REGARDING MY SURVEILLANCE
By Kent Mueller
Kent Mueller is the author of Dress Left For Success and "There, that ought to keep the little bastards for awhile"/ A History of Live Children's Television. His books of poetry include 24 Plastic Forks and High Five With Joy Buzzer. His screen play credits include rewrite on "Elwood's Last Kiss." He is a regular correspondent for the Spanish quarterly "El Borracho Barato".
I can tell you everything about it, except what it's about. That's the strange thing and the challenge of telling the tale. Because there actually is, at the heart of this, a matter of national security, and the actual fact of the matter is something with no legitimate reason to be disclosed.
The other side -- I never thought of them as an enemy, though they made my life hellish as well as interesting for the better part of a year -- will be angry enough that I'd discuss the surveillance. However, surveillance is a universal practice, even if unique in each case, so I don't feel that I'm giving away any secrets here. Besides, as a writer, what part of my life from February 8, 2005 through December 31, 2005 am I not allowed to discuss? They're free to try to tell me, but I doubt that I'd agree.
If I actually told you what it was about, you'd quickly go through a series of reactions: first, "Well, that doesn't seem like a such a big deal", second, "Oh, wait a minute, yeah, that is kind of heavy" and third, "What the hell did you tell me that for? I don't want to know these things!". It's hard to explain how mundane, and sinister at the same time, all of this was. The world of intelligence isn't "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, shaken not stirred with a splash of vermouth." More often it's on par with two schlubs silently eyeing each other in a smoking shelter at a workplace, or sitting in a car with too much coffee in your bladder (or even more likely, as with most of us on the outside, sitting in a cubicle and staring at a computer screen).
It was a complete fluke that I stumbled across the facts to begin with, and from the very moment that I suspected what it was I vowed to keep it to myself. I've never had a problem keeping secrets, people share all manner of confidences with me, maybe sensing that I don't trade in gossip. Things go in one ear, sit comfortably in my mind -- which is dominated by nostalgia anyway -- and feel no further urge to roam. I don't have the view that life is a scramble to the top over other people, that in order to win, others have to lose. This is not a zero sum game. I don't subscribe to the Tanya Harding Principle. The point is, I didn't seek this information out, not for any sort of gain or advantage to myself or others, it was simply presented to me by accident.
It took them 11 months to realize I was nothing but a hipster doofus. Since the whole matter could have been resolved with one 40 minute face-to-face meeting, addressing all of their concerns ( something I fully expected to happen at any point in the long and finally pointless hounding) what happened here reflects on a lot of things; from the Bush administration to the War on Terror to what happens when the state tries to run one of its own citizens to the ground.
Since, in many of the encounters I'm going to relate, it seemed I could only choose the least damaging reaction from a range of bad choices, it's possible that I unintentionally lengthened the surveillance. I never had much control over the turn of events, the equivalent really of heading toward Niagara Falls in a canoe with nothing but one oar broken in half to change fate. Can you get to that side of the rock jutting out midstream just ahead, where it seems to divert the current towards shore? then there's the next rock, but after that there's only the drop of the falls. Shouldn't have let the oar get broken in the first place, but too late now, you're in it.
Another aspect adding to the length of time all of this took was no doubt the need for circumspection on their part. They could never directly acknowledge what I knew as fact, since I'm not authorized to know and it's illegal to even be discussed with someone who isn't. Maybe the length of time it took was just bureaucratic sloth, maybe they were having fun, maybe they weren't, or perhaps there was a budget to run out for the calendar year. Mostly they just wanted me to know that they knew.
Complicating things as well was the fact that, to quote Gertrude Stein on her hometown of Oakland, California, "There is no there there"; i.e., since I was never actually up to anything, and since intelligence naturally leaps to a worst-case mindset, they were convinced I had to be up to something, so it took them a long time to figure out that there was nothing going on.
A word to my progressive and liberal acquaintances who might read this: Alas, this is not a smoking gun to use against the Bush Administration. As far as I know. Whether my politics complicated or lengthened the investigation, I don't think they started it. The actual national security matter was the driving engine. To paraphrase Nietzsche, I stared into the abyss. Investigation would have been warranted on any American who stumbled on the information without authorization, no matter how innocent the intent. Warrants would have been issued, and I imagine they would have been sealed forever. However, as an American citizen, they owed me the courtesy of giving me an opportunity to explain myself, and to resolve this issue to their satisfaction with all due haste, which they owed to themselves (as well to the War on Terror -- the real one -- and ultimately to the American people). There was a long list of reasons to resolve it, most of them sound, and a shorter list of reasons not to, most of them suspect.
That said, there are plenty of things to pursue this administration on. My case just doesn't qualify as one to the best of my knowledge. This is, though, something that could happen to any American during the Bush II post 9-11 era.
For those who aren't yet nervous about the idea, for instance, of the NSA tracking the phone calls of 300 million Americans on the raw assumption that any one of them might be a terrorist, I have some questions. Do you believe the innocent have nothing to fear? Do you trust the government at all times, regardless if a Republican or a Democrat sits in the White House? Do you know everyone that you call on the phone? Really know them? And everyone that calls you? For anyone who can answer yes, I'd shake your hand but we're not done yet, and neither is the NSA. Those people you know, really know, do you know everyone that they call? Everyone that calls them? Answer yes, and now I'll gladly shake your hand, since I suffer fools gladly (it's the assholes I can't stand).
That old frat brother you got reacquainted with via e-mail? The one who went on to law school? Touching base with him three or four times a week now, making plans for a couple of cross-country visits... Didn't know that he now works in adult entertainment did you? Heavily invested in fact, behind the scenes of course. He's been kind of vague about how he makes his living these days. And you aren't aware he has a hard drug habit and that he can afford it.
His dealer is no ordinary dealer. Although he has a tiny handful of retail customers like your friend, people he's trying to impress and so forth, he's upper-middle level and big-time. Your friend's dealer is a wholesaler, dealing to other dealers, one degree of separation from one of the biggest kingpins in the country, someone the DEA has been after for years. Your buddy and that dealer are in touch three or four times a week, you're in touch with your buddy three or four times a week. If someone's job is to track such things, what conclusions would they reach?
The possible scenarios are endless with social networking in the absence of common sense. When you know someone who knows someone whose brother is a bad guy, then you're a bad guy too. Never heard of that bad guy? Gee, that's too bad, but you have to break a few omelets to make an egg. It takes a highly skilled craftsman to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Maybe your IRS audit was random, maybe it wasn't. The innocent have nothing to fear. Unless there's a change of administration perhaps, but I trust the reader is fair-minded enough to allow the same unlimited, wartime Presidential powers to a Hilary Clinton as to a George W. Bush, knowing full well that politics could never be a factor in anything as crucial as homeland security. Since the war is going to go on forever, so are the powers.
So relax, the odds of this happening to you are only ten times the odds of getting struck by lightning, an asteroid, or terrorists, but they're way better than doing anything but doubling your money on a lottery ticket. Not to worry. Move along, folks.
At the same time, a reassurance for my friends in the arts and music. These people who hounded me for 11 months or more really don't give a damn who shared a joint with whom at a Rolling Stones concert in 1985. National security is their shtick. They're more aware of human foibles, more socially aware in general, than they're ever given credit for. Unless something like what I ran across flags you in some way, you're probably safe from harassment.
But In fact, for anyone, I have no way of knowing that it wasn't something someone else did or wrote or said that casually brought me to their attention at first. Then, if they ran across my knowledge of something unauthorized, they might have gone ballistic, which is what they did.
In sum, you're likely safe if you're a couch potato, just don't get involved in anything. On the other hand, if you're a career intelligence professional under an administration that values loyalty above competence, that prefers the feedback of its own sound-bites to the actual facts on the ground, you have my sympathies, honestly, and I urge you to hang in there. We need you more than ever. This too shall pass.
I can only explain what happened by spinning a couple of allegories, myths of a sort. There are two facets to what I ran across, as far as relating its importance, and they can be thought of as the short con and the long con. The short con is the equivalent of Three-card-Monte-on-the-sidewalk. The long con version is the equivalent of The Nigerian Letter. Many of the facts in both versions have been changed, and the truth itself is mundane. Basically the truth is similar to knowing what dumpster at CIA contains the burn bags before they're tossed in the incinerator. You accidentally came upon it, but even if you did for some reason mean harm, you couldn't do anything with the knowledge. Everything is shredded. Both versions are true in a way, but it's a Moebius Strip, with truth on one side and falsehood on the other. Travel is the key and the common denominator.
The Short Con:
There was a conspiracy theory flying around from the days of Iran-Contra, the Reagan era, about a boxcar full of small arms that the CIA had abandoned on an isolated railroad siding in South-Central LA, for the free use of a gang or gangs in the area. I don't believe it for a minute, but at the same time I know of at least two references in books to a warehouse in the Quad Cities area, used by the CIA to store weaponry for paramilitary operations. There is in fact a well-known, very public, military arsenal there. And shadowy elements of the government did supply a handful of state-of-the-art arms to some drug dealers in LA during the Iran-Contra scandal. Maybe I'd seen and shown too much interest in the related secret warehouse If, that is, it was.
If there ever was such a secret warehouse and such a boxcar then here's your routing circa 1983. Quad Cities to LA via the former Rock Island Line, interchanged at Tucamcari, New Mexico, with the old Southern Pacific Railroad, directly to LA from there. Not only might you have those few scant facts, little more than suppositions, but suppose you practically had the actual waybill in your hand, indicating boxcar owner and number, consignee (shipper), consignor (receiver), dates of travel, and the contents.
The Long Con:
For this version you need to understand how my wife and I travel. We take long vacations when we can, but we also try, three or four times a year, to spend a long weekend exploring any city within one day's driving distance of our home in Milwaukee. We've hit every major city on that list except for Detroit, and plenty of small towns as well. So this event would have occurred within six or seven hundred miles of our home in Milwaukee. Take a compass to a map of the US and that's a huge arc, encompassing literally thousands of towns. This is not a "Where's Waldo?" game; go looking for this and you will never find it. You won't see what I saw, in part because it's likely been changed in appearance, and in part because the moment probably passed when it happened to me.
Most people, driving from one place to another, get on the freeway as soon as they can and stay on it to as close to their destination (motel or what have you) as they can. Of course, most people are sheep. We take a different tack when we have the time, aiming for those highways that predate the freeways. To take Highway Six through Cleveland, or to drive Broadway for the length of St. Louis, is to get a really excellent take on the soul of that city. There is, as to everything else, an archeology to roads. So we tend to get off the freeway some distance before a city and get back on once we're clear of it. We do this with smaller towns too if time allows.
What I'm relating, what really to the best of my knowledge led to all this trouble, would've happened on one of those minor side trips. Another factor in those trips for me is that I'm a railfan. I love the trains, just seeing one can make my day. If we come across a railroad track I'm wondering who owns it, where it goes, what industries it serves. I'm also wondering if it's healthy, will it be around, serving enough industries to be around next time we pass through this town? Or should I photograph it now? Again if we have the time, I'd insist on checking it out, following it to see where it goes and what it does.
Driving like that, on an old highway, one day on our travels we drove past an anonymous building on the side of the road. At that moment it was a beehive of activity, with some sort of construction or rehab going on at the time. Something about the scene struck me as odd. Immediately I got the gnawing sense that something was going on there that was not obvious. After driving on a few blocks, I said something along the lines of "I'm going to drive back a few blocks and take a look at something" to my wife beside me. I turned around and drove by it one more time, from the other direction, studying it more closely. My wife at this point was probably engrossed in a map of the state we were in. I'd guess she thought that I'd seen an interesting freight car.
What was it? The general look of the place? The lone guy standing outside who glanced at our car as we drove by, and glanced even more closely (with a look I'd come to know well in the coming years) when we drove by once more? The dark blue sedan parked there with out-of-state plates and a magnetic sign on the front door panels, advertising a company name, and a town in yet another state? Maybe it was the dense, heavy-looking wooden crate, on a pallet that dwarfed it, waiting for a forklift or recently abandoned by one, with a proud company logo and a model number stenciled on it. Whatever it was, it was clearly a mistake on my part, going back and looking more closely. It would be a year, or two or three, before I'd know that.
That was my mistake. I had no way of knowing it was, not at the time and not for some time afterwards, but none of what I'm going to relate would have happened if I hadn't gone back for a second, slower look. I have to assume my license plate was noted, either by the fellow who was as interested in me as I was in his facility, or just as likely by surveillance camera. That information can easily lead to everything about you. There might be routine checks of things like arrest records, records of the FBI, and so on. If so, they'd have found something interesting in my case: I had no police record, not so much as a speeding ticket, at 45 years of age. I do however have an FBI record, going back to when I was 17. To suspicious minds, I might have looked like a sleeper cell of one.
What did I do when we returned home? Well, like an idiot, I ran internet searches on the few things I remembered from that brief encounter. The company and model number on that wooden crate? Told me something. The company name on the magnetic sign on the side of the dark blue sedan? Didn't exist. Given the sensitivity of the info on that crate and the company name on that car, it's possible that the searches themselves alerted the authorities involved. There's no saying for sure exactly what led to what happened to me afterward, but the second drive-by possibly combined with the live sighting by one of their persons, or the web searches, are leading contenders. They may also have been other factors but more on those later.
How do you avoid any police record for 45 years, and how do you begin an FBI file at 17? A lot of the police record absence is explained by the fact that I didn't drive regularly or have a license until I was 37.
I held on to 16 as long as I could.
If you have a record, dear reader, did it start before you were 37? Did driving have anything to do with it, if only to get you to the scene of the crime, or by speeding, or merely to get you stopped for a broken tail light (even parking tickets may come up on a license check, pay 'em promptly kids) or some other minor infraction? Thought so. Real men use turn signals. That's how I've avoided any sort of police record. The FBI file was a little more difficult to avoid.
The FBI file is all politics. I'd bet good money there is a file, I'm 95 percent certain it's there. In fact, I was planning on filing a Freedom of Information Act request before 9 11. After 9 11, I figured the FBI had better things to spend their time on. I didn't know that was me. My FBI file would begin most likely with involvement in the political cult of Lyndon Larouche at 17 years of age.
I was living on my own, holding down a job, going to a bank. There in front of the bank, with a table full of literature, were four or five young people, rumpled but clean-cut and evidently sane, one of whom was an attractive blonde. She must have picked up on my interest and approached me with a magazine and some vaguely political babble. I bought the magazine, mainly to keep the conversation going. It marked me as a live one.
