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  • Writer's pictureLuis Rueda

Tales From the Shadows - The Black Bag Operation

Not a representation of the bag in the story

I am hoping this will be a series of stories drawn from the CIA's past. I will change details such as names, locations, etc. in order to avoid giving away sources and methods or anything that might be sensitive or classified. As they say, the names and the places have been changed to protect the innocent. The stories, however, will be based on actual events and the changes will not impact the details of what actually happened. Let's go.

60 years ago what we called the Third World, the lesser developed countries and former colonial possessions, were in a state of turmoil. The former colonial powers had purposely divided countries in such a way as would make them unstable and ungovernable so these former colonial powers would continue to dominate and exploit the riches of those countries. In Africa, this meant drawing national borders so they divided tribal lands and combined tribes that had difficulty coexisting. This, of course, led to conflict and civil wars.

It was the height of the Cold War, it usually always was the height of the Cold War all the time from the 1950s through the 1980s. This part of Africa had sort of been written off by the U.S. The communist nations—Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, East Germany—were running all over the place trying to gain influence now that the West had moved away. In one of these countries, let's call it Zamunda, totally made up and from the movie Coming to America, North Koreans were striving for influence. They were desperate for relations with any country that would speak with them, trying to break out of the isolation that was strangling their economy.

At the CIA, Joe Brody (name changed) had been tapped to be the new Chief of Station in Zamunda. Brody was a mid-level officer who had never really distinguished himself throughout his career. A workmanlike officer who would handle agents and produce intelligence, but never make a really good recruitment or do anything spectacular. He did the basic stuff that needed to get done and at that time the CIA had the luxury of keeping Brody around. Brody was getting close to retirement age and as a reward, he had probably done some favor for someone higher up in the pecking order, he was given this COS assignment. A sort of swan song.

During all of his outgoing exit interviews with senior officers of the Directorate of Operations (DO), he was told the same thing. He should enjoy the assignment given that personal living conditions would be comfortable, but that the U.S. government was not really interested in Zamunda. It was no longer a battlefield of the Cold War. Don't ruffle feathers.

Brody arrived at his post and life was pretty good. Despite Zamunda's poverty, instability, and “Third World” label, life for a Western diplomat, especially the COS, was fairly good. It is usual that the harder the assignment, excluding war zones, the nicer the living conditions. His house was an impressive colonial-era mansion with a swimming pool. The economy allowed him to have several servants, and while many basics of life in the U.S. were lacking in the local economy, he had access to the American Embassy commissary which imported many American products for embassy consumption.

Brody went about enjoying his life and newfound importance as the COS. Over time he became bored. He had a few sources but no one really providing useful high-level intelligence. Brody wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, so to speak. He wanted people to remember him as an excellent, memorable COS. Brody had an asset who reported on North Korean activity in Zamunda. He informed Brody that once a month a courier arrived in Zamunda from Pyongyang with a black bag full of money to pay sources, bribes, and the like. The black bag refers to secret funding and operations, but the money was actually carried in a diplomatic pouch.

Now, for those of you unaware, a diplomatic pouch is a sacrosanct bag that carries classified correspondence, equipment, whatever. It has diplomatic immunity like diplomats do. By international agreement and treaty, no one can open or inspect the diplomatic pouch. It is carried by professional couriers whose job is to transport the pouch while never allowing it to leave their side or view.

Brody was intrigued. He sent a message to CIA Headquarters (HQS) in Washington, informing them of the intelligence and asking what they wanted to do. HQS was not happy. Clearly, Broday had not taken to heart the advice they gave him about not making any waves. They responded back with a Take No Action message, ending the situation then and there. Brody was crestfallen. His chance to do something big was gone and likely never to return again.

On the day the courier and black bag were to arrive, a Saturday, Brody decided to go to the airport and see if what his source told him was true. It is a common procedure to confirm and validate information provided by your asset. It aids in establishing how trustworthy the source is. So at the appointed time, Brody found himself sitting in the arrival lounge waiting for the courier. These were the days before terrorism had made it impossible to get anywhere inside an airport. You could actually walk up to the arrival gate to meet your friends and family.

