Politics Abroad - NPR talk show

Operation UMBRA [part 1]

Transcript of the new NPR talk show Politics Abroad for October 25th, 2014

Host: And we’re back. I’m speaking here with Marcus West, a retired Marine who served in both the Gulf War in the 1990s and the Afganistan and Iraq wars of the early 2000s, and who is at the center of a a recent scandal centered on several leaked documents that were made public only days ago. Since the publication of these documents on the whistleblower-site WikiLeaks, a firestorm has erupted, leading to the resignation of several top-ranking military and intelligence officers. Mr. West is one of the former secret operatives who has been ‘outed’ by the release of these files. When we left for the last break, Mr. West, you were about to explain to us what a typical mission was like for you.

Mr. West: Yeah, well, first, let me just clarify what I meant just now when I said that I didn’t care that these documents were released. I didn’t mean that I was glad that America’s secrets are now out in the open. I just meant that this won’t have any real impact on me personally. That’s all…

So, a typical mission, huh? Let me tell you, there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ mission. They’re all different. But, since the goods are all out there already, I guess I can tell you about my first mission.

Host: That would be great. I’m sure our listeners would love to hear what goes into a real-life top-secret mission.

Mr. West: Well, don’t expect this to be like the stories you see the movies.

Host: No, of course.

Mr. West: I remember my first mission like it was yesterday. I actually had no idea at the time that I had even been recruited to be a part of this task force called TRU.

Host: TRU, of course, for our listeners, is spelled T R U and stands for Tactical Response Unit.

Mr. West: Yeah, right, Tactical Response Unit. And my TRU unit was called TRU Echo. Anyway, I had apparently been marked by some higher-up as a candidate for TRU, probably because of my military service and because of geographical convenience.

Host: How do you mean?

Mr. West: Well, at this point in time, this was early 2011, I was working as a security guard for the Department of Homeland Security office in Atlanta, which, conveniently, was where Department B was also located.

Host: Department B being the secret agency that ran the TRU program.

Mr. West: Right, well, secret until those documents showed up on WikiLeaks.

Host: Yes, of course. So, you say you didn’t know you had been recruited into TRU. How exactly were you first informed of your status as a member of this unit called TRU Echo?

Mr. West: Well, I was given a notice that directed me to one of the basements of the DHS offices along with a badge that would give me clearance. I remember thinking that this was a little strange at the time, but as a security guard, I had been stationed nearly everywhere on the campus at one point or another, so I didn’t really think much of it.

In the basement, I met the real brains behind Department B for the first time, Carla. She was absolutely amazing. Now, I didn’t realize all this at the time, mind you…I just thought she was some random secretary banished to working in a basement office, but in time I realized just how valuable she was to Department B and how much she was able to accomplish on what really was just a shoe-string budget. Yeah, we were definitely NOT well-funded.

Host: I’m sure if you ask any governmental worker if they are paid enough they’ll say no.

Mr. West: Well, I suppose that’s true, but most government workers aren’t keeping the forces of evil at bay.

Host: [Laughing], good point, Mr. West. Now, perhaps we can get back to your first mission.

Mr. West: Ah, yeah, so, after I met Carla, I met the other members of my TRU Echo team. They’ve all be outed already on the web, so I hope they don’t mind that I use their real names here. Martin was our tech guru – I always got the impression that he was more interested in hacking into my iPhone than he was in completing the mission. Jack was forensic scientist of some kind – I think he was an FBI crime scene investigator or something, although I never really caught his full story. And Adrian was a tall drink of water poured into a mini skirt.

Host: Adrian Ashe had a criminal record, according to the leaked documents.

Mr. West: Right, I didn’t actually know all that until these documents came out. I just thought she was former CIA. That woman could talk the peel off an orange, though, I tell you.

After that, we were introduced to Gregory Shepherd. He was our handler, which in operative terms, means nothing beyond that he was our contact point within the agency. Any missions we received and any reports we filed went through him, but he was definitely little more than sniveling bureaucrat. I’d actually prefer not to speak much more about him on the air lest I say something I regret.

Host: Well, you certainly don’t seem to have a particularly high opinion of Mr. Shepherd. In the leaked documents he certainly seems like a key figure, but from what you’re saying, he only played a tangential role to your missions?

