About four years ago I was in Washington, DC for a conference. I had arranged in advance to meet my friend for dinner at a chophouse off the main drag in Washington’s charming throwback neighborhood of Georgetown. This friend was the same one I mentioned in The Real Mission of the X-37B. He had just recently returned from a posting in Iraq, and somewhere in the mix of his stories from the intelligence front lines we fell into a larger conversation about global politics and the high cost of foreign regime change in American man and material. I made a somewhat throwaway comment bemoaning all the money and lives that could be saved if the CIA wasn’t bound by the Executive Order forbidding the political assassination of foreign leaders. I should clarify that my own position is not and was not that the US should be involved in radically reshaping the politics of other countries, I meant my comment only in the sense that if we are going to be in the business of toppling regimes anyway, it seems ludicrous to brutally target impoverished, conscripted soldiers while intentionally leaving the wealthy, evil leaders initially untouched.
“Twelve-Three-Thirty-Three doesn’t stop us.” he said. “Fate stops us, sometimes. The rest of the time we apply a little A-N-D” [Executive Order 12333 is the latest of the orders re-affirming the illegality of political assassination.]
“And?” I asked.
“Accelerated Natural Death, also known officially as Alternative Neutralization Directive. Bad people die all the time of terrible and completely natural diseases. Sometimes we just help karma by getting the ball rolling. If we can get one of our guys near enough, we can take the target out naturally and without suspicion in one to twelve months. We don’t do it much for high profile guys, too hard to get close to them, too many people would get suspicious if we did it too often, and too much responsibility if the cure turns out worse than the disease. We mostly use it to ‘stack the deck’, re-arrange the men behind the man, or even sometimes to modify their opposition. We try to make subtle changes in the power structures so the nation grows in the direction we want, like pruning a Banzai tree.”
He spent the next twenty minutes telling me some of the methods they’ve used, as I tried to look attentive and casually unhorrified.
“One of our highest profile hits was in 1984. We tried to take out Gromyko [Soviet Foreign Minister at the time]. He was a major pain in the ass, and everyone in State wanted him gone. Nothing was going to improve while he was in place, the winter Olympic boycott that year was proof of that. He was headed to New York to meet Reagan following a U.N. conference. We had an agent in the Soviet embassy in New York City, working as a valet, who would have access to Gromyko.
“The method we used most often was irradiation. We would find a way to expose our target to a prolonged, low dose of radiation and let God decide whether the man lives or dies. The dose was always low enough that he wouldn’t suffer tell tale radiation sickness, but high enough that medical gave him a good chance of developing terminal cancer within six to twelve months.
“If we needed quicker and more definite action we took stronger measures. I remember one Latin American annoyance from a few years before we sent into premature kidney failure. He was a hard-liner who had a little too much influence over an otherwise tolerable dictator. We knew he had a pre-existing kidney problem; all we had to do was accelerate his decline. We made sure a one week vacation he took on the Mediterranean following a European conference took the last ten years off his life. The chemicals we put in his food over that week sent him into renal failure within thirty days, dead within thirty-five. I felt especially good about that mission, because he surprised us by taking his kids with him on the trip, and when we knew we couldn’t be sure who would eat what, we revised the chemistry to make sure we wouldn’t be damaging those in his entourage with functioning kidneys. We’re not always able to retain our humanity, so I’m proud of the moments when we can.
“Gromyko on the other hand was healthy, so far as we knew. We had to go with radiation. The plan we came up with was simple. Late one night after Gromyko went to bed, our inside man would retrieve Gromyko’s favorite pen, an absurdly ostentatious Soyuz brand ballpoint pen, with a gold pen cap encrusted at its tip with a ruby. The pen’s mechanics were a crude copy the Parker Jotter pen, which helped us with the planning. Gromyko carried it with him faithfully, and when not in his hand, it was clipped to his inside jacket pocket. Overnight our boys would replace the ink cartridge with one that included a small pellet of partially depleted uranium. The inside of the pen body would then be lightly coated with a thin layer of lead paint, leaving a strip running the length of the cylinder such that radiation would only escape in the direction of the pen’s clip. In this way most of the radiation escaping the plutonium pellet would pass directly into Gromyko’s heart and left lung, based on his habits. We spent enough time watching Gromyko in the weeks leading up to this plot that we estimated how quickly Gromyko would run through ink. The plutonium-tainted ink cartridge we installed would only have enough ink to last Gromyko three or four days. We wanted to be sure he’d dispose of our cartridge and replace it with one of his own before leaving New York City. We’d try to make the switch ourselves, but we wanted this added fail-safe. Gromyko returning to the USSR with a plutonium ink cartridge was an unacceptable risk.
