The octopus had had him in its sights for so long that the security vetting should have been a formality, but a month went by without a word. And that was the first thing Coleman learned about the Defense Intelligence Agency: it never knowingly took chances. It would sooner not employ him than take an unnecessary risk, said McCloskey. He had known them junk a whole operation that had taken hundreds of people months to put together just because there was an outside chance that if anything went wrong the DIA might break cover.
McCloskey was unperturbed by the delay. This wasn't the CIA, he said. The CIA was a showboat civilian agency. These were the professionals, the military, the combined intelligence arms of the United States Army, the United States Navy and the United States Air Force. Together, they formed the largest and most discreet intelligence agency in the world; 57,000 people operating out of Arlington Hall, Virginia, and Bolling Airforce Base, Washington, D.C., on a budget five times bigger than the CIA's. No restrictions, no oversight -- and nobody even heard of it. Why? Because it didn't make mistakes. And because the director reported to the joint chiefs of staff, who didn't tell anybody anything they didn't have to know. And that included the Secretary of Defense.
But wasn't that dangerous? asked Coleman. To have a covert agency that big and powerful, and not directly accountable to anyone? Not even to the President of the United States? Their commander in chief?
The White House leaked like a colander, McCloskey said. It was full of politicians, and politicians came and went. Same thing with Congress. The military had never trusted politicians. It didn't trust civilians. Period. The military was America's backbone, its power and its honor. It didn't take sides. It didn't have to make promises it couldn't keep or gamble with the national interest to get elected. You could count on the military to see things straight, to see things through and to do things right. The DIA was only dangerous to the nation's enemies.
But where did the CIA fit in? And the National Security Agency? Didn't the DIA have to share these responsibilities?
The National Security Agency took care of the electronic and satellite stuff, McCloskey replied. And all that was filtered through the DIA before it went to Langley. The NSA did an important, technical job. As for the CIA, its main use as far as the military was concerned was as cover, as a front operation. While Congress, the media and the whole world watched the CIA, America's real spy shop could get on with its work the way it was supposed to -- in secret. Everybody knew about the CIA. It was good for a scandal a year at least because it leaked from top to bottom. It was a public agency, pinned down by White House directives and Congressional committees. Its director was a public figure. Everybody knew about William Colby, Richard Helms, George Bush, William Casey, William Webster, Robert Gates -- but who even knew the name of the DIA director?
'Not me,' said Coleman.
'Damn right,' said McCloskey. 'Not that I guess you'll ever get to meet him anyhow. Or even see the inside of Arlington Hall, come to that. The only DIA personnel you're ever likely to meet will be your handler and maybe a couple of agents you'll work with. (And he was right. It was only after the DIA froze him out that Coleman finally learned that the name of his boss, the agency's director of operations, was Lt. General James Kappler.)
A week before Thanksgiving 1984, a call came in on McCloskey's private line instructing Coleman to drive out to Washington's Dulles international airport and stand beside a potted palm near the United Airlines ticket counter, where he would be contacted at 11:15 a.m. precisely.
Coleman thought it was McCloskey playing a joke. He started to ask if he should wear a red carnation in his buttonhole or a false nose or something but the caller hung up.
At 11:15 a.m. precisely, he took up position by the potted palm and waited to see if he could spot his contact before his contact spotted him. It was a tie. He advanced to meet the first young man he saw with a grey briefcase, they shook hands cordially, and descended by escalator to street level, where his escort hailed a cab.
On arriving at the airport Ramada Inn, they took the lift to the fifth floor, walked back down the stairs to the third floor and along the hall to a room towards the end. After knocking on the door, his escort unlocked it himself and ushered Coleman inside.
"Sitting by the window (he remembers), was a thin fellow in his shirt-sleeves, about my age, a bit taller than me, same color hair as mine, a beard, too, who gets up and introduces himself.
'Hey, buddy,' he says. 'How are you? Glad you could make it. My name's Bill Donleavy.'
Before I could say anything he flips on the room TV, I guess to mask our conversation, and again I have to smile because this is straight out of John Le Carre. Anyway, Donleavy is to be my Control, my principal contact with the DIA for the next five years."
A quiet, careful, calculating man, Donleavy would quickly earn Coleman's trust and respect, in large measure because Coleman never caught him out in a lie but also because he always felt that Donleavy really cared, that he was genuinely concerned about Coleman's personal safety and the welfare of his family. But it was soon clear also that while Donleavy had to know everything about him, he was to know next to nothing about Donleavy.
Over the five years of their association, Donleavy revealed very little about himself, other than that he had served in Vietnam with the Special Operations Group, Military Assistance Command, and had worked in intelligence for most of his military career. Nor did he ever reveal very much about the agency that employed them both, other than that the range of its interests was wide enough to merit ex-CIA Director Richard Helms's rueful description of the DIA as 'the 900-pound intelligence gorilla'.
