I'm Dal LaMagna. Ira Glass will be here in a minute. Just bear with me. I was heading to the Middle East, and there were friends of mine who had been there before and they gave me some tips.
Aleikum salam. So do I say salam aleikum first?
It's a mutual exchange. You'll probably both say it at the same time.
And say that everywhere. That's going to be very good for you.
The day before I went, I stopped by Tony, who is a friend of mine and my tailor, to get some clothes.
You're sure you're not going to wear a tuxedo there? I thought for sure you'd have to wear the tuxedo.
I'm not going to any parties. I'm meeting with the resistance.
I'm having meetings with sheikhs. You know?
The sheikhs know good clothes.
No, they do. They're all dressed in their--
They know nice clothes.
I had dinner at my sister's house the night before I left with her and her husband. I was going to Iraq hoping to do some good there. And they weren't very keen about it at all.
Well at least you're trying to do something. I think you're crazy, but at least you're trying to do something.
See the attitude I get from people about what I'm doing? OK, here's Ira Glass.
Thanks Dal LaMagna. As you can hear, Dal is somebody who is capable of a lot of things, opening a radio show for instance. And the reason that Dal was going to Iraq was to end the violence there. Literally, to broker a ceasefire between the Sunni resistance and the coalition forces. Basically, he wanted to get Iraqis to stop shooting at Americans.
He doesn't speak Arabic. He's got no policy making experience. He's not a diplomat, or a CIA agent, or an ex-Marine. He's not Bono. He's just a guy, which brings us to today's program. Dal, give them the ID.
From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. Want me to do it again?
No, that was perfect. Today on our show, Man vs. History, we have two stories in two different acts of two different men, regular guys, taking history into their own hands. Stay with us.
Act One: Man Of Lamagna
Act One. Well we heard about Dal LaMagna actually by reading about him in the newspaper. There was this article in the New York Times about a Sunni politician from Iraq who was in Washington, DC lobbying on Capitol Hill. And this article mentioned a tweezer magnate, the maker of the Tweezerman tweezer, which at that time I had never heard of, but since then, all the women in my life have informed me is the greatest thing ever.
And this Tweezerman guy, Dal LaMagna, was doing all kinds of things with his millions to advance peace in the Middle East, including setting up meetings between this Sunni politician and members of Congress. But at the time, he was planning what was going to be his biggest project of all, the thing you heard him talk about at the beginning of the show. This mission to get the Sunni resistance to sit down with coalition forces and try to get to terms for a ceasefire.
We heard about that and we wondered, how this is going to go? And so we called him up. And we asked him if he would be willing to take a little recorder with him. He came back with over 25 hours of sound. And This American Life producer Sarah Koenig sifted through all that sound and then had Dal come into the studio to talk about it. Here's Sarah.
When Dal LaMagna gets an idea, he charges at it with everything he's got. He has bankrolled movies. He ran for Congress in 1996 and spent $1 million of his own money on his campaign, literally all of his money at the time, and lost. And then four years later, he ran again. He's the kind of guy who would run for president even though he has no hope of actually becoming president. In fact, right now he is running for president.
And so when he got frustrated lobbying Washington about the war, he figured, why try to convince congressmen to convince the president to set a new course with the Iraqis? Cut out the middleman. And so, back in June, he boarded a Royal Jordanian Airlines flight, fell sleep and woke up in Amman, Jordan where his ceasefire project would begin.
My address here? I'm staying with Mohammed al-Dynee. al-Dynee. He's a member of the Iraq Parliament. We're staying here.
Dal met Mohammed al-Dynee, the Sunni politician we read about in that New York Times article when Mohammed came to Washington, DC. He's one of the youngest members of Iraq's parliament, and he stayed at Dal's house for three weeks while Dal took him around Congress. And now Mohammed had invited Dal to come stay at his place in Amman. Amman is where lots of Iraqi political players are living now that it's so dangerous in Iraq. So Amman is where Dal and Mohammed will begin to map out a peace agreement for one of the largest regional conflicts in the world. Their strategy? Meetings, lots of meetings.
Tomorrow morning, we're meeting Sheikh Harith al-Dari.
Dal's first meeting is with Sheikh Harith al-Dari, a Sunni cleric so important, the story goes, that President Bush has tried to meet with him and the sheikh has declined. And if you're asking why he turned down the president of the United States but said yes to Tweezerman, here's why. Dal had unwittingly become a big deal in Mohammed's political circle because of Mohammed's trip to DC.
Dal had thought the trip was kind of a bust. Even the New York Times story wasn't exactly positive. It suggested that Mohammed might be a liar, or worse a criminal, which Dal thought was ridiculous, but still. And they didn't meet nearly as many congressmen as they wanted.
I was very disappointed, but from Mohammed's point of view, and from everybody who he represented this point of view back there, he was the first member of parliament from the national side to get any voice. From their point of view, the story in the New York Times was terrific. The fact that it was a full page story with a picture and the fact that I was the one who facilitated it, raised my status dramatically amongst all these nationalist forces.
