Soviet Union

Spy vs. Spy?

In 2015, the Russian news service landed in North County to cover the troubles at West Lake Landfill and Coldwater Creek. The question now is whether the CIA mounted a counter-intelligence operation here.

KWMU reporter Vérinique La Capra aims a microphone at  Mary Oscko as cameras captured the moment in August  2015 at the Hazelwood Community Center.

It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely place for an espionage operation to take place than the Hazelwood Civic Center. But recent revelations by the U.S. intelligence community suggest that it may have been one of the locations in North St. Louis County where a secretive propaganda battle quietly played out in August 2015.

Hundreds of people gathered at the civic center for a community meeting that month had no inkling they were bit actors in this Cold War revival. The overflow crowd that jammed the conference room on August 20 attended  out of concern for the health of their families and the safety of the community. Radioactive contamination leftover from the Manhattan Project and its aftermath still plagued the St. Louis suburbs and residents wanted answers from government officials about the long-delayed clean ups.

Questions were asked, testimonials were given and frustrations were vented at the event, all captured on video by camerapersons, including at least one with ties to RT America, the Russian foreign news service.

In the heat of the moment, those present were not aware that they were pawns in a larger political struggle between the U.S. and Russia. Evidence of the covert chess game didn’t surface until January of this year, long after the meeting had faded in the community’s collective memory.

That’s when the CIA took the unprecedented step of releasing a classified report on alleged Russian interference in American politics. The unusual act by the agency was spurred by the continuing controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Those allegations remain the focus of  congressional investigations, and a probe by an independent counsel appointed by the Justice Department.

Allegations of the hacking of email accounts of Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton and her campaign staff by Russian operatives prompted the CIA’s release of the report. But the majority of the declassified information in the report is unrelated to the furor over whether Donald Trump and his cronies benefited from the alleged Russian intrusion.

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RT honcho Margarita Simonyan briefs Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in October 2012 in Moscow. (photo courtesy of the CIA’s declassified report)

Instead, the CIA released an intelligence assessment put together in 2012  that details how RT America is allegedly used by the Kremlin as a propaganda tool to cast the U.S.  government in a bad light.

The obvious question this now raises is whether the CIA mounted a domestic counter espionage campaign to offset the perceived damage being inflicted by the negative image that the Russian news service allegedly broadcast not only in America but to a global audience via the Internet.

The CIA report was compiled in 2012 three years before the Russians showed up in North St. Louis County and four years before the U.S. presidential campaign. Though classified, it can be assumed that its contents were shared with the White House and other federal departments and agencies.

It is therefore reasonable to surmise that the CIA and other government agencies were not simply monitoring Russia’s interference in America — but actively combatting it with their own surreptitious operations.

If this is true, it begs the question as to whether American intelligence assets were present at the Hazelwood Civic Center that sultry, late summer evening back in 2015.

Only The Shadow knows.

Correction: Originally, this story identified the meeting as taking place at the Machinist Union Hall in Bridgeton. Instead, the meeting took place at the Hazelwood Community Center. 

 

The CIA’s French Connection and Other Footnotes to History

At right, Irving Brown, American labor leader and CIA spy.

CD Stelzer peers into the CIA’s murky operations and finds ‘Old Europe’ ain’t what it used to be.

(written for Ireland’s Island magazine in 2006)

Former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld set the stage for the conflict in January 2003. Vexed by Germany and France’s opposition to United States plans to invade Iraq, Rumsfeld labeled the two nations as ‘Old Europe.’

‘Germany has been a problem and France has been a problem,’ Rumsfeld told Washington’s foreign press corps. ‘But you look at vast numbers of other countries in Europe, they’re not with France and Germany. … They’re with the US. You’re thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don’t. I think that’s old Europe.’

The comment led to a diplomatic war of words and pointed to the growing rift between America and its longstanding allies. Three years and hundreds of billions of dollars later, mounting domestic opposition to the war in Iraq forced Rumsfeld to resign under pressure. The administration of George W Bush now finds itself politically eviscerated, mired by escalating violence in Iraq and weakened diplomatically elsewhere abroad.

In ‘Old Europe,’ opposition to US foreign policy has moved from words to action.

