(The Kalashnikov is a Soviet rifle, first designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov in 1947. Below is an image of the “Automatic Kalashnikov” from that year, the “AK-47.”) (Credit Wikipedia)
The other day my son told me he had a discussion with some of his contemporaries and had reached deep into his mind to recall an anecdote from years before which perfectly demonstrated a point he wanted to make. Later, on the phone with me, he made reference to the story. Initially, I did not remember it. He thought he had read it in my book, The Dance Before the Wall, but it wasn’t there. I had almost forgotten about it, but the vignette had stood out so clearly in his mind, I decided to write it down. Perhaps others will use it to make a similar point.
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During the Cold War (late-1940s to 1990), the FBI faced an enemy on our streets in America. The “face” of that enemy included diplomatic representatives in Wash., D.C., from Warsaw Pact nations. Many had diplomatic “cover,” but were intelligence officers—Romanians, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, and Bulgarians—all smaller versions of the Soviet KGB.
The requirement to monitor them began with watching their embassies and other diplomatic establishments: commercial offices, military offices, consulates, residences, etc. Many were located in chic neighborhoods like Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue, where it would be hard to find a building, or even a single room, from which to observe their comings and goings. Years later, there would be look-down satellites and tiny cameras for closed-circuit observing, but back then, you needed a “lookout,” a house, or only a room, with the necessary vantage point. This required hefty monthly payments to landlords, but it was just “the cost of doing business.”
In the late 1970s, one of my duties was to pay one such monthly bill. As with all of these properties, we paid more than others who were renting similar space, but this one was special to the FBI. Not only did it have a vantage point for two diplomatic establishments, it also had technical equipment placed by the National Security Agency which enhanced our monitoring of these intelligence targets.
One morning I walked into the office of the owner of the building to pay the rent. He had been a large real estate owner in the nation’s capital for many years. I placed an envelope on his desk, and he looked up at me. Bluntly, he said, “That’s not enough.”
I begged his pardon and said that was the agreed-upon rent. It was already twice the amount he received for similar properties, and it had even been increased over the years. He was certainly not giving the U.S. Government a “special deal.”
“No,” he told me, simply, “the rent has gone up.”
I asked what he had in mind and he slid a blank piece of paper across his leather desk blotter. I reached for it and turned it over. The amount was three times the current monthly rent!
I know I must have gulped, and my expression was a bit askew. “But we have an agreement,” I told him.
“Not anymore,” he countered.
I looked at the number, again. It was now six times what a “normal” tenant would be paying. I told him I had to discuss it with my superiors, and it would take a few days to request the funds. I was only hoping I could get them, if at all!
Before I left, I had to ask. “Is there some particular reason why you are raising the rent?”
“Because I can,” was his answer.
I nodded, picked up the piece of paper, and left.
A few days later, after having undergone truly excruciating pains to explain the situation as well as I could to my supervisor and the financial people at FBI Headquarters, they consented to raise the payment, but were definitely not happy about it. “Extortion” was a word bandied about, even “eminent domain,” where a government can expropriate private property for public use. But the barrel he had us over—the FBI and the whole U.S. Intelligence Community—would exclude this option, due to the sensitive nature of what was going on in that house. So we would just have to “suck it up” as an organization and pay what was demanded. If there had been any other way around this, we would have grabbed it.
I walked back into the man’s office with a much thicker envelope of $100 bills and laid it on his desk. He opened his middle drawer, grabbed the envelope, quickly slid it in, and then shut the drawer, a real slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am motion. As he did it, I was certain all of that cash would not make it onto his IRS tax return.
“It can’t go up again,” I told him. That had been an admonition from Headquarters.
He looked up at me and stuck out his bottom lip, tilting his head to one side.
To me, capitalism is the economic system that has enabled our country to have the strongest and most dynamic economy the world has ever known. But whatever this man used as his business model, it was not capitalism. This really was extortion, and he knew we were the goose that was laying a golden egg for him each month.
In a brash way he said, “You can always find someplace else for your people and all that fancy equipment. Fine with me.”
But he knew there wasn’t “someplace else.” His threat was not just crass—it was unpatriotic!
I asked what he would need to take his threat off the table.
He looked up toward the ceiling and lolled his head around on his neck, pursing his lips. Then he focused back on me.
“I want the housing contract for everyone who is reassigned to the Pentagon.”
Well, that was a doozy, and I told him so.
“That would be worth millions of dollars, and, besides, there is an administration in place so the government couldn’t agree to it.”
Again, the pursing of his lips, and a shrug of his shoulders. “Well, that’s what it would take!”
In my career as an FBI agent, when paired with a partner, and the time arose to play “good-cop, bad-cop,” I had never, ever, been in the role of “bad-cop,” but that was about to change.
“We are in a Cold War. I don’t know how long it will last, and the FBI is doing everything it can to win it. But if the United States of America loses this war, and one day you find yourself on your knees with a Russian officer in front of you saying, “Please to pledge loyalty to your new government, Comrade,” and a solider is standing behind you with a Kalashnikov, its cold steel muzzle touching a spot just behind your right ear, and you are thinking to yourself, ‘What could I possibly have done in my life to avoid this?’ I want you to think of this day, and this moment.”
I left without another word. Fortunately, I soon received a squad transfer, and was glad I would never have to see, or deal with, this man again. I don’t usually “kick over the beehive” when I leave an interview, but on that day, I was glad to make an exception.
Wayne A. Barnes Plantation, FL
5/25/15, Memorial Day