This first meeting with Sheikh Harith al-Dari is arguably the most important meeting he'll have his whole trip. Al-Dari is considered hugely influential in Sunni resistance groups, some of the same groups the American government calls insurgents. Their plan is that once Dal has gotten in with Sheikh al-Dari, they can then go see the US commanders in Baghdad. Dal can announce that he's met with the sheikh, the same one they've been trying to talk to but can't. And after that, Dal will become the liaison between the Sunni resistance and the US forces. And they can start to talk ceasefire.
So I just left my meeting with Sheikh Harith al-Dari. I wasn't allowed to record it. And so I frantically wrote notes. I've got 35 pages. And the sheikh has a very, very gentle face. He's a very calm man. And we go? OK.
It's two o'clock in the morning. I'm still up. Everybody else is in bed. Yesterday I went to see the sheikh. I guess I would have to admit I was a little nervous. Well this meeting went on for three hours. I was starting to get hot. I was in my suit. And I was looking for my opportunity to ask him the question that I wanted to ask him. Thinking that he actually had the power to call a ceasefire against American soldiers, I said to him, "Look, here's the situation. You need to do something unexpected. If you can do something unexpected, you could break through this stalemate. And an unexpected thing to do would be for the resistance to have a ceasefire, to stop shooting at the American soldiers and to concentrate on Al-Qaeda."
He looked at me and said, "You know, I can't tell the Iraqis what to do. The Iraqis do what they do and what they want to do. They are against the occupation. And for me, the only way I can influence them is if the Americans announced that they were going to withdraw." Of course as of now, no Iraqi believes America will ever withdraw.
And when I went outside, my first though was how I was a little disappointed.
But this meeting did two things for Dal. First, the simple fact that he had met with the sheikh, like an audience with royalty, made him someone who everyone wanted to meet with. And second, now at least he knew the starting point for negotiations. The sheikh wouldn't lean on the Sunnis unless the Americans announced a withdrawal. Since America wasn't about to announce a withdrawal, somewhere in there, he'd have to find some wiggle room.
But this is just day one, a Tuesday. By the following Tuesday, Dal had sat through 15 meetings. There was a school teacher who survived an assassination attempt. Iraq's former minister of oil, a guy who was injured in a suicide bombing. Iraq's ambassador to Jordan, people from Diyala, Anbar, Baghdad Amarah Kirkuk. There was another very important sheikh, this time a shia, who came all the way from Syria just to see Dal.
[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]
The fact that if the American troops stay in Iraq, it will definitely lead to a civil war.
A chief of one of the largest Kurdish tribes.
[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE].
He is saying, with respect, Bush himself has said that he made a mistake.
[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE].
Condoleezza Rice says we made thousands of mistakes.
A group of seven argumentative parliamentarians.
Were you ever thinking, I'm not the guy they think I am? I mean did you ever just worry, they're thinking I'm more influential than I am?
No, never occurred to me. I don't think that way. I'm an entrepreneur. My entire life, that's what I am, an entrepreneur. And what is an entrepreneur? An entrepreneur is somebody who makes things happen. And I'm making things happen. And I'm not thinking about, oh well, I'm not an important enough person to do this. I'm just making the things happen. And certainly if it was Bill Clinton doing it or Jimmy Carter doing it or anybody else, yeah, it would be big news. And there would be conversations about it. But they're not doing it. So I'm doing it.
When you think about how many experts there are out there in this stuff and how many people have been working their whole careers on solving the problems in the Middle East, the fact that you would even fantasize about that sounds a little grandiose and crazy.
I don't think it's crazy. I'm not a crazy person. I'm a person who, when I founded Tweezerman 25 years ago and I was walking around with this tweezer. And people were saying to me-- I was going to build a company around it-- and they were saying, you should sell it to Revlon. Or you should do this, you should do that. How are you ever going to it out? And there are always naysayers, always people who can't imagine how anybody can accomplish any of the great things that we aspire to. And I did it. And the thought that one could do great things is a reasonable thought. It's not a crazy thought.
The Iraqis he's talking to, mostly Sunnis, call themselves nationalists, which means they want a secular government that's fair to everyone, Sunni, Shia and Kurd. And so all of them have plenty of complaints about the current Shia led government of Nouri al-Maliki, which has reported ties to Shia militias and death squads. They also hate Iran. But Dal is more interested in solutions than complaints. And he tries to push the conversations toward practical ideas.
And the solution then is?
[SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE]
The solution is to burn Iran from east to west.
Burn Iran from east to west. That's a member of parliament talking by the way. And all this time, Dal is trying to make sense of what he's hearing. Remember, his specialty is selling personal grooming products so even the basics are new to him.
I thought Al-Qaeda came from Saudi Arabia.
No, they didn't come.
Any come from Saudi Arabia?
Jihad is a fight, fighting for your rights.
And what is mujahideen?
Mujahideen means fighters.
And I'm confused. Talabani is the president of Iraq. He has a brother?
In the 25 hours of Dal's recordings, of course there are moments like this. But there's another side too. We all read the same newspaper stories. We all sit at home and feel horrible about the war. Dal actually did something about it. He found his way to Iraqi politicians. He got on a plane. He's trying.
I'm sitting at the pool at the Marriott hotel at the Dead Sea in Amman, Jordan. So I'm here sitting thinking about this whole idea of what am I doing. Why am I here? What can one American with absolutely no political access-- well, I've learned something from my mother. And that is if your enemy knows you, and you know him, really well, and the better you know each other, the harder it is to maintain a fight.
