. I put on a samba record in the back of my mind, tossing aside its jacket cover with careless abandon. I’d worry about collecting it and my wits later. I think the song was The Girl from Ipanema, but I couldn’t be sure because of the strong back-beat of the Brazilian rhythms.
I lovingly took Jenna in my arms and we danced and pranced around my room. We dipped, swooned, entwined, and cavorted for the next ten minutes or so. I stopped a couple of times to change the record. By the way, she was surprisingly light on her feet. Regardless, my longing-loins were ablaze with pent-up desire for her.
However, there was still more to do to prepare for our amorous tryst. I poured two glasses of Zinfandel into clean Dixie cups and moved the room’s Gideon Bible to the bottom of the wardrobe closet. I turned it facedown and threw a couple of dirty towels over it just to be safe. I hoped to God that Mr. Gideon wasn’t a voyeur. If so, he’d later pay dearly for the privilege. Occasionally, I enjoyed hitting the books. I then lit three small wax candles and positioned them on top of the TV. I pulled out the wick from the air freshener bottle. It was cinnamon spice; spicy just like my Jenna. I was now in excruciating heat. I turned off the overhead light because I found that mood and ambiance were surefire seducers. Next, I leaned back in bed and lit a cigarette to calm my ardor. For what it was worth, I always smoked before sex. Actually, I smoked during and afterwards too.
I finally couldn’t contain myself anymore so I roughly grabbed Jenna by her CD and popped her cover. I slowly inserted her into the player in my laptop and turned up her volume a few notches. I wanted to hear and memorize her every utterance. That way, I’d be able to listen to the heady dialogue to the fullest. We set our love-play on slow-motion to limber us up. However, what I saw next really excited me, becoming even more alert and erect as a result.
For the next two hours, I kept my eyes focused on the screen. I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Instead of being greeted by Jenna Jameson au natural, the CD contained data and documentation describing a complex and elaborate scheme to spin straw into gold. It was beautiful and elegant in design. Whoever was involved in this stuff was scoring serious money—millions and millions of dollars by the looks of it. I was now in business and Christmas with my kids might have to wait.
Sometimes an insatiable appetite for porn was an admirable trait for those who served and protected.
I spent the next couple of days digesting what I’d discovered. This was one massive, mother of all mothers scheme. It was audacious. It was downright brilliant! Tommy’s other scams paled by comparison. I knew I had to follow the money to unravel the scheme’s intricacies and idiosyncrasies. We said follow the money in DS. We didn’t say follow the yellow brick road—that’s too crass and sissy even by department standards. Everyone else in federal law enforcement circles said the same thing though about the money. There was no sense of attribution, shame, or copyright protection among government plagiarists.
It was another day and another Afghani or scoot or greenback. You can take your pick of the litter. Today was a shitty one since I couldn’t duck an obligation to an embassy function at the junction. I’d been invited to the embassy’s annual Thanksgiving Day dinner gala. I was among the chosen few of everyone invited to the event. Thankfully, it only came around once a year because it called for wearing informal attire. We didn’t say clothes in the Foreign Service when a more elegant, snobbish word would suffice.
Formal attire would have meant a tuxedo and I refused to wear one all my years in the Foreign Service, except for the Marine Ball held in November to celebrate the Corps’ birthday. I did that out of respect for the Marine security guards who worked for me when I was an embassy regional security officer. Otherwise, I thought the tuxedo-wearers looked like a bunch of penguins, waddling around with a cocktail in one hand and a long cigarette holder in the other. I liked Burgess Meredith, but that was too much for me.
I picked a charcoal gray suit out of the wardrobe suite. It was the only one I had brought to post. It had better suit me, I joked to myself. I put on a heavily starched white shirt and added a nice floral tie. I hadn’t had a good-looking tie around my neck since I was assigned to the embassy in Bangkok in the early eighties. I shot my cuffs and gazed at myself in the mirror. I knew deep-down I still had the old panache and joie de vivre that lesser men lacked.
I absolutely detested these embassy shindigs. I recalled a July Fourth celebration I had attended at the ambassador’s residence in Panama some years earlier. Those were the days when General Manuel Noriega, the military dictator of Panama, was at the height of his power. Independence Day was a very special event for America and its numerous Panamanian guests. However, I was forcibly ejected from the party by the Marine security guards shortly after I arrived at the residence. I set back relations between the two countries by several days as a result of my antics. Yes, I ended up as the turd floating in the diplomatic punch bowl.
