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May 11, 2020
Wind of Change
1. My Friend Michael

In This Episode

LANGLEY, VIRGINIA, 2011:
The Scorpions’ song “Wind of Change” became the soundtrack to the end of the Cold War. But decades later, New Yorker investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe heard a rumor from a trusted source: the Scorpions didn’t write the song. The CIA did.

If you enjoyed the first episode and want to hear more, you can binge the full season of Wind of Change now for free on Spotify.

 

Transcript:

EPISODE 1: MY FRIEND MICHAEL 

 

Patrick: A quick note before we begin: This series contains some language and topics that may not be suitable for young children. 

 

Michael (on phone): What’s up dude. 

 

Patrick: It’s the spring of 2019 and I’m sitting in a big loft apartment in Lower Manhattan. It’s late at night and I’m a little giddy. A little nervous.  I’m here with my friend Michael. It’s his place and he’s letting me eavesdrop on his side of a phone call that he’s making.

 

Michael (on phone): Things are good, wife’s good, son’s good, life’s good. 

 

Patrick: Michael has just called a guy he knows, a former clandestine officer from the CIA. The guy’s just talking to Michael but he doesn’t realize I’m here, listening to Michael’s end of the conversation.

 

Michael (on phone): So do you remember the story you told me like ten years ago? Yeah, you know that Patrick and I have been utterly obsessed with this story for the past 10 years and so we’ve been chasing down leads asking people. We have a full on you know map of multiple different relationships trying to figure out the veracity of the story that you told. And so what we’re gonna do is we’re going to do it in the form of a podcast and I know that it would it would be difficult for you to to tell it on the record but I’m wondering if you would do it with like you know a different name and a scratchy voice and and be interviewed. Right. Of course. I do not want you to go to jail. I do not want you to be to be arrested under felony charges or even worse. Okay, Good chatting.

 

Patrick: What happened? 

 

Michael: He was just like it’s a felony. There’s no fucking way I can tell you this story on the record with my voice, anything like I’ll go to jail for this. 

 

Patrick: My name is Patrick Radden Keefe. I’m a journalist. I write for the New Yorker Magazine. I’ve written stories about drug lords and war crimes and various types of corporate skulduggery. But if there’s one connective thread that runs through a lot of my stories, it’s secrets. Secret worlds. Uncovering things I’m not supposed to know.  

 

A lot of journalists are driven by this. The conviction that the real story lies inside whatever literal or figurative room we’re locked out of. We spend our days trying to get glimpses inside, wishing that once, just once, someone would hand us the key. In 2010, I was living in Washington, DC, and I got this strange opportunity to go and work for a year on a fellowship in the office of the secretary of defense. The deal was, I could get a top secret clearance and sort of pass through the looking glass, I just had to agree I would never write about any of the classified stuff I saw. I’d spent so many years thinking about all the secrets I didn’t have access to as a journalist, I was excited to get into the classified computer system, this chamber of secrets, and look around but then something funny happened. 

 

I spent that year putting on a suit every day and going to The Pentagon, but what I found was, a top secret clearance is nothing. There are more than a million Americans who have top secret clearance. It turns out, for the really interesting stuff, you need levels of clearance that are even higher and the most interesting, significant national security secrets are compartmented. They’re confined to a tiny circle of people who need to know about them. So by the time I finished up my little sabbatical in government and gave up my security clearance, I wasn’t focused so much on all the top secret stuff I’d gotten to see, as I was on all the other stuff, that was more secret than top secret, and would always remain a mystery. 

 

It became an operating principle. There is no secret key. There’s no all access pass to the good stuff. It’s the lesson we learn from children’s books. Any mystery worth solving requires a journey. And the path from a riddle to its solution is almost never a straight line. 

from Pineapple Street Studios, Crooked Media, and Spotify, this is Wind of Change. 

I’m Patrick Radden Keefe. Episode One: My Friend Michael. 

 

Patrick: Alright.

 

Michael: Okay.

 

Patrick: I should back up and tell you about Michael. His name is Michael Shtender-Auerbach, and he’s one of my closest friends. He’s got a mop of brown hair and thick framed glasses and he dresses in that understatedly expensive style of the middle aged hipster dad. We’ve known each other a long time. I just found this email I want to read to him. 