Mr. West: Oh yeah, he was totally unnecessary. A monkey could have done his job. On this particular day, all he really did was hand us a manilla envelope. Inside the envelope were the details of our first mission.

Host: Which was?

Mr. West: We were supposed to locate this Russian agent in the Czech Republic and bring her back to America. We weren’t told why.. I assumed it was because she was looking to defect and turn on her Russian handlers. Honestly, I didn’t care why – I was just psyched about getting a chance to see a little bit of action, which I thought I’d never see again since my military days were behind me.

Host: So, were you able to find the Russian agent?

Mr. West: UMBRA.

Host: Excuse me?

Mr. West: The agent’s code name was UMBRA. Not sure what it stood for, but that’s what we called her. Anyway, we flew out to Eastern Europe under false IDs, and met up with one of our contacts in the region, a former Marine Lieutenant Colonel named Orlando Thomas who ran a coffee shop in central Prague. The coffee shop was actually used as a front to support official Department of State operations in the Czech Republic, and our team met with Orlando Thomas as soon as we arrived in Prague.

A second contact, Stephen Lucas, had gone off the radar before our team had been recruited. Apparently, Lucas was the man who had managed to turn UMBRA, but his last communication with the DHS was over an unsecured line, and since that point, no one had heard from him, including Lieutenant Colonel Thomas.

All we knew was that Stephen Lucas was supposed to meet with a contact of his own regarding UMBRA at a casino in Prague, where he was to make contact and arrange for a document drop in the casino restroom.

Host: In the restroom? That seems like a strange place to perform secret agent operations!

Mr. West: Well, you’d be surprised how much of this stuff is going on under your very nose, just out in the open. It’s like they say, the best place to hide a secret is where everyone can see.

Mr. West: Anyway, Martin hacked into…

Host: Your tech-master.

Mr. West: Right, Martin was our computer expert. He hacked into the casino’s security cameras, which allowed him to monitor the location from our hotel room. Meanwhile, I hoped to meet Stephen Lucas’ contact myself, so I followed a set of very specific instructions in order to draw him or her out.

Host: I’m curious, Mr. West. What were those “very specific instructions?”

Mr. West: Well, in a very James Bond-like scenario, Lucas was supposed to make a $100 bet on a single zero on the roulette, and his contact would then make a $500 bet on five. All this was supposed to happen at a particular time of a particular day. Anyway, I thought I’d take a chance and pose as Lucas, so I placed a $100 bet on a single zero and looked around the table, hoping someone would place a $500 bet on 5. Unfortunately, that never happened.

Host: So you never met Mr. Lucas’ contact?

Mr. West: Well, let’s not get too far ahead of the story.

Host: Oh, I’m so sorry. Please continue Mr. West.

Mr. West: Even though no one placed the $500 bet, one of the men at the roulette table seemed to be acting suspiciously, and I began to suspect that this was, in fact, Lucas’ contact. I wasn’t entirely, sure, though, so I left the roulette table and walked into a separate part of the casino, and I hoped the man would follow.

Sure enough, he did, and it seemed to me that he was watching me with great intent.

Host: And what were your other team members doing at this point?

Mr. West: Well, as I said, Martin was overseeing the operation via the casino security cameras from our hotel room. Jack and Adrian were doing their best to mingle through the crowd and keep on top of whatever situation may present itself.

After some time of being watched, I decided that this man wasn’t going to approach me, so I finally sat next to him and tried to initiate a conversation. Now, I’m no super-spy, despite what those documents may suggest, and I’ve been told that I could have been considerably more smooth. I clearly didn’t know what I was doing at the time, and I must have spooked the man, because he immediately stood and left the casino.

Host: And what was happening with the document drop in the restroom at this time?

Mr. West: Yeah, well, I was kind of caught up in figuring out why this guy was following me and, honestly, I kind of just forgot about the whole document drop thing…definitely not on my top ten list of best secret agent moments, that’s for sure.

Anyway, I chased this guy out the door and we ended up in a foot race to his car. I’m a little lame from an old war wound, so he beat me there and managed to get into the driver’s seat and start the engine by the time I got up to the car. I looked into the window and…

Host: And, unfortunately, Mr. West, we need to stop and take a break. We’re talking with former Marine and secret government agent Marcus West and we’re discussing the missions and operations of Tactical Response Unit Echo, a top-secret agency whose actions have recently been made public through the release of several leaked documents. We’ll be right back.

