How It Started
My boss, Joe Punta, was seated at his desk. Leaning towards him, I glanced around to see if any colleagues were listening.
“Joe, can we talk?”
It was just after Christmas 1990, and I was hoping to be deployed to Romania. Ever since reviewing the analysis on Romania’s 1989 Revolution and the overthrowing of the communist regime following the fall of the Berlin Wall, I’d been itching to help. Plus, I was bored with reading intelligence reports from CIA officers stationed there, while I sat at my desk in Langley. My career needed a jolt.
We were in the Office of Policy Support on the second floor of the Central Intelligence Agency complex. The room spread out over four-thousand square feet with fifteen cubicles lined up in three rows of five stations. Each cubicle held one or two massive L-shaped desks and a pair of computer screens. The room was one of three forming our office. Joe Punta was the group leader. The area buzzed with morning small talk.
“What do you have for me?” Joe questioned, without looking up. It was five minutes after start time, so he likely thought the meeting was regarding a personal request like asking for time off.
“I’d like to be deployed to Romania for a field job in my parents’ home country. At the Clandestine Service debrief two weeks ago, they mentioned they were looking for field agents in Eastern Europe for one year or more.”
Anxious, I pivoted back and forth on my feet. I had dressed nicely for this particular morning when I planned to ask for a field job. My regular black slacks and one-color shirt were replaced with a flowery dress.
“A twelve-month deployment?” My boss looked up with a frown on his lined face. “Where does this leave me and my team?” Joe was in his fifties, heavy set, with a loud, baritone voice. Dark hair covered half of his face and the man sweat profusely.
Ignoring his question, I continued. “What if I could infiltrate one of their recently created democratic organizations? I’m fluent in Romanian, Hungarian, and French. It would be relatively simple for me to take a job at the Miklos Fund for a Civil Society in Bucharest.”
My uncle Leo Miklos had opened the fund in Hungary and Romania to finance programs promoting democracy. The program intended to send professionals from various walks of life to work in Western European corporations, attend Western European universities, or bring experts from abroad to interact with and train Romanian political organizations. If I got hired there, I could move in with a distant aunt living in Bucharest’s Sixth District, a residential area for military retirees. Or, I could rent my aunt’s other property located in the Lacul Tei Borough of Bucharest.
“Never heard of it,” he said, shooting me a look of disbelief. “Who sanctioned this initiative?”
Nobody had sanctioned anything; it was my own plan to get in the field and Joe was slow to catch on. I really hated repeating myself, so I continued with my initial train of thought.
“My uncle started the Leo Miklos Fund. He was born in Brasov, the venerable Kronstadt-City in Transylvania, as it was known before communism. He came to America, became a citizen, got rich in the lumber business, and now owns several furniture companies. He wants to help finance the transformation of Romania into a democratic society.”
“Fine,” Joe held up a hand. “Fill out the appropriate forms and put in your request for field work. We’ll talk after the paperwork is processed.”
Putting pressure on my boss without any backup from the higher-ups at the agency could be disastrous. Still, what could be so bad about requesting to go to Romania? Even as the thought crossed my mind, I wondered why in the idea of traveling to Eastern Europe made me nervous. I made my way back to my desk not knowing exactly what I might be getting myself into.
For God’s sake, even though I was born in the US, I’m of Eastern European descent! My memories of the region, though faint, were mostly good. But what if I was just being ignorant? What if time had clouded my memory? Even so, what did the CIA really know about Romania or Eastern Europe? The agency’s current official sent to Bucharest to assess the political situation after the '89 Revolution was of Chinese descent, for crying out loud. What was his expertise? – allegedly the publicized friendship between Ceausescu and Mao during the seventies gave him some proxy understanding of Eastern Europe. That was how little they knew or cared to know about Romania. It was beyond me why our office was content with leaving someone completely unqualified in charge.
All imbeciles, I thought looking around the room, with perhaps one exception: Sharpton. He was the man who hired me as an intern, when I was only eighteen. Thirteen years later, he became General Sharpton. I seemed to avoid him most of the time. Not that I would have had many occasions to be asked to join any of his projects.
Bill Sharpton worked in the Clandestine Service, specifically field jobs in the Asia-Pacific territory, including black ops. My work was processing information and drawing data analysis that was streamed from Europe and the Middle East. When I had a chance to see him in the parking lot, I felt a need to impress him, to show how smart he had been to recruit the right eighteen-year-old. Yet, painful though it was to admit, in my thirteen years at the CIA, aside from participating to the Malaysia operation, I hadn’t contributed much.
“Hi, Ingrid,” General Sharpton greeted me in a loud voice.
“Hello, General Sharpton,” I replied quickly.
“What interesting assignments are you working on?” he asked with enthusiasm.
“Nothing too special, though I have something on my mind. Just had a talk with my supervisor a few days ago.”
“Go ahead and scare your boss out of his wits,” he replied with a smile. “Don’t let them sink comfortably in their chairs. Go set the world on fire.”