 

Patrick: So I was trying to figure out when this story began for you and me. And it began on a Thursday 2011.

 

Michael: Oh, wow. 

 

Patrick: Yeah. We were emailing. You and I were emailing that morning. And you sent me an email and the email said, “Had dinner last night with my good friend and he told me some stories that will fill up your writing schedule for years.” And then you wrote, “Wikipedia…” – I think that’s a command, you’re telling me to Wikipedia – “Scorpions, Wind of Change.” So I confess I was vaguely aware of the Scorpions as a band. I didn’t know the um I actually didn’t know the song or I was, it was kind of familiar when I played it. 

 

Michael: Did you Wikipedia it? 

 

Patrick: You bet I Wikipediad it. Um. So you sent me that email that morning. And you know that was the day my life changed. 

 

Michael: I’m sorry. 

 

Patrick: This story Michael told me, about the song Wind of Change, has confounded me more than anything I’ve ever worked on. When I started looking into it, it’s like it opened a door into a lot of strange, improbable places. So improbable that normally, i’d just move on, I wouldn’t even follow up. Except the idea came from Michael, and Michael has been a valuable source for me over the years. 

 

Patrick: It’s your view basically that I’ve never written an article that wasn’t your idea. 

 

Michael: Couple but they were, they were not the greatest articles.

 

Patrick: You probably have people like this in your life, but Michael’s just one of those people who seems to know everyone, to have an opinion on every subject.

 

Michael: I pitched you a lot of stories. 

 

Patrick: You’ve been a great source of ideas and people. 

 

Michael: And even the stories that you’ve wanted to do have provided you good intel into those stories 

 

Patrick: Officially, Michael works for Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State but so far as I can tell he has half a dozen jobs. This is part of the reason he has so many contacts. He’s in his forties, like I am but it’s as if he’s lived more lives than I have.

 

Patrick: I’m just gonna and I don’t have your CV. This is purely from memory but I just want to to throw a few items at you. You were involved in like middle east peace negotiations. 

 

Michael: Yes. 

 

Patrick: Prior to that you’d been involved in the first dot com boom right.

 

Michael: Yes. 

 

Patrick: And you had a startup of some sort? 

 

Michael: Yes. 

 

Patrick: And so then you end up working in business intelligence? 

 

Michael: Correct. 

 

Patrick: So you then go and start working at Albright Stonebridge which is Madeleine Albright’s company. 

 

Michael: whatever the State Department used to do for government our government overseas we do for corporations overseas 

 

Patrick: But Michael also has these side projects. 

 

Michael: And at the time I was in Sweden I was trying to get the U.S. government and the British government to use drones to deliver aid to Syrians in Aleppo. 

 

Patrick: Okay. 

 

Michael: And now I own 90 percent of a Swedish drone company that I’ve tried to like sell to like anybody. Like the Egyptians and the Moroccans. So if you know anyone who wants a drone company. 

 

Patrick: There’s this other thing which is um, can we talk about the pot? 

 

Patrick: Years ago, Michael called me up and said I should write an article about the legalization of cannabis in Washington state and what it would mean for the pot economy. I wrote the article. but Michael invested in that new economy. 

 

Patrick: I was having lunch with this guy and he said and he said you know the other day for a couple of hours your friend Michael Stander-Auerbach was worth a billion dollars. 

 

Michael: Yeah. There was like 15 minutes on Yom Kippur that I was worth a billion dollars.

 

Patrick: I tell you all this so you’ll understand that when Michael emailed me nine years ago and told me to look into the song Wind of Change by the Scorpions, I did. The Wikipedia entry starts like this: “Wind of Change” is a power ballad by the German rock band Scorpions, recorded for their eleventh studio album, Crazy World, in 1990.

 

[Audio Clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhtShfAqAmE]

 

Concertgoer: These concerts just get the blood flowing in every single one of us. That’s what it is. That’s what it’s all about. 

 

Patrick: This is a 1988 documentary about the monsters of rock, an arena tour in which the Scorpions were one of the headliners. 

 

Concertgoer: There’s something about this music that just gets us all going.

 

Concertgoer #2: Heavy metal, yeah!!

