America at Night Chapter 1

Unfortunately, this is a true story. It begins in a hotel suite in the Hollywood Hills in the last week of May, 2004. I’d just checked in and, outside my windows, birds were singing, trees were flowering, it was a fine sunny day—and my first day away from home in too long. I remember parting the billowing white inner curtains in a corner of the bedroom, opening a window wider, sticking my face outside, and then just standing like that for a moment thinking there was something wonderful about the air, how it could be cool and warm, just cool enough and just warm enough, at once.

L.A. New scenery, a change of direction. I’d been looking forward to this. For the past two years I’d been at home in Florida, locked up in a single room, writing a great swirling devil of a book that, for too many months, I’d never quite been able to bring to an end. That book, Overworld, was the story of my life so far. The story of how I grew up all over the earth as the son of a senior American intelligence official, a spymaster; how the CIA recruited me when I was twenty-two, but I said no thanks; how, after my father’s death, I became a close friend of Muhammad Ali, traveled all over the world, especially the Third World, with him, and became so well connected in Middle Eastern capitals that I was soon irresistible to a certain CIA co-founder, Miles Copeland. And how Miles recruited me, trained me in what ways of spies I hadn’t already picked up from my father, and then steeped me in Miles’s specialty: covert political operations—at which no American intelligence officer was ever better than Miles. I mention all of this because, when the facts have been laid out and we get to the part about how I connected the dots and saw a plot to use Al-Qaeda to subvert the American presidential election of 2004, you will need to understand that, when it comes to covert political operations, I was trained by the master.

Miles Copeland had engineered the CIA’s first coup d’etat, and a few more after that; he’d rigged elections, been friend and confidant to Egyptian strongman Gamel Abdel Nasser, the Shah of Iran, and various American presidents. In the 1960s, when Miles wrote a bestseller, no less than the most famous spy in the world, the British traitor Kim Philby, had stepped out of the shadows to proffer his opinion of it. “I’ve known that intriguer for twenty years,” Philby said live on Radio Moscow, “so I can say with authority that Miles Copeland’s book, The Game of Nations, is itself a move in the CIA’s monstrous game.”

Overworld recounts some of my experiences, under Miles’s direction, in places like Beirut, Riyadh, Islamabad, Managua, Washington, and ends with an account of a covert political operation which, near the end of Miles’s life, I ran for the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. When Rajiv, my friend and protector, was assassinated, his political enemies came after me, stranding me in a safe house on a beach in Florida. After living most of my life overseas, that felt to me like exile. Thrice the United States government refused to extradite me to India.

But spying and covert operations were things which, more often than not, I’d only done reluctantly, and I hoped that by writing about them I’d gotten them out of my system. The book was finished. There were no more passages to rewrite, no more page proofs to correct. The U.S. hardcover edition was in production. Foreign rights had been sold. Movie rights had been sold. It was time for me to take it easy. That was what I’d come here for, and to hang out with old friends, and meet some new ones—the movie producers who bought the rights to my book. After ten years on the beach in exile, and two more writing, I was finally free. Just then, almost anything seemed possible.

Anything except that I would ever again live a covert life. By writing about it, I had intentionally blown my cover. Once the book was published, spying would no longer be a career option for me, and thank God for that.

So, back to the twenty-seventh of May, 2004, and my suite in The Argyle on the edge of the Hollywood Hills. During my long forced march through the first and second drafts of Overworld, I’d lived almost entirely inside the memories I was writing about. It was only during the past couple of months, while I’d worked on final revisions, that I’d begun to reconnect with what was going on in the world. Every day, two subjects dominated the news: the war in Iraq, and the presidential election campaign. The war wasn’t going quite as well as the administration had projected. For most of the past month, the Pentagon and the White House had been reeling from embarrassing revelations about American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. President George W. Bush, who’d led us into Iraq, was standing for reelection. It was likely that his opponent in November would be Democratic Senator John Kerry. But I was more interested right now in taking care of a little business and then beginning my frolic through Los Angeles.