German prosecutors in Munich issued arrest warrants in February for 13 Central Intelligence Agency agents for the alleged kidnapping of Khaled el-Masri, a Lebanese-born German citizen. Munich prosecutors are basing their case on evidence provided by authorities in Spain, Italy and the European Union. The German charges preceded by about a week those issued in Italy against more than two dozen CIA operatives for the alleged abduction of Hasan Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, from Milan in February 2003. The Italian trial is scheduled to begin in June. The kidnappings are part of a covert CIA programme of ‘extraordinary renditions’ in which terrorist suspects are illegally nabbed and flown to undisclosed locations for interrogations. In both cases crew members of Aero Contractors, a CIA-connected company based in North Carolina, are named as participants. According to the charges, Aero employees transported el-Masri to Egypt and Omar to Afghanistan, where they were allegedly tortured.

A report approved by the European parliament in mid-February accused the governments of Ireland, Britain, Germany, Italy, Poland and other European Union states of permitting the CIA flights to operate within their borders. Base on a 12-month investigation, the report found that Ireland allowed 147 CIA flights to use Irish airports. In addition, European investigators concluded that nine CIA kidnap victims passed through Ireland on their way to so-called ‘black sites,’ where torture was allegedly used to gain information. The report says the Government’s acceptance of US diplomatic assurances failed to protect human rights as obligated under the law. It also criticised Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern for withholding some information to the committee investigating the CIA flights.

As evidenced by the indictments and EU report, the CIA continues to operate in much of Europe. Some activities are apparently conducted in plain sight, more overt than covert. In Northern Ireland, for instance, the three-member Independent Monitoring Commission, which oversees demilitarisation of loyalist and republican factions, includes Richard J. Kerr, a retired deputy director of the CIA. Despite his espionage background, the involvement of a former top American spy doesn’t seem to raise any eyebrows in Dublin or Belfast.

Overall, however, the CIA’s current involvement in internal European affairs pales in comparison to the Cold War era.

The defeat of Nazi Germany by allied forces in 1945 set the stage for a power struggle between victors, with Britain and the US on one side and the Soviet Union on the other. In July 1947, fearing that Western European governments would fall under the influence of Soviet communism, the United States implemented a multi-billion-dollar foreign aid package – the European Recovery Plan – more commonly known as the Marshall Plan. The four-year programme, named after then-US Secretary of State George Marshall, is credited with leading the way for economic recovery in much of postwar Western Europe.

A few months later, US President Harry S Truman made another decision that would have lasting impact. He signed the National Security Act of 1947, creating the CIA.

In the autumn of 1947, the nascent intelligence agency would set a course of action that would be repeated dozens of times in years to come. To further US foreign policy objectives, the CIA would employ various proxies, including criminals, to infiltrate and ultimately subvert political parties, labor unions and other organizations. Politicians would be bought. Elections thrown. Coups engineered. Murders carried out. All in the name of democracy and freedom.

It all started in Marseilles, France.

In October 1947, the conservative mayor of Marseilles hiked public transit fares, sparking outrage among downtrodden workers. Fueled by the frustrations of postwar poverty, a Socialist-Communist coalition mounted a boycott of the city’s trams. Political tensions escalated for the next month, culminating in the events of November 12, when mass protests erupted. That afternoon Communist city councilmen were attacked at a city council meeting. In the evening, the violence spread. Gunfire wounded several demonstrators, killing one. The suspects in both the beatings and shootings were political allies of the mayor, members of the Corsican gangs that ruled the Marseilles underworld.

Brothers Antoine and Barthélemy Guerini, Marseilles leading Corsican gangsters, were arrested for the shootings, but within days charges were dropped, after police witnesses inexplicable recanted testimony. Meanwhile, Marseilles’ unions went on strike, which pushed the Confédération Génerale du Travail (CGT), France’s leftist labor affiliation, to follow suit nationwide. Millions of workers walked off the job in industries throughout France.

Marseilles’ dockworkers represented the most militant of the strikers. Their closing of the port of Marseilles threatened to derail the Marshall Plan. Moreover, in the eyes of Washington policy wonks, the French labor strife smacked of Soviet subversion. To stem the perceived red tide, the CIA called upon two leaders of the American labor movement to act in its behalf.

The CIA’s chief labor assets were Jay Lovestone of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and his top lieutenant Irving Brown. Over the next decades, the two men would use their respective positions in the international labor movement to clandestinely manipulate trade unions throughout the world.

