Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"Where Is The Line Between Intelligence And Criminality?" Is It Frank Terpil?

You probably don't recognize the name Frank Terpil.  He was infamous only briefly in the early 1980s, an ex-C.I.A. man who, after being forced out of the agency in 1972, began working as an arms dealer, intelligence specialist, and adviser to a Who's Who of the world's most vile dictators, including the Shah or Iran, Idi Amin of Uganda,  Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, and Cuba's Fidel Castro, among many others.  This otherwise unassuming, pudgy guy from New York with a big moustache covering a broad smile was, to some who knew him professionally, a dangerous psychopath and, "the man who put steel in the spine of Idi Amin." How is this guy's name not more notorious and legendary?

I was astounded to read this morning that Frank Terpil is still alive, and had recently sat for an interview from his home in Cuba about his work for Gadhafi in the 1970s, during which interview Terpil apparently confirmed that he had been more than a mere military adviser, but had run a sort of Murder Incorporated for Gadhafi, arranging the assassination of the dictator's political enemies all over the world.  (The last I'd heard, Frank Terpil was purportedly arrested in Cuba in 1995, having been an international fugitive from justice for 15 years at that point, and was ominously under investigation for crimes against the state there.)

How did this street kid born in working class Brooklyn in 1939, end up being recruited by the CIA in 1965, and then get kicked out again just six years later when his black market foreign currency dealings during his posting in India came to light? Seemingly disaffected and almost unemployable back in the United States, how did Frank Terpil manage to become mysteriously well-connected and wealthy in later years working internationally as a sort of mercenary who, Zelig-like, placed himself in the service of the most ruthless and bloodthirsty dictators of the era, many of whom were avowed enemies of America?  

You can watch a really compelling 90 minute Frontline episode about him (including extensive interviews with him from exile in Beruit, and with his mystified and protective family back in Brooklyn), which aired originally on PBS in 1982, that answers all of these questions and more, on You Tube HERE. The show is clearly a product of its time, and has  a distinct "Watergate" feel to it.  It repeatedly raises a rhetorical question about whether Frank Terpil really could've done all of this himself, without the support and encouragement of the CIA (despite his apparent break with the agency in 1972, and despite the extreme illegality of his conduct, including arms smuggling and murder-for-hire).

Ted Shackley, who was Deputy Director of the CIA at the time, had his title stripped in 1977 (and was forced to retire under a cloud in 1979) amid the public scandal over Frank Terpil and Edwin Wilson's plot to sell C4 plastic explosives to Libya.  Shackley's autobiography, Spymaster: My Life In The CIA, published posthumously in 2005 after being approved by the CIA's Publication Review Board, suspiciously makes no mention whatsoever of either Frank Terpil or Edwin Wilson.

It's interesting to me that, according to THIS Miami Herald article about Frank Terpil published yesterday (which includes a recent photo of Terpil at 74 years of age), he lives a quiet life in exile in Havana, with a much younger local girlfriend and, "little to do, spending too much time frequenting Havana watering holes and nursing a drink." That all sounds eerily reminiscent of the unhappy later years which notorious British spy Kim Philby spent in Moscow after he defected there in 1963, until he died in 1988, lonely and drinking too much, with a much younger Russian woman as his sole companion.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Powdered Alcohol Coming?

This segment from the NBC Nightly News last night highlights a new product that may be coming to store shelves soon, Palcohol: powered alcohol that turns water into vodka and rum.

When this segment started airing, my initial thought was, "Within minutes of Palcohol hitting store shelves, a teenager will be snorting it somewhere." I'm not particularly against it being marketed. But it's nonetheless hard for me to conceive of any socially valuable use for it.  (Cocktails on the international space station?) So I laughed when, in the man-on-the-street interviews in this piece, the potential uses people come up with spontaneously are all, like, "sneak it into the ballet."

Today the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau rescinded its approval of the controversial new product, according to TIME magazine.

Some Words Just Don't Belong Together

THIS ABC News item spotlights what sounds like a fantastic medical breakthrough for sufferers of a rare genetic condition.  But I hope they soon assign someone to come up with alternative phrasing for "lab grown vaginas."

When Anachronistic Phrases Make News

Two phrases I've heard a lot less over the last decade than I did in, say, the 1970s, are "hunting safari" and "almost extinct." THIS news today, about a Saudi prince whose hunting party illegally shot and killed over 2,000 "almost extinct" houbara bustards (birds) during a recent "hunting safari" in Pakistan, manages to use both.

Does it surprise anyone that this story goes on to explain that the meat of these extremely rare birds is "considered an aphrodisiac."

