In This Episode
KYIV, UKRAINE, 2019: Patrick flies to Ukraine and witnesses how fully the political message of “Wind of Change” still resonates with fans at a Scorpions show in Kyiv. Plus: what does the CIA say when you come right out and ask about the agency’s connection to the band?
EPISODE 2: YOU CALL IT AN OPERATION, WE CALL IT A PERFORMANCE
Patrick: A quick note before we begin: This series contains some language and topics that may not be suitable for young children.
Patrick: Do you remember that song Wind of Change? Do you remember this one? It goes like this. [Whistles]
[Audio Clip: Andre Woc Singing Wind of Change]
Patrick: Yeah! Do you remember that one?
Patrick: I’m in Kiev. Which, if I’m being honest, I’ve always pronounced Kee-Ev, but recently learned I’ve been saying wrong my whole life. It’s Kiev.
It’s mid-November, and Kiev is all over the news. Back in Washington, the House of Representatives is holding impeachment hearings into efforts by Donald Trump to pressure Ukraine’s President to investigate Joe Biden. Ukraine is trending on Twitter. The President’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, may or may not be in Kiev himself right now, attending to some shady business. If you’re an investigative reporter, this is the biggest story in the world.
But that’s not why I’m here. I’m standing outside the Sports Palace, a big stadium in the center of town that dates back to the period when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. Night has fallen, and I’m out here with a bunch of Ukranians, who are passing around two liter bottles of Pepsi that they’ve spiked with vodka. We’re tailgating before a Scorpions show.
[Audio Clip: Fans from the Concert from Odessa]
Woman: We Like Scorpions very much.
Patrick: You like Scorpions? Your whole life?
Man: From childhood.
Patrick: This is a group of younger fans, they’re in their thirties. They came all the way from Odessa, which they tell me was a ten hour drive.
[Audio Clip: “Odessa We Came From New York”]
Patrick: I see, so you came just for the show?
Patrick: Well we came from New York just for the show.
Man: Cool, you’re really great fans.
Patrick: What songs do you like?
Woman: [singing] You and me…
Man: Wind of Change…
Sergei: (Sings): “Hurricane! Doot doot. Hurricane!”
Patrick: This is Sergei and his friend Yuri, two beefy guys with bleary eyes and shaved heads. They look like bouncers or guys who maybe freelance for the mob but they’re wearing scorpions t-shirts and big smiles, and arguing about the origins of Wind of Change, this song that, according to this story I heard, may have actually been written by the CIA.
Patrick: What did he say?
Roman: He said that Wind of Change, they created that song as far as he remembers because of Soviet Union was about to part and it was like Wind of Change that blows into something…
Patrick: That’s my friend Roman, a Ukranian journalist, who’s translating.
[Audio Clip: Yuri talking about the fall of the Berlin Wall]
Patrick: Berlin Wall. Yeah!
[Audio Clip: Sergei and Yuir break into untranslated argument]
Roman: Now they have an argument because he said it was because of Berlin Wall and he said it was about USSR, it was about fall of USSR.
Patrick: I think it was about both.
[Audio Clip: Sergei speaking in untranslated Ukranian]
Patrick: You can see how, if the CIA did have something to do with Wind of Change, this is exactly the sort of message they would want to celebrate, and encourage. Sergei explains that when he was a school kid back in the 1980s, it was against the rules to have any albums or pictures of western rock bands, because they were considered anti-Soviet. But he brought some pictures of the Scorpions to school.
Roman: And uh he got in trouble with his teacher.
Patrick: Oh, really?
Roman: And his parents we’re –
Sergei: Yes, really, really! [Begins speaking untranslated Ukranian…]
Patrick: This was something I’ve heard from a lot of fans. During the Soviet era, western rock was frowned upon by the state, so it was a little act of defiance, just to listen to a band like the Scorpions. One of the tailgaters, this guy Oleg, tells me: all those years I listened to the Scorpions back when it was dangerous to listen to the Scorpions, I never dreamed one day I’d get to see them play live in Ukraine.
The Scorpions are not young, but like a lot of older bands, they’re still touring. I’ve always been curious about why bands do this or at least bands that don’t need the money, and the Scorpions don’t need the money, they’ve done well over the decades. Why keep going? It’s a punishing way to make a living. But i think this has to be part of the answer: the passion of these fans.
It’s a weird time in Ukraine. The country is at war with Russia. Roman comes from Donbass, in eastern Ukraine, where Russian backed separatists are fighting their own government. On our way to the concert, we walked by Maidan square, where just a few years ago, in 2014, government snipers fired on unarmed protesters. But tonight, the fans aren’t thinking about whatever troubles they may have. Everyone is focused on the show and very excited to be here.