That was one of the ground rules Donleavy discussed at their first meeting. Everything would proceed on a strictly need-to-know basis. Coleman would have no contact with the DIA other than through him or those he would introduce from time to time. He would not meet or be aware of the identity of other agents unless they worked together, and possibly not even then. He could tell no one of his affiliation under any circumstances, not even the closest members of his family. If he were ever compromised or if it was ever suggested that he worked for military intelligence, the DIA would disown him; it would categorically deny that he had ever worked for the agency or had ever had any dealings with it in any capacity, whatsoever.
In return, the DIA would pay him $5000 a month, plus expenses (but in a way that could not be traced back to the agency); it would put him to work on matters of national importance (for which he would never receive any public recognition); it would train him in the most advanced security and intelligence techniques, and go to almost any lengths to keep him out of harm's way because the DIA was only as good as its agents and none of them were ever considered expendable. If Coleman was ready to accept the offer on those terms, all he had to do was sign an undertaking, binding for life, that he would never disclose the nature of his employment or assignments to anyone at any time and the agency would be happy to welcome him aboard.
As McCloskey had told him most of this already, Coleman signed.
'Okay, so what now?' he asked. 'Where am I going?'
Donleavy smiled. 'Later,' he said. 'When you get back from Europe.'
'Europe? Where in Europe?'
'Spain. For your training.'
'First of the year. But there are things to do yet.'
They included a polygraph examination by an operator from Fort McClellen, Alabama -- six hours wired to the box in a hot, stuffy hotel room, while he answered the same sets of questions over and over again, with the sweat pouring off him.
Then another session at a different hotel with Donleavy, who told him he was now officially assigned to the Department of Defense Human Resource Intelligence (HUMINT) Program of the Armed Forces of the United States. His unit was MC/10, whose activities, he later learned, were part of Trine, a compartmented, special-access programme requiring clearance beyond Top Secret. MC/10 reported to the Special Technical Operations Center (STOC), The Pentagon. His code name was Benjamin B. He would use that to sign all receipts and agency documents from then on in.
'What about Thomas Leavy?' Coleman asked. 'I've still got that birth certificate. The one the CIA gave me to use in the Bahamas.'
Donleavy shrugged. 'Let me have it,' he said. 'It may come in useful some day. Who knows? I'll give it back to you later.'
Coleman was also given a contact number to call, but only in an emergency (703-455 8339), and a mail-drop address (P.O. Box 706, Oxenhill, Maryland 20745).
'Otherwise, don't call us, we'll call you,' Donleavy said. 'And if I can't get to you myself, if I have to send somebody, he'll say, "Hullo, I'm a friend of Bill Donleavy's." And you'll say, "I don't know any Bill Donleavy." Then he'll say, "His friends know him as Kevin." After that, you can talk. But if you've got any doubts, any question in your mind at all, just act like the name means nothing and pass it off. Never take a risk you don't have to. Not ever.'
Coleman practised this procedure several times before Christmas when meeting experts from Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) attached to Army Intelligence Center and School (JITC), Fort Huachuca, Arizona. They took him through such things as IUG (Intelligence User's Guide), MEBE (Middle East Basic Intelligence Encyclopedia), ACOUSTINT (Acoustical Intelligence), OPSEC (Operations Security), CIPINT (Encrypted Intelligence Communications) and HITS (Human Intelligence Tasking System).
He was also told to look out for a help-wanted ad in Broadcasting magazine placed by the Christian Broadcasting Network, a private venture owned and operated by Pat Robertson, the popular TV evangelist and moral conscience of the far right. CBN would be looking to hire a Middle East correspondent and when the ad appeared, Coleman should apply for the job.
'You're going to get born again,' said Donleavy. 'Kind of a nice touch that, seeing you're just starting out with us.' He seemed quite proud of it. 'When they get your resume, a guy with a British accent will give you a call and invite you down to Virginia Beach. Do like he says, and he'll help you see the light.'
The call came just before Christmas. Right after the holidays, Coleman flew down to be interviewed at CBN's Virginia Beach headquarters, a sprawling, neo-Colonial, campus-like complex with broadcasting facilities to rival anything he had seen in the major networks. The guy with the British accent, besides working for M16 under the code name of Romeo, was at the time general manager of CBN's Middle East Television (MET) based in Jerusalem, and had flown over to hire a correspondent for its bureau in Beirut.
'It's all set,' Romeo said, as they strolled in the grounds. 'All you've got to do is play the role. And not just with the Robertsons -- with everybody you meet down here. These are pray-TV people, every last one of 'em -- and they're all paranoid, so watch your step. They all think they've been called by Jesus to work for Pat Robertson.'
'Doesn't it show? You'll find 'em friendly enough on the surface but don't let that fool you. They're fanatics, and very suspicious of strangers. They're going to work you over pretty thoroughly to make sure you're not the devil in disguise, so let's show 'em a little evangelical fervour, shall we?'
Romeo was not exaggerating. Coleman was asked to supply the names and addresses of past and current friends, a floor plan of his house, the names of his spouse, children and close family members, his medical records, dental charts and a typical daily schedule of family activities.
