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Travel
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February 1995: Northern Iraq.

Our North Face parkas and Gore-Tex boots might fool the average Kurdish peasant into thinking we're adventure travelers who've somehow wandered into northern Iraq, oblivious to civil war and general mayhem. But I can pretty much count on Hezbollah's politburo seeing through it.

The politburo—the ruling council of a radical Islamic organization Washington has deemed terrorist—would know that Turkey has sealed its border with Iraq. Not even journalists are getting in. I speak Arabic, Alan's fluent in Farsi, and Tom's sidewalls make him look like nothing so much as the Special Forces major he is. There's a whip antenna atop our Nissan Patrol SUV, and we all carry AK-47 assault rifles. It'll take the politburo, oh, about three seconds to figure out we're CIA.

"Whatever you say, don't admit you're CIA, Adham Barzani, the head of Hezbollah, warns me. I wait for him to offer an alternative explanation as to why we'd want to talk to his politburo. He doesn't.

I think about skipping the meeting. But Washington wants to hear Hezbollah's views on Saddam. The UN oil-for-food program won't be implemented for almost a year, and Iraq is flat broke, teetering on the edge. Refugees are streaming into the Kurdish zone, all telling the same tale: Saddam won't last another year. Hezbollah has a reputation for being about as chatty as a clam, but still, they're worth a try.

Barzani pushes himself up off the filthy mattress on which we sit and ambles over to a shooting port in the wall to check the weather. From where I sit, I can see that snow—pure, white, beautiful—has begun to fall. Barzani says we should leave soon, before the snow closes the roads.

"Remember: Don't say you're CIA, he warns me again as we climb into our truck.Catching my expression, he adds, "Don't worry, you'll think of something before we get there.

That's easy for Barzani to say. He lives in a Mad Max fortress atop a granite spire, ringed with razor wire, berms, antiaircraft guns and heavy artillery. He can afford to make things up on the fly.

Descending the hill from the compound, we're joined by an escort of three "technicals—Toyota pickup trucks with belt-fed machine guns mounted on their beds. The gunners look comical in their brown hunting caps, flaps down, tied under their chins, but I'm betting they know how to hit what they're aiming at. A short, bearded man in olive green fatigues dismounts one of the technicals and climbs in with us.

He introduces himself as Dulayr, an officer of Iran's Islamic Revol-utionary Guard Corps—the same group that blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in October 1983, and has kidnapped Americans, including the CIA's chief of station. Another reminder that I'd better devise a plausible cover story.

An hour's drive up, deep into Kurdistan's mountains, we come to what looks like a scree field. Dulayr tells us the place was a village before it got flattened during the Iran-Iraq war.

I can see the Iranian border, less than a mile away.

Our escort drops us off at what seems to be the only building still standing. A guard opens a metal gate to let us pass, then shows us into a squat, unpainted cinderblock building. There's no furniture, only a framed picture of Ayatollah Khomeini, staring at us accusingly. The guard gestures toward a soiled vinyl carpet laid over the cement floor. As we sit down, he closes the door behind him, leaving us to listen to the boom of artillery in the distance.

Twenty minutes later, just as we're about to give up and leave before the roads become impassable, seven men file in, all bearded and draped in clerical robes and headdresses. They sit down silently across from us.

"Who's in charge? demands a silver-bearded mullah with fierce green eyes.I start off in the best formal Arabic I can muster, expressing our gratitude at being received by Hezbollah's esteemed leadership. I'm getting ready to segue into politics when he stopse.

"Why did you come here? he asks.I glance out the window at the snow falling, and think, why not? It beats telling the truth.

"We're here to survey for a new ski resort.The old man is suddenly less sure of himself, confused, as if I've switched into ancient Greek.

"We want to take a look at the skiing, I say. I ramble on about the British operating a ski area in Kurdistan during the 1920s, about the wide-open bowls, about the quality of the snow, how there's surely enough to ski into May. I tactfully neglect to mention the forest of orange triangles that warn of landmines in the area. The Hezbollah officials stare at me as I talk. When I finish, they whisper among themselves.

Finally, the old man turns back to me.

"You're welcome, he says graciously. "I hope we can help you.[NEXT ""]

That wasn't the first time I'd used skiing as "cover for action. Cover for action is a story a spy invents to explain to the locals why he's in some place he shouldn't be. If you're serving in Moscow, for instance, you might claim you've got an incontinent dog. It gives you an excuse to be out late at night, wandering around strange neighborhoods, talking to people. Other ruses might be antiquing, exploring ruins, long-distance running, whatever. Anything that gets you out of the house.

