Thursday, November 10, 2005

1981 – Was My Waiter a Spy?

Security and Spies seems to be a theme in my last couple of posts so I’ll continue with this line and add a sea story (personal experience) and confession to the mix.

In the fall of 1981 on my first FBM patrol aboard the USS Simon Bolivar SSBN641(G), we had an equipment causality that necessitated us pulling into port for repair. That port was Bridgetown Barbados, not a bad place to make a liberty call. On the last day in port, a group of us went to a hotel on Paradise Beach. They had a nice bar on the beach and it seemed to be the place to relax, enjoy some reggae music and drink Banks beer.

About four of us were sitting at a table just off the beach within sight of the bar. We had a few rounds before finding out that the band wasn’t going to start for an hour or so. My shipmates were getting board and had decided to take a walk down the beach to check out the bikini scenery. Being the submarine non-qual and lightweight drinker of the group, I stayed behind to finish my beer.

The friendly waiter who had been serving us that afternoon was going off shift and stopped to see if my friends were returning and if I needed anything. Then he struck up what was at first an innocent conversation. I recall it went something like this:

Waiter – “Are you from the submarine over there in the harbor?” pointing in the direction of Bridgetown.

LL – “Yes, we’ve been in port a few days for a liberty call.”

Waiter – Sits down across from me “I’ve traveled on ships but I’d like to know what it’s like being on a submarine, how long do you stay at sea?” expressing what appeared to be a general curiosity.

LL – “This is my first time at sea; we’re supposed to do around 70 days a patrol.”

Waiter – After a few are fairly long general questions he picks up the pace, “If someone gets sick, do you have a doctor on board?”, “What’s the food like?”

LL – The questions he’s asking seem to be harmless enough so I answered the best I could for someone new to submarines. “We have a corpsman to handle emergencies.”, “The food is good but you run out of fresh milk and produce about two weeks out.”

Waiter – The next two questions came fast and without pause “You’re a missile submarine do you carry the Poseidon or Trident C4?”, “What is the range of the C4 missile?”

LL – Even with a few beers in me, this stopped me in my tracks. To the first question about the type of missile we carried, I just looked at him and didn’t say anything. On the second question about the C4 Missile range, I shook my head “NO” and did not say another word.

My “friend” the waiter looked upset with my non-answer and quickly left without saying anything. Just then, my shipmates returned no longer board after a successful bikini-scouting mission.

I don’t know if I just didn’t recognize what had just happened or being new to the real Navy felt too scared to relate my five-minute conversation with a waiter to the duty officer, but I never reported it. In either case, I should have reported what had occurred.

I relate this story as a sort of lesson leaned because if that waiter was an intelligence agent I could have made a serious mistake in not reporting my unease with what had happened. I didn’t disclose classified information but, if the waiter was an agent, by reporting the incident, I could have compromised his status.

Lesser Antillies (Source: NASA)

You see that was late in 1981 and Barbados is in close proximity to Grenada. After President Reagan's 1982 visit to Barbados, he voiced a fear that Grenada, with its socialist government and proximity to Cuba, could become a Communist beachhead in the Caribbean. In October of 1983 Operation Urgent Fury was launched, after a request by the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), to stop the bloody seizure of power by a hard-line Marxist group in Grenada. It was believed that the Cubans were behind a government coup in Grenada and their agents had been operating for years on the islands around Grenada. Barbados was one of the island nations with great concerns about it’s neighbor's political direction.

Maybe my waiter was a spy maybe he wasn’t, but I wasn’t the one to make that determination. In any case if you’re active duty and someone is asking you questions that start off innocent but become progressively closer to what should remain unsaid be wary and let your command know of your suspicions.

Some things that seem simple or inconsequential at the time could actually mean something later on, you never know.


Vigilis said...

Lubber, that waiter may have been what you suspected or even what you still may not expect, and that is well and good.

Lubber's Line said...

Vigilis, The story doesn't reflect on me very well but if someone stops by reads my account and learns a small lesson how HUMINT works, possibly preventing a leak, then a little self deprecation was worth it.

At the time, I was new to the Navy and naïve. Who knew that that little corner of the world was important to anyone or that an ET3(SU) could be a target for information gathering. I’ve never had anything similar happen to me since, but if it did a follow up would be forthcoming as to why a neophyte line of questions would abruptly turn to fishing for weapons systems capabilities.

Vigilis said...

Lubber, please do not misunderstand what I have said. Your story does reflect very well on you, both as an individual and as a young submariner recognizing and handling a security situation (certainly we were forewarned of them) appropriately. In no way am I minimizing the significance of your story.

The U.S. used to (and probably still does) conduct undercover tests on people with important security clearances. I have seen half a dozen sailors identified as risks and booted off a sub in one operation alone. Only when I looked back many years later, did I realize the practice was more common than I had then suspected.

bothenook said...

lub-dude, in the early/mid 70's, they used to have a bus that ran from various school commands and boat barracks out into town and back. cost something like 25 cents to ride. after our boat came back from a long run, this guy was in serious info gathering mode. my roomie and i called NIS and told them about the barrage of questions, all of them seemed highly inappropriate to our heightened sense of awareness. the next thing we know, this guy is gone, and we got an official thanks from the navy via our skipper. the dude was a real live no bullshit spy, getting paid by the bad guys and everything. they used him as an example in all of our security awareness briefs after that.