In This Episode
LAGOS, NIGERIA, 1961: One of America’s most beloved singers died without ever knowing that during the Cold War she had been used by the CIA. And a 40-year-old mystery resurfaces: when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was picked to tour behind the Iron Curtain in 1977, was an undercover CIA officer planted among their entourage?
EPISODE 3: AMERICA’S SECRET WEAPON
Patrick: A quick note before we begin: This series contains some language and topics that may not be suitable for young children.
[Audio Clip: Armstrong playing Mac the Knife]
Patrick: In the mid 1950’s, Louis Armstrong was the biggest musician on the planet. He had a huge following in the U.S. and abroad, and between his earthy singing voice and his soaring trumpet, he had a sound that was completely distinctive. People called him ‘Satchmo,’ and he brought millions of new listeners to what was then still a relatively new kind of music….jazz.
In 1955, the New York Times ran a piece arguing that Armstrong was so popular around the globe that he was actually helping the United States in its new contest with the Soviet Union. America had a secret weapon in the Cold War, the Times said, not a spy satellite or a nuclear bomb, but “a blue note in a minor key.”
[Audio Clip: Armstrong playing Mac the Knife]
Patrick: And, somewhat amazingly, the Eisenhower Administration took this to heart, and started a program to send American jazz musicians on Goodwill tours abroad. They sent Dizzy Gillespie to the middle east. A few years later, Duke Ellington went, too.
One reason for this effort was that the U.S. still had an image, internationally, as something of a cultural wasteland. Russia had the Bolshoi Ballet. America had the hamburger. Jazz was a quintessentially American artform, one that echoed the American ideals of individualism and free expression.
[Audio Clip: Willis Connover, “Jazz guarantees each musician absolute freedom, within a framework of cooperation.”]
Patrick: That’s a broadcast from this period on the voice of america, which beamed out jazz to listeners around the world.
But the other reason the government wanted to send jazz musicians abroad and black jazz musicians in particular, is that Soviet propaganda in this period tended to highlight america’s shameful treatment of African Americans. This put the musicians in a tricky spot. In 1957, Armstrong was supposed to take a state department trip to the USSR but he pulled out, unable to swallow the irony of sending a black jazz man to represent a country where Jim Crow was still the law of the land. Citing “the way they are treating my people in the south,” Armstrong said, “the government can go to hell.” But the state department didn’t let up. They started urging him to go to Africa, where a wave of decolonization was sweeping the continent, and a scramble was on to pressure these newly independent nations to align with capitalism and democracy rather than communism and the Soviet bloc. In 1960, Satchmo agreed and set off on a twenty-seven city tour.
[Audio Clip: News broadcaster: “One of America’s most popular emissaries gets a warm reception as he arrives in the troubled Congo on a State Department sponsored goodwill mission.”]
Patrick: On october 28, 1960, Armstrong arrived in Leopoldville, in the Republic of Congo, which had just achieved independence from Belgium four months earlier.
[Audio Clip: Patrice Lumumba clip]
Patrick: Patrice lumumba, a popular, charismatic Congolese nationalist, had been elected as the country’s first Prime Minister. But a civil war had broken out, and Lumumba was fighting off an uprising by Belgian-backed rebels. The United States and the United Nations had refused to help him, so he turned to the Soviet Union. This was an insane moment for a superstar like Louis Armstrong to parachute into the country for a concert but he did.
[Audio Clip: News broadcaster: “Louis’s solid swinging outraged Radio Moscow, which blasted Armstrong’s visit as a diversionary tactic, a left-handed tribute to a mellow cat the Congolese find right on the beat.”]
Patrick: Satchmo was greeted as a conquering hero. There were drummers and dancers. He was lifted up on a throne and carried along by the crowd. They loved him. He played a free show for ten thousand people. Even today, folks still talk about the concert that stopped a civil war. Though, it stopped it only for a day. As soon Armstrong left, the fighting picked back up again. For years afterward, Armstrong dealt with his role as a travelling pitchman for the United States with a sense of weary irony.