 

Patrick: Perhaps you’re familiar with the Scorpions. They occupy sort of a strange place in our culture. They’re a band from Hannover, Germany. So they’re German, but they sing in english. 

 

[Audio Clip: Rudolk Schenker: Our dream always was to play music around the world and make music for everybody.] 

 

Patrick: They’re sort of a hard rock or light metal band. Leather. Spandex. A tsunami of hairspray. You get the idea. 

 

[Audio Clip: Klaus Meine: “I mean we like to play in front of big crowds. But still it’s good to go back and play in a club.”]

 

Patrick: That’s Klaus Meine, the lead singer.

 

Even today the Scorpions are hugely popular. They’re the biggest German band ever, but they also built a global audience outside of Germany by doing a lot of international touring. They were one of the first western acts to play behind the iron curtain. They’re big in Japan. They’re massive in Brazil. It’s a little weird when you think about it: they’re a band whose first language isn’t english, singing songs in english, for an audience whose first language is, for the most part, not english. But they’ve had a few songs that broke through in a big way in the U.S. like you probably know this one.

 

[Audio Clip: Rock You Like a Hurricane.]

 

[Audio Clip: Klaus: I mean it just shows we want to rock the world.]

 

Patrick: They have one song, though, that is absolutely iconic and that’s Wind of Change. 

 

In the summer of 1989, the Scorpions played a two day rock festival in russia. This is during the Cold War, and rock n’ roll had been all but banned in the Soviet Union, because the Kremlin saw it as threatening to communism. So this was a historic event, with hard rock and heavy metal acts like Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Motley Crue. 

 

[Audio Clip: Klaus: “Moscow! We rock you like a hurricane!!”]

 

Patrick: According to rock legend, after the concert, Klaus Meine wrote a new song. A ballad about the change that was sweeping across Europe at that time.

 

Wind of Change was released in 1990, not long after the berlin wall came down…and it was a monster hit. 

 

[Audio Clip: Wind Of Change]

 

Patrick: The song ended up becoming the de facto anthem for the fall of the wall and the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

 

Across the USSR, young people were galvanized by Wind of Change. They copied bootleg tapes and distributed them hand to hand. The song ended up peaking on the U.S charts in late 1991, right around the time the Soviet Union collapsed. 

 

[ABC Clip: “The union’s three Slavic republics announced they are forming a separate commonwealth of independent states…” [newsflash music] “The chief state TV channel was halfway through the evening news when it got the first details of the agreement signed in Minsk. the Soviet Union no longer exists.”]

 

Patrick: I was a sophomore in high school when all this happened and I still remember how dramatic the images were. That sense that the tempo of history had suddenly accelerated. That the political universe I’d grown up in, and my parents had grown up in, had just abruptly ended, and we were watching the curtain rise on something new.

 

[Audio Clip: Wind of Change]

 

There’s a great video for Wind of Change, with images of the Berlin Wall coming down and the Scorpions swaggering through Red Square and I thought back to that extraordinary moment in my childhood. Don’t get me wrong, the song is cheesy but there’s something about it. That earworm whistle. The message of bloodless revolution, and idealism and solidarity and hope. It gets under your skin.

 

So the reason Michael first sent me that email back in 2011, was because he’d just had dinner with this guy he knew. 

 

Patrick: We’re going to give this guy a name. 

 

Michael: What do you want to call him. 

 

Patrick: I want to call him Oliver.

 

Michael: Oliver. 

 

Patrick: Yeah.

 

Michael: So yeah. So Oliver and I had become close. 

 

Patrick: Oliver is a friend of Michael’s. I can’t tell you much about him, but he’s about our age and he used to work in the CIA. 

 

Patrick: And you guys had dinner. 

 

Michael: Yes.

 

Patrick: And what did he tell you? 

 

Michael: I remember he told me a bunch of stories but the one that I remember the most is the one that I told you to Wikipedia which is that he was either at the farm at the time of his training or he was at headquarters in Langley and like an older gentleman who has been around the block comes in to meet the new recruits. 

 

Patrick: So a gray beard. 

 

Michael: Yeah. And tells him stories etc. Told this story to a group of people that he was with that this song had been written by the CIA and had been a part of a psyops campaign. 

 

Patrick: Psychological operation. 

 

Michael: Exactly. 