EVEN FURTHER BACKGROUND
It's important to note at this point that although my FBI file might go back to when I was 17 or 18, my personal experience with the FBI and with surveillance goes back to the tender age of ten. The Vietnam War era. An older brother was about to turn 18 and on his birthday he crossed the border into Canada and renounced his American citizenship. It was his way of protesting the Vietnam War, technically avoiding even registering for the draft as required. As far as avoiding the draft went, it's doubtful he would have passed the physical even if his lottery number would have put him in line. Things might have ended there if he hadn't sent a letter to the draft board in Waukesha, a suburb of Milwaukee where we were then living. In that letter he not only told them what he'd done but also where he was living in Montreal.
Unfortunately or not, he closed the letter with the wise-ass statement "I know you're gonna miss me." It's something in our family genes, maybe, at some point in the past the volume knobs fell off our built-in bullshit detectors, and when they go off the alarm tends to disturb anyone in the vicinity.
The first indication I had that something wasn't right was when a neighbor happened to ask me, "How's your brother in Canada?" We hadn't mentioned that to anyone, it wasn't as if we'd called a neighborhood meeting and said, "By the by, the second son in the family has lit out for Canada." Even at ten years of age my first thought was "How does this guy know?" He lived next door, it was summer, windows were open, perhaps he heard us talking about it in the kitchen.
Obviously what had happened was he'd been interviewed by the FBI, as had perhaps all our other neighbors. Completely in keeping with the Boy Scout practices of the FBI at that time. This was borne out by the ring of our door bell a few weeks later. A man interrupted our Saturday morning cartoons and, flashing his FBI credentials, asked to speak to our mother.
He sat her down at the dining room table and asked her to lure her own son back to the states, so they could arrest him, on an act of conscience, for the good of the country. The agent tried to appeal to her sense of patriotism and so on. I was ten years old but even then I knew he was on a fool's errand; she wasn't going to turn her own son over to the state for punishment on an act of conscience. They'd go to incredible lengths in the next few years until the Vietnam War finally faded into history as the second worst American foreign policy blunder to date. This is a digression from the larger story related here, but it goes a long way to explain how I could take governmental misguidance as an occasional given, and withstand the things that were thrown at me in 2005.
* * *
Back to the story, picking up where we left off.
The LaRouche people were there at the bank again the next week, the week after that, and the week after that. Soon they were inviting me to their meetings, suggesting I might run for office on their ticket and so on. Once or twice a week, I'm at the Larouche house for a meeting or a social occasion. A social occasion might consist of a can of beer, the music of Beethoven, endless monologues on the genius of Lyndon LaRouche, and maybe a much-begrudged second beer. They all lived together with a rare and expensive Telex machine. During their meetings the machine would crank out something from the news wires every few minutes, very impressive in 1977. Meanwhile, my young political genes awakening, I was also stopping in at Nick Topping's International House in downtown Milwaukee.
The International House was a one-of-a-kind place run by a one-of-a-kind person. Nick Topping is a self-declared independent socialist, an OSS agent in WW II, and the guy who brought the Beatles to Milwaukee. Out of his store he ran a translation service (he's multilingual), did tax returns, sold a huge selection of slow-moving folk records from around the world and dealt out progressive literature and a handful of ethnic foodstuffs. There was at almost any time a lively political dialog going on there. It was a gathering place for progressives of any stripe and formed a strange neutral territory for some very divisive camps. A small political magazine titled 'The Public Eye" caught mine with their campaign against the Larouche organization. They detailed the union-busting activities of the Larouchites at Milwaukee's own Briggs & Stratton Co. in one article, in another they went into great detail about the birth pangs of the Larouche organization in the Columbia University teacher's strike and their morphing into an attack squad, literally taking baseball bats to the heads of "other" leftists at public rallies. I came to the realization that they were basically hired thugs, and I was swimming with them.
[ Sad note: Nick Topping passed away May 9th, 2007 at the age of 89 ]
I stopped hanging out with the LaRouche people in disgust and joined the Socialist Party of former Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler. I was a dues paying member for just a year. His party, when it ran Milwaukee, was known for its fiscal conservatism and notable lack of dialectics. Other leftists dubbed them "Sewer Socialists" in derision for their emphasis on thrift and public services instead of ideology. There's an Alice Cooper cameo scene in the first Wayne's World movie. They're [uneccesary zoom] by chance backstage after a concert in Milwaukee ("Actually it's pronounced "Mil-wah-kay", which is Algonquin for "The Good Land"), and he informs them that Milwaukee is most interesting because it had elected three Socialist mayors. The town's got a history.
The local Larouche people or folks were angry about my switch. I no longer remember if I told them outright, perhaps when they phoned to ask why I hadn't been going to their meetings, or if I just stopped showing up. One way or another they got wind of the change in allegiance. At any rate, I started getting threatening obscene calls from them, which certainly didn't prompt me to rejoin. It's an even bet that just joining the Socialist Party USA might have started a file on me in the FBI, or worse, the LaRouche people brought me to the attention of the Feds as some form of revenge for my defection. The LaRouche crowd was not then known as the lunatics they are, and the American intelligence structure considered them a good if not always reliable source.
Another thing that might be in my FBI file was my involvement with Goal Zero Poetry Group, which I've written about elsewhere (A Secret History of Goal Zero Poetry Group).
* * *
In the 1978 campaign season I volunteered on a couple of campaigns, mostly helping out a Socialist Party candidate for State Senate, Joel Miller. I helped him collect signatures to get on the ballot. Unfortunately, I thought it was A-OK to at least verbally strong arm the customers at the supermarket where I worked. "Come on," I'd say, ringing up a purchase, "Anyone has the right to be on the ballot, you're not endorsing him, just putting him on the ballot. It's the democratic process." as Miller would collect the signatures of those relatively few willing to sign. Between customers he asked me several times, "Are you sure this is all right? You're not going to get in trouble are you?" Of course I did. It was a dumb thing to do, and I was rightfully fired the next day. It was a lesson. I wasn't hired to advocate, I was hired to ring up sales.
What cinched my departure from the organized left, though, was a house party held on election night later that year. Through some miracle or shift in planets the third parties on the left had cobbled together a slate and even managed a few joint efforts that year. To celebrate that simple fact of a slate, someone threw a party in their house. Maoists and Trotskyites, the mild-mannered socialists of Zeidler and who knows who else were gathered in one place.
Naturally an argument broke out. If I remember correctly it concerned whether or not there was a Fourth International, akin to arguing whether or not there was a Republican convention in 1956. Maybe it was the Third or Fifth International, but one faction denied it occurred, since they had sat it out. It apparently made a difference to those arguing the point. Typical leftist bickering. It was like watching Andre Breton -- was it him? -- officially dismissing Salvador Dali from the Surrealist movement because he profited from his art. It was like the Situationists intentionally extinguishing their movement. In brief, you've got to be kidding.
"Forget the organized left." I thought. When dues time came around, I didn't renew my membership. Nothing against Zeidler's Socialists, I just couldn't see any way that these groups could gain enough traction to ever affect change. It was a reminder that the true believers are always more Catholic than the Pope, like deciding to become a Lutheran, but the obscure and meaningless dogmatic arguments between the Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Synod turn you off. Dogma doesn't feed, clothe, or shelter anyone.
* * *
So I was never again the starry-eyed idealist I had been to that point. I left the organized left. I didn't go from Lefty moonbat to Righty wingnut, mostly I stayed in the liberal-progressive spectrum, drifting in my thirties into a genteel libertarian outlook where the idea that most people are decent and simply want to get along in life sounded completely reasonable. Then I started driving on a daily basis. Man, half the people on the road on any given day are assholes, and worse sometimes I'm one of them. Back then I continued to follow politics closely, took seven or eight classes in Political Science in college and seriously considered declaring it a major. I successfully managed a student government slate (the old-fashioned way, we worked harder and longer than anyone else), and even considered running for office myself.
What ended forever the idea of running for office was one odd event. One of my roommates in those years of 79 cent quarts of Rhinelander Beer was Mike Frederickson. A multitalented guy, the first painting I bought was by him, and I've exhibited Mike's artwork in every gallery I've been involved in. He's a working musician as well, one of the most skilled I've met. He's a fantastic singer-songwriter. What happened that night is I was awakened around four in the morning by a voice, loud, clear and carrying far and wide, singing the blues, some blues song I didn't recognize. It was Mike walking up the street to home.
I realized in that instant there would be nights in life when I might want to sing the blues in the street at four AM, might even need that just to keep the jelly in my head for another day, and as an officeholder you can't. Career over. Ask George "Macaca" Allen. Ask Wilbur Mills if he's still around, maybe he wants to go to a strip club and then climb in a fountain, maybe he doesn't. Ask Randy Cunningham if he really needed that boat. They'll all answer "yes"; well, probably "no" would be the answer, but only because they violated the third rule of the Tanya Harding Principle: "Screw the other guy, win at all costs, and your only mistake is getting caught." They got caught. That principle seems to rule the higher levels of political life, arising as it does from the lower medulla (both parties have a degree of corruption and dirty tricks, but the Republicans always go farther. It's a limbo contest they tend to win. "How low can you go?"). All thought of running for office left my mind that night. We hold politicians to a higher standard than we hold friends, neighbors, coworkers or family members. Goys just want to have fun, and a cheap pun like that would have ended my political career by now. Charles Bukowski held greater sway for me than the career of Walter Mondale.
* * *
Tuesday, February 8, 2005. Approximately 10:15 - 10:30 AM. I'm on my usual morning smoking break, standing in a smoking shelter in a parking lot at work. A dark blue sedan with out-of-state plates and a magnetic sign on the door panel pulls into the parking lot [details here have been changed to protect the guilty]. The driver gets out, leaving the car running, and spends ten seconds walking to and from the front entrance, which is out of my view. I'm staring at the car. It looks really familiar but I can't read the magnetic sign on the side. Immediately behind the smoking shelter was an alley. At the corner where the smoking shelter abutted the alley stood a telephone pole. Every vehicle leaving the parking lot taking a right turn for the alley slows down to avoid striking the pole. So did this dark blue sedan, and now I can clearly make out the magnetic sign on that car. Even the driver looks familiar, perhaps the man on the side of the road when I drove by, as related in the Long Con. A realization came over me that maybe he wasn't just slowing down to avoid the pole, he was also slowing down to be seen by me, more importantly, to see if I saw him.
If I was being observed at that moment for a reaction, it would have been seen that my jaw just dropped. It dropped. I've never had a poker face, always been Kerouac-hot versus beatnik-cool, but the best of professionals couldn't have hid a reaction like mine. It was like a shudder. Wow. Just Wow. Identical car, identical sign as what drew my interest in that triggering casual drive-by some time before. Except for one tiny detail, everything is the same: address, phone number, company name, state -- except for the name of the town. Let's say "Brigadoon, Iowa" instead of someplace real, in Iowa or elsewhere. I've studied maps all my life, one of my few talents is having a gazetteer in my head. Mention a city and it's even odds I can tell you its suburbs, general layout, driving forces. One of the things I did in my off-hours as a kid was spend time reading maps, so much so my mother later confided she always feared that I was plotting to run away. The place name on that car struck me immediately as "didn't exist". While still on break, I go in to work and search the web for that town and state. Sure enough, just as I suspected, no such town. You can do a web search on something as obscure as "goldwater turtle concerns" and get over 10,000 hits. Do an exact search for "Brigadoon, Iowa" and you get a little over ten results (do a general search and you get over 35,000) -- almost all related to high school productions of the play. There ain't no Brigadoon, Iowa, so to speak.
That search was probably noted as well. That magnetic sign had been redone to grab my attention -- maybe. It might all have been fluke, coincidence, but it was beginning to not look that way. And what I did next only served to confirm my worst and most intriguing fears. What was it that I did that Tuesday morning?
I took an early lunch.
Instead of leaving at noon, I left the building at 11:30, instead of leaving by the side door I left by the front entrance. I didn't know if someone was after me or not, but if someone was they were probably connected to the government. Just a hunch at this point. What I really wanted them to know, believe it or not, was that I was not foreign intelligence. What a professional spy would have done in an instance like this is stick to his patterns for a few days or as long as he thought it was safe to do so, then vanish in the night on an entire set of false ID. What to do in circumstances like these is precisely what I mean by having only a series of bad choices to make. Do I act as if nothing is up, thereby inviting some possibly worse test or probe? I was also assuming that that proverbial meeting was coming soon, maybe as soon as that evening of February 8, 2005. Two guys in suits, most likely FBI, would show up at my door, flash badges or ID, sit me down and say, "Mr. Mueller, what the hell are you up to?" I wanted to speed that plow, explain myself and get out from under that cloud of suspicion as soon as possible.
Note now, dear reader, that everything up to and including that blue sedan turning into the alley was truth with coloration, or allegory, not whole truth. I had to relate it in some way for the surveillance to make any sense, and the surveillance is what this story is all about. Everything from the point where that "blue sedan" cleared the telephone pole is the absolute truth as I recall it. Again, this isn't an expose or a "gotcha". As far as the triggering factor goes, that should remain a secret until long after it's obsolete.
The front entrance to the smallish 1960s era old-suburb office building where I work consists of two walls of smoked glass wrapped around an open staircase. It makes a perfect observation post if for some reason you wanted to watch someone in the area. You have at least a 200 degree view of the surroundings. You can't see in from the outside, which leads to plenty of Keystone Kops moments where someone is approaching the door, maybe reaching for the handle, and the damned thing suddenly opens in their face. It also has an office directory, a framed glass case with changeable letters. On the few occasions I'd used the front entrance I'd noticed a ghost on the directory. "Triad International Security" was a previous tenant, and had been there long enough for the grooved black cloth-covered signboard to have faded somewhat around the letters. With a little patience it can easily be read and distinguished from the offset letters of the current tenant. I've never bothered to research what the hell "Triad International Security" is or was, maybe a front of some kind, or just a failed private eye. It aroused my curiosity, but nowhere near to the degree of what I'd come across and researched, what caused so much subsequent trouble.
The man at the foot of the stairs, on the ground floor near the entrance, obviously wasn't expecting me there but he did seem to know who I was. As soon as he got a visual make on me, nude descending a staircase so to speak, his reaction was as visceral and involuntary as mine was not a scant hour before, when that specially marked car brought itself to my attention. He drew back toward the basement stairway with something of a shudder, and I imagine wished for nothing so much as invisibility at that moment. Although I was trembling inside there was enough presence of mind to simply proceed down the stairs and out the door as calmly as possible. Had I turned and ran back up the stairs in a panic they might have called in a SWAT team for all I know. I knew instinctively that he was there to watch me, not kill me, but I wasn't at all sure about who else might be out there. His presence did however confirm the fact that there was something up, and it involved me. I mightily resisted the temptation to stop at that office directory and line out with an index finger the ghost of "Triad International Security" to further muddy the waters.