[Audio Clip: “The Real Ambassadors”]
Patrick: He ended up performing in a musical about this cultural diplomacy effort, “The Real Ambassadors,” and you can hear armstrong wrestling with this dilemma.
[Audio Clip: Louis solo in “The Real Ambassadors”]
Patrick: “All your coup d’etats have met success,” the song goes. “Who’s the real ambassador? Certain facts we can ignore. In my humble way I’m the USA! although I represent the government, the government doen’t represent some policies I’m for.”
[Audio Clip: Louis solo in “The Real Ambassadors”]
Patrick: The United States is a wonderful country, in many ways, and Armstrong knew it. But he also knew it can be a terrible country sometimes, too. Of course there’s nothing inherently nefarious in sending a musician on a tour abroad. But if our interests in a country like the Congo were significant enough to deploy Louis Armstrong, chances are, he wasn’t the only weapon we were deploying. And even armstrong couldn’t have imagined the degree to which that was true, because less than four months after his concert in congo, while he was still touring africa in january 1961, the newly elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was ousted from power and then murdered by a death squad. Lumumba was shot, then his body was hacked to pieces and dissolved in sulphuric acid, in a coup d’etat that had been secretly engineered by the CIA.
From Pineapple Street Studios, Crooked Media, and Spotify. This is Wind of Change. I’m Patrick Radden Keefe. Episode 3: America’s Secret Weapon.
When we think about the Cold War, we tend to think about nuclear brinkmanship and proxy wars in Latin America and Rocky Four. Annnnnnd CIA assisted coups in which democratically elected leaders were deposed or murdered. That, too. We don’t tend to think about someone like Louis Armstrong being used by Washington as a wedge in the fight against the Soviets. But it happened.
In my exchange of letters with the CIA, they suggested that they would never have anything to do with something like a band. But the truth is, the U.S. Government did use music throughout the Cold War to try and advance its political aims. And when you look at the history of the Scorpions, you can see how, in a weird way, they’re precisely the sort of band that could be useful.
Markus: When I spoke to them, they said that somebody said to them that they are the best American band from outside the United States. They sound so American. Although Klaus has this really strong German accent,
Patrick: This is Markus Kavka. He’s a german music journalist and DJ. He made a film about the Scorpions. Which is funny, because initially, Markus wasn’t a fan.
Marcus: Nobody really took them serious here and everybody was making fun of Klaus Meine’s accent and that they were such a rock cliche…
Patrick: The origins of the band date back to the 1960s…
Marcus: Mainly they they covered songs by the Beatles
Patrick: …in the city of Hannover, in Lower Saxony, which seems to have a reputation mostly for being really boring.
Marcus: Hanover is still considered one of the most boring towns in Germany.
Patrick: The singer, Klaus Meine, joined the band in 1969…
Marcus: He was the first one to have this real plan.
Patrick: They started playing harder rock, and touring abroad. In fact, according to Markus, the band had to build up an audience outside Germany before anyone inside Germany ever took them seriously.
Marcus: I mean, have you heard this nice little story about Still Loving You.
Patrick: Still Loving You. Big hit for the Scorps in 1984.
[Audio Clip: Scorpions Song “Still Loving You”]
Marcus: The story is that this song was so hugely successful in France in 84 and 85 that it caused a baby boom because so many people made love to this particular song that nine months after it was number one, they had huge amount of babies.
Patrick: What an accomplishment.
[Audio Clip: “Love Drive”]
Patrick: We tried to fact-check this story, without success. As the Scorpions kept touring and building an audience across Europe and in places like Japan, with songs like “Lovedrive,” German rock fans gave them another look.
Marcus: Now, it’s like they have achieved so much in foreign countries, maybe they’re not as bad as we thought in the first place.