He then sat for a round of personality profile tests and apparently showed the requisite degree of apostolic zeal for, at the end of this two-day inquisition, a benevolent Romeo introduced him to Pat Robertson's son Tim and the three of them went off to meet the great man himself at a local restaurant, where they prayed over the salad bar.
During lunch, the Robertsons explained that MET operated from studios in Jerusalem, with a transmitter in Marjayoon in Israeli-occupied South Lebanon, an office in Nicosia, Cyprus, and a news bureau in the Christian enclave in Beirut, to which Coleman would be assigned. The station aired Christian and family programmes to the mostly Arab populations of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, thereby enraging Islamic fundamentalists to such an extent that they had several times bombed the transmitter even though it was located in the Israeli security zone.
'It was a funny coalition,' Coleman found. 'You had right-wing Christian Americans, the Israelis, and right-wing Christian Lebanese fascists, funded, trained and uniformed by the Israeli Army, all working together and in bed with outfits like CBN.'
Over dessert, Pat Robertson explained at some length that his interest in the region stemmed from his belief that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ was imminent in the Holy Land, and he intended to cover it live.
As far as Coleman could make out, MET seemed to be a pirate station, operating, in violation of international law and numerous treaties, without a license from any government. There was no advertising, and the programme material, other than the Robertsons' religious and family output, consisted of wrestling on Saturday nights, NFL football and endless reruns of American soaps and situation comedies. As far as its audience was aware, the whole operation was funded entirely by the American faithful (of whom the most generous, as Coleman discovered later, was faithful Bill Casey, director of the CIA, and his friends at the Jewish Defense League).
Coleman's job was to file stories from MET's Lebanon bureau, not just for the pirate station, but for a new national network news programme the Robertsons were planning to set up in the United States.
They always had some major project going (he remembers). Pat would say he had been talking to Jesus, and Jesus had told him He wanted him to do this or do that, so CBN would then go out and hire the people they needed. These people would quit their jobs and sell their houses and move to Virginia Beach, where they'd buy new homes and settle down happily and go to work for Pat because Jesus had called them. He'd pay everybody lots of money and they'd all live very comfortably. Until one day he'd walk into the office and say, 'I just talked to Jesus. He doesn't want me to do this anymore. You're all fired.'
The Robertsons' mission in the Middle East was still clear and urgent, however, when they talked to Coleman over lunch.
'How soon can you join us?' Tim Robertson asked. 'We really need to get you out there, to get you started on God's work as soon as we can.'
'Praise the Lord,' said Coleman. 'I need thirty days to prepare myself.'
Donleavy had already told him to set January aside for his crash course in DIA HUMINT operations. CIA agents graduate in classes of 40 from spy school at Camp Perry, Virginia, not far from Williamsburg. As a DIA HUMINT agent, Coleman was trained alone, one on one, having little contact with anybody but his instructors and no contact at all with anyone outside his chain of command.
On 15 January 1985, he flew out to Malaga and made his way to Torremolinos, where he was picked up by an American contact, a friend of Bill Donleavy's, better known as Kevin, who drove like a madman down the winding coastal highway to Estepona, deposited him on the doorstep of a small hillside cottage overlooking the sea, and drove away immediately with a cheerful wave. With a rueful nod, Coleman went inside and slept the sleep of the jet-lagged.
The following morning, at 8 a.m., he dragged himself out of bed and went downstairs to see who was hammering so vigorously at the door.
'Sorry to disturb you," said another obvious Englishman, looking him up and down with professional detachment. This one had steel-grey, Fuller's brush hair, a bulging briefcase and a generally more purposeful air than Romeo. 'I'm a friend of Bill Donleavy's.'
Donleavy had already explained that the DIA enjoyed a special relationship with MI6, sharing the view that secrets were meant to be kept, not turned into headlines in the morning papers. The British had never quite grasped the logic of Congressional oversight of the CIA. The notion of their own intelligence chiefs being questioned at televised hearings before a Parliamentary committee was so comically at variance with British ideas of a secret service that they had turned gratefully to the DIA as a discreet, professional alternative to Bill Casey and his Langley cowboys, whom they distrusted almost as much as the Pentagon did.
But there were limits.
'I wish your people could have waited another fortnight,' grumbled Coleman's visitor. 'The border reopens next month, and I can drive here in under an hour from Gib. As it is, I had to fly from Gib to Tangier, and from Tangier to Malaga and drive over from there. And a bloody bore it was, too, I don't mind telling you.'
'Sorry,' said Coleman humbly. 'How about another cup of coffee?'
The man from MI6 had come the long way around in order to brief him on the finer points of the political situation in the Middle East, a British sphere of interest since the late 19th century. When they got down to considering which neighborhoods in Beirut were controlled by which of the warring Christian and Muslim factions, his visitor raked through his tattered briefcase and tossed a bundle of Bartholomew's folding maps on to the kitchen table.