Things had progressed from my knowing to their knowing I knew. From there, on that day, things progressed to their knowing I knew that they knew I knew. Hall of mirrors, lost in the funhouse and all that.
* * *
Now a message that had been left on the answering machine at my gallery some months before made sense. It completely mystified me at the time and I took it for a wrong number. It was a pleasant female voice saying "Lake. Wolf. Fire. I need one. Please call back." That's all, no number to call back. There were few hints to source it. The careful precise diction of "Lake. Wolf. Fire." Spoken as single word sentences, a mild degree of suppressed upspeak on the last sentence of "Please call back" spoken as a question? In upspeak? Like every statement is a question? I'm blonde? That hint of upspeak indicated a Southern California origin or an east coast college education, maybe both.
I kept it on the tape for a long time, and would play it back to friends. It was simply a curiosity to me, but to whomever arranged to have it left, my reaction to it obviously hadn't satisfied their concerns. This was around or not long after musician Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, had come out with a CD titled "Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot." The title comes from a snippet of a "Number Station" recording, and there was a brief flurry of interest in Number Stations, clandestine radio broadcasts by intelligence or military to communicate with agents in the field. "Lake. Wolf. Fire." Certainly had that feel. Low Wave Frequency? FireDogLake? Who knows, but I took it for a wrong-number call, not much different than another one left on the machine some time later: some dolt was trying to reach his wife or girlfriend, probably trying to call back her cell phone assuming they'd been cut off. She was apparently at an airport in Florida and the airline had lost her bags. He was trying to calm her panic, and assured her that the airline would probably deliver the bags to her hotel later that day. He was saying "Deb? Debbie? You there? Deb?" when the machine cut off automatically.
So this surveillance and testing, whatever it was, had been going on for some time. Certainly my habits of coming and going had been observed and noted. That front lobby made a perfect observation post, with that smoked glass, and since I always left by the side door and always took lunch at noon, it seemed like the best place. They just weren't expecting me to leave the other way, though they anticipated enough change in my immediate behavior to get there early.
For the next couple of days after that first event, I altered my behavior in subtle and not so subtle ways. Coming and going from work or anywhere else, I'd change up routes, walk around the building a couple of times, randomly using the side or the front door. Part of the reason for this was to speed that meeting and clear my name, another part was pure physical fear. Instances of violence against American citizens by their own government are thankfully rare, we're not yet in a police state, though I think we're closer than we've ever been. Violence has happened though, usually to people who were already involved voluntarily and crossed the system somehow, perhaps by violating an implied or concrete agreement, embezzlement, traitorous behavior or trying to blackmail the government. Very much as the Mob behaves, generally you have to be involved already to draw the ultimate penalty. I couldn't imagine how that might happen to me, but then again.
Then again, we've never as a nation talked about or accepted quite as casually concepts such as extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention, torture, warrantless surveillance (and my surveillance was warranted as I've said) or limitless executive war powers for a war they vow will never end (not if they can help it) in our lifetimes. Who knows what the new Washington mindset, just doing it's job and going home at the end of the day, is capable of under the bullying administration of George W. Bush. Looking back, it's entirely possible that my case accounted for one one-thousandth of the National Security Letters issued in 2004 and certainly in 2005.* Out of a nation of 300 million, that's a hell of a spotlight to be in for a citizen who has simply stumbled onto something related to national security.
*[ Update: March, 2007. Turns out the numbers I based these calculations on were undercounted in the first place. ]
More common, if you become a burr in their saddle, is simple harassment, sometimes, depending on the individual's constitution, to the point of mental or spiritual deformity, or even physical death by reckless behavior or suicide. It never got near that point for me, a few instances of random paranoia, plenty of long dark nights of the soul spent sitting on the sofa, staring into space, until I'd finally drank enough beer to get to sleep and stop thinking about the whole thing, but I was never even near the edge of going insane. You can't drive a man crazy who's been happily, cheerfully, redundantly and casually strolling in that general direction his entire life. The self-actualized among us must be hellish on their paradigm. Mostly I was curious to see where this was going.
WHERE IT WENT
Never in hell did I think it would go on for eleven long months. I was always waiting for that meeting, straight forward, two men or a man and a woman in suits, flashing badges or ID. "What the hell are you up to, Mr. Mueller?" It would have saved them time and all of us expense, and it never happened. It was like having a third job, besides my day job and the 20 hours a week that my gallery was open. Who are these people and what do they want? What do they want me to do or not do? How can I lift this cloud? What's the significance of the latest encounter? These were 24/7 concerns always on my mind, and I still had to function in the world; hold down a job, help maintain a household, try to keep an already intense side business open and running. I was amazed frankly that I could handle it. I wouldn't have guessed I had it in me. One thing that helped me keep perspective is knowing that, even with these troubles I was still better off than at least half of the current US population, and in historical terms I was better off than 90 percent of everyone who had ever lived. So are you, probably. Think about it, 100 years ago even kings didn't live as well as you and I do, in terms of health care and general well-being, the technology. And unless things got really out of hand I was still better off in this country than most others.
The whole thing ground to a halt December 31st, 2005. The cloud lifted without any resolution for me, leaving me hanging and mystified but happy enough to have made it out the far side of a long and dark tunnel. Best guess is a lawyer somewhere, or maybe a judge, finally said enough is enough. An Inspector General for whatever agency, a Justice Department official, maybe even just a budget person, cut it off right there, or an administrator, satisfied enough with what they'd already found, called it to a halt. Although I felt the cloud lift in some indefinite way, it took a good three months of no apparent incidents for me to be reasonably sure. There's been maybe one incident, one encounter, maybe, since then, and I can't be sure of that at all. It took another six months to figure out a safe way, for all involved, to relate in written form what happened, more importantly to relate what caused all this without giving away what exactly that was, to indicate the basis for it without leading anyone else into the same accidental trap. Past the back story and the postscript, now back to the story where we left off, on Tuesday, February 8, 2005.
A SERIES OF STRANGE INCIDENTS
I spent that afternoon in a state of nervous anticipation, expecting some sort of official visit at any moment. Of course that never happened. When I did leave work I took a different route, improvising as I went along, not in any hope of losing a tail, assuming I was being followed, but more to determine simply if I was being followed, and whether there was a physical threat to my safety. I couldn't be sure. Was I being tailed? Odds are I was, but people have a widespread misconception of being followed when driving, if they have any reason to suspect that they might be. They drive all over the map and keep looking for the same car in their rearview mirror. Not seeing it, they're satisfied that they aren't being followed. I'd read enough to know that's not how it's done if they're serious. A series of cars will take turns following you, one turns off and another comes on route (they might overlap for awhile), later that one turns off and another comes in, it's hard as hell to detect. There were only a few instances in the next 11 months when I knew for sure I was being tailed. Those instances, oddly, were times when they wanted me to know I was being followed. That first day however, I was nervous enough that, pulling up to a railroad crossing just as the gates lowered and a fast freight came thundering through, being the first car in line, I not only threw the gears into park but I also pulled up the parking brake.
After a day or two, I realized that altering my behavior was going to be counterproductive. Guessing that physical danger wasn't immediate, mostly since it hadn't happened yet and likely would have in the first couple of days, if at all, it seemed best to make myself transparent, and indicate I had nothing to hide. Best to try and show the truth, that there was nothing going on, it was all a fluke, not make their job more difficult and to make myself available if they had any questions. I was still expecting that meeting any day, hoping I could address their concerns and lift this cloud.
There had been an incident, around the same time, when a man in a suit wearing a tie with an American flag pattern was leaving the building I work at just as I came in from lunch or a smoking break. Out of simple politeness I tried to hold the door open for him but it turned into one of those cartoon "After you. No, after you!" incidents where I was holding the door open behind me, awkwardly, and he was trying to get around and out. We were both sort of laughing about it, and he went on his way. I assumed he was a pharmaceutical salesman. There was a doctor's office on the ground floor and there was a steady stream of slick, well-dressed salespeople in expensive cars (often with W stickers on the bumpers), who parked willy-nilly in clearly reserved spaces that were not theirs. They'd walk in with plastic bags that were walking billboards, packed with all manner of trinkets (which is why grandma is eating dogfood to stay on her meds). I'd realize somewhat later that he wasn't an "ethicals" salesman at all, but was instead connected with this investigation.
Some time after February 8th I was taking a break, standing in the entryway of that smoking shelter when a car pulled in. A man gets out, and it's the guy with the flag-pattern tie. As he walks past me, he says "Good morning" and takes a little misstep, a sort of half-step in my direction. It probably wouldn't have registered with anyone who wasn't within a few feet of us. I respond with a hearty "Good morning!"and he keeps walking. Okay, that was something, a contact of sorts, a walk-by, a brush contact, call it what you will, some further test or probe. This was the beginning of a pattern. For the most part, for the next eleven months, I'd never know if this thing was over until something else happened, and then I'd only know it wasn't over.
Next, around the middle of March, 2005, things had reached a head in another area of my life and I quit the dysfunctional alt-country band I was drumming in. All the usual band dynamics that any musician can relate to were in play, plus the realization that my main job as a drummer was to make other drummers look good. I wanted to take some time off and get my chops back for one thing, but much of it was simple band dysfunction. The night I drove across town for our weekly gig specifically to quit, I was in a hurry to catch the band leader before the gig would begin. I'd worked my eight hours, I put in a couple of hours at the gallery, and then was off to this unpleasant task.
As I drove I got the sense that I'd picked up a tail and was being followed. I drove a little more aggressively than usual, partly the mood I was in and partly to flush out a possible tail, there were a lot of lane changes and jockeying for position. I Didn't take any unnecessary chances, always allowed for a margin of error, and never exceeded the speed limit by more than seven or eight miles an hour. It seemed to translate into a low speed car chase. At one point, I found myself at a stoplight next to what I had taken to be a chase car. I glanced over and damned if the driver didn't look exactly like the guy in the stairwell the day this all began. He was grimly staring ahead and looked like he might be gritting his teeth. By coincidence we were stopped across the street from the building that housed the local FBI office.
These events took on a pattern that continued off and on for several months. Some weeks nothing would happen, or at least nothing that I picked up on, some weeks one or two things would happen. Again, I never knew if this was over until something else happened, then I only knew that it was still going on. Here are some more of them in a rough sort of order. I didn't take notes on any of these encounters at the time, I didn't want a written record while it was going on although I did document the later encounters in an attempt to extricate myself, but more on that later. I wasn't trying to build a case or highlight government malfeasance, I was trying to survive a personal dilemma and at the same time trying to solve what was a really intriguing mystery, even if I was only the butt of a bad joke.
I'm walking back from lunch one day, a one block walk, mostly past the grounds of the hospital. There's a guy walking down the curving sidewalk toward me. He's in his forties, a kind of bemused grin on his face, and he's looking right at me. He's wearing a kind of worn but not tattered brown cloth jacket, an everyman look I'd come to know well. We're maybe 10 or 15 yards away when he does an odd thing. He takes a kind of small dance step sideways, onto the slice of lawn between the sidewalk and the curb of the curving street, stopping briefly, turning a bit, trying to make eye contact the whole time,. I didn't change my pace, kept eye contact with him, and he was back on the sidewalk when we passed. He leaned in a little and gave a cheery "Hello" or "Good Afternoon". I returned the greeting with what I hoped was warmth. Maybe another ten paces and I stopped, patted pockets as if checking for something I'd forgotten or left behind. I lit a cigarette. I was stopping in case he wanted to make some kind of contact. He had continued walking.
The same guy may have pulled into the parking lot one day while I was on a smoking break. There was someone in the passenger seat who remained there throughout and this guy, the driver, gets out of the car and walks toward me.
I saw him approaching me in a bee line, and I was worried that any one of a number of coworkers might come out at any minute for their break, and I didn't want him there when they did. I put on a slight nut act, I think I turned around two or three times, a tight little circle dance, and started whistling the first TV theme song I could think of that had anything to do with espionage. It was the theme from Mission Impossible, and it was badly mangled, I couldn't remember it exactly and got it wrong. I'm a drummer remember, and as one ace guitarist joked about drummers, we play in the key of Lee Majors. I Racked my brain for another song, drew a blank, came up only with the theme for The Andy Griffith Show and whistled that instead. I honestly wasn't trying to editorialize. In retrospect, Secret Agent Man or Theme From Peter Gunn would have worked better. At any rate, he seemed to get it. What I was trying to convey was the fact that this wasn't a good place to meet, if that's what they were trying to do; not here, where coworkers come and go, to smoke cigarettes and talk of Michelangelo. A lot of us were on the same nicotine schedule, and it would only take something weird happening twice in the presence of the same coworker to be cause for concern.
He stopped short, calmly walked back to the car, got in, and drove away. He seemed to be one of the few people who got this thing right. Like the guy with the tie, he seemed slightly bemused, as if he got the fact that this whole thing was a complete accident, a fluke of time and place. I got the distinct sense of being able, if given the chance, to sit down with him or others like him and straighten this whole thing out. That or he was one hell of a freaked-out pharmaceutical salesman on his way to that ground-floor doctor's office, whose watch stopped while driving in and he was coming over to ask me the correct time.
Another smoking break and a guy drifts across the parking lot. I do mean drift, a kind of smooth shuffle best described as ghostlike. To make it really spooky, he's holding what looks like a manila folder up against his face, blocking both his face and his profile from my view. I can only tell that he's male, maybe in his twenties, and it sends a chill up my spine; what's the purpose of this guy concealing his face? So I don't recognize him the next time? So I don't recognize him from the last time? I didn't know what to make of it. What did they want me to make of it? There must have been an operational reason for him to conceal his face, although the completely creepy, cinematic effect of this stunt was almost enough by itself to justify it's use. It was disturbing, unsettling, and there could be any number of reasons for it. .