My mother used to tie my sister and myself together when we would have our flights until we made up. And it always worked. After being tied together for however long it was, next thing you know we were laughing about it, and we weren't fighting anymore.
Maybe we get the resistance together with the generals for a weekend at one of these resorts. And have them hang out, and eat dinner together, and eat lunch together and go swimming together.
It's three o'clock Amman time. One of my assistants back in America sent me a link to a Seattle Times posting about the sheikh that I visited the first day I was here. And whoa, just a string of hate comments, people calling me a moron and a traitor. And who the hell do I think I am? Not one positive comment. I mean here I am trying to talk a sheikh into a ceasefire against our soldiers, and they're calling me a traitor.
After a week in Jordan, Mohammed gets a call that Dal's visa to Iraq is ready. As always on this trip, he's getting the kind of treatment a high-level diplomat would get. The Iraqi ambassador to Jordan has personally expedited his paperwork. So now they're ready to go to Baghdad. And they get another important message.
The big news is that we actually got a meeting with General Petraeus, which is something we've been trying to do for the last four months, at 11:20 tomorrow in Baghdad at the embassy. We're leaving tomorrow morning on a seven o'clock flight. And so I need to bring a suit, right?
OK, we're here an hour and a half before the plane leaves. So I think it was my tweezers that stopped us at the gate.
Yeah well, I'm looking down today at Baghdad. It looks like any other place. Well, there aren't too many trees down there. Looks relatively calm.
Dal puts on body armor and they head to the Green Zone, where they're scheduled to meet with General David Petraeus, who's in charge of US forces in Iraq. Petraeus's assistant, Mary Kohler, has set it up. And Dal, Mohammed and [? Hasam, ?] their translator, wait for her outside the American embassy so she can escort them in as VIPs.
I'm sorry. The General has just been called away. That's why I'm late. So I'm going to have you meet with Major General Newton.
Oh God. I can't believe it.
He's really sorry.
Two hours earlier, the Shiite shrine in Samarra had been blown up for the second time, the most serious incident in months. And American commanders were scrambling. The government would declare a curfew and Baghdad would be shut down for days. But of course Dal knows none of this. Since Petraeus can't make it, Mary has arranged for them to sit down with the top British commanders, General Graeme Lamb and Major General Paul Newton. Lamb is in charge of reconciliation in Iraq.
You can tell this is the British office.
And so you fit in where?
I'm Dal LaMagna.
I'm a citizen diplomat. I'm not--
This is what all the meetings had been leading up to. Dal would help Mohammed present the Sunni resistance position to the coalition forces. Finally, he was bringing the two sides together. But right away, the meeting goes off course. First of all, nobody seems much impressed that Dal has met with Sheikh Harith al-Dari, Dal's supposed pipeline to the bigwigs in the Sunni resistance slash insurgency. Sure, al-Dari is a big deal, but he's sitting in Jordan.
Then Mohammed starts to argue with Lamb. "The Maliki government is corrupt," he says. "Then change it," Lamb says.
But the constitution is very clear. If you wish to challenge the government through the constitutional process, that is open to this parliament.
But Mohammed says even showing up to debate the constitution could get them killed by Maliki's people. This goes around and around. Mohammed raises all the complaints that Sunnis have been talking about all week in their meetings with Dal, the open border with Iran, how dangerous it is for Sunni members of parliament, the crooked Shia police. And the generals keep repeating, take it up with the Maliki government. And then Dal steps in.
It's not useful here in this meeting to argue with the general about the failures and the problems with the Maliki government. It's just not useful because there's nothing they can do.
The top commanders in Iraq say they make it a practice to listen to nobodies who might turn out to be somebody. They're smart enough to know that they can't predict where progress might lurk. But they're not in the practice of wasting time. Finally General Newton asks them in his polite, British roundabout way, what exactly are you doing here?
Major General Newton
Do you mind if I ask a question? What General Lamb is painting here is that we are not in a position to do grand deals behind the back of the sovereign, elected government. However, naturally we have channels of communication open to people who can deliver a reduction in bombs. I am unclear exactly what is being proposed. That we should be put in touch with specific groups?
What is being offered in the way of a practical opportunity for dialogue?
Here's when it becomes clear that the generals see them as essentially empty-handed. They'd love a ceasefire, but is anyone actually offering one?
Major General Newton
If there is a firm proposal involving being able to take that dialogue forward with armed groups, then I haven't heard what the specific proposal is.
Right, that's good.
Mohammed speaks up.
We have eight groups, eight major groups. Those people are ready to start talking, but it will be a confidential talk only with the coalition forces.
That's constructive. So he has eight groups. We'll start a dialogue. And they'll decide how to handle it. But let's end on that note.
The generals don't say anything. The meeting ends. Everyone seems a little testy. But Dal is feeling hopeful, until as they're leaving, Lamb says something to Dal.
For four years I've been having these conversations.
Oh my God.
Lamb's parting shot to me was when I tried to get his contact information and he wouldn't give it to me was, look I've been doing this for four years. I can't tell you how many meetings I've had with people saying they represent the resistance or this is going to happen and that is going to happen. So he stuck a pin in the balloon that had filled up during that meeting at the very end. Yeah, so I went from one high to the low.