'There you are,' he said, 'Compliments of HM government. Available at all good stationers. Easy to read and a bloody sight more accurate than the rubbish you'll get from the CIA.'
It was a useful lesson. If he was ever stopped and searched, no one would think twice about finding a Bartholomew's street plan in his pocket. But a map of Beirut by a military cartographer?
The lesson was underlined by a succession of visitors to the cottage over the next two weeks, most of them from Wiesbaden and Lisbon. As a correspondent for the CBN, Coleman was not about to engage in hand-to-hand combat with enemy agents or in high-speed car chases with armed Muslim militiamen, but for his own protection he was issued by one of his instructors with a small, five-shot, stainless steel, single-action, North American Arms .22 Magnum revolver, courtesy of 7th Brigade, Special Forces Detachment, from Bad Tolz, near Munich.
He was supposed to carry it in a canvas holster worn under the zip fly of his trousers, but Coleman never could get used to the idea of walking around with its barrel pointed at his private parts. On the rare occasions he went out with it, he wore the holster on his ankle instead.
In the event of an attempted kidnap or close combat he was supposed to aim at the eye or behind the ear of his assailant, but, having some notion of the hitting power of its Magnum round, rather doubted if he could do it. Although brought up with firearms, he had never really liked them, and managed to lose this one before he left for Beirut.
The main thrust of his training was in cryptography and communications. Although his assignment would entail the dispatch of lengthy reports to Control almost daily, the use of secret short-wave transmitters or fancy electronic gadgetry was ruled out. Unless the means of transmission were as secure as the codes he used, his cover would be constantly at risk, along with the integrity of his reports. If his true role as an American agent were ever suspected, not only would his life be in danger, but -- even more serious from the DIA's point of view -- he might also be used by the opposition as a channel for disinformation.
The same considerations also ruled out the use of the American Embassy's secure communications system from Beirut. Donleavy had already made it clear that Coleman was to keep well away from the embassy and its staff after he arrived in Lebanon as they were under continuous surveillance by Arab and Israeli intelligence agents. Anything but the most casual and routine contact with U.S. government officials in the field was, therefore, to be avoided, and under no circumstances was he to reveal his true affiliations to any of them, up to and including the ambassador.
Being entirely on his own, therefore, and unable to use any method of communication with Control that might draw attention to himself, Coleman needed a simple yet virtually unbustable code system that would enable him to send untraceable dispatches to Washington every day via the ordinary international telecommunications networks without alerting anybody listening in to the traffic and without having to use any item of equipment more incriminating than a Bartholomew's street map.
For an FCC licensed broadcast engineer working with the DIA's cryptographers, the solution was child's play. Between them they devised a simple grid code based on random number access via a telephone touch-tone keypad, the variable alpha-numeric sequence being determined for each transmission by the day of the month and the month of the year. All he needed was a Radio Shack pocket calculator with a touch-tone number pad, of the sort that any businessman might carry in his briefcase, and a two-speed microcassette recorder of the type that any self-respecting media correspondent would carry in his pocket.
After encoding his message, Coleman had simply to record the touch-tone bleeps, using slow speed, then direct dial Donleavy's answering machine in Maryland from a public telephone, place the recorder over the mouthpiece, play the tones on high speed as soon as the answering machine beeped, hang up and erase the tape. In this way he could transmit a lengthy, secure message in 30 seconds or less -- far too short a time for anyone to trace a call even if they had been waiting for it. (Later on, they supplemented this system with a software program in Coleman's laptop computer that randomly scrambled his plain language reports as they were sent via a modem direct to his contact number in Washington.)
But first he had to have something to communicate, and so was taught about 'dead drops' for the exchange of messages. A basic means of communication among members of the DIA cell in Beirut, these offered the advantage that the people using them did not have to meet, and messages could be left there at any convenient time. Popular locations included an international telephone booth in the central telephone exchange, where messages could be taped under the shelf, and the soap and detergent section of a supermarket in Jounieh. This became one of Coleman's main pick-up points for material coming from West Beirut, and was the unromantic setting for his first meeting with Mary-Claude, who worked there for a time.
He also learned about 'live drops', receiving or passing information face to face, and the 'brush pass' -- by far the riskiest means of exchange.
Then there was 'environmental situation awareness' -- or how to work covertly in a hostile environment. The key to this was an intimate knowledge of the terrain, with carefully selected drops, meeting and contact areas, and prearranged escape routes and safe houses, taking into account the opposition's strong points and weak points.
An intimate knowledge of the enemy was also crucial, for to overestimate him could be as dangerous as to underestimate him. This in turn meant understanding local culture and history and how differences in thought and outlook had to be taken into account in running an operation -- a factor nowhere more important than in the Middle East.
Still using off-the-shelf technology, he was taught how to photograph documents with an ordinary 35 mm. camera in available light. He was also shown the basic spy tricks of how to pass a message in a paperback book by pinpricking letters or words, the holes being visible only when the pages were held up to the light. (A variant of this was the overlay message, where the holes were pricked through a sheet of paper that the message receiver would then lay over the appropriate pages of his own copy of the book.)
