He loved getting calls from Russia. The international country code was 007. He always wondered what had come first: the assigning of that dialing code to the Soviet Union or the first James Bond novel. He knew that the latter had been published in 1953 (Casino Royale), but the calls from Russia usually lead to some job which needed to be undertaken immediately, so that by the end of the call he had always forgotten to check the former on Wikipedia.
The number was +74955788026. He recognized neither the area code nor the number, but once more he was dismayed at modern technology, which needlessly abbreviated 007 to +7. After three rings, he had decided against answering in Russian. With his knowledge limited to around 20 words, he couldn’t fool anyone for longer than one sentence.
“Yes, this is Andreas.” He always introduced himself when answering the phone, out of politeness, out of habit and to indicate to the yet unknown caller in which language he would prefer the conversation to be continued.
“Is that Andreas Moser?” Good. The caller spoke English without any discernible accent, except for the butchering of his name to which he had gotten used. So he wouldn’t need to get an interpreter involved, which would have been problematic on a Sunday evening. Oddly enough, some of these guys insisted on spending time with their families.
“Yes, that’s me,” he replied, not at all surprised that somebody who knew his current phone number also knew his name. He was always far more concerned when people who called him asked “where are you?” because he thought this was nobody’s business and because he had grown up in a time when phones were fixed to the wall with a cable, so that this question would have sounded ridiculous. Also, Moser was always worried that one day a sniper could call and ask him to confirm his own location before taking him out. There was no immediate reply from the other end of the line, so he added “how can I help?”
“Do you have a few minutes?” Very good. He liked people who were as polite and considerate as he deemed himself to be.
“Sure, go ahead.” Moser sat down in one of the comfy chairs in his Soviet-era apartment on Savanoriu prospektas in Vilnius, ready to listen to a new story and wondering for a second if he should already grab a pen and a notebook, but deciding against it for now.
“I may need your help.” No surprise so far. People only ever called to ask for help, for favours or for advice. They never called to say something nice, to express gratitude or appreciation or to suggest seeing a movie together. Never. And if they did, it was only because they needed another favour again.
“I am stuck in one place and I might need some help getting to another place.” Moser had to smile at the understatement with which the caller described his situation. Rarely had somebody delivered such a succinct job description of what his line of work was.
He was an extraction specialist and he sometimes wondered if he might as well put that on his business card. People would probably assume that he was a dentist then and it might be as good a cover as any of the other ones that he used, from lawyer to translator to graduate student. But Moser hated dentists. It was beyond him how anybody would want to look at rotten, smelling teeth and cause immeasurable pain to patients. He tried not to look down on anyone because of their job, but with dentists, he just couldn’t help it.
Extraction is the business of removing somebody from a place where they don’t want to be or shouldn’t be to a place where they are supposed to be or want to go. Usually, this involves the crossing of international borders and the goal is to avoid detection by at least one, if not both, of the countries involved. Extraction can be performed with or without the consent of the subject. The second alternative is rather like kidnapping and Moser didn’t do that. Not due to moral objections, but because it required far more resources and it was impossible to pull it off alone. One would need a team. He preferred to work alone. A lone wolf in his private life, a lone wolf in business. But extractions of cooperative subjects were fun. One got to know the subject really well, spent a lot of time together, often in a confined space and always under stress. The planning required creativity more than anything else. No plan was the same, every operation had to be put together from scratch. In the implementation, coolness was paramount. Working together with the subject for several days, Moser’s main task was to keep the subject calm, to give him the necessary confidence. He often felt more like a psychological counselor than a spy and he almost liked that part of the job most. It was a good feeling to help the subject to achieve something that a week ago they would never had thought they were capable of doing. On the downside, a nervous subject could wreck the best plan.
Moser had a feeling this would not be a problem with this guy. He sounded cool, exactly the right combination of controlled and relaxed. “Where do you want to go?” he asked.
“Somewhere in South America would be nice.” The bell that had already begun to ring in Moser’s head when he had heard the extraction request made from a Russian telephone rang louder. He wanted to be sure, so he asked: “Are you the computer guy by any chance?” No need to use names over the phone. “I am indeed,” the reply came in a lower voice than anything he had said so far, almost with a hint of regret.
So this was Edward Snowden on the line, a former contractor for the NSA, who had leaked a wealth of documents and information about domestic and international surveillance programs to two newspapers. He had last been seen at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, at least according to media reports. Moser had of course been following the case and had not understood why Snowden had picked Moscow among the many possible destinations from Hong Kong.