Operation UMBRA [part 2]

Transcript of the new NPR talk show Politics Abroad for October 25th, 2014

Host: Welcome back. This is Angela Fulton and you’re listening to Politics Abroad. We’re here with retired marine Marcus West. And I suppose, Mr. West, that you can add ex-spy to your resume!

Marcus West: Well, no. With all due respect, I really don’t think of myself a spy. Just an agent of our government. What I did with TRU Echo was just an extension of my military service. Plus, in that line of work, you’re never really an ex anything.

Host: Ahh, I see, I apologize.

Marcus West: Don’t worry about it. So, sorry, I lost my train of thought. Where was I?

Host: Well, you were about to describe what happened after you chased a suspicious individual out of a casino in Prague.

Marcus West: Ahh, right. Boy, after that, all hell broke loose. I got to the guy’s car just as he started to peel out of there, and in a moment of sheer stupidity, I leapt on his hood and tried to force him to stop. That brilliant idea lasted all of about three seconds before he swung the car around a corner and threw me off. Still have a scar on my elbow from that fall.

Host: My goodness! Did you ever find out the man’s name?

Marcus West: Oh, sure. Eventually. What was it..? Denniz… Dmitry… Damek! Damek Polotski . Some two-bit criminal. Anyway, he was just part of the festivities that particular evening.

Host: How do you mean?

Marcus West: Well, while I was busy getting thrown from a moving car, the rest of my team, Jack and Adrian, were running out of the casino following me. They saw this big SUV pull out and start following Damek’s car. There were two men in the SUV. The passenger had an AK-47, so it was clear they weren’t on the up-and-up, but we didn’t know whose side they were on.

Host: Semi-automatic rifles? They were just holding them out in the open?

Marcus West: Well, only the passenger had a gun, but yeah, he wasn’t making any effort to hide it. Anyway, Jack and Adrian ran to our vehicle and tried to chase down Damek, but Jack lost control as he was trying to leave the casino’s parking lot and pretty much totaled the car. Fortunately, he and Adrian were OK, but it left them sitting ducks for the guy in the SUV, who just opened fire on Jack and Adrian.

Host: Oh my gosh!

Marcus West: Yeah. And I could see all of this from where I was on the side of the parking lot. So I figured I had to do something and do it fast, because they were basically trapped in their car and these guys were just filling it full of lead. I had no idea if they were even still alive, but we don’t leave a soldier behind. So I ran to the closest car, broke through the window, hot-wired it, and drove it at top speed into the rear of the SUV. That seemed to knock them out of commission just long enough for Adrian and Jack to crawl out of the wreckage and run to the safety of a university that was nearby. I did the same and we eventually met back up on the streets of Prague a couple of blocks from the action. To say we made a mess of the mission is an understatement. We did not know what the hell we were doing. We really just didn’t know what we were doing.

Host: Well, at least you made it out safely!

Marcus West: Sure, but in that line of duty, secrecy trumps safety. We couldn’t have made things any worse for ourselves if we’d tried. I mean, we had initiated a shoot-out in a public space! There was nothing secret about our activities that night. It was just FUBAR all around.

But, fortunately, Jack and Adrian saved my ass that evening. Jack remembered about the document drop.

Host: Right! In the restroom of all places!

Marcus West: Yeah. In the men’s restroom of the casino. The problem was, though, that with all the commotion, by the time we walked back to the casino, the Prague police were there and everything was shut down. And that’s the first time I really saw Adrian in action. She winked and smiled and used that body and snake tongue of hers to get herself and Jack past the guards and into the casino, and then somehow managed to get Jack into the restroom, where he found the document drop.

Host: Was there anything in it?

Marcus West: Yeah, fortunately, there was. Basically just a bunch of information on the place where UMBRA worked.

Host: UMBRA being the Czech agent you were supposed to find?

Marcus West: Right. Just a bunch of information on the nuclear facility where she worked, as well as an encoded message that said to break contact with an individual called Lida Novak, a name we hadn’t heard before at that point.

Anyway, at some point, Jack and Adrian manage to slither out of the casino and we all rendezvoused back up with our tech-master Martin.

We knew at this point that our identities were probably compromised since we had basically left our car at the scene of the shootout, so we found a hostel that seemed perfectly content with cash-only transactions and we relocated there. Martin got a haircut and the rest of us got a quick make-over to help disguise us.