That same day I asked Joe to move me into a field position and submitted my formal request for transferring to field work. I requested to be stationed in my parents’ country of origin. Though I was lacking the authority to start a mission on my own, I hoped my request for field work would force them to give me the position I really wanted – gathering intelligence from Bucharest, Romania. It was time to have fun by living dangerously. Streaming raw intelligence to my office in the United States would be only too simple, or so I thought. The agency wouldn’t sanction my demand if they didn’t see me fitting in with whatever operation was run there.
To my surprise, a few days later, I received a phone call at home informing me that my request had been approved. The moment I entered the Office of Policy Support, my colleagues’ faces told me that I was in a tight spot. Some of them appeared lightly amused. My likeability never played to my advantage with my superiors. Am I too agreeable? I often wondered. Does being too congenial opens the door to discrimination? I’d been rolling these questions around in my mind for years.
When I went to see Joe, he was already up to speed with my projected transfer to field work, my upcoming trip, and reasons for going. I felt a tingle of excitement. Maybe the plan had worked. Maybe they would station me in Romania.
Later on, an older and wiser version of myself would understand that large government organizations like the CIA were unavoidably bureaucratic at times. The simplest way for those organizations to beat down their paper-pushing tendencies was to piggyback on individual initiatives. The answer came from somewhere above the level of my boss and was disguised as a real mission my boss would have to impress upon me. My intent to manipulate my boss, and the agency itself, met somewhere in the middle. They decided to send me to the country of my choosing on a loosely contrived assignment. That left me to decide where to live, what my cover story was, and how to get inside the center of things.
“Ingrid, how much money is potentially going into the Miklos Fund for a Civil Society?” Joe asked me, more curious if I had done my homework than to verify his own internal sources.
“Several millions of American dollars.”
Joe looked pleased. “You now have an assignment. Make sure American donated money goes to the right people.”
A sheepish smile was glued on my face.
Joe rose from behind his desk. Though short and pudgy, he loomed over me in a flash.
“I appreciated you having a straight talk with me about wanting to be deployed to gather intelligence in Romania for us. But remember, you’re on a short leash.” He stopped to look into my eyes. “Ingrid, you have a habit of attempting to handle us into pursuing objectives of what you think is the higher good.”
Avoiding scowling back at him, I bit my lips and took a moment before replying.
We both knew he was referring to the Malaysia file, where I helped hide a Chilean political refugee who tainted his refuge in the United States by conspiring to arson and grand theft along with Latino companions from Brooklyn. The intelligence agencies felt too indebted to him to let him go down after his arrest: The system wanted him deported to his country of origin where he would have been killed. I volunteered to hide him from the public until the judicial meandering was worked out, but I extemporaneously found an avenue to illegally orchestrate his escape from the county jail, cross him into Canada, and put him on a flight to Malaysia under a changed identity. He’d been in hiding somewhere close to Kuala Lumpur for over ten years now. The scandal almost cost me my job. Instead, it meant I worked one second-rate assignment after another.
“I’m interested to see how Romania’s new political class will help the country transition into a democratic society. My parents collected information for the CIA for many years. They loved Romania as much as they loved their adoptive country, the United States. I’m doing this for them. I just hope Romania becomes close and personal to me as it was for them,” I confided in Joe.
We took a few seconds to look at each other, while lost in thought; then, I turned away, staring through the long wall of windows. I had a week to pack and take a flight to Henri Coanda International Airport, in Bucharest. Joe asked me to familiarize myself with the recent details and the protagonists of the current events in Romania.
The remaining time to my departure I spent in a basement conference room, which was occasionally used by our officers for researching archived material.
On the TV screens several feet in front of me, I was watching year-old footage of Nicolae Ceausescu who had been the communist dictator of Romania for the past twenty-four years. During his populist meeting, Ceausescu lost control of the crowd gathered at the Palace Square. That would become his last speech, on December 21, 1989.
At one time during that week Joe entered through the double doors and approached my desk. He listened for a while and read the subtitles running under the Ceausescu’s televised speech.
“Hmm,” he mumbled.
“Yea, bombastic promises in the dictator’s annual speech. Promising salary increases to his people.”
Ceausescu stood on the balcony of the Central Committee building. Anti-government movements had already started in the country, but Ceausescu, in his last speech, chose to say the marches were acts of interference from foreign powers, which infuriated the crowd.
We watched the entire tape. Then, I played footage scenes with Romanians demonstrating in the street during the days of the 1989 Revolution on the three screens mounted in front of us.
“Ceausescu was ousted within days,” I said. “Both he and his wife were summarily prosecuted for crimes against the Romanian people. The military court demanded they be executed by firing squad.”
Joe grabbed a chair to join me.
“The 1989 Revolution ground the economy and the inner working of the nation’s political powers to a halt. Lucrative contracts no longer flow into the country, and there isn’t much work to be had,” a Romanian woman voice said on one of the TV screens, talking English with a strong accent.
We watched demonstrators occupy the streets across the globe, in support of the Romanian and other Eastern European regime changes. It seemed to me celebrities and politicians made a show of the revolution by switching allegiances from autocracy to democracy. Sometimes they appeared sincere, but many were doing it for their own gain.