“Making the drops with our inside man was ridiculously easy. We’d compromised the Soviet embassy in ’81 or ’82. We could do bilateral drops whenever we wanted, via a drain in the basement laundry of the embassy. Once we established our agent inside we’d sent a team of agents to tunnel up from the sewer to intercept the line that ran from this basement floor drain. It was diverted such that document tubes and even small objects could be literally dropped down or pulled up. Based on photos our man supplied we’d even fabricated a replacement drain cover that could be quickly removed and replaced without unscrewing any bolts, using an innocuous tool disguised as an ordinary key.
“The Gromyko plan went smoothly and undetected, executed the night after he met Reagan. The pen was secreted out via the drain drop, the work done in a nearby building, and before morning the pen was retrieved and replaced in Gromyko’s coat. A few days later his trip concluded and Gromyko returned to the USSR. Unfortunately he went on to live another five years, and when his time did come we didn’t deserve any of the credit. Oh well, if a bullet isn’t involved, there are no guarantees.
“Funny thing was, we think the pen did take somebody out. One of Gromyko’s chief aides died within nine months of the trip. When our inside man went to make sure Gromyko’s pen’s ink cartridge had been replaced on the morning he was leaving the valet noticed not only had the cartridge been replaced, but also the ruby on the pen top was missing.
“The valet had been given a discrete radiation dosimeter integrated into a working lighter. He would carry it with him and check it periodically to make sure his exposure to our plutonium pen was ‘safe’. When Gromyko left for Moscow the dosimeter was still in the safe exposure region. But three days later, shortly after the valet helped Gromyko’s aide pack to catch up with his boss, the valet was horrified to discover the dosimeter had climbed almost to the danger zone.
“We think the aide and Gromyko must both have had the same model pen and they had accidentally switched them during the trip. Truth be told, the aide was a pretty rotten fellow. And Gromyko did seem easier to work with the following year. We wouldn’t have gotten Gorbachev into power without Gromyko, so in retrospect, it’s a good thing we didn’t kill him. And that’s what we like about these A.N.D. cases, we’re not playing God, we’re just giving God a little help if he wants it. We used to joke that we weren’t rigging the lottery, we were just buying more tickets.
“It was still a wake up call for us, though. Directorate decided never again to go for anyone that high up. We didn’t want even the semblance of plausible responsibility. Instead all future A.N.D. missions would be targeted at less prominent but still influential figures, often the men behind the men behind the men in power. We believed we could still effect macroscopic changes by targeting the right microscopic figures. Of course we’d also A.N.D. a few irritants as well.
“Sometime after the Gromyko affair directorate forced a clarification of the twelve-three-thirty-three exemption. Our new policy became known as the Law of Forty-Nine. For an A.N.D. to be exempt from Executive Order 12333 the target needed to have a greater than forty-nine percent chance of surviving our attempt. As long as the target was more likely to survive than die, it did not legally constitute an assassination. All future A.N.D. operations adhered to the Law of Forty-Nine. Of course medical was very obliging when it came time to calculate the target’s mortality rate, so in practice we didn’t feel overly impeded…”
He would later tell me a few of the other methods they used, including the targeted use of other environmental toxins, the use of other radiation sources (such as the alpha particle emitter Polonium, which later saw public detection in the 2006 Litvinenko poisoning case, allegedly by the Russians), and even the use of compact microwave emitters.
I wish I could end this post by saying I was morally outraged, that I courageously condemned my friend for his complicity, that I publicly or even privately rebuked the perversion of the rights of man and the goals of justice we seemed to want to codify in our nation’s grand constitution. But things feel so much more complicated these days, perhaps the founding fathers would have written a very different document today. While the methods my friend described are hideous end runs around justice, leaving the world wholly unprotected from injustice at the whims of an unaccountable few, perhaps there is some undeniable validity underlying it. Perhaps the great wars and the greatest brutality of the last century could have been avoided with the accelerated natural death of those who a majority of nations secretly deemed unsalvageably responsible for evil. Perhaps it is a reasonable solution in an unreasonable world.
But I tremble when I think of how the A.N.D. solution is currently being implemented, and how its targets may still be selected. That can usher in no destiny we want.