 

Patrick: To what? 

 

Michael: To insert this song, this music into the Soviet Union. To encourage change. 

 

Patrick: Remember, this is not just any song. These things are hard to measure, but Wind of Change is one of the biggest rock singles in history.  It’s something like the 14th biggest selling single of the pre-digital era, which means the single sold more physical copies than Bohemian Rhapsody or Like a Prayer, or anything by Britney Spears. It may not be all that well known inside the U.S., but in the rest of the world, the song is ubiquitous. It hit number one on the charts, all across Europe. On YouTube, it’s been listened to nearly 800 million times. So when i first heard this story, i was totally incredulous. Michael was too. 

 

Michael: I was like bullshit. I mean like I was like seriously? Like you guys have songwriters in the CIA. And he’s like yeah like we- 

 

Patrick: He said yes? 

 

Michael: This particular story sounded absurd because it’s a heavy metal band and the song I had no idea what the history of the song was in terms of its like beloved admiration these countries were obsessed with. 

 

Patrick: With that song? 

 

Michael: With this particular song, it was the anthem. 

 

Patrick: According to that Wikipedia entry, the song was quote, “composed and written by the band’s lead singer, Klaus Meine.” 

 

[Audio Clip: “and you could feel ze vind of change and zis is vhy klaus wrote ze song.”] 

 

Patrick: The liner notes on the Scorpion’s 1990 album “Crazy World” say the same thing. Klaus Meine has given dozens of interviews about how he was inspired by that trip to Moscow in the summer of 1989. While they were there, the band took a boat ride on the Moskva River with a bunch of other rockers, and that ostensibly gave rise to those opening lines, “I follow the Moskva down to Gorky Park…”

 

[Audio Clip: Wind of Change] 

 

Patrick: Could it be that Klaus Meine is lying? That the song was actually written by the CIA? That the cia writes songs? The idea seemed so bonkers on its face and yet there’s a long history, dating back to the dawn of the Cold War, of the US government in general and the CIA in particular recognizing that propaganda doesn’t work if it looks like propaganda. There’s only so many hearts and minds by dropping leaflets out of airplanes. 

 

[Audio Clip: Ike Clip #1: “at his news conference, President eisenhower defends espionage.”]

 

Patrick: When Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1953, one of the first things he did was direct the US government to ramp up what he called “psychological warfare” against the soviets. 

 

[Audio Clip: Eisenhower: the safety of the whole free world demands this.]

 

Patrick: To be really effective, Eisenhower said, the United States should tinker in the world of culture and ideas in a manner that won’t be discernible to the consumer. According to Eisenhower, and this is a quote, “the hand of government must be carefully concealed.”

 

[Audio Clip: trailer: “the drama of young lovers…”]

 

Patrick: A few years later, the russian novelist Boris Pasternak finished his masterpiece “Dr. Zhivago.”

 

[Audio Clip: trailer: “far from the bitter guns of war…”]

 

Patrick: It eventually became a big Hollywood movie, in 1965. 

 

[Audio Clip: trailer: “This is Dr. Zhivago.”]

 

Patrick: But because Pasternak’s book was critical of the Bolsheviks, the novel was banned by the Kremlin. 

 

After the book was published in Italy, CIA officials got a hold of a copy and decided that Pasternak’s humanistic message could be leveraged as a weapon against Soviet ideology. So they printed ten thousand copies of a Russian-language edition of the book, to be smuggled back into the USSR. Pasternak ended up receiving the Nobel Prize. Moscow was furious but the agency was always careful to hide its own involvement. 

 

It was only a few years ago that the CIA finally declassified the files, boasting – and I’m quoting here – that the whole episode shows how “soft power can influence events.”

 

[Audio Clip: Frances Stoner Saunders: “If you think about the opening phase of the cold war, culture is terribly important.”]

 

Patrick: That’s the British writer Frances Stoner Saunders. Twenty years ago she published this landmark study on the cultural Cold War, the ways in which the CIA insinuated itself into the realm of culture, promoting certain forms of art, like abstract expressionism, secretly funding certain literary magazines, like the Paris review. 

 

[Audio Clip: Frances Stoner Saunders: “The two sides are looking at each other over the fence. Weapons have been stood down for the time being and what they are fighting with and i would argue it’s the central theatre of the cold war, they’re fighting with culture.”]

