If you’re Pinoys traveling through Europe with US passports, you invariably get asked interesting questions by locals, like this casual conversation with a fellow in Marseille, at a café by the Quai Du Port.
“You must be Filipinos,” he ventures. “So what do you think of your president, Rodrigo Duterte?”
These days, you’re bound to get into a heated argument over the Duterte presidency, or that of Donald Trump, especially in Europe. But if you’ve had a couple of glasses of sangria or chianti or bordeaux, you don’t mind a vigorous exchange. It also helps to have family members backing you up, in case the conversation gets out of hand.
“I’m a dual citizen,” I answer with a smile. “Duterte is my president and so is Donald Trump.”
“Then what are you smiling about?” comes the quick riposte.
He pursues the subject of Duterte’s war on drugs. “I don’t think he’ll succeed, except in killing a lot of people.”
“Just like Popeye Doyle in the film, The French Connection,” I respond. “I believe the movie was shot on location right here at this port.” I add that the French know something about dealing in drugs.
He quickly pivots. “Your President Trump and President Duterte are both playing with fire, aren’t they? Trump with the Russians and Duterte with the Chinese. If you’re a dual citizen, that’s like double jeopardy.”
I let that pass, not being keen on getting into a fight over Trump or Duterte.
At the Colosseum in Rome, this guy is particularly interested in the topic of international espionage, involving Trump and Duterte. “Do you think Trump is a Russian puppet?” he asks with obvious malice.
“Maybe Trump just owes the Russian billionaires a ton of money,” I reply, “Or he’s trying to collect gambling debts from the Russian Mafia. They’re as bad as the Italian Mafia.”
“There must be hundreds of KGB spies in America,” he says.
“About as many as there are in Western Europe,” I shoot back. “A lot of CIA agents, too.”
I point out that sending spies at great expense to the US is probably a waste of money. “All they need to do is read The Washington Post, The New York Times, and watch CNN. The White House leaks are so frequent, it’s like a sieve.”
“It’s the same situation in Manila,” butts in someone who looks Pinoy, black hair, and all. “Duterte is a dummy of China.”
“No, he’s a dummy of America,” his wife chimes in.
Husbands know better than to argue with their wives. “I guess Duterte is a dummy of both,” he concedes.
Spies in Manila? That’s a subject that I think I know a lot about, having written the scripts of nearly all the Agent X-44 films of Tony Ferrer.
I explain that anyone who wants confidential information doesn’t need to spy. He just needs to sit down at the many kapihans in Manila where the politicians, the media, and the businessmen congregate every morning. “Everyone knows everything. Of course that’s all off the record. That is, unless public officials start attacking each other, like Senator Ping Lacson and former Customs Commissioner Faeldon. Then they let it all hang out.”
International spies like the Philippines, I point out. Agents of the CIA, the KGB, and the Chinese MSS prefer to be posted in Manila. I met one CIA agent at a cocktail party once. He was operating covertly, of course. Folks like him would never admit they’re connected with the Central Intelligence Agency. He told me that he was connected with a nongovernment organization called Community Improvement Authority. CIA for short.
“I like my community development work here,” he volunteered. “My wife wouldn’t want me to be posted anywhere else.”
He explained that being sent back to America would create undue hardships for the family. “My wife would rather divorce me,” he moaned. “She likes having maids in the Philippines.”
I liked the sound of that, being also partial to stuff made in the Philippines. At this, he clarified that his wife couldn’t stand the thought of going back to doing the laundry, washing the dishes, cooking, cleaning the house, tending the garden and taking care of the kids. The work of maids. They had three plus a driver and a gardener.
“Why don’t you just bring the maids and the rest of the help back to the US with you?” I suggested.
“Can’t afford them on my State department salary,” he replied — and then, realizing his slip of the tongue, he quickly corrected himself. “I mean, my social worker’s salary”
That was a dead giveaway. “This guy is a spy,” I concluded.
Of course, spies are supposed to have cover stories. That reminds me of The Washington Post expose about a new spy agency, the SSB, being set up by then US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. According to The Post, Pentagon officials who were vehemently denying the existence of the SSB, had explained that it was “a new organization designed to operate without detection and, under the Defense department’s direct control, deploy small teams of case officers, linguists, interrogators and technical specialists alongside newly empowered special operations forces, and essentially replace the CIA’s Directorate of Operations.”
The Post added that, after explaining the operations of the SSB, the Pentagon officials reiterated their denial of its existence.
In fact, I did bump into one of the SSB operatives at Greenbelt in Makati City, enjoying an early evening chardonnay. A socialite friend introduced us. In Manila, socialites, politicians, columnists and spies routinely rub elbows and knees with each other. And share bottles of chardonnay, cabernet, or merlot. He didn’t actually admit that he was connected with the Strategic Support Branch (SSB for short). He said he was a field worker of the Social Services Bayanihan, a charitable organization. SSB for short.
“My job is to go to the rural areas and do bayanihan with the farmers and ordinary barrio folk,” he explained. “We try to find out what their needs are — you know, sanitation, health services — and we provide for those needs with funds from our charitable organization.”
“Some of the people you deal with could be NPA or MILF cadre,” I cautioned.
“Is that so?” he exclaimed, as if hearing about them for the first time. “Can you imagine that? Real live, genuine NPA and MILF cadres! I mean, do they really exist?”
Somehow, I sensed something phony about the fellow. “Yes, they exist,” I said, with some annoyance.
“But not for long,” he quipped.
That was a dead giveaway. “This guy is an assassin, I told myself.
Quickly changing the subject, he admitted that other SSB workers were assigned to urban centers like Manila. “The Philippines has many socioeconomic problems and you can better learn about them at the coffee shops.”
“I guess, coffee shops are where the problems are discussed,” I ventured.
“Or where the problems are created,” he countered, knowingly.
Another dead giveaway. This fellow is an agit-prop specialist, I concluded. I decided to get the truth out of him. “You can’t fool me. I can spot a spy when I see one. I wrote a lot of Filipino James Bond movies. I think the SSB is a spy agency.”
I went on: “According to The Washington Post, the SSB’s objective is to tear the social and economic fabric of a country. You put pressure on the government, hoping you can make the government collapse and come to America’s terms, or make it collapse altogether and wind up with your own choice of people in power.”
The guy vigorously denied this. “No, no, no, I would never do that. If I did, the Philippines would be in turmoil and I would have to be assigned somewhere else, maybe even Washington DC.”
He said that as if it was his worst nightmare. “I can’t stand the thought,” he groaned. “Just when we’re getting used to the lifestyle in Manila.”
And he added, “My wife would divorce me!”
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.