I've seen some of the world and have only been scared, truly scared twice in my travels. Once was in a quaint street in Barcelona years ago, a fairly busy pedestrian-only block of shops and stalls. My wife and I had briefly parted in the crowd, but were still in sight of each other. A young blind man appeared walking towards me, with dark glasses and a white cane. I stepped aside to let him pass as he tapped up, and he stepped aside in the same direction, blocking my path. I went the other way and he did the same, Groucho Marx doing that routine in the mirror, and this continued for a minute or more. I finally blurted out, "What the fuck are you doing?" That gave him just enough pause to let me jump around and get past him. I didn't know if I was part of an art project -- it was in a way a perfect Dada or Situationist stunt -- or a distraction for pickpockets. What do you do? Right, here's a real smart move, push a "blind" guy to the ground in a foreign city. That might get you a long way toward Heaven, if that's where you're going.
The other time? On a train in California, I went to the club car to enjoy a beer as is my wont. I order a beer and sit down at one of the tables. A guy nearby leans into me and says in a loud voice, "I'm a vicious criminal defense attorney, and an alcoholic!" He pauses to sway a bit. "Buy me a beer!" He demands. He looks like a biker, No, I told him. "All right! I'll buy you a beer!" He suits action to word and comes back, slamming down two cans of beer. His practice to hear him tell it consisted of defending Vietnam vets who get into any kind of criminal trouble. Trouble was I hadn't served in Vietnam, being five years old when the war really began in '65 and being 15 years old when Saigon fell, on my birthday by coincidence. There was a strong hint of violence beneath his belligerence on these points, and the club car attendant might have cut him off at some point but was as afraid of him as I was. When he finally went to the restroom I cut out and went back to my seat.
The point is this guy that day in the parking lot instilled that kind of fear, drifting along like that concealing his face. What was I to make of it, that he's a walking bookie on a cell phone with a fear of lip-readers?
Easter Morning, 2005. My wife and I wake up to the flashing lights of a police car in front of our house, By the time we look out the window it's been joined by several more, some unmarked, and within 45 minutes the street is filled with emergency vehicles the length of the block. Now all this strength being marshalled on one block could mean a number of things. There might have been a massive drug, gang or immigration bust going down in the area. They were gathering on any obscure street over the horizon. I kept an eye on the news the next day, since if that was the case, there'd likely be a public relations plan following the tactical plan. Nothing really stood out. Another possibility was that this was a Homeland Security drill, a kind of swarm that had been practiced several times in NYC and elsewhere. Why not on our obscure block? At some point, after an hour or so, they left in an orderly fashion. Cue soundtrack from The Easter Parade.
A HONEY TRAP
Events reached a peak in the middle of July and continued at a high pitch through the beginning of August, 2005. This turned out to be one of the most nerve-wracking set of events, a peak of panic if you were applying some kind of emotional seismograph, and it began with an event that didn't stand out at the time as part of this at all.
What do you do when she won't take no for an answer? What ever it is, I finally got no answer at all and she simply walked away and didn't come back. I'd apparently done it on the third try. Maybe there were only two incidents in rapid succession and not three. At any rate, It was the same approach she'd used the first one or two times: she came out of a crowd. She wrapped her arms around my neck, snuggled, cuddled and cooed, and promised me a night of incredibly wild sex if I'd only leave with her. Right now.
Here's the setup. My wife and I had gone to an art opening at Walker's Point Center for the Arts (Diabolique: Images of the Devil in Contemporary Art, July. 2005, Milwaukee), a group show featuring several artists we liked. As the opening came to an end we were among a crowd standing on the sidewalk when someone suggested an after-party at a bar under a restaurant on Brady Street . A large number of people from the opening turned out and swarmed the bar, maybe 30 or 40, enough to fill the two small rooms, one cozy and den-like, set by a stairs some three steps below the bar area, which had maybe 15 or 20 stools.
When it came time for a second beer I found a soft spot at the far end of the bar and got the attention of a bartender. I was next to a young guy on a stool who would soon play some sort of role in what went down. As I stepped away with my fresh beer an attractive blonde came out of a crowd of people at the other end of the bar. I've forgotten how she started it, there wasn't much in the way of preliminaries, but soon she had her arms wrapped around my neck and was promising me a night of wild sex if only I'd leave with her. Right now. There was no indication of where we we're supposed to go. No flirty small talk or anything to indicate the source of her attraction.
I tried to hold her off as best I could and politely declined her offers. It was hard to fight the urge to not be polite. So persistent was she that it was hard not to just push her away. No ordinary decline was working, plainly now, it was important to her to do this. Something wasn't right, but it would be months before I even remotely thought it might be connected to my concurrent troubles. It just didn't occur to me at all at the time. A honey trap is something you use against a Sukarno, not a medical billing clerk with an art gallery on the side in Milwaukee.
The young guy at the bar, who I'd stood next to when ordering my beer, was watching this encounter with intense but casual, almost clinical interest and had now turned to sit facing us in his stool. At the time I got two reads on them: he was either her husband or boyfriend, this was a form of foreplay for them, having her pick up a stranger and a) tease him, or b) have her make out in front of her husband, or c) having a three way. The other option was that this guy was the puppy dog would-be boyfriend. The guy who follows her around slavishly. I took him for the sort of guy who had done everything right, gotten good grades, done all the right things, was rising fast in a good job, excellent earner but finally dull as dry bones. And the love of his life was a beautiful girl with a weakness for bad boys, but his love was such that he'd even drive for her on dates with drug-dealing frat-boys or what have you, worse, even sit there patiently while they made steamy love in the back seat. I've been witness to examples of all these scenarios before.
They were intimately connected in some way, although I saw no contact at all between the voyeur and the seductress; He was watching us and I was aware of that, but she was only watching me and never made eye contact with him. In retrospect I think his job was to watch this first hand and judge reactions, and maybe to step in if something went drastically wrong. There must have been someone else at the other end of the bar, past that clot of people our girl vanished into after the first or second encounter, because I distinctly heard her say, to some handler or what have you, in the exasperated voice of the thwarted professional, "I can't even get picked up!" I never got a look at who she was talking to, but that was definitely her voice and certainly her frustration. He must have given her a pep talk because she was back on the game within a half minute or so.
It was towards the end of the second or third encounter, if there was a third encounter, when in a more or less desperate gambit she told me, looking earnestly into my eyes and scanning my face for a reaction, "I have a web site." Oh great, I thought. What I said was, "There seems to be a lot of that going around." There was some more seductive chatter from her. It was the end of the final encounter, whether second or third, that stands out best. I noticed my wife, Linda, was watching us from across the room. I was hoping she would rescue me from this awkward social situation by intervening and making some kind of claim on me, thereby freeing me from this woman's clutches. No such luck. I flat out said to her, "Look, why are you doing this? That's my wife right over there.". The hot blonde looked over her shoulder dismissively at Linda, turned back to me and announced, "Oh That stiffy, I can show you a much better time." "Yeah," I said, "But I love her."
That seemed to stop her cold. There was some more seductive chatter, but these were feeble, halfhearted attempts. She gave up entirely and walked back into the crowd. When she did I turned to the guy at the bar who'd been watching us. I really took him for that would-be boyfriend, and patted him on the back in what I sincerely meant as a sympathetic act, a way of saying as I walked away, "Good luck with her, man, she's a wild cat.." I didn't actually say anything and his reaction didn't encourage conversation. It was not taken in that spirit. He shrunk away from my touch as if I was a leper, and threw me a nonverbal snarl. In retrospect, he was probably upset for being singled out, upset at me for not falling for the bait in an operation he was partly responsible for, and with those factors perhaps just because I violated his private space by patting him on the back. If the operation had allowed, and maybe if I were persistent and chummed him some more, he would've thrown a punch. At the time I credited his reaction to pride and nothing else.
I regrouped with Linda, we left shortly after that and I spent the drive home reprimanding her for not saving me from the situation. In her defense she only said, "But what could I do?" and I guess she was right. However she could have stepped up and attempted to join or disrupt the conversation. Even laid a claim by taking my hand. I'd never been hit on with that much persistence and directness. Looking back, clearly the woman's job was to get me out that door.
I don't know what I avoided by not leaving with the blonde. Maybe I would've been jumped as soon as we walked out into the street. They'd just beat me up on general principles, as a warning. Blind-sided by two or three guys while she'd run off to a nearby car. Maybe I'd be gunny-sacked like a large bag of potatoes and tossed into the back of a waiting van, taken who knows where, or for what purpose. She might have taken me to a hotel for a night of wild sex, with blackmail and some kind of weird setup in the morning. Maybe it was only a test to see if I was susceptible to a honey trap. Maybe they just wanted to ruin my marriage for some reason. It's unlikely they just wanted to show me a good time for being such a sport about everything.
As I say, I didn't connect this to the rest of what had been happening until months later. This wasn't because I was unaware of the honey trap in intelligence work. I was aware of the tradecraft, but I just couldn't imagine them using one for any reason in my case. A honey trap is very extreme, in James Bond territory, on the scale of intelligence operations it's really only two or three steps below assassination, though that third step is a long one. Since my knowledge, such as it was, warranted little more than a face-to-face meeting, this whole honey trap, which looking back it plainly was, must've meant there was something more involved than the facts I've presented so far. More later.
Looking back, this one incident out of many sends more of a chill up my spine than almost anything else, with maybe the exception of the Spook. Whatever had waited outside those doors, no possible benevolence can be ascribed to it. They weren't offering me a night of wild sex with a professional to reward me for keeping my mouth shut so far. That much is certain.
JULY WASN'T DONE WITH ME YET
A week or so later I'm driving the usual route to my gallery after work. I'm stopped at a light, waiting to turn left. An athletic guy on a bicycle Is holding his hands over his head, pounding a finger of one hand into the palm of the other or some such two-handed gesture, nodding his head and saying loudly, very clearly, "He sees me!" This information seemed to be directed at someone in a vehicle behind me. I searched the rearview but there was no definitive suspect.
He had been pacing my car for the better part of a mile. I thought it was unusual that a clearly skilled bike rider had stopped at every stoplight, waiting for the green as we negotiated a long-running construction project. People like that would usually get in a zone and go as soon as they could safely get through traffic. If you live in a city you've seen serious bikers or runners do this all the time. He kept up a good amount of eye contact the whole time as well. Even at the time I thought, wow, what a great solution to a surveillance problem. Even as it was happening to me, I was admiring the elegance of the operation.
This construction project had been going on for months and would continue for months afterwards. What it did effectively was narrow a four-lane artery, the main route from an area of very active clubs and restaurants to the nearest freeway interchange, down to two lanes. Under normal conditions it was two blocks of traffic in Chicago, or one half block of Manhattan, or one block of LA; with the construction it had become like five blocks in Midtown Manhattan traffic on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night.. At the busiest part of this stretch it wasn't unusual to sit through a green light four or five times.
It was natural for people to lose patience and cut down the nearest alley or side street if they had a chance. This made it even more difficult for me to detect tail cars, always an inexact science, and more a sense or an uncertain intuition at best. There was no mistaking this guy on the bike though; he was looking at me, and that meant they wanted me to know this was going on, which was very strange. He consistently paced himself with the traffic, riding mostly on the sidewalk, to remain roughly parallel to my car. In the first block of the real congestion, where it took five or ten minutes to go the length of a mere two blocks, I had just passed what I knew to be a Puerto Rican social club and something caught my eye.
Two old men were standing in the small parking lot calmly discussing something. We were already past the parking lot, and I didn't want to do a head check, but I knew for a fact that when you see two old men talking in storefront social club parking lot something is up. Instead of looking back over my shoulder I turned my rearview mirror to focus on the two old men, while stewing in this traffic with everyone else, and fully conscious that I was probably being tailed. The move with the mirror might also have had the effect of freaking out anyone in a tail car if there was a tail car. I didn't think there was anything criminal going on with the club. This wasn't an Italian section of Brooklyn and some false front mobster hangout. It was mostly older Puerto Ricans getting together to play cards and dominoes. What I guessed was that there was some change in status at the club, an issue before the BoD and that these two guys were probably officers of the club. Decisions were being made. I was then, and still am as this is written, constantly watching for a building to buy, something that could house an art gallery and one or two rentals to pay the mortgage. It would allow the gallery to go rent-free and be a long-term asset as well.
My hunch that there was a change of status underfoot at the social club proved correct when "For Sale by Owner" signs appeared a few months later. Naturally I looked into it. The price was too steep for us. It was eventually bought and is being extensively renovated. This has been the problem with my building search since the beginning: always a year late and a 100,000 short. The real estate prices in areas where it made sense to run a gallery in Milwaukee were far outpacing our income. I took a spot of pride though, even at the moment it was going on, at knowing some sort of tail was going on -- most obviously the guy on the bike, negotiating this traffic mess as we inched forward, watching the conversation in that parking lot and speculating on what was up there, all while probably rocking out to some tasty tunes from the college radio station..
The guy on the bike however was more than obvious, at that point he'd been trailing me for five or six blocks, and we'd made eye contact several times. He was plainly pacing my car. This was curious. For obvious reasons you take great pains in surveillance to go undetected. For what reason or reasons would you take the opposite approach (or at least enough so to be obvious to your subject, even if you don't want every citizen around to notice that it's happening) is something I'm still puzzled about. Maybe it can be traced to my response back on February 8th, or the lack of response to the honey trap earlier that month . It was unlikely the guy on the bike would be out there alone. Just to make it even more obvious, they went through that whole routine with the hand gesture and verbal confirmation at the end of it, four blocks past the construction zone.
That seemed to be the end of the day's tail. I made my turn to get to the gallery and the biker took off in a different direction. There is an old joke I remember from Mad magazine years ago, it was a cartoon illustration of their take on a typical Bob Newhart joke (circa "The Buttoned-down Mind"): Two Psychiatrists with offices in the same building encounter each other one day in the hallway. One says, "Hello." The other responds, "Hello." They both walk away wondering, "I wonder what he meant by that?". That's how I felt after this, I wondered what they meant by that.
My wife Linda and I were planning one of our road trips out of town, this time to Duluth - Superior, for three days at the end of July and the beginning of August. Aside from a much needed mini-vacation, Linda's accordion band had a gig there in a brew pub. One of Linda's bandmates had a relative there working on the railroads, and we were promised at least a freight yard visit, maybe even a cab ride on an outgoing freight. The other thing on our agenda, aside from driving around at random and finding thrift stores, was visiting the Accordion Museum. In other quarters, other plans would seem to be have been afoot.
After the bicycle chase but not many days before the road trip, something happened that threw a real fear into me; one ordinary night my car alarm went off. Okay. We're urban here and car alarms go off all the time. But I'm parked on a slab behind our house, off an alley and behind a gated chain-link fence. It took a minute or two before we knew it was my car. We were in the living room at the time, and when I realized it was my car (I'd had it for three months but hadn't heard the alarm before) I ran out on the side porch and stopped. Suddenly I flashed on all the things that had happened so far (all but the honey trap, which still hadn't registered as an intelligence op) and froze. I took a deep breath, inched down three steps and flattened myself against the side of the house. Linda was behind me and I motioned for her to do the same. I moved forward and peered around the corner.