Patrick: And here’s where it gets interesting. In 1961, the Communist government in East Germany had erected the Berlin Wall, a fortified boundary that cut through the heart of the city, forcibly separating the two Germanies. So the Scorpions lived in this divided country. They weren’t allowed to play across the border in East Germany. They did lots of gigs in West Berlin but they could never play East Berlin because the Communist authorities wouldn’t allow it. Their music was illegal there. But people were listening to it anyway.
Marcus: Well, I had relatives in East Germany and I always sent them records and tapes. Anything they couldn’t buy there. And then what happened was when I sent a tape to my cousin in Dresden, he would tell his friends and they would come over to his place and they would copy the tape at least 20 times. They sat there all night long, 20 hours copying the tape. And they would spread it to another 20 people. And then there’s people coming from the countryside. And then the same thing happens over and over, and also in the Soviet Union. Sometimes the tape underwent a journey from like 2, 3000 kilometers from Germany through Poland to the Soviet Union to Russia. Klaus told me that when they first played in Russia, there were people singing along to their songs. They knew the lyrics by heart it moved him like to tears.
Patrick: We talk about virality on the Internet today, right. But what you’re describing is sort of the old fashioned version of that. Right. It’s hand-to-hand.
Marcus: Yeah. Right. Solely analog virality.
Patrick: Did you get the sense that the band was I mean, would you call them political?
Marcus: You could not be not political if you were a musician whose music was also popular outside of Germany. Once that happens, you’re political and early on they realized that they really have impact and influence when it comes to politics.
Patrick: It’s not like their music was the music itself was political, right.
Marcus: No, not all. It was it was very cliche hard rock music with very cliché lyrics. Women and motorbikes, are you familiar with the lyrics of Rock You Like A Hurricane?
[Audio Clip: verse from ‘Hurricane’]
Marcus: The bitch is hungry. She needs to tell. So give her inches and feed her well. These were totally typical Scorpion’s lyrics in the 80s. So a song like Wind of Change came like a total surprise, lyric wise and topic wise. It was well, more or less the official hymn in Germany at that time for bringing East and West Germany together. This was nothing anybody expected to come from the Scorpions at that time.
Patrick: It seems like it galvanized people.
Marcus: I really got to credit Klaus Meine because he had this vision of Germany reuniting and Soviet Union opening up really one or two years before it actually happened.
Patrick: Another weird thing about Wind of Change is that typically, Klaus Meine didn’t even write songs.
Marcus: Normally Rudolph Schenker wrote the songs and Klaus partly wrote the lyrics, but in that case he also came up with the melody and he came up with the whistling,
Patrick: So at this critical political juncture, Klaus Meine, who doesn’t usually write songs, comes up with this song, which is totally out of keeping with all the other songs the band has ever produced, and oh, just happens to anticipate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Marcus: It was especially Klaus that had the feeling that this major change is going on in the world. The Cold War period is ending and they thought that music could unite people, bring people together. And you can, you can, like pressure, politics and politicians with music and Klaus was, was like totally right.
I’d say that wind of change is one of the most important songs in music history, not just for the band itself, but also for music altogether. And this is nothing you could ever take away from the Scorpions.
Patrick: There was also a question in my mind about what the Scorpions knew. Was there a chance that the CIA could have manipulated the band without the band ever knowing it?
[Audio Clip: Nina Simone: “I think what you’re trying to ask is why am I so insistent upon giving out to them that black-ness, that black power, pushing them to identify with black culture.”]
Patrick: That’s the incredible pianist and vocalist Nina Simone, the high priestess of soul.
[Audio Clip: Nina Simone: “I have no choice, in the first place. To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world. Black people. And to me we have a culture that is surpassed by no other civilization, but we don’t know anything about it.”]
Patrick: Nina was brilliant, voluble, charismatic, staggeringly talented, a former child prodigy, and unlike the Scorpions, political. Overtly political.
[Audio Clip: Mississippi Goddamn]
Patrick: That’s her 1964 song “Mississippi Goddamn,” which she wrote in response to the murder of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
Al: Nina and I went down to the rally in Montgomery after the Selma march.