A more sophisticated method was to use the book as a one-time code pad, reducing a letter or word to a number sequence by listing page number, line number and the letter or word number on that line. He liked this system, for he could keep up with the paperback bestseller list at the same time. He also enjoyed typing invisible messages on the back of innocuous letters by means of his IBM typewriter's lift-off correction tape.
The remainder of Coleman's crash induction course was taken up with briefing sessions on Operation Steeplechase, the mission for which he had been so hastily prepared.
The DIA had been monitoring activities at the Virginia Beach headquarters of the Christian Broadcasting Network, which suggested that Pat Robertson's organization was heavily engaged in raising money and providing support for the Nicaraguan Contras through Major-General John K. Singlaub, president of the Taiwan-directed World Anti-Communist League, and Lt-Colonel Oliver North, with the covert assistance of DCI William Casey and the CIA. James Whelen, a close friend of Casey's, had been installed at CBN to tap its database for fund-raising, and it was a measure of the importance attached to Robertson's contribution that, in 1985, the Contras named a brigade in his honour.
Coleman's job in Beirut was to track the Middle Eastern ramifications of the conspiracy, working through a network of informants who reported to Tony Werner Asmar, the DIA agent in place. A Lebanese of German extraction, Asmar owned AMA Industries, SAL, -- a hospital supply business which gave him access to every part of the country and every section of Beirut, regardless of which faction, Christian or Muslim, controlled it.
Until Coleman arrived, on 25 February 1985, the main duties of the Asmar cell had been to monitor the Muslim radical groups supported by Iran and Syria, to report on the movements of their leaders -- in particular, those of Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadellah -- and to keep track of the Western hostages then being taken in Beirut. After Coleman's arrival as Asmar's Control and his communications link with DIA headquarters, this work continued but with the added responsibility of trailing Oliver North and his boss Robert McFarlane, President Reagan's National Security Advisor, as and when the Iran-Contra conspiracy brought them to the region to buy illegal arms.
Coleman was also required to provide intelligence support for 7th Brigade Special Forces detachments in Lebanon, working through DOCKLAMP (Defense Attache System), American Embassy, Beirut. These Green Beret units were there ostensibly as advisers to the Lebanese Army but actually as a commando team to free the American hostages if the political situation in Lebanon ever changed sufficiently to warrant the use of force.
As CBN's Beirut correspondent, Coleman was well placed to observe and report on all these activities. Robertson's Middle East Television had close ties with Lebanon's right-wing Christian groups, which were largely funded by drugs trafficking, and in particular with the Christian Lebanese Forces, a militia largely funded by Israel.
CBN's 'office manager' in Beirut, Gushan Hashim, and his 'assistant,' Antoine, had both been recruited from the Christian Lebanese Forces, and, as Coleman observed when he took over, the bureau was better equipped with arms than with cameras. He also quickly discovered that the main function of CBN's telex links was to enable Antoine to contact 'Odette' in Tel Aviv via Zurich on behalf of the Mossad, ingeniously rendering his Arabic into its phonetic English equivalents in order to use the English-language keyboard.
DIA's concern about the Iran-Contra conspirators was focused in particular on Oliver North's Georgia 'mafia', whose representative, Michael Franks, also known as Michael Schafer, arrived in Beirut soon after Coleman. Described as a 'TV cameraman', Franks stepped off the boat from Cyprus wearing full army battle fatigues with a mercenary patch on his black military baseball cap.
He had been sent out by Overseas Press Services Inc. (OPS), a television consultancy company run by W. Dennis Suit, formerly a CIA operative in Central America. An associate of Oliver North, General Singlaub, Contra leaders Adolfo and Mario Calero, and William Casey, Suit specialized in organizing field trips for journalists to U.S.-supported military and paramilitary operations around the world, notably in Afghanistan, Angola, Central America and the Middle East.
As consultants to Pat Robertson's television operations, OPS clearly felt that Franks's inability to distinguish one end of a camera from another was offset by the expertise he had acquired in counter-terrorist techniques at SIONICS, a mysteriously funded training school near Atlanta run by another North associate, retired Lt. General Mitchell Werbell III.
It was all the same to Coleman. The Beirut bureau never filed a story in all the months he was there, and Franks was never around long enough to prove an embarrassment. Socially, they got on well enough, to the point where Franks felt free to talk openly about OPS and the Contras. His boss, W. Dennis Suit, while under cover for the CIA in Nicaragua as an ABC-TV cameraman, had apparently been caught handing out bugged Zippo lighters to the Sandinistas and ABC had fired him. When not regaling Coleman with gossip of this sort, Franks spent most of his time fighting along the so-called 'Green Line' with the Christian militias.
