March 21, 2021

Movie Review: Security Risk (Allied Artists, 1954)


Normally I review movies and series that are based on or about the Middle East. However, I did spend my entire career as a professional intelligence officer – about half the time as a signals intelligence officer and the other half as a clandestine human resources intelligence officer, more commonly referred to as a case officer.

 

One of my pet peeves is the arbitrary use of the term spy. I was not a spy – I recruited spies, foreign officers and officials who had access to their government’s secret and sensitive information to provide that information clandestinely to U.S. intelligence services. They were the spies – I was an American intelligence officer “running” or “handling” them on behalf of my country. Spies agree to betray their countries for a variety of reasons, some honorable, some not – it depends on which side of the equation you are.

 

Security Risk is a 1954 film by Allied Artists, directed by Harold Schuster, and written by Jo Pagano and John Rich. The film stars John Ireland, Dorothy Malone, Keith Larsen, Dolores Donlon, John Craven and Susan Cummings. It’s just 69 minutes long, so it does not require a huge investment of your time.

The write-up on several classic movie sites describes this as an American action film. I would call it an espionage drama, but in terms of the genre in 1954, it might also qualify as an action thriller. There is a lot of action packed into just 69 minutes.

 

The story line: (I will avoid spoiling the film for those of you who plan to watch it.)

 

In the early 1950’s as the Cold War between the two major post World War II powers – the United States and the Soviet Union – heated up, the Soviets were very interested in knowing what research and development was taking place in the greater Los Angeles area. At that time, southern California was the epicenter of American high-tech defense and aerospace research and development.

 

The film synopsis describes the scientist who is the focus of a Soviet espionage cell as a nuclear physicist. I never got that from the film – all we are really told is that he was a government researcher and was working on an undefined “formula.” The cell was tasked with acquiring the formula from the scientist.

 

The venue for the story is the Big Bear ski resort in San Bernardino County. The resort is 100 miles east of Los Angeles, about a three-hour drive in 1954. The scientist, Dr. Lanson (we never hear his first name), decides to take a short respite from his research by going skiing at Big Bear. Obviously, the cell tasked with acquiring his research notes and “the formula” had him under surveillance; at least three members of the cell follow him to the resort.

 

There is also a support asset in residence at Big Bear, which leads me to believe that the Soviets considered the area a popular area for the defense and aerospace researchers and contractors in the Los Angeles area, and likely similar facilities in Palmdale and Edwards Air Force Base.

 

As you would expect, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was concerned with the activities of Soviet and other hostile intelligence services – the Bureau is the primary counterintelligence agency in the United States. As such, there is an FBI agent in Big Bear to make sure these hostile intelligence services are kept at bay. You decide whether he is successful.

 

So as not to spoil the viewing experience for those who wish to watch the movie, I will only say that the Soviet cell at some point in the past recruited Dr. Lanson’s assistant at whatever research facility that employed him. This sets up a series of events that are interesting, and yet a bit implausible. It is the assistant who is tasked by the cell to clandestinely acquire the research papers and “the formula” from Dr. Lanson’s personal effects in the lodge suite that he shares with his assistant.

 

Okay, you see why I am baffled by this. If the cell has already recruited Dr. Lanson’s assistant, there should be no need to even mount this operation in Big Bear. Recruiting the assistant would have been a major intelligence coup, providing direct access to virtually all of the doctor’s research projects. Even if much of it was compartmented and not directly accessible by the assistant, the chances of accessing at the main research facility are far greater than a chance acquisition at a ski resort. Of course, without that, there would be no basis for the movie.

 

Continuing, when the assistant gets a chance to search the doctor’s desk, papers, and personal effects at the lodge, he pretty much ransacks the place. This is counterproductive. The goal of a clandestine intelligence operation is to acquire the information without anyone knowing that the acquisition has even occurred. Tossing an office or room only tells the security officials that something has likely been compromised.

 

Of course, this begs the question – why was Dr. Lanson in possession of these highly classified papers while ostensibly on vacation? Isn’t the purpose of a vacation to vacate your mind from the job? Merely having the materials with him and working on them in a non-secure facility violates virtually security protocol there is.

 

The assistant is successful in discovering the research papers, including “the formula.” As any good intelligence asset, he properly photographed all of the materials. He is discovered while photographing the documents, a fight ensues, and the assistant is able to make his escape.

 

Read this-> When the assistant leaves the lodge, he leaves behind the documents out (he should have replaced them) and get this, leaves his camera there. In other words, he left the very items he was sent to acquire. Sort of like the current joke, “You had one job….”