Patrick: This is guitarist Al Schachman, one of Simone’s closest collaborators, who played with her for forty years.
Al: And so we were standing there and Martin came up and people were with him. And Nina, we’d like you to meet Dr. King. And Nina looks at him and just yells out, I ain’t nonviolent. And he says, Okay, sis, It’s okay, sister. You don’t have to be. It’s OK.
Patrick: Was Dr. King shocked when she said that?
Al: No not at all. He knew where Nina was coming from.
Patrick: In 1961, Simone got the chance to go to Nigeria for a festival.
Al: An interaction between African artists and American artists.
Patrick: The festival was put together by a group called AMSAC…
Al: American Society for African Culture
Patrick: Which had several prominent members, like the novelist Richard Wright and the poet Langston Hughes.
Al: And we’ve landed in Lagos in the middle of the jungle. I mean, to me, it was like a landing strip late, late at night. And the doors open. And suddenly I could smell the jungle coming into the plane. And then I heard the drums and there’s this massive sound of drums out there. And we all went deplaned and people were kissing the ground we’re home, we’re home at, last, at last.
Patrick: I’m actually looking at a photo of you and Nina and everyone else just a minute or two after you disembarked so you can see the plane. It’s an Alitalia plane. People have their instruments. And Nina’s there. She’s got a big grin on her face and you’re just behind her looking over her shoulder. But it’s an amazing shot with all these people dressed in suits, because that’s the way people flew on planes back then with their instruments and the flashbulb at night as everybody gets off the plane.
Al: Nina was very, very happy at that point. Langston Hughes was with us who’s a very dear friend of ours. Just Nina had never been and she wanted to be with her people. She turned to me one day, said, well, how does it feel for you to be in the minority? And and and said, you know, all around me are my people. But but all or all around you, there’s nobody.
Patrick: The visiting Americans were treated like royalty.
Al: And we stayed at the Federal Palace Hotel, which was a huge grounds, and then at the edge of it, was the jungle.
Patrick: They did two shows, for a massive crowd, in a soccer stadium.
Al: I think we did Little girl Blue
[Audio Clip: “Little Girl in Blue’]
Al: Take The A Train. I think we did. African Mailman.
[Audio Clip: “African Mailman”]
Patrick: And what did Nina think of it all?
Al: She took it all in. She loved it.
Patrick: But Al, there’s something I need to ask you, which is, did either of you know that the American Society of African Culture, this group that sponsored the trip was a front for the CIA?
Hugh Wilford: I was aware that the CIA had a front organization in the African-American community known as the American Society of African culture.
Patrick: This is Hugh Wilford.
Hugh Wilford: I think I was the first historian to use the organization’s papers which are at Howard University.
Patrick: He’s a Professor at Cal State Long Beach, and he says AMSAC was definitely a CIA front. He interviewed former members of the group who took oaths of secrecy and met with CIA officers. Wilford was digging through the AMSAC archives at Howard one day, when he came across this file…
Hugh Wilford: There was a folder about this performing arts festival staged in Lagos Nigeria in 1961. And I was looking down the list of musicians who performed there and they included Nina Simone.
Patrick: Wilford thinks the CIA wanted her to go to Africa for the same reason the State Department sent Satchmo.
Hugh Wilford: It’s about winning Africa over in the Cold War making sure it doesn’t go into the Communist Camp.
Patrick: But there’s one really big difference. It’s one thing for the government to pressure Louis Armstrong to go to Africa on a propaganda mission and have him grudgingly, but knowingly, go along. It’s a very different thing to covertly send an artist on false pretenses and Nina Simone was no patriot. She ended up renouncing the United States and living abroad. she called it “The United Snakes of America.”
It’s a strange thing about these stories. We want to think of culture, as organic and spontaneous. As pure. Nina clearly did. She felt like it gave her a sense of deep connection to the people she met in Nigeria. So it’s unsettling to learn the hidden hand of the government was at work. It’s a feeling of dispossession. Like someone’s picked your pocket.