Because he said that to you?
That that was like, oh my God, could this have just been theater? All right. This guy from America who's here. And he got here. He's here with this member of parliament. We have to meet with them. Let's just humor them.
Well it was rather difficult for me to even get out of bed this morning after my meetings with these two generals yesterday. But there a moment there yesterday when I was in a meeting with General Lamb where I swore to myself that I was in one meeting and Mohammed was in another. And I just got the reality that the people I'm talking to, they're so out of the game, so deluded themselves into what is that can happen. And I don't mean to be disparaging. It's almost like I feel as if I should just pack up my bags and go home and forget the whole thing. And you're just feeling-- you run around and now you find out your assumptions about what can be done are wrong.
But he doesn't pack up and leave. He wakes up on Saturday and tells the tape recorder, "You don't wait for things to happen. The entrepreneurial way is to make things happen." After just two days, he's back on mission. He decides the generals weren't humoring him. They were giving him an opportunity. He and Mohammed just need to present them a concrete proposal, which they draw up, a three page document that's vague about a lot of things but does mention a timetable for US withdrawal and a ceasefire. Dal sends it to the generals. Weeks pass. He never hears anything back. Dal is pretty disappointed.
We've had our meetings. Thank you very much. And it's over. I mean that's--
So you're not hopeful about--
Does that mean you've given up?
I've given up on the strategy of helping to broker a deal between the national forces and the coalition forces. I've given up on that. So now I'm on to the other strategy. One thing that I have to say about myself, and I think it's a good trait, is that I don't get trapped by my imagined solutions for things. When I can see it's not working, I move on and I try something else. And eventually I'll find something that does work.
Here's his latest solution. He's using videotape of the meetings he held in Amman to make commercials. In them, Iraqis say point blank what they want us to do, which is leave Iraq. He's using them as the ads for his presidential campaign. And they're definitely unlike any other candidate advertising you've ever seen. He has gone from citizen diplomat to citizen ad man. He'll fight this war stateside for now.
Sarah Koenig. Coming up, we switch from America's current war to the good old days of the Cold War. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
[MUSIC - "OVERTURE FROM THE MAN OF LAMANCHA" BY ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING]
Act Two: Wenceslas Square
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. This week on our show, Man vs. History, the stories of individuals taking action themselves during big historic moments. We've arrived at act two of our program. Act Two, Wenceslas Square. We have this short story about the final days of the Cold War from Arthur Phillips.
In October of 1988, Tyler Vanalden received his second CIA posting, his first in the Communist bloc. He was dispatched to Prague, Czechoslovakia posing as a State Department third secretary in the US embassy. Eight weeks after his arrival in Prague, Tyler was standing at the cramped and decaying bar cafe he visited for an hour or so after work most days where he could practice a little Czech.
It was a Friday. The room was filling up and growing noisy with talk and music. Tyler looked up. Across the room, a beautiful young woman with short, blond hair was staring at him. She held his eye for a moment, then turned away, bit her lip, lit a cigarette with a shaking hand.
"What made you suspicious?" his CIA supervisor Ed Marshall asked Tyler nine hours later in a dawn meeting back at the embassy. "You're a good looking guy. It could have been real." "No," said Tyler, "she looked a lot like a girl I went out with in college. When I first saw her I really thought it was her for a second. There's a picture of us in the yearbook kissing at a hockey game. And the little tattoo on her neck. You could see it in the picture."
"And your new friend, this--" Ed examined his notes. "This Jarmila has a tattoo on her neck?" "And the same haircut," Tyler said. "You look as sad as I feel," said the girl in not bad English, 20 uncertain minutes after he first saw her. "Will you join me for a drink?"
Closer, she didn't really look much like Kim Wilsey , Tyler's happy, wholesome psych-major girlfriend for a few months of his senior year at Colby until she dumped him for being, quote, "emotionally unavailable, artificial, perfect, untouchable, impenetrable, affectless." But the Czech girl looked similar enough to attract him. She ran the tips of her fingers over her tattoo and said she was embarrassed by her poor English.
"You are from USA. What is it like there? We are told some very strange things about USA," she said with a sad, ironic smile. She would like to visit the USA someday but this is surely not possible because-- she trails off. She's sad. Does the handsome diplomat Tyler know what it is like to be sad? To feel hopeless?
"Yes, I have known this," he says in slightly poorer Czech than he can actually speak. "I would like to help you if I can."
Her boyfriend has beaten her, she whispers. Tyler looks duly horrified, though he nearly laughs at this excessive, almost baroque ornamentation. "I would like," she whispers so low that Tyler has to lean close and place his ear next to her lips, "to escape from Czechoslovakia somehow and from Igor."
She pours wine for them both. "You are most beautiful girl I think to seeing in my whole life," Tyler muttered in clumsy Czech. "Nice," said Ed Marshall, not looking up from his note taking. "Was that true, by the way?" "No. She's cute, nothing special," Tyler lied unnecessarily even as he wondered why.
After almost two hours, a significant silence sat between them until she said, "Do you want to kiss me?" "More than anything I've ever wanted ever." She placed her soft lips on his just long enough for him to taste a drop of her wine. She pulled back hastily.