I hadn’t worn a suit in ages, so it took me a while to get ready for lunch. I remember a struggle with my tie. There’d been entire decades in which I lived in suits and ties. So how many attempts could it take me to form a simple four-in-hand knot? In this case, the answer was six. It wasn’t that I couldn’t get the basics right. But I kept having symmetry problems. Then I found I’d brought no cufflinks. I had to change shirts. Which I managed to accomplish without completely re-tying my tie. And my shoes were brand new, still in the box.

I had to lace them, and while I did, seated on the Art Deco sofa in the living room, by then I had all the curtains and floor-to-ceiling windows open, and I spent a time listening to birdsong and street sounds and looking toward the top of the green hill that stretched out above me—at stilt houses, Andalucian mansions with red barrel-tiled roofs, cantilevered houses, Cape Cods, among impossibly-tall palm trees, stands of eucalyptus, cedars, telephone poles. A hillside of people who made their livings buying and selling dreams. Lately, I’d been considering the possibility I’d begin spending a lot more of my time out here. It felt so good to be here.

First stop, lunch at The Palm with an old friend, a Washington attorney. I got up from the sofa in my new shoes and headed downstairs and out into that lovely cool-warm air and found a taxi to take me down the hill to the lunch where it all began. What happened after that, I thought I would never tell to anyone. It’s an ugly story, except for the girl; and it’s not the sort of truth you’d think you could expose and survive. So what I did about it, up to a point, I did anonymously, intending to disappear when I finished. But then my identity was exposed, or, if you prefer the intelligence jargon: I was blown—by a careless act from on high. And suddenly, unambiguously, I saw that the more people who knew exactly what I’d discovered, and what I’d done about it, the less reason anyone would have to silence me, the less likely I’d be to wind up with a tag on my toe, or in protective custody somewhere. Incommunicado either way.

Vince was late for lunch, and I wish he’d never shown up. But, then again, all indications are if Vince hadn’t sucked me back into the secret world, somebody else would’ve. So I don’t hold it against him. Vince Messina. Washington tax and immigration attorney, international dealmaker, bon vivant. Based on what I know of his background, he has to be as old as the hills. But somehow he doesn’t seem it. Bald on top, short dark hair on the sides, olive skin, smiles a lot, constantly on the move. Vince is on the up and up, but spends much of his time in strange lands working for mysterious clients.

He was heading soon to Libya, where I had some experience and good business contacts, and he wanted to pick my brain. Which was all right by me, and simple enough. Things to do and people to see in Libya had already been exhausted as a topic before we got our main course—sitting across a white linen tablecloth from each other in a brass-railed wooden booth, fan blades slowly spinning overhead. Over my small steak and Vince’s big red plate of linguine with clam sauce, we had plenty of time to chat about all sorts of other things.

Vince is prone to sudden recollections which launch him into epic stories. Fascinating digressions beautifully told, and usually drawn from his own experiences. In the middle of a conversation about a business deal, you might get, for instance, a detailed and nuanced firsthand account of subterranean Washington warfare back in the fifties between HUAC and Senator Joe McCarthy, or an FBI campaign some years later to squeeze the Mob out of Vegas. He’s also so well read that, listening to Vince, you never know when you might find yourself, say, watching a man on horseback beside the banks of the Tigris, galloping away from certain death. And Vince telling it so well, as if it happened just last month and he’d been eyewitness to it, recalling every movement, every expression, that you’re surprised when he tells you it’s only something he read, it happened centuries ago.

But on that day Vince said he was getting over a touch of flu. So maybe he just didn’t have the energy to work up any narrative momentum.

