The great 17th century French writer Baudelaire wrote, "My dear brothers, never forget, when you hear the progress of enlightenment vaunted, that the devil's best trick is to persuade you that he doesn't exist!” That’s what the staunch anti-communist, priest and author Malachy Martin said to me at a New York coffee shop in 1997. My response, in the negative, solicited that comment from him after he had asked me whether I had read the recently released book “The Day After Roswell” written by Colonel Corso and a lawyer named Bill Birnes. Martin, the fair haired, witty Irishman who could turn a phrase like no other, went on to say to me, “But you and I know different, don’t we?”
As I was talking to the enigmatic priest, my thoughts brought me back to the years when I was working as an Intelligence Officer in Europe; officially, I was a Non-Official Cover Officer (also known as NOC) attached to a special section in the Operations Directorate with a mandate to penetrate European terrorist organizations and track the financiers of those organizations from the inside.
An NOC officer has no diplomatic protection from the embassy and operates in foreign countries under a false name with a false background or “legend,” as it is technically called. It is one of the most effective ways of penetrating violent and terrorist organizations with the goal of gaining as much information as possible and recruiting terrorists to work for you. Once recruited, they cease to be terrorists and become “assets.” If you love specialized training, walking a tightrope without a net and have no interest in career promotion combined with a liberal moral compass, an NOC is a dream job for any young patriot.
Most professional intelligence officers, however, work out of an embassy or domestically and have diplomatic immunity, which provides them protection if they get in trouble in a foreign country. NOCs, historically, are the “go-to” people when things get “hot” and actionable intelligence is needed rapidly. Due to the nature of the job, most of your time is spent undercover with violent and sociopathic individuals and situations which makes the NOC a pariah to headquarters due to the political risk of getting caught and the embarrassment it would cause to headquarters. To give you a comparable; while working undercover for a decade, I had interaction with mafia dons and drug cartel leaders and shoot-outs with terrorists. We used to call the NOC undercover life in the ‘90s “Drugs, Thugs and Money-Laundering Mugs.”
Whereas a dear friend with whom I graduated training in Camp Peary, Virginia and North Carolina went on to become one of the top intelligence section chiefs working out of a major US embassy in Europe, he reckons he has been to about 10,000 diplomatic cocktail parties for the sole purpose of recruiting assets and considers the use of fire arms as barbaric and ineffectual in the world of intelligence. You can probably figure out which one of us took the wrong career path but, as I am sure you know from your own life, youth is wasted on the young.
In the 1990s I received an emergency message to meet with my control agent (my supervisor whom, as an NOC, I reported to). These meetings rarely occurred face-to-face on account of the risk of being photographed together as my supervisor was well known as a senior intelligence officer by the foreign secret service of the country I was working in at the time and was under constant surveillance so any meetings with him were quite risky for my cover.
At the meeting, he explained with the greatest seriousness that he had a “black bag” job from the highest levels (7th floor of HQ or worse) that needed to be made operational immediately. To you fans of spy novels, I am sure this sounds very exciting but if you are working in the field, this translates to what we call a “cowboy” job: high risk, not enough time to plan properly and likely to lead to violence, arrest and a blown cover.
Inside the halls of intelligence there are horror stories of NOC officers getting assigned these “cowboy” jobs without the happy endings of spy novels. One of the most famous was that of Hugh Francis Redmond who spent 19 years in a Chinese prison: or Barker and Martinez, two patriots who were assigned that great “chestnut:” to break into the Watergate Hotel.
Sadly, NOC officers who are extremely unlucky with a “black bag” job end up with a star (with no name attached) on the beautiful Vermont marble wall of the HQ lobby in Langley, Virginia. However to accomplish this pride of place, you have to get killed heroically in the line of duty. So, I wasn’t happy to be given a “black bag” assignment from my boss.
The sanitized version of events, as I recall them, was that a professor working on an archeological dig funded by an NGO apparently had access to some classified material with which he absconded and fled to the country I was working in at the time and was trying to sell the material to their secret service. My superiors wanted the professor located and returned with the material to a safehouse in a more pro-western country. The gist of it was that this material had national security implications at the time. The rub was that the professor was trying to negotiate via telephone with the enemy secret service and my supervisor figured that we had maybe 24 hours before he was under their protection and had turned over the material.
We ascertained from intercepted communications that the enemy secret service did not know where he was, either, but were diligently trying to locate him in order to snatch him off the streets. The race was on.
Our headquarters is second to none when it comes to the technical tracking of communications and eavesdropping, so within hours we had located the general vicinity from where the professor was making calls. As I knew the area, it didn’t take me long to figure out that he was ensconced in a local, out-of-the-way hotel.
Keeping my vow of operational security, it is sufficient to say that we got the professor to willingly leave the hotel with us, get in the vehicle and be driven across the border. Granted, it took some “false flagging” (convincing the professor that we were from the group that he had been in contact with) and tranquilizers once in the car but we got him to the designated safehouse within a few hours.
As my team and I made the professor comfortable with a little duct tape now that the effect of the soporific had worn off, he began to ramble that while he was working at a 2,000-year-old dig site, he had discovered what appeared to be a CD with hieroglyphics on it and this is what he had absconded with. I explained to the professor that I was not interested in what he did or who he was and that there was a team on the way to deal with him so he could save his BS for them.
However, as I, and the two patriots who had assisted me were having an after-action smoke waiting to be relieved, I did become a little curious. We opened the small carryall bag which the professor said contained the disc. While I am no scientist and nor were my former Navy Seal associates, I must say that the disc did not look of this world.
The professor went on the tell us that it was indestructible so I asked him whether it would burn if I set it alight with my lighter. The flame of the lighter did no damage and after 10 minutes in that futile attempt, one of my associates tried bending it and stamped on it a few times but no damage was visible. When we asked the professor what the symbols meat, he explained that while he could read hieroglyphics, he could not read these symbols but they were very similar to symbols found on a Nazi World War II project called “ The Bell.” At the time, we thought he was nuts and, take it from me, combatants will say anything to save their own hinds when duct-taped to a chair.
Some minutes later, a team arrived and relieved us. Some were familiar faces, others were not but they introduced me to a scholarly-looking gentleman known as Father Martin. I, jokingly, asked as a good defunct Catholic whether he had come to give the professor last rites. The priest responded with, “ No, I am here on the side of the angels,” which got a hearty laugh. I told him that I thought he had made a wrong turn somewhere to have ended up in this room and off we went.
What happened to the professor and what the significance of that disc was, I have no idea. I did learn later on that Father Martin was a staunch anti-Communist and had degrees in archeology, history and spoke more than few languages ad apparently believed in fighting evil in the field, not from the pulpit. In 1999, I learned that he died under suspicious circumstances. Years later I would meet Bill Birnes on another operation but I will save that for another story. Was the disc alien technology? Things that make you go hmmm…