"Oh dear God what time it is." She wrenched her head to look at the clock behind her on the stained, brown and white wall and executed a flawless Cinderella. "I am so late. He will know. He will ask me. Oh Tyler, don't forget me. Please, you are so good and I so much need something good." A flustered gathering of her things, a momentary hand on his cheek, and out the door she ran in tearful panic.
"And you boiled with desire," said Ed Marshall. "Yep," said Tyler. "And felt conspicuous. And got stuck with the tab."
That afternoon, a second meeting with a larger team was held in a secure room at the embassy. They worked up a plan. She would surface again, no question. And when she did, Tyler would churn with contradictions. Relieved she's OK, but his pride injured that she ran off. Infatuated, but cautious. When alcohol entered the scene, he would slowly repeat that he hated his job. The US was a mess, politics a joke, blah blah blah.
Every night for a week, Tyler returned to drink at The Wounded Bear. Seven nights, giving up later each night, dribbling smaller and smaller tips behind him. Night eight, December 14, 1988. She appears, very late, after Tyler has apparently drunk quite a bit alone in the noisy crowd.
"Oh thank God," she murmurs as she slides next to him. "I hoped, Tyler, but I did not dare to dream." He pulls away from her. She apologizes. He pouts. "Do not be like that please." "Then how should I be?" "If only you knew what Igor was like you would not be cruel to me. I thought you were different. So this is how you are."
She stands and leaves again. This time though, he swears aloud, drops money on the table, runs after her. He reaches her outside on the cobbled street, the snow just starting to turn heavy. He grabs her arm, turns her towards him. He tries to kiss her.
"Have you gone mad?" she hisses in terror, pulls away. "We must not be seen together." And she glides over the snow into an alley. He has her tightly now. "My God you are such a handsome," she whispers. "But Igor--"
Igor is cruel, a weasel, a wolf of a man. He terrifies her. She thinks he's having her watched, perhaps even right now. If only she could think of how to be free of him. "I'll kill him," boasted engorged Tyler Vanalden. "I have diplomatic immunity." "Oh dear heaven, God no. He's powerful. He works for--"
"Of course he does," said Marshall the next morning. "Bless his heart."
Weasel Igor worked for some vague division of the secret police. Jarmila certainly didn't know its name or where it was, only that Igor's job was to find out secrets about foreigners working in Czechoslovakia. And she simply could not think of how to escape his violent and lustful embrace described in increasing moist detail. She would go anywhere with Tyler if only she knew she was free and safe.
His kiss makes her bold. She will meet him. Enough of fear. She whispers an address and a time next Monday night, her friend's apartment. "For God's sake, be discreet going there. I have an idea," she says, "but I am afraid to ask you." "Ask me anything. Anything at all," he says. If you could bring me something to show Igor. Nothing really of value. I don't care what it is, a box of paper clips with your ambassador's name on them, then maybe I'm thinking, I can make Igor think I'm useful. I will not tell him about you of course. I am so frightened of him." She trembled. She kissed him. "Until Monday," she sobbed. And off she ran looking all around in fear.
"So who is this traitor, Tyler Vanalden?" Ed Marshall asks Tyler and the team. Tyler, they decided, is eager to please her but still wary of doing any real harm, more out of habit than principle. And so he has photocopied the personal information page from his nominal state department boss's file. Nothing much more than you could find in Washington, DC phone book, but plainly stamped confidential.
This first stolen document was prepared. How Vanalden had procured it was determined. His attitude to his lover for Monday was debated and decided. Bits of pivotal dialogue were drafted and rehearsed.
"This is for you," said Tyler, panting, nervous, pushing the Syrian envelope into her hands when she opened the door of her friend's apartment. "No," she cried, letting the poisonous thing fall. "I do not care. I do not want to see it. It does not matter. Only you matter." And she pulled Tyler Vanalden onto an old mattress on the floor of the bear, unnecessarily under-heated room where, to the audible accompaniment of a cassette of Beatles songs in Czech, and the inaudible accompaniment of hidden video cameras, Tyler displayed a wide range of emotional turmoil, having passable sex with Jarmila Herbeck of the Czech intelligence service.
"O my brave boy," she exalted an hour later over the document that she saw at once was perfectly worthless, but which was her novice traitor's tentative first step. While she did feel a thrill that she could actually do this, inspire men to treachery, she was also slightly insulted that he didn't price her affections any higher. A form 12C Department of State personnel file cover page? It was like bringing a few wilted daisies.
She clapped her hands and stared at him in wonder and love. And then her face suddenly wrinkled with worry. "How do I use this now with Igor?" she asked, not having thought through her scheme at all, just a simple girl in way over her head. Tyler took manly control of her fears, rehearsed her. His sister was an actress, he said.
Tyler was very happy. The candle did gutter in the cold apartment. The mattress did smell of her perfume. The old town square did glow gold outside the window. That there were other realities shrouding this one did not mean this one wasn't there. "You really are so very beautiful," he said. "Like nothing I've ever seen."
"And now we are up and running," said Marshall. "She'll ask. You'll provide. You'll get better at it. Produce more impressive results. They have to get addicted to you, Tyler. Just like they're trying to get you addicted to her. Now, how are you feeling about all this?" "I'm watching from six miles up," responded Tyler, believing it himself.
