Personal, Politics, Spies, Travel

Nights Of Living Dangerously – Part 1

October 20, 2013


Life is strange. One minute you’re sitting there, sipping your tea, reading the newspaper (remember newspapers…?), and suddenly a thought occurs to you… “I wonder what soandso’s up to these days…?” Then your mobile rings and it’s soandso on the other end wondering what you’ve been up to.
Coincidence, happenstance, fate, serendipity… synchronicity, if Jung’s your cuppa tea. It happens all the time. But sometimes there’s a subject, an incident, a story that you think has nothing to do with you, that seems completely inconsequential, that keeps resurfacing, over and over, throughout your life; an event that holds no more significance for you than a pocket full of small change. Except that over time, as it resurfaces like a nagging football injury, you start looking for connections, seeking the links. And wondering… what the fuck…?!
This is one of those.
This story covers a twenty year period. It begins outside a truck stop in Northern Ontario in the middle of the night, and ends at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. more than two decades later. And yet for me it really all takes place during the course of a couple of very entertaining evenings in Bangkok. Before I was done I would come face to face with automatic weapons, mercenaries, spies, secrets, a redhead and a handful of the most colourful characters I’ve ever met.
But let’s start where all good stories begin – at the beginning. Time to connect the dots.

§ § §

“You know the day destroys the night,
Night divides the day.
Tried to run, tried to hide.
Break on through to the other side.”
– ‘Break On Through’, The Doors


It’s the middle of the night in sub-zero February, 1982. My friend Steve is sitting at a table in a roadside diner on Highway 102 just outside Thunder Bay, Ontario. His wife is breastfeeding their newborn daughter while he chugs his third cup of blackstrap coffee to try and stay awake.

Steve recently got a job at a new television station in Vancouver. He was moving his family west dragging a U-Haul behind a beat-up old van containing their combined earthly possessions.

The diner was a nondescript eatery of the type you’d find anywhere in North America – likewise the patrons. It was their first stop, other than for pee breaks, since leaving Southern Ontario behind ten hours earlier. They were making good time, considering. Besides, it was nice to not be driving for awhile – to just sit still for half an hour.

The baby was asleep now, and Steve decided to step outside to the parking lot to retrieve a fresh diaper and have a quick smoke.

Realizing he’d left his lighter on the table back inside, he noticed a flatbed semi with U.S. plates, and the driver checking out the ropes and tarps. He had a cigarette dangling from his mouth, so Steve approached and asked for a light.

As the small talk ensued, Steve asked him what he was hauling. “I’d tell ya, but I’d hafta kill ya!” The trucker laughed, thankfully.

Never the introverted type, Steve kept up his side of the conversation and soon discovered they shared a fascination for military aircraft and air shows. Steve’s dad had been a commercial pilot, as had this trucker’s. They seemed to hit it off.

The trucker looked at his watch and said, “Gotta get back on the road. My escort bagged it for the night in Kenora. Gotta meet up before I call it a night. C3’s… gonna wonder where I am…” His voice trailed off.

“What’s C3?” Steve asked innocently, “And why do you have an escort…?”

The trucker looked around, perhaps realizing he may have misspoken. “You work in television, yeah? Are you a reporter…?”

“No – I’m a techie,” Steve said.

The trucker thought for a second. “Come here.” They walked around to the back of the truck and the driver undid a couple of the straps. He pulled back the tarp so Steve could see just the edge of one of the crates securely fastened to the deck.

“I’m not going to say what’s in the boxes. I can’t – even I don’t know,” the trucker said. “I just back the cab up, hitch it up to the trailer, grab my paperwork and hit the road.” He pulled the tarp back down, fastened the ropes and returned to the cab – Steve followed.

“Then I drop it off, collect a cheque – sometimes cash, and head back. Good money, too. Two, sometimes three times as much as I’d make hauling spinach.” Tapping the side of the trailer he said, “These ain’t vegetables.”

The remainder of the conversation unfolded this way: According to Steve, the trucker said he had buddies who did the same thing he did. That’s how you get hired on, he said, you gotta know someone.

One driver said they were transporting nuclear warheads (some crates bore the radioactive symbol). Some said the crates contained freshly printed hundred dollar Franklins. One guy had an accident when he hit a patch of ice in Oklahoma and spilled part of his load. A crate split open. Inside, he said, were packets of old 50s and 20s, wrapped with paper ribbons with the admonishment, ‘DESTROY’ printed on them. Each packet had three large holes punched in it. Old money headed for the incinerator perhaps.

But regardless of the cargo, it seemed there was another sinister element to these surreptitious midnight jaunts.

This particular trip had started in Tennessee and wouldn’t end until late the next night in a place called Mountain Home, Idaho. Oak Ridge, Tennessee is the number one nuclear weapons plant in the United States. Mountain Home, Idaho, was the location of a U.S. Air Force Base and home to a tactical fighter wing and ECM (Electronic Countermeasures) testing.

