Chapter 2 – A Phone Call About A Phone
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I was supposed to be a dressmaker, not a codemaker. As a dressmaker I would have been a king. But as a code maker? A knave.
It all started with a phone call about a phone, and I often wondered how different things might have been if I just hadn’t picked up that phone. But it wasn’t just any phone. The phone the phone call was about, I mean, not the phone I shouldn’t have picked up. The phone I picked up but shouldn’t have was extremely dull like most phones but the phone the phone call was about would turn out to be quite possibly the most important phone in the world.
The caller very politely introduced himself as a Captain with the Signals Intelligence section of the Irish Department of Defense. He wondered that if I had a moment free in the near future I wouldn’t mind dropping into the Directorate of Intelligence Operations Center at McKee Barracks on the north side of Dublin so we could have a chat about a certain matter.
Signals Intelligence meant military intelligence, that much I knew. And because the Captain refused to share anything at all over the phone about the purpose of the call and the certain matter, that call subjected me to days of reflections and worry over what I could possibly do, know, or have ever done to anyone to warrant such a call.
Certain things did come to mind though, and when you’re living the life of a bugger you’re bound to come to the attention of some authority or other at some point. And even though my choice of a career confounded and even slightly disappointed my parents, I found myself so drawn to that dark and curtained world that I just couldn’t easily turn my back on it.
And besides, the money was good, the hours flexible and it gave me a chance to meet the kinds of people my parents should have but never bothered to warn me about. Possibly because they never dreamed such people could even exist in a place like Dublin.
Maybe it was some of those characters the Captain was interested in? Most of them either had secrets they wanted kept secret or an interest in other people’s uncomfortable secrets that they would go to any length to know. And whichever way they swung I was the man for both.
Like a casting call I went through the cast of characters in my head countless times as the date of the meeting counted down, but none of them stood out as being any less sinister than all the rest. Except maybe the Gilhooly twins. Now that was a pair that warranted a closer look in any light. But I’d know soon enough who the object of the Captain’s desire really was.
McKee barracks could easily be mistaken for the world’s largest collection of poorhouse prison orphanages gathered together in one compound. A massive, gloomy, and sinister-looking red-bricked institution decorated like grotesque candles with what seemed like an endless assortment of high stack chimneys and turrets and towers.
The barracks was yet another reluctant gift of the British Crown to the people of Ireland, as the decaying Havisham empire slowly released her stranglehold on the insolent little nation and finally retreated back to the isolation of her own miserable shores. And rather than detonate, his Majesty the King instead made the noble gesture of donating to the Irish army what for more than a century had served as little more than opulent and extravagant accommodations for about a thousand British cavalry mounts.
The assortment of buildings sat on an expansive plot of land between Stoneybatter and Cabra and wedged right up against the northern perimeter of the Dublin Zoo and the Phoenix Park. It was part of a small triangle of Irish power and secrecy that included the headquarters of the Irish police, the residence of both the American ambassador and the President of Ireland, as well as the one-time palace of the Papal Nuncio, the Pope’s chief agent in Ireland, and all within a casual stroll of each other.
The Captain’s quarters were just as expected, and a stark contrast to the eerie opulence of the exterior. Although the ceilings were high and grand and still very ornate, they were almost all that was left of the intricate and painstaking craftsmanship that had gone into hand-carving the building into life a century before. Even if it was just to stable horses.
It always seemed to be that way – whenever a government body or a school or a hospital took occupancy of some fine example of empire architecture, the first thing they always did was to cleanse it of any trace of fineness and beauty as though such things were absolutely contrary to the new mission.
This room was no different. Almost everything that gave any clue to its grand history and original use had been replaced by steel desks and filing cabinets. Oxblood-red linoleum flooring almost worn to the boards harshly reflected the rows of bright white fluorescent strips hung from the ceiling like trapeze bars.
The cheery corporal asked me if he could help me and when I told him that he could and how, he asked me to sit and wait. The waiting brought to mind the misery of secondary school, agonizing outside the office of the Assistant Principal “The Muller” Muldoon to answer for some infraction or other. A meeting that almost always ended with either six or twelve lashes of the leather to the left hand or the right or both, depending on how close to the surface Muller’s rage was percolating that day.