We splurged on something called “golden fan” tickets, which put us right on the floor, front and center, a stone’s throw from the stage. The stadium is heaving. There’s not an empty seat. There’s no opening act tonight. Just the main event.
[Audio Clip: Klaus: Oh yes, good to be back in Ukraine.]
Patrick: And the crowd roars as the music starts and the Scorpions take the stage.
[Audio Clip: First few chords of the concert. Crowd screams.]
Patrick: From Pineapple Street Studios, Crooked Media, and Spotify, This is Wind Of Change. I’m Patrick Radden Keefe. Episode Two. You Call It An Operation. We Call It A Performance.
[Audio Clip: Clip from the Scorpions concert]
Tommy: When I first heard this story, all the sudden I could hear the whistling in the back of my mind and I could see the thousands of people holding their lighters aloft going back and forth. And I was like, yeah, that could’ve happened.
Patrick: Tommy Vietor was President Obama’s top spokesman for national security.
Tommy: That could be the most ingenious Covert Action Campaign in the history of the United States government.
Patrick: He had a security clearance that was higher than top secret and every day, he had to work out what details of secret operations he could divulge to the public. I wanted to ask Tommy who would know about a highly classified operation. Apparently it’s not always as clear as you’d think.
Tommy: One sort of funny example of that is one of the first people to tweet about disclosed talk about Osama bin Laden’s death was Dwayne The Rock Johnson. And I don’t know…
Tommy: …exactly why. Yeah, he tweeted, “Just got word that will shock the world. Land of the free home of the brave. Damn proud to be an American.” All caps. So I don’t know how he figured it out. He did, he tweeted this before the president’s speech.
Patrick: Get out of here.
Tommy: Yeah. Pretty sure he tweeted it before people like me were confirming it on background to reporters. But I, my guess is that he’s got a bunch of friends or acquaintances in the Special Forces community and a whole bunch of them were talking about what happened. I bet a whole lot more people knew about that operation before and after it went down than we thought at the time.
Patrick: It wasn’t like Obama was ready to go out and give his speech and then it’s, “wait what the fuck.”
Tommy: Yeah. No, no, the Rock didn’t preempt him. But it was a cryptic enough tweet that I think you wouldn’t have known what he was talking about until after. But, like, after the revelation people were certainly like how the hell did he know?
Patrick: These days, Tommy has a podcast. He co-hosts Pod Save America and also Pod Save the World and as it happens, he’s one of the producers of this podcast.
So I wanted to talk to him at the start of our investigation, to see if he believed that Wind of Change could have secretly been written by the CIA.
Tommy: It immediately makes you smile and it rings true because as much as the United States tries to project its power through the military and by invading places and bombing things, ultimately, the cultural…the culture and the values of the place has proven to be more powerful. What you’re describing is sort of a classic covert action campaign. It’s a classic covert propaganda effort.
Patrick: It’s also really weird with…with something like a song, right?
Tommy: Yeah I mean it’s a funny question, I’ve been thinking about it a lot, too. It’s like, what does it mean for the CIA to have written this song? It doesn’t necessarily mean that a bunch of nerdy analysts went from pouring over State Department cables and transcripts of, you know, Soviet troop movements and all of a sudden started banging out lyrics. It could mean that they funded, through covert means, some professional songwriter to draft something for them that they later provided to an artist.
Tommy: It’s so fascinating because it does all boil down to whether or not the CIA was sponsoring these, like, covert cultural efforts against the Soviet Union. The Soviets were terrified of Western culture either way. Right? Like it was Bruce Springsteen’s butt on the cover of an album with an American flag behind him and like that was the most American thing on the planet.
Patrick: Do you think we’re gonna figure this out?
Tommy: God I don’t know. It sort of feels like you just got a building full of people that traffic in secrets and have beat into them from the minute they get to the farm that they can never ever disclose them or they are traitors. You would need one person to just say yeah, this happened. Someone who knows. Kind of catch him off guard. Like oh yeah, how’d you know that? And what gives me some confidence that we can figure this out is that it would have happened so long ago. And yeah, it would technically still be classified, but it’s a story of a win. This isn’t some blight on the nation’s history. This would be an example of incredible creativity advancing the U.S. interests. Like wouldn’t you hear a story like that and think, oh wow the CIA is pretty damn impressive. Maybe I’ll consider joining that organization if I’m a college kid.
Patrick: Or an aspiring musician.