For his part, Coleman had his hands full coping with the flood of intelligence data from Tony Asmar, who quickly became a close friend. The Asmar cell was efficiently run, thoroughly professional and highly productive. Besides a network of informants inside every political and religious faction, the armed militias and the Lebanese Army, he also ran a string of Filipino domestic workers recruited from American Baptist missions in Manila. To have a Filipino housekeeper was a mark of prestige among Lebanon's leading political, military and business families, and as she invariably attracted the intimate attention of the head of the family, her reports, often of pillow talk, were invaluable.
"When I first got to Beirut, Tony stationed one of them with me for a while (Coleman recalls). Mainly for my protection. Before I even opened a suitcase, a package arrived at the chalet with a .380 calibre Beretta and another .22 Magnum pistol inside -- to add to the folding umbrella with the stiletto in the handle. I kept the Beretta in the bedroom and sometimes wore the twenty-two in an ankle holster, but Kathy was much better at that sort of stuff than I could ever hope to be.
She was a deadly little thing. Good with knives, guns or bare hands. Black belt karate. Close armed combat expert -- kill you in a minute. And yet the sweetest little thing you ever saw. I could step out of the shower in the morning and my slippers would be waiting at the bathroom door. She was always very attentive, and kept everything clean and spotless."
Mary-Claude soon put a stop to that.
As there was no way of avoiding face-to-face contact once in a while, Coleman and Asmar had decided that to fraternize openly as friends would probably attract less attention than if they were observed meeting in secret. At the first opportunity, therefore, Asmar invited Coleman to join him and his fiancee Giselle for Sunday dinner with Giselle's family. And to provide possible observers with a plausible reason for subsequent visits, Giselle made sure her sister Mary-Claude was there to make up a foursome who might also meet elsewhere on other occasions.
Virtually on sight, the two put flesh and blood on the stratagem by falling in love.
Neither could quite believe it. On the surface, Coleman, going on forty-two, divorced, a disillusioned, cynical and worldly American, a secret agent sailing under false colours, had nothing whatever in common with a petite, vivacious, voluptuously attractive, 22-year-old girl, strictly brought up by a typically close and protective Lebanese Catholic family in the claustrophobic confines of East Beirut during a civil war. His first reaction was to lie about his age. He told her he was thirty-seven.
But that was the least of their problems. He told Mary-Claude everything else about himself, except that he was an American spy, and left it to her to decide how much she would tell her family, who strongly disapproved of divorce, were concerned about the age difference between them, even though he had pruned it, and were naturally suspicious of his intentions. Even so, they were determined to marry from the start, and as quickly as possible as far as Coleman was concerned, for he had no way of knowing how long his assignment to Beirut would last.
"The family's reaction was reserved, polite and curious (he remembers), but Mary-Claude was always headstrong and usually got her way, no matter what her father said. As I spent more time with them and they saw it was a serious matter -- I told her father I respected the traditions of his society and I think that went in my favour -- so they came to accept me.
Even so, it was a style of courtship entirely alien to me. Though Christian and emancipated compared with the rest of the Arab world, the family was very strict by American standards. Mary-Claude and I were not allowed to meet without a chaperone -- one of her brothers or sisters always had to be there. Once or twice we met surreptitiously for lunch and went for a walk afterwards but that was the only time we were ever alone. Out of respect for her father, we complied with his wishes in order to show the seriousness of what we felt for each other. Once he was convinced of that, we had a traditional Lebanese engagement party, at which I gave her the traditional set of gold jewelry and stuff, and that made us official."
Mary-Claude was unhappy with the idea of keeping anything from her family, but knew that Coleman's divorce would be one problem too many for her father to handle. Asked, years later, what she had thought on meeting Coleman for the first time, she replied, 'I thought he was an old fart,' and they both laughed uproariously.
'He lied to me about his age. He was a foreigner -- with a previous marriage. There were many problems. But I always did like older men. I wanted a peaceful life with a wonderful husband who took care of me. I enjoy being spoiled. I like the attention. And I got it. I lived through hell.'
They both laughed again, but ruefully this time.
The DIA was delighted with the idea of having a married agent. Donleavy wanted to know all about Mary-Claude so that he could run a security check, but as her sister Giselle was already unknowingly in the loop, the vetting was a mere formality.
'Go ahead,' he said. 'Congratulations. That's great cover. With family there, you can go in and out of Beirut whenever you like and nobody's going to think anything about it.'
By then the question of cover was important. Although hired to do news stories for CBN, Coleman was using the camera equipment mainly to shoot background footage for intelligence reports and to keep up appearances. Even if he had filmed a story, he had no way of getting the tape to the studios in Jerusalem except via Cyprus. A running joke among correspondents in Beirut was, Middle East Television: Yesterday's News Tomorrow.
Until Operation Steeplechase got under way in April, the work Coleman was paid by CBN to do consisted mainly of training the Christian militia to run a TV station, called LBC, for the Christian enclave. This operation was backed by the Israelis, who were trying to set up a microwave link to feed video from Jerusalem to its agents inside Lebanon. But he was kept busy enough handling the huge volume of data from Asmar's cell, and servicing the drop for what was officially described as an in-country mobile training team (MTT) from 7th Brigade, Germany.
