Saturday, January 25, 2014

How I Almost Got Harpooned by Greenpeace

This is a true story:

On September 1, 1983, I was a 2d Lieutenant serving as a B-52 Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) in Strategic Air Command (SAC).  On that day a SU-15 fighter from the Soviet Air Defense Forces shot down a Korean Airlines flight KAL-007.

As a B-52 EWO, I had a top secret security clearance with special access to various programs.  Because I was born outside the US (in Chile), I had been scrubbed and scrutinized beyond squeaky clean.  In any case, one of the security requirements we had was to report any contacts we may have with communist countries. I subscribed to a number of Soviet periodicals and journals [mostly politico-military stuff],    I dutifully reported my contacts.

After the Soviets shot down KAL-007, in protest, I cancelled all of my journal subscriptions; including my subscription to “Soviet Life” with the Soviet Embassy.  Coincidentally, around this same time, I received a mailer from Greenpeace complaining about Japanese, Norwegian and Soviet whaling practices.  The mailer included a return card adding my voice to protest the whaling.  Now, I admit that I knew little of the issue but since it involved the Soviets and I was upset at them, I sent back the response card to Greenpeace without further thought.

About a month after I sent the mailer back to Greenpeace, my squadron commander called me into his office one morning and told me to report to the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) immediately as they wanted to speak with me.  The OSI is responsible for counter-intelligence in the Air Force.  I was a bit taken aback but did not think too much of it—no idea why the wanted to talk to me.

I reported to the OSI office.  There I was met by three individuals in civilian clothes… Two of them in particular looked like the spitting-images of the Hollywood version of what intelligence officers look like.

“I am the Commander of the OSI for the mid-west region of the United States” said one. 

“We’re Special Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation” said the other two individuals showing their badges.

I am now thinking:  “DAMM… this is not good…”

Keep in mind that this was a difficult security environment in SAC.  In May 1981, 2d Lieutenant Christopher Cooke, was arrested for passing information about the Titan II missiles to the Soviet Embassy.  Cooke was given immunity in exchange for information of what he told the Soviets.   After hearing what Cooke had told the Soviets CINCSAC General Richard Ellis said “this man is a traitor” and wanted to have him court-martialed.  The SAC JAG BG Claude Teagarden screwed up the case and Cooke was set free.  General Teagarden lost his job.

Back at the OSI office, very pleasantly they began to ask me what I thought of President Reagan’s policies, etc.  We chatted for a few minutes speaking in generalities about generalities.  Finally I said:  “I know that you did not call me here to discuss my political views.  Why am I here? What do you want?”

The OSI commander then said: “Why did you write to the Soviet Chancellery in New York? What did you tell them? And why didn’t you report it?”

My jaw dropped.  “I have no idea of what you are talking about.  I have never written to the Soviet Chancellery in New York and I always report my contacts.”

“We have information that on such and such a date the Soviet Chancellery received some correspondence from you” said one of the FBI agents.

Now I began to get scared because I had never written to the Soviet Chancellery. I started to wonder in the back of my mind if this was a trick or they were trying to set me up...  DAMM…  “Sir, I have no idea of what you are talking about because again I have never written to the Soviet Chancellery, I always report my contacts.”

“Then how and why did the Soviet Chancellery receive a letter from you?” the OSI commander asked.

“Sir” I said “I have no idea. But I’m not a Soviet agent.  Just look at my bank account and you’ll see that I’m not profiting from anything. I don’t have a single clue…”   

They chuckled and then OSI commander asked me, “Is there anything you have written?  What have you written lately that could have gone to the Chancellery?”

“I really haven’t written anything to the Soviets… I cancelled my subscription to ‘Soviet Life’ but that’s through the Embassy… I don’t … the only other thing out of the ordinary is that I sent back a card to Greenpeace about Norwegian, Japanese and Soviet whaling practices…”

The OSI Commander slapped his head with his hand… “Lt. Vergara.  Did you know that the card was sent in your name to the Soviet Chancellery?” 

“YOU MEAN THAT GREENPEACE SENT MY CARD DIRECTLY TO THE SOVIET CHANCELLERY IN NEW YORK?” I asked incredulously…  “I DIDN'T HAVE A CLUE THAT THEY WOULD DO THIS.”  “They didn’t tell me that they were going to do it.”  Or obviously I didn't read the card carefully…

The OSI commander and the FBI agents now had knowing smiles on their faces… The mystery had been solved.  That’s exactly what Greenpeace did! They sent my card to the Soviet, Japanese and Norwegian UN offices…   

The OSI commander told me I had violated an Air Force regulation, they would prepare a report and send it to my commander who would take disciplinary action, if any, against me.  Then I was dismissed from the office.

I was really shaken… I could’ve been arrested, court-martialed… I went to my squadron commander’s office and told him about it.  He said not to worry and that when he got the report he would call me.  About a week later, he called me back.  The report basically said that I had violated an Air Force regulation but otherwise did not cause any harm to our national security.

My squadron commander said:  “Gonzo, don't do it again."

“Yes, sir. I promise I will never send back any Greenpeace response cards again.” 

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