At 1800 hours on a recent Saturday Colonel Angelo M. DiLiberti sits in the bar at Rex's Cork and Fork in Saint Charles waiting for the spies to come in from the cold. One by one they enter, through both the front and back doors, shedding coats and scarves as they case the dining area for colleagues and greet them with conspicuous displays of handshaking, backslapping, and saluting. Many in the group--mostly retired military intelligence officers, with a sprinkling of ex-CIA--have brought wives no longer willing to be widowed by their husbands' classified careers. The room fills with chatter until Captain Bruce Walker stands. Gifted with a jaw so square it looks molded to military specifications, Walker raises his manhattan and proposes a toast to the new president of the United States of America.
Colonel DiLiberti, a compact and energetic model of martial efficiency who served in the army airborne special forces, scuttles through the crowd ordering everyone to sit down so the meeting can begin. As president of the midwest chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, he's handled the logistics for this gathering, one of four held every year, usually involving a weekend visit to a military installation or government intelligence agency. The winter meeting is always just a dinner, and it's not well attended by members living out of state.
"At ease!" the colonel hollers while a waitress creeps among the tables taking orders for chicken or steak. A round of introductions is made for the benefit of new members and guests, then the colonel announces the agenda for the coming year. Ideas for future outings reveal interests as varied as document analysis, mycological warfare, and counterterrorism.
"Angelo," calls out Brigadier General Frank R. Julitz. "You should find out what military base is near Vegas."
"Area 51!" answer half a dozen voices.
The colonel debriefs everyone on last autumn's trip to Niagara Falls Air Force Base and the Buffalo FBI office, which, to the tour group's excitement, was interrupted by a bank robbery that called away their guide. Then Captain Walker, treasurer and chaplain, takes charge of the proceedings, saying grace before the members dig into their meat and potatoes.
Former employees of the CIA, the National Security Agency, and other groups banded together as the AFIO in 1975 to lobby against congressional budget cuts in government intelligence. Membership ballooned after the Carter administration pink-slipped several hundred field agents. "The higher-ups decided gentlemen don't spy on gentlemen," says Julitz, a kindly grandfather of 11, who served in the navy, Illinois National Guard, and army reserves before retiring in 1982. But "when you're in the business of finding out what the other guy is doing you don't worry about being a gentleman. You're worried about self-preservation."
Julitz, DiLiberti, Walker, and a few others founded AFIO's midwest chapter nearly a decade ago in response to a similar blow to the "intelligence family"--the downsizing of the armed forces after the gulf war. "A lot of us were really, really upset at the way the intelligence community was decimated," says the colonel. "We wanted to get together to see what we could do so at least they don't make us any smaller." In keeping with AFIO's mandate for its members to act as "ambassadors of intelligence," General Julitz and the colonel possess arsenals of intelligence esoterica, to which they grant access in accordance with the level of one's security clearance.
Julitz, who in 1968 was with a military intelligence unit based in Evanston, offers a historical example of how analysts pull together essential elements of information--"EEIs"--to tell a story, in this case about the Chicago Seven.
"We had some MI units in different parts of the country," he says. "One outfit in LA sends a signal to us and tells us, do you know Mr. A and Mr. B are coming to Chicago? Then we got a notice from Atlanta: Mr. C and Mr. D are coming to Chicago. We put that information together, and we see these four guys are coming to Chicago at this time, at the same time. What's going on in Chicago? So we look at the calendar and we find out, aha! the convention is here at the same time. So we put out the word"--to the Chicago Police Department, Cook County sheriff, Illinois state police, and the National Guard--"that these guys are in town. Be aware that something may happen.
"I worked for a colonel, and he said, 'Frank, we got a special job for you. I want you to wear your old overalls and a plaid shirt and don't shave for three days. You're going out to Lincoln Park.' So I went out to Lincoln Park. And I was getting in and listening to these people, that they were gonna do all this rabble-rousing in Lincoln Park and then they're gonna walk back down Dearborn Street and go around Michigan Avenue and break some windows. Just to see what happens. My downfall was--being in the army--real short hair. One of the guys looks at me and he says, 'How come you're so interested? Are you a copper?' I said, 'No, I'm not a copper.' 'Well we think you're something because nobody would wear his hair cut like that.' So they started walking toward me and I started walking backwards and over there was the thin blue line and I double tailed over there and that was the end of that tour of duty. I was there about one day. The fault was I should have left my hat on." Julitz says he was later transferred and his unit deactivated.
Not all the dinner guests are as forthcoming as Julitz; professional discretion is apparently the better part of valor. Few, if any, real secrets are revealed, and several members politely evade questions about their backgrounds. The colonel mentions covert operations he's been on only off the record or not for attribution because the information could still compromise contacts in foreign lands.