Patrick: In a lot of countries, the question of whether or not the government had initiated a covert action campaign to spread a propaganda message by writing a pop song would be the sort of question you could just never answer. Too secret. Not your business. But in the United states, at least in theory, it’s different. We have transparency in this country and accountability. The intelligence agencies work for us. So there’s no reason a decades-old soft power intel operation would need to remain classified. In fact, we have this amazing law in this country which allows any citizen or news organization to go onto the website of the CIA or any other federal agency and file an official request for the answer to that kind of question. You just ask them: Is it true? It takes five minutes. And under the freedom of information act of 1967, they are legally obligated to respond.
[Audio Clip: Rachel Maddow: The State department released 100 pages of documents related to the impeachment inquiry]
[Audio Clip: CNN: New never before seen documents from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Russian interference]
Patrick: You’ve probably seen, Buzzfeed gets secret memos from the Mueller investigation. Or the Washington Post publishes a groundbreaking series that’s basically the Pentagon papers for the war in Afghanistan.
[Audio Clip: Brian Williams: Thousands of pages of government documents that appear to reveal that our government wasn’t always telling us the truth]
Patrick: They got all those documents through this law, the Freedom of Information Act. Which is pretty amazing, right? Well…it’s complicated.
As a journalist, I use FOIA, as we call it, all the time. It really is incredibly easy to file a request. In fact, if you talk to people in government, they’ll tell you it’s too easy. You get some yahoo who stayed up all night on some conspiracy theory subreddit, he can fire off five, ten, fifty requests. There’s no limit on the number you can file. And it doesn’t matter that he’s objectively a crazy person. The government has to respond. But here’s where it gets counterproductive. Because anyone can file a request, you end up with this backlog. And not just your standard, dmv-style government bureaucracy backlog. This is the mother of all backlogs. So you send off your request, and the government will reply that you’ve been placed in a “cue” for processing. And the thing is, unless you’re very resourceful or very lucky, you can wait in that cue for years. These news outlets that actually have some success with FOIA, that’s because they hire lawyers and sue the government, which is really the only way to get what you’re after in this lifetime.
[Audio Clip: Rachel Aaddow: The good government group took the DOJ to court, and that is how these 3000 pages have just been forced out.]
Patrick: If you don’t have a lawyer and you’re not ready to sue, your request might as well be a letter to Santa. You fire it off, you have no idea if anything’s gonna come of it and you wait. But it’s a good initial step, and it does only take five minutes. So when I first heard the Scorpions story from my friend Michael years ago, I wrote to the CIA. “Under the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S. code subsection 552, I am requesting all documents related in whole or in part to direct or indirect contacts between the Central Intelligence Agency and the West German rock and roll band the Scorpions.” I mean, it felt a little ridiculous but I figured why not just ask? And if it took a while to hear back, I had time.
Patrick: In the meantime, I sought out a few old agency hands who I thought might have been in a position to know about such an operation. At a starbucks in Washington D.C., I met a courtly old man named Burt Gerber, who spent thirty-nine years at the agency, running what they called the SE Division, for Soviet and Eastern Europe. Gerber didn’t want to appear on this podcast, but he told me he didn’t believe the story was true. If it was, given his leadership position at the end of the Cold War, he would have known about it and he’d never heard the story.
Gerber seemed nice and very sincere. He signed off all his emails to me with “God Bless America,” exclamation point. I totally believe him. But then I called Michael, my friend who had relayed the story in the first place, and he laughed at me and said, Patrick, this guy spent forty years meeting people like you and charming them, lulling them into a false sense of trust and then lying, brazenly, to their faces.
So I sought out Gerber’s successor as head of SE, this guy Milt Bearden, another legendary spy. Milt didn’t want to be on the podcast either. What is it with these guys? but when I asked him about the Scorpions, he was a little more cryptic. “Careful,” he told me. “That sounds like the kind of story that’s too good to check.”
So Oliver told Michael he heard this story about the Scorpions, heard it from an older guy at the CIA and my friend Phil who was at CIA at the same time as Oliver, thinks it definitely could have happened. But Phil never heard the story himself and he has no way to know for sure. And these two very senior old timey CIA guys are either outright dismissing the idea or, according to Michael, maybe being less than a hundred percent straightforward with me. And I discover this one other tantalizing clue.
[Audio Clip: Klaus interview talking about the CIA]
Patrick: This is an old interview that Klaus did, years ago on German radio. He’s just talking about the band and the history of Wind of Change. And then the interviewer says, “Tell us about the time when you whistled the song for the CIA.”