For his part, Lovestone had perfect credentials: he helped found the Communist Party in the US. His long association with Local 22 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union provided further cover. In 1929, Lovestone and the Lovestonites, as his minions came to be known, severed ties with Moscow following an ideological dispute the previous year. By 1944, Lovestone had shucked his communist ties altogether and moved up the bureaucratic ladder to head the AFL’s rabidly anti-communist Free Trade Union Committee (FTUC), the organization’s international arm.

Marching in lockstep with Lovestone’s political reversal, Brown moved the FTUC in the same direction in Europe. To counter the 1947 general strike in France, he devised a strategy of splitting the left by pitting the socialists and communist against each other. With the cooperation of Lovestone, Brown used money diverted from the US garment workers to set up Force Ouvrière, a non-communist union in France. After Brown installed Leon Jouhaux, a French socialist as its leader, the union broke with the communist-led CGT federation. When American union dollars dried up, Brown tapped the CIA for funding.

Losing little time, the agency funneled an estimated $1 million into the French Socialist Party, allowing it leadership to orchestrate a successful campaign against the strikers. CIA largesse bought cooperation of politicians such as Marseilles Socialist Gaston Defferre and Socialist Interior Minister Jules Moch. As a result, the latter official purged communist sympathisers from the ranks of law enforcement and then sanctioned savage police attacks on the picket lines.

More importantly, the CIA helped forge a lasting alliance between the Marseilles Socialist Party and the city’s Corsican gangsters. With money and arms supplied by CIA operatives, the Corsicans harassed communist union officials, and assaulted and murdered rank-and-file unionists. Overwhelmed by the reaction, the CGT called off the strike on Dec. 9. The CIA’s arranged marriage of Marseilles’ Socialists and the Corsican underworld endured for the next 25 years.

In 1950, the CIA sealed the bond by calling on Marseilles’ Socialists and their Corsican enforcers to once more do its bidding. In January of that year, Marseilles’ dockworkers, the vanguard of French labor, ordered a selective boycott of American military cargoes bound for the French colonial war in Indochina. The CGT endorsed the boycott a month later and the shutdown quickly spread to other sectors of French industry.

To crush the labor stoppage, the CIA channeled $2 million through the US government’s Office of Policy Coordination. Brown, the CIA’s European labor asset, used some of the money to furnish Corsican strongman Pierre Ferri-Pisani with Italian strikebreakers. By mid-April the dockworkers strike had been broken.

Due to their strong-armed support of the strikebreakers, the Guerinis’ political fortunes improved immediately. Having first aided Marseilles Socialist Gaston Defferre during the resistance movement, the two brothers had now established a secure footing in his postwar municipal government. Mayor Defferre and the local Socialist Party would employ Guerini bodyguards and campaign workers for the next 17 years.

The CIA nurtured partnership also wrought unintended financial benefits for the Marseilles underworld. With the waterfront now under its domination, the Guerinis and other Corsican outfits found themselves free to pursue their most profitable venture – heroin trafficking. Within months of breaking the dockworkers strike, the port of Marseilles began manufacturing and exporting large quantities of heroin to the United States, according to the Politics of Heroin by Alfred W. McCoy. At its zenith in 1965, the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics estimated that Corsican syndicates operated as many as 24 heroin-processing plants in or around Marseilles. French traffickers smuggled nearly five tonnes of pure heroin into America that year, according to the bureau. As a consequence, US heroin addiction skyrocketed.

The French connection relied on a steady supply of raw materials: opium from Turkey and morphine from Lebanon. Once refined, heroin shipments often traveled a circuitous sea route, entering the US either through Cuba or Canada. With their political connections at home, the Guerini brothers’ had literally found a safe harbour. But for the far-flung enterprise to succeed, it needed a well-established wholesale buyer.

The American Mafia filled that role.

Honouring a request by the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), the state of New York in 1946 granted Salvatore C. ‘Lucky’ Luciano an early parole under the condition that he be deported to Sicily. The unusual clemency was based on his supposed wartime cooperation. During his incarcertion, the ONI conducted extensive interviews with the notorious Mafia chief. With his criminal partner Meyer Lansky acting as a liaison, Luciano provided leads that, according to the Navy, helped secure New York harbor and also prepare the allies for the invasion of Sicily.

