Camera pans an imposing star shaped building, revealing the odd broken window, and weeds growing up through the forecourt. A vandalised sign, missing letters, reads “ur ommission”. Camera pans to a handsome man in his early 40s. The accent is American.
“Ten years ago, this building, housing a body called the European Commission, was one of the most important places in Europe, possibly in the western world. It was here, in sleepy Belgium, now one of the world’s backwaters, that American, Japanese, German and even Chinese businessmen would pay attention to see what consumer protection regulations would have to be met to permit their products be sold to European citizens in Greece, Germany or Galway. It’s hard now to imagine the central committee in Beijing, or tycoons and industrialists in Mumbai caring what Europeans actually think about anything, but there was once a time when the tiny nations of Europe didn’t pander and grovel to China for economic scraps, but were in fact a mighty combined economic power in their own right.
Indeed, when one looks at Prime Minister Cameron having this week to welcome the Chinese invasion of Taiwan, for fear of losing Chinese investment in Britain, it’s a sorry sign of how far Europe has fallen. So what happened? Read more…
In late 1988 the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested a woman named Winifred Ann Bartowski, who worked in the Pentagon as a personal assistant to the Secretary of the Navy.
Bartowski had the second highest civilian security clearance available, and was arrested after a Soviet defector had revealed that the KGB had an extraordinarily well-placed source in the Navy Department. After months of surveillance, federal agents had determined that Bartowski had in fact been removing classified documents from her office and leaving them at a drop for Soviet agents.
Upon arrest, agents had been surprised to find that not only was Bartowski not upset at her arrest, but was in fact annoyed at the fact that the federal agents did not seem aware that she was operating under FBI instruction. She was even able to present a document purporting to be issued by the Justice Department authorizing her to break her security clearance and provide the secret information.
This was a common tactic of the KGB at the time, to convince ordinary patriotic Americans that they were not working for the Soviet Union but another branch of the US government which was itself testing the security of their department or organisation, or hunting another alleged spy.
Bartowski agreed to be polygraphed, and during her questioning not only convinced agents that she believed she had been working for her own government, but that she had visited a fully functioning FBI office operating in plain sight in Washington DC, where she had been given her mission and even spoken by phone with Vice President Bush who had assured her about spying on her cabinet officer boss and thanked her for her efforts.
This detail greatly alarmed the agents, because a number of them had recently worked on another counter-intelligence case where a suspect in the Department of Energy had given the exact same details. He too claimed that he had been taken to an FBI facility and tasked by federal agents.
On hearing of this, the Deputy Director of the FBI, Charles Farnsworth III, had requested that a special unit be set up to confirm the existence of this fake FBI operation (designated Red Office)and deal with it. Absolute secrecy was paramount, with the bureau being well aware that if the existence of Red Office became known in Washington circles, other agencies would immediately cease cooperation with the bureau on its investigations. Among the agents assigned to Red Office were Richard Anderson and James “Digger” Farroe, two counter-intelligence specialists. Farroe was the most junior agent assigned, straight out of Qunatico, and had been eager to make his mark. As the investigation begun, agents pored over the details given by Bartowski and Thomas Mellor, the Department of Energy employee who had told a similar story, trying to pinpoint from their evidence a possible location. Both had been blindfolded, and both said that they had driven for at least forty five minutes before entering through an underground car park. Both recalled seeing the Capitol from an office window. Agents spent hours poring over aerial shots of the city and searching buildings within line of sight of the Capitol without luck.
Late one night, Farroe decided to try a different track, and worked with Anderson to identify comedians and impressionists in the DC area who did impressions of the Vice President. Both men compiled a list, and proceeded, over the following days, to visit the list in the slim chance of finding the man who had spoken to Bartowski. On the second day, Anderson discovered a struggling part-time comedian named Johnny Seary who included the Vice President in his radio impressions, and who had died the previous day from a hit and run.
A search of Seary’s apartment revealed $4000 in cash hidden, with no clear identity as to its source.
The investigation had run out of ground when a second Department of Energy employee, Steven Parker, contacted the FBI. He produced a document similar to Bartowski’s and reported that he had, by chance, heard a radio station that had hosted Seary replay an old sketch in honour of his passing. Parker immediately recognised the voice, and suddenly had doubts about his secret FBI recruitment. Speaking to Farroe, his story was almost identical to the first too, save for one detail. On his blindfolded trip to the Red Office, he recalled the vehicle stopping and the loud cutting of an electric saw into wood. He also remembered flashing lights so bright that they penetrated his mask.
Farroe wondered as to whether this had indicated a tree that had fallen on a main road and was being removed by emergency services, and using the date given by Parker, proceeded to question both the DC Police and the Virginia State Police. The VSP came back quickly, confirming that a number of trees had been brought down on a road leading from Washington DC to Harrisonburg.