The trucker said that it wasn’t so much of a secret anymore – governments on both sides of the border allowed it to occur, mostly for security reasons. There’d been news stories, and a couple of truckers had been ‘caught’ with illegal cargo – dangerous, explosive cargo even. Residents of the areas where they were ‘caught’ went to the media. The media reported it and put local aldermen and provincial MPs on the hot seat, and in turn the politicians rattled their well-worn cross-border sabres at the Americans, chastising them for illegally shipping dangerous cargo across sovereign territory. After a few weeks the fuss would die down, and everyone would be back in business.

He said they all travelled at night, skipping past the weigh scales on the highway when time was of the essence, flying along back roads when trying to avoid urban centres.

Simultaneously, again according to what the trucker told Steve, there was, that night, a military convoy being transported by rail under heavy security across the American midwest destined for the same location. The difference between the two was, the train was the decoy… or maybe HE was the decoy, he never knew which and he figured that was the point. There may even have been a third decoy also, according to one of his buddies.

A little courier ‘sleight-of-hand’, the trucker said – did it all the time, always a different route, this time through Canada under diplomatic license – his words. There was an armoured unit only a codeword away via his mobile radio if he ran into any trouble. That unit was in an unmarked van loaded to the gunwales with everything required to ‘take care’ of the situation – again, his words.

This armoured unit was the ‘C3’ the trucker had referred to.

dangerous-courierVersions of C3 do exist – initially the brainchild of the Secret Service (Department of the Treasury) – and they don’t exist only in the United States. They have taken different forms over the years and served many diverse functions. But their prime task is to provide logistical support to the ultimate mission, whatever that may be.

C3 is an alphanumeric acronym which used to stand for ‘Courier Communications and Control‘. Its teams are mobile coordination groups assisting in the transportation and delivery of anything the government deems too ‘hot’ to be handled by the U.S. Postal Service or private courier. Sometimes it’s weapons-grade plutonium travelling from Hanford, Washington to a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility via lead-lined steamer trunks; sometimes coin dies for a new commemorative $20 gold coin hidden in an old valise destined for the U.S. Mint production plant in Denver; sometimes it’s human cargo – a spy or suspected terrorist – being transported from a safe house in New York City to prison in Leavenworth, Kansas (Gitmo is entirely an Army operation).

C3 teams are usually groups of no more than two or three people – retired Secret Service, FBI, CIA and/or U. S. Marshall Service personnel – posing as husband and wife or a small family or just friends on a golfing trip. In their luggage, however, is enough firepower and communications equipment to start a small war. They are the contact point for the person or group surreptitiously transporting the ‘goods’ from point “A” to point “B”. Their job is to remain in contact with the courier and stay one step ahead of them, supplying assistance whenever and wherever necessary and reporting back to headquarters on the progress of the mission. There are several, perhaps hundreds or even thousands of false apartments, houses, offices and warehouses across the United States that serve as contact points for the couriers. The tenants, usually members of the Secret Service, come and go at regular intervals so as not to arouse suspicion. Inside these accommodations is the materiel required to support any and all eventualities that might arise from a covert delivery. False walls hiding weapons and communications equipment, plus money, credit cards and disguises are only the tip of the iceberg.

Sounds like an episode of “Homeland” I realize, but I know of a building in Vancouver that the Combined Law Enforcement Unit (CLEU) used to run that’s now in the hands of CSIS.

The early media reports on 9/11 announced a complete “site lock down” by the CIA immediately following the crashing of the first jet plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. This was before the second plane hit and before anyone had seriously considered the possibility that it was a terrorist act, let alone that the buildings would actually fall. In fact, the main reason was that the CIA had a C3 office in the WTC and they were very concerned that material – everything from secret files to weapons – could be compromised.

During the Reagan administration in the eighties, the President signed an Executive Order allowing the CIA to expand its counter-terrorism activities domestically. Although the activity of domestic spying on Americans is against the law – if you believe the Constitution – the Order remains in effect today. In fact, it has expanded greatly with the creation of the Office of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act as exemplified by the National Security Agency’s ‘warrantless surveillance’ controversy. As part of Reagan’s secret order, the business of C3 was apparently transferred over to the CIA, which administers a multi-agency version of it to this day. Its acronym now meaning ‘Communications, Command and Control’.

I got most of this story verbatim from Steve via a phone call the next night from Brandon, Manitoba – the rest of it when he arrived in Vancouver a few days later.

The World Wide Web as we know it was still many years away back in the Winter of 1982, but online tools for searching public library databases and private information repositories – WAIS, Gopher, and other tools – were available. I had a VUCOM terminal at home hooked up to an old teletype printer for screen dumps and a 300 Baud modem/data telephone combination the size of a Volkswagen. The research I was able to glean using Steve’s information as a starting point filled in the blanks.

I could never be certain whether what I was hearing was just a tall tale made up by Steve to pass the time during a long, cold, arduous trip across the country, or whether part of it was true and he’d embellished the rest just for my benefit.

After a while it all became just another interesting story and life took over once again.

I didn’t give the whole C3 story much thought again until I met Frank almost three years later in a bar on a beach in Thailand. That one little phrase, C3, dropped into the middle of an innocuous conversation over a few bottles of Kloster Beer set in motion the events of a night I will never forget.

End of Part 1 of 4 ~ Continued In Part 2

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