A Caribbean cruise with former CIA chiefs

Ship of Spies
Image caption SpyCruise ship MS Eurodam (right) docks in Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos

There's no such thing as an ex-spy. There are only spies who pretend they have retired. Or so they tell you. But I have yet to meet a retired spy who walked the dog and pruned the roses all day.

Take Bart Bechtel for instance - an ex-CIA operations officer, a specialist in domestic and international terrorism matters and a US Navy veteran with 31 years of espionage and counter-intelligence experience - a spy to his fingertips.

It was Bart Bechtel who decided to organise a seminar for spooks - past, present and future - and their wives, girlfriends and interested parties.

But instead of hiring a dreary university lecture hall in a Washington suburb, he invited students to come on a seven-day Caribbean cruise (for which they would pay) and spend most days on lectures, briefings and rubbing shoulders with the principal speakers.

Image caption An advert for Spy Cruise

And the big draws? Top of the bill were no less than Porter Goss, former head of the CIA from 2004-2006 and his successor Gen Mike Hayden who ran the super-secret National Security Agency (US equivalent of GCHQ - the UK's secret intelligence agency) for six years before taking over the CIA from 2006-2009. He is the highest ranking and most senior former spy still alive in the US.

This pair were guest lecturers but they were also, in a sense, trapped onboard ship, therefore journalistically accessible in a way that had me scurrying to join the cruise and spend private time with these significant masters of the secret world.

Can you imagine their British equivalents joining a huge 2,000-strong cruise ship, mixing with ordinary passengers, spending hours of face-time with reporters, and speaking frankly about such walking-on-broken-glass subjects as targeted assassinations, water-boarding, the torture of enemy combatants, and extraordinary rendition? I wouldn't hold my breath.

"This is not a pleasure trip for me," Porter Goss told me. "This is a trip to spread the message about how important the intelligence function is."

'Discreet security'

Image caption Former US President George W Bush nominated Porter Goss to be the head of the CIA from September 2004

And what about their personal security on board Holland America's giant cruise ship, Eurodam?

"The agency knows when I travel, they're alerted to that," Gen Hayden explained. "I suspect they do what it is they think appropriate, but I don't have to know about that."

In other words, there were bodyguards but no-one knew who or where they were. But they were there unseen, minding at sea and on land for tourist excursions.

The spook seminars with about 120 students took place in three dedicated lecture rooms on the promenade deck, spaces squeezed between the huge ship's shopping mall and an even larger casino area where the one-arm-bandits sang out day and night.

For Bart Bechtel, this was a golden opportunity to proselytise. "The intelligence community is under attack, badly understood, the civil libertarians are trying for scalps. There are all kinds of indignities."

There was an uneasiness about President Barack Obama and liberal Democrats in general.

"Our commitment to war is a little uneven at this point. The fact of the matter is we are at war but it's not evenly understood."

Bart Bechtel and the other sponsors of the seminar - Henley-Puttnam, an online university that offers postal and internet degrees in several disciplines of espionage including counter-terrorism - were keen to drum home the message at every opportunity.

Image caption Tom Mangold and former spy Bart Bechtel

So we had talks and confidential briefings on Iran, Hamas, Israel, Pakistan, rogue states, failed states, al-Qaeda and a host of other threats to national and international security.

And all this happened as 1,900 fellow tourists ate, drank, gambled and danced around us. Bizarre.

My role, as a defence and intelligence reporter and writer, was to show a couple of my BBC TV Panoramas to the audience and take questions.

It was also to make a documentary for Radio 4 and, to this end, both Porter Goss and Mike Hayden came willingly to my cabin and spoke freely (where were those bodyguards? how come I never spotted them?) but with occasional and justifiable caution about the spy business and especially the CIA's hugely controversial role as a new paramilitary force since 9/11.

Day trips

On shore excursions, both former spy chiefs merged imperceptibly with fellow tourists. I was part of a tourist group with Mike Hayden that wandered lazily around the old town of San Juan in Puerto Rico.

The general wore a large-brimmed baseball hat, pulled well down over his forehead, and became unrecognisable.

Image caption Gen Mike Hayden in work mode

But back on board, both men spoke freely to those tourists who recognised them. Gen Mike Hayden explained why he felt a need to be open.

"We exist in a society that distrusts secrecy and power most of all. In order to be successful espionage services have to be only two things - secretive and powerful. So you've got that cultural tension and I feel a certain sense of responsibility to try to defuse that."

Other guest speakers and lecturers at the seminar included a clutch of old Cold War warriors.

Some had formed a private spy agency to report in Southern Lebanon on the military activities of Hezbollah and its Syrian allies.

Others have made it their business to publicise every possible threat the West faces.

Even Gen Hayden is deeply pessimistic about the situation with Iran and remains "pretty certain" that unless there are fundamental changes very soon, the West will have no choice but to use what he gently describes as "the kinetic option".

Among the paying passengers who formed their audience on the cruise were a novelist, a soccer coach who wanted to be a spy and a National Security Agency worker whose wife bought him the cruise as a present.

"We have to buckle down - many Americans - their heads are in the sand," one told me.

All had a special interest in the security of the US. "I'm just sorry that more members of my country don't get involved," another lamented. "They simply don't participate. They watch television."

Obama supporters were in short supply - I found only one in 120 people. The seminar was no place for beards, sandals, liberals or Wikileakers.

But I admire Mr Bechtel's initiative in sugaring the pill of a fairly politicised seminar with a general jolly around the sunny Caribbean on a luxurious liner.

Who says spies can't have some fun too?

Tom Mangold was Panorama's senior reporter until 2003. He is now a freelance journalist and author. His documentary Ship of Spies will be broadcast on Radio 4 at 1030 GMT on Saturday 15 January.

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