"The problem with working in intelligence is that you're sworn for life never to talk about it," says Julitz. But that doesn't stop him from saying what he can. "I find, in a group, if someone happens to mention my background and one or two people ask me questions, that leads into a long conversation. Suddenly I'm the only guy talking for a half hour. They think that whatever I did was more interesting than what they do, which is not really true because most of my work was 59 minutes of hanging around and one minute of extreme horror.
"A lot of people I talk to, they did their turn in the service. Maybe they were drafted. They went in for a year, year and a half, two years max, and a lot of them had never been in a firefight. So they find it interesting if somebody can say how it was. Sometimes after 50-odd years it's hard to remember how it was. It gets that way. You know, you read these books and if you were in the same operation and you start talking about it, now you don't know if you're talking about what you did or what the author said in these books."
George Meadows, who is attending his first meeting at the behest of his friend the colonel, is self-effacing about his career as a photo interpreter in World War II. "My experience is that stuff isn't classified so much because it's top secret, but because it's an embarrassment to someone else," he says. His wife Marian says he's too modest. Her brother-in-law, an AFIO member in D.C., could never talk about his work at the National Security Agency, but he often complained about the cockroaches that infested certain rooms at headquarters because they were off-limits to cleaning personnel.
Dr. James Middleton, a psychotherapist who worked in counterespionage for two years until double agent Kim Philby effectively blew the cover off the CIA's Soviet division, hints that spies have their own code of political correctness. The term "spook," he warns, is offensive to intelligence professionals when used by nonspooks but perfectly acceptable when used among themselves.
Captain Tony Newcomb, retired special forces special operations and intelligence officer, is editor of the chapter's newsletter. He passionately debunks myths about the profession. "I don't like the term 'conspiracy,'" he says. "Frankly, all this stuff about a grand Republican conspiracy or a conspiracy of the federal government--I've met most of these people and, frankly, six of them put together aren't smart enough to run these kind of things. Criminy! I'm serious. Plus there's no secrets in the federal government. C'mon, the only way to keep a secret is if only one person knows."
In the newsletter's winter issue Newcomb ran an item about "a flaky outfit" that published an outdated list of AFIO members on its Web site, cryptome.org. It "suggests that every one of them are CIA operatives," he says. "Not true. We have associate members--nothing to do with the CIA, you know? Fifteen hundred of those people are probably just military intelligence who joined AFIO. It was an attempt apparently--who knows why? To make us look bad? Because I'm not gonna tell you there's no commies out there anymore. There still are. All these liberals that wanna say, 'Listen, the cold war is over. Will you people get over it?' C'mon. They just had a big communist rally at Boston University. Communism isn't dead. They're still out there. I don't consider it a threat, but it hasn't gone away any more than witchcraft. But who knows? It could be a bunch of them trying to make us look bad or scare us or whatever. I just put it in there to let our members know that they might be on this list."
The speaker tonight is Robert Back, a slim, gray-haired gent with a crooked grin. As a Yale graduate student in 1959, Back was recruited by the CIA to serve on the front lines of the cold war. The company indirectly paid Back to be a delegate to the Vienna Youth Festival, an international conference funded by the Soviet Union. He traveled to Vienna and then behind the iron curtain, ostensibly as one of the dozens of young American communists on a mission of peace and friendship. "You were basically to go over there with the festival, paid for by the communists, and break it up," says Back. "They had big meetings and our job was to simply come up with a contrary opinion in the middle of a meeting, where everybody was saying one thing. And I'd mention Tibet and Hungary and all these hot words. I was to really break the spirit. There was kind of a propaganda spirit, and my job was to interrupt it."
Back runs through a program of slides showing him as a straight-backed youth posing irreverently before monuments to the revolution or handing out literature to throngs of eager Muscovites.
Afterward Marvin Goldsher, former army MI, tells a quick story about intercepting Soviet communications channels. Then the colonel collects money for dinner and reminds the group to send him more ideas for field trips. Most members take this as a dismissal and rise from their tables. There are some young associate AFIO members--aspiring intelligence professionals--here to network, including a University of Chicago freshman and a probation officer. A few gather around Back and pepper him with questions.
The colonel says these meetings rarely go late--most members are getting on in years. Before long not many remain. Newcomb, the colonel, and a young woman are huddled together at the bar talking quietly. Back is still going strong, holding forth on the wastefulness of the American medical industry. During the Cuban missile crisis he served in the Strategic Air Command's heavy bomber wing, and he knows Kissinger as "Henry." Today he lives in the same house in Wheaton where he grew up and works as a securities analyst specializing in companies dealing with AIDS. "It's like taking those trips to Russia," he says about his current field of expertise. "I really want to know how it works." But at 0035 he's had enough. He offers his hand, pulls on his coat, and walks into the night.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.