The gate was undisturbed, no one could be seen and I hit the button to stop the alarm. We walked to the car and saw there was no damage, no attempt at a break-in that we could see. Maybe it was the wind, or a squirrel, but the sense I had was that my car had been toyed with by human hands, that something had been done. Worse case car bomb, so extreme as to border on the ridiculous, more possibly, preferably in fact, a tracking device. I mean, if you had a choice...
Now I was genuinely afraid. This was a violation in a sense, an acceleration certainly, if something had in fact been done to my car. The uncertainty here was an invitation to paranoia. It was with some trepidation that I turned the key in the ignition the next morning. Every necessary incremental gain in speed, on an otherwise ordinary drive to work, sent a little twinge of fear up my spine. Nothing happened. Maybe it was only the placement of a tracking device; maybe it was squirrels, the wind, a car with a heavy bass system (a car-- as they say-- that goes "Boom"), some low-rider going through the alley with customized muffler rumble, but most of these things, and thunder, had happened in the previous three months and hadn't set off the alarm.
So my car hadn't blown up with me or anyone else in it, that much was good. Things had progressed though, if anything was in fact going on with my car, or in general. The shadow of a doubt, having served me in good stead so far, served now and would continue to do so throughout this ordeal. All I was certain of was that certainty was my enemy. Now however instead of just involving myself and my workplace, which was bad enough, things may now have involved my property, my car, maybe my wife as well.
Now I was concerned with that upcoming road-trip. Catch me out of town, stage an accident, and no one's the wiser. Incredibly rare, as I've said, for an American citizen to be targeted by his own government for the ultimate penalty, but previous to the George W. Bush administration, did we speak of torture? Unlimited detention? Extraordinary rendition? Not just the Geneva Convention but even Habeus Corpus was considered quaint by the people in charge now, the Fourth and even the First Amendment were seriously threatened in cases far more prominent than my own.
Before we left on our brief trip, and after enough internal debate to form the basis of a Camus novel, I decided I had to let Linda in on this just enough to make her aware and be cautious, just for her own safety and well-being. I'd long since decided, at the very beginning in fact, not to let anyone in on this, including the surveillance, in any way, shape or form, at least until I knew with some certainty what it was all about. I wasn't certain at all that anything was done to my car, but it was entirely in the range of possibility.
We sometimes swap cars; for example if she has to ferry coworkers around my SUV is more accommodating than her VW sedan, so she was involved now whether I liked it or not. We sat on the sofa and I told her that the car alarm going off the other night had me worried. I told her that I might have seen something I wasn't supposed to see and might be under surveillance. I told her that this event had happened on one of our trips out of town and some strange things had been going on since then. I didn't go into details. It must have sounded paranoid as all get out. I didn't see any way around letting her in on my troubles to this degree. She would be doing some of the driving, on the open highway, and I wanted her to be at least psychologically prepared for the possibility that, at worst, we might be hit head-on by an oncoming semi or run off the road by an aggressive driver suddenly coming up behind us. We live in a neighborhood where defensive driving is a daily necessity and had become second nature to both of us. I wanted her to take that innate skill on the road where she might otherwise have let down her defenses. It --death-- these dark scenarios -- was so remote, but still just within the realm of possibility.
I suggested we swap license plates. I'd already decided to remove anything on my car, little signs I'd printed up on the computer and posted in my back window, anything I usually had on the dashboard, whatever distinguished my car from any similar make and color vehicle on the road -- anything I could do to gain thirty seconds here or a minute there -- anything to create a shadow of a doubt if push came to shove. If your job is to look for a brown SUV you're suddenly going to see them everywhere. Linda dismissed the plate-swapping out of hand, as being just silly, and I didn't press the point. I did feel that any sort of civil fine or traffic ticket we might be subjected to for this little ruse of swapping plates was well worth even ten seconds of insurance. The fine we could pay out of pocket, assuming we were caught at it. We wouldn't even have to give an explanation. Compared to the remote and patently paranoid possibility of being murdered on the road, it seemed like a reasonable risk.
Linda was right for the wrong reasons. Swapping license plates was silly. Even then in my mind the second most significant possibility for my car being messed with by human hands (if it had been in fact and it all wasn't just fluke) was the placing of a tracking device, either GPS or a radio chip, which would likely render any countermeasure I'd take pointless. This was the only other thing in the range of possibilities that went into the red zone. But again I was trying to buy seconds, minutes, fractions of minutes when it might have counted the most. It's one thing to be tracked remotely, but if there was someone out there whose job it was to run us off the road, T-bone the car or hit it head-on, I wanted them to not only be seeing brown SUVs all over the place, but to look at least twice to make sure we were in fact their target. Paranoid? At this point paranoia was at high tide. And as Pynchon reminds us, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you."
The other thing I did -- what might have been an inadvertent mistake at the time -- was to take a few close friends aside. They were from different social circles and that was important; Lloyd's of London-like, I was spreading the insurance risk around and the risk, granted remote but still in the range of possibilities (and alone now in the red zone), if it happened, was something I didn't want to go unnoticed or uninvestigated.
What I forced on these friends was a shorthand version of what I'd told Linda: I apparently saw something I wasn't supposed to see, I'd come to the attention of the authorities in some way, and if something happens to me (or Linda or both of us) it might not be an accident. Perhaps I wasn't clear enough that the fear was that I or we would be victims. If these discussions were overheard somehow, the comment could be taken out of context to imply that I might do something irrational or violent, blow myself up or something. This was laughable. What God or cause would I do this in the name of? What social pathology had I ever exhibited? I'll admit events to this point had already raised my interest in civil liberties and their erosion. That particular cause for me was very personal of a sudden.
A concern for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is hardly a spark for terrorism. Quite the opposite. The rule of law above all, and no one is above the law. This inspires order without oppression or fear, justice with fairness and without favor. If the laws are fair and reasoned and not unduly burdensome, by and large the people will obey them. As I write this, we're still a long way from even having to storm the barricades. But a police state is no longer merely over the horizon, it's now like the old joke: "This isn't the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from here." It's now on the horizon.
Off we go then to the North Country.
And what happened? Nothing much. We had fun. We met up with friends and made new ones. We went to the accordion museum, with a crowd of knowledgeable accordion players which was very cool. Linda played her gig. We drank beer in the backyard of a career railroader, who then drove us to a freight yard, where we clambered in and out of locomotives for an hour or so, putting me in heaven for that long. But even there a sad note, this had been a well-known classification yard to railfans the country over. The old-timers staffing the yard on that afternoon were lamenting the fact that now it was little more than a filling station, no longer had much role other than swapping out locomotives on long runs from Vancouver or Winnipeg to Chicago or Detroit or Toronto. Still it was thrilling for me to be up close to these behemoths I had only previously observed from trackside.
An odd note on this trip, and a good illustration of the kind of thing that would pop up now and then to complicate things in the course of this, was a phone call from Linda. It was a quiet Saturday afternoon at the gallery, about a week before the trip, and she called to say she'd been forwarded an e-mail by her bandmate. The e-mail was from the bandmate's uncle, the North Country railroader. "Guess what?" Linda chirped, "He says, 'Maybe we can hijack a freight train!' " I just about fell out of my chair, but I had to laugh outloud. She knew how pleased I'd be at the idea of riding a freight train from the cab of a locomotive. I hadn't yet had the conversation with her about being followed or the license plate swap, so it's not her fault at all. She didn't suspect anything was up. All I could think was if this conversation was being monitored -- and knowing at this point there's a good chance it was -- there were going to be people playing the tape (mp3, whatever) over and over, giving it close scrutiny. What were they going to make of this? After I stopped laughing I reminded her of what she already knew. What he meant by that comment was that maybe we could get a cab ride on a freight, as he'd suggested before. There were several incidents like this during that almost- year that I had to tamp down as best I could on the fly.
Was there surveillance on this trip? I'm not really sure. I think so, but...For instance alongside the freeway in the next county, in the emergency lane, was a pickup truck with a cab on the back. I noticed he didn't have his flashers on, which was a little odd if you're sidelined on the freeway with a vehicle breakdown, and he was standing between the vehicle and the road, also odd. Try it once. But then again, go driving in the rain and you'll see a lot of drivers too stupid to turn their lights on. He seemed to notice my car go by (of course if you stand right next to the freeway you will, or ought to, pay attention to every vehicle). Maybe he was there to verify for some remote source that whatever tracking system they'd placed on my car the other day was working properly -- a technician in other words -- tasked to follow us to the next rest stop or gas station if whatever wasn't working and fix or replace. Or he was an idiot.
If there was anything else in the way of surveillance on that leg of the trip I couldn't detect it. For the most part we were on freeways or divided highways and there was always other traffic around, which was comforting under the circumstances. Driving around in Duluth and Superior, maybe there were police following us in squads more often or for longer than usual, but there was no way to credit that to anything but coincidence. I was hyperconscious of my surroundings and the odds of having a police squad behind anyone on any given city street anywhere is fairly high. Chances are the police are simply headed in the same direction you are.
The return trip may have been a different story. It's hard to say for sure, but there was a more consistent series of odd events that pointed toward something going on. We broke the trip up with an overnight stay in Ashland, Wisconsin for starts. We thought the town might be interesting, but it failed. It had a reputation as hippie territory and the entryway to a unique National Lakeshore (read "Park"), the Apostle Islands. The town was basically four blocks wide and maybe a mile and half or two miles long, which made it an easy place to get bored in, especially if you hit town on a Sunday night. If there was anything happening there it was lost on us.
Teenage toughs roamed around with absolutely nothing to do and nowhere to go. The locals seemed indifferent at best, and there was an undertone of hostility or resentment that no Chamber of Commerce speech would ever deflect. This was one of the places where there may have been more police surveillance, in terms of finding a squad in your rearview, than might have been the case for the average person. It's hard to say though. Police in a town like that know all locals, why not follow the unfamiliar car long enough to run a license check?
Checking into the motel was a question mark, it was a mom and pop sort of place, owned or run as it turned out by some sort of Indian Subcontinent ethnic couple, but the question mark wasn't them at all, it was a clot of three or four guys, what I took at the time to be internerant construction workers, all safely white and no doubt "true Americans" of the talk-show-listening NASCAR following variety.
At first glance I figured these guys were related to the highway construction project out in front of the motel -- what made every departure or arrrival at the motel a challenge if not an outright dare-- and it was a class of folk that both Hunter S. Thompson and William Gaddis (two writers I admired) had written about with insight. Then one of these guys wolf-whistled my wife, right in front of me, the kind of provocation that down south where this particular neanderthal was probably from might result in gunplay, and a move he never would have made without two or three buddies around him. I threw him a withering look but it probably didin't matter, his slight might not have been serious and there was no further trouble. It gave me a sense though that they might, just possibly, have been waiting for our arrival.
We spent the next day drifting back towards Milwaukee, taking old state highways for the most part. We visited Fred Smith's Concrete Park in Phillips, Wisconsin, an art environment, built by a tavern owner next to his home and business. We stopped at three or four thrift stores in as many small towns, part of our continuing "Goodwill tour" whenever we travel (it's easier to find cool things in small towns where there's less competition from other hipsters). We turned a six-hour trip into a ten-hour adventure, even though when we reached a point in geography where everything was already familiar we took the nearest freeway on-ramp.
There was the usual concern with local police in a couple of towns, again nothing definite. Of greater concern was coming across a sheriff's SUV off our side of the road, parked nose-to-nose with an unmarked SUV. After we drove by, the clearly-marked sheriff's SUV pulled out and followed us closely several miles to the county line. This seemed much more intentional than anything else encountered on the trip and it did give me pause.
There were three remote but possible scenarios in the scheme of things on this trip, three worst possibilities among several. One was that they did in fact sincerely think I was some sort of terrorist. Equally absurd was the possibility things might be set up to make it look, later, as if I were a terrorist. Or that some sort of accident might be arranged to make sure it was never revealed what I'd found out. All remote but discomforting. Another factor was that I knew for a fact that local law enforcement was increasingly being involved in anti-terrorism efforts post 9-11 under the Department of Homeland Security. It was possible that there were selected law officers in Northern Wisconsin now under the impression that I was, if not a potential terrorist or at least a dangerous radical, at least a person of interest. Think about the implications of that. What if I had panicked or freaked out? What if any one of them had felt such outrage for reasons of their own as to play hero at the slightest provocation, no matter how unintentional? This was the first but not the last time this particular fear would arise.
In a passive sort of way...While the trip itself hadn't been all that stressful, the events leading up to it were still rattling my bones when we got back. There had been enough incidents that could have been going on during the trip, and they had remained ambiguous, not definitive. Still I felt I had to step in. After a couple three days mulling it over, I brought up the web site of the agency I felt was likely at the center of my troubles. I searched in vain for some appropriate email address. The only one available was a public contact, most likely a press or PR office. There was no address for anyone even vaguely associated with investigations or anything else actually associated with the mission of the organization involved. Okay, fine, I guessed that was the card I'd somehow dealt myself, and dived in with an ambiguous email.
I tried to explain in the vaguest possible terms that I'd apparently ran across something of theirs and might have come to their attention. I'd seen something I wasn't supposed to and if so, if it would help, I offered to make myself available for an interview and would be happy to try and answer any questions they may have. Because of my previous history I did ask that they not send the FBI if at all possible, although I didn't give my reasons and I knew full well that the FBI would likely be charged with any domestic investigation, such as my case. I was ready to gulp air and talk to the FBI if that was what was necessary, but that wasn't put in the email.
What I got back the next day was what I took to be the standard boiler-plate kook response, what anyone would get if they emailed at 4 in the morning, mostly in Caps, after a night of heavy drinking, with some definitive urgent message about, "THOSE FBI NEWSPAPERMEN!!!!" or "ALIENS HAVE INVADED MY TRAILER COURT!!!" That wasn't at all what I sent them. What the response said was basically, "Thank you for contacting us. If it wasn't for concerned citizens like you, the war on terrrorism would be all but lost. If you have a specific concern or tip you should contact Homeland Security at this toll-free phone number or this email address."
