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Interesting stories and anecdotes that reach into insights I have gained abroad.

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Berlin and Angus MacLean Thuermer

Posted on Saturday, June 4th, 2011

In 1976, after Beirut fell apart I was certain that I would be reassigned to Headquarters since I had been abroad eight consecutive years. Instead I was informed that I would be sent to Bonn which was at the time the capital of West Germany. There I would head up the section responsible for Soviet-Bloc operations. We made arrangements to forward our household effects to Bonn from Athens where they were waiting for the peace in Lebanon that never came. I returned to the U.S. with my family, first to Washington for consultations at Headquarters and then to the West Coast to visit both sets of parents. It was during this period that I was summoned back to Washington where I learned that instead of Bonn I was to be assigned as the deputy in West Berlin. At the time, I did not realize that for the next two years I would have the personal and professional pleasure of serving under AMT.
 
Surely, AMT would never be accepted by the CIA of today. He was an extraordinary fellow who once admitted to me in a moment of weakness that he decided early in his career to appear a bit eccentric – and that he did. Before I cite some examples, let me say that he was a devoted husband and father; few possessed his instinct for what is intelligence, his skill in reporting and knowledge of Soviet-Bloc intentions; he had a sense of history, cultured manner, fluency in German; he was respected, creative, willing without hesitation to combat the inertia of the bureaucracy. He was a man of integrity, loyal, a patriot, compassionate, curious, and good natured. He had an unrivaled sense of humor and good sense.
 
Before the outbreak of World War II, AMT was an Associated Press stringer in Berlin, reporting on the events leading up to Germany’s invasion of Poland. He was in Berlin for Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938 when SA storm troopers and German civilians desecrated the synagogues, destroyed the homes and […]

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Trekking in the Himalayas

Posted on Friday, May 6th, 2011

The year was 1974 and I and a companion decided to go on a trek in the Western Himalayas. The challenge for us was how to get the government to pay for our trek? Answer: Propose that we check the exfiltration routes for my Land Rover from India into Nepal, assuming that someday some disillusioned, but courageous Soviet-Bloc official would walk into the American Embassy in Delhi and ask for political asylum or – in spy parlance – decide to defect.
 
As I recall, we spent an overnight in Lucknow before we reached Nepal. We decided to drive to the capital, Kathmandu, spend a night, and then drive the next day to Pokhara to the northwest, less than 100 miles. After so many years have passed, I have forgotten where we stayed that night in Kathmandu, but I will never forget where we dined. It was at Boris Lissanovich’s restaurant, appropriately named the Yak and Yeti. A gleaming copper chimney was situated in the center of the dining room; thick red curtains from floor to high ceiling over the spacious windows. The cuisine was what you would expect from a former Russian Tsarist. It included excellent borscht, Chicken Kiev, and to commemorate Russia’s one-time ownership of Alaska, Baked Alaskan.
 
Boris had fled from Eastern Russia to Shanghai during the Bolshevik Revolution, remained there until he was expelled from Shanghai by the Chinese Communists who had seized power. Boris then settled in sleepy Kathmandu that had just opened its borders to foreigners. The Yak and Yeti’s menu suited me fine since my previous tour was in Eastern Europe. Of course, my comrade and I did not indulge in the various vodkas available – since we were in training for the mountains.
 
We got an early start the next day, maneuvering through the crowded streets with pedestrians, bicycles, pedal taxis, and cows until we reached the main highway built by the Chinese as part of an assistance program to the Nepalese. The road was far superior to anything […]

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First Gulf War — Operation Desert Storm

Posted on Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990 and annexed it soon thereafter. Refusing to withdraw after the international community condemned the action, on February 24, 1991, Operation Desert Storm, a coalition of 32 nations including the United States, Britain, Egypt, France, and Saudi Arabia, was launched under the leadership of General Schwarzkopf. By February 28th the Iraqis were routed and a cease fire declared.
 
In February 1992, we traveled to Kuwait to market the company’s formula for security training to the Kuwaitis whose security forces sought to reestablish order following the devastation it experienced under Iraqi occupation. Accompanying me were our project manager for the Saudi project and a young U.S. Marine who had been part of the invasion force and had chosen not to re-enlist in the Corps. Instead, he accepted a position to represent our newly established Kuwaiti office. Despite the Saudi contribution to ousting the Iraqis, the reception we received from the Kuwaitis at the Ministry of Defense was tepid and the business opportunities were scarce, as once again the Kuwaitis re-constituted its distance from Saudi hegemony.
 
