Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Those Were the Days My Friend

"Australia's foreign spy agency has closed 6 of its international intelligence stations in 8 months, including the crucial Baghdad post, despite pleas from the US to keep it open... In recent years Baghdad has been [the] Australian Secret Intelligence Service's largest station and has played a vital role in the collection of foreign intelligence... ASIS was formed in 1952 with a staff of 9 and a budget of 218,000 [pounds]. It collects overseas intelligence through the cultivation of foreign sources - 'agents' - and other forms of espionage. But in recent years some of the agency's stations have done less spying and more liaising between the government and the American and British intelligence agencies, which run many agents in the Middle East. Like the other 5 intelligence agencies in Australia, ASIS was rescued from gradual decline by the events of September 11, 2001. It has grown by 344% since then from a budget of $54 million in 2001-2002 to $240 million in 2010-2011, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute." (Spy bases shut down to 'save money', Dylan Welch, Sydney Morning Herald, 20/11/10)

Ah, yes, the Baghdad post, shit... the liaising! What a buzz. Maaate, will we ever see its like again?:

"For a few wild months, the HVT Bar served as the secret social hub for American spies in Iraq. It opened without fanfare late one night in early May 2003, shortly after the American-led invasion, in a distant corner of the newly captured Saddam Hussein International Airport. The saloon was dark and dingy, hidden in a grubby two-room guardhouse. Inside, a brace of captured Iraqi grenade launchers and assault rifles adorned one world, like souvenir hockey sticks in a sports bar. Lightbulbs dangled from the ceiling, casting harsh shadows, and hard rock pounded from speakers. The air buzzed with backslapping camaraderie and whispers of intrigue; it smelled of rank sweat and cigarette smoke. The liquor was cheap, the beer ice-cold, and the white wine, by all accounts, the color and taste of camel piss. It was a dive of distinction.

"Few outsiders knew of the HVT Bar and, given the location, fewer still could get in. This was no surprise. It was the Central Intelligence Agency's private nightspot. The speakeasy pulsed in the heart of the Baghdad station, the CIA's newest overseas base and the center of a surreal secret world.

"The agency had decided to build the station, as it called its major outposts, in the airport compound previously reserved only for 'Very, Very Important Persons', meaning Saddam Hussein. The tyrant had not dared leave Iraq during his reign. But he built a majestic domed reception hall and opulent marble outbuildings to mark rare visits from Arab royalty and heads of state. The CIA, unchallenged rulers of the global intelligence netherworld, chose the regal VVIP complex as the spoils of a war for which it was largely responsible.

"Work bustled on all sides those first few weeks. Looters still ran free elsewhere in Iraq, ransacking ministries and pillaging factories. But inside the guarded CIA compound, technicians planted a lush high-tech jungle of antennas and satellite dishes. They uncoiled power lines and communications cables like tendrils across the gravel. Crews rushed to renovate offices and warehouses, kicking up thick clouds of dust. Late one afternoon, Army demolition experts destroyed a cache of Iraqi munitions discovered in concrete bunkers down the road. But they miscalculated badly and the deafening explosions shattered the panoramic windows in the VVIP lounge and sent people diving for cover. The plate glass was quickly replaced, but a week or two later, overeager engineers blew the CIA windows into shards again. Such was the price of progress...

"The US intelligence budget is classified, but presumably somewhere in the estimated $45 billion that Washington spent that year on spying on its friends and enemies - far more than Germany, say, allocated for its entire national defense...

"The HVT Bar rarely opened before 11 pm. but several dozen hardworking spooks usually packed the after-hours saloon: case officers, weapons analysts, code breakers, safe-crackers, linguists, British and Australian operatives, and of course, the CIA's covert ops teams. Known as Secret Squirrels, they had roared around Iraq in pickup trucks before and during the invasion, scouting targets, causing havoc, and having a swell time.

"According to 'rumint', or rumors intelligence, more than one affair caught fire in the gloom at the HVT (far more salacious rumint focused on a senior CIA official spotted flagrante delicto in the executive garage back home; it was the talk of the agency). Most HVT regulars simply let off steam around a football table, liberated from somewhere in Baghdad, which appeared one night in the back room. It proved so exhilarating that a loaded football fan fired his loaded Glock pistol in the excitement, puncturing the wall and nearly another player...

"Contract security guys known as knuckle-draggers served as volunteer bartenders. Many were retired former field operatives who earned their chops and their pensions in the squalid streets of Somalia or Kosovo or a hundred other places. Some had even survived the cutthroat corridors of CIA headquarters back in Langley, Virginia. The agency had surged for the war in Iraq - alarms clanged battle stations, all hands on deck - and veteran troopers heeded the call. A CIA bar was an honored ritual in the agency's cultish lore, a trophy in every war. In Afghanistan, after CIA paramilitary forces helped oust the Taliban, the new Kabul station proudly partied at 'The Talibar'.

"The HVT stood for High Value Target, the video game euphemism that US authorities bestowed on those they most sought to capture or kill. In time, one could even buy a souvenir T-shirt at the bar. It read HVT BAR in bold black letters on the front and showed Saddam and 3 of his top aides, their grizzled faces fanned out as 4 aces, on the back. Pentagon wags had listed the 52 most wanted Iraqis like cards in a deck. But the joke quickly lost its punch. Most of the key cards, including Saddam, the Ace of Spades, still roamed at large.

"By early summer, hundreds of American, British, and Australian intelligence officers were swarming into Baghdad. The majority set up shop at Camp Slayer, a bizarre sprawl of Arabian nights palaces and Hieronymus Bosch bunkers across the airport from the CIA station. It was a wondrous place. Intelligence teams moved into marble guesthouses, lakeside cabanas, and a fabulous former whorehouse. They hauled in plush carpets, garish paintings, and gilded thrones, plundered from the dictator's former digs. Most of the hooches had no electricity, air-conditioning, or running water, and a creepy colony of bats blackened the sky at dusk. But early post-Saddam Iraq felt like a carnival, and it was grand." (Curveball: Spies, Lies, & the Man Behind Them: The Real Reason America Went to War in Iraq, Bob Drogin, 2007, pp xvii -xx)


Anonymous said...

Looks like a great book. I recommend the internet article "War on Iraq, conceived in Israel" by Dr. Stephen J. Sniegowski.

MERC said...

You should get his book. I've quoted from it at Absent-Minded Professors Inadvertently Set Iraq Ablaze (22/12/08); The 9/11 Industry (24/11/09); & The Three of Us (25/2/10).