Monday, August 29, 2011

Seventh Raleigh Spy Conference: August 24-26 2011

I had heard about the Spy Conference several years ago, when they focused on female spies but had other places to go and things to do. This year, the timing worked.

The topic was: Spies Among US, the Secret World of Illegals concluding with former NSA/CIA director General Michael Hayden, reviewing the Bin Laden operation. Sponsored by a local magazine, the gathering is the major intelligence conference specifically for “civilians” by the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.

This year’s topic was inspired by the FBI’s detention of ten Russian illegals in the US last year, including the rather flamboyant Anna Chapman. It was fascinating to hear the back stories of this and other incidents, beginning with pre-WW2 and Rudolph Abel affair. And it did help that I joined up with a retired USAF colonel/ DIA agent and a British researcher - the Colonel and I being WEB Griffin fans. They identified various players in the Intelligence game. Also, one of the speakers, Nigel West, was familiar to me from a symposium in the UK several years ago - he is a prolific writer and facile speaker.

In addition to the British perspective, a former director of CIA’s clandestine service, gave a historical overview of use of illegals, who operate in addition to a foreign embassy’s legal staff in obtaining information. A retired Canadian intelligence officer talked about how prospective operatives transited via Canada. Another retired CIA officer - the “other man” in the Robert Hanssen case - discussed “the spies next door”, the ten individuals who were returned to Russia in exchange for four of ours.

There was a round table featuring the author of the new biography about OSS founder William Donovan - which has had very good reviews; a journalist who has a new book out on American-Chinese spy wars, and an ex-CIA officer who has concerns regarding covert influences on American/Western institutions.

The keynote address was the concluding event: General Hayden’s discussion of the Bin Laden operation, which involved at least ten years’ effort, several Presidents and CIA directors, before it came to fruition, I found it most interesting for I had recently heard Admiral Eric Olson, who headed up the Special Operations Command, talk - or avoid talking - about B-L take-down at the Aspen Security conference on C-Span several weeks ago. One comment General Hayden made which caught my attention was that the CIA is reverting to its roots, using more of the OSS approach - which was to the good. Considering that Petreaus and Panetta had done a bit of a switch, it fits - see John Berry’s June piece, Obama’s Secret Wars (Daily Beast).

It was largely the gray-haired set that attended the two day event: active and retired veterans of various government agencies, researchers, interested citizens and IT “groupies”. Unlike me, many had come before - there have been seven previous conferences. There were handouts from the CIA Historical Collections division and books for sale by participants. The two social gatherings featured marvelous buffets - one at an excellent restaurant and the other at a jazz club - : live music with bass, guitar and vibes, with a sometime tenor sax.

I stayed downtown. As there are no overpasses or ring roads, all the traffic charges through the City. I did a fair amount of walking, including into the Farmer’s Market which was alive, interesting and active as Farmer’s Markets tend to be. Buildings range from old brick and stone to modern concrete and glass. There is some greenery with trees along the walkways and kept - and unkept - grounds..

I would return, but only for the Spy Conference.

There was the threat of hurricane Irene so I left Friday afternoon rather than Saturday morning - United was most helpful in changing the flight even though I was traveling on miles. And the airport is most modern and comfortable and with a second hand bookstore - I did make use of that. So home midnight Friday, to be greeted by a loving Siamese.

With use of FF miles for airfare, cost ran less than $700: United Airlines ($40), hotel ($240), meals ($50), conference fee($150) shuttle ($40) and cat care ($140).

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Book Recommendation

A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East

James Barr has a new book out. Simply put, a good read and I recommend it.

I’ve wandered about the Middle East a bit and done a fair amount of reading about the area particularly from WW1 through WW2. And I have a fascination with the predominately British characters who haunted the area, for self and Empire. In my simplistic script, the French were the Bad Guys, holding the Arabs back. So did the Brits, but I was inclined to forgive them. After all, they had TE Lawrence in his flowing robes.

And that certainly didn’t endear them to the French!

The French are still the Bad Guys - not that the Brits were always the Good Guys. Both were out for what they could get, damn the torpedoes - or rather, the Arabs. And James Barr’s latest work is about the over the thirty-four year competition between the two countries to obtain/retain supremacy in the Middle East.

It isn’t just that the French resisted freeing Syria after WW2, but the way they went about revenging themselves on the British who seemed one step ahead in the Intelligence game. But then there was the equivocations of the British government; their failure to face down the French! It was in Palestine where the French got theirs back, supporting in one way or another, both Irgun and Stern terrorist gangs Even the US got into that act with well meaning and, hopefully, unknowing citizens paying into those particular Jewish coffers (much as occurred later, during the Irish Troubles).

Barr documents this all in a well written history and thoroughly documented history of the time. While I knew the ending, the journey was memorizing.

I can’t resist but conclude with a comment by the former Chief Secretary of Palestine, a survivor of the King David Hotel bombing, that might be a guide in today’s foreign policy: “’s not your business or my business interfere in other people’s countries and tell them how to run it, or even to run it well. They must be left to their own salvation.”