Host: And what then? It seems like you had gained a fair amount of information.

Marcus West: You’d think so, and Martin did his best to figure out everything he could. That boy was up all night long on the internet looking for information on all our leads. I swear, that guy must have lived on Red Bull the entire time we were in Prague. Anyway, he eventually managed to wipe the security camera footage of the casino from his remote location – don’t know how he pulled that trick – as well as figure out that Lida Novak was a technician at the research facility that UMBRA supposedly worked at. Unfortunately, he also found out that she had become something of a ghost in recent years.

Host: What do you mean, “ghost?”

Marcus West: Well, she had been caught up in some high-profile espionage case a decade earlier, but the charges were dropped. About that same time, Lida kind of just disappeared off the public record. Martin couldn’t find any real traces of her.

So, at this point, we were kind of at a stand-still in our investigation, but then we got a piece of information that changed everything. Martin mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that he had heard Orlando Thomas…

Host: Your contact here in Prague.

Marcus West: Right, Martin had overheard a phone conversation between Lieutenant Colonel Thomas and someone else through a bug that Adrian had planted in his office.

Host: She bugged her own contact’s office?

Marcus West: Well, you got to understand Adrian. She never trusted anyone. Not our contacts, not our handlers, not even her own team members. Nearly got her killed one time, but that’s another story.

Anyway, Martin had overheard Lieutenant Colonel Thomas talking with someone during the period of time when we were caught up in the shootout just outside the casino. He had told the person on the other line to “see Lida Novak.” It changed the way we thought about Orlando. He went from a trusted source of information to public enemy number one in a heartbeat.

Host: I guess that’s how how it must be when you’re working in the espionage industry.

Marcus West: I didn’t want to believe it. Orlando Thomas was like me, a Marine. He understood what it meant to serve, and the thought that he may be in league with the other side was too much for me to believe at that point. It was a bone of contention among our group, actually. I was the only one who thought that Thomas might not be a double-agent.

I mean, at the time, we really didn’t know anything. In retrospect, looking at those leaked documents, with the advantage of hindsight, it seems dumb not to know that Orlando was working with the Russians, but in the heat of things, there in Prague, we didn’t know up from down. My team saw things more clearly than I did, though, and they eventually convinced me that we should look into Orlando.

Host: So, you scouted him out? Followed him to his house?

Marcus West: Well, that’s what we would have done if we were smart. Instead, we basically just walked right up to him and let him know that we were on to him. But before that, we had to just sit and wait in our hostel.

Host: Why is that, I wonder? You weren’t in a hurry to speak with Orlando Thomas?

Marcus West: Oh, sure, of course…of course we were. But we held tight for two reasons. First, we needed to give Martin enough time to figure out everything he could. Remember, we were almost completely in the dark and every little piece of information Martin could pull up on his laptop was another spark giving us a little light.

Host: And the second reason?

Marcus West: That a-hole Shepherd – our so-called handler – contacted us and told us that we had made a real mess of things at the casino and that he was sending someone to “fix the situation.” Like we needed him to tell us how bad of a job we were doing. Maybe if we had been given proper intelligence to begin with, we wouldn’t have been in that situation.

Host: It certainly sounds like your relationship with Mr. Shepherd was contentious at best.

Marcus West: Yeah, like I said before, I don’t really want to talk about it. It’s not so much that I minded Lincon, I just …

Host: Lincon was your “fixer?”

Marcus West: Yeah, Lincon. Never got his last name. He didn’t talk much, but he definitely knew what he was doing. Especially when you put a gun in his hand. Anyway, it wasn’t so much the addition of Lincon to our team as the way that Shepherd did it. It was like he… well… it doesn’t matter. In the end, we spent a day or two in the hostel and Lincon eventually found us there. Once we filled him in on the situation, we went to find Orlando Thomas and talk to him.

So, we went back to the coffee shop – the front for his supposed support of US operations – and asked to speak with him. The barrister at the front counter told us he wasn’t there, but Lincon saw him slip out of the back and hop in a sports car and speed off. We hopped into our own vehicles and trailed after, racing through the narrow streets of Prague.

Host: Well, now this sounds more like the kind of spy games stuff that I think most of our listeners would expect.

