Sunday, February 15, 2009


While waiting for the Baguio Immigration Office to open up again the other day after its one hour lunch break, a big, jovial British bloke started to chat me up, asking where I was from and what I was doing here, sounding almost relieved, if not genuinely excited, to hear that I hailed from Canada, and he mentioned quite casually that he had an aunt living in Canada, somewhere in the, where was it, the western part of the country, he believed, Vancouver, perhaps, though one could never be sure, and he smiled contentedly as he talked about how he had lived and worked for many years in Saudi Arabia, and how he had been rather nicely settled here in the Philippines for fifteen months or so with his sweetheart, and he was quite friendly, this chap was, embodying that kind of instant intimacy that seems to unite fellow strangers in a foreign land, and yet all through this short but pleasant conversation on this warm and sunny afternoon, sitting on the newly-painted blue benches next to the Korean restaurant, I couldn't help but think of this friendly, Santa-shaped Englishman as anything other than an undercover C.I.A agent, sussing me out and hoping to recruit another possible asset to his growing portfolio of underground, illicit potential.

Of course, it didn't help my paranoia that the paperback book nestled inside of my blag bag slung over my shoulder was titled: America At Night: The True Story of Two Rogue C.I.A. Operatives, Homeland Security Failures, Dirty Money, and a Plot to Steal the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election -- by the Former Intelligence Agent who Foiled the Plan.

Written by Larry Kolb, who spent twenty years in covert C.I.A. operations all over the world (including the Philippines), the book is an absolutely fascinating account of how he accidentally discovered that two possible C.I.A operatives were planning to somehow link one of John Kerrey's campaign managers with a telecommunications firm linked to Al-Qaida, and thus decisively tilt the American election in the Republicans favor once and for all and forever.

I've always loved a good conspiracy theory; I just like them to be plausible. (I finally abandoned my decades-long belief in the J.F.K.-assassination-conspiracy-industry because I no longer could find it credible, possible, or, yes, plausible.)

This book is plausible.

It's also riveting reading, because it kind of underlines what I've slowly learned for myself, living in Cambodia and the Philippines -- that the government can be corrupt, that powerful people will lie, that money rules the roost, and there's so much more going on underneath the placid surface of public life that to actually uncover the truth is not only disheartening and disillusioning -- it's also somewhat frightening.

This story also pulses with the implausibility of life itself. Months after actually having helped unravel this whole dastardly scheme, the author actually bumps into John Kerrey in New York City, as Kerrey steps out of a hotel. What are the odd of this? Check the tape, Kolb writes. Somewhere, in some forgotten canister in the corner of a dimly-lit room, there would be video tape of a certain day in December (or November, or whenever it was), tape taken from surveillance cameras on New York City intersections, or video from the hotel security camera. Quoting detective writer Dashiell Hammet, Kolb notes that since matter always comes into contact with other matter, there will always be a trail. Anybody and anything can be found.

That's the essence of the book, essentially --- the boring necessity of following random or shady leads, checking mind-numbingly arcane legal documents, sifting through dusty, moldy files. That's how conspiracies are discovered and uncovered; that's how facts are found or forgotten.

It reminded me of Bob Baer's book Fear No Evil, a similar account of an underworld that few of us even imagine, let alone acknowledge actually exists. (George Clooney's C.I.A. character in the film Syriana was modeled directly on Baer.) Both books essentially paint a portrait of a secret world controlled by people doing things we'd really rather not know about, lest sleep itself becomes a cherished, nostalgic memory.

This is not to say these authors are advocating a secrety society covertly running the planet. (Or, as David Icke insists at, a secrety society of lizard-people covertly running the planet.)

No, it's more subtle than that.

It's a world where deals are cut and plans are made that are, quite simply, not told to people. Where different people in different departments of different government agencies do not trust each other and do not trust themselves, and are willing to do whatever it takes in order not to fail, and where simple human, moral concerns are suspect and irrelevant in the cutthroat realm of commece and politics.

Where author Larry Kolb can sit in a meeting with the first George W.Bush and Kolb's close friend, Muhammed Ali (!), and Bush can enlist Ali to secretly go to Iran to talk to the Ayatollah to help close a deal that would release American hostages, with nobody in the political world, the media world, the real world, being none the wiser.

No grand conspiracies; no massive modes of deception and deceit.

Just guarded conversations in brightly lit rooms, and agents being briefed in dark expensive cars as they circle around the city so as to make detection and observation all the more difficult. Just fake names firmly stamped on counterfeit passports.

All very orderly.

And yet nobody is truly looking at the whole, the big picture, the intersecting point where ambitions collide and outcomes are determined.

As Kolk points out, in my favorite, most astute line of the book: The people who are bringing you the War On Terror are the same people who brought you The War On Drugs. And look how that turned out...

The essential point being: There are people in charge, yes, of course, but each individual has their own agenda, usually separate from that of their ostensible employers, and when these agendas collide, as they essentially must, chaos reigns.

Because people are nothing if not chaotic.

Which brings me back to my original point, that of being possibly recruited by the C.I.A. in Baguio.

Absurd, of course.

And yet...

As I wrote in this space a few years back, a Canadian gent the same age as myself I met while dining with other folks at a cafe in Cambodia gradually inquired about my Japanese ability, and then smoothly tried to recruit me into the Canadian version of the C.IA., specifically its international-eavesdropping division. When I emailed the contact person's info he provided, just for the hell of it, just to push the process as far along the path as it could possibly go, the man wrote me back and literally asked: "How did you get this email address? Here's the application information, but don't tell anyone you know who I am or that you've been in contact with me."

After that odd encounter and its aftermath (which my Social Studies class at Pine Grove Public School in St.Catharines most definitely did not adequately prepare me for), and after reading America At Night, with its constant cavalcade of undercover agents, contacts, people-who-are-not-who-they-claim-to-be, can you actually blame me for suspecting the true intentions of a kindly fifty-year old British gent who tried to strike up a conversation with me in Immigration office of a middle-sized city in the northern part of the Philippines?

After all, another middle-aged teacher I worked with here recently informed me that he did a lot of work in Virginia, for a government agency, though he wouldn't tell me which one, and that he had lived on various islands in the Caribbean that I'd never even heard of, doing work for the 'space program', and that Baguio was positively filled with C.I.A. folks, but he wouldn't say why. (There's a substantial terrorist outfit working alive and afloat down in the southern islands, but I thought Baguio was pretty safe. I thought.)

I'm probably being overdramatic.

The day is warm, and the sun is bright, and why not simply let the light of spring guide my way. To dwell in the shadows of life is a dark and lonely business.

And yet.

As I left the Immigration Office, I noticed that the rather large British gentleman I'd talked with a quarter of an hour earlier was stilling waiting for his passport to be processed. In the meantime, wiping sweat from his brow with a white handkerchief, adjusting his black-framed glasses, he started striking up a conversation with the two or three Somali men sitting beside him. Where were they from? How long had they been in the Philippines? Africa, you say? Splendid!

I put my passport in my bag and hurried home.