TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS -- FROM BEIRUT TO LOCKERBIE -- INSIDE THE DIA
All governments lie, some more than others. To protect themselves or 'the national interest', American governments lie more than most.
The story of Washington's blackest lie in modern times began, typically, with a bureaucratic blunder. In the spring of 1988, Special Agent Michael T. Hurley, the Drug Enforcement Administration's attache to the American Embassy in Cyprus, was given a clear warning by an American intelligence agent that security had been breached in a 'sting' operation the DEA had mounted against Lebanese drug traffickers running heroin into the United States via Nicosia, Frankfurt and London.
Seven months later, on 21 December 1988, a bomb exploded in the cargo hold of Pan Am Flight 103 from Frankfurt to New York, killing all 259 passengers and crew. Eleven more people died on the ground as the wreckage of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, Maid of the Seas, rained down on the Scottish border town of Lockerbie.
Among the victims were at least two, possibly five or more, American intelligence agents, who had disregarded standing orders by choosing to fly home from Beirut on an American-flag airline, and a DEA Lebanese-American courier who had previously carried out at least three controlled deliveries of heroin to Detroit as part of the 'sting'.
Those involved in this operation, along with those who had authorized, condoned or used it for other purposes, recognized at once that their neglect of the warning in May had cost 270 lives, that terrorists had slipped through the reported breach in security and converted a controlled delivery of heroin into the controlled delivery of a bomb -- probably in revenge for the 290 lives lost in July when the US cruiser Vincennes had shot down an Iranian Airbus 'by mistake'.
The US government would lie about that catastrophic blunder, too, but the more immediate problem was the Lockerbie disaster. Like a woodlouse sensing danger, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rolled up in an armour-plated ball to protect its bureaucratic arse.
This worked, more or less, for two years, but the problem refused to go away. When the DEA's obduracy began to attract as many embarrassing questions as it deflected, the agency started to lie, with the grudging connivance of the intelligence community and the ungrudging assistance of the Bush administration.
It lied to the media and the public, of course, but it also lied to Congress. And the more it lied, the harder it got to keep the story straight.
For one thing, there was the problem of the intelligence agent who had warned Hurley about the disaster waiting to happen months before the downing of Flight 103. Like most of his colleagues in the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lester Knox Coleman III had found little to admire in the work of the DEA overseas.
And for another thing, there was the problem of Pan Am and its insurers, who had commissioned their own investigation into the disaster. The more they picked up about the DEA connection, the less they felt inclined to pick up what was beginning to look like a $7-billion tab.
For those watching the situation from Washington, a recurring nightmare was that these two problems might come together like match and tinder; that Coleman would meet up with Pan Am's attorneys and tell them what he knew. Because if that happened, they might between them start a fire that would blacken the reputation, not just of the DEA, but of the United States itself. If the truth came out, it would not only undermine America's role as moral and political exemplar to the world, but inflict intolerable damage on its policy objectives in the Middle East.
The risk was simply not acceptable. The 'national interest' now required the DEA sting never to have happened, and Lester Knox Coleman III not to exist -- at least as a credible witness.
It was a job for what Coleman had come to think of as 'the octopus' -- America's state security apparatus.
Nothing feels right at four in the morning.
He frowned at the ceiling, trying to recall what had woken him. Careful not to disturb Mary-Claude, he slipped out of bed to look at the babies.
They were sound asleep -- the seven-month-old twins, Joshua and Chad, sprawled in their crib like abandoned dolls, so quiet he bent over them suddenly to make sure they were breathing, and Sarah, curled up like a tiny blonde edition of her mother. He watched until she stirred and sighed, threatening to wake, and tiptoed away.
Still restless, he pulled on a T-shirt and shorts and went downstairs to the refrigerator. It was probably nothing -- just the usual uneasiness in the final days before a mission. And worse this time, for he had been out of it for two years, since May 1988, when Control had called him home after Tony Asmar's murder in Beirut and the row with Hurley.
After a two-year lay-off, the adrenalin had naturally started to surge again at the prospect of reentering the bloody arena of Lebanese politics, particularly as Operation Shakespeare was probably the most sensitive assignment the DIA had yet given him. Also, he was still not comfortable with the idea of using his alias on the first leg of the journey.
He had never done that before. It was a sensible precaution if the intention was not to alert the Israelis or if the general sloppiness of the DEA in Cyprus had set him up as a target, like Asmar, but it still bothered him. It was one thing to return to the Middle East as Lester Coleman, award-winning TV and radio newsman, and quite another to arrive without antecedents or connections as Thomas Leavy, American businessman.