I hoped they weren’t planning to lash me. I was sure they didn’t do that kind of thing anymore, and I’m sure my father would have said something. But this was military intelligence. And they were different alright.
Within less than a minute, my lasher appeared. A tall, affable, and seemingly harmless Corkman dressed in olive green wool fatigues, and although he looked very familiar, I didn’t have time to try to recall why. He introduced himself as Captain Styles, and expecting to follow him directly into the room, instead he paused and turned so he could deliver some instructions regarding etiquette for the meeting.
First of all, he warned me, and whatever else I did, I must not ever look to my left as I entered the room, nor look at that end of the room at any time during the meeting or on the way out. And second, seeing as this meeting was unofficial and exploratory, they would have to deny that it ever took place. In case anybody ever asked. Which obviously they wouldn’t. But just in case.
I agreed to his conditions, with little choice, and as I entered the room half expecting to be ambushed from that secret left, it became apparent that this room was just a much larger and busier version of the one I’d just left. Except perhaps for the row of windows on the far side of the room that shared a pleasant view of the massive courtyard at the center of the rotunda.
The Captain offered me a metal chair that was upholstered with what appeared to be the very same linoleum from the floor. He made his way to the other side of the cluttered desk and introduced his companions as another Captain and a second Lieutenant.
“So your father was in the army, you said?” opened the first Captain. I suppose this was their technique. Open the interrogation with something casual and cordial, to soften me up, then move on to good soldier, bad soldier with the third acting as the referee soldier. The thing is, I hadn’t mentioned it, that my father was in the army. I didn’t want to because my father only ever made it to the rank of Captain too and so that wouldn’t have been much of an ace to play. At that moment but for that moment only I wished like my father that he’d stayed in the service and at least retired a Colonel.
We exchanged a few more pleasantries – about my father’s time in the army, why I had never been tempted to follow that path, and of course, naturally enough, the fine weather we were having for that time of year.
The Captain, the tall one who had invited me to this meeting, turned his attention to the cluttered pile of manilla files that covered almost the entire desk, separated one large and lone document from the top, pushed it across the desk and asked me point blank what I knew about it.
The frayed and worn overly-photocopied collection of loose pages was held together by a large butterfly clip and decorated on the front page with the seal of the National Security Agency of the United States of America, the words Secure Telephone Unit III and the warning Secret stamped on it.
As I stared at the front page of the pile my heart and my brain began to race each other and my hands just gave up all together and began to sweat so profusely I was reluctant to even touch a page. And as I fought for control of my faculties I could tell even without looking that all six eyes were scanning my face for even the smallest hint of deception.
They were watching me like, well, trained interrogators, so I would have to give every indication that my responses were nothing but truthful. Was this a test? Had I seen this battered document before and simply forgotten that I had? I didn’t think so, the words didn’t seem at all familiar, and I would have certainly remembered any document or anything else for that matter that had the seal of the National Security Agency on it.
Or maybe the test was that I should have seen something like this before and if I hadn’t, then perhaps they had just overestimated me. Or worse, my cover had been blown.. But with the Secret warning so large and plain and glowing right there on the front page, if I had seen it it was probably likely that I shouldn’t have. So I decided to go with that option.
“Can’t say I have,” I replied as casually as I could muster but only after what felt like hours.
The captain picked up the document, flicked quickly through the pages, and then dropped it back on the table in front of me.
“You keep it,” he said. “You’re going to need it.”
With that gesture the Captain launched into the meat of the meeting and the purpose of his call. He explained that the STU-III was the Secure Telephone Unit Number 3, the world’s most secure, secure telephone ever. It had been developed by the US National Security Agency and a consortium of America’s biggest and most famous technology firms that included Motorola, RCA, and AT&T. It had taken more than five years to develop the phone and when the final tally added up, the entire project cost the US Government and its agencies more than $50 million.
