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A Conversation with Larry J. Kolb



Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

A:
I have three answers to that, and they're all true. Several years ago, over dinner in a pub in Oxfordshire, Miles Copeland, one of the founders of the CIA, told me, "You really should write a book someday. Tell how historical events really happened. It'll make a fine contrast to the stories of patriotism, courage, and moral clarity the politicians involved will all wheel out in their autobiographies." Miles was right. During my life, I've been intimately involved in several events that have been reported on extensively, including accounts in those politicians' autobiographies Miles warned me about. And I have yet to see the truth come out. So I decided I should write a book that gives my own take on what really happened and how the world really works.

Q: Second?

A:
I grew up all over the world as the son of a U.S. spymaster. By the time I was eleven, I was spying on my father and my "uncles," the men who worked for him. By the age of twenty-two, when the CIA first recruited me, I'd seen enough of the life of an intelligence officer to know I didn't want to be one. So I turned them down. In the years that followed I became a close friend of Muhammad Ali and spent a great deal of time traveling the world with him, especially the Third World and the Middle East. I spent at least a week or two of every month somewhere in the Middle East and learned to speak enough Arabic to find my way around and stay out of trouble. My sense of living in two cultures was intensified when I married into the family of Adnan Khashoggi, one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent and mysterious citizens. Eventually I developed so much access in Middle Eastern capitals that I became almost irresistible to Miles Copeland. When he recruited me, I said yes. All of these experiences have given me a unique perspective on two subjects that matters to us very much these days-intelligence and the Muslim World. I hope readers will agree.

Q: What's the third reason you wrote this book?

A:
My mother died of cancer, early in 2001. Over the four years that I'd watched her fading away, I'd finally come to realize that the inevitability of death is more than just an ugly rumor. I took stock, and saw that all my life I'd wanted to be a writer when I grew up, but had never quite gotten around to it. I decided it was time to grow up and get on with it. So I sat down and started writing Overworld.

Q: Who exactly was Miles Copeland?

A:
Miles was one of the founders of the CIA. And he was its first covert political operative. By the time I met him, in the early Eighties, Miles had almost forty years experience rigging elections, engineering coups; he'd been friend and advisor to Nasser and the Shah, as well as various American presidents. In the Sixties, when Miles wrote a bestseller, no less than the most famous spy in the world Kim Philby had stepped out of the shadows to offer his opinion of it. "I've know 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." But, like me, Miles hadn't set out intent on entering the secret world. Before he'd joined the army to fight in the Second World War, before a routine battery of officer candidate tests revealed he was perfectly suited to be an intelligence officer because he had a genius IQ almost off the scale and he was one hundred percent amoral-Miles had left home in Alabama, made his way to New Orleans, and become a professional jazz musician, playing trumpet in the Glenn Miller Orchestra. That was the path Miles chose. But way leads on to way, and Miles ended up an intelligence officer, specializing in the Middle East. Toward the end of his life, he befriended me, and recruited me, trained me, and then we worked together to try to make the world a slightly better place.

Q: Why did you choose OVERWORLD as the title?

A:
It's an allusion to a story my father told me when I was about 18 years old. It was the first time he had ever talked to me in any detail about his career as an intelligence officer. During World War II, B-26 bombers flying out of MacDill Field in Tampa were going down so often that my father, who was then a special agent in the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, suspected the crashes were due to sabotage. He learned to fly B-26s well enough to pose as a copilot, infiltrated the flight line at MacDill, and eventually arrested a German-American maintenance crew chief with Nazi sympathies who had been sabotaging the planes. "And then," my father told me, in cautionary tones, "the powers that be in the overworld decided to cover it all up. They decided it would be better for morale if no one knew what one German agent had done to us right in our own country. So they wrote it all off to design flaws and poor training procedures. And that was the end of that."

Q: In describing the intelligence world during your father's heyday, you write, "Beneath the surface rivalries, American intelligence was run by a secret society, an old boy network of men who'd known and trusted each other since the war. Back then, every one of them had been in a different organization than he found himself in now. They were all still working toward a common purpose." Does the concept of an old-boy network still hold true in today's intelligence community?