The drop was at Juicy-Burger, a hamburger stand run by an American couple known as Bonnie and Clyde at Dora, on the road between Jounieh and East Beirut.
"These Green Beret guys were supposedly advisers to the Lebanese Army [said Coleman], but they were really there to handle the wet jobs. If the politics had ever been right, they might have been used to rescue the hostages but the situation was always too sensitive, too precarious to risk using force. So they were simply there in case they were needed. They took care of loose ends. If there was anything for them, I'd take it over to Juicy-Burger and Sergeant-Major Duke, from 7th Brigade, would stop by for a hamburger and pick it up.
I remember one time I took in some special bullets that somebody needed. Six rounds in a coffee-can full of coffee with lead foil to beat the X-rays. Mercury-loaded or something, about .380 size shells hollowed out, with a wax tip. Couldn't help wondering what they were used for. But I'm happy I wasn't there when they were."
He was certainly there when the starting gate went up for Operation Steeplechase. On 22 April 1985, Coleman and office manager, Gushan Hashim, flew to Cannes to join Tim Robertson at a meeting in a private apartment with Pierre Dhyer, of the Christian Lebanese Forces militia; Mario Calero, representing the Contras, and a British agent from MI6 working undercover with the DIA.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss a consignment of arms confiscated by the Israelis from the PLO and turned over to the pro-Israeli faction of the Lebanese Forces. The idea was to buy them secretly for the Contras and send them out to Honduras disguised as relief supplies on a ship chartered by CBN, but the problem was that the Hoobaka faction had declined a cash offer, preferring to exchange the weapons for an unspecified commodity to the value of $1.5 million, to be brokered by CIA asset Monzer al Kassar.
After an animated discussion, Hoobaka's terms were accepted in principle and the meeting adjourned, the CBN contingent to advise Oliver North with a view to setting the wheels in motion, and Coleman to advise DIA with a view to applying the brakes. Control responded by calling him to Frankfurt. On the strength of his report, the DIA had decided to scrap the whole vehicle.
'This CBN thing is getting to be a real pain in the ass.' Donleavy said.
He paused to light another in his endless chain of Merit cigarettes, brushing the stub ash off what could have been the same pair of double-knit trousers he had worn at their first meeting.
'So is Ollie North and that whole damn bunch of kooks and weirdoes. We got this lightbird colonel running around loose, telling two and three-star generals what to do, and they're getting pissed off about it. So don't be surprised if we pull his plug. Starting with this cockeyed deal with the Hoobaka bunch. We want you to close 'em out, old buddy. Nothing sudden, nothing dramatic -- we don't want to make waves. Just let it die from natural causes, okay? Let 'em get on with it, but from now on, things should start to go wrong.'
Early in June, al-Kassar flew out to Bogota, Colombia, on a Brazilian passport, No. CB5941792, in the name of Muce Sagy, one of several aliases. By prior arrangement, $1.5 million had been transferred from Oliver North's secret Contra fund at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) in Panama to al Kassar's own BCCI account in Lima, Peru, which he held under the name of Pierre Abu Nader. From there, the money was credited to a BCCI account managed for one of the Colombian cocaine cartels by Frank Gerardo, a DEA informant, for the purchase of several hundred kilos of cocabase.
As Pierre Abu Nader, al-Kassar then returned to Europe on his Peruvian passport and subsequently reported on the success of his mission to North, who was then in Cyprus, staying in the ambassador's private apartment at the U.S. Embassy in Nicosia. Coleman observed him there on 15 June.
Two months later, on 17 August, the shipment of coca base arrived from Colombia aboard an East German freighter that put in to Tarbarja, Lebanon, an illegal narcotics port operated by the Hoobaka faction. The load was then taken by road to Zakorta, just east of Tripoli, processed into high-grade cocaine in the Hoobakas' own laboratories and passed through to its agents in Sofia, Bulgaria, en route to Monzer al-Kassar's distribution hub in Warsaw for bartering in the Eastern bloc.
On 23 August, Coleman reported to Control that the arms were to be loaded within ten days on the same freighter, which was now waiting to sail for Porto Lampura, Honduras, under the banner of the CBN's Central American relief programme, Operation Blessing.
The rest was up to Donleavy and the DIA, for by that time Coleman had so demoralized CBN headquarters with telex messages about Gushan Hashim and his colleagues stealing the store in Beirut that he knew it would take only one more serious shock, like preventing the arms from leaving Tarbarja, to bring the whole enterprise down. In accordance with instructions, he had ensured that the Lebanese would take the debacle philosophically, for they already had their cocabase and so would lose nothing by it, and that the Contra supporters would have to attribute the loss of the arms shipment, and of North's $1.5 million, to an act of God.
