January 1978 | Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
The second wake up call rousted me out of bed at 6:30 a.m. (instead of six a.m.). Thanks to our late engagement at the gold souk last night I would miss the breakfast buffet at the Hilton Hotel. But today was the big day–President Carter and Secretary Vance would arrive on Air force One.
I hurried up and dressed and headed to the Command Center. The S.Y. Agent-in-Charge had called an emergency meeting. The subject was hush-hush: no talking up the Carter/Vance visit in front of TCN’s (Third Country National’s) at the embassy or anyone besides embassy personnel or the people in this room. He ended the session with a message: “Now let’s go out there and show the world we’re as good as the other guys [the S.Y. counterparts for Carter were the Secret Service].”
The counterparts on my side were the WHCA (Whitehouse Communications) team. I hadn’t seen or talked to any of the techs over there. I heard that some of our techs had occasional run-ins with WHCA on these protection details involving both the President and the Secretary of State.
As the S.Y. meeting broke up I said, “Good Morning,” to my fair lady Linda and realized I had five minutes to catch the seven a.m. shuttle to the embassy. She produced a smile that would turn Pygmalion into stone as I hurried off.
Instead of steak and eggs at the Hilton I had a bowl of stale corn flakes at the embassy cantina and listened to the scuttlebutt. Later, I read the A.P. (Associated Press) news off the Teletype machine up in the Communications & Records Office.
The official brief of U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia January 03-04, 1978 was to review the Middle East peace process with Saudi dignitaries, but the conversation of the advance team and the embassy had been centered around the price of oil and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The Arabian oil embargo against the western nations in October 1973 and the cut in production caused a rapid rise in crude oil prices, from $3 to almost $30 per barrel. The current price of a gallon of gas at the pump in the U.S. was sixty-five to seventy cents per gallon. It had more than doubled in ten years. I wondered how much influence OPEC would really have on the Middle East Peace Initiative.
The Communications & Records Office | A Listening Post
My call sign at the embassy UHF radio base station was BACKSTOP. The way the protective detail radio net was set up I would hear all the chatter between the S.Y. agents within the range of the RCA base station radio on the desk in front of me. The base station radio range far exceeded the range of The S.Y. agents’ handheld “two-way” radios. My job was to relay information between agents if they got out of radio range. I had a list of call signs for all the agents in front of me.
Early in the morning the protective detail radio net was quiet. I performed a radio test check with all the agents on the list with success except for one agent. I reported it to Agent Dixon, my S.Y. contact. It turned out the agent sweeping the the interior of the Saudi King’s palace. I joked to Agent Dixon that the radio signal from the agent’s handheld radio must have gotten blocked by all the gold inside. He grunted.
With both the Secret Service (Whitehouse security) and S.Y. (State Department security) advance teams in place in Riyadh there was a heightened sense of urgency within the ranks. Both sides were extremely competitive in their efforts to safe guard their principals. Of course, the president’s teams had priority and the Secretary’s S.Y. protectors were always looking for an opportunity to show their worth. Not to mention that Cyrus Vance had replaced a legend, Henry Kissinger, a year ago.
Kissinger was the only Secretary of State not to be protected by S.Y. From 1969-73 Mr. Kissinger was the National security Advisor and preferred to retain his Secret Service detail when he became U.S. Secretary of State in ’73. One of the S.Y. agents involved back then had told me that a six month struggle between the Secret Service and S.Y. ensued over who would protect Kissinger. They came to an arrangement whereby the Secret Service would provide protection for Kissinger under one-year renewable contracts, ensuring that S.Y. would retain the duty it had performed since Secretary Cordell Hull in the 1930’s. However, Kissinger did request that S.Y. protect his wife, Nancy Maginnes.
The Am Embassy Riyadh CRO was a heavyset fellow unusually jovial for this job. Like all other CRO’s he had a huge responsibility at post since he was privy to classified information that was continually spit out of the Teletype message machines. I secretly surmised that the reason Secretary Vance had set up his own Comm Center at the Hilton was to keep the telegraphic traffic limited to his staff. If that were the case then visiting CRO Linda would have knowledge of secret peace talk issues that few other people in the world would know. That made her even more intriguing.
The Riyadh CRO liked to talk. Since I could not leave the base station until I was released by Agent Dixon sometime tonight I had become his captive audience. When I had to go to the restroom or take a break I’d have to get the CRO or a staff member to monitor the radio while absent.
The CRO did mention something interesting. He said that to sweeten the peace process deal President Carter might be willing to sell advanced warplanes to the principle players, Egypt, Israel… and Saudi Arabia. That’s diplomacy—peace through strength—although I wondered about how warplanes fostered peace. But that was far beyond my pay grade.
The radio net chatter picked up when I heard code name MAGIC CARPET (Air Force One) had begun its approach to Riyadh Airport. I could tell that the radio network coverage was sufficient at this point by the agents’ clear replies over the radio net.
I grabbed a fresh cup at the CRU coffee counter, within listening distance of the base station. The CRO called out with that high-pitched voice from a desk in the opposite corner, “Have they touched down yet?” like it was Apollo astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin landing on the moon.
With coffee in hand I listened hard. Secretary Vance’s armored vehicle had been flown in earlier and was waiting at the airport. It featured a high power UHF mobile radio, part of our network. I heard the S.Y. agent driver in the vehicle announce through all the chatter, “The SULTAN and ALADDIN [detail code names for President Carter and Secretary Vance, respectively] have landed.”
I gave a thumb’s up to the CRO.
(to be continued)
2 Comments Add yours
Just curious. Was the radio traffic speech scrambled/encrypted, or in the clear, but obscured by “code talking”?
The two-way radio commo was not encrypted in those days. The agents used the network (sometime multi-channel) only when necessary. There was a feature called “Sel Call” that enabled signaling individual or group users via sub-channel audio tones to unsquelch receivers. I think it was in early 80’s when coded radio came on the scene with the availability of spread spectrum technology, which led to CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) used today and developed by Qualcomm for Verizon and others.