Nikki: I think it’s hard to look a genius
Patrick: That’s the poet Nikki Giovanni. She was friends with Nina, and she told me that Nina’s gifts meant that she could feel alone, sometimes, because of a sense that everyone was trying to use her in some fashion.
Nikki: One thing that she knew about our friendship was that I wasn’t to use her and there were a lot of people she couldn’t say that about. You need a recognition that this is a genius. And I’m gonna handle it as lightly as I can, but I’m gonna let her know she won’t be used.
Patrick: Nina was very mindful. She had to be, of the dangers of being used by the people around her. But in this case, she was being used by the government. By the CIA. Employed as a pawn in their contest against the Soviets.
Nikki: knowing that you were used can be very hurtful.
Patrick: Nina Simone died in 2003.
Patrick: Al shackman’s an old man now, and it was only quite recently that he learned the CIA sent him to Nigeria with Nina way back in 1961. He had never known.
Al: No idea. Had no idea.
Patrick: And Nina didn’t know.
Al: Never. She never knew.
[Audio Clip: Nina Simone: “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear. I mean really, no fear. If I could have that half of my life. No fear.”]
Patrick: Al’s glad she never lived to learn the truth.
Al: She would say again, she’s not surprised. That’s the government.
Patrick: I wonder if she would have been angry.
Al: Oh, yeah. I would say she’d be angry. But angry at what? And who?
Patrick: That’s the thing about the hidden hand. Sometimes, even when you know it’s there, you can’t see it.
Coming up, what happens when a CIA guy and a KGB woman, find themselves embedded on the same concert tour? That’s after this quick break.
Patrick: So jazz was a weapon in Africa, and we know now that the CIA was not above tricking an artist into helping them without even knowing it. But by the nineteen-seventies, tastes have changed. In 1975, a young man named Dave Hess arrived in Moscow to work at the U.S. Embassy. He didn’t look like your average foreign service officer.
Dave: Uh, I had a beard that went down close to my navel and of course the the turtleneck.
Patrick: And he had an unusual mission.
Dave: We wanted to get hard rock in.
Patrick: Dave Hess was one of the first U.S. Officials to really try and push rock music in the USSR and I thought, if I could understand how and why he did it, it could shed light on how the CIA might’ve done the same thing with the Scorpions.
In a way, Hess had been preparing for this job all his life. He grew up in Davenport, Iowa, and as a teenager in the 1950s, he became a DJ at a local radio station, and he started playing rock n roll. This did not go over well in conservative Iowa.
Dave Hess: But the reason they were screaming at us was because their kids were listening.
Patrick: Dave ended up joining the Army Security Agency, where he was posted to Taiwan and listened in on broadcasts inside communist China. Then he took the foreign service exam, and they sent him to Hong Kong, then eventually to Moscow, as a cultural attache, which, he acknowledges…
Dave: Makes you look like a spook. A CIA plant.
Patrick: I was gonna ask you because the, how should I put this…the Cultural attaché…it’s almost the cliché of an official cover. Right?
Dave: Well it is in the movies in Hollywood but not in Washington.
Patrick: Dave was not a spy, he insists. He was just a State Department civilian with an abiding love for rock and roll.
Dave: A root cause of our whole effort was to enhance the freedom of expression inside of the Soviet Union.
Patrick: So in Moscow, Dave would go meet with his Russian government counterparts and he would pitch them American rock bands.
Patrick: So you’re like going in with a, with a record player?
Dave: I would go in and I would play things for them to help talk them through any initial questions they might have.
Patrick: How would they react? Were they bopping their heads or were they stone faced?
Dave: They would listen, and sometimes they would politely smile but there were no tapping toes or snapping fingers or anything like that. These are people who are supposed to snap their fingers to Marx not to Howling Wolf.
Patrick: So he had to pitch American music to the Kremlin and his first pitch was a fastball, right down the middle. He pitched the band… America.
[Audio Clip: Horse With No Name by America]
Despite the name, America actually struck Dave as pretty soft and non-threatening but they were rejected. So next, he pitched the Doobie Brothers.