Or maybe if we’d just ordered dessert I wouldn’t be telling you this story. It took, they say, only the taste of a single cookie, dunked in tea by Marcel Proust, to unlock a memory so vivid it yielded a flood of memories requiring multi-volumes and thousands of printed pages to contain them all. If Vince had tasted the chocolate cake, things might’ve turned out very differently for me and a lot of others. Take, for example, the body count. Had lunch somehow ended on a different note, there are certain persons still living and breathing who very probably wouldn’t be, and at least one other, now dead, who would still be alive. But we skipped dessert. We’d asked for the check and were down to our last dregs of coffee, when, an afterthought, Vince casually said, “Oh, Larry, I should ask you—because these days I try to ask everyone I know who’s ever been involved in intelligence—you don’t happen to know a guy by the name of Bob Sensi, who used to work for the CIA, do you?”

“As a matter of fact, I do,” I said, a little startled by the question, and Vince looked quite surprised himself, sat up straighter, said, in a year and a half of his asking dozens of people, I was the first person who’d answered yes.

Then Vince asked me to tell him what I knew of Bob Sensi, and, not long after I started doing that, Vince stopped me, brought out his cell phone and called his nephew Gary so he could hear too. Gary was one of the highest ranking officers in the Department of Homeland Security; in fact, he was in control of what was supposed to be our government’s most comprehensive database on all known bad guys, and Bob Sensi was a bad guy, yet it was already coming clear that I knew more about him than the combined databases of the several security agencies of the United States government.

It was all fresh in my mind because I’d written about it in Overworld. And just a few weeks earlier, I’d gone through my Sensi files again in some detail with one of my publisher’s attorneys during their strenuous vetting of my manuscript. This, in essence, is what I told Vince and Gary:

Early in 1985, in a secret meeting in the White House which I attended with Muhammad Ali and others, Vice President George Bush asked Muhammad to use his credibility in the Muslim world to start a covert dialogue with the Ayatollah Khomeini to try to procure release of the American, British, Kuwaiti, and Saudi hostages then being held in Beirut. In the course of that meeting, the Vice President gave me the business card of Robert M. Sensi—Chairman, The Ambassador’s Club, Republicans Abroad, c/o The Republican National Committee—and informed us Sensi actually worked for the CIA and would provide whatever support Muhammad needed for the mission.

When we met Sensi, he told us he was being run directly by CIA director Bill Casey, in close concert with Vice President Bush. Sensi also said he worked, nominally, for Kuwait Airways, and the Kuwaiti royal family would be funding our operation.

Sensi was raised in Chicago and, when among Americans, he pretended to be a bit of a rube—but he could speak five languages, fluently, and could blend into a crowd like nobody I’d ever seen before. Sensi’s primary mission for the CIA was engineering a covert opening to moderates within the Iranian power structure. His primary mission for the Republican Party was covertly bringing them foreign political contributions, by the bagful, from Middle Eastern leaders.

Over the next few weeks, Sensi orchestrated meetings in London between Muhammad—accompanied by me and certain others—and a tag team of friendly Persian gentlemen in French suits. They had their own big white house in Belgravia, and were said to be Iranian government commodities trading officials. But they seemed to be representatives of an Iranian intelligence service.

After several meetings in London, we went to Beirut, at the height of the Lebanese Civil War, open season on Americans, and there: in a safe house, in the middle of the night, we met secretly with Ibrahim Amin, political leader and deputy chief of Hizballah; and Muhammad procured the release of one American hostage—a fact reported only by the Arab press.

Months later, Sensi was arrested in London and extradited to the United States, to stand trial on charges of embezzling from Kuwait Airways. Sensi’s defense was he was he worked for the CIA, and the expenditures for which he was being prosecuted were part of a CIA mission knowingly paid for by the Kuwaiti royal family. During the proceedings, a CIA representative appeared and stipulated that Sensi had been affiliated with the CIA, but also that the expenditures specified in the charges were not part of any CIA operation. Sensi was convicted and sent to federal prison.