[Audio Clip: Klaus interview]
Patrick: The band was in Memphis once back in the 1990’s Klaus explains. And he got a call at the hotel where he was staying saying a woman from the CIA was there, and she wanted to see him.
[Audio Clip: Klaus interview]
Patrick: And this woman from the CIA stood at the door, Klaus says, and she asked if I could whistle Wind of Change. So Klaus whistled the song for her and she left.
[Audio Clip: Klaus interview]
Patrick: So this struck me as a pretty interesting story. Then, I got a letter back from the CIA. I’ll read it to you, after this quick break.
[Audio Clip: Patrick opening the letter]
Patrick: “Dear Mister Keefe,” an Information and Privacy Coordinator at the agency, wrote to me. “The mission of the Central Intelligence Agency is primarily concerned with foreign intelligence. The information you request, insofar as we can discern, has nothing to do with the primary mission of this agency, and, therefore, we must decline to process your request.” Insofar as we can discern? Was the CIA being sarcastic with me?
I’ll be honest, this kind of pissed me off. Not so much for the tone but because it was so baldly disingenuous. The CIA has never confined itself to gathering “foreign intelligence.” And I don’t just mean fomenting coups or targeted assassination. I mean more specifically that there’s never been some kind of firewall between the agency and the world of pop culture.
[Audio Clip: Argo movie clip]
Patrick: Remember Argo, the Ben Affleck movie?
[Audio Clip: Man: “You’re telling me there’s a movie company in hollywood that is funded by the CIA?”]
Patrick: It won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2013. That movie’s based on a true story: that during the Iranian Hostage crisis in 1980, the CIA successfully exfiltrated a bunch of hostages under the guise of producing a movie. They posed as directors and producers and had an actual script for this movie they were supposedly going to make, it was a star wars ripoff, and a production office and storyboards and all the trappings of a real hollywood film.
[Audio Clip: Man: “the United States Government has just sanctioned your science fiction movie.]
Patrick: The whole reason the Argo ruse worked is that real Hollywood people were involved, which gave the fake movie credibility. And that would suggest that there’s definitely precedent for this idea that some entertainers have occasionally cooperated, in secret, with the CIA.
So I wrote back, indignantly, to the CIA and pointed out that there’s a long history of the agency dabbling in the cultural sphere. I directed them to this article on the CIA’s own website by Tony Mendez, that’s the guy Ben affleck played in “Argo.”
“I had engaged the services of many consultants in the entertainment industry,” Mendez writes. This was fascinating to me, and seems relevant to the question of whether the agency might have worked with the Scorpions. This idea that the CIA secretly collaborated with people in the arts. In fact, Tony Mendez himself initially joined the CIA as an artist.
Jonna: Back then the ad that he answered was “artist to work overseas for the U.S. Navy.” And he thought, well that sounds interesting.
Patrick: Tony died last year but this is his widow, Jonna Mendez.
Jonna: He could, just whatever was in front of him, he would copy it. He would draw it. It’s perfect for a forger.
Patrick: At the CIA, Tony became an expert in creating fake identification documents from any country, so perfect they would fool an inspector at a border crossing. He also became a master of disguise. That’s where Jonna met him, she’s a retired spy, too.
Jonna: I spent my career at CIA, 27 years. All of it in an office called the Office of Technical Service. So we were the “Q” for CIA.
Patrick: Q as in the gadget inventor from the Bond movies. Her adventures in technical services started when her boss at the time suggested she take a photo class.
Jonna: He said, take some of our courses. I know you like photography.
Patrick: The CIA has photo courses?
Jonna: Our office did. Not with 35 millimeter cameras so much. With proprietary cameras, proprietary film.
Patrick: She signed on for a photo course called “Airborne Platforms,” which, honestly, just seeing that title would have given me pause. First day of class, she was directed to an airfield outside the city.
Jonna: And I went down and they had a little twin engine plane. A little one. There was a guy on a ladder with a paint bucket and the brush. He’s painting out the tail number.
Patrick: He was painting out the tail number so if anyone spotted the plane, they couldn’t trace it back to the CIA.
Jonna: They had a harness in the back and a headphone. And they gave me a 35 millimeter camera with a thousand millimeter lens, which is a long, heavy camera. And we,we spent a day flying around.
Jonna: Shooting license plates and radar sites.
Patrick: The first day of this course, they put you up in a plane? With a, sticking a camera out the window and –
Jonna: Not out, there was no window. There was just open sides, they had removed.
Patrick: Were you not terrified?
Jonna: Oh, God, no.
Patrick: I’m terrified just listening to you.
