1978: The Shepheard Hotel Bar, Cairo Egypt
I sat on a stool at the Shepheard Bar and digested what Regional Security Officer Childress had told me about the Soviets radiating our embassy in Moscow with microwave energy. While Childress went to the restroom I came to the conclusion that the only reason why he would bring this up was to recruit me on the SY technical team.
<feature photo: SY tech officer crawls out from a chimney at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1978 (courtesy US Department of State)
“Another beer?” Childress said as he hopped on the stool next to me.
The bartender knew the RSO’s subtle signal to order.
“Where were we?” Childress said.
“I think the Soviets were in the process of sterilizing the U.S. Embassy Moscow staff with microwave radiation.”
He gave me a double take and said, “Good one,” with the makings of a smile.
“Just kidding,” I said when he added a questioning gaze. “That amount of radiation probably… I mean… it wouldn’t cause damage to the precious… to the vital organs. You said the congressional study indicated no risk.”
I was beginning to sound like Brig. General Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove. That role, of course, had to belong to RSO Childress. I got back on course with, “So you were saying that SY tech support found an antenna in a U.S. Embassy chimney and the tunnel beneath it that led to another building.”
The bartender slid two more Stella draught beers in front of us. Childress used the pause to take a swig and gather his thoughts.
“First the Soviets hit us with TUMS, then SMUT-1 and SMUT-2. Now a mysterious fire. It’s time to take definitive action.”
It sounded funny, but I knew it was no laughing matter. I had already gone out to the edge with my “sterilization” comment.
Childress rotated his head, lifted his shoulders and took in a heavy breath of the Shepherd Bar air before he continued.
The Am Embassy Moscow Fire
“In August of last year, a mysterious fire broke out at the embassy in Moscow. The fire engulfed the entire ECON section on the eighth floor. It soon spread to the ninth and tenth floors and the attic. Although policy dictated otherwise, the ambassador gave permission to the Soviet fire fighters to enter the eighth floor.”
Childress paused to get my take.
“No shit?” I said.
“Later Soviet firemen were allowed to fight the fire from aerial ladders when it broke through the chancery’s roof. Although the ambassador denied the Soviets access to the tenth floor, four unescorted Soviet firemen entered the classified area—the Communications and Records Office—of the ninth floor through a window.”
Childress shook his head. “We’ve got to do better at controlling these situations.”
I didn’t have anything add to that.
The Soviets backed off when they saw a Defense Attaché́ officer aiming a camera at them. The embassy chancery offices and the roof suffered extensive damage. Fortunately, the RSO concluded that sensitive equipment and records had not been compromised.”
I had to cut to the chase. The Marine Guard TGIF party had already begun an hour ago. “Is this related to the antenna in the chimney at the American embassy there?”
Childress turned to me and with a bold expression said, “Most assuredly. That’s all I can say at the moment.” While continuing to gaze at me he added, “I guess you’re wondering why I’m telling you all of this.”
“It crossed my mind.”
“I must remind you that this is all confidential.”
I followed his lead and quaffed a few ounces out of the flagon of Stella beer.
A Recruiter’s “Pitch”
“I’ve been impressed by your work here.”
Here we go. “Thanks.”
“You’ve probably figured out that we may need some help in Moscow on the technical side identifying these microwave radiation issues. As I mentioned earlier I’ll be heading to Moscow after I return from home leave. We anticipate the assignment duration will be about three months. In the meantime SY is putting together a team.”
Childress paused to let that sink in.
“Think you might be interested in joining the team?”
What about my radio cohort Al back at the RCO office in Karachi? He depended on me to handle all the fieldwork. Three months? I bet it would be more like six months. Or it could be an indeterminate time period. OC/PE-R could reassign me Moscow for two years.
“Why don’t you return to Karachi and talk to RCO Roberson about it? It would be for the good of the Foreign Service you know.”
I said, “I appreciate your offer, but I’m going to have to respectfully decline.”
His expression told me that Childress didn’t take too kindly that I had not even considered his offer.
To further explain my response I said, “I’m new in the Foreign Service. This is my first assignment overseas. If I had a few years experience under my belt I’d probably say, ‘Sure, I’ll take up your offer.’”
His expression changed from put off to disappointed.
“We’re responsible for over sixty missions out of the RCO radio office in Karachi. There’s only two of us. I’ve got a lot of people over here counting on me. This area has been neglected for quite a while. Can I make a suggestion?”
“Sure, go ahead,” he said in a discouraged tone.
“Senior CEO Norm Bates helped you guys out in South America. I suggest you contact him. He’s about the best we’ve got and he’s currently back at SECSTATE.”
“We’ve already contacted him. He’s got health issues.”
“Oh, sorry to hear it.”
Would Norm’s gout hold him back?
“You know, there’s some sharp radio techs back at the department awaiting assignments…”
“What is it?” Childress said.
Zoom Zoom, our super-sleuth radio tech would be the perfect guy for the job.
“CEO Parker is a recent hire back at OC/R. I think he would be a good fit for the Moscow assignment.”
Childress chugged the remainder of the beer, glanced at his watch, and said, “We’ll consider CEO Parker. In the meantime, if you reconsider send me a message.”
He gaged my expression and said, “I’m sure they’ll be numerous perks upon completion of the assignment.”
I didn’t ask about the perks.
RSO Childress tapped the bar top and said, “I’ve got to go pack. The wife’s got big plans for me back home.”
“Have a good trip,” I said. “Sorry I wasn’t able to help you out.”
He gave me an expression that hinted that he wasn’t so sure about that, which made me nervous.
RSO Childress paid the bill, rose off the stool, and said, “See ya around.”
“Yeah, the Cairo upgrades will take a few days to complete. I’ll message you and Bob [my boss in Karachi, RCO Robert Roberson] when I finish.”
“Keep up the good work.”
“Thanks, I will.”
I hoped that was the last I ever heard of TUMS and SMUT and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.