Marshall's ad hoc team in the embassy kept control of Operation Brief Encounter for a few more weeks. And into the middle of January, the new lovers met. Late at night, lying in her arms, shaking with cold and fear and shame, he would whisper, "What am I doing? This is all wrong." And Jarmila would have to steady him.
All of this Tyler understood and duly filed in his well-written reports. But once, she was waiting for him at the apartment sobbing and drinking, and she had a black eye. The sight of it so enraged Tyler that he punched a wall, breaking his wrist. As he's having it bandaged later that night by an embassy nurse, he replays the moments leading up to impact over and over again in his mind's eye trying to understand them. He recalls gently touching Jarmila's eye, showing the appropriate horrified concern tinged with anger, though in fact he was invisibly amused and just curious to see how the Czechs had achieve the effect. Makeup was too risky, so subcutaneous dye? A temporary tattoo? Henna?
When he saw and felt that the bruise was real, saw her flinch from his touch, he turned away to gather his thoughts. And as he was deciding how he was supposed to react, he was also trying to understand why he was so upset, though he realized it a split second later. They had really punched her.
He knew that a display of ostensible rage was needed even as he was in fact enraged. He remembers that he thought to myself, I suppose I would punch the wall in frustration, even as he remembers seeing, with some surprise, his fist already approaching the wall. And he remembers thinking, I should pull this punch so I don't hurt myself. But by then, his fist had been seized by the fist it was portraying. And they had punched the wall together.
Jarmila rewinds the video, recalls his face as he approached her, touched her injury. An unforgettable look in his eye, sadness and anger and disappointed plans for the night ahead. He's like a child, lusts and rages and muddled loyalties. And she's helping him grow into a man, a man who will do anything she asks. She knows she, they, will have to be more careful with him now as she watches the green infrared fist hit the black void again and again.
And there's something more she sees now, replaying his entrance into the apartment, recalling his heart-broken twisted face. He's more than what management and the steering committee have seen in him. He's not just a lustful fool, a boy of the fraternity. And he wouldn't have responded this way, with this devotion and extraordinary intelligence payoff, to just some semi-trained prostitute coughed up by the intelligence service.
This boy has a unique ability to give himself to something or someone, an ability that would only express itself when he met precisely the right object of devotion, her. She rewinds the tape again.
"I really like this one," Johnny 1950 said to Jarmila as he entered one morning, drawing from his briefcase the videocassette of one of her recent evenings with Source Prep School. Someone had labeled the betamax cassette, "February 1, 1989, four and a half stars." "It's excellent work," he continued. "You do excellent work for the Party, comrade."
He was a creepy little bald man, and she had gagged when he maneuvered to direct the video surveillance of her trysts. He was called Johnny 1950 because in 1950, when he was 11 and a farm boy in Canada, his Canadian, communist parents decided that what was happening in post-war, Eastern Europe was the coming of the world proletarian democratic paradise, the end of history. And they were not going to sit on their six acres in Alberta and let it pass them by. They sold all their belongings and were three of a very, very small number of people who emigrated to Czechoslovakia when most Czechs were pulling their hair out trying to emigrate somewhere like Alberta.
He was ugly and lonely. He repeatedly fell hopelessly in love with unattainably beautiful women. He would have done anything for Jarmila.
Six days of demonstrations against the communist government took everyone by surprise, but the force with which the Czechs dealt with it surprised no one in the US embassy who understood the permanent nature of communism. The arrests of 800, including the dissident playwright Vaclev Havel, proved that this bear was here to stay.
At the same time, Ed Marshall decided that the value of Operation Brief Encounter was proven and should now be managed as a piece of the big picture. So the forged documents, the chronology of hand-offs, the scripts, the course of the love affair and Tyler Vanalden's personality would all be overseen by an operational guidance group back in Langley, Virginia.
The operational guidance group set to work, staffed with Czech culture experts, psychologists specializing in the emotional terrain of romance and treachery, an in-house playwright, forgers, counterintelligence strategists, game theorists and two mid-level managers. One, a man named Michael Boortz, who had, for the last three years, been a paid agent of the KGB.
It didn't take long for the KGB to identify Operation Brief Encounter and to learn that the false information the Czechs had received from Vanalden had already led to the arrest and near execution of a loyal, Romanian intelligence officer.
Clearly, the Czechs should be notified that they were being lied to. But there was a problem. It would be unacceptable to end that operation with any suddenness since the Americans would immediately begin looking for leaks, putting Boortz at unnecessary risk. In the end, they told the head of the Czech service that Source Prep School was contaminated, and any information gained from him was to be considered 100% unreliable. However, under no circumstances was the female agent to be told anything which would cause her to have any, quote, "difficulties playing the role to which she was accustomed."
Jarmila sensed that something was wrong. The steering committee for Source Prep School was being reshuffled, and there was a new, second rate team now in charge of her life. The USA attitudes expert, who spoke no English, the playwright who mooned like a little girl over Vaclev Havel stories. And honestly, by now they had more than enough footage to start blackmailing Prep School. Why was she being treated like this? She deserved respect and promotion. She bleached her hair for this. She had gotten a stupid tattoo for this. She had even convinced vile little Johnny 1950 to punch her in the eye twice since he had been so feeble on the first swing. And obviously, she had sacrificed in other ways, even if Prep School was not an ugly man.
