Monday, October 15, 2012

A Story About the CIA in the Belgian Congo

The following stories are probably true or at least partially true.

When I worked at the RAND Corporation we were managed with a system called "matrix management", which meant that you had two orthogonal types of managers. One type was formal and respectable, these are the people who approved your pay raises and did your formal reviews. The other type was creative and project oriented, these were the people for whom you did actual work on projects and they did not have to be so respectable. I have read that this system has problems sometimes, but it worked very well for me when I was at RAND.

One of my project leaders was a person we will call Gary. That may or may not be his real name, for reasons that will be clear shortly. Gary was very colorful and ultimately he did not come to a good end as RAND has politics and Gary was not very adept at such things, practically asking for trouble it seemed to me.

Be that as it may be, I enjoyed working with Gary and it bothered me when he would do something self destructive. Gary did not manage his time all that well and liked to tell stories. Those of you who know me know that I also like to tell stories, but hopefully I am not as self-destructive as Gary.

Gary was all-but-dissertation in computational linguistics and before he got (or almost got) his PhD he had been, so he tells me, covert in the CIA. So we have two stories from that period, one of modest interest to help explain how such things work, and the other which is very amusing, I think, and therefore less likely to be completely accurate.

The first story is how he got recruited. Gary attended one of those famous catholic universities in upstate NY, apparently there are a few of them. This would have been the late 50s or the early 60s and Gary was a serious anti-communist and completely ready to dedicate his life to the noble cause of killing commies. The way covert at the CIA works is that, to be effective, it has to be that you have never publicly worked for the CIA, or, for example, have been seen coming to CIA headquarters at Langley and so forth. There are many other employees of the CIA who are analysts for whom these kinds of restrictions do not apply: they can drive to CIA headquarters, park in the parking lot and go to work like normal people.

But covert is different. So Gary was recruited by one of his professors at college and went to an interview, I believe, where there was no formal CIA sign on the door. And they told him, if he was interested in this, what he should do is apply for postgraduate work at Georgetown University near Washington, DC in one of several topics, such as "Russian Studies". If he applied, they said, he would be accepted, and he would receive a fellowship so he could afford to attend. And they, the CIA, would be in touch.

I believe that this might describe one of the processes by which young people out of college are recruited, so lets accept this for the purposes of this post. Now we get to the more amusing story, which is much more colorful and therefore probably less true.

We segueway a few years later and Gary is covert in the Belgian Congo as a low-level runner for the CIA.

Here is a topic sentence from Wikipedia on the topic of the "Congo Crisis":
The Congo Crisis (1960–1966) was a period of turmoil in the First Republic of the Congo that began with national independence from Belgium and ended with the seizing of power by Joseph Mobutu. At various points, it had the characteristics of anti-colonial struggle, a secessionist war with the province of Katanga, a United Nations peacekeeping operation, and a Cold War proxy battle between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Gary told the following story.

One day he was on his motorcycle carrying something from one part of the city to another for his employer, the CIA.  But he had not been careful, and he ran out of gas in a very bad part of town. The native people had set up sentries at various places in the city, and one of them, in full native war dress and with a spear, saw him and came running over. Gary then realized that he had fucked up again, he had also forgotten to bring his revolver, so he was defenseless. My guess is that Gary also had a massive hangover and had not gotten much sleep the night before but that is speculation on my part. He realized that he was probably dead or that his fate was in the hands of this african sentry.

The native warrior motioned to Gary to get off the bike. Gary did so. The native put his spear down, got on the bike, flipped the switch to the reserve tank that apparently everyone who rides a motorcycle knows about other than my friend Gary, started the motorcycle, got off the bike, picked up his spear, and motioned for Gary to go about his business.

Proving once and for all time that no good deed goes unpunished.

What I love about this story is two things. First, the implied cultural racism. It was the stupid white man who did not know about the reserve tank, it was the native warrior in full paint and with a spear who did, and got the motorcycle going again. Second, what we have here is basically a local who helps a stranded tourist, who shows a human kindness to a visitor he doesn't know when he gets into trouble in a bad time and a bad part of town.

Knowing my friend Gary, I believe that there are elements of the above story that are true, but that it has been slightly elaborated and/or restructured for entertainment value.

Gary had other qualities that qualified him for a career in the CIA, he was a dedicated alcoholic for periods of his life and died in his late 50s of cancer of the esophagus. Those of us who knew him miss him terribly.

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