Thomas R. Spencer, Jr., sighs gently into the phone and tries again to explain what his group, the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), actually does. "We're about educating the public about what the intelligence community does and doesn't do," he says. Yes, I grant, but what you mainly do is tell war stories and scarf down bland, rubbery chicken lunches in stuffy banquet rooms at downtown hotels, right? "We're a serious organization," he counters. Like a Rotary Club for old spooks? Finally he gives in. "You're welcome to come to the next lunch," he offers, adding slyly, "We'd be happy to blindfold you and take you for a ride."
Miami truly is a subtropical Casablanca, with a colorful, sordid history dating almost to its swampy beginnings. It has served as Washington outpost for both overt and covert Latin American policies, from the Spanish-American War to the Bay of Pigs to Iran-Contra, and as haven to the exiled and ousted from the regimes of Latin America and the Caribbean. It's also a great place to hide, whether you are a retired spook, aging mobster, deposed general, or 9/11 terrorist. In short, this is a town whose denizens breathe intrigue in with the humid air.
Given this background, I'm picturing the AFIO as a bunch of grizzled old guys in battered flak jackets debating the finer points of jungle missions over cigars and Scotch in a dark corner of some rifle range. But no such luck. At the appointed hour, a contingent of about 30 well-dressed people assembles in a corner dining room of the Banker's Club, on the fourteenth floor of One Biscayne Tower. Queuing obediently in front of a buffet spread of fancy cold cuts, pasta salad, and chocolate cake, the mostly male, mostly middle-age crowd resembles any other crowd of bankers, lawyers, or real estate agents gorging itself on mediocre fare all over Miami. Many of them, in fact, are lawyers, bankers, or real estate agents. There are also a couple of judges, a car dealer, one or two accountants, and a fair number of consultants who deal in business and personal security. But one or two careers ago, most of them were working for the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and other intelligence outfits with inscrutable acronyms. Spencer (a prominent local attorney who represented Iran-contra figure Maj. Gen. Richard Secord in the Eighties and was part of the Bush legal team during the 2000 presidential recount mess) begins by leading the Pledge of Allegiance. He then turns the floor over to Fred Rustmann, a former CIA man with a book to sell about using secret agent techniques to counter economic espionage.
At one table near the front of the room, a blond, middle-age woman who currently works for the school district recalls fondly her years spent in and out of the Nicaraguan jungles in the Iran-contra Eighties, generating information others could use to counter, as she puts it, "the propaganda line the mainstream media had swallowed from the Sandinistas." Comandanta Leona, I'll call her, doesn't want to go into the details, but mentions she still enjoys rappelling off ten-story buildings. "Not bad for a 57-year-old bag, eh?" she jokes, casting a look at a couple of former Green Berets tunneling through the pasta salad on their plates.
Up at the podium, the gray-suited Rustmann is well into his spiel about his CIA career -- recruited in college, sent to Saigon after surviving the Agency "Farm," a stint in Paris, then on to Ethiopia to deal with an uncooperative dictator. "In Ethiopia, we were surrounded by the Soviets and the Cubans," he says, then realizing he's in Miami, qualifies: "The bad Cubans, not our guys." At my table, Leona is advising me that if I really want to understand what we're up against in the post-9/11 world, then I should pick up a copy of The Arab Mind, a 30-year-old analysis of Arabic culture by Hungarian scholar Raphael Patai.
Later, a man I'll call Smith, a Miami native with a long career in the local financial sector, approaches, eyeing me warily. Smith comes from a family with deep roots in the intelligence community, locally and internationally. One relative who has since passed on was renowned and feared as a brilliant yet paranoid CIA Cold Warrior, but Smith doesn't want his name dredged up because it worries the relatives. "A lot of spies retire in Miami," he says. "You can't use names or you will put people in danger. This is a very strange, very dangerous town. You don't sleep after awhile."
A very strange town
In the Sixties and Seventies, the CIA's largest field base was in Miami, headquartered out of the code-named JM/WAVE station, a former naval facility just west of the current Metrozoo complex in the southwest part of the county. The CIA also ran gigs out of the Opa-locka airport, such as the 1954 overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz. When Fidel Castro came to power, a sizable portion of the Cuban exile community was mobilized and trained to overthrow the communist dictator, resulting in the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation of 1961. That debacle led to Operation Mongoose, a huge Miami-based campaign of worldwide espionage, sabotage, and propaganda largely aimed at Castro's Cuba, until it fizzled out officially in the Seventies. One amusing subplot involved the Agency teaming up with mobsters Santo Trafficante, Sam Giancana, and Johnny Rosselli to poison Castro (allegedly hatching the plot at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach). And some of the Watergate burglars were CIA-trained Cubans led by ex-spy E. Howard Hunt, still a Miami guy.
