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Top Secret

Top Secret Cover Image

K.A. Bachus

May 29, 2024

I dimly understood the danger, but it could not dampen the thrill that went through me when I held that standard form message peppered with all the usual, mundane TSECRET/WNINTEL/NOCONTRACT/SPECAT caveats and stamped at the top with the rare and almost magical word: WEDGE.

—Steve Donovan in Cetus Wedge


Once upon a time, I typed aircrew briefings in a special ops intel shop. We took document security seriously. Lives were, and still are, at stake.

This blog post is based on what I remember during the Cold war, shortly after Vietnam. There have been changes over the decades since, but many features of the classification system remain the same.

One reason for keeping secrets is to protect the lives of sources. Another is to keep or gain a tactical or strategic information advantage. We need to know what potentially hostile forces are up to in this dangerous world. And, of course, we don't want them to know what we know or how we learned it.

Any classification system's primary principles all rest on the assumption that anyone given access must have a NEED TO KNOW. I believe three others can be summed up as don't over classify, don't under classify, and don't leave it lying around.

During my service, the default classification period for a document was eight years. I dealt mostly with information that was exempt from the default, but even so, the declassification schedule was never supposed to exceed thirty years. Each paragraph began with its classification in all caps, followed by applicable caveats, and ended with either a date within eight years or the notation xgds and a number. This stood for 'exempt from general declassification schedule.' The number indicated the reason. The most compelling of those reasons was number 4—sensitive sources and methods involved.

There are still only three levels of classification, TOP SECRET, SECRET, AND CONFIDENTIAL.

In ascending order, from CONFIDENTIAL to TOP SECRET, the words to remember are damage, serious damage, and exceptionally grave damage to national security.

Remember the words that follow damage: to National Security. Not a politician's reputation, nor a bureaucracy's, nor a corporation's profits.

How so? you may ask. How can a piece of paper endanger the United States? This is almost a philosophical question and requires examination of why some things are secret. Since Biblical times, effective leaders have understood the need to know their enemies, their intentions and capabilities.

Being cognizant of what and who are arrayed against you requires intelligence—of the 'go scout out the opposition' kind. Information learned this way is guarded for two reasons. The potential adversary is also assessing you. If they know how much intelligence you have gathered, they can plan more effectively. But the most compelling reason for not sharing our intelligence on the evening news, is that it is often gathered and given to us by living human beings at great personal cost.

"Oh, you fly that spy plane!" new friends would say to my ex-husband, who flew the U-2. He always corrected them, "Reconnaissance, please. Reconnaissance. Spies are shot."

I take a dim view of people with cavalier attitudes to classified information. Yes, the lives of all Americans are at stake in the big picture, but there are countless little stories in the shadows that are affected, sometimes with death, when there is a breach.

Some people break the rules for reasons of conscience, but there is no way of knowing who or what else may be affected, so while I can understand the impulse, I do not recommend it as a career move, either practically or ethically. Then there are those who divulge classified information because they are knowingly working for a foreign government. These people are traitors, Plain and Simple, because betrayal during war is a crime, and the theater of espionage is a permanent place of battle--with human casualties.


John Le Carré

John Le Carré Cover Image

K.A. Bachus

November 14, 2023

In a blog series about great spies and spy masters, I must include John Le Carré, the best ever espionage writer. He hooked me for life with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I recently re-read that book after thirty years and discovered the foundation of my own work. To say I was heavily influenced by Le Carré is understatement.

My Frank Cardova shares a number of physical characteristics with George Smiley, though both characters are quite distinct in my mind.

John Le Carré always insisted, because he had to, that he was only a minor diplomat in the British Foreign Service. Once the expiration of his responsibility under the Official Secrets Act allowed it, he owned up to his experience in both MI5 and MI6 and to his real name, David Cornwell. As a post-war German linguist, he was, no doubt, in the thick of Cold War clandestine operations.