Marcus West: Sure, sure, but it’s not Disney-land where no one can get hurt. We’re speeding after this guy while trying to dodge pedestrians and on-coming traffic. It’s not nearly as fun or “thrilling” as people might make it out to be when you realize that you’re a hair’s breadth from running over someone’s mother or someone’s son.

Anyway, after a couple of minutes of us chasing him, Thomas skidded to a stop outside some dive bar and ran inside. We followed in kind, and were met with a flurry of bullets. We dove for cover, along with the other folks who were in the bar, and we returned fire.

Host: Ahh, yes, the now-famous shoot-out-in-the-bar scene at Galerie NoD! This is the story that the media have really jumped on since the release of these documents.

Marcus West: Yeah, tell me about it. It’s all anyone wants to talk about. We might have destroyed that bar, but I’m sure they’ve more than made their money back with all the press they’ve gotten.

You know, I really don’t want to hash out all the details again, if you don’t mind. Suffice it to say that we obtained our goal of capturing Orlando Thomas for questioning.

Host: I think that’s fair.

Marcus West: Thank you. So, once we had him in our custody, we were able to determine that he was, as my team suspected, a double-agent working for the Russians. I was so upset at this that I really couldn’t talk with the guy. There were a few times…boy…where I just about lost it.

Host: The documents say that it was Orlando Thomas who led you to your target, UMBRA.

Marcus West: Yeah, I know, but that’s completely incorrect. Thomas didn’t know anything. He was actually leaning on us the entire time we were questioning him, hoping to get some juicy tidbit he could sell to his own handlers. Not really sure why that lie was created. Always guessed it was to help with the treason charges.

Host: Ahh, right, Orlando Thomas was eventually tried and sentenced to Guantanamo, right?

Marcus West: He was tried, alright. Not sure where he is now. They say he’s in Guantanamo, but believe me, that place is only big enough to hold a tenth of the people they say are there.

Anyway, Thomas didn’t actually know where UMBRA was. It turned out UMBRA had originally lured Thomas to be a double agent working for the Russians long ago. He got reassigned and lost contact with UMBRA, but eventually found himself back in Prague, where he tried to reconnect with her. The only problem was, she was cold. Didn’t want to have anything to do with Thomas anymore.

Then, a few months later, another American comes in and claims to have turned UMBRA to our side. Well, Orlando Thomas couldn’t let his little secret get out, so he decided he needed to find UMBRA and kill her before she could defect and tell everyone what a treasonous little snake he was.

In the end, though, it wasn’t Thomas who led us to UMBRA, but something we had since the very beginning of our mission. We simply called the phone number of the American agent who had supposedly turned UMBRA to our side, Stephen Lucas.

Host: You just called him? But wasn’t he off-the-radar? No one had heard from him for months at this point, right?

Marcus West: Yeah, but we still had his phone number. And we didn’t really call him. We left him a text. Ha… How 2010 of us… We left him a coded message that suggested that we knew Thomas was a double-agent and that we needed to talk with him. It took some trying on our part, but eventually Lucas replied and gave us his location.

He was holed up in a real nice place. Must have cost the state a pretty penny. Anyway, we talked, told him the whole story, and he opened up a door and there was UMBRA. The fabled UMBRA. She was just a dottering old woman. Her skin was dark red like she was sunburned and she had sores all over her body.

Host: Radiation poisoning, perhaps? She did work at a nuclear research institute.

Marcus West: Yeah, that’s what I thought as well. We gathered her up and tried to make our way out, but someone must have tailed us because when we hit the lobby, the bullets started flying. The cops were there, too, probably following us as leads in the “terrorist” attack at the casino. But the guy shooting at us was Damek Polasky.

Host: The guy you first ran into in the casino? I guess that brings the story full circle!

Marcus West: Right. Always ends up that way, it seems. Anyway, Damek brought a few friends and his friends brought guns. It was all we could do to just get out of there without getting ourselves or UMBRA killed. We managed to escape, although just barely, got the hell out of Prague, and caught the first plane home.

The rest is pretty boring paperwork, but that actually ended up taking longer than the rest of the mission.

Host: Well, Mr. West, unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for today. I would love to talk with you for hours on end, but we’ll have to leave it here. Marcus West, thank you so much for talking with me today on Politics Abroad.

Marcus West: No, thank you. It was my pleasure.

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