During this heyday, the CIA was one of Florida's largest employers, through several dozen front companies, a secret navy later estimated to be one of the largest in the Caribbean, and private airlines. Once it shut down JM/WAVE, Miami was awash in thousands of people with covert military training, not to mention money-laundering skills, just as the drug trade began to flourish. For about ten years beginning in the mid-Seventies, Miami was wide open -- a border town whose major import/export business was the well-laid scam, practiced by lawyers, bankers, politicians, and real estate developers, as well as the more overtly criminal elements such as drug traffickers. Large amounts of unexplained cash flowed in and out of the downtown financial sector. Flash and cash determined the social hierarchy and the place picked up its Miami Vice reputation.
Of course the CIA was still here, and the same ask-no-questions-tell-no-lies atmosphere that made Miami a haven for lawless profiteers, also made a perfect cover for off-the-books political operations. Faced with an uncooperative Congress in the early Eighties, the CIA financed much of its illegal aid to the Nicaraguan contras via the same Miami characters and fronts used to harass Castro. Some of these characters were also in the business of moving cocaine back from Central and South American countries, and delivering arms shipments and secret agents there. During the same period, guys like Sarkis Soghanalian, a major arms dealer with winter quarters in Miami Beach, sold weapons to Nicaragua and helped arm Saddam Hussein in his fight against the ayatollahs of Iran. He did this, he has claimed many times, with the approval of the Reagan and Bush administrations and the CIA.
Miami today may not be as wide open as that, but it remains a place of intrigue. We've got Venezuelan businessmen plotting the overthrow of Hugo Chavez from Key Biscayne, relatives of deposed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza running popular restaurants all over the county, and the ever-present octogenarian exilio commandos endlessly plotting the violent overthrow of Fidel Castro over cafecitos in Little Havana. And as we discovered post-September 11, this end of Florida is also a haven for Middle Eastern terrorists. So Smith can be forgiven his paranoia.
The Association of Former Intelligence Officers was formed in Virginia in 1975, around the time the CIA began to get the congressional thumbscrews for some of its bloodier exploits. Today it claims around 3500 members and a mission of promoting a "better understanding" of the role effective U.S. intelligence plays in this country's security. Thomas Spencer, who's on the board of the national group, founded the Miami chapter a year and a half ago. James Angleton, Jr., chief financial officer for the United Teachers of Dade, is the current president of the chapter. There are about 50 members so far. Spencer frequently gives talks about national security issues to various business and civic organizations in town. "It's unbelievable the stuff that goes on here today and historically," Spencer says. "We've got representatives from every intelligence agency in the world, on one side or the other."
For AFIO, he brings in speakers like federal judge and ex-naval intelligence officer A. Jay Cristol, and Rear Adm. James "Jay" Carmichael, commander of the local Coast Guard district. Besides being a great place to pick up the latest spy spin and conspiracy tales, the AFIO lunches aim to bring together the somewhat amorphous local intelligence community. "We're generally speaking to the choir and they know it," Spencer admits. "It's primarily a networking thing." Spencer says he's got aspirations to start scholarships for local students who want to enter an intelligence field, and fund intelligence programs at a local university.
Overall the local AFIO offers a mix of goofy boosterism (like raffling off coffee mugs and ball caps with the logo on them) and ideological affirmation. The guest speakers are a pretty sober lot, but the real fun is at the tables. At a lunch at the Biscayne Bay Marriott Hotel, Comandanta Leona introduces me to Major Bob, a retired Army pilot who spent five years with the CIA in the Seventies. With a smooth bald head, glasses, crisp dark suit, and large gold and diamond ring on one hand, he looks like a younger version of Dr. No. Nowadays he's a security consultant and runs an antique shop in Pembroke Pines with his wife. "The scariest man I know," says Leona, only half-joking. "You should write about him."
"My life is not for publication," Bob protests. Then, switching gears, Bob tells me if I join the group, he'll send me the nifty AFIO e-mail newsletters. "You like conspiracy theories? I'll send you one of those sites, too."
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There's no shortage of conspiracy chatter, mixed in with real bits of intelligence. At one lunch, the dapper former commissioner of a small town in South Florida reveals that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and his redneck cohorts had contacts with "Arabs." "I was part of the [Oklahoma City] investigation," says a guy I'll call Ari. "I have seen the photographs." At another lunch, I learn that al Qaeda is working with Chechen rebels, and still finding money for its operations. A gruesome speculation is made about a Navy SEAL killed by al Qaeda in March. "Reports were ... he was shot in the hands, feet, they cut off his ears, mutilated his organs, then finished him off execution-style," one guy says. The news flash in December? The U.S. is going to take some new toys into Iraq in February, for a quick war. "It'll be a 72-hour war," claims one ideologue. I also hear that South Florida is a more dangerous place to live than New York, Detroit, or San Francisco because of the high concentration of potential terrorists and their sympathizers hiding here. Look for biological warfare in produce departments and computer hackers in banking systems, for a start.
Then there is my favorite, the real reason Fidel Castro is still in power. Smith throws this one at me casually, to see if I'll take the bait. I can't even hazard a guess:
"What is the reason?" I demand.
"You think I'm going to tell you that?" he scoffs.