Moser had both been expecting and dreading this call. In a way, it was to be expected because of his experience with extractions and because he was working in Eastern Europe already. He was also curious. This Snowden seemed like a nice guy. His approval ratings were probably higher than those of Madonna or Beyoncé, which should make it easy to find safe houses and get help. On the other hand, Moser was worried. He didn’t like working in Moscow and only six weeks ago, a CIA spy had been uncovered there by the FSB. Under Putin’s authoritarian grip, it had become dangerous territory again for foreigners in this line of work. Even if Russia wouldn’t want to pose a problem (after all they might be happy to get rid of Snowden), it’s a long way from there to South America. And finally, and this gave Moser an uneasy feeling, this would be the first time that he would not be working for the side that he usually worked for.
“Are you still where the news say you are?” Again, no need to mention specifics.
A short pause, then: “Not exactly, but I am still in the wider area.” Moser wondered what that meant: somewhere in Moscow? Somewhere in Russia? Possibly Belarus which had a customs union with Russia and no border checks?
The latter would mean that Snowden was only 35 km away, with only one border to cross. A border with plenty of forests (helpful), but an external border of the Schengen Area and the European Union, and thus closely watched (not helpful). It is one of the ironies of European history that in the Soviet Union people could travel from Vilnius in Lithuania to Minsk in Belarus without any restrictions. The distance is less than 200 km, the time by car or train around 3 hours. Then Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004, thereby rewarding its citizens with visa- and border-free travel to Spain, Italy, Germany and France among other countries, but putting up a fence on its eastern border which now makes every day-trip to close-by Minsk a hassle.
Next question: “Do you still look the way you used to look?”
“I haven’t been shaving.”
“Good. Keep it that way.” The subject’s appearance was important, obviously for disguise or for fake photo IDs. But Moser didn’t like fake documents, he was always worried that they wouldn’t be good enough or that the data had not been entered into the respective database. There was no point in having a perfectly looking passport if the immigration officer couldn’t find it in his computer when he swiped the passport at the airport. Moser’s preference was to work with doubles: real people with real identities and real passports who looked like the subject. They would be convinced – to use a neutral term – to hand over their passport for a while and the subject would then assume their identity. Moser already sensed that it wouldn’t be hard to find Snowden look-alikes in Lithuania or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. He was white, pale, shy-looking, nothing that would stand out on first sight, and had just turned 30. Moser was sure that if he went to Vilnius University, he could find several look-alikes in one day. Winning their trust was what would take time.
“How tall are you?”
“5 foot 10.”
The biggest worry usually concerned the subject’s language skills, especially with Americans.
“Do you speak any other languages?”
“Some Japanese and some Mandarin.”
“Mhhh”, Moser thought and uttered. Not very useful in this part of the world. “Problem is: you can speak both of these languages as well as you want, you ain’t gonna fool the Chinese or the Japanese with your looks.” Let alone that we would never find an Asian look-alike for you, he added to himself.
“Are you getting any help where you are now?”
“Yes, some. But they don’t know what to do from here on.”
“If you can stay where you are or move around between safe houses, that’s good enough for now. Keep a low profile, needless to say. I’ll figure something out, but I’ll need a few days. I don’t want to keep this conversation going too long. Use a different phone next time. And one last thing: if you have these Wikileaks guys helping you, don’t trust the clown. He has his own agenda and his own problems. Don’t make them your problems. The only thing you can learn from him is this: don’t trust women!” It was time for the standard instruction: “I will never contact you, so I need neither number nor address. You call me in two days. I might be coming your way.”
“Good luck! You’re doing great so far.”
Moser had already been forming a plan in his mind and he knew that he would apply for a visa for Belarus the next morning. He also needed to come up with a cover story for a longer absence. Luckily, it was his birthday next week, for which he usually went away. Nobody would be surprised if he would be gone for a hiking trip in the mountains for a week. To lay a false trail he booked a flight to and from Scotland and e-mailed some friends that he would be hiking the West Highland Way for a week and attempt to climb Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain. That sounded like something that he would really do, and where nobody would be surprised if they didn’t hear or read from him for a while.
Then he did what he always did at the beginning of a new job: he took a Rocky Patel from the cigar drawer in the heavy desk, cut off the cap and went for a walk in Vingis Park, which was more of a forest than a park and just a few minutes from his home. As the cigar smoke dissipated skyward through the pine trees like the smoke from the trains which used to make their way through the park in the time of the Soviet Union, he knew that he would have several extraction plans ready by the time he would return home a few hours later. This Snowden guy should be happy that my planning starts on a sunny day, he thought.