Dave: The Doobie Brothers, there is no mistaking these guys are hard rock. I mean it was loud it was hard rock. It was a passionate rock.
[Audio Clip: China Grove by the Doobie Brothers]
Patrick: But there was a problem. It turned out one of the Doobie Brothers’ album covers, if you opened it up, had a racy photo of a bordello scene inside, so the Kremlin said:
Dave: There’s no way we’re going to have the Doobie Brothers and their girls here in the Soviet Union. So, bang, strike two. And our third pitch was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
[Audio Clip: I Saw the Light by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band]
John McEwan: Hey this is John McEwan. You might remember me from my 50 years with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Jan: My name is Jan Garrett. I am a singer-songwriter, and I live in the mountains of Colorado.
John Cable: Hi this is John Cable. I’m an ex member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
[Audio Clip: I Saw the Light by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band]
John McEwan: In late ‘76 we heard that the Russians might be interested in coming to a show.
Jan: I think the Soviets had been, you know, sending ballet dancers, and you know, classical singers, but it was finally time for them to take some American music.
John McEwan: The way I heard it they had come to see us 4 times trying to figure out which American group they were going to bring over to the Soviet Union.
Jan: We saw these three men come in with those great big Russian coats, and they were wearing those hats, you know, fur hats. They looked like something out of Central Casting.
John Cable: They did not fit into our normal demographic.
Jan: And these stern looks on their face
John Cable: The Soviets were also looking at the Beach Boys…
Patrick: Do you have any sense of why they would have picked you guys over the Beach Boys?
John McEwan: There’s banjos and guitars and fiddles and none of the music is offensive.
John Cable: Our music would not incite any rioting or anything.
Patrick: Would with The Beach Boys incite rioting?
John Cable: They sang about pretty girls and driving in cars and the freedom of America. And I think that might have been a little too much for the Soviets to handle.
Patrick: The band played Moscow and Leningrad, but also some of the Soviet Republics, like Latvia and Georgia and a four thousand seat bicycle stadium in Armenia.
Jan: In a town called Yerevan and the venue was an outside bicycle track.
John Cable: The Armenians are, they’re a wild bunch of folks.
Dave: Somebody in the Ministry of Culture had counterfeited another 5,000 tickets and scalped them. The stadium is surrounded on the outside by thousands of people.
Jan: And I could just see the KGB guys going, “uh oh, what are we going to do?”
John McEwan: 15 people would scamper over the fence on the other side of the field.
Dave: Suddenly police appeared trying to get them to stop coming and across the walls to hear the band.
John Cable: It overwhelmed the KGB they couldn’t do anything about it. A revolt in the audience.
Dave: Jimmy turned around and said what should we do? I said keep playing.
[Audio Clip: Will The Circle Be Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band]
Patrick: You can see how, for the Kremlin, this is exactly the scenario they were worried about. The kind of fun that can turn into a riot.
John Cable: This is one of the reasons why it took eight years for another American band to go back to Russia
Patrick: Throughout their tour, the band was accompanied by a woman named Irina.
John Cable: She was there purportedly as our interpreter.
Patrick: But they all assumed she was KGB. They also had an American interpreter, a young guy who spoke flawless Russian, named Brant Bassett.
John Cable: It was kind of an odd thing but he was with us everywhere we went until occasionally he would disappear for a couple of days and then he’d show back up and I had an inclination to believe that he was CIA
John McEwan: He’s a guy that became obvious was a CIA plant.
John Cable: He was purportedly an employee of Voice of America.
John McEwan: Every time we got to a new city, Hey, Where’s Brant? Oh I don’t know.
Patrick: At one point, Mcewan was with the KGB handler, and he asked, where’s Brant? Where does he go? And she said:
John: I don’t know John but you know everybody must have job and Brent obviously works for CIA.
Patrick: I’m trying to wrap my mind around the idea that, so your band is like traveling around for a month and in your little group is Brent Basset who works for the CIA and this woman Irina who works for the KGB.