For me, skiing was a natural cover. I'd spent most of my life in ski resorts. In 1962, my mother decided she'd had enough of suburban Los Angeles and took me to Klosters, Switzerland, for a season. Although I was only 10, she kept me out of school, bought me a pair of new Kneissls and turned me loose on the slopes. Two years later, we returned to the States and settled in Alta, Utah, for a season. About the time I got the hang of deep powder, we moved to Aspen, Colo., where I raced with the local ski team and really learned how to ski. Even after I'd joined the CIA, I never passed up an opportunity to get out on the slopes. During my first assignment, to India, I skied every chance I got at a one-lift resort in the Himalayas.

But it wasn't until the mid-'80s, when I was assigned to Lebanon, that I figured out that skiing was a marvelous cover for espionage. When I arrived, Lebanon was the most dangerous place in the world, and most Americans locked themselves up, emerging only in armored cars, surrounded by bodyguards. Obviously, that wouldn't work for me.

POne morning I stepped out of my bunkered office just east of downtown and looked up at new snowfall in the mountains. That was it, of course. Beirut's ski areas are only an hour out of the city. The snow was always good, the chalets dirt cheap and the restaurants fantastic. Langley signed off on my plan, so I went out and bought myself new skis and boots. You'd think the Lebanese, in the middle of a civil war, would be spending money on something other than ski equipment, but I found a shop that carried the latest line of Hexcels.

The first time I got off the lift at the summit of a ski area called Faraya Mzaar, I paused to take in views of the Mediterranean. Suddenly, there was a whoosh overhead, then a second. A couple of beats later there were two distant booms in Beirut. I was about to burrow into the snow when a Lebanese girl nearby saw my panic and laughed.

"It's the Syrians, silly. Don't worry, they've got their range down. No short rounds.Apparently, the Syrian military used the top of the resort to help sight in their artillery when they shelled Beirut.

We were required to carry a weapon at all times but, frankly, I never did get used to skiing with a machine gun. Uzis and AK-47s were too bulky, so I settled on a small Czech submachine gun called a Skorpion. It fit nicely into a fanny pack, but I still worried about crashing and corking off a burst. Every few weeks I'd head into the mountains. Between runs I met my informants. I even met one informant on the lift.[NEXT ""]There were times, however, when my skiing cover backfired. When I was assigned to Paris in 1988, the first thing I did was rent an apartment at the French resort La Grave. A ski weekend in the Alps was the perfect excuse to get out of Paris. If the French secret police—or anybody else—were watching me, they'd assume I was just going skiing and wouldn't bother following me. Or so I figured.

It worked fine for a while, but one day I was driving through a small village called Bourg d'Oisans when I spotted a car tailing me. I'd just met with a crazy Islamic fundamentalist in Lyon, and I guessed it was the French back there, led to me by him.

As I approached La Grave, I noticed a second car had joined the first. Was it the government? Or terrorists? I decided not to take any chances. The only place in town that looked open was the local gendarmerie office. I pounded on the door. A gendarme came outside with a pistol in his hand. Just then one of the surveillance cars pulled up behind him. When I pointed it out, he turned around, didn't like the looks of the three thugs sitting in it and chambered a round. Fortunately, the car took off. A couple phone calls later, we found out it was the French secret police. When I got back to Paris, I learned I'd caught their attention after someone spotted my bagged skis poking out of my jeep. They'd mistaken them for a rocket launcher.

Another time, in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan, I was supposed to meet a senior official but instead found myself whisked up to the ski resort above town. Apparently, the night before, over more vodka than I care to remember, I'd bragged about how much I liked to ski. When we got to the hill, skis, boots and poles were waiting for me. None of them matched. I have to admit I'd never before skied on skis of different lengths. But the real problem was that I was wearing a suit and a tie. Nobody but me seemed to mind, so up the lift I went.[NEXT ""]The real test for skiing cover came when I was assigned to Tajikistan in September 1992.

Tajikistan is mountainous and, like Lebanon, wracked by civil war. At the time, there was one official ski area north of the capital, Dushanbe, but its slopes were served only by an incredibly fast-moving cable that you had to grab onto with something that vaguely resembled wire cutters. You were lucky not to be propelled into a stanchion. Getting up to the resort was better than spending all my time behind sandbags in the capital, but I couldn't meet informants there because the Russian military ran the resort.