That advice was of no particular help, so I responded immediately with some frustration, "Nothing to do with terrorism, quite the opposite." I repeated my offer for a meeting and gave just enough detail to indicate what it was I'd seen. I closed by saying no response or further contact was necessary if they didn't feel it was warranted. I'd keep my nose clean and had stopped looking into what I'd looked into. I indicated there was no need to get back to me or to take this further if they didn't desire to, and we could leave the whole matter at that. I hoped that was the end. I knew even while sending the first email that whoever was at the receiving end would have no clue of what I was talking about, but hoped that some sort of internal security would eventually, however low priority it might be, review such messages, in case on some odd chance there actually was something there. At that point hopefully the message would be picked up and understood.
SOMETHING OF A LULL
Incidents did seem to slow after that. Maybe my communications had had an effect or the operation (whatever it was) was moving slowly but inevitably to another stage independent of anything I had done. Things did not go silent, instead there was a low thump of a "Rethunk" in the background noise. I'd either calmed the waters or set deeper currents in motion. It turned out to be the latter. Most likely the operation was refigured and/or assigned to a different agency; whatever effect my contact had, even if only by bureaucratic lag as papers and approvals moved slowly, slowly from desk to desk, I didn't get the sense that this was over. I had felt certain this move would speed that meeting. It didn't.
Nothing ever would.
ANOTHER STRANGE SERIES OF INCIDENTS
There was a Gas Station/ Convenience Store on my daily drive from work or home to the gallery. It was a place to buy cigarettes (by this time my habit had gone from a pack or pack-and-a-half a day to two) and a bag of snack foods in place of a meal. One day during this period I walked in and standing there, enough steps back from the counter to make clear to anyone (including me) that he's not or not yet in line to close his purchase, is patriotic tie guy, boring a hole in me with his eyes and a bemused grin on his face. I don't think he was wearing that particular tie, but it sure looked like him and I seemed to be his clinical interest. There was no look of pity, but also no hint of menace. It wasn't the smile, to paraphrase a song writer [John Hiatt?] that the bully gives the runt, just a look that seemed to say, "Man, how'd you start this ugly snowball rolling? I know there's nothing here but orders, you're not a threat but you're in the goofiest sort of trouble. Good luck, shithead." The lull was over.
One night at dusk I happened to glance out a living room window and there's a cop on my front lawn. Okay, there is a cop on my front lawn. Wait, there's a cop on my front lawn? He's waving a flashlight around. I step out to see what's going on and he tells me they had a report of a prowler at the address next door. That address was actually a drug house Linda and I had bought in 1997 (just the real estate, not the business). He asked if I lived here, did I have any ID? I turned over my drivers license, already suspecting this guy was not what he seemed. I was a file clerk at Milwaukee's Municipal Court for eight years and dealt with Milwaukee police on a daily basis. Something was lacking in his ensemble that made it uniform shop rent-a-cop. He had glanced at my ID and turned it back. "Maybe it was 1122" he said, meaning one block west. Sure, a simple mistake. He's still pretending to poke around with the flash light, hemming and hawing and stalling for time.
I always felt a little bad in these encounters, for them, and sad too for my previously sunny view of life. Neither of our situations were good. I would have been the King's own fool to say something outright and human, like, "Look, I'm aware this is going on. Why don't you go back to your handlers or whoever briefed you and tell them I'd like a meeting?" I was no more free to do that than he was to say, outright and human, "Here's what I know, this is what I was briefed on, so what's this all about from your point of view?" I had to pretend he was a real cop and he had to keep pretending he was a real cop. In a minute or two of eternity we were both saved by his partner or counterpart, also in uniform, trotting down the next street over, and yelling to him, "It's 1122!" For all I knew it was a pre-arranged signal and the second cop was most likely messing with my car. Whoops! Gotta Go! was basically all the cop on the lawn said to me, to the relief of both of us, as he went out the gate and up the street. I followed him out and stood on the sidewalk looking after them. They moved west up the street, at one point one looked back and saw me..
I knew exactly what counter to go to at police headquarters for an incident report on the addresses, 1022 or 1122. I even knew the best time of day and day of week to go there for an immediate response, instead of just having your order taken for a later -- often days later -- pick-up. I could have verified whether there was a report of a prowler at 1122. Why bother, then, when I already suspected this was a fake cop. I didn't need confirmation, I needed a meeting or some other way out.
If confirmation was needed that something might be going on with my car, it was kindly provided when I went to my first scheduled oil change at the dealership. We'd bought a new car around the time of my birthday that year, only because my old car couldn't handle another fix (averaging it out, we'd spent enough on the old car ("Swamp Thing", named after a flood it survived in 1998) the last six months of its life with us to make payments on a Cadillac Escalade). It took awhile to get to that 3,000 mile mark for the oil change since the new car racked up about 18 miles a day. At any rate what happened is I pulled into the parking lot by the service doors and this guy, a kind of FBI-type looking guy, hard to explain why, was waiting there. He threw me a withering look from the moment I pulled in. I connected him immediately with my troubles, after all we'd made a call to schedule the service, and Linda had probably reminded me via phone or email.
it was a warning of sorts perhaps, but there was also the sense that either he harbored a visceral hate for me personally or just didn't approve of the operation; he didn't like having to be obvious, to me at least, or didn't like in the least having to be obvious. No sooner did I step up to the service desk than he came in and stood, in easy listening distance, not far behind the service guy, who maybe but probably wasn't in on this or for all I know might have been served with a National Security Letter. The man watching me fixed me with a look most charitably described as "Keep your mouth shut", then vanished into the adjoining showroom.
Best guess is they were concerned I might ask the dealership to check for a tracking device. So far I hadn't been blown up or killed or perished in a fiery crash on a remote road so I wasn't especially concerned about their tracking device, didn't need confirmation and could take for granted that it might be fact, much as the three or four pot dealers on your block are careful on the phone. I didn't have a lifestyle to alter on that basis. There are a lot of people consoling themselves with the old idea that "the innocent have nothing to fear" as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are constantly chipped away. I was innocent and I had plenty to fear and had absolutely no way, apparently, of getting out of this situation I'd found myself in. Still, one of my last hopes was that someone somewhere would be adult enough to realize not a damned thing was going on here, at least nothing that couldn't be cleared up easily with a direct approach. Tracking device on my car? Hell, Bubba, that's just a minor annoyance compared to the over-all picture.
A BUNCH OF THINGS HAPPEN IN A PARKING LOT
The guy who walked across the parking lot had plainly dressed down, much like the cheerful guy on the sidewalk with the-step-aside and get-noticed-by-your-target. By the end of these grueling eleven months I would discover another government secret; somewhere there's a huge walk-in closet full of plain brown cloth coats. This may have been a Nixon initiative. Someone had been scouring the thrift shops of America on a secret mission. The specifications? "Plain, brown, cloth, must be slightly worn but not torn or soiled, Must be clean." An anonymous and unmemorable look. To my surprise he made a bee line to the smoking shelter, squeezing past a coworker and me with a slight grunt of excuse or grudging apology. For the length of time I was out there he didn't smoke, he didn't speak, he simply lurked, standing in the corner.
My coworker didn't seem to give much notice to this intrusion and paid no never mind to the man in the corner (again, he didn't present any good reason for being there). I might not have thought much of the incident myself except for all that history leading up to it. This sort of thing wasn't good. My coworker went in eventually, none the wiser. Down to just the two of us, it was tempting to acknowledge the situation in some way, but it was just ridiculous. What could I say? I'd be the King's own fool to broach the subject at hand, to say anything human like, "What do you folks want?" or some natural question such as, "What's this all about?" He wasn't there to take questions. No small talk. No big talk either. No talk at all. I finished my last cigarette, probably said, "Well, take care," by way of taking leave, getting maybe a grunt in response, and went back into work.
* * *
When it happened again maybe a week later (the same guy I think) by chance we were there alone. I realized these encounters were going to be a pattern. For now at least. As I said, I never knew if this was over until it happened again, and then I only knew it wasn't over. I was worried the whole time that someone, anyone of my smoking co-workers, would join us at any minute. Not this time. I'd been reading the newspaper and folded it over to the crossword puzzle. I reached into my shirt pocket and found I'd left my pen on my desk. Oh well. Not my day. I finished my second cigarette and went back to work. "Well, take care." Grunt in reply, which I think is spook-speak for "You too, shithead."
* * *
The next time it happened, the third time I think, was doubly problematic; not only was a co-worker there with me when the goon (the shadow, whatever you want to call him -- a different one I think) showed up, their timing couldn't have been worse. I had intelligence on the ground that they couldn't possibly have had. The co-worker who was in the shelter with me was one of two key material witnesses in a local high-profile police beating case, a case that would eventually bring down eight or more police officers. A case that had racial overtones, that could have triggered a riot. We often took smoking breaks together simply because if you work similar hours you're going to take breaks at more or less the same time. There were maybe a dozen coworkers, any one or two of whom I'd likely run into on a smoking break, often the same person twice or more in the same week.
In the instance of that woman in the third encounter, I was already worried for her because of the case she was involved in. Having worked with cops for eight years as a clerk at a municipal court, I knew second-hand the possible costs of crossing a crowd of renegade cops; it could be like insulting a gang of bikers or cheating the mob. She was really strong, but if I were her and some thug with no visible reason to be there showed up a second time, I would be freaked. I would think it was about me. For eleven months I did my best to not make this anyone else's problem, but for the most part events were beyond my influence. If something a little strange happens once, it's two minutes of thought, not even, if something happens twice or more it's a pattern. It didn't happen again while she was on break, but that was more lucky chance than purpose.
The next time I upped the ante, just as a kind of probe to figure out a little more of what was going on. A guy shows up, moves to the corner, hovers (no smoking, no talking). The same guy from the last encounter? The same guy from the first encounter? Wait, was the guy from the first encounter the same guy in the second encounter? I think so. Maybe. Then was the guy from the second encounter the same guy in the third? Hmmmm. They were both relatively big men, meaning bigger than me, younger as well, and both were wearing plain brown coats, old, slightly worn and civilian. I didn't feel free to stare at the time, although in retrospect I could have made faces, put on a puppet show, carried on like a hyperactive three-year-old, and these guys would have had to do their best to act normal, while not acting normally, a hell of a thing.
I again had the crossword puzzle from the daily paper. I reached under my coat and felt around. This time I had my pen there but I couldn't find it. It stayed there, I put my hand back in view, and gave a little frustrated shrug. Oh well. Suddenly I reached into a pants pocket, the one facing the guy in the corner, and pulled out a two-inch pocket knife. I held it in front of me and looked at it for a moment. I could hear a low growling chuckle from the corner, barely audible. He was right of course. He'd probably had three weeks of classes in how to deal with situations much like this, and knew a dozen ways each to disarm or disable me, and three ways to kill me instantly (though that probably wouldn't be necessary).
I felt for the slide on the side of the tiny knife. I pushed it down and forward a fraction of an inch, and a metal stylus with a pointed tip emerged from one end of the knife. The low growling chuckle stuttered. I tested the tip with my finger, as if it was a hypodermic syringe. The low chuckling growl stopped. I felt a twinge of regret for the mild scare that might have been put with this action, but this was the fourth encounter of its sort and it was time to get some kind of response. I hated the thought of anyone else gettting curious about these events. I was trying my damndest to keep this from becoming anyone else's problem
Satisfied with the results, I applied the pen-knife pen to the crossword puzzle. A breath was released in the corner of the smoking shelter. There was a sigh of relief on my side as well; it was early in the week and the puzzle was easy. It was a matter of saving face to finish the crossword puzzle, and when I did I finished my second cigarette, smeared it out on the ground to extinguish the fire, put the butt in the Smoker's Chimney (TM,RT) and said, "Well, back to it. Take care.", and in a rare note of respect, maybe only sympathy for once, the whatever-he-was said, "You too [ shit-head ]."
During the next week there were one or two encounters away from the smoking shelters, which I took as a good sign. Maybe they'd gotten the message. These sidewalk brush-by meetings had been occuring on and off since the beginning, but they were now staying out of the smoking shelter at least. All these brush-by meetings though might have been leaving me with the wrong impression. I began to wonder if I wasn't dealing with something like the CIA, which can't legally walk up to an American citizen and ask, "What are you up to?" Maybe it was up to me to approach them. I'd make an excuse to stop but they'd keep walking.
SOME OTHER FACTORS
It was around this time when a friend sent an e-mail expressing outrage at the Bush Administration's policy on torture. It was an outrage I shared -- for personal reasons as well --- but I related that eventually the attitudes of the Presidency soak down to street level, and cited the Frank Jude beating by off-duty police in Milwaukee as a case in point. In theory we live in a democracy, and no one is above the law, so if the President says it's okay to arbitrarily beat up people we don't like, well... I mentioned how one of my coworkers was one of two key material witnesses in the case and how she often took smoking breaks at the same time I did. Both the feeling about national attitude and facts of my coworker were true, but my friend didn't know anything about what I'd been going through since early February. I wasn't trying to tell him anything, I was trying to tell them that these visits in the smoking shelter weren't a good idea.
This was opportunistic. My friend gave me an opportunity to state both a belief and a cautious warning to observers unknown. If my e-mails were being monitored, maybe somebody on the other side would pick up on the fact that there was more at stake with those mute goon shadowings in the smoking shelter. There were facts on the ground that might adversely affect their operation. I wanted to see if this might have an effect on their behavior. If that is, it wasn't over; I wouldn't know, until it happened again.
As for my friend, again I don't know whether I was getting him in trouble or if he had gotten me in trouble, these days it's hard to tell. Imagine if I had told him at this point that I was likely under surveillance, including quite possibly my Emails. One likely result would be one less citzen willing to express outrage at an administration's constitutional over-reach. He'd fear surveillance himself then. This is a direct illustration of the elusive "Chilling Effect".
I was in trouble, knowing my friend and not knowing my trouble, I'd choose the known friend over the unknown trouble. I wasn't going to give up the one to avoid the other. This is the sort of choice people have to make. What seems a dis-service -- not telling my friends I might be under surveillance -- was a humble service. The worst thing I could have done for them would have been to clue them in. It would implicate them in something they had nothing to do with and cast a spotlight of suspicion on them as well.
My casual mention of taking cigarette breaks with a co-worker who had troubles of her own might have influenced the next series of meetings. Judge for yourself, after I mention a handful of other factors.
As stated earlier, I didn't know for a fact if it wasn't something someone else had said or done or written that was at the root of this trouble, or whether I was getting other people in trouble. I knew that most of the trouble was caused by a specific action on my part, that was made plain on February 8th, but there had to be something else. There must have been another factor at work, a coincidence of Social Networking.