 

Patrick: The Zhivago affair was what the CIA calls an influence operation but what moves faster through the culture? A 700-page Russian novel? Or a four minute power ballad with an unforgettable hook? What if, in 1990, the best vector for an influence campaign was a troupe of flamboyant rockers from Hanover west Germany?

 

I spoke to a lot of ex-cia folks for this project. We’ll meet our first after this quick break. 

 

[Break]

 

Patrick: When I hear a story like this, as a journalist, I’m kind of conflicted. There’s excitement, but also skepticism. After all, this was a third hand story – something I heard from a guy who heard it from a guy who heard it from a guy. But as it happens, back when Michael originally told me the CIA wrote ‘Wind of Change’, I was living in DC, and one of my close friends there was this guy Phil. 

 

Phil: I remember we met on 18th street at a Bourbon bar. 

 

Patrick: This is Phil. That’s his actual name, but he’d prefer we not use his last name. He works at a tech company now but back when I was living in Washington, he worked for the CIA. 

 

Phil: Those three letters are incredibly polarizing around the world, in the United States.

 

Patrick: But at a bar in Adams Morgan back in 2011, I told him the story Michael had told to me. 

 

Phil: It is just crazy enough to have happened.

 

Patrick: I mean in the in the in the version of this story that was relayed to me, you have people at the CIA actually writing a song. Does that seem insane to you? 

 

Phil: In a studio and in the bowels of of of Northern Virginia? 

 

Patrick: Exactly. 

 

Phil: You know I mean it to the extent that I’m from the same era as Oliver and not from the kind of Cold War era, I guess I was trying to put myself in the shoes of the people who were there in that moment and I think in that moment nobody thought that that wall was going to come down. I think there were essentially attitudes of backing all horses. You just make a lot of bets and you assume some of them don’t pan out and some of them do. The phrase is usually called covert action and that sounds very Jack Ryan and jumping out of airplanes and shooting stuff.  And Covert action winds up being this broad spectrum of activity 

 

Patrick: To Phil, the story seemed plausible but how credible was it? 

 

Phil: I think if you have confidence in Oliver then you should kind of extend that confidence backwards to his anecdotes. 

 

Patrick: Which brought me back to oliver. Who is oliver? 

 

Broadly speaking, there are three types of CIA officers. You’ve got folks like Phil, who openly work for the agency. Phil was an analyst. He sat at a desk and had business cards with his name on them that said he worked for the cia. but many of his colleagues were “operational”, so they worked under cover. 

 

Michael: You’ve got um you’ve got folks that um worked in the CIA under diplomatic cover. So they’ll say like State Department. 

 

Patrick: This is Michael again.

 

Michael: But they were not State Department they were CIA.

 

Patrick: These people have official jobs in a u.s. embassy abroad. They’re political officers or translators or they’re stamping passports, or they’re a “cultural attache”. That’s their official cover, but secretly they’re working for the agency.

 

Patrick: Okay so then tell me about the nonofficial cover people. 

 

Michael: So then you got the NOC right. So then those folks- 

 

Patrick: So NOC stands for Non-Official Cover.

 

Michael: Exactly. 

 

Patrick: These people, the NOCs, are the mission impossible types, Michael explains. 

 

Michael: So they’re not State Department employees, not government employees, they’re not CIA employees or nothing. So they either have their own business or they work for a real business. They’re an employee of the real business. The salary is refunded by the government. 

 

Patrick: So there are certain companies,

 

Michael: Yes. 

 

Patrick: That knowingly-

 

Michael: Hire NOCs.

 

Patrick: I just have to pause here and say this sort of blows my mind, that there are companies out there, big companies whose names you would recognize, companies you might do business with, and they have employees, scattered through the ranks who secretly work for the CIA. 

 

Michael: You’re like some tech company. You know from Kalamazoo and you’re thinking about you know getting into fiber optic cables in Tunisia. Like you could put a NOC on that. 

 

Patrick: You’re probably wondering at this point, how does Michael know all this? 