I knew I had to get up high into the Pamir mountains.

Back then, the Pamirs were pretty much terra incognita. Some of the most formidable terrain in the world, ranking up there with the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush in altitude, the Pamirs during the Soviet era were completely off-limits to foreigners—especially CIA officers. There was at least one secret nuclear facility they didn't want us getting anywhere near. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, most people avoided the area because it was controlled by Islamic rebels.

To get into the Pamirs, you have to pass through a little town called Tavildara, which sits at the bottom of a narrow, steep valley. The first time I went there, the Russian unit holding it refused to let me pass. I ended up drinking vodka with the commander until neither of us could stand. He insisted all along I had to be a spy. Why else would I be there? We ended the day firing AK-47s. (This is a Russian military rite of passage designed to demonstrate that you can handle your vodka well enough not to shoot your foot off.) Some rebels watching us from the surrounding ravines took it the wrong way and started firing back. The Pamirs would have to wait.

The Russians eventually broke through at Tavildara and inched their way into the Pamirs, opening the road behind them. By June 1994, I heard rumors that the road was open all the way to Khorog, the gateway to the high Pamirs. I convinced a State Department officer (I'll call him Mark) to keep me comp 1988, the first thing I did was rent an apartment at the French resort La Grave. A ski weekend in the Alps was the perfect excuse to get out of Paris. If the French secret police—or anybody else—were watching me, they'd assume I was just going skiing and wouldn't bother following me. Or so I figured.

It worked fine for a while, but one day I was driving through a small village called Bourg d'Oisans when I spotted a car tailing me. I'd just met with a crazy Islamic fundamentalist in Lyon, and I guessed it was the French back there, led to me by him.

As I approached La Grave, I noticed a second car had joined the first. Was it the government? Or terrorists? I decided not to take any chances. The only place in town that looked open was the local gendarmerie office. I pounded on the door. A gendarme came outside with a pistol in his hand. Just then one of the surveillance cars pulled up behind him. When I pointed it out, he turned around, didn't like the looks of the three thugs sitting in it and chambered a round. Fortunately, the car took off. A couple phone calls later, we found out it was the French secret police. When I got back to Paris, I learned I'd caught their attention after someone spotted my bagged skis poking out of my jeep. They'd mistaken them for a rocket launcher.

Another time, in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan, I was supposed to meet a senior official but instead found myself whisked up to the ski resort above town. Apparently, the night before, over more vodka than I care to remember, I'd bragged about how much I liked to ski. When we got to the hill, skis, boots and poles were waiting for me. None of them matched. I have to admit I'd never before skied on skis of different lengths. But the real problem was that I was wearing a suit and a tie. Nobody but me seemed to mind, so up the lift I went.[NEXT ""]The real test for skiing cover came when I was assigned to Tajikistan in September 1992.

Tajikistan is mountainous and, like Lebanon, wracked by civil war. At the time, there was one official ski area north of the capital, Dushanbe, but its slopes were served only by an incredibly fast-moving cable that you had to grab onto with something that vaguely resembled wire cutters. You were lucky not to be propelled into a stanchion. Getting up to the resort was better than spending all my time behind sandbags in the capital, but I couldn't meet informants there because the Russian military ran the resort.

I knew I had to get up high into the Pamir mountains.

Back then, the Pamirs were pretty much terra incognita. Some of the most formidable terrain in the world, ranking up there with the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush in altitude, the Pamirs during the Soviet era were completely off-limits to foreigners—especially CIA officers. There was at least one secret nuclear facility they didn't want us getting anywhere near. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, most people avoided the area because it was controlled by Islamic rebels.

To get into the Pamirs, you have to pass through a little town called Tavildara, which sits at the bottom of a narrow, steep valley. The first time I went there, the Russian unit holding it refused to let me pass. I ended up drinking vodka with the commander until neither of us could stand. He insisted all along I had to be a spy. Why else would I be there? We ended the day firing AK-47s. (This is a Russian military rite of passage designed to demonstrate that you can handle your vodka well enough not to shoot your foot off.) Some rebels watching us from the surrounding ravines took it the wrong way and started firing back. The Pamirs would have to wait.