Farroe, not willing to wait for his partner, proceeded to visit the road, coming across a facility protected by unidentified security officers. On identifying himself as a federal agent, the security guards detained Farroe at gunpoint.
When Anderson, searching for his partner, visited the facility, he was shocked to find a large warehouse with an underground car park that housed a de facto movie set of an FBI office with false windows and lighting. Farroe was unconscious but unharmed, which the FBI later attributed to an unwritten rule that neither the US nor USSR kill each other’s operatives.
The FBI were never able to determine how long the Red Office operation had been active, nor how many agents it had recruited. The facility had been forensically cleaned, denying the FBI even the fingerprints of possible visitors.
Three weeks later, White House FBI liaison Paul Harris, who had been briefed by Farnsworth, resigned quietly, after he realised, studying photos of the facility, that he himself had been a Red Office operative, and had inadvertently tipped off the KGB to both the search for the Bush impressionist and Special Agent Farroe’s search of Virginia. Harris only revealed this fact on his death bed in 1994.
He also revealed that he had been ordered to direct the FBI towards a CIA operative named Brian Kelley who was believed to be a KGB spy but was in fact totally innocent. It later emerged that the Kelley operation had been created as a deliberate distraction to protect the KGB asset in the FBI Robert Hanssen, who was uncovered in 2001.
The Greatest American Hero ran for three seasons (1981-1983) and is mostly remembered for its theme tune and special effects which even at the time looked cheap. The concept was of a fairly wimpy do-gooding liberal school teacher (Ralph Hinkley, then Hanley after a guy named Hinkley shot President Reagan) played by William Katt who was given a special suit by aliens which gave him special powers.
He then went and lost the instruction book (Yeah. It even had “Instructions” on the front page in “spacey” writing) and so spent most episodes discovering new things the suit could do, much to the annoyance of his FBI agent mate Bill Maxwell (played by Robert Culp) and that stalwart of 1980s TV, Connie Sellecca. Sellecca, who interestingly was married to that other TV hero of the time, Gil Gerard of Buck Rogers fame, was one of the few women on telly who could give Erin Gray (Wilma in Buck Rogers, she of the shiny lycra) a serious run for her money in the dreams of teenaged boys of the day.
The show was only alright, although one episode set in a hunted house was genuinely creepy. Watching it once again reminds how bad TV actually was in the 1980s, with very dumb formulaic stories and the assumption that the audience couldn’t follow anything too complicated. Hill Street Blues, which debuted at the same time, was about to change all that.
The theme song sung by Joey Scarbury is very catchy though, and apparently Fox are looking to make a new series.
Whilst I do disagree with many of the anti-water tax protesters (not all of them, mind) I do have great sympathy with one point they make. When Irish politicians of almost any political persuasion make a promise, it’s very hard to take it to the bank.
I have no doubt that there is no party in Dail Eireann that would support privatising Irish Water. But I also know, from my own personal experience, that there is no shortage of Irish political types who, if told by their political bosses to work out a way of doing it without calling it “privatisation” would do it without a single moral qualm. Not only that, but they’d regard themselves as really clever for figuring it out. You’ve met them: they’re the people who say “water charge” every time you say “water tax” as if they can hypnotise you to their view through repetition, and end up coming across as disingenuous tossers.
This is the problem. We talk about the need for political reform, but the biggest reform should be for a politician’s word to actually mean something. Our problem is that our political system is occupied at all levels by people for whom honour means nothing. Who say they won’t go into government with X, and then after the election find some fragment of an excuse to do the exact opposite of what they said they’d do. That’s why so many of us have lost faith in the political system.
Fianna Fail have a policy document on their website which pledges, amongst other things, to stop sitting TDs from being ministers at the same time. It’s an incredibly radical proposal. Yet is there anyone who believes they’ll actually implement it? Of course they won’t, yet it’s their stated policy right there in black and white. This isn’t to single out Fianna Fail: indeed, if recent history has told us anything, Fianna Fail’s problem has not been breaking promises but making outlandish spending promises and keeping them. But it is indicative of how one’s word means nothing in Irish politics. Fine Gael and Labour sabotaged their own stated policy on an elected mayor for Dublin.
It doesn’t have to be like this, nor does it cost money to change. It starts with politicians who are serious not about their promises but the reality of what they can actually deliver in office.
Honour should not be a fool’s word in Irish politics. Honour matters.
“The ordinary people” is a phrase that has been hi-jacked by every political conman and huckster since Roman times. He falsely claims to speaks for them, and gains his legitimacy through them, and therefore if you are against him, you’re an enemy of the ordinary people.