I remember walking and riding through the streets of Kuwait City. We could still see the destruction, though a year had passed. Noteworthy was the devastation caused by the Tomahawk missiles that obliterated selected sites – as yet not reconstructed – throughout the city, like a former Iraqi communications facility located on the on the second floor of an office building in downtown Kuwait City, that is, until the surgical Tomahawk strike obliterated the entire floor of the building. I was awe-struck by the advanced technology that allowed a Tomahawk to be fired from a U.S. vessel offshore, travel sixty feet above the ground into the city, turning at street corners, until it reached its destination and nestled into a pre-selected set of offices, destroying in an instant the programmed target.
 
We stayed at a Sheraton Hotel on the Arabia Sea. At the time, the staff was still making frantic efforts to refurbish and remove the scars […]

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Field Marshal Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw and Donna Douglas

Posted on Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

In 1972, Donna and I were invited to a magnificent reception in Delhi, hosted by Alitalia Airlines. The affair was held in the Oberoi Hotel., at the time, a most prestigious setting. The guests were drawn from the diplomatic community, international and Indian business representatives, as well as Indian officials from the various ministries. When we arrived, the ballroom was already filled and waiters scurried about serving drinks and tasty Indian delicacies.
 
For me this was a working event in that upon arrival I would usually scan the crowd and head toward a cluster of Soviet or Bloc diplomats and officials. As luck would have it, I spotted an especially interesting Soviet whom our files identified as a confirmed KGB officer on his first tour abroad. He was born in Soviet-annexed Estonia. The latter information was probably obtained from a Soviet defector who in the course of establishing his worth (or bona fides in spy parlance) revealed the identity and affiliation of former colleagues. This Soviet was particularly distinctive with a shock of red hair and a build that a football tackle would envy. His English was improving, so I would not have to tax my Russian.
 
Donna, as was her custom, wandered off to engage in conversation with whomever she selected. As someone interested in the arts, she would not be inclined to exchange observations on world affairs. Invariably, whom she encountered were individuals that one would want to see socially again. On the other hand, I was being paid to assess, develop, and recruit Soviet-Bloc officials, so I had no choice but to seek out the adversary.
 

An hour might have transpired when I looked up and nearly dropped by drink. Donna was in deep conversation with Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw who was not dressed in uniform. One of two Indian 5-Star Generals, and the other one deceased. I could hardly believe my eyes. She was chatting easily with him and he was responding in kind. No one dared to interrupt the Field Marshal. […]

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Spies and Jumping

Posted on Saturday, March 26th, 2011

I always considered that I was slightly acrophobic. So imagine the surprise when I decided in the mid-1960’s to volunteer to participate in the parachute training that was offered following the paramilitary training that was required during my CIA training in order to become a clandestine service officer. The fact that there most of my classmates also volunteered set the stage for this decision. Who wanted to be remembered as that fellow whom the Agency had more important tasks awaiting his graduation than the parachute training?(Indeed, there was a classmate who insisted that he had been pre-selected for a possible cross-border operation in the Middle East. I should say that no one in the class believed him, especially those who volunteered for the jump training. This white-lie did not affect the chap’s long and illustrious career in the CIA from which he retired.)
 
One of my first vivid memories of that period in my life was when I first viewed the thirty-five tower from which we were to jump off. The instructors, all graduates of war in Indo-China, explained that anyone foolish (my word though it seemed to be their meaning) enough to jump from the tower would not hesitate to jump from a fully functioning aircraft. I tended to agree since that tower looked a lot taller than thirty-five feet. Also, we were informed that the parachute harness to be worn would give us much more of a jolt as it held us tight just a few feet from the ground, than a parachute opening at 1,000 feet, where the opening of the chute was cushioned by the updraft.
 
No amount of words or years can erase the feeling of trepidation I experienced as I climbed the tower and stood – not so innocently – looking down. I had a flashback to that roof in The Bronx when I was 13, ready to jump to escape the police who were making their way by another, safer route to the rooftop. With no hesitation – […]

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