Sometime after his release, Sensi was arrested, tried, convicted, and reincarcerated by the federal government for his involvement in a Nigerian Letters fraud operation.

But, until I told all this to Vince and Gary, virtually the only things they’d been able to find out about Sensi, the only facts about Sensi not purged from the government’s records, were that he once worked for the CIA and that he now was a con man who claimed he still worked for the CIA.

“Oh shit!” I said, when I saw the time. “Sorry, guys, I’ve got to go.” I stood up to leave for my next appointment—with the movie guys who’d recently paid me a handsome sum, and were threatening to pay me a lot more sometime soon. It was free money, for work I’d already done while writing the book, and this was a concept I found quite charming.

So I already liked these guys a lot, though I’d never actually met them, and I’d been looking forward to this meeting. But, when I got there, I found I couldn’t keep my mind off my lunch with Vince. As I left the restaurant, Vince had followed me out with his cell phone, and Gary had said to me, “Look, Larry, I can’t tell you a lot about why this is so important to us, except that it involves national security and Al-Qaeda. There’s a guy who’s working as Sensi’s partner. Together they’re friggin’ in the riggin’ of a very sensitive situation. Sensi’s partner is a lawyer going by the name of Richard Marshall. You don’t know him, do you?”

I’d said, “I don’t think so.” And thought that was the end of that.

But now, as I sat in the boardroom of the burled-wood offices of Atmosphere Entertainment MM LLC, chatting about the complexities of adapting my book into a screenplay, I found my palms beginning to sweat. I did know a lawyer named Richard who’d worked with Sensi before. That Richard’s last name wasn’t Marshall, but he was a very bad guy and capable of almost anything. Perhaps I did know who “Richard Marshall” was, and, if I was right, and he and Sensi were working together again, and it involved Al-Qaeda—it would not end well.


That night, I had drinks in The Argyle’s bar with my friends Malcolm Venville and Dave Morrison. Malcolm’s a director, and lives in London. I remember we talked for a while, about Malcolm’s hero of heroes, Muhammad Ali, until Malcolm downed his second drink and announced he had a plane to catch in the morning, that it was time for him to go. Then Dave drove me, at unforgettable speed, like there were hellhounds on our trail, gaining on us, down Sunset, through Beverly Hills and beyond, up to the tip-top of Bel-Air.

There, he lived in a Space Age house with slate floors, vintage sixties furniture, plasma screens and art on the walls, fantastic views out the huge rear windows. A matched pair of beautiful, vigilant Great Danes was patrolling the perimeters.

Enter: Dave’s wife, Sarah-Jane Wilde—American passport, British accent, Parisian education. Deep mysterious beauty. Sarah-Jane served us champagne, salad, risotto, and crème brulee. And she kept the table talk flowing beautifully while the three of us ate, interrupted occasionally by walk-on performances by the boy pharaoh, Dave and Sarah-Jane’s son—who spoke to me in a special dialect of English translatable only by his parents, and was wearing footed pajamas, but didn’t seem to want to stay in his crib.

If either of them had foreseen the shit storm I was heading into, probably Dave would’ve done his best to get me so ridiculously drunk that I couldn’t move the next morning, or Sarah-Jane would’ve tried harder to convince me to stay in town another five nights for the party she proposed to organize in my honor, complete with film stars, eccentric artists, supermodels—for you, Larry, the works! Just five nights. Shouldn’t have been a problem, since I had so many more friends in town to see, and so much more I’d planned to do before leaving L.A.

But it was no use. Already the challenge was beginning to possess me. And by the next morning, I barely had time to go out and send flowers and a thank you note to Sarah-Jane, and then, well, fuck it, I was checking out of the hotel and Vince was driving me to LAX, briefing me all the way there—because there were certain things I was going to need to know if I was going to hit the ground running when I got to where I was going to try to help the government of the United States of America solve the mystery of just who the hell Richard Marshall was, and what he was up to, and why.