We’ve seen this fraud appear on our streets in recent days, on-the-make politicians whipping up mobs into emotional hysteria and then letting them loose. Paisley was a big man for this sort of thing, stirring up the red mist and then walking away if anyone ever got killed.
Now we have a type of politician who sees democratic elections and parliament as a mere tool that they’ll use when it suits, and discard when not. They’ll claim to be nationalists or socialists. They’re big on using the courts to defend their own rights, but will set up their own courts if it’s one of their number accused of rape. They’ll scream “human rights” if Gardai prevent them from going anywhere, but will arbitrarily detain Irish citizens who happen to hold government office. They’ll demand you pay more tax, but declare that they don’t have to pay their taxes if it doesn’t suit them, whether on water or illegal cigarettes or diesel. They’ll justify physical assaults on other citizens as acts of frustration, but if a young Garda defends herself it’s the state crushing opposition.
Fascism is a word that’s casually bandied around, and mostly with a racial connotation. But that’s just one form of fascism. Another form is a group of self-appointed demagogues who have won some votes and now decide to impose their will upon the majority, by a mixture of elections, intimidation and cherry-picking of which parts of a democratic society suit them and which don’t.
In recent years, all across Europe, we’ve seen these people use the frustrations of people to build a political movement founded on intimidation and fear and a belief that the law is not what the courts or parliament says it is, but what they decide in their back rooms.
They’ve finally on Irish streets. It’s time for democrats to suit up.
She doesn’t like paying higher taxes any more than anyone else, or having her public services cut. But she’s rational, and calm, and irritated by the emotional hysteria that seems to pass for debate in modern politics. She hates the masochistic delight that some wallow in over The Banks, like the Vikings and the Brits and the potatoes before them, something out of our control to point a finger at and wail and scream at and blame for our shortcomings.
She knows that every extra euro somebody wants spent on Special Needs Assistants or A&E has to come from somebody else’s pocket, and that’s not right wing or Thatcherite, that’s just sums. As it happens, she is quite left wing on social spending, and that’s why she quietly fills in her standing order to various charities, but that costs money too. But she makes that sacrifice because she knows that things cost money and how strongly you feel about something doesn’t change the basic maths.
That’s why, if she could, she’d vote for the Troika. For calm rational technocrats who look at spreadsheets and tell you what you can afford and can’t. Sure, if you want to increase education spending by X, then you have to increase taxes by Y.
She can’t watch politicians anymore, with their time-eating pre-packaged inoffensive “hard working families” and “investment” and “resources” and basic refusal to tell voters that no, you can’t have your cake and eat someone else’s cake too. Don’t get her started on the angry hateful faces “in the audience”, the witchcraft denouncers of the modern age, wrapping their consumer fuelled frustrations with their own lives into a tight ball of bile and directing it at the cowering, stuttering spineless half-men of Irish politics who just sit and take it like scolded dogs. She watches the cyclical nature of Irish politics getting shorter, with opposition parties making promises that have to be broken sooner and sooner in office.
She thinks she’s alone in her anger, and she’s not. The problem is that there’s a groupthink, where 30% of big-mouths get to tell the rest of us that this is a terrible country (it isn’t) and nothing works (it does)and the health service is Third World (no, it isn’t) and all politicians are corrupt (no, they’re not) and we go along with their image of the country. She knows this is a country with problems but also a country with great strengths.
Is it so unreasonable for her to look for a candidate that doesn’t dress up what they want to do, that gives a cold credible analysis of what they will do in office? Who doesn’t build a campaign on subliminal promises that are so nebulous that they’ll never be met because we can’t measure them. Is it really that unreasonable to look for that?
There’s a common theme in many science fiction stories of humanity making great sacrifices to ensure the survival of the species. One of the most prevalent features of such stories is the creation of a vessel or bunker to ensure that a group of highly skilled humans survive whatever the imminent catastrophe is. As stories go they’re wonderful tales of Man at his most noble, sacrificing himself so that the great idea of humanity itself can survive.
It’s all, of course, absolute bollocks. The reality is that humanity would be incapable of dealing with such a situation. Supposing, say, the US Government announced that it had detected a massive unstoppable asteroid heading towards Earth. The right would deny the science and announce that it was just a socialist plot to raise taxes to build a space ark. The left would say it was a conspiracy by the military-industrial complex to divert money from social spending. Iran would blame the Jews. Someone would blame the gays, and so on.
Even if both sides did finally agree that the destruction of Earth was imminent, picture the blazing rows of how we’d choose who was to go in the space ark. The fights over sex, religion, colour, gender, transgender and that’s before Russia and China’s best and brightest nominees just happen to be from the most powerful families in their respective lands. In the west we’d have endless debates. Why should those fancy scientists get all the seats, the vox pops will say? Why are we sending a load of nerds into space and not J-Lo? Why not a TV show where the public and minor celebrities can compete for seats? I’m A Celeb Get Me Off This Doomed Rock? Picture the reaction of Americans and Europeans when they see a crew that resembles humanity, made up mostly of Asians and Africans.