The group in Virginia received a directive in July telling them to slow down a bit. And now Ed had to tell Tyler that weeks were going to pass in which Tyler was simply to quote, "carry on without making any obvious progress, without handing over any tangible lies, just pretending to want her while resisting her efforts to force things."
"The director is trying to stoke their hunger, Ty," Ed said. "We want them to focus their desires, really boil for something specific. And then we can pass them a zinger. Look, I'm sorry. I really am. I know this isn't easy. Jesus, Ty, look at your face. Are you still up for this?"
When he left Ed Marshall's office, Tyler's heart was thumping. He had won himself at least four perfect meetings with her in which there was to be no talk of work. He invited her for a picnic in the countryside.
Her steering committee was divided. No video or audio team could hide near the picnic, argued Yuri from eavesdropping. There was no question of wiring her considering that she and Prep School were likely to become intimate. Johnny 1950 left it up to Jarmila, who couldn't see how she could say no.
They ate in a wooded grove, not far from a stream, a lover's scene from the Bohemian countryside under any regime. Tyler fed her grapes. He made her laugh with the story of how he had snuck out of Prague to meet her. She started to say she was nervous about Igor, but he merely put his finger on her lips. "Not now," he said. "No Igor today."
After lunch, he slept soundly with his head on her lap and she stroked his hair. She debated whether to broach work again. When he woke, he described his parents' house on Cape Cod, and Vic, the Labrador he had loved and lost. After a long silence, he said, "You know, I would do anything for you. Just ask. You have more power over me than any blackmailer."
"What a strange thing to say," she said quietly. "Just an expression," he said. "But now that I think about it, I don't think I would respond to blackmail. For you though, I'd jump through fire."
He'd been thinking just how to say this for some time now to make it sound like the natural conversation of an unsuspecting, traitorous diplomat. If her service was thinking about making the shift, using the pictures of him they must certainly have had by now, he wanted her to argue against it and for a continuation of the love affair instead.
At the steering committee's disorganized meeting on the first of August, Johnny 1950 asked the committee if, considering how little information Source Prep School had provided in the preceding weeks, they thought the time had come to squeeze him, to tell him he'd better start coughing up or the news of his betrayals and some compelling video would be sent to his ambassador. Jarmila argued that this would be a mistake. She just had a feeling. She didn't mention to the committee that she'd rather by a long shot spend evenings with a slavishly devoted lover than have some moron from manipulation pretend to be Igor and run the blackmail while she took a dull holiday on the Black Sea.
"Be patient with him," she told the committee. "Prep School will produce. I know he will."
Meanwhile, Tyler watched as communism crumbled in Hungary and Poland. And he had the strangest sensation as he read each unimaginable dispatch from these other countries. He prayed the democratic virus would be contained, that the Czechs would hold on. But then, the politburo resigned.
December 3. They walked, side by side, as 150,000 protested the communists' last-ditch effort to allow only a minority opposition presence in a new government. They did not hold hands. They pretended to smile at what they saw. Neither of them spoke. Tyler the traitor should have been delighted. It's over. She's free. He did his dirty bit for her without hurting anyone or getting caught. And now it's passed. Jarmila the oppressed should have been delighted. Her country was free. Her future was her own.
If, in character, he told her now she should come with him to the West, escape Igor and their shameful past, but she said no, and she certainly would, then he would be forced to ask her why not. And she would be forced to admit that she'd been lying to him all along and their time together would end.
Or he could tell her he knew she was a spy for a communist spy service. And now, in the new world unfolding all around them, she would be in danger of arrest and retribution. So she should come to the US, be his pet defector. And they could be together. Of course that would mean admitting that he'd been lying to her since the beginning. That there was no Tyler the traitor. That there was nothing about him that she actually knew. That revelation would also be his first act of actual treachery. It was impossible.
She watched him. Something was not right here. According to all logic, he should have been happy to see the changes underway. He should have been offering her a way out with him. This should mean the end of his spying for her. This should mean the end of Igor's control over her. So why was he silent?
For that matter, why wasn't he telling her to come away with him to Cape Cod? To a wedding on his parents' lawn? Frolicks with some new Labrador? She saw it clearly. He was a liar. That was why. He felt no slavish love for her. He had done what he had done out of lust and weakness, and then lazy momentum, and fear of being blackmailed and nothing else. He was precisely what the playwrights and the planners on the steering committees had always said he was, a depressive, a weakling, lonely and vulnerable, unprincipled and uninterested. In other words, he was an ordinary man.
She felt foolish. Did this egotist really fear she would want to come away with him? Had she painted herself as needy as all that? How embarrassing now in daylight.
Tyler looked at her. She had no real feeling for him. That was clear. If any part of her had felt something real in this little farce of theirs, she would say so now. True, she hadn't seen the best of him. She was judging from false evidence. But surely, she'd seen something under that stuff. Surely she'd been having fun too. Surely also he had been the very opposite of emotionally unavailable, artificial, perfect, untouchable, impenetrable, affectless.