And anyway, why couldn't Control just have given him a passport in the name of Thomas Leavy instead of getting him to apply for a real one, using his phony papers? The agency had always been good with documents.
Needing air, he opened the casement doors to the balcony. Except for a vulgar canopy of stars and the faint fuzz of phosphorescence along the beach where the waters of the Gulf lapped ashore, the night was velvet black, and so still his ears sang in the silence.
He loved this place, out of season. While waiting for a lull in the fighting in Beirut, he had decided to take the family away on holiday, renting the last in a row of beach-house condominiums at the edge of Fort Morgan National Seashore Park, a beautiful stretch of the Alabama coast, near the Florida state line. As it was only 2 May, there was no one else around, apart from a nice enough young fellow just down the street, holidaying there on his own.
He had wondered about that, too.
Disinclined to go back to bed, Coleman stretched out on the couch and reached for the file he had put together on General Michel Aoun, the Maronite Christian commander of the Lebanese Army and the country's acting President. Having persuaded Aoun to receive him and Peter Arnett in the shell-shattered ruins of the presidential palace at Baabda, he needed to be on top of every nuance in Lebanon's murderous factionalism if he was to stay on afterwards and begin to explore Aoun's constituency in the maelstrom of Beirut, the support he was getting from the Israelis, and in particular, his military alliance with Saddam Hussein against the Syrian army of occupation. Control had received reports that the Iraqi forces were getting ready to pull out, and wanted to know why.
He woke again, with a start, around seven. Somebody was hammering on the front door. It was light now, and he went through to the kitchen, which overlooked the street, to see who it was. As he looked out, a young man in a blue FBI windbreaker glanced up from below, hand on holster, and tried to hide behind a telephone pole.
Coleman pulled back from the sliding glass door, and tried to think. What now? What possible reason could there be for an early-morning visit from the FBI? Some inter-agency training gimmick to pep him up after a two-year lay-off? Some far-out psychological game, maybe to test the solidity of his cover story before the mission got started?
The hammering began again, and that made him angry. If they kept this up, they would wake the children. Whatever was going on, Control had no right to bother his family. Ignoring the commotion, he went upstairs and gently shook Mary-Claude awake. Brought up in East Beirut during the civil war, she had learned to sleep through almost anything, even artillery bombardments,
'Oh, God,' she groaned, shaking him off. 'What's the matter?'
'I don't know,' he said. 'There's somebody downstairs trying to get in.'
It was a moment before this registered. 'Oh, my God,' She sat up, wide-eyed with alarm, 'Have you called the police?'
'No, no,' He shook his head. 'I don't know what they want, but I think it's the FBI.'
'The FBI?' She was bewildered. He had never told her he worked for the American government, and like a good Lebanese wife she had never questioned him, but she had always known he was a spy. 'Why are they here? Have you done something wrong?'
Before he could think of anything reassuring to say, the hammering at the door began again.
'Oh, my God.'
'No, don't worry,' he said. 'It's a mistake. They probably came to the wrong house. I'll take care of it.'
'We have to open up, right? I mean, maybe they'll go away.'
'No.' He pulled himself together. 'Get dressed. See to the children. I'll go find out what this is all about.'
He returned to the kitchen, dragged open the sliding glass door and stepped out on the balcony. The agent he had seen before was no longer hiding behind the pole, but before Coleman could challenge him, a woman in an FBI windbreaker emerged from the car port under the house and looked up at him, also hand on holster.
'Are you Lester Knox Coleman?' she asked.
'This is the FBI. We have a warrant for your arrest.'
'Oh, really?' He took a deep breath to steady himself. 'Is this a joke? What for?'
'If you'll open the door, Mr. Coleman,' she said, 'we'll be glad to talk to you about it. Do you mind opening the door?'
'No, no,' he said. 'I'll be happy to open the door. Just wait a minute.'
He went inside again, fumbled with the locks and stood back, bracing himself as a third agent, older than the other two, flung open the door and grabbed him. Offering no resistance, Coleman allowed himself to be spun around, jammed up against the wall and patted down. His arms were then pulled out behind him and handcuffed together.
'You're under arrest,' announced the agent.
'Yes,' he said. 'So I see. Now would somebody mind telling me why?'
Joined at this point by his colleagues, the agent turned him around to face them.
'I'm Special Agent Lesley Behrens,' the woman said, 'I have a warrant here, issued in Chicago. You're charged with making a false statement on a passport application.'
He frowned, trying to cope with a sudden inkling of what the onset of madness might be like.