Meanwhile, Coleman had a pressing problem of his own. From the moment Donleavy gave North, Casey and CBN the thumbs down, Coleman had known that the days of his Beirut assignment were numbered. And now that he had found Mary-Claude, there was no way he was going to leave her in a war zone, not knowing when or if he could get back to her. The shelling had been bad that summer, and she had already had one narrow escape.
Coleman had been running around the city one day with Michael Franks when the bombardment became so heavy that he decided he should move the family down to the comparative safety of his beach chalet, which was sheltered to some extent from incoming fire by a number of tall apartment buildings. As the shells rained in from the Druze artillery, he drove through the winding streets of the quarter and found Mary-Claude hiding with her sisters in a neighbor's basement. Fifteen minutes after they left, the house took a direct hit and was virtually demolished.
But even the random brutality of the shelling provided the DIA with an opportunity for the kind of black humor enjoyed by the octopus. Coleman had been surprised to learn that Nabi Berri, boss of the Amal militia, held a resident alien's Green Card issued by the U.S. immigration authorities and owned five garages in the Detroit area.
"And yet here he was, in the middle of kidnapping U.S. citizens and up to his neck in the TWA 747 hijack and all that stuff. Berri really pissed us off. The problem was, what could we do to screw him without getting the U.S. involved in the civil war?
"Well, what we did was leak the trajectory coordinates of every house on Berri's street except his to militia factions Amal happened to be fighting at the time, including Hezbollah. And sure enough, every damn house in the neighborhood was hit except his. You can imagine what the neighbors thought. They went ape-shit. After that, nobody was going to mow his yard."
The incoming bombardment was less amusing, however, when Coleman himself seemed to be the target.
Mary-Claude was determined to have a proper wedding in a proper wedding dress at Christ the King, a beautiful, cathedral-sized church overlooking the sea. Equally determined to bring the marriage forward before his mine exploded under CBN, Coleman found himself faced with the usual string of time-consuming formalities, and prevailed upon her father Philippe to accompany him up to the monastery overlooking the city to seek a special dispensation from the bishop.
No sooner had they set out than shells started falling along the road, the barrage accompanying them half-way up the mountain. Taking their survival as a favorable omen, Coleman managed to convince the church hierarchy of his good intentions and they set off again down the mountain with the necessary dispensation, only to pick up the barrage where it had left off. Muttering prayers forgotten since childhood, he drove down the winding mountain road with Philippe, the shells still falling around them, and presented Mary-Claude with the necessary papers like a knight errant back from the Crusades with a trophy for his lady.
And only just in time. As Coleman had anticipated, CBN was finally panicked into acting on the reports he had been sending over about the reckless indiscretions of Hashim and his cronies in the Lebanese Forces. Fearing a major political scandal, the Robertsons ordered Coleman to close down the Beirut bureau at once and evacuate its equipment to Cyprus, abandoning the cache of arms on Tarbarja beach.
The shelling was then at its height, which at least spared him the complications of having to contend face to face with Hashim, who was hiding in his basement. But it did rather spoil the bride's toilette and the wedding party. Mary-Claude's hairdresser failed to get through, and except for Tony Asmar, only the immediate family were in the church when the bride and groom arrived in Range Rovers manned by Lebanese Forces militiamen armed with Kalashnikov rifles. The best man, hurriedly pressed into service at the last minute, was Michael Franks, alias Schafer, the OPS mercenary.
The Coleman's wedding night was spent in the chalet, with Tony Asmar's men tramping in and out delivering videotape machines, cameras and other equipment from the CBN office. At 5 a.m., trucks arrived to take all the boxes to the Jounieh docks, where they were loaded on the ferry to Larnaca, and as the sun came up, the happy couple watched the coast of Lebanon fade behind them in the morning haze. For Mary-Claude, it was the first time she had set foot outside Beirut's Christian enclave.
Following Donleavy's instructions, Coleman reported on arrival in Cyprus to Colonel John Sasser, the Department of Defense attache at the American Embassy in Nicosia. He was also debriefed by Micheal T. Hurley, the Drug Enforcement Administration attache, though without revealing his connection with the DIA. As far as Hurley knew, Coleman was an employee of CBN's who had been evacuated from Lebanon after the closure of its Beirut bureau.
At Donleavy's suggestion, Coleman then took Mary-Claude to Corfu for a two-week honeymoon before they went home to the United States to begin their married life in an apartment not far from James McCloskey's house in Timonium, Maryland.
Everything had gone according to plan. Fearful that his political ambitions, including a presidential candidacy, would be wrecked if CBN's connection with bartering drugs for guns on behalf of the Contras ever came to light, Pat Robertson lined up Gushan Hashim to take the rap, severed his connections with Colonel North, General Singlaub and their associates, and fired every non-believer who knew anything about it, including Coleman -- cushioning the blow with a $6000 severance check.
'Keep it,' said Donleavy, 'You did a great job, buddy. I want you to know that some very high-level people over here have asked me to thank you for a job well done. We rate the mission a major success. So take a couple of months off. Show Mary-Claude a good time. We're going to need you out there again after Christmas.'