After he arrived in postwar Sicily, Luciano’s innate entrepreneurial spirit led him into the narcotics trade. He swiftly cornered the market by diverting legally produced heroin, manufactured by Shiapareilli, an Italian pharmaceutical company, to the United States. When that scheme collapsed, Luciano turned to the Corsican syndicates in Marseilles, including the Guerini brothers. Lansky again acted as the Mafia don’s emininence grise, hashing out an agreement in 1951 soon after the CIA had crowned the Guerini brothers overlords of Marseilles’ waterfront. Lansky, the American mob’s financial wizard, then went to Switzerland to set up untraceable bank accounts through which to launder the drug proceeds.

The French connection, at least the Guerinis control over it, fell apart in 1967, when a gang war claimed the life of Antoine and led to the imprisonment of Barthélemy. That same year, the United States belatedly bankrolled a crackdown on Turkish opium production.

By then, however, other Corsican traffickers had begun to shift their interests to Southeast Asia, where US troops, coincidentally, had replaced French forces. Not surprisingly, the CIA would also play a prominent part there, too. In 1973, press accounts alleged that Air America, the CIA’s proprietary airline, had participated in heroin smuggling in connection to the agency’s secret war in Laos.

In modern day Europe, 60 years after the fall of Nazi Germany, the Cold War is a fading memory, but the CIA continues its misdeeds on the continent. Only the names and faces of the enemy have changed. The communist ‘menace’ of the former Soviet Union has been replaced by the so-called ‘war on terror.’

In this new era, though, the agency no longer commands the dominant position it once did. Across the breath of Europe there has been an undeniable shift in public perception and political power. Italy, Germany and other European Union states are now demanding respect for their individual sovereignty and adherence to the rule of law. Despite this, the US is not expected to approve the extradition of the CIA agents wanted for kidnapping. The accused may, nevertheless, be tried in absentia, setting the stage for a spectacle that would further damage America’s tarnished reputation abroad.

When it comes to ‘Old Europe,’ the US may have better served its geo-political interests if it had chosen to honour its elders.

To Russia with Love

At the height of the Cold War, the St. Louis city streets director took a hiatus to help build a chemical plant in the Soviet Union for a subsidiary of Slay Transportation. Meanwhile back in the Gateway City, the same company was busy developing a process for disposing of contaminated waste in area landfills.

If this were part of the plot of a spy thriller, it would be hard to suspend disbelief. Midwest business and politics have never been a hotbed of international intrigue. Nevertheless, despite  the anti-communist fervor of the Cold War era,  then-St. Louis Mayor John H. Poelker — a former agent in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI — granted a subordinate time off  to work in the Soviet Union.

In December 1975, William J. Wilson, then-director of the St. Louis Street Department, took a leave of absence to work on a chemical plant in the Soviet Union for Ecology Controls Inc., a subsidiary of Slay Transportation, a St. Louis-based company owned by Missouri Democratic powerbroker Eugene Slay. The local trucking magnate had no previous experience in international business, but his firm did transport materials for Monsanto and Mallinckrodt Chemical, two St. Louis companies that did.

Wilson, a Slay crony and a chemical engineer, was hired by the city in May 1973 by Mayor John H. Poelker — a former FBI agent. Prior to his work for the bureau, Poelker Poelker was employed by the DuPont Co. in St. Louis. He had hired Wilson at the urging of St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Francis R. Slay, Eugene Slay’s cousin. The late Francis R. Slay is the father of Francis G. Slay, the former mayor who left office earlier this month.

 

In 1979, Wilson’s close ties to Slay became the subject of  a federal grand jury impaneled to probe whether riverfront leases and mooring rights granted by the city to Slay Transportation received favored treatment.  By then, Wilson had quit his post as city streets director to become general manager of Bi-State Development Corp., St. Louis’ mass transit agency.

The Soviet chemical plant, which was located 800 miles southwest of Moscow, was built to produce synthetic parasecrol, a material used in rubber products. Ecology Controls Inc., the Slay subsidiary, was a subcontractor of Ste. Entrepose, a French corporation. Wilson was paid $30,000 by Ecology Controls for his work on the project. He spent approximately three weeks in the Soviet Union. Wilson did the remainder of his work from St. Louis, while continuing to work full-time as the city’s streets director.

At the same time, Ecology Controls was also pursuing other ventures, including a process for disposing of chemically-contaminated waste in area landfills without harming the environment. Collis C. Bryan, a former Monsanto chemical engineer and Parkway School District chemistry teacher, was involved in that project.

Ecology Controls Inc., which was incorporated in 1971, remained an active corporation in Missouri until April 2011, when it merged with J.S. Leasing Company Inc, another Slay-owned company.