The Russians eventually broke through at Tavildara and inched their way into the Pamirs, opening the road behind them. By June 1994, I heard rumors that the road was open all the way to Khorog, the gateway to the high Pamirs. I convinced a State Department officer (I'll call him Mark) to keep me company on the trip. If we made it through, we'd be the first U.S. officials to get a good, ground-level look at the Pamirs.

We packed my CIA-issued Lada Niva four-wheel-drive with a dozen boxes of military rations and water, strapped tanks of gasoline to the roof and taped a hand grenade behind the radio, just in case. The only thing we lacked was a good explanation for heading into a war zone. Not the least of our problems was that Russian commander at Tavildara who'd accused me of being a spy. I had an idea, however. A few months earlier, I'd run across two Brits cycling over a 15,000-foot pass. It was insane. But if the story worked for them, I figured, why wouldn't something like it work for us?

I dashed back up into the office. When I came back to the truck lugging an old pair of K2 skis and some boots, Mark looked at me as though I'd lost my mind.

We ran into our first problem near Qalai Khumb, a village on the Afghan border. Two gunmen stepped out from behinda rock. Their body language left no doubt they'd use their AK-47s if we didn't stop. One of them stuck his head in the window to let me know that we'd give them a ride to Qalai Khumb—or else. We made room in the back seat.

Mark spoke to them in Russian. They were pleasant enough at first, but soon everyone lapsed into silence.

"Who are these guys? What's on the top of their car? one of the men eventually whispered to the other in Tajik. He assumed neither of us spoke the language, and was referring to my skis."Should we kill them? The other man shook his head. "Let's wait until we get to Qalai Khumb. They'll tell us what to do.

In Qalai Khumb, the gunmen got out of the Niva and told us to wait. As soon they disappeared behind a house, we took off.It was dark when we came to a Russian base on the Panj, a river that separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan. The troops were just starting to shut down for the night.

The Russian captain who appeared out of a bunker was irritated and thoroughly unimpressed by my skis. He pointed back at the compound's gate.

"Get out, he said.It was pitch black now, and we were the only car on the road. One of the soldiers at the base had told us we'd never make it alive to Khorog. The Afghans, he said, used passing cars for target practice. But the trip was uneventful.

There were no hotels in Khorog, so we ended up sleeping on the floor of the Red Cross office there. In the morning, we poked around town looking for intelligence about the road into the Pamirs. No one seemed to know if it was open or not. The only thing people could tell us for certain was that there'd beno gasoline until we got to Kyrgyzstan—except at the Russian border force's bases. After my experience with the Russians, I wondered about our chances of making it.

The mountains past Khorog are stunningly beautiful. They rise out of a high, barren desert—some of the valley floors are at 17,000 feet—to more than 27,000 feet. There were no villages until we reached Murgab, which someone told us means "dead chicken in the local language. We were almost out of gas and drove around offering huge sums for a few gallons. But there wasn't a drop to be had. That left the nearest Russian outpost.

The Russian colonel looked at me impassively as I explained we were on a skiing vacation. He could see our Niva outside the window, my K2s lashed to the top. Wasn't it obvious what we were doing driving through the Pamirs?

The colonel pulled a telex out of his in-box and slipped on a pair of reading glasses.

"It says here you are an agent of the CIA. The KGB office in Dushanbe must have warned him.

"Could we buy some gas from you?

"It's against regulations.

We didn't get our gas, but the colonel did agree to put us up. That night over dinner the colonel was more relaxed and asked us to tell him the real reason we were in the Pamirs. I guess it was my sense of humor, maybe the mood, but I told him with an air of great conspiracy that Mark and I were trying to get diischarged from the service on psychological grounds. We figured if we skied into China—I pointed at a 25,000-foot peak that spanned the Tajik-Chinese border—our bosses would be only too happy to offer us generous pensions in return for our early retirements.

I'm sure the colonel had already decided we were a bit off just by virtue of the fact that we were wandering around the Pamirs with a pair of skis on top of the car, but now he must have thought we were genuinely deranged. I could read his mind as he pictured us getting caught by the Chinese and then imagined himself, shortly after, losing his job.

"The skiing's much better at the next base, he finally said. "Much better there.The next morning, we got our gasoline.

December 2005 on the trip. If we made it through, we'd be the first U.S. officials to get a good, ground-level look at the Pamirs.

