Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Surveilling and the Surveilled

I once had a brother; I remember him fondly. He died in 1969 at the age of 27, and I have been ‘searching’ for him since. My brother was much younger, so the trajectories of our lives often found us far apart geographically—never more so than the year 1963-64 when I was studying in Moscow while brother Jeff Sharlet was at a remote military outpost west of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital. Jeff was a GI in an intelligence outfit; I was a graduate student researching my PhD dissertation. He was a Vietnamese linguist with the US Army Security Agency (ASA) under the aegis of NSA-Washington, the National Security Agency; I was a visiting scholar at Moscow University Law School. Jeff’s regular assignment was the North Vietnamese Army’s communications traffic; my preoccupation was Marxist legal philosophy, the language of my daily life, Russian.

That year the war in Vietnam, at least the American part of it, was still in its infancy, a low intensity guerrilla insurgency fought in the shadows. As such, Vietnam was just a set piece in the global Cold War, the dangerous rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. In early ’61, President Kennedy (JFK) had begun building up US forces in South Vietnam, sending thousands of additional military advisors, including elite Special Forces as well as squadrons of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. At the superpower level of the larger Cold War, JFK and Khrushchev, leaders of the two great adversaries, presided over their respective spheres of influence. Each commanded thousands of nukes as well as the means of lethal delivery.

Both the Cold War writ large and its smaller regional offshoot in Southeast Asia, former French Indochina, had their origins in 1945 in the wake of WWII. That year Ho Chi Minh had declared Vietnam’s independence from the French Empire, igniting the first Indochina war as the French struck back at their colony. By ’54, the Viet Minh, a guerrilla army of Vietnamese Communists and nationalists, finally defeated France. However, reflecting the bipolar Soviet-American world, independent Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel into the Communist North, a Soviet ally; and non-communist South Vietnam, a US client state. Several years later, North Vietnam secretly launched an insurgency in the South aimed at overthrowing the Saigon regime of President Diem and unifying the country under the red flag with a yellow star.

By contrast, the Cold War was a far more visible and dramatic conflict – beginning with the Soviet blockade of West Berlin and the US Berlin Airlift of ’48; the USSR’s explosion of its first A-bomb in ’49, ending the US monopoly; the beginning of the Korean War in ’50; the continuing Berlin crises of the ‘50s, culminating in the erection of the Berlin Wall in ’61; and, of course, the most dangerous moment in the long Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62.

I was in Moscow shortly thereafter, fortunate to have been chosen as a member of the small American academic group under the umbrella of the US-USSR Cultural Exchange Agreement of 1958. Jeff was part of a larger contingent of ASA personnel in Vietnam. I was in the Soviet Union for the academic year 1963-64; Jeff, too, was scheduled to leave Vietnam and head back to the States in late spring ‘64. First, though, we had to reach our destinations a world apart. As an internal political crisis intensified in South Vietnam during summer ’63, Jeff and a team of linguists were quickly flown from their base in the Philippines (PI) to Saigon in late August. The South Vietnamese generals were quietly planning a coup against Diem with Washington’s blessings. However, since the US had a political stake in Vietnam within its overriding struggle with the USSR, JFK wanted to be sure he was privy to the generals’ plans. Hence, Jeff and crew were posted to an Army Signal Battalion facility outside the capital – off in a distant corner of the base where they hooked up to giant antennas for clandestinely surveilling the coup plotters’ communications. The equipment was manned around the clock.



Signal base at Phu Lam, giant circular antennas visible right background

I made it to Moscow a month later – by ship, truck, and train. I crossed the North Atlantic by ocean liner, then the North Sea and the Baltic Sea up through the Gulf of Finland by a smaller Soviet passenger ship. Arriving at the port of Leningrad at the mouth of the River Neva, I and fellow students were met by a taciturn fellow driving a beat-up WWII-vintage army truck, the kind shipped to the beleaguered Soviet Army by the hundreds under the US Lend Lease Plan. The truck carried us and our luggage through the rain slicked streets of the city to the train station where we boarded the ‘Red Arrow’, the night express to Moscow.