Jonna: That’s so fun. That’s one of the best days. That’s like being on a roller coaster. All day long. One point I said low, how low can we go? And we were, we were by water. That’s why I asked. We were by the Chesapeake Bay. He said, I’ll show you. And we’re just skimming across water. I felt like you could touch it.
Patrick: So Jonna became a Photo Operations Officer.
Jonna: I was working in photo labs across the street from State Department. I had no idea that John Ford had set up those photo labs right at the Second World War. Those were his labs. He was the one who put them in place. And –
Patrick: John Ford the filmmaker.
Jonna: Yeah, and pulled in all his buddies, photographers from, uh, from Hollywood to do some work.
Patrick: I didn’t know that.
Jonna: I didn’t know that.
Patrick: She worked with a secret guild of craftspeople. Artisans who created classified gadgets for the CIA.
Jonna: And my cameras when I was out and about running around the world were little tiny cameras. They’re called tropel. Very small cameras. You could put them in a lipstick. In a cig lighter. You could put them in a fountain pen like a Montblanc. The cigarette lighter would still light a cigarette and we could still smoke back then. They were active concealment devices.
Patrick: Can I ask –
Jonna: Which means they all worked.
Patrick: I hear you talking and I think, how did you recruit the kinds of people who could design and make these things? Like today, those people would be working at Apple or maybe not. Maybe they’re working at the agency today.
Jonna: No, it was. Really-
Patrick: How did you find them?
Jonna: My husband was picked as a trailblazer, one of the 50 top CIA officers in its first 50 years. There was another man that was picked. His name was Paul Howe. He designed that tiny camera. There was an eight element lens in there. It was just, it was excruciatingly precise. We only had one man who made them and he handmade each camera. And so we decided we needed more. We couldn’t do a single source thing. We needed another production run of these cameras. So we went to all the major optical companies in the United States and we took them our camera. We said, can you build us some of these? And they all said, that’s not possible. There was never, there was never another source for those cameras. Just one guy. You knew people were risking their lives to take these pictures.
Jonna: And the last thing you wanted to do was, was, you know, somehow have a jam up and have them take that risk for no reason.
Patrick: When Jonna talks about her career, you can feel this tension between the pride she clearly feels and her desire to share these wild stories, on the one hand, and her sense that she still needs to police what she says, on the other.
Jonna: I went to, um…this is off the record?
Jonna: To *beep* Now we’re back on the record. I was, I was called up there from where I was living, which was – off the record, *beep* – back on the record. And it was an emergency. And I went up with my boss and my boss said, this is a photo operation. Bring your cameras. So I did. And he got up there and my boss was an idiot. Keep that on the record. He just, he just died. That’s off the record.
Patrick: She let us keep that last part. Eventually she ended up working with her husband, Tony, and specializing in disguise.
[Audio Clip: Mission Impossible]
Patrick: That’s the old tv show “Mission Impossible,” which premiered in 1966 and eventually spawned the tom cruise movies. one of the show’s signatures was that the spies would often disguise themselves in these ingenious, hyper realistic latex masks. It was always a big showstopper moment, when they peeled the masks off, like a second skin. The show aired Sunday nights, on CBS and everybody watched it, including the CIA.
Jonna: And then we’d get phone calls from their own officers saying, “I just saw this thing on Mission Impossible and I’m wondering, have we tried that? Can we do that?
Patrick: It’s fascinating, because I think so often we tend to think that it’s like Hollywood watching the spies and sort of imitating or doing what they think the spies are doing. It was amazing to me to think that you’d actually have a situation in which the agency is watching Hollywood.
Patrick: And this was how Tony Mendez became friends with the Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers.
[Audio Clip: Argo: John Goodman: You can’t build cover stories around a movie that doesn’t exist. You need a script. You need a producer.]
Patrick: That’s John Goodman playing chambers in “Argo.”
Jonna: He was kind of the old man of Hollywood-
Patrick: He did Planet of the Apes right?
Jonna: Planet of the Apes was what he really made his mark. He has a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Tony said that he was one of the few geniuses he thought that he ever met was John Chambers.
Patrick: I’m fascinated by the idea of somebody who’s out there and exists in Hollywood and they have a career and they’re doing what they do and then at a certain point, they get tapped on the shoulder by somebody who says, hey, could you help us out? But I just wonder if there’s anything you know or any insight you can shed into that and like what those relationships would look like, because this is not a, this is not an agent on foreign soil.
Patrick: He’s here in the U.S., but he’s helping out, it sounds like, for years and years.