A:
Not to the extent that it did then. And that's part of the problem facing the American intelligence system today. There are always going to be turf wars between rival American intelligence, counterintelligence, and security agencies. That, in part, is by design, and necessary. But it's the nature of spies that they are very good at betraying and deceiving, so the reality is rival American spy agencies will always spend a bit too much of their time and energy betraying and deceiving one another. Back then, when official lines of communication between rival agencies grew cold and formal, or broke down entirely, that old boy network kept the lines of communication open. Information was shared and as a result the intelligence system worked better. Today the rivalries are worse, and there are far fewer old boys on the inside trying to hold things together. These days, even if all the agencies of our intelligence community wanted to cooperate, they couldn't, at least not very efficiently. Despite living in a technological age, many of their computers won't even talk to each other. It's that bad. And it's not going to be easy to fix.

Q: What's the solution? How do we fix the American intelligence system?

A:
I think our leaders need to look to historical precedent for the answer. How did we build the intelligence services that served us so successfully in the last century? During the Second World War, "Wild Bill" Donovan brilliantly set up an intelligence service, the OSS, specially designed to combat one particular enemy-the Axis. The OSS successfully penetrated the German and Japanese high commands, wrought havoc behind enemy lines, and helped us win the war. Then what happened? Donovan was pushed aside, and the OSS was disbanded. When our decision-makers recognized that the United States faced an entirely different enemy, the Soviet Union and its proxies and clients, they custom-built the CIA and several other new intelligence services to take on that particular threat. The American intelligence community of the last half of the Twentieth Century did a great job against the enemy it was built to combat. But the Cold War is over, and we are now up against an all-new enemy. Unfortunately our intelligence apparatus is still geared towards our old enemy. As recent events have brought home, our new enemy makes the current American intelligence and security forces often about as ponderous as the Redcoats were against the Minutemen. So the difficult truth, I believe, is we need to start anew-to disband the present system, just as the OSS was once disbanded, to make way for a new intelligence and security service custom-designed to fight the new enemy.

Q: What's your take on Saudi Arabia?

A:
They're certainly in the thick of it these days against Al-Qaeda and other Muslim extremists. The war has come home to them. Because of the current unrest, there is a tendency for outsiders to write the Saudi royal family off as a regime soon to be of the past. That may be. But we also shouldn't underestimate the staying power of the House of Saud. When I started going to Saudi Arabia almost 25 years ago, a wise man told me that, 15 years earlier, the CIA's best and brightest had done a study and concluded that-in a country so rife with corruption and competing religious and secular factions-there was no way the Saudi royal family could remain in power for more than the next 5 years. And every 5 years since then, the wise man added, the CIA had updated the study and reached the same conclusions. So that's almost 40 years now, and counting, that the best information and logic available to outsiders has concluded that the House of Saud is soon to fall. I wouldn't assume that's going to happen anytime soon. As to the increasingly prevalent notion that Saudis despise Western values and American culture, I wouldn't buy into that too readily either. Most Saudis do abhor the American government's seemingly unqualified support for Israel. But they don't abhor our democratic freedoms, our religion, or our culture. On one of my first nights ever in Saudi Arabia, I was in Jiddah, staying in a guest palace. Suffering from jet-lag, and unable to sleep, I strolled out alone, and walked to the Kornaish, the beach. I got there around quarter to one in the morning, and it was like Central Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Lots and lots of people were out and about, and more arrived every few minutes. These weren't kids out looking to hook up with other kids. These people were arriving as families. The mother and father and children and grandparents would arrive, with their servants, who would pull five or six big carpets out of the backs of pickup trucks, lay the carpets and sofas and chairs out on the sand, creating a living room-and then they'd go back to the truck for the TV and a car battery to power it. And once they got the TV set up and tuned in, what were they watching-religious programming, anti-American diatribes? No, they were sitting there in the moonlight, transfixed, watching WWF Wrestling, live from America.

Q: In 1985, then vice-president George H. W. Bush asked Muhammad Ali to participate in a secret mission. What was the mission? Did you take part in it? And what ended up happening?

A:
In my presence, Vice President Bush asked Muhammad to use his credibility in the Muslim World to enter into a covert dialogue with the Ayatollah Khomeini to seek to obtain release of American, British, Saudi, and Kuwaiti hostages then being held in Lebanon. We made a number of trips to London, where Muhammad spoke with the Ayatollah Khomeini once by phone. We were scheduled to go to Tehran to meet with Khomeini, but at the last minute word came down from Tehran that we should go to Beirut instead. During the height of the Lebanese Civil War, open season on Americans, we met with the political director and deputy chief of Hizballah in a safe house in West Beirut in the middle of the night. As the result of Muhammad's efforts, one American hostage was released. His name was Jeremy Levin. When he arrived in Damascus he announced that he had escaped. For all I know, he may have believed that. The version of the story the Western media picked up was that he had indeed escaped. Meanwhile, various Arab media reported the truth, which was that Levin had been released as a gesture of good faith to their American Muslim brother, Muhammad Ali.

