Meeting Mr. Smith
I was walking down Sadun St. in Baghdad on a hot Thursday evening when I was spooked.
It was August 1998 and I was the only known American in Iraq. The delegation of moms, journalists, professors and pacifistswho I had led around the country had just and I was waiting for the next group to arrive. My group, Voices in the Wilderness, was being watched by the FBI as well as Saddam Hussein. During the few days between delegations I spent time shooting pool (Brittish rules) and drinking warm Iraqi beer with a young Brittish raised Iraqi doctor. The doc was pressuring me for money to buy false papers so that he could flee the country. I was afraid for him but also afraid that this could be a set up, or for that matter, that we would get caught by the regime. I was torn wanting to help my only friend in the country but not wanting to risk the future of my group Voices In the Wilderness. I called a friend back in the states to ask him what he thought of "Saving Private Ryan" ethics. He didn't know what I was getting at but I couldn't be more specific on a phone connection that was being listened to by multiple parties.
I left the "business man's center" of the airline office where I made my international phone calls and changed single $100 US bills for inch thick stacks of $250 Iraqi Dinar bills to walk down Sadun St. Thursday nights in Iraq are the weekend night and Sadun St. is, or was- I haven't been back since a car bomb went off outside the church I was praying in in 2004, full of food vendors and carnival like gigs like "Squeeze this to test your strength" and "Ring the bell with a sledgehammer". I was trying to buy some chicken from a vendor who spoke no English, I spoke a few Arabic phrases, when a middled aged man with well weathered skin approached. He had no shirt or shoes and was wrapped in a wool blanket; he looked a lot like some of the homeless guys I've lived with over the years. In unaccented English he said to me: "It's like Kentucky Fried Chicken" get some and buy me a Pepsi so we can talk. In Iraq at that time the Pepsi was counterfeit and the bottle was worth more than the soda so you had to stick by the vendor to return the bottle when you finished otherwise he would chase you down. So I bought the man a Pepsi and got myself some chicken and we started pacing 20 yards in each direction so that the chicken seller wouldn't get all jiggilly with us about his bottle. After a few steps the man with the serious tan told me: "I studied at MIT, you know Boston, don't ya?"
"Uh, yeah, I grew up there."
"Good, good. You know, I'm an enemy of the state."
"Me too, buddy. In fact, I'm an enemy of all states" I chirped.
As I said this I noticed that a young Iraqi man in crisply pressed khakis was pacing with us and doing so in a badly obvious way.
The tan man then said: "You know, the CIA is an agency of your government."
"No shit buddy."
The tan man then grabbed my arm and repeated insistently: "The CIA is an agent of your government. Do you know what I mean."
At this point I was getting spooked that the tan man was a spook himself. The government of Iraq had warned our group that our government would try to infiltrate us since we were the only Americans they were giving visas to. I began to freak out. Was I being recruited by the CIA? Was I being set up? Who might be setting me up? Was my doctor friend involved? Was he not really a friend? Why would the CIA think I would join? I was married to a woman who was a convicted felon for hammering on a nuclear weapon and I had been arrested dozens of times for things like pouring my blood acoss the White House driveway.
With my arm still in his grip I asked: "What's your name buddy?"
"Mr. Smith, Do you know what I mean?"
Damn, I thought, this man is going to get me disappeared. So with a curt: "I gotta get back to my hotel" I gave my Pepsi bottle back to the chicken man and ditched Mr. Smith and the man in khakis.
Six years later when the FBI came to my home to question me about my humanitarian work in Iraq they told my wife they were interviewing all Iraqis in America. I'm Italian American from Boston. When the G-Men finished questioning me I asked if I could see the folder they had on me. There was no mention of any Mr. Smith. But then again when I did a FOIA request for my FBI file a year later I was told that I didn't have one.
I'll never know who Mr. Smith was but I sometimes wonder if he was friend's with the man who came calling on me when I was in Khartoum in '05. I was with my 12 year old son and leaving the country one step ahead of the secret police who had arrested a reporter travelling with me. But this is a story for another day.