Thinking about it afterwards, in a filthy cell in Mobile City Jail, he could recall very little of what passed between them after that. They seated him on a stool at the bar. They asked him routine questions, to which he presumably responded with routine answers, but nothing registered.
Unable to withstand more than a split-second glimpse of such fathomless duplicity, all he seemed able to do was shake his head. The sudden collapse of every certainty in life was too much to grasp all at once. Each time he braced himself to consider his position, his mind simply tripped its overload switch.
It got going again when Mary-Claude appeared on the stairs with Sarah, who had started to cry. Trapped by her Lebanese upbringing between loyalty to the family and respect for authority, his wife smiled down on them uncertainly.
'Hi,' she said.
Then she saw the handcuffs, and all softness of manner disappeared. 'What is this?' she demanded, looking about her as though for a weapon. 'What's the problem here? What are you doing to my husband?'
'No problem,' he said easily, knowing how headstrong she could be. 'It's a mistake, that's all. Somebody's made a mistake.'
'Mistake?' She advanced down the stairs, Sarah clutching her hand and now crying in earnest. 'Why are you treating him like this? This is my journalist husband that I'm so proud of. What has he done?'
Mary-Claude's English -- her third language, after Arabic and French -- sometimes fractured under stress, but her outrage was plain enough. They all began to talk at once, except for the older agent, who gave Sarah a smile, trying to coax one from her in return.
Still passionately demanding an explanation from Special Agent Behrens, Mary-Claude suddenly noticed that in her hurry to get dressed she had left the front of her shorts undone, and stopped in mid-flight.
'I'm sorry,' she muttered, turning away to zip them up.
Her sudden embarrassment gave Agent Behrens a chance to resume command. She ordered Mary-Claude to go back to the bedroom to look for her husband's papers -- all she could find -- and bring them downstairs.
Mary-Claude hesitated, unable to catch Coleman's eye as Behrens was standing between them, then did as she was told, rather than risk making matters worse for him out of mere stubbornness.
He watched her go. Though still in free fall, he had already begun to doubt that Control had played any part in this. After months of painstaking preparation for a mission of obvious importance, that made no sense at all. Therefore, it had to be the DIA. No other agency, apart from his own, even knew of his other identity. Except the CIA, of course, which had always worked in lockstep with the DEA in Cyprus and had actually supplied him with his Thomas Leavy birth certificate in the first place.
'Oh, my God,' he said, losing his way again.
It was no use talking to Behrens and her partners. They obviously knew nothing, and he could certainly tell them nothing. It was up to Control to straighten this out. Somebody at Arlington Hall or the Pentagon had to pick up the phone and have a quiet word with the director of the FBI and that would be the end of it. Although there wasn't much time. He was due to leave in two days. If they tangled him up with all the formalities of arrest and arraignment and insisted on shipping him back to Chicago, they could blow the whole operation.
'Look,' he said, in case there was just an outside chance he could fix this himself. 'Maybe there's something I can help you with here. I mean, I can't tell you much except that something is seriously wrong and somebody is going to get into a helluva lot of trouble, but I think you might be interested in that stuff.'
He nodded toward the videotape cassette on the table, next to his file on Aoun, his passport and his wallet containing the Thomas Leavy birth certificate. He had spliced the tape together as a record of his tour of duty on secondment to the DEA in Cyprus. There was some interesting footage on Lebanese dope trafficking, some narcotic reports he had compiled, media clips on the subject, and, at the end, an audio recording of his last telephone conversation with Hurley before coming home, a conversation that not only warned him about 'the disaster waiting to happen', but clearly indicated that he worked for another government agency.
'Why don't we take that along with us?' he suggested.
'We'll take anything you want to give us,' said Behrens.
And that was interesting, too. He was getting a better grip on this now. So far, they had made no attempt to search the house, although with an arrest warrant they were legally entitled to do so, and no one had escorted Mary-Claude upstairs to make sure she didn't dispose of incriminating evidence. So what kind of charade was this anyway? They hadn't even read him his rights. Was it a DIA game after all? To see if he'd crack under pressure?
Mary-Claude reappeared on the stairs.
'I'm sorry,' she said defiantly. 'I can't find his papers. I can't find anything.'
He smiled at her, and nodded his approval.
'Are you sure?' asked Agent Behrens coldly. She advanced to the foot of the stairs. 'They're not down here. There must be something. What about his pockets? Have you looked in his pockets?'
Mary-Claude retreated a pace, afraid they would come up and search the bedroom themselves. 'All right,' she said. The twins were awake now, and screaming for attention. 'All right, I'll look again.'