Patrick: It’s just funny to think of them traveling with the same band.
John: Like Irina said everybody must have a job.
Patrick: The fact that the band was relying for this idea that Brant Bassett was a CIA handler, on the expert advice of their KGB handler, feels like grounds for skepticism. And when I asked Dave Hess, the State Department Official who organized the trip, he remembered it differently.
Patrick: So you must have known Brant Bassett?
Dave: Yeah. I knew Brant.
Patrick: What was his deal?
Dave: Well Brant was like a contractor. He’s a Russian language speaker and he was a contractor and he would come as a as a kind of an interpreter for the band.
Patrick: But he was, because so, the band has said that he was a CIA guy.
Dave: Well I, it may have been that Brant wanted to be a CIA guy. We suspected it when he showed up with a long leather trench coat. Black.
Patrick: Oh no really?
Dave: Yeah and the long black leather trench coat was kind of a tip off of where he was psychologically. Also at night he would say I have some people to meet and he would disappear. I don’t know what he was doing but everybody in the band said Brant’s with CIA and of course if Brant was with the CIA he should have been fired because he looked like he was with the CIA.
Patrick: Makes sense. right? So maybe Bassett wasn’t a spy. And when I looked at old press clippings about the dirt band tour, I couldn’t find any mention of a Brant Bassett one way or the other. It was almost as if he didn’t exist. But I did find a few clippings, from much later, in 2006, which mentioned a Brant Bassett. There were newspaper articles about a scandal involving a corrupt ex-congressman named Randy “Duke” Cunningham and they said that Brant Bassett was linked to this scandal, and identified him as an ex-CIA officer who spoke Russian and German. So Bassett was a spy. one of the articles mentioned that he had a nickname, “nine fingers,” because he supposedly lost a finger in a motorcycle accident.
Jan: This guy. Yeah. He was in the CIA. He was also, I think they called him Nine Fingers…
Jan: Because he had lost — Is that the guy?
Patrick: That’s the guy! Nine Fingers.
Jan: Nine Fingers!
Patrick: No, he really does have nine fingers.
Jan: Holy crap. OK.
Patrick: Holy crap is right. And did this mean that Dave Hess – nice, earnest Dave Hess from Davenport, Iowa was maybe lying to me? Could he be covering for Brant?
Patrick: So you think he might not have actually been in the CIA? Because he because he, there is a real guy Brant Bassett who, who actually was in the CIA. I mean he’s retired now but he but he really was in the CIA.
Dave: I wouldn’t know about that.
Patrick: Interesting. OK.
Patrick: What I’m thinking at this point is, if Bassett was an agency guy who worked in Russia and was fluent not just in Russian but in German and he was the guy with the ideological-penetration-by-rock-band portfolio, could agent nine fingers have had some hand in Wind of Change? And assuming any of that might be true, how should we approach him? Bassett is retired now. He lives in Southern California. But I figured it was probably best not to come out and ask about the CIA in an initial overture. So we sent him a letter asking about his work on “cultural exchanges” with the Soviets. And he wrote back. It’s a short letter. I have it here. He says the “cultural exchanges” he took part in quote “probably had a bigger role in bringing the Cold War to a bloodless end than anyone realized.” But also that he has no desire to do an interview. Sooo I wrote back. And this time I was a little more assertive, and I said, we’ve interviewed the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, they say you were in the CIA and you were sneaking off at night. And I know you were in the CIA. So this whole thing about you being with Voice of America, was that just a cover?
About a week later, Bassett wrote back. I brought it into the studio to open it with my producers.
Patrick: I went into the office yesterday and uh there was a letter waiting for me from the San Diego area um with a George H.W. Bush forever stamp. Uh and it’s not short. Um. “Dear Mr. Keefe. You’re a young man of talent with what sounds like a good project ahead of you.