Complete silence, except for the throng of cheering, pot-banging Czechs who washed into them. He moved to their left. She moved to their right. The crowd swelled and they both kept walking, not even looking up to be sure they had lost sight of each other.
A month earlier, the IRS had found lumpy, indigestible discrepancies in Michael Boortz's tax returns. An investigation soon revealed that he had 13 separate savings accounts. The subsequent CIA interrogation of a sobbing, farting Boortz revealed much of what Boortz had betrayed over the years, including Operation Brief Encounter.
And so, before his arrest, and in exchange for vague promises of leniency at his trial, Boortz delivered a final flurry of reports to his Soviet handlers, including one put together by the operational guidance group at the request of Ed Marshall.
Jarmila Herbeck, said his report, had been a CIA agent all along. When Vanalden gave her false information, she had knowingly passed it on. And when she was out of her boss's view, she had delivered Czech secrets to Vanalden. This happened in the countryside on picnics.
Well, it was better than nothing, Marshall figured. It would throw the remaining Czechs into chaos. But that was a small comfort when you admitted you had just spent months accomplishing exactly nothing. The poor kid. He called Tyler in, told him he'd been doing a stellar job. Marshall himself was putting Tyler up for an intelligence medal.
"The downside though, Ty, is a little more complex. It would appear that possibly they knew about you, about us, from a pretty early time. Actually likely."
Tyler knew he should be depressed. His life and work for months had been a travesty. He was a videotaped joke. Yet he felt some growing sensation of happiness. Why had the Czechs kept it going if they knew it was garbage? Because she had wanted to. She must have argued for it, for him, propped up the whole shabby structure with justifications just to see him. Every time she met him had been a victory for the two of them, snatched from a dubious Czech service.
"Sit down," said Johnny 1950. She had come in to see if there was an office at all today, the day the communist president swore in an opposition government and then resigned. The few people still in the office were visibly worried. Nobody knew if they were going to be the secret service of the new republic or a pile of corpses shot for their work on behalf of the old republic.
"There is some news," said Johnny, "I told you to sit down." He was such a turd, this little man, all bossy and official now of all times. "News?" she said, unconcerned. "Yes," he said. "About two weeks ago, Source Prep School was arrested and shipped back to the USA."
She was confused and then realized Tyler was going to jail now. And she wondered if and how she could save him. A sentimental, girlish thought that offended her even as it occurred to her. She nodded, said nothing, turned back to her desk.
"Wait, don't ask many questions yet," said Johnny. "It gets worse." He examined her beautiful face as he told her that they had been holding a losing hand. Prep School was CIA from the very first pass, not State. And she had never noticed. Her sacrifices had been worthless, Johnny repeated twice more for good measure, trying to soften her up.
"Wait," he said with a mix of pity and vengeance and pride at knowing more than anyone else. "It gets worse." She laughed out loud. "Yes worse," he said.
"A report has come in from our old friends, perhaps ex-friends, to the East, saying that you have known since day one that Prep School was CIA. Wait, don't talk. It's better if you don't say a word just yet. This report also says you have been sending things the other direction, working for the Americans the whole time. Don't speak. At first, management was going to have you arrested but we actually don't have anyone who does that sort of thing for us right now. We're in a vacuum. Listen and think. If you did this, no one is sure if that's good or bad. If you did this, no one knows what to do about it. Maybe you're a traitor to the Czech people, but maybe you're a hero of the revolution. Don't, don't speak."
Johnny's tone softened. "Don't worry Jarmila. I can handle this for us. I know how these people think. I grew up among the people you know. You and I, we can help each other."
The department of personnel approved Tyler's quick, unsolicited proposal, agreeing that the venture would place him near potential sources, and that the role fit his real personality and official history excellently. And so in May, 1990, four months after he'd been bundled out of Prague, he returned, a vaguely disgraced but un-indicted ex-diplomat running his own business, hawking to the new democracy an expertise they were sure to need.
He sat in his hotel room and watched a documentary on Czech TV. It had been made in April by a once banned filmmaker, and was written and produced by a Johnny McDougal. The Revolution's Hidden Heroes it was called. And it profiled those extraordinary souls who had secretly helped the democratic cause from the inside. She looked good on television. Even better as a brunette.
The president of Vanalden Communications paid $500 to attend a meet-and-greet in the banquet room of the Palace Hotel. He arrived two hours early, examined the seating arrangement, and discreetly changed it. He returned later to the crowded room alongside representatives of a dozen other political consulting firms. And he drank cocktails and chatted with an assortment of civic forum candidates running in the first free Czech election since 1946.
Dinner was served. He took his time going to the seat he had usurped. "You look like someone I once knew," he said to the parliamentary candidate seated to his left. "I have that kind of face," she said, smiling. "I saw you on television," he said. "You sacrificed terribly for the revolution." She laughed. "You can't begin to imagine."
"You know," he said, "I think I could be of great help to you in your campaign." "I'd have to consult with my fiance," she said, gesturing to the suddenly despondent bald man who, far away down the long table, had just recognized Vanalden. "But I doubt he will protest. Tell me about yourself."
Arthur Phillips, reading an abridged version of his story, "Wenceslas Square," which first appeared in a collection of essays and short stories entitled Wild East, Stories From the Last Frontier. Arthur Phillip's most recent novel is Angelica.
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