Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Spies Like Us

My friend’s father is convinced I’m CIA. I’ve been here close to fifteen years and, despite Tallinn’s wonderful weather, he can’t see why any married man would stick around here that long. Maybe I am CIA. Maybe you are, too. But whether I’m a spook or not, I’ve certainly heard a lot of good spy stories about Estonia.

In the early 1990s, it was said Chinese spies were operating out of Tallinn’s only Chinese restaurant, because the Estonian government wouldn’t allow them an embassy. The story went that some Estonian guy had visited China as part of a government delegation and been given a Chinese spy to shadow him while he was here. When this Estonian guy went to eat in Tallinn’s Chinese restaurant three years later, guess who his waiter was?

About the same time, another story circulated that the US government sent spies to Estonia with suitcases of cash in order to buy big Estonian businesses, from which they’d have an inside track on Estonian goings-on and good reason to meet with government. Nice work if you can get it. I’d have bought Saku.

There was also the story about an American embassy worker who used to get drunk and accost expatriates in bars, paralyzing them with fear by reciting their names and the names and ages of their children. It maybe isn’t true but still makes a good story.

And of course they used to say that everyone at the Russian embassy was a spy. Maybe they were. Maybe they still are. I’ve heard the same about the Americans.

If you want to have fun with American embassy workers (at social functions away from their bullet-proof glass), extend your hand and when they introduce themselves you say: “Ah, of course. I remember you from Langley.” Or you can strike up a conversation about the firing range in the embassy cellar or the AV-8B Harrier parked on the roof. These are always interesting topics.

I once made friends with an American embassy worker and then raised the issue at a noisy party where I was sure the Russkies couldn’t eavesdrop. “So who are the spooks in the embassy?” She was taken aback—I guess that’s not a common question she received at formal receptions. “Oh, come on,” I said, “there must be at least one.” She paused a minute to compose herself—calling on her Langley training, no doubt—and answered that if there were any she wouldn’t know them. “Even the ambassador wouldn’t know,” she said. I found that hard to believe and said so. But she told me that if there were any spies, they’d most likely be top men in the business community. “Or journalists,” she added. “Like you.”

A Russian military friend once told me a story about an American spy. The US government was in need of a super spy and it searched all over America, finally finding the perfect candidate at Harvard University. They took him to Langley, taught him hand-to-hand combat, weaponry, driving skills, languages—all what spies need. Then they gave him a parachute and dropped him out of the sky over Siberia, where he made his way to a small village and infiltrated the community. After he’d been there about six months, there was a great party, where everyone was far drunker than usual. “Say,” a villager said to the spy, “there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.” The spy said to fire away. “You’re a great guy,” said the villager. “And your Russian is perfect. You make the best pelmeni I’ve ever had, and you’re by far the best balalaika player in the village. But tell me one thing: What’s a black guy doing in the middle of Siberia?”

Not exactly flattering. But after the great CIA work in Iraq, it’s entirely believable.

I find it funny that my friend’s father thinks I’m CIA. Why wouldn’t he think I’m CSIS. (I’m Canadian, after all.) The reason he doesn’t think I’m CSIS, because he’s never heard of it. That’s just how super secret it is. We keep a low, low profile. We’re so deep undercover you’ve never heard of us.

I’ve also met with the Estonian intelligence service. KaPo. They’ve got a cool sounding name, which belies their tiny operational budget. They don’t have many cool James Bond toys, either. Skype employees have better. But the KaPo agents I’ve met were very professional, and I have a lot of respect for them. Personally, I think to make up for their budget, and in the name of NATO friendship, the USA should allow them to use the embassy’s firing range or their Harrier jet. But that’s just the opinion of a friendly, sharing Canadian.

From the vast knowledge about espionage demonstrated in this article, you’ve probably concluded that I’m CSIS. I can’t tell you, of course. Or, as they saying goes: I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. But if you do think I’m a spy, do me one favor. Don’t mention CSIS. It’s an awful name, one so clunky no one would be proud to work there. Instead, use the organization’s French name: Service canadien du renseignement de sécurité. That’s a name I can be proud of. And it’s a name any Estonian Bond girl would fall for.