Aside from the poetry group -- an otherwise hilarious misunderstanding -- and my political youth, there were two or three scientists I knew by chance in fields like nanotechnology or cryogenics and plasma physics. For awhile we were all in an e-mail contest to gross each other out with web findings. They didn't talk about their work at all really, not when they were on Department of Defense contracts. When it came to their work, to the points where it was classified when it was, they didn't tell, and I didn't ask. I never asked and the science would not have been understood. They were happier off of DoD contracts and in the private sector when possible or at least on civilian applications; the bureaucracy alone was dulling and discouraging by all accounts.
* * *
Another art dealer in town had been "Ashcrofted". They'd been fortunate enough to have a couple of very successful openings within a year or two and had gotten "the bank call" not once but twice. The whole bank-reporting thing started with the drug war: any transaction of 10,000 dollars or more was required to be reported by banks to the Feds on the assumption it might be a drug deal. This resulted in a lot of deposits of 9,999 dollars by drug dealers and not much else. In terms of market certainty, drug dealers have it all over art dealers. When you open an art show you can't be certain if you'll sell anything or everything. It depends, factors vary, but a wild success might be followed up by months of few sales. And the new standard for that required bank-reporting? Post 9-11? ANY transaction outside of your usual ordinary.
From what little was recounted "The Bank Call" consisted of eight questions. You were told to answer the questions honestly and not to repeat the questions to anyone. The initial response to the first call was, "You're joking, right?" to which was answered, "Don't even say that. It will just launch another investigation." I'd certainly had successful shows from time to time, either critically or financially or both, but was never so fortunate as to get that call. Given the art business it was almost an insult that I hadn't gotten that call myself.
* * *
One of the artists I'd exhibited had become a good friend and often stopped in at the gallery for a visit on Saturday afternoons. It was an occasion to crack a beer and yammer, two of my favorite activities. One day he related a problem he was having at home. I forget the exact set of facts, but his or his wife's (or his long-term girlfriend's) brother-in-law or sister-in-law and their spousal unit had just returned from the Mideast. What had they been doing there? They were part of an effort (a bit misguided, in my opinion) to protect Palestinian rights against Israeli transgressions, real and or perceived. Plenty of both to go around on both sides. They were apparently part of a movement that resulted in an American girl being mangled and killed by an Israeli bulldozer. Bad scene.
Then he told me that the issue at home was simply the fact that ever since they returned these folks had been freaked out. Some shadowy guys they took to be FBI seemed to be everywhere they went and he'd seen it himself. My response was, "Yeah, there seems to be alot of that going around." I didn't segue into or tip my hand about my own troubles, but moved the conversation instead to a general discussion about Bush policies, the War on Terror, the Patriot Act and so on. I'd never heard of these people before in my life, they didn't know me and I didn't know them, but for all any of us knew we'd gotten each other in deep trouble without ever intending to do so. It's impossible to say.
* * *
In the midst of all this a friend, another one of that crowd of scientists, e-mails me personally. He alerts me that the FBI might be coming around to do a background check on him. He told me only, "The NSA seems to be nosing around again. I'd applied and been accepted in the past, but it took them over a year, meanwhile I took a more interesting job in the private sector..." a common story -- it...takes...them...so...long. Bureaucratic sloth would seem to be the only legitimate reason. It wasn't clear at all whether he'd specifically given my name as a reference or if he took it as a matter of course that they'd interview everyone he knew. For all I knew he was going through the same thing I was, and handling it in his own manner, thinking it was a re-look.
I e-mailed him a response, saying, "As far as the NSA goes, there's No Such Agency, even if there is a kiddie-page on their website. Most likely it wouldn't be the FBI coming around. More likely it would be elements of the DIA, since it's a DoD agency." That had been my experience from doing background checks for DIA at Milwaukee Municipal Court, where the issues were at best (worst?) drunken driving first offenses or disorderly conduct charges from bar fights. Of course, it might just have been ordinary grunts I was digging out the records of, it's hard to say, but certainly the sense of intelligence at work was there. They only came around once or twice a month, usually there were only one or two names to be checked.
* * *
MEMO TO SELF
That was the subject line of several E-mails to myself. Based on the possible effect of that E-mail to a friend when I mentioned the court-case of a coworker, I figured if my communications are monitored I should take advantage of that fact. They -- whoever they were -- weren't communicating to me what they wanted, so I had to tell them what I thought of all this. Or try to. I don't know if it worked. I sent about eight altogether over the next three or so months, into 2006. beginning November 17th, 2005. I sent these addressed to myself, actually hoping they would be intercepted. I figured the bounce-back from my ISP would be enough to get netted, if surveillance was as tight as I thought. I used this to explain my side of the original event that seemed to have caused all this trouble. I used it to comment on changes in their approach, to explain my reactions, hell, I used it to speak truth to power -- a kind of, "Say, now that I have your attention...". But I don't know if they were ever read. From the first on, things did change, but how much of it was by my effort? Maybe none, but the encounters stepped up a notch.
NOW WE'RE TALKING
The smoking shelter encounters continued but with a twist. In place of people who wouldn't speak, who didn't smoke and didn't seem to have any reason to be where they were, now they talked -- mostly about their "light cover" stories, and they smoked. I still feared that coworkers might be unnerved or suspicious, but at least these spooks were smoking cigarettes and had ostensible, if absurd at second thought, reasons for being there. This was a vast improvement. Whether my previous reactions had prompted them to step things up or it was a natural progression on their part or my off-hand comment in an email to a friend had had an effect, it's almost certain I'll never know.
The first encounter of the third kind was a young guy, as expected, and dressed down. He had come out of the side door with a bag of garbage and thrown it in a nearby dumpster. After entering the shelter with a greeting he lit a cigarette and started his story. It was his last day of Worker's Comp and he was doing "office duty". He worked in the warehouse of a well-known meat packer. "Are you with the agency?" I asked him. He looked at me blankly. "With the temp agency?" I continued. There was an employment agency office on the first floor and it was the only path I could see between the meatpacker, Workmen's Comp, office duty, and that bag of garbage. He shook his head and changed the subject. He could certainly talk and was more hyperactive than me, which is saying something.
At the end of the break he followed me inside, still talking in vague terms about the product line of the warehouse of meatpacker. I was starting up the stairs, he was going into the first floor hall and had just said something like, "They make all kinds of things there". I paused for a half beat on the stairs, "Chorizo?" I said. "Oh they make everything there."
One good guess is they were curious to see if I'd check out his story. I didn't bother. I took it for bogus at the outset. That bag of garbage was one of two or three I saw everyday, set out in the hall by the door by other tenants in the building for the cleaning service every night. The cleaning crew was probably delighted, maybe only confused, to find their load lightened that day. And it gets better.
I took a break later that afternoon and damned if he didn't come out again with the other bag of garbage. Now this gets problematic and funny. Two of the top managers were leaving and had paused to talk awhile next to one of their cars. They'd often done the same and they often took smoking breaks in the shelter at the same time I did. For some reason, and I think I know why, he thought it was a good idea to stop and engage them in conversation and, from what little I could hear across the parking lot, was laying out much the same spiel he'd put on me a few hours before: the Workmen's Comp, the office duty, the meat plant.
This was another one of several "what can you do except laugh" moments in the course of all this. When my wife, knowing nothing about this, tells me over the phone that, "...Maybe we can hijack a train", or when a coworker during the later smoking shelter encounters, when the whatever's were making small talk, repeatedly called me Craig while the agent's eyes grew wider with every misnomer. She hadn't seen me for awhile and Craig isn't far from Kent. Maybe she'd been reading Dale Carnegie and picked up on the importance of calling people by their name, often. It was rude not to gently correct her early on, but it was too rich to pass up so I let her continue. It was the imp in me, having a grand laugh at this "unswerving punctuality of chance". There was nothing else I could do. Still, I suspect that "Alias: Craig", was added to my permanent file. The most important thing was not to laugh outloud. So of course this guy that day lays the same spiel on two of my bosses, there's a Murphy's Law for strangeness as well as "going-wrongness". Ask that guy who was in the stairwell on February 8th, 2005.
If something can go strange, it will.
In contrast, beyond the events I had no control over, there were certainly times when I unknowingly threw a wrench into the works. That business when one of the silent folks in the smoking shelter was wondering if I wasn't about to jab him with a poison-tipped stylus, and all I had in mind (heh heh) was doing a crossword puzzle, was a probe I'll admit that probably cost as much or more than it gained. On another occasion I paused in front of an agent on the sidewalk and lit a cigarette off a fancy matchbox from a nightclub that was rumored to have intelligence community connections. I was hoping for a reaction that would give me some clue to who or what was on me like flies on sherbet. I got results and then some and it cost me.
* * *
The next encounter of this sort was still more strange, but played better and ran smoother than the first. It was a young black woman this time, dressed in a generic nurse's aide outfit, who claimed to be retrieving a file for a clinic that had moved out of the building. It was a more difficult and more plausible story to trace, but I didn't bother. She said the clinic had moved to the hospital but kept a record room in the basement. I didn't believe it but played along. She smoked. She talked. This was progress.
She handled herself well in this weird situation. She'd picked a simpler cover story and one harder to verify. I could see establishing a rapport with her. I was vain enough at this point to think that they were sending all these different people around to see who'd I'd react well to, relax around, respond to, interact or even be honest with; the way these contacts kept up (and moreover built up) I could only view this as a test of some sort.
* * *
These people had nothing but sympathy and curiousity from me and that was weird, since their job was basically to screw me over at every turn. But I understood that they were just doing a job. Worse, they may have been briefed on only ten percent of what was going on. Probably more, but not much more. All the factors that entered into modern day intelligence were, it had to be guessed, at work here: compartmentalization and the need to know, deniability, etc. I suspected at this point most of them were DIA but likely I'd never know. It would take a while, but I was building toward knowing 90 percent of what was going on here, but would seemingly always lack a crucial ten percent of all the five W's: Who, What, Why, Where, When. That ten percent of the total knowledge lacking, for me, was contained in the 90 percent that whomever was ultimately in charge on the other end had, and vice versa I held the ten percent that they were lacking. A simple face-to-face meeting would have cleared up any questions.
* * *
...In a gas station parking lot on November 30, 2005. I was driving from my workplace to my gallery and made my usual stop for cigarettes and snacks. It was the same gas station, not far from the gallery, where I'd had an earlier encounter. What I mean by Fellini movie is simply a lot of actors and a lot of things happening in rapid succession, and all of it a bit surreal. For starts, I think patriotic tie guy was in the station, and when I stepped out the door, there's one of the silent thugs from the smoking shelter encounters. I no sooner noticed him and turned toward my car when the spooky hide-the-face guy does his standard diagonal walk-through, I think with a manila folder hiding his face from view this time.
At which point I chuckled and tossed and caught my car keys in the air. What can you do? All this effort on their part to what end? I got in the car and started it up. I sat for a moment as the CD player came to life with an Oasis song I'd come to depend on for a bit of perspective. I got the distinct sense there were others from this crowd in that parking lot or nearby.
This gas station was a regular stop for cops for snacks, coffee and restroom use. As I sat in the car for a moment and turned up the music volume, I toyed with the idea of just sitting there and making them, or some of them, stay there as well. It wouldn't have been more than five or ten minutes before some patrol squad pulled in. As the officer walked toward the store, I could crank the music to a higher and higher volume the closer he got to passing my car. At which point he or she would likely approach to give me a hard time. At which point I could whisper to him or her, indicating the guy by the door for instance, and say something along the lines of "Officer, I'm afraid to leave. See that guy? I think he's connected with the federal government in some way. I don't really know what's up, but they've been leaning on me."
I don't know if a cop would have gone up to the guy by the door and ask if he had an interest in me, but it was worth a shot. How would the guy react? Shrug disagreeably and walk away? Play dumb? Show ID? Even if I was arrested or just ticketed, it would have changed their script. I thought better of it. Moscow Rules. Don't provoke. I fixed a look on the guy by the door, turned the volume up just a bit more, backed out and drove to the gallery.
As I approached the gallery, just a few blocks away, I could see three police squads stationed across the street, parked on the opposite side, their lights running. It wasn't a traffic stop. It likely had to do with me, best guess. I parked normally and went inside, up to the second floor gallery space. In the time it took to get up there and look out the window, they had started to drive off. Now this did bug me, those squads likely had no more information than to park here and do this, on a need-to-know basis, but they have eyes. They can put two and two together. If they were tasked by the feds and no sooner do I park then they get the call off, well great, that's three to six more cops in my hometown who are likely to think I'm some kind of terrorist. Great, just great. Innocence and guilt are the exact same thing at that level.
* * *
PUNKED IN PAINT, TWICE.
They bought a painting from my gallery. By "they" I mean one of the agencies that had been giving me grief for most of the year. Perhaps it was a sop, an apology of sorts or a consolation prize, maybe just a further playing with. This was on Thursday, December 15th, 2005. The gallery was open Tuesday to Friday, 6 to 8 PM, and on Saturdays from 11 AM to 4 PM, limited hours dictated by having a day job. I left work at 5:30 and the half hour was sufficient to make a stop (snacks, beer to go, cigarettes) and get across town to the gallery by six. Normally. Increased street traffic due to freeway reconstruction (plus the street-scaping noted above) almost guaranteed opening five or ten minutes late during the week in the last year or two.
There weren't many visitors on week nights, one or two maybe, most likely artists fishing for shows, often no one at all. Most of the action occurred on Saturday. On that particular Thursday I arrived shortly after six and the phone was ringing. The male who was calling seemed surprised to find the gallery open. "Oh, you're there." Well, yeah. Probably he'd called once or twice before, promptly at six, and gotten only the answering machine. He indicated he'd be stopping in shortly to look around. Somehow I just kind of knew the call and visit was connected to all my troubles and had been expecting something like this, it was in the air. After the call I phoned my wife Linda and asked her to call me in 45 minutes, just to make sure everything was alright, without much other explanation. I think I told her there'd been a strange call and I was expecting a visitor.
The man showed up not much later. I greeted him at the door, invited him to look around and if he had any questions I'd be in the office. He looked around for ten or fifteen minutes, seeming to study the various works on the walls. Finally he ducked his in head in the office door and had an inquiry. I followed him out into the gallery. Prices were posted for most of the works by various artists, but not all. He was interested in one of the smaller works on display. Was he wearing a wig? Did I recognize his face? I tried not to stare.
"How much is this one?" The man asked.