But it’s his writing that most inspires me. His characters, plots, and prose immerse the reader in a bewildering world where the most important questions of life and death dwell within story so real and raw, it demands personal, moral reflection. When does the end justify the means? And for those invested in the overall theme of my Charlemagne Files, What does it mean to be a warrior against the slaughter of innocents?

This has been a long introduction to a book recommendation. Le Carré’s 1995 novel, Our Game, is a must read in 2023. For anyone who wonders about the human propensity to kill and resist being killed. For an appreciation of the struggles against slavery and oppression and for preservation of the best of human culture. For a visceral understanding of genocide and vengeance. Read this book.

The KGB Museum

The KGB Museum Cover Image

K.A. Bachus

October 1, 2021

Its official name is the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, but I have always privately called it the KGB museum. The building faces a graceful boulevard, Gedimino Prospektas, in Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius. It housed a KGB prison and offices from 1944 to 1991 and played a key role in the Soviet defeat of Lithuanian resistance after a decade-long struggle.

I sat in a 'box,' a closet-sized cell with only a narrow bench on the back wall where prisoners were left for long periods prior to interrogation. After hours or days in the cold, cramped cell, the prisoner’s stiff joints, lack of sleep, and disorientation became a prelude to questioning, torture, a labor camp or often, execution.

Prisoners were executed in the basement where the blood was then washed down a drain before the next victim was dragged in and shot . The museum features a terrifying video depiction of the process. The prison itself was set up in the fall of 1940 during the first Soviet occupation. I did not see any information about how the Nazis may have used it during their wartime occupation of the country, but I do not doubt it would have had a similar history.

I did buy and read a book on sale at the museum detailing, in heart-breaking detail, the Jewish holocaust in Lithuania. There were also books about the deportations of Lithuanians under Stalin. My great-grandfather was among the deported. He died in Krasnoyarsk, Russia.

The museum opened in 1992 and originally began with displays detailing what Lithuanians view as twin holocausts by the Nazis and Stalin, but the ground floor now contains a wealth of information about the ten-year war against Soviet occupation that partisans waged in the forests after World War II. A future article will go into more detail on this topic.

The building itself, and especially the prison in the basement, remains as it was when the KGB left in 1991. The names etched into the outside stone structure of the building are some of the executed.

Conventions in the World of Charlemagne Cover Image
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In the fictional world of The Section, certain conventions are followed. It may help the reader coming to The Charlemagne Files for the first time to know some of these.

Who/what/ where is The Section?

The Section is a department of an intelligence agency of the United States. Its employees are civil servants. It includes support staff members who provide identity documents, financial controls, and physical and document security. Operational agents are called babysitters. They arrange on-site logistical support for freelance specialists during operations. Most operations are not conducted within the United States, with some exceptions. Babysitters themselves do not carry identity documents in their own names during an operation and never carry any official identification from their organization. Their purpose is to allow the organization to deny any association with them or their mission. The offices are near the east coast, maybe Virginia.

Nicknames and coins

Babysitters in The Section receive nicknames from their coworkers when they join the offie. These names are often undesirable and used mercilessly among the members of the office. It is part of team building in a stressful occupation.

Coins are traditionally stamped with symbols or mottos that designate the intelligence unit of their owners. The tradition is that when members of the unit are present at the bar, if one produces his coin, then all must produce theirs. Anyone failing to show their coin is responsible for the bar tab. If all produce their coins, then the person first producing his coin is responsible for the tab.

File designations

The highest classification of information is Top Secret. Beyond that, more sensitive information is strictly controlled in a number of ways including designation as special compartmented Information (SCI). This requires an additional clearance and often a named clearance based on Need To Know. In The Section, files on specialists or specialist teams receive a one-word code name, printed across the file and restricted to very few people. When that solo or specialist team is employed on an operation, another designator word will refer to the operation and will be used for funding, reports, etc. Thus CETUS WEDGE (#2 of the Charlemange Files) means an operation dubbed CETUS employing a specialist team with file name WEDGE. It is The Section’s file name for Charlemagne.

Specialist

A team or solo operative used by western governments for black operations conducted without fingerprints in high-risk situations expected to involve death.


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