We packed my CIA-issued Lada Niva four-wheel-drive with a dozen boxes of military rations and water, strapped tanks of gasoline to the roof and taped a hand grenade behind the radio, just in case. The only thing we lacked was a good explanation for heading into a war zone. Not the least of our problems was that Russian commander at Tavildara who'd accused me of being a spy. I had an idea, however. A few months earlier, I'd run across two Brits cycling over a 15,000-foot pass. It was insane. But if the story worked for them, I figured, why wouldn't something like it work for us?

I dashed back up into the office. When I came back to the truck lugging an old pair of K2 skis and some boots, Mark looked at me as though I'd lost my mind.

We ran into our first problem near Qalai Khumb, a village on the Afghan border. Two gunmen stepped out from behinda rock. Their body language left no doubt they'd use their AK-47s if we didn't stop. One of them stuck his head in the window to let me know that we'd give them a ride to Qalai Khumb—or else. We made room in the back seat.

Mark spoke to them in Russian. They were pleasant enough at first, but soon everyone lapsed into silence.

"Who are these guys? What's on the top of their car? one of the men eventually whispered to the other in Tajik. He assumed neither of us spoke the language, and was referring to my skis."Should we kill them? The other man shook his head. "Let's wait until we get to Qalai Khumb. They'll tell us what to do.

In Qalai Khumb, the gunmen got out of the Niva and told us to wait. As soon they disappeared behind a house, we took off.It was dark when we came to a Russian base on the Panj, a river that separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan. The troops were just starting to shut down for the night.

The Russian captain who appeared out of a bunker was irritated and thoroughly unimpressed by my skis. He pointed back at the compound's gate.

"Get out, he said.It was pitch black now, and we were the only car on the road. One of the soldiers at the base had told us we'd never make it alive to Khorog. The Afghans, he said, used passing cars for target practice. But the trip was uneventful.

There were no hotels in Khorog, so we ended up sleeping on the floor of the Red Cross office there. In the morning, we poked around town looking for intelligence about the road into the Pamirs. No one seemed to know if it was open or not. The only thing people could tell us for certain was that there'd beno gasoline until we got to Kyrgyzstan—except at the Russian border force's bases. After my experience with the Russians, I wondered about our chances of making it.

The mountains past Khorog are stunningly beautiful. They rise out of a high, barren desert—some of the valley floors are at 17,000 feet—to more than 27,000 feet. There were no villages until we reached Murgab, which someone told us means "dead chicken in the local language. We were almost out of gas and drove around offering huge sums for a few gallons. But there wasn't a drop to be had. That left the nearest Russian outpost.

The Russian colonel looked at me impassively as I explained we were on a skiing vacation. He could see our Niva outside the window, my K2s lashed to the top. Wasn't it obvious what we were doing driving through the Pamirs?

The colonel pulled a telex out of his in-box and slipped on a pair of reading glasses.

"It says here you are an agent of the CIA. The KGB office in Dushanbe must have warned him.

"Could we buy some gas from you?

"It's against regulations.

We didn't get our gas, but the colonel did agree to put us up. That night over dinner the colonel was more relaxed and asked us to tell him the real reason we were in the Pamirs. I guess it was my sense of humor, maybe the mood, but I told him with an air of great conspiracy that Mark and I were trying to get discharged from the service on psychological grounds. We figured if we skied into China—I pointed at a 25,000-foot peak that spanned the Tajik-Chinese border—our bosses would be only too happy to offer us generous pensions in return for our early retirements.

I'm sure the colonel had already decided we were a bit off just by virtue of the fact that we were wandering around the Pamirs with a pair of skis on top of the car, but now he must have thought we were genuinely deranged. I could read his mind as he pictured us getting caught by the Chinese and then imagined himself, shortly after, losing his job.

"The skiing's much better at the next base, he finally said. "Much better there.The next morning, we got our gasoline.

December 2005o get discharged from the service on psychological grounds. We figured if we skied into China—I pointed at a 25,000-foot peak that spanned the Tajik-Chinese border—our bosses would be only too happy to offer us generous pensions in return for our early retirements.

I'm sure the colonel had already decided we were a bit off just by virtue of the fact that we were wandering around the Pamirs with a pair of skis on top of the car, but now he must have thought we were genuinely deranged. I could read his mind as he pictured us getting caught by the Chinese and then imagined himself, shortly after, losing his job.

"The skiing's much better at the next base, he finally said. "Much better there.The next morning, we got our gasoline.

December 2005

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