It was a curious figurative painting by an artist named Tim Marquis and I'd often thought of buying it for our own collection. It showed a male figure in a black suitcoat, white shirt, red tie, holding a cigarette out in an awkward manner, gesturing toward what seemed to be an empty jury box in an empty court room, while addressing the presumably empty bench. What the figure said in a word bubble was, "Secretary, please denote for the ledger the completely sane manner in which I am holding this cigarette." I had to look up the price, saying it was either 225 or 250. I dug out the commission form from when the artist dropped it off and showed it to him. It was 250.
"That's too bad," He said, "I have 200 cash in my pocket." The old take it or leave it. I flashed that he was used to haggling, maybe an antiques collector and not an art collector, even though I sensed he was something else entirely. It was a firm statement. I hesitated. This was a 20 percent discount. I had a policy of not giving discounts unless the buyer took two or more pieces of art or was a repeat buyer, then I'd give 10 percent. Over eight years I had to give it way too often. I thought about who I thought he worked for; the artist would get his price and I'd eat the difference.
"Well, now that you put it that way..." I started to fill out a sales form. I asked for his name and got only a grunt in return. I didn't believe in anonymous sales but, in this case, I'd make an exception. Moving on, I calculated the sales tax and meekly brought that up only to be greeted with indifference. Okay, another expense I'll have to eat. Sigh. At this point I'm making maybe 30 bucks on the deal and I've broken several rules of my own. Mmmm, [gulp] good crow. You sure can cook. That 200 in crisp twenties was the maximum that whoever was acting as Bursar would give out on a deal like this. And he needed a receipt. Not a problem since I always made a copy of the sales form for the buyer.
No sales form had ever said less in 20 years of selling art.
I looked with regret at the painting under his arm as he stepped out of the gallery and onto the long flight of steps leading down from the second floor. It had lifted me every day I'd been around it but had never been documented. I blurted out, "That's me."
He stopped in his tracks. "What?"
"In the painting, that's me, I'm getting punked." I stumbled on, trying to explain, "The clothes, the speech, the cigarette, I wanted to buy it for myself. I knew the artist was playing me." He gave a hearty laugh. The story likely enhanced its value as a trophy. I hope it hasn't been destroyed. I'd love it if they'd sent it back to me somehow, and in return I'll make a 200 dollar donation to the War Orphan's Fund. No harm done, some good in fact.
A FINAL ENCOUNTER
On the phone, I let my wife know exactly where I was going to stop on the way home. I was stopping at a used book store to spend twenty or thirty dollars on myself. I made it a point to say what bookstore on what street. Although the whole drift of this was anathema, it seemed a bettter course of action to flag my movements clearly at times, mostly any time I fell out of pattern.
It was late-middle December, maybe around the 19th, 2005. On the 15th, after sitting on the story for a year or so, the New York Times let fly with an article on the NSA domestic spying story. Change was in the air and it was resonating all the way down to my case. Maybe. I started to buy the NYT on a daily basis, reading deep for hints that might illuminate what was going on right in front of me. Futile hope. Seemingly nothing would ever cast light on what was happening. I had a lot of the What, most of the How, most of the Where, some of the Who, all of the When but finally almost none of the Why.
So I go to the used bookstore and standing there in front of it is the guy from the oil change, seeming without cheer despite the season, thoroughly unhappy to be there, seemingly disapproving of the whole operation. Or he was just playing Bad Cop. Either way he threw me the dirty look. I nodded by way of recognition which only sharpened his glare. The hate seemed almost visceral and very personal with this guy and that was troubling. When I left twenty minutes later, with a handful of books on intelligence, he was gone.
That pretty much ends things for 2005. Everyone gets hit by a bus -- The End.
* * *
2006: Not much, no need for details.
2007: Some, but not that much, and it's another story -- The sequel: "What They Did To My Summer Vacation" or "Feel The Heat".
How did it change me? How did it affect my life?
The most immediate effect is it's moved me to tell my wife that I love her in every phone conversation and in every arrival or departure that seperates or unites us. Because you never know what might happen.
It contributed to the gallery grinding to a slow halt, since I cancelled two shows in the 2005 season, mostly because of this distraction. But it would have ground to a halt anyway, at least where it was. The real estate market was taking care of that; the sea of warehouses and small factories on view out the windows when I opened had turned, in eight years almost to a building, into condos and high-end shops, restaurants and nightclubs.
It's been a continuing distraction. I thought it would pass, but still over two years after most of it ended, I think about it all the time. Still chewing it over, guessing and re-guessing the motives as reflected by the methods used, the why of it all. This isn't helped by knowing I could restart it, perhaps without even knowing how, at any time.
It gave me one hell of a story, if not an easy one to raise or relate in light social conversation. Not a good party tale, in other words. I feel a witness to a unique moment in American history, an instance I hope we see less of and not more of and not something, despite it's often interesting, even sometimes humorous moments, I would wish on my worst enemy.
It has cost entire friendships, some going way back. In a couple of cases having been warned off, I could guess, from association. In other cases what little I've told them about it has made them wary. A typical reaction to the confidence, "You know, I was under an incredible amount of government surveillance in 2005," has been "Kent, you're not that important to them." Exactly. That is the real mystery of the whole thing, They had all the answers they would ever need to determine whether I was threat or not, nothing in my life was a mystery to them. If they wanted answers could have asked at any time. They didn't.
I can't blame any friend or acquiantance for stepping back or away. I can't ask them to fight my fight or share my load, so anyone who did step away is forgiven. It's sad to lose their friendship. People have their own lives to lead and responsibilities, jobs, families to protect. None of us know really what we would do when pushed to the wall, how we'd handle a witch-hunt, a revolution or a war right here and now. Not until it happens.
Still, if this is the way things are going to be in this country, it might as well hit me among the first. If my country is going to change forever for the worse, if we're going to replicate the experience of your average East German dissident circa 1985, then I feel privileged to be among the first targets. People have suffered far worse in the course of history and suffer far more today. I diiscovered I had the mental fiber to withstand it, when many physically stronger and braver than myself might have crumbled, might indeed have gone running wild-eyed into the street babbling about being pursued by shadowy government agents, which in retrospect is probably all they wanted me to do, so I could be easily discredited if I ever went public.
And writing it, well, this has been the hardest writing I've ever done. This eked out, sentence by sentence, almost painfully, like drawing my own blood, and was repeatedly interrupted by events. To get this far with it has taken from the middle of 2006 until today, January 27, 2008. There were months when for different reasons nothing was written, and when I could turn back to it I'd be lucky to write a paragraph or even a sentence at a sitting. [MORE]
A RETURN TO POLITICS
Near the beginning of this I wrote that I didn't think my politics had much to do with it, and by and large I think that's still the case, but sometimes I wonder. Since that was written it's come out just how petty and deep the people surrounding George W. are willing to go. The US Attorneys scandal has come to light and other plans for a permanent Republican majority have been seen in action, before the Democrats retook congress in 2006 a lot of serious dirt was flying under the radar. Now we know.
In my case it's hard to imagine politics entering into it since I operated at such a low level. Basically writing letters to the editor was the extent of my political involvement, though I pulled a couple of low-level pranks in 2004. I didn't consider them dirty tricks, more the political equivalent of uprooting the "Jesus Saves" sign from the lawn of the Rescue Mission and planting it in front of the bank. Nothing compared to the standard dirty tricks of push-polling or vote-caging.
In one instance, finding myself included in a conservative chain-email link, mostly Hilary Clinton jokes and other patently unfunny material, I felt it was time to put a reverse out there. Over time I assembled a list of addressees from that happenstance, and then I set to work. I composed an email with thin cover warning Rush Limbaugh fans not to believe rumors they might get, via email of course, that Rush, with his persistent habit of tapping his desk with his fingers, was communicating with the dead and/or sending messages in Morse Code. I carefully composed the email and sent it to all those email addresses I'd saved, all except the one person who'd innocently included me in the chain. In fact I was hoping that he'd email it to me sooner or later, as a kind of proof it had gotten out there. I included myself in those addresses, and when it showed up in the in-box I was horrified to see that all the punctuation, every comma, apostrophe and quotation mark, showed up as a short string of nonsense, a jumble of letters, numbers and symbols, making the message if not unreadable then unpleasant to the eye.
What had happened was I composed it in Microsoft Office and pasted it into an email on my Mac, and that just didn't work. The programs apparently weren't compatible. Besides, I wasn't plugged into that particular viral social e-network, and overestimated as well the ability of that crowd to process obscure 19th Century spiritual practices. So it goes, and it happens to professionals as well, I mean the honey-trap didn't work on me quite as planned either. In any event, Rush Limbaugh no longer taps his desk as much or as often, but that's probably due more to a change in his drug regimen as anything else.
On another occasion, prior to the 2004 election, I emailed just five people with an idea to spread the word as far as possible to pretend support of President Bush in the event of being called in a national poll. The idea was to have their own pollsters overestimating support. The folly of this was quickly pointed out in the only response I got, from a retired journalism professor, who called it an interesting idea but pointed out the small sampling sizes of these surveys, which I hadn't paid any attention to at all. They're 800, 1,000, 1,500 people nationwide and the odds of anyone who took my message seriously, even if it was spread widely, having a chance to respond was very slim.
That was as bad as I got, not even a gnat on the radar. Rush is a well-known public figure and as such open to an amount of ridicule, and there is no law obligating an American citizen to answer a polling question honestly. So what else?
Everything else I did in a political vein was above board. I sent some sincere if lengthy responses to specific columns written by prominent op-ed writers, such as Pat Buchanan, Kathleen Parker and William F. Buckley, but these were sent directly to them and not to the publications they appeared in. Not much effect there; Kathleen Parker was the class act, responding with a simple, "You're a good writer and very funny. Thank you for this." Never got a response from anyone else and didn't expect to; but there may, emphasis may, have been a side effect in the case of Pat Buchanan. I sincerely doubt it, but it's remotely possible, because a day or two after I sent the email to him, an item appeared on the Drudge Report, if not elsewhere, saying he had a letter that would blow the 2004 election wide open. The story quickly vanished with no further explanation. I don't think it was my email but there's some scant evidence that one of the first National Security Letters in my case was served shortly thereafter. It's the remotest of possibilities that there was a connection. What else?
I signed on, at his request, as the voluntary campaign manager for a long-shot candidate for Milwaukee County Executive. I did that based on the quality of the candidate, who was and is perhaps one of the two or three smartest people I've ever met. The incumbent we were up against happened to be the co-ordinator for Southeast Wisconsin for the Bush 2004 campaign. Now I had sent that incumbent, Scott Walker, some time before a scathing email about his stand, pure political opportunism, on a public work of art. Even though it empowers art, I've always found attacking art to be the cheapest shot a politician can take, the worst kind of pandering possible. I don't know if he remembered that when I started appearing on the campaign trail; I didn't run an opponent against him because of that, I ran an opponent because the opponent asked me to. But in this world you never know quite how cause and effect can play out.
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SUMMARY & OPINION
As I finish this, in January of 2008, the Bush II administration still has time to mess things up further. It's not easy to breath easy just yet. They've stacked every department with preening often incompetent party loyalists who have repeatedly placed the interests of the Republican Party above the interests of the nation as a whole. Since they profess to hate government, it should come as no surprise that they dont' do government very well. Not that it's working out quite as planned since they also don't do facts. Facts just aren't in their line these days. It's been a good seven years -- seven crucial years in terms of what's happened to the nation, the ideal, the Great Experiment -- since facts have been in the American product line as far as the leadership is concerned.
The Bush II administration has been a long train of abuses and usurpations
Corruption is almost the rule. There has been complete contempt for the separation of powers and the carefully crafted (now carefully manipulated) system of checks and balances, which they strain against at every chance as a wild horse in harness. Much of this effort stems in fact from VP Richard Cheney's experience in the Nixon administration, where as a minor functionary he watched the whole Watergate saga unfold. In a more important position under Gerald Ford, he continued to chafe under new and previously unnecessary restrictions on the Presidency. Combine this with Karl Rove's political animalism and you're cleaning the kitchen with a mix of ammonia and bleach. It is doubtful if ever there was a more likely combination of fuse and match to eventually result in at least a series of exploding cigars in the face of a presidency. It's tough to say if there has ever been a greater mix of half-assed metaphors than this administration. So smart, and so lacking in wisdom.
Here is one of the problems facing intelligence in the War On Terror (WOT): the Pizza Hut call and the 14 year-old kid describing his latest Play Station game as "the BOMB!" The Pizza Hut call reference is a derisive term use by FBI agents for many of the investigations tasked to it by the NSA, meaning they track down all the calls from a certain number or account or individual and half of them are calls to Pizza Hut, just used here as an example but the general idea is conveyed. A lot of tips go nowhere.
American citizens generally aren't quite aware of the fact that the FBI is more or less charged with having to follow up every tip they receive. It's one of the factors hampering their role in the WOT,
beyond it's capacity for disbelief by the Bush administration, which is always ready to connect every mink farm fire (whether started by the Animal Liberation Front or a faulty electrical cord), and every under-construction luxury condo fire (whether started by starry-eyed nihilists or the financially troubled builder for the insurance money, or a poorly installed natural gas line) to the fight against terror. Neither Bush nor Cheney seemed to have heard the children's fable of crying wolf
The other thing hampering the FBI is that almost every single move they make is geared toward prosecution and more importantly conviction. It's how they keep score. This is a nicety at best in the WOT, good if you can get it, but it's really way down there as a priority. The main objective is deterrence and deflection; it's been said that the terrorists only have to succeed once, which is ridiculous, they'd have to succeed so many times to take down our system that they might as well be chasing the endpoint of pi. Why can't they win? The whole world is moving into the 21st century, and they're bound and determined to drag it back to the 13th. Never happen, Sir. As with our own conservatives, bound and determined to take our culture back to the pristine state they imagine it was in the 1950s, they simply don't stand a chance in the long run. History is not on their side. This almost single-minded focus on prosecutions seems to have a couple of faults; for one thing, "conspiracy to commit" aside, a terror event is a crime you want to prevent, not prosecute.
"Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd / Had anything be wrong, we should certainly have heard"
W.H. Auden The Unknown Citizen
"Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters."
"You cannot have corruption at the top of the country or at the head of a city and not expect that corruption to make its way down to the streets. You cannot have money as the only factor in life and expect anything other than shit as a result."
""Have you heard the news?," He said with a grin / "The Vice President's gone mad." / "Where?" "Downtown." / When?" "Last night." /"Hmm, say, that's too bad."
Bob Dylan, Clothes Line Saga