I showed up wearing a full-dress military uniform, one similar to the one worn by the generalissimo. It had medals, epaulets, ribbons, bright gold buttons and a red shoulder sash like I had seen in His Nib’s photos in the papers. That little bit of dressing-up was enough to get me booted, but I took things a wee bit further.
I hung a long piece of rope around my neck which dangled a potato in front of my crotch. In other words, I went as a dick-tater. I was forever on the outs with the ambassador after that diplomatic faux pas. However, I was hero-worshiped by everyone else at post, especially by the Panamanian staff. Manny Noriega was now Uncle Sam’s houseguest at a federal penitentiary in Florida and his independence celebration was still some years off.
I entered a large room in the chancery set up with tables, chairs and all the Thanksgiving fixings. I found a seat next to someone I didn’t know and didn’t really want to meet. I liked my own company and can carry on cogent conversations with my other selves for hours at a time. People filed into the room in singles, couples and groups. Most were hanging their heads in anticipation of the evening’s gala event. We all had to put on party hats featuring colorful turkeys. I thought the party favors were wholly appropriate for the occasion.
I then spotted Larry Bumpkiss and his entourage. It was easy since each DS agent was neatly dressed and wearing a Diplomatic Security Service pin on his or her jacket lapel. The lapel pins were especially useful on large protection details with multiple VIPs and multiple agencies protecting them. They were used to quickly identify friend from foe. The DS pin held a replica of the organization’s small gold shield on a red background.
It symbolized team spirit and pride for those so anointed to wear it. Many years earlier, a DS wag thought that a redesigned lapel pin could better capture the true nature of the Diplomatic Security Service. He suggested that a crossed knife and fork be placed over the shield. He was quickly advised that it wouldn’t be a career enhancing move on his part.
The shield survived in its present form for those less gluttonous agents who protected and served.
I noticed two female DS agents standing with Larry. By their posture and bearing alone, I could tell they were agents in good standing. Female agents were uncommon in DS until about 2000. That was when someone realized it was a new millennium—that was when someone realized that female and minority hiring was not only the right thing to do, but it was also required by federal statute. DS reacted by immediately going on a hiring frenzy to recruit women, the elderly, Mormons, illegal aliens, the deaf and/or mute, and especially the emotionally disturbed. Reds, tans, blacks, browns, yellows, mulattos and greens were especially good catches for the bureaucratic bottom anglers. DS was turning out to be a rainbow coalition.
Actually, DS would hire anyone who could tolerate its torturous and unending pre-employment investigation process. Perseverance and blind hopefulness were desirable personality traits for aspiring agents in those days. But DS was determined to cover the entire legal waterfront to avoid any hint of favoritism or any suggestion that it was only hiring white, Anglo Saxon males who graduated from name schools located in the northeastern parts of the States. The department quickly became fully committed to the principle of avoiding class-action lawsuits from any and all special interest and/or advocacy groups in America. It was another shining example of diversity in action. This was all accomplished in accord with the best traditions and self-interests of the State Department.
The evening went well considering such things. I avoided Larry and he avoided me. I drank my wine and ate the excellent food prepared by members of the embassy’s women’s association, the Kabul International Ladies’ Legation. Ambassador Heinz Caldwell capped off the evening with a short speech. He was flanked by the American flag and two Marine security guards wearing dress blues and standing at attention. The man was regally attired in a single-breasted, white tuxedo with satin peak lapels—his left lapel sported a large U.S. flag pin.
“Welcome to all,” he said. “And thank you for joining us tonight to celebrate Thanksgiving and the high-minded principles it represents to true patriots.”
He cleared his throat at bit and said “I speak of America’s forefathers’ vision of a strong, just, and compassionate nation. We are one great country of many peoples. As most of you in the Afghan intelligentsia appreciate, America was consecrated by God Almighty and his only son, Jesus. By the way folks, he’s not called damn Hay-Zeus,” he quickly clarified.
He added that he couldn’t fully vouch for Jesus Christ’s bona fides given his Hebraic heritage, but knew for a fact God was an American. To prove his point, he pulled a dollar bill out of his wallet and held it up for all to see. We immediately recognized what it was; the thing that no longer gave change back at McDonald’s. Regardless, he correctly pointed out the bill had the words “In God We Trust” prominently printed on its reverse.
“No right-minded American would ever entrust his money to a foreigner, so God must be an American. It’s only logical. We are one indivisible nation,” he continued.