 

Remember I mentioned he knows a lot of people… many of them happen to be ex-spies and one of the weird things about being a spy these days, particularly for the generation of people who flooded into the CIA after 9/11, is that a lot of them don’t spend their whole careers at the agency. So say you joined the CIA right out of college. At a certain point, you’re ready to transition out, to try something different in the private sector. So you do what anybody does in that situation, you polish up your resume. But there’s a problem: your resume says you’ve been doing something all this time that you haven’t actually been doing.

 

Michael mentioned this concept I hadn’t heard before. Rollback. It must be a CIA term of art, and while I don’t think it’s classified, it seems like a delicate subject. When i asked Phil about rollback, he got uncomfortable. 

 

Patrick: Like do you know this word rollback? 

 

Phil:  Um, is this part of the podcast? 

 

Patrick: Phil didn’t want to talk about rollback but I’ve since talked to other former spies about it and Michael explained the concept. 

 

Michael: So rollback is when you want to leave the CIA you’re allowed to tell people that you worked at the CIA so you apply for rollback and so-

 

Patrick: You have to apply?  

 

Michael: You have to apply and then get approval. 

 

Patrick: Phil wasn’t undercover at the CIA, so it’s fine for him to say that he worked there, but if you did work undercover at the agency, you can’t tell people you worked there even after you leave.

 

Michael:  If you were an officer with diplomatic cover for the most part they’re gonna say no. Unless there’s some really good reason why you should get rollback. But it’s hard for those people because those people weren’t State Department Employees. They were CIA officers. 

 

Patrick: So they sort of have a fake resume? 

 

Michael: They have a fake resume. Yes, 100%. Totally fake. 

 

Patrick: So the dilemma for me is like what job am I qualified to do and how do I deal with the fact that when I go in to interview I’m going to be lying about experience that I don’t actually have. 

 

Michael: Right. So you have two choices. You can go work for a company that will know that you weren’t a State Department employee. So there are other people that were like you that are now in another company and sort of those people can talk to eachother. 

 

Patrick: So it’s kind of a wink and a nod. 

 

Michael: A wink and a nod like yes this is your resume but I really know what you did.

 

Patrick: Yeah. 

 

Michael: So there’s that group of people and another group people are just like I’m just gonna do something new. So they come out and a lot of them like are private wealth managers to be honest because they’re really good people. And so there’s probably like hundreds of CIA Officers that work for like JP Morgan, Bank of America, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs as wealth managers. 

 

Patrick: So this is where Michael comes in. Somewhere along the line, he got a reputation as a headhunter for ex-spooks. 

 

Patrick: And so in this kind of informal alumni network where we get these people who are coming out there looking for jobs and a lot of it is based on winks and nods. It sounds like somebody like you who can decode these resumes and introduce people becomes helpful. 

 

Michael: Yeah. So I know a lot of people in sort of the business intelligence space and this is sort of that’s the perfect place for these kinds of people. Anything that has to do with like you know talking to people and convincing them to do something.

 

Patrick: One reason I was inclined to believe the story Michael’s friend Oliver told about the Scorpions is that Michael believed him. Michael knows all these ex-spies, he talks to them all the time. He doesn’t tell me everything these people tell him, but he did tell me this story. And he and Oliver trust each other. But another reason is that I’ve met Oliver myself. Years ago, I was working on an article and Michael volunteered to introduce me to two ex-spies who might be able to help me. We met for breakfast in the dining room of this fancy hotel facing the White House and one of those ex-spies was Oliver. 

 

Patrick: You kind of yented this meeting and we meet for breakfast at the Hay Adams. And do you remember this? 

 

Michael: I joined you.

 

Patrick: You were there. We meet for breakfast at the Hay Adams. And we, and we- 

 

Michael:  There was only four of us. 

 

Patrick: Yeah there’s four of us. It’s it’s me you Oliver and this other guy.

 

Michael: And another spy. 

 

Patrick: This other guy, another ex spy. 

 

Patrick: So the four of us sat down, but right away, I felt like these two guys were on edge. They were just really tight lipped and almost visibly uncomfortable. I started wondering if maybe Michael had put them up to this but they didn’t actually want to have breakfast with me, or maybe I’d said something wrong? And I had thought that they were gonna you know, give me some good information. And the whole thing was a disaster. And afterwards I remember you calling me and apologizing and saying I’m really sorry that didn’t go the way I thought it was it would. Apparently, right after we sat down, this woman sat down right behind me, a solo diner, and these two ex-spies immediately tensed up, because they thought she might be eavesdropping on us.