'Okay.' Behrens turned back to the others. 'Take him out to the car,' she said. 'I'll be with you in a minute.'
Coleman offered no resistance as they took him by the arms. Whatever this was -- a training set-up, a DEA set-up or a bureaucratic foul-up -- the game had to be played to a finish. If the operation was cancelled or delayed, it wouldn't be his fault.
'I'll be back shortly, Mary-Claude,' he called out after her. 'Don't worry. Call the lawyer. Call Boohaker. He'll know what to do.'
Mary-Claude closed the bedroom door behind her and tried to pacify the twins, but they were hungry and cried all the harder.
'Why am I so nervous?' she asked them, getting mad. 'I am a citizen. I have my rights. This is my house. I don't have to give her anything. I must calm down and go tell her to get the hell out of here. Then I'll come back and get your bottles ready.'
She marched downstairs, pointedly ignoring Special Agent Behrens, and picked up the phone.
'Who are you calling?' Behrens asked.
'I'm not going to give you anything,' said Mary-Claude. 'And I'm not going to answer any of your questions. I'm calling my lawyer. I don't know what's right, what's wrong, and I want my lawyer's suggestion. '
'Okay.' Behrens considered her for a moment. 'Okay, don't bother. I'm going now.'
As the door closed behind her, Mary-Claude put down the phone. She could not think straight, what with the shock, the twins bawling for food and Sarah pulling at her shorts, asking 'Where did Poppy go?' In an unfamiliar house, in a country she hardly knew, thousands of miles from her family, with her husband suddenly taken away, and three babies to care for, she had never felt more lonely and frightened in her life.
She was so rattled she used the wrong measuring cup for the twins' formula and had to mix it all over again. Then, after each had finished his bottle, she paced up and down, waiting for them to settle before she called Boohaker, who was shocked to hear what had happened. He promised to do the best he could and to call her back when he had some news.
Rather than sit around watching the telephone, she got the children dressed and put them in the car, with the idea of going to the market to buy a few things they needed. She was about to drive off when, as an afterthought, she went back into the house for Coleman's papers, in case the FBI decided to break in and get them while she was away.
By the time Mary-Claude returned from the market, about an hour later, the idea of keeping his papers from prying eyes had become an obsession. If the FBI was so eager to have them, it could only mean they would do her husband harm if the agents got hold of them. She put her now sleepy children to bed and, except for Coleman's clothes, carried everything of his she could find into the bathroom.
With no way of knowing what was harmful and what was not, she tore all his papers into shreds, including his Federal Communications Commission (FCC) broadcast engineer's license, and chopped his ID cards into pieces, hurting her hand with the scissors. Not sure what to do next, she then made a heap of everything in the bathtub and set light to it.
Watching the smoke rise, she felt that even the war in Lebanon had been easier to live through than this. In a war, you knew that anything could happen at any time, but you also knew there was nothing you could do about it. Now, for all she knew, her husband's fate might rest with her. She wrung her hands and was still trying to decide if there was anything else she ought to do when the smoke set off the fire alarm.
'Oh, my God, what is this?'
She rocked back and forth in despair until she realized what she had done. Jumping up to shut off the alarm before its noise woke the children, she turned on the shower to put out the flames, and in a tearful fury flung the sodden remains into the toilet and flushed them away. Only then did she notice the marks that the fire had left in the bathtub. As she scrubbed away at them hopelessly, that seemed like the saddest thing of all somehow.
Meanwhile, Coleman was still grappling with bewilderment in the back of the car. Within days of leaving on a mission of national importance, an operation that might well affect the whole course of US strategy in the Middle East, he was riding into Mobile between two FBI agents to answer a trumped-up passport charge? It was crazy.
'You want to share the joke with us?' Behrens asked.
'No, I don't think so. It's only funny if you know the whole story.'
'Then why don't you tell us about it? You got a passport already. Why in the world would you want another one? In another name?'
'Hell, I don't know. I'm a journalist, right? Maybe I was researching a story about how easy it is to get false identification.'
'Well, now you know it's not that easy,' she said. 'If that's true, you should have got authorization first.'
'Yeah. And you should have read me my rights first.'
The older agent sighed. 'Okay,' he said tiredly. 'Read him his rights.'
'Fine, but why don't we all get more comfortable?'
Coleman handed them the handcuffs. For an amateur magician of his calibre, it was a simple enough escape trick. You just had to flex your wrists in a certain way as they were fastened on.
The government was not amused. Its agents put the handcuffs back on. Tighter.
'Oh, come on,' said Coleman. 'You know this is bullshit. What's it all about?'