The phone was important, very important. In fact it was possibly the most important phone in the history of the world ever, even the first one Mr. Bell spoke into. This phone was much more important than that phone, in its own way, because this phone was supposed to be the most powerful guardian of the most secret of secrets the world could never know about.
This phone, explained the Captain, was used by every American official, of any consequence, to protect their most sensitive communications from the most determined and resourceful of spies. It was used by the President of the United States himself, as well as his cabinet and senior officials, senior military officers and even well down the ranks. Not to mention ambassadors, spies, and a select handful of corporate chieftains who had sensitive dealings with any of the above.
Not only could this massively expensive phone protect telephone conversations to such an advanced level there was no computer or spy agency on the planet could ever crack the code, it could do exactly the same to fax and data communications too. Except there was just a small catch.
The Captain went on to explain that in an apparent moment of unexplained generosity, the United States had decided that they would make their super secret-keeping phone available to their most loyal of allies around the world, and that included Ireland.
But that generosity came with a price that might be far greater than the cost of the phone itself, said the Captain, as he inched the conversation and myself slowly into the dark and secret chambers that I’d only read about in books. And not many of them at that.
The foreign version of the phone was suspected of having a backdoor, the captain explained, and everyone knew that. Or at least suspected it. Everyone except me, naturally, but I still nodded in outraged agreement. That backdoor, said the captain, could allow the Americans to listen into any conversation, anywhere in the world, at any time.
Which really defeated the purpose of having a phone that cost nearly $10,000 when you included the safe it had to be stored in for security purposes. But that was the price of secrecy. The Americans had at least to know what secrets were so important that you would need their phone in the first place.
So the Captain and his crew were under enormous pressure from certain superiors in both the army and the government to keep the Americans happy by spending nearly a million pounds on enough of these phones to protect most of Ireland’s official secrets. But it seems he had been tasked by some other contrarian force with studying the possibility of building something better and safer and cheaper in Ireland, by Ireland. And not only take advantage of Ireland’s military neutrality as a protective shield, but Ireland’s trusted relationships with other governments around the world.
It appeared that those contrarian voices within Ireland’s secret society were not at all comfortable with the idea that the US government could be a party to every secret phone call that might be taking place about very sensitive national issues. Issues like Northern Ireland. Especially if the Americans decided to share any of that information with the British government.
“So we were just wondering,” said the Captain in closing his opening pitch. “Would there be any chance you could make something like this? Only better, mind you.”
I’d read enough spy novels to be completely aware that worlds like this really did exist. But I never dreamed, at least properly dreamed, that I’d be invited right into the middle of it like I absolutely belonged there. I didn’t even have to work my way up through the ranks. It was like the Crock, like my rightful place and birthright. Another sign?
Luckily for me I’d been through situations, interrogations, like this before. Asked to offer a considered opinion on a technology that I knew absolutely nothing about, while at the same time appearing as though I knew more than just about anyone else about the subject.
“Interesting,” was all I could come up with, as I leafed through the pages and settled on some technical diagrams that were so alien to me they might as well have been in code too. “I’ll have to study this and have a chat with my team.” I didn’t have a team and I immediately worried that they already knew that. Unless you counted Shea. And he was my only hope.
If Shea couldn’t make sense of what was in this document, or better still, know where to even start building something like this, then I would have to find a way to let the Captain and his benefactors know that I wasn’t the man for the job after all.
The Captain nodded, seeming to appreciate my caution. “This is not like an analog scrambler,” he said, and the relevance of that innocent comment didn’t register for a moment but then the penny dropped, loud and clanging like an anchor to the bottom of a deep well. We’d met before, he and I, the Captain and me.
It was a couple of months earlier, in London. I was showing off my first telephone scrambler at a booth donated to me at a conference for spies and spooks and all their wonderful toys and gadgets. My bugger’s life, and he knew about it. The Captain had dropped by the booth, picked up a brochure, and we struck up a short and pleasant chat about where I was from, where he went to school, and the merits of variable split band frequency inversion as an effective tool for obfuscating analog speech communications.
I didn’t recognize him in his civvies and really thought at the time that he was an accountant or something similar. It never struck me that such a place was not really an appropriate place for an accountant. But then again I never thought Ireland had military intelligence.