Jonna: We’d say, you have, you have some skills that we’re very interested in and we’d like to know if you’d like to help your government and work with us. And clearly, he said yes. And the next step would be that our contracts, people would go out and present him with a classified contract. Chambers couldn’t tell people and we certainly couldn’t tell people that John Chambers was working for us.
Jonna: So you have this understanding, you have this, this, this classified relationship for years.
Patrick: In Hollywood, Chambers had hours to make up an actor but the agency’s needs were different.
Jonna: What we needed was something basically that you could put on in a parked car in a dark garage, and that you could step out the door and you knew that it was… perfect.
Patrick: For years, Chambers and Tony worked closely together. Sometimes, Tony would go hang around film sets in LA and Chambers would introduce him around, saying he was an old Army buddy.
Jonna: Most of this, this extreme stuff, we did for Moscow. Because Moscow was so difficult for us to work there. We didn’t need masks in, I don’t want to name a country, it’ll offend them. In Western Europe, we didn’t need-
Patrick: I love that they would be offended by you saying that you didn’t need masks there. What a burn!
Joann: Western Europe wasn’t just mothering us with surveillance. Surveillance was there. Moscow was just smothering us.
Patrick: With Chambers’ help, the CIA got so good at making masks that when George H.W. Bush was president, and Jonna once went to the oval office to brief him, while completely disguised in a mask. Before his time in the White House, Bush had done a stint as Director of Central Intelligence.
Jonna: That’s why it was so much fun. I had pictures of him in disguise that I brought. I said, I’m the new Chief of Disguise. And you might remember yourself in this wig. And, you know, this is what we were doing.
Patrick: When did he wear disguises?
Jonna: When he was head of CIA for some meetings that he had overseas. Yeah.
Patrick: So you reminded him?
Jonna:I did. I said, well, we’ve improved. We’re a little better than we used to be.
Jonna: And I’m here to show you the latest, the latest disguise. He said, where is it? I said I’m wearing it. So I did the Tom Cruise thing.
Patrick: You peeled the latex off?
Jonna: [And I’m holding it in the air. And he’s, he’s loving it. And the White House photographers…
Patrick: Is there a wig, too?
Patrick: So it’s a face and a wig.
Patrick: So you’re holding up, it looks like you’ve just beheaded yourself, basically.
Jonna: It does.
Patrick: A White House Photographer captured the moment, but when Jonna wanted a copy of the picture, they couldn’t give her one. It took her ten years to get that photo. The mask technology was so cutting edge, even a snapshot of it was classified.
Patrick: And I would imagine the state of the art has improved to a point where it’s, it’s okay that the picture’s out there.
Jonna: I don’t know where it’s at. What I know is that they are allowing me to talk about masks. All the years I’ve been gone, I never have talked about masks until the last, the last two years.
Patrick: So something changed.
Jonna: Something changed.
Patrick: But you don’t know what.
Jonna: I know that they’re not doing exactly what I was talking about because they wouldn’t let me talk about it if they were.
Patrick: So is that a good rule of thumb, that, that one reason why you would prevent people from talking about things, even if they happened decades ago, is that some aspect of it might still be in play?
Jonna: It’s called sources and methods. And you protect them.
Patrick: Sources and methods: the two categories of things that the CIA always keeps classified.
Jonna: You know, the story of Argo was, uh, was George Tenet’s idea.
Patrick: Tenet was CIA Director when the story was declassified.
Jonna: To put out one good story, just one. He said all they ever hear about are the things that go wrong and it’s true. Those are the interesting stories and they’re the ones that find their way into the headlines, but nobody ever publishes a story that’s just a good news story. Like, look what we did. So George Tenet said, let’s tell ’em one.
Patrick: That started with the director of the CIA.
Jonna: Absolutely. Absolutely. That was George Tenet. And my husband, Tony Mendez initially said no.
Jonna: Tony was never going to tell that story. That’s classified, sir. Tenet said, not anymore it’s not.
Patrick: When you put it like that, it makes me think, are there a hundred other stories like Argo that we just don’t know about?
Jonna: There are other stories that the American public would, would love to know. But there is no need for them to know them.
Patrick: It wasn’t just makeup artists Jonna got to know. She sought out magicians, too. If professional illusionists could devise a way to trick the human eye and make a person disappear, well, in Cold War Moscow, a city crawling with KGB surveillance, that was the sort of skill the CIA wanted to learn.
Jonna told me about one magician she got to know, a guy in LA who ended up doing work for the agency. And he made the case to her that entertainment and espionage are really not so different. “You call it an operation,” he said, “we call it a performance.”
