Santa Fe: A Conference of Spies
by Dean Balsamo
Do you feel unappreciated at work? Have you been passed over or demoted because of your race, religion or gender? Are you getting divorced? Feel like getting revenge? Just like to break the rules?
… Work for a foreign ministry, military or spy agency?
….And handle classified information?
You just might take the bait when the CIA officer who’s cultivated your friendship for the last few months or years—
Taking note of these kinds of “stress points” in your life-
Decides the time is right to “show a little thigh,” …promise to show you some goodies if you’ll show some of yours.
The “bait” is usually money. The play is primal—Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–entry points for a spy’s designs on the information you possess.
The scenario above is drawn from a talk by a Soul Catcher—a CIA agent trained to recruit assets from foreign governments.
He was one of a handful of CIA veteran presenters at a recent conference on spies I attended in Santa Fe entitled:
Spies, Lies and Nukes
Inside International Espionage
(Plame with a “Soul Catcher”)
Organized by rock-star resident Valerie Plame , the venue offered a rare chance for the general public to not only see and hear presentations by “legends” in the world of spies– but actually get the chance to talk individually with them during the meet and mingle portions of the program.
It was evident from the talks that seduction, optics, and the Art of Persuasion form the backbone of spy-craft. This extended to the structure of the conference itself – it was designed to create an empathic response on the part of those attending.
Not that most of the audience needed any special maneuvers to get them on board. There was a unique atmosphere to the event. These were spy Enthusiasts—many of whom I found out—had that Six Degrees of Separation thing happening…they were aware of the projects, knew the players and even participated in aspects relating to the things that were discussed.
The crowd was friendly. In fact the word that came to me was “fraternal”…like the Masons or the way my Dad and his comrades got together in the early 60’s when I was a kid
The contagious atmosphere was heightened by the fact we were holed up from 8-4 in a downtown hotel—with meals and coffee breaks –perfectly scheduled to allow presenters and audience to get to know one another.
The latter is what made this venue for me. I found the men and women I met were…just like us…except the life of the spy was their calling and a greater than normal sense of public service was their mission.
Talk about polishing your brand…if this had been an official CIA event designed to influence Americans about their work they couldn’t have found a better approach.
Listening to them give their presentations and panels –and most of all –getting a chance to speak with them —gave me the chance to see them as the individuals they are.
(some of the speakers)
Boomers are going to gag, but my attitudes about the CIA underwent a huge change. I no longer look at the agency as a monolithic entity sending automatons out on nefarious assignments around the globe.
While united on certain things – none of them believe Russian influence in our system is anywhere near the levels our media claims it is for instance– there were also plenty of divergent feelings and passions on display that countered the group-think image I had of the agency before the conference.
It was a strange feeling for a person like myself– who over the years has delved into much of the so-called “conspiracy” literature and opinions from Left to Right about the agency’s activities.
I went home the first night thinking I’d been the subject of mind control—an operation designed to specifically create the feelings I now had.
But by the second day I was all in. It was fascinating to hear what those behind the scenes had to say about their objectives and roles.
Outside of Aspen, think tanks, and Fortune 500 level executives the general public just doesn’t come in contact with this milieu and its perspectives.
I came away from the event thinking that spying—when connected to those Maslow needs—is something that grows naturally from our DNA—wrapped around the thing that trumps everything — survival.
I had to do a mental balancing act. On one hand the presenters gave their takes on various events they knew from experience and agency lore— it was exciting and gave me a lot more confidence about the CIA and those who comprise it.
At the same time they did their best to paint the agency in a positive light. They are spies after all. Dealing with the underbelly—the darker impulses driving the “moist robot,” or our Homo sapiens selves– has got to generate some moral dilemmas but as usual there’s always someone willing to take on tasks others find they can’t. A good thing.
The presentations covered a host of subjects from the aforementioned recruitment strategies to behind the scenes of the Cuban Missile Crisis to a discussion of the “rendering” or torture the CIA was tasked with doing after 9/11 to (of course) a discussion of JFK’S assassination.
The later talk was slightly disappointing because the presenter offered Case Closed by Gerald Posner as his definitive source on the subject. It’s a book serious researchers consider a whitewash of a “whitewash” as the speaker surprisingly called the Warren Commission.
But then his talk was one he had given to some generalist society at Harvard—not an audience in Santa Fe.
Calling it the “The Single Shooter Theory” would have been more accurate in my opinion. And then say a panel covering the 5 top questions about the tragedy–which would naturally touch on the idea of multiple shooters.
But as usual at conferences and trade shows it’s the off-handed remarks and gossip that really ups the ante in terms of the take- a-ways from the event.
Things like: the presenter above explaining anomalies around Kennedy, drugs, and MKULTRA as products of the “rogue” culture of the CIA in the 50’s/60’s, Kennedy bringing his favorite mistress to the White House so she could be evacuated along with his family should a nuclear war break out with the Russians, yes Russia does train “sparrows,” women agents using sex to carry out their tasks, and…
the various theories about the agency’s activities– members of the audience shared with anyone who would listen.
In one case an elderly man brought a brief case filled papers outlining an ongoing litany of sins committed by the agency . Needless to say he did’t exactly have a crowd around him.
Thank God Plame handled the Q &A portions of the program like a press conference…at least how we normally envision them…
This being Santa Fe this part of the program could have gone off the rails –but she enforced a …save the diatribe…what’s your question …discipline that kept the conference moving.
(from a set here in Santa Fe–a TV series about the Manhattan Project)
If the presenters had a message it could be boiled down to two main themes:
One; Russians (or Chinese etc.) can do nowhere near the damage we do to ourselves –our own divisiveness does the main damage to our society.
And two; Nothing can replace “presence,” …agents embedded in countries around the globe… as the prime focus for intelligence gathering.
Valerie Plame and those she worked with to mount this special event deserve kudos for running it with both precision and heart.
As for myself I came up with a series of topics and themes to address in some future event and/or a TV series on Netflix, Amazon– the usual suspects. Some of those ideas follow below.
Rogue Culture: The CIA in the 50/60’s:
UFO’S, LSD, JFK, MKULTRA and AI/Robotics – what are the implications and dangers involved in working with hackers and things like Block chain and crypto currencies.
FBI-CIA Relations Through the years
What’s worked, what hasn’t?
The Art of Persuasion and Recruiting:
More about the techniques a “soul catcher” uses. They seem like useful ideas for business and everyday life.
The CIA and the Abstract Expressionists
Is the CIA responsible for creating the market for these artists—based on the way they used the artwork to show the world what a free society we have?
Sparrow and Spy
Discuss the Russian methods of using agents and sex. Talk about famous cases like Anna Chapman and Kristine Keeler for instance.
The Real Americans: Russian Activity in the 1980’s
Yes a shameless play on the TV program. I’m sure there’s a “hook” here.
I’d be happy to go over more with a producer, show runner, writer etc.
Thanks for reading.