Somewhere, in some Russian town’s darkest alley, not far from an air force, naval, or other military installation or similarly sensitive site, an American intelligence operative is putting his life on the line to glean a piece of information vital to U.S. interests. [I use ‘his’ here to simplify the writing. “Her” would be just as apt and accurate] This field agent has spent years cultivating informants, tapping delicate resources, observing everything from construction projects to troop movements to dinner parties involving state officials and foreign visitors, and military personnel. The agent is probably known to some in the Russian intelligence services, and they would love to find him and either kill him, or make an example of him.
But he is very good at his tradecraft, and, so far, what he has reported over the years has kept the United States military one step ahead of its Russian counterparts. Several presidents have been informed by his observations. The men and women who choose this career path—or who are invited into the black world of intelligence collection—are, on the surface, indistinguishable from your neighbors and friends. Those Americans who choose this murky, risky world are driven by a deep-seated desire to protect the United States, even at great risk not only to themselves and families, but to the reputation and security of the country. For them, failure is never an option; the stakes are far too high.
The agent gathering data on the Russian installation knows that 5,000 miles away, at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, there is a wall of stars dedicated to every fallen agent who placed his or her own life below the lives of all other Americans at home and around the world. It is possible he knew one or more of them. His mission is both personal and patriotic. The altar of freedom is surrounded by such stars.
I happen to know about similar stars to covert heroes. I grew up with a man who, in a clandestine role I learned of only many years after the fact, commanded other men to take on the thankless jobs of spying on our enemies. Seventeen of those men were murdered by the Russians—at that time the Soviets—on September 2, 1958.
Here are the facts:
“On September 2, 1958, a Lockheed C-130A-II-LM (s/n 56-0528), from the 7406th Support Squadron, departed Incirlik Airbase in Turkey on a reconnaissance mission along the Turkish-Armenian border. It was to fly a course parallel to the Soviet frontier, but not approach the border closer than 100 miles. The crew reported passing over Trabzon in Turkey at 25,500 feet and then acknowledged a weather report from Trabzon, but that was the last communication received from the flight. It was later intercepted and shot down by four Soviet MiG-17s 34 miles north-west of Yerevan. The six flight crew were confirmed dead when their remains were repatriated to the United States, but the 11 intelligence-gathering personnel on board have never been acknowledged by Soviet / Russian authorities.”
“I am attacking the target!”
“The target is burning.”
“There’s a hit!”
“The target is burning.”
“Yes, yes, I [am attacking]”
“The target is burning.”
“The tail assembly is falling off the target.”
“Look at him, he will not get away, he is already falling.”
“All the aircrew are on board, aren’t they?” [17 Americans]
“Yes, he is falling. I will finish him off. I will finish him on the run.”
“The target has lost control, it is going down.”
“Aha, you see it. It is falling.”
“Yes, form up, leave for the base.”
Those 17 men—pilots, aircrew, and the eleven intelligence personnel, were my father’s men, his officers, his NCOs, and his enlisted personnel. My dad, Colonel Clifford James Moore, Jr., commander of the 7499th Support Group, under the auspices of which the C-130 operated, was accountable for their lives, even if he wasn’t flying the plane. He was called to Washington within days of the incident. He stood in front of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and when asked who was responsible, my father said, “I am.” He was a West Pointer, and the Academy’s motto “Duty, Honor, Country,” meant everything to him, as did the motto of the 7499th Support Group: “Veritatem Suppeditare” (“To Supply the Truth”).
I have lived for years with the memory of that sacrificial flight and of my father’s lifelong anguish over the deaths of those men at the hands of the Soviet pilots. As a military child growing up on the front lines of the Cold War—living at Ground Zero—I have never forgotten or forgiven the treachery of those Soviet pilots, their controllers, or their government. As far as I am concerned, America has just elected a man who will bring it all back, in spades, because he chooses to: a) snuggle up with Vladimir Putin whose KGB roots are deep; b) nominate a Secretary of State who places profits above patriotism; and c) places no value on the lives and veracity of the men and women of our intelligence services.
The agent in Russia sends his report, which is collected and combined with dozens or hundreds of others. At seven in the morning, a briefing team from Langley arrives at the White House, prepared to give the new president his daily intelligence briefing. They are turned away at the gate. The president has passed along a message of his own: “To hell with them,” he sneered. “I know all I need to know. I don’t need no stinkin’ CIA report.”
It is quite possible that such Trumpian hubris, disrespect, and willful ignorance will lead to one more star on the wall at Langley. And more stars after that.