At the appointed time, two North Korean officials exited the plane last, carrying a not-insignificant diplomatic bag. There were two couriers because the North Koreans trusted no one and with two couriers each one kept an eye on the other. Brody watched them walk up to immigration and customs carrying the bag. So far so good, his guy had told him the truth. When they reached the Zamundan officials an argument broke out. The Zamundans had no understanding of the sanctity of the diplomatic pouch or what a diplomatic pouch even was. Neither the Zamundans nor the North Koreans spoke each other's language so understanding was out of the question. The argument became more heated, voices became louder and lots of hand and arm gestures emphasized certain points. At one point in the argument, one of the couriers put down the pouch so that he could more vehemently make his points.

At that point, an idea struck Brody. One of those lightning strikes to the head that makes one believe they have stumbled on a great idea, but maybe, later on, not so much. Brody quickly walked over to the ongoing argument, which had attracted a crowd, and scooped up the diplomatic bag, quickly departing the lounge and the airport. He jumped into his Peugeot and drove back to the embassy. Once arriving at the station he sent an immediate message tagged FLASH, which not only indicates the importance of the message, but is guaranteed to get everyone into the office, away from their families, golf games, barbecues, and even out of bed. FLASH indicates a serious crisis.

HQS personnel were aghast. What the hell had Brody done? He had stolen a diplomatic pouch, violating treaties that the U.S. had signed because it wanted its own diplomatic bags protected. (Now, in truth, every now and then intelligence services violate this agreement. They gain access to diplomatic bags, open them, copy and photograph whatever is inside them and close them up. The latter is important so the target country does not know that their secrets have been compromised. That comes after a lot of discussions, planning, and evaluation of the risk, and usually under very special circumstances.) This did not qualify. Now senior HQS officers were asking what the hell was going on in Zamunda. People who had chosen Brody for COS were starting to look bad, questions were being asked.

HQS was in a bind. They didn't want the pouch, but they couldn't very well return it. It had been stolen in the first place and to return it would raise too many questions. They did the only thing they could do and instructed Brody to send it back to HQS, in the next U.S. Embassy pouch, without opening it. They were not happy with Brody. He was clearly out of his depth, could not follow instructions, and was a loose cannon, a damning criticism within the CIA.

It takes a while for a pouch to travel, so it was two weeks before HQS received the purloined North Korean pouch. Per the usual procedure, the pouch was given to the flaps and seals department whose job it is to open locked things and close them back up without anyone being the wiser. The process is time-consuming. There are wax seals that need to be copied for future use, especially if you want to reseal another pouch, you need to check for any type of trap that could tell the other side it had been opened, photos were taken, etc. Even though there was no plan to return the pouch, following procedures would still give the CIA options if they wanted to get rid of the pouch.

The report came back relatively quickly. They confirmed it was North Korean, that it contained a large number of different currencies: dollars, Swiss Francs, local Zamundan currency. They counted $250,000 worth of currency. The problem was that by looking at the folds in the wrapping around the currency, as well as the seals on the actual pouch, it was obvious that the pouch had already been opened before the Flaps and Seals people got to it. Furthermore, studying the creases in the paper wrapping, the pouch contained significantly more money than $250,000. They estimated that the original pouch held $500,000.

This set off the second Zamundan shit storm. Everyone assumed Brody had opened the pouch against instruction. He had stolen the money. Not only did they have a stolen diplomatic pouch, but they had a criminal CIA officer. Brody was immediately recalled home. Upon arrival, he faced a stream of interviews which rapidly became a series of interrogations by the Office of Security. He was given several polygraph tests, all of which were inconclusive. He would admit to nothing and continued to deny that he had taken the money. No one could get at the truth.

A decision was made to keep Brody at home, under watchful eyes, especially since he only had a couple of years before he could retire. He was periodically administered a polygraph test, but no new information of admissions surfaced. After two years at HQS, he was allowed to quietly retire.

Brody quietly faded off into the sunset and no one saw or heard anything from him for years until an Agency officer, traveling through the Caribbean, bumped into Brody on one of the islands, where he owned a very nice house by the beach and would spend his days sailing on his new sailboat.

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