Patrick: Um yeah it’s so he starts with a little pat on the head. “My participation might make it a better product, but it is not in my interest to take part. I’m an old man on a glide path to what comes next after this life. And public exposure is not a thing I seek. My contributions in the Cold War, first at voice of America’s Russian service and later as a CIA officer, are something I am very proud of. At Voice of America, I introduced our Soviet audience to American country music via my weekly radio show. In my CIA years, I recruited and handled agents in five languages, producing often great intelligence and getting no one killed. When I interpreted for my ambassador in her meeting with Gorbey in the mid 90s,” he actually writes Gorbey for Gorbachev, “he thought I was from the local Russian embassy, giving me the best compliment I ever had on my command of the language. I have traveled to 74 countries and lived for years in several of them with my family. I have seen the elephant. I am done.”
“I have a quiet, retired life with my dear wife of 48 years, who has an incurable cancer. Each day is precious. All the years in that strange and stressful life under cover, all those memories, both good and bad, are like layers of sediment at the bottom of a lake. Some of them are toxic. Stirring them up does me no good at all. Lets let them continue to lie there quietly.
Henry: Yeah wow,
Patrick: That’s pretty intense, right?
Henry: What a response.
Patrick: But he goes on. “All that said and off my chest. I do want to answer your specific question about my affiliation in 1977 when the State Department borrowed me from Voice of America, to serve as escort officer for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.”
“I belonged to Voice of America then and I would not have risked my Voice of America employment by having any contact with CIA. But later in 1981, I joined CIA wanting to continue my personal fight against communism, but on the front lines. I retired from CIA in 1999 when it had become a lethargic, paper pushing shell of its former self. As for 1977, I really enjoyed touring with the band and liked them very much. They are great fellows and good musicians, but they are not competent to make identifications of intelligence officers. Trust me on this.”.
This is the sign off. “It’s a warm and sunny day here. My wife and I have a late afternoon swim in the pool, followed by a fresh cocktail enhanced by fruit from our own trees. I will raise a toast to you and to the band with hopes for your success. Sincerely, Brant Basset.”
Henry: Wow. What a guy.
Joel: That is fantastic.
Patrick: I mean, it’s a huge bummer, but it’s a hell of a letter.
Patrick: Do you know the parable about the blind men and the elephant? It’s a story that dates back to ancient times and shows up in different religious traditions. A group of blind men are out walking one day when they come across an elephant. They don’t know what to make of this massive creature, and they can’t see it, so they each touch a different part of the animal. One of the men feels the elephant’s trunk, another touches the sharp tusks, a third stokes its leathery skin. The story is a warning about the limits of human perception. Each monk has a clue about the great creature that stands, invisible, before them but none of them can see the whole. “I’ve seen the elephant”, Brant Bassett told me. But me, I feel like one of those blind men, grasping at some great but nebulous truth that’s just out of reach. Trying to assemble the few clues I can touch into some coherent whole. And the funny thing about Brant Bassett, maybe he wasn’t in the CIA when he was in Russia with the band. But if not, what was he doing when he disappeared in each new city?
The members of the band were under the impression that he might have been coordinating with dissidents, or smuggling documents or information in or out. That is the sort of thing that CIA officers would do. And we know that at times during the Cold War, it was helpful to have some kind of entourage you could move with, as a cover. And this is where it gets really weird. Because we found someone who said that when the Scorpions toured behind the iron curtain, that’s exactly what the band was doing.
Michael: Okay dude here’s what he writes. What most people do not know however is that during their time touring Europe and Asia and especially the Soviet Union, they were acting as couriers for the CIA. The Scorpions were a tremendous help to the cause of democracy.
Patrick: That’s next time, on Wind of Change.
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 “Drift” by Ratatat, courtesy of XL Recordings. And “Saint European King Days” by Opium Flirt, courtesy of CD Baby. 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, Jesse McLean, Paul Spella, Bianca Grimshaw, Sai Sriskandarajah, Jonah Weiner, and Justyna Gudzowska.
Source material in this episode included PBS and the AP Archive.
Thanks for listening. See you next time.