Patrick: I guess what I’m wondering is about like other cultural areas, like we heard a story about the CIA writing a song.
Jonna: Writing a song?
Jonna: Did they sell many copies? I mean, was it –
Jonna: Did they?
Jonna: It’s possible. There’s the Doctor Zhivago story
Patrick: So you, but you never heard of music?
Jonna: I have not. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t.
Patrick: The story with the song came to us from somebody who was an agency person who had heard it from an older generation agency person. But then we’ve talked to other people who are like that couldn’t possibly be true.
Jonna: What song are they talking about? Does it have a name?
Patrick: So there was a song – it does have a name. So there was a song at the end at the very end of the Cold War. There was a band, a West German rock band called the Scorpions. Doesn’t mean anything to you? See, I feel like you would have heard the story. So the Scorpions had a song that they came out right, right around the time the Berlin Wall fell called Wind of Change, which is not a famous song in the United States, but it’s one of the biggest rock songs ever in Europe and was hugely popular with young people in the Soviet Union and is all about how change is coming.
Jonna: Winds of change.
Patrick: Wind of change. You don’t know the song?
Henry: Do you want me to play it for you?
Patrick: That’s my producer, Henry Molofsky, offering to play her the song.
[Audio Clip: Henry playing Wind of Change]
Henry: You don’t know the song?
Jonna: I might. It’s not ringing a bell.
Jonna: It’s nice.
Patrick: It’s nice, right?
Patrick: Jonna Mendez seemed much less skeptical of the idea that this story could be true than Bert Gerber or Milt Bearden had been.
Patrick: So Bert Gerber, who I talked to, said didn’t happen. Not true. If it was true, I would’ve known about it.
Jonna: He wouldn’t have known that.
Patrick: He wouldn’t have known about it? Why not?
Jonna: Because he’s such a nerd. He wouldn’t know. He wouldn’t know.
Patrick: And in a world where the agency routinely works, behind the scenes, with people in the cultural sphere, like makeup artists or magicians, it seems much more plausible that they could have enlisted a songwriter. As we said goodbye, Jonna had a mischievous grin on her face.
Jonna: Well, I like to think that it’s true. I think, you know, I’m not going to spread it. But I think I’m just going to kind of carry it around thinking we wrote a song. I hope we did.
Patrick: Back at the sports palace in Kiev, the scorpions put on a genuinely good show. These guys are old. They’re my parents age but they’re still rocking pretty hard. Klaus Meine, up close, is an elfin little man. He prances around the stage like a leprechaun belting out the lyrics. The crowd knows every song and they’re going nuts.
Before we get any further, I should confess that I’m not a huge metal fan, never have been. And while I can appreciate the campy aspect of what the Scorpions are doing, it’s…campy.
So I showed up at the concert ready to enjoy it, but to enjoy it in a somewhat ironic fashion. And it was easy to maintain that distance through the laser show and the huge projection of CGI lightning bolts and half naked women writhing robotically and one kind of ridiculous song after another, from “Big City Nights” to “Going Out With a Bang.”
[Audio Clip: Klaus: Come on Make Some Noise Kiev!]
Patrick: But then…
[Audio Clip: Klaus: For this next song, after all these years, more than anything this song remains a song of hope. This is Wind of Change.]
Patrick: And the thousands of fans around me, Ukranians of all ages, older people who remembered the song when it came out and younger people who learned from their parents, they raised their cell phones in the air and we all seemed to sway together.
[Audio Clip: Patrick cheering]
Patrick: You hear that? That yelp of blind enthusiasm. That was me.
I mean, everybody in the place was singing. People were smiling. People had tears in their eyes. This song felt so different from all the others. And there were moments where Klaus would stop singing himself and just hold his mic stand out to the crowd.
[Audio Clip: Crowd singing with Klaus]
Patrick: It occurred to me that for Ukranians, this song about the collapse of the Soviet Union may not feel anachronistic at all. They’re fighting a war with Russia, a war in which Vladimir Putin is trying to take back Ukraine, to reconstitute some of the old USSR, to unwind, in real time, the changes that “Wind of Change” is all about.
[Audio Clip: Klaus: Come on Kiev! Come on! We love you Kiev!”]
Patrick: In march 1968, a Soviet nuclear missile submarine, the K-129, was patrolling the Pacific when it suddenly vanished. Unable to reach the sub, Russia launched a huge search and rescue effort, sending out boats and planes to try and recover the vessel. They weren’t able to find it. But the US navy, tipped off by this commotion, realized the Russians must have lost a nuclear submarine, so Navy technicians set out to find the sub themselves. They managed to locate the submarine, three miles beneath the surface, on the ocean floor. It had sunk, for reasons that have never been determined, with ninety-eight crew members on board.