“Is this the current president of the country?” Joe asked.
“Yes. Ilie Ionesco, director of a print shop from Bucharest, rose to power that year, although it was well known that his politics leaned toward Marxism. Attending school in Moscow during the seventies gained him close ties with the KGB.”
“Was this demonstrated yet?”
“This is what we got about his past,” I replied. “His closeness to Moscow led to his downfall in the eighties from his membership in the elite Central Committee of the Communist Party, as far as we know. He was relegated by Ceausescu to an obscure administration role at a print shop to edit and print technical publications. During these new times, Ionesco was ripe for a return. He became Interim President in December 1989.”
Joe commented pensively, “Securitate had a big role in this.”
I nodded in agreement.
“When the revolution erupted, a few agents of internal affairs Securitate disassociated themselves from their orders to stand down and started shooting demonstrators in the streets,” I related.
“Disgruntled? Or loyalty to the old regime?”
“Yes, likely a bit of both. And trigger happy.” I posted more pictures and movie clips on the screens in front of us, taken from the Romanian broadcasting of their tumultuous recent history. “It seems that Ionesco attempted to end the violence by calling in Russian reinforcements, but his phone line had been patched to a warehouse on the outskirts of Moscow by Romanian internal affairs agents.”
“The downfall and execution of Ceausescu led to the dissolving of the Romanian Government and its agencies,” Joe added. “The political field is wide open to newcomers.”
“We received intelligence from government agencies who waited for this opportunity during the former system,” I quipped. “It seems the new and the old got together to help the nation through the changes to a free society.”
Joe had a small smile.
“Yes, this is your mission,” he said approvingly. “Go and find out what they are up to. We need to know what’s going on. I signed your transfer to Bucharest this morning. Do you have a cover story yet?”
“My identity is that I’ve returned to my family’s homeland to take care of my aunt. She was one of my last living relatives in Romania. She’s in mourning after the recent passing of her husband. I’ll also make it known that I’m looking for a job.”
He sighed, avoiding eye contact. Deep down, Joe resented being ordered from above to sign my transfer. Conversations in the conference room were taped and would end up in my file, as were all conversations of officers coming in or going out into the field.
“Your cover to work for the Miklos Fund is approved. Your mission code is Watching Doll.”
He’s happy I’m still reporting to him, I thought. Intelligence data streaming from Romania would make him look good to the higher echelons for a while.
Unless this move fucks up my job and my life. My assumptions turned cynical.
“Better make sure this turns out right, whatever small or not so small contribution you make,” Joe looked me in the eyes. We shook hands. It sounded like Joe didn’t have much faith in me.
“I want to work within my family. Never met Leo Miklos before, although he knows I’m the niece of Ella Breban, his cousin. He’s a sonofabitch from what I’ve heard. He’s never helped the European part of his family. They hate the rich back in Eastern Europe. Orthodox priests tell their sheep that rich people go to hell when they die.”
Joe gave a short laugh.
Without a word, I grabbed my handbag and went to say goodbye to some of my other colleagues.
Gigi Gore was part of my small team. We’d worked together on the Malaysia op. He was a thin and nervous sort of man who could usually be found at his computer searching the web.
“Where are you going?” He gave me a friendly wink.
“The Miklos Fund at the Writers’ Union House on Victory Avenue in Bucharest, where I’ll try to find a job working for my uncle.”
“Wow ... nice building!” He remarked after a quick web search. “When you check in with Joe, give him architectural tips of the building – that piece of data is for me.” Gigi Gore was a nineteenth-century architecture buff. “I’d guess lots of marble, red velvet, colonnades, leaded windows, mahogany furniture.”
He rose and we hugged. “Take care.”
My last destination before checking out was the main archive department on the second floor. The stairs were cut out of granite; the building was the oldest of Langley. At the top of the stairs, I opened the only door at the end of the hall. Timmy Sis was there behind his tall desk reaching up to his arm pits. His round face looked as affable as ever. He was a short blond man in his thirties who spent his entire workday alone. At certain hours, according to a fixed schedule, Timmy had to verify other archives around the Langley campus.
“Hey, you, beautiful girl!” he called out to me.
He’d known me since filing the documentation from the Malaysia job. Every time one of my superiors or tactical advisors on current assignments wanted to review the file, I had to sign off on the release of the Malaysia file from the archives.
Timmy Sis was also part of the security team at Langley. He signed off on the return of my access cards to the office rooms and assigned basement arms rack. By writing my name on the document he had waiting, I acknowledged I may not come back from this mission.
In a quick step, I walked out through the secured gates. The guards took a furtive look at me before returning to their conversation. I descended to my car’s parking spot and sped away. A copy of my transfer document peaked out of my handbag resting on the passenger seat of my car.
A small smile crept across my face. I had just transferred from one CIA job to another. Goodbye to neat and tidy office work. I was headed to the land of mythic stories, castles and monasteries. My mission was to meet Romania’s spies, political figures and top law-enforcement officials. Ready to rock.