Space ark? We’d have annihilated ourselves in the war over places on board way before the asteroid ever reached us.
Today, in the US, large numbers of conservatives believe they’re entitled to a version of science which matches their political prejudices. In Europe large numbers of left-wing voters believe they can vote themselves early retirement and better pensions and a welfare state without confronting the ugly right-wing reality of how to pay for it. In Ireland, some voters are getting indignant at the idea of paying for water. This is the age where feeling strongly about something is, for many, as legitimate as the rational facts.
Consider climate change: even amongst those people who do accept the science, there’s a reluctance to actually support measures that could prevent further change but would involve anything but the most minor changes to our consumerist lifestyles. We’re not talking about separating paper from plastic here, and we’re doing ourselves no favours pretending it is that easy. If we are genuinely serious about the changes needed to prevent further environmental damage to the planet, we are talking about massive restriction on private car ownership and air travel along with huge reductions in food and consumer product to save the planet for PEOPLE WHO HAVE NOT BEEN BORN YET. This from a society that bitches when petrol prices increase? From a society that objects to mandatory pensions for people who will actually need those pensions in their own lifetime?
Forget it. It isn’t going to happen. Mankind has crossed over the tipping point where emotion and consumer desire triumphs rational analysis. You reading this will probably not see the end of life on this planet. But your grandchildren might.
But that’s not even the scary bit. The scary bit is what I call the Stalin factor. It’s that awkward bit of history we don’t talk about. The fact that in order to destroy Nazism we needed a monster like Stalin willing to brutally command and sacrifice millions of Russians. If Stalin had been a nice liberal democrat Russia would have been defeated by Hitler. Awkward, I know, but probably true.
When humanity faces a life ending event, it won’t be the consensus building Obamas or Merkels or Camerons that will seize power and do what needs to be done, but some monster who will sacrifice millions to save the rest of us. Who’ll bomb the countries that refuse to reduce their CO2 emissions. Who’ll use directed, possibly forced labour and penal taxation to build the vast sea walls to protect us from the rising waters. Who’ll jail the protestors who oppose new nuclear plants and gas pipes and wind farms and vast solar arrays blighting our landscape or try to defend their right to own a family car. Who’ll put on trial the people who secretly try to keep cattle or pigs or even private farmland. Who’ll occupy Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Iran and Kuwait to secure control of the deadly substance destroying humanity. Who’ll nationalise oil and energy companies and force them to develop new technologies and execute the board members and stockholders who try to protect their wealth.
The reality, the awful grim reality, is that when the chips are down it’ll be up to some absolute bastard to save humanity.
I was asked during the week if I could speak from The Late Late Show audience in favour of water charges. As it happened, I couldn’t, as I had a prior commitment. But to be honest, if I was free, I’m not sure I would have agreed anyway. Fair play to the RTE researcher who was diligently trying to get some pro-water charge voices into the audience for balance, but the bear-pit format of RTE audience debates on political issues is so awful that I avoid them. It’s not just RTE either. I’ve been elsewhere, and there’s an over-emotional sound-bite culture that drives the format now. No room to make longer points, or actually debate comments from others, and an obsession with getting “as many voices” into the debate, which favours 15 tiny slivers of opinion over say, 4 people discussing an issue. When you’re in the studio, you can see the “Be short, be short!” look of panic in the producer’s eyes, which is understandable. He or she is just doing their job, but it doesn’t help inform anybody. Surely there’s room somewhere in the Irish media for a show with a long discussion and a modest number of participants?
The new polls from Scotland are fascinating, pointing to a Labour meltdown in the next year’s general election. Now, All four of Britain’s main parties look like getting screwed by First Past the Post in different ways, which must be a first. There’s also the possibility of the SNP holding the balance of power, which will be very entertaining. Turns out the Brits may not need Proportional Representation to look like Italy after all. Yet still the Tories won’t concede that FPTP is an electoral system for a different age.
Check out Peter Kellner from Yougov’s Scottish poll analysis here.
The other interesting/milk out of nose from laughing development in UK politics is that the rise of UKIP seems to be making the EU more popular in Britain! UKIP’s repellence towards many voters seems to have made them look at the EU again on the basis of “If these guys are against it, can it be that bad?” Be funny in Nigel Farage turned out to be the man who saved Britain in Europe.
Of course, don’t forget the EU’s ability to be its own worst enemy. Watch how the latest row over EU money causes a sharp drop in support.
My first ebook "The Ministry of Love" is now available from Amazon (Available to US/Ireland here, UK here)