Monday, April 21, 2014

The "Golden Corral" Story (With Lobster)

To this day, I've never seen a "Golden Corral" restaurant in person, despite it being a nationwide chain, and despite having seen hundreds of TV commercials for it on ESPN over the last few years. THIS recent 15 second TV spot caught my eye in particular, because it advertised that diners at the all-you-can-eat "Golden Corral" buffet could now, for a limited time, also purchase lobster tails a la carte for an extra $3.99 each.

This offer raised so many questions (like "Why lobster?" and "Why now?" and "How many people who go to a $10 all-you-can-eat buffet really want to buy an a la carte lobster tail?"). And in the quest for answers, I learned so much more.

To use the language of crime, the 'Motive' and 'Opportunity' were spelled out in THIS Wall Street Journal article from last month. "Supply of lobster is plentiful and pushing down prices. This comes at a time when rising commodity costs are boosting the price of foods like beef and coffee... Inexpensive chain restaurants have jumped at the chance to add lobster's premium image to their menus. Golden Corral bought 200,000 pounds of frozen lobster tails last August. It paid $3.79 per tail... Golden Corral is now thawing the tails for a limited-time special, a common practice with tails served at inexpensive restaurants. (The tails have a 12-month frozen shelf life, Mr. McDevitt says.) The special is timed to lure diners after a cold winter that kept them eating at home, he says. At $3.99 a tail, the company isn't making a profit on the special, but it is likely to boost sales of buffet dinners, he says."

Has this business strategy worked, I wondered? It turns out that the North Carolina-based Golden Corral Corporation is privately owned. So it doesn't make its financial results public. Golden Corral Corporation is owned by Investors Management Corporation, or IMC, the founder, Chairman and largest shareholder of which, James Maynard, is also the co-founder of Golden Corral Corporation. In addition to Golden Corral, the IMC family of companies also includes an oncology management company, a building materials distributor, and an investment management firm.

I've always thought the name "Golden Corral" was an oddly imperfect one for a chain of buffet restaurants. The company's history, which dates back to the early 1970s as it turns out (detailed HERE) explains it all. "Golden Corral" began in 1973 as a single steakhouse in Fayetteville, North Carolina, when the co-founders had their application for a "Ponderosa" franchise turned down. They later expanded it into a chain of steakhouses that by 1987 had over 500 restaurants in 38 states, intentionally sited in small town markets with little competition. But by then American tastes and eating habits were changing, and the steakhouse business stalled. So in the early 1990s they evolved "Golden Corral" into the chain of all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants it is today.

Stalin's Daughter And His Legacy In America

Today is the 47th anniversary of the date in 1967 that the black sheep daughter of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin arrived in New York and defected to the United States, a huge coup during the height of the Cold War.

I'm not entirely sure why I knew this had happened back then, because I wasn't even alive in 1967.  But I was vaguely aware of it, and so was very surprised to read THIS account of an interview with her in a recent issue of the The New Yorker magazine. (Stalin's daughter was still alive?!?) She actually died in 2011, after many illnesses.

In  later years she lived quietly in a nursing home in Wisconsin, subsisting on social security payments, apparently. There was a certain irony in that, I thought, because according to this article, when she defected in 1967, she wrote to her children, whom she'd left behind in Moscow, that, "Communism had failed as an economic system and as a moral idea."  I also thought it notable that her American-born daughter, Stalin's granddaughter, now works in Portland, Oregon selling, "antiques, vintage clothes, and scented candles."

I thought this sentence from the introduction to the article was noteworthy, too.  "The C.I.A. official who first interviewed her noted in a memo that 'our own preconceived notions of what Stalin’s daughter must be like—just didn’t let us believe that this nice, pleasant, attractive, middle-aged hausfrau could possibly be who she claimed to be.'”

Did You Know That Today Is "Patriots' Day"?

The focus will likely be on the running of the Boston Marathon today, following last year's bombing. But did you know that the event is held on "Patriots' Day" every year?  I'd never heard of "Patriots' Day" until I lived in Boston myself for a couple of years, because it's not a national holiday. 

It commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the first battles of the American Revolution. The focus of the celebrations (beyond the marathon) is reenactments of those battles. (Below is home video from the 2010 reenactment, which for much of its 7 minutes makes the Battle of Lexington look like a junior high school dance, where the boys and girls stand separately and eye each other nervously and hesitantly from across the room.)

I can understand why it's a state holiday in Massachusetts.  But why, I wonder, is it also a public school holiday in Wisconsin?