I settled into the Lenin Hills dorms of Moscow University fairly smoothly. Few students were around. It was harvest time in the Soviet Union and the majority of the law students were thousands of miles away on the steppes of Soviet Kazakhstan, helping the peasants bring in the wheat crop. Upon completion of their so-called ‘social obligation’ to society, the students returned to the capital by special trains in late September when the Soviet academic year was scheduled to begin. I finally met my Soviet roommate, Volodya, a tall, lantern-jawed Russian of about 25 with a strong handshake and a hearty bass voice. He made me quite welcome. Actually we were suite mates since each of us had a private bed-sitting room and shared a common foyer as well as semi-private facilities. Volodya hailed from Astrakhan on the lower Volga. Before entering law school, he’d worked as a stevedore on a Black Sea freighter. In the fall of ’63 he was beginning his senior year in Criminology, a Soviet law school discipline for training detective/investigators who worked with public prosecutors.



Moscow State University in the Lenin Hills

I was assigned to the Jurisprudence Department of the law school where the chair and nationally known Professor Doctor Denisov (Andrei Ivanovich once one became acquainted) became my Soviet advisor. He urged me to audit his courses in legal philosophy. I readily agreed and began my weekly routine of law classes and long hours of library research on my dissertation.

The law school was in a very old building on Herzen Street near the center of Moscow, a few blocks from the Lenin Library, the USSR’s equivalent of our Library of Congress, which stood within sight of the Kremlin walls. Getting to my destinations was a fairly long commute by bus and metro from the Lenin Hills, so once in downtown Moscow one usually spent the day, sometimes into the early evening. Meanwhile back at the dorm, aside from being friendly and helpful, Volodya had become very interested in my daily comings and goings.

Any time he heard me close my door to leave, he would pop out of his room and casually ask where I was going. During the week, invariably my answer was either ‘to the law school’ or ‘to the library’. Hearing me return later in the day, sometimes in the early evening since the library kept late hours, Volodya would appear again and with a big smile ask, ‘Otkuda’, where’ve you’ve been? I in turn would simply reiterate the day’s itinerary. This went on for weeks. He never tired of asking, and I unfailingly played my part in the friendly exchange. Curious, I checked with other visiting American scholars to see if anyone had noticed any unusual interest in their daily movements. No one. On the contrary, most reported that Soviet suite mates kept their distance, rarely initiating conversation.

Not surprising, since we were after all ‘bourgeois foreigners’ – there was no percentage for a future Soviet legal official getting too chummy with us in closely watched Moscow. I concluded that I had apparently been singled out by the mysterious powers that be – it was considered inappropriate in Soviet public etiquette to mention the secret police known as the KGB – for special attention. The likely reason, I surmised, was that I was the sole American in the dorms that year that had been in the military. I had been an ASA linguist based in Europe in the late ‘50s, and my classified work had involved the Soviet Bloc. Although that was all behind me and I was singularly focused on an academic career, one could never be sure what the Soviets knew about one’s background or, even less, what they thought about it.

Jeff in Vietnam and Volodya in Moscow had completed their respective surveillance duties by November. Jeff and fellow interpreter/translators had fed back to NSA-Washington on a daily basis all the South Vietnamese generals’ relevant conversations about the impending coup. On November 1st, the plotters struck, seizing power and assassinating Diem in the process. Volodya, too, had no doubt been conscientious, presumably passing his observations of my mundane movements up through channels, although on a less urgent schedule, probably weekly. Eventually somewhere across Moscow, a bureaucrat responsible for monitoring foreign students in the capital concluded, after weeks of reading Volodya’s monotonous reports, that I was in the USSR exactly as advertised, to assiduously study Soviet law and relentlessly research my PhD dissertation.

Mission completed, ASA flew Jeff back to the PI. Similarly, about the same time, Volodya from one day to the next ceased his incessant inquiries. His task finished and, nice guy that he was, he invited me to his room a few days later along with a few of his friends for a boozy celebration of the Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the 46th for anyone counting. A flurry of за ваше здоровье’s* as we chugged vodka Russian-style.

Then one evening just a few weeks later, while hanging pictures in my room, I was stunned by the breaking news that JFK had just been assassinated, but that’s a story for another time.

*To your health.

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