 

Patrick: You just said like from the moment that woman sat down those guys were not going to tell you shit. 

 

Michael: It’s true. 

 

Patrick: My breakfast with Oliver did tell me one thing: He’s not one for loose talk. He’s a sober professional, cautious, to the point of paranoia and nothing if not discreet. 

 

Part of what you do as a journalist is meet people and try and evaluate the credibility of the stories they tell you. Oliver struck me as so solid, though, so no-nonsense, that the scorpions story, if it came from him, couldn’t easily be dismissed. Since I first heard the story nine years ago, it became a fixation. For Michael, too. It’s like, every time we get together, we’ll meet for lunch or have a drink after work, and this is the thing we always end up talking about. I’ll get some new idea on how to approach it or he’ll come across the name of some potential source and we’ll start furiously texting while we’re making breakfast for our kids on a saturday morning. 

 

We’ve made freedom of information requests and done archival research and sought out ageing rockers and retired diplomats and former spies but it’s not easy. This is a story of a highly classified covert operation. If it’s true, there may be only a small handful of people who know about it. And even assuming I can figure out who they are and get to them to pose the question, there’s a decent chance that they’ll just lie to me and deny it. 

 

Wind of Change has been this project that’s simmered along in the background of other more pressing things for years but the story was so intriguing and the world it opened up, the strange convergence of U.S. intelligence and pop music during the cold war, was so compelling, I could never give it up. 

 

Last year I decided it was time to move this project to the front burner, and find out if the story is actually true. There was one immediate hurdle, though. and it involved Oliver.

 

Michael: He does not have rollback. To this day, he does not have rollback. 

 

Patrick: Technically, legally, Oliver can’t even tell me that he ever worked for the CIA, much less that the agency engineered a covert operation to write a hair band power ballad that would end the Cold War, but still, I wanted to find some way to talk to him about it.

 

Patrick: I mean I guess what I’m wondering about is meeting him. We would change his name, we would obscure any biographical details, we could change his voice if he wanted us to. All I would want is for him to tell the story. 

 

Michael: Just to confirm the story. 

 

Patrick: Well to tell the story again, yeah. Here’s the thing, we’re not gonna be recording him we’re only recording your end but what I’m saying is, I mean you know him better than I do. I have a feeling if you say like hey it’s Howard Stern you’re on the air, he’s probably gonna freak out but if you but if you just say to him hey so look it’s a podcast what would you think about talking on tape and we would we would be sure to protect you. 

 

Michael:  Yeah 

 

Patrick: And you think he’ll go for it? 

 

Michael: Uhhhh

 

Patrick: You don’t know. 

 

Michael:  I don’t know. 

 

Patrick: Here’s what I wrestle with. We’ve done a fair amount of legwork and there are you know these setbacks when I’m like,

 

Michael:  This isn’t true. 

 

Patrick: It’s not true. And then there are these moments where just when I’ve kind of given up hope that it is, suddenly there’ll be some indication that it is. And then the craziest thing is once you get into these wild stories they kind of only make sense if it’s at least somewhat true. 

 

Patrick: As a general rule, and this is part of what I love about him, Michael is less skeptical than I am. 

 

Michael: It’s 100 percent true. 

 

Patrick: I asked Michael if we could call Oliver and propose a meeting… and that’s how I ended up in Michael’s apartment, where this episode started, on that night last spring. We’re going to record only Michael’s side of the call, and we decide to not tell Oliver I’m in the room, so as not to spook him. Michael pours me a glass of wine and offers me a bag of popcorn. 

 

Michael: It’s popcorn. Sriracha popcorn or something? Boom Chicka Pop. 

 

Patrick: Can I have it? 

 

Michael: Yeah you can have it. 

 

Patrick: We keep our voices down because Michael’s son is asleep in the next room. 

 

Michael: Ok so what’s our what’s our game plan here?

 

Patrick: You’ve made an appointment to talk with him?

 

Michael: I mean I’ve texted him. 

 

Patrick: Alright I think we do this man. 

 

Michael: Let’s do it.