“Have you ever heard of COCOM?” asked the Captain, breaking into my thoughts. I had to admit I hadn’t, and he could tell from my expression that I hadn’t. “COCOM is a global arms control agreement,” he explained. The Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, he said. “Encryption is considered a weapon, and so is controlled by COCOM. And that’s where it can get tricky.”
He paused and stared as though something was supposed to sink in or some bell ring but I was too exhausted or maybe just bewildered to put on an act any more. “Ireland isn’t a signatory to COCOM,” he explained. “That means we can make whatever encryption we like, unbreakable codes, codes that even the Americans can’t crack. And there’s nothing they can do to stop us.” Aha! Sort of.
So if I was to understand him correctly, he would like me to build a phone that no one bar the Americans had built before. But just make it better, better in a way they might not like at all.
“We can’t help you, you understand?” cautioned the Captain. “At least not directly.”
The Irish army didn’t have the authority to fund research projects like this, he said, but there were other ways they could help.
“If you can do this, build something better, every country that doesn’t want to be eavesdropped on by anyone else will beat a path to your door. And we can invite them to the party. You could make millins.”
Millins, I thought. All well and good if all worked out well and good. But first I’d have to decode those four inches of torn, battered, and stained pages, or at least find someone who could. But millins had such a great ring to it and no matter the end results this endeavor alone would likely change everything and forever.
As a parting gesture, the Captain scribbled on the back of the pile of pages the names of a couple of young researchers at University College Dublin on the other side. He had heard from other sources that they were making great strides with some of the technologies that he was certain could be the key both to the phone and the entire endeavor, but they had no clue about the potential global significance of that work.
“The vocoder fella,” said the captain, “speak to him. He could be the key to all this.” I agreed to call him that very day, and with a round of handshakes one of the most important meetings I was ever asked to attend ended in a way I could never ever have imagined.
Captain Styles suggested that in future discussions we would need to use a code name for the project. I had just finished reading a book called A Man Called Intrepid written by Canadian author William Stevenson about Canadian spymaster William Stephenson. Which was very confusing because they were completely unrelated. William Stephenson, the spymaster, is believed to have been the inspiration behind the character James Bond, and his wartime intelligence code name was Intrepid.
It would be Intrepid, I later decided. I thought Intrepid had a decent ring to it, solemn, serious and yet hopeful. But most important, it made me sound important, or at least feel important. Much as I wanted to, I thought it best not to skip my way out of the meeting. I was so proud of what my country had just asked of me, entrusted to me, and most of all, offered me in return, that I almost saluted the Corporal on the way out.
Standing there dazed in the chilly sun and in the shadow of the most beautiful and exquisite horse barn ever, I knew I had the world in my hands. Or at least cradled in my sweating armpit.
It didn’t matter, at least right then, that there was little chance that I could ever even answer that call. As long as they didn’t uncover my own secrets before I had a chance to try. What did matter was that my country had called on me and for something of a great importance and significance that possibly no one else in the entire country was capable of answering.
And something significant enough to endow me with a codename. Me, of all people, my very own codename. But if I could build this, this STU thing, I was certain that I would become a very important and maybe even accomplished person. And would have rightly earned that codename. The right to be The Man from Intrepid.
I could end the buggery, for good, that was for certain. More important than that though, I would be rich beyond even my vivid imagination and that would mean only one thing. I would regain my crown and kingdom, reclaim and rebuild my beloved Crock of Gold, and go on to become the most famous Irish dressmaker the world had ever known. That was three things. I had no idea that they would nearly cost me my life.
The thing at the end of the room that I was absolutely forbidden from looking at, the one you were wondering about? Well, I did look, or at least glance. It was just a map, a giant map of the whole of Ireland that took up the entire wall from floor to ceiling.
And dotted like a giant pincushion with large pins in a variety of bright colors. I learned later that each pin pinpointed the location of active surveillance, especially of IRA units, by the lads from Signals Intelligence. I always wondered if I ever became one, a pin in their wall.