 

The very first thing you learn at the Intelligence Operations Course, Tradecraft 101, or just plain old “spy school” is GET THE INTELLIGENCE. That’s why we do this.

 

Bottom line: It’s an entertaining story, especially if you have any background in intelligence operations.

 

Watch it for free at the Russian classic film site Odnoklassniki:  https://ok.ru/video/1735416220340

 

 


March 6, 2021

“Yeah, thank you, Charlie Wilson” – the law of unintended consequences

 


In a recently aired episode of the CBS television series Seal Team, there was a quick phrase that probably went unnoticed by most of the viewing audience. Even if they heard it, they probably are not aware of the meaning.

 

In Season 3, Episode 19, Bravo Team is operating in a village in Afghanistan. Overwatch for the operation is being provided by a Predator drone. As shown in this screen capture, a surface-to-air missile is launched at and hits the drone.



The loss of the drone caused a loss of communications with the operational headquarters, and a loss of situational awareness. As the team realizes what has just happened, one of the SEALs remarks, “Thank you, Charlie Wilson.”



For those viewers who were not aware of the level of U.S. involvement in opposing the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s, the remark may not mean anything. To those of us who were involved in the American effort to support the Afghan resistance fighters – the self-proclaimed mujahidin (holy warriors) – it was a reminder of the concept of unintended consequences.

 

From 1987 until Saddam Husayn invaded Kuwait in 1990 and I was deployed to Saudi Arabia, I was assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon as the Assistant Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East and South Asia.

 

When I was not in Baghdad working the operation assisting Iraqi forces, my office was peripherally involved in the Defense Department's slice of the CIA program supporting the Afghan mujahidin - "holy warriors" opposing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That Defense Department support included the delivery of the FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-fired air defense missile.

 

At some point in America's support - I think it was 1986 - Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson insisted that the "muj" needed an air defense weapon to combat the heavily armed Soviet MI-24 assault helicopter gunship, the Hind. He insisted that they be provided the U.S.-made state-of-the-art Stinger.


Afghan mujahidin with Stinger missile

Charlie Wilson was a charming Southern gentleman. When I visited his office the first time, the launcher that fired the first Stinger in Afghanistan was hanging on the wall – he was extremely proud of that. He liked to talk about the Confederacy, in fact, much of the art in his office portrays battles of the Civil War. When my boss remarked about a depiction of Pickett's July 3, 1863 unsuccessful charge at Gettysburg, he quietly nodded his head and remarked, "If Pickett had been successful, we'd be having this conversation in Richmond...."

 

Back to the Stinger. There was absolutely no interest at the Pentagon in supplying the world's most lethal shoulder-fired air defense system to a bunch of tribesmen in Afghanistan – for several reasons. First, we believed they could have achieved the same effect with lesser-capability Soviet weapons, such as the readily-available (and not traceable to the United States) SA-7.

 

Second, and more importantly, no one wanted the Stinger in the hands of potential bad guys. Since we had to provide all of the weapons and equipment via the Pakistani intelligence service – the notoriously unreliable ISID – we were concerned that money talks and the Stinger would find itself where we did not want it to go.

 

We were proven right in October 1987 when the U.S. Navy seized the Iran Ajr while it was laying mines in the Persian Gulf. Found on the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) vessel was a battery of a Stinger launcher. The serial number of the battery was traceable to the CIA Afghan Task Group – it had been sent to Pakistan destined for the muj.

 

I am not sure where it was diverted, but I am betting on the ISID. We in the HUMINT (human intelligence) business used to joke that you had to recruit an "x" (the nationality of your choice), but you could buy a Pakistani – in south Asia, money talks. To make matters worse, during the operation, another Iranian boat fired two Stingers at a U.S. Navy A-6. We concluded that weapons we had sent to support anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan were being used against us in the Persian Gulf.

 

This is euphemistically called "unintended consequences."

 

When Congressman Wilson was in Pakistan on an official visit in 1987, he wanted to use the U.S. Defense Attach̩'s C-12 aircraft to fly somewhere. Fine, but Wilson wanted to take his girlfriend along. The Defense Attach̩, a USAF colonel, said, "Sir, you mean your assistant." Wilson Рlooking for a fight Рinsisted that the colonel was going to take his girlfriend along. The colonel refused; it caused us (well, me) hours of grief trying to save the airplane once Wilson got back to Washington.

 

All in all, am I a fan of Charlie Wilson's? Let's see – a former Navy intelligence officer, a drunken womanizer, but someone who got things done. His heart was in the right place, but allowing the Stinger to end up in the hands of the IRGC, the Taliban, and who knows who else, is the epitome of unintended consequences.