 

Patrick: While I eat popcorn, Michael dials. 

 

Michael: Calling Oliver. Here we go. Number for Oliver. Where is Oliver? 

 

Patrick: And Oliver picks up. 

 

Michael (on phone): What do you mean am I? Are you still alive? Yeah. 

 

Patrick: Like a good CIA officer recruiting a source, Michael’s not going to come out with the big ask right away. 

 

Michael (on phone): No fucking way. No way. That is wild. That’s pretty awesome. 

 

Patrick: He needs to work around to it, casually. So they banter for a while. 

Michael (on phone): Crazy. Which leads me to my, a question I have for you. 

 

Patrick: Michael reminds Oliver about the story.

 

Michael (on phone): So, remember the story you told me about ten years ago? About the band? We have a full on you know map of multiple different relationships trying to figure out the veracity of the story that you told. And so, no no I understand that you were told by you know let’s call him gray beard. You were told by this guy named Gray beard. Right. And so, what we’re going to do is interview the folks that did the concert. Interview folks that were in the intelligence services during that period of time. Hopefully get to the end where we’ve uncovered something like it’s either just a great story and it ends without ever knowing or we actually uncover that this story is really true and this is what happened. And so you were the genesis of this and I know that you know the, I know that it would it would be difficult for you to to tell it on the record but I’m wondering if you would do it with like a different name and a scratch voice and be interviewed…Well the upside the upside is the truth man. Right. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Right. Of course. Yeah. Yeah. No that’s true. Yeah of course of course. What. Hence the reason I called you of course of course of course of course of course. 

 

Patrick: I can’t hear the words Oliver’s saying but I can hear the sound of his voice through the phone, and he appears to be freaking out. Michael’s tone has totally changed. He’s in full-tilt reassurance mode. 

 

Michael (on phone): Do not worry. Understood. Don’t want that to happen. I do not want you to go to jail. I do not want you to be arrested under felony charges. Or or even worse. So I don’t want you to go to jail with Julian Assange at all. Anyway. Um. Awesome. Cool man. Okay. Good chatting. I’ll talk to you soon. Bye. 

 

Patrick: Michael hangs up.

 

Michael: Sorry dude, not gonna happen.

 

Patrick: Tell me everything.

 

Michael: Um. He was just like it’s a felony. There’s no fucking way I can tell you this story on the record with my voice. Anything like I’ll go to jail for this. You know. Like any story but this story, can’t do it. 

 

Patrick: Fuck. Really? 

 

Michael: He got very sensitive and said “Dude I can’t. It’s a felony. I’ll go to jail. For a long time.” And then he reiterated at the end it’s like I hope you understand like you can never talk about me in relationship to the story. 

 

Patrick: Right.

 

Michael: It is not something I should have told you. 

 

Patrick: I was just listening to your side of the conversation but it seemed like when you said like, do you remember when you told me this story and he was like well did he say something like well it wasn’t me who told you or it wasn’t, I didn’t tell you what happened or he, I told you that somebody told me or something.

 

Michael: Yeah he made it clear that he wasn’t involved in the story because he was a child. 

 

Patrick:  Because he was 12 at the time. 

 

Michael: Shit. Sorry dude. 

 

Patrick: Any investigation has a certain rhythm. You have a breakthrough, then it’s followed by a setback, and you’re tempted to just quit, but you know you have to keep pushing until you break through once again. 

 

Oliver’s refusal to talk to us, even if we shielded his identity, was definitely a setback. I really wanted to hear him tell the story himself. To see if there were other details he remembered, about the context of the story or the identity of the agency old timer who told it. 

 

At the same time, though, the panic oliver expressed, the sheer alarm I could hear on the other end of that phone, the idea that there’s other stories he could tell, but not this one, because this one’s too important, too secret, it’s the story that can’t be told, leave me feeling strangely energized. Like we’re onto something. Like there’s something real here and we have to figure it out. 

 

Patrick: Why is it, this is so sensitive? Did he explain that or just? 

 

Michael: No, there are other stories, not this one.  

 

Patrick: This season, on Wind of Change… 

[Audio Clip: trailer: ‘Wind of Change’ Podcast]

 

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, Beatrice Radden Keefe and Justyna Gudzowska. 

 

See you next week.