So now the CIA realized that the US government knew where the sub was, and better yet, the KGB didn’t know that they knew. If the agency could recover the vessel, it would be an intelligence bonanza. But how would you get it? To recover a sunken submarine from the bottom of the ocean would be a fiendish engineering problem and even assuming you could do it, how do you do it without the Soviets realizing?
Part of the reason the Argo operation worked was that it was the very opposite of discreet. Who would believe that opening a Hollywood production office and holding a press conference and taking out ads in the trades was a cover for a secret exfiltration? The whole thing screams look at me. But it was sleight of hand, like the magician taught Jonna Mendez. You call it an operation, we call it a performance. To recover the K-129 in total secrecy, the agency employed a similar gambit, turning to one of the most famous men on the planet, the film director, aviation magnate and notoriously eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.
Hughes announced that he was going to build a massive ship in order to mine precious minerals on the ocean floor. The ship would be called the Hughes Glomar Explorer, with Glomar being short for “Global Marine.” With this cover, Hughes and the agency proceeded to spend five hundred million dollars constructing a vessel large enough to hide a salvaged nuclear submarine in a special cavity in its belly. When the Glomar sailed, in 1974, to the spot in the pacific where the K-129 had sunk, the Soviets knew the ship was there. But they figured that was just crazy ole Howard Hughes, being Howard Hughes. The hatch in the bottom of the ship opened and a giant claw descended on a cable down, down, until it reached the fallen submarine three miles below.
The submarine had broken in two, but the claw latched onto the part that the CIA was most interested in and started pulling it up, then, before it got to the Glomar, the piece the claw was holding broke in two, and part of it fell back to the ocean floor. The crew of the Glomar did manage to retrieve the other part of the submarine and the ship returned to the United States, with Russia none the wiser.
Before long, though, the U.S. Press Corps began to hear stories about this crazy operation, and to ask questions about the Soviet sub. How much of it had been recovered? Was there useful intelligence inside? There was this law, which was still relatively new at the time, the Freedom of Information Act, and it put the CIA in the awkward position of having to respond.
They didn’t want to say a thing about this sensitive mission, but because the country had just gone through Watergate, they didn’t want to lie, either. So the agency devised a devilish bit of dissimulation. When they were asked questions about the expedition, they responded, “we can neither confirm nor deny.”
And so a phrase was born. The case was litigated, as you’d imagine, with press organizations arguing that the public had a right to know more about the operation. But the CIA ended up prevailing in the courts and in the decades since, the so-called “Glomar” response has become a standard, evasive reaction to freedom of information requests that the agency would prefer not to answer. Watchdog groups talk about the “glomarization” of FOIA. Journalists use it as a verb: I got ‘Glomared.’
After I wrote my second letter to the cia, spelling out the agency’s activities in the cultural sphere and insisting they produce any records about the relationship with the Scorpions, i got a response:
“The fact of the existence or nonexistence of requested records is currently and properly classified,” they wrote, saying that the very question of whether or not records relating to the scorpions exist constitutes “intelligence sources and methods information that is protected from disclosure. This is a final response,” the letter said. “The CIA can neither confirm nor deny.” They glomared me!
Patrick: Wind of Change is an Original Series from Pineapple Street Studios, Crooked Media and Spotify. The show is written and hosted by me, Patrick Radden Keefe. The Senior Producer is Henry Molofsky. Associate Producers: Natalie Brennan and Ben Phelan. Joel Lovell is our editor. Consulting producer Michael Shtender Auerbach. Original music by Mark Orton and John Hancock. Our music supervisor is Jonathan Feingold. This episode featured “Saint European King Days” by Opium Flirt. The Executive Producers at Pineapple Street are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. At Crooked Media, Executive Producers Tommy Vietor, Sarah Wick, and Sarah Geismer. And from Spotify, Executive Producers Liz Gateley and Jake Kleinberg. Special thank you to: Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Alison Falzetta, Ksenia Barakovskaya, Maddy Sprung-Keiser, Eric Mennel, Courtney Harrell, Dzifa Yador, Roman Stepanovich, Jesse McLean, Paul Spella, Bianca Grimshaw, Sai Sriskandarajah, Jonah Weiner, Beatrice Radden Keefe and Justyna Gudzowska. Source material in this episode included clips from MSNBC, the movie Argo, and the TV show Mission Impossible and a radio interview from German Southwest Broadcasting.
Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.