Q: We've seen videotape footage of you in an audience in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1987, listening to Ali giving a speech. You're sitting behind a young Arab fellow by the name of Osama bin Laden. How did that come to pass?

A:
I went all over Pakistan with Muhammad - Karachi, Lahore, the Sindh, the Punjab, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, and Peshawar. On the day we arrived in Peshawar, we drove up to the Khyber Pass to meet with the council of elders of the mujahideen, the Afghan resistance, who, just across the border, were fighting the Soviet invaders trying to hang on in Afghanistan. From there, we drove back down into Peshawar, to a rickety old auditorium where Muhammad spoke to a polite crowd of a few hundred Muslims. I sat on a bench in the back, and two rows in front of me sat a nice-looking young fellow in a white crocheted skullcap. He stood out because he was one of the few Arabs in the audience-though I didn't pay much attention to him at the time. But I do now when I watch videotape of that speech. There he sits, Osama bin Laden, listening politely, not more than eight feet in front of me.

Q: How did you happen to hand-feed the most dangerous man in the world?

A:
At the time, I didn't know that Dawood Ibrahim, who has since been officially declared an international terrorist by the United States government, was the most dangerous man in the world. That's a label he has been given quite recently. When I met him in 1989, all I knew about Dawood was that he was a smiling, young Indian who lived in Dubai and had come to New York as a guest of some Indian guests of my stepfather-in-law, Adnan Khashoggi. Adnan was under house arrest in his enormous apartment, the largest private residence in Manhattan, while awaiting trial along with Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos on federal charges brought by Rudy Giuliani. As a token of respect, and in commiseration for Adnan's plight, Dawood presented him with a check for $1 million dollars, drawn on a bank in Dubai. Adnan found that quite charming, but his son, Mohamed, said, "Wait a minute! Has anyone checked this guy out? Just who the hell is he?" Mohamed had a point. So, while certain members of Adnan's staff were assigned to find out just who the hell Dawood Ibrahim was, I was assigned to entertain him. I took him to Tse Yang and hand-fed him minced squab wrapped in a lettuce leaf. I took him and his crew to Au Bar and plied them with cognac. Meanwhile, upon request for a reference, the chairman of the bank on which Dawood's check was drawn wrote, "Not only is Mr. Dawood Ibrahim our biggest customer, but this bank could not survive without his business." Then Miles Copeland called from England to report that Dawood Ibrahim was the head of the Indian mafia, India's most wanted man, and had been allowed into the U.S. because he could be particularly helpful in funneling money to the mujahideen. "Get to know him, Larry," Miles said. When I rode with Dawood in a limo to JFK airport, he said, "Now you are my brother. So you must call me if ever you need anything." I said I would, but I haven't spoken with him since then. That was January 1990. In the last couple of years, I've learned that Dawood has moved from Dubai to Pakistan, has become closely linked with Osama bin Laden, and is allegedly bin Laden's main conduit for transportation of money, weapons, and covert operatives between Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Dubai, and Europe.

Q: You consider Nicaraguan Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega your friend. Yet you spied on him and betrayed his trust. How does that make you feel?

A:
From the beginning, I loved Daniel. He's a hero to his people, a warrior poet, and a Nicaraguan patriot who doesn't happen to believe that small Central American countries should be required to do whatever the giant United States of America has told them to do. I met him in Brazil, while he was president, and he invited some friends of mine and me to his home in Managua during the tensest negotiations ever between the Sandinista government and the U.S. We went, and I did what spies do - I betrayed the trust of someone who had confided in me. I felt both elated and sick. To protect my friend Daniel, I considered holding back at least some of what I'd learned. But, in the end, I decided that I couldn't. I am, first, an American. So I gave up Daniel for my country, for my father's country.

Q: What are the three most important things one needs to have in order to be a successful spy?

A:
Access, access, access. Early on, Miles Copeland made it very clear to me that the most important qualities of an espionage agent are not, as novels might suggest, anonymity, or the ability to remain cool under pressure. Miles taught me that only one quality is essential in a spy - access to the target.

Copyright 2004 Larry J. Kolb. All Rights Reserved.