COVIDose: …Missed a beat, catching up…Whew, this is getting seriouser and seriouser in places way outside of Pac Heights. Just tuned into Governor Gavin’s ‘Nooner with Newsom’, a now daily status update on Covid California. His sober and data driven presser detailed the statewide spread of this coronavirus outbreak—hard numbers on symptoms, infections and grim mortality rates. Near desperation as he called out the shortages of testing, some kind of ventilators, and ICU beds—sky-falling pleas to the federal government for protective gloves, face masks and everything else PPE. How can that guy stay on top of and relate all those facts, figures and trendlines, down to the damn decimal point? Got so I couldn’t go there any longer, having as I did to come here. So RESET, go NOW…
“No, I want you should still hang with that, but…”
“There’s this goddamn missing persons thing keeps popping up.”
“You mean about that dead chick…”
Drop it, he said, drop everything—this is important. So I did, figuring that anything slipped under my door wouldn’t be bringing welcome news these days, and I was weary of watching the clock. Back it was to his second-story office, hunkering over printouts, sipping warm bottled water, half-drained coffee on the side. Between furtive phone calls, he kept riffling through pages, pointing at Sharpie highlighted particulars, gauging my attention span and inquisitive response. Given that I’d likely need whatever fee I could squeeze out of Sedge Eisenhoff—what with everything else hitting the fan of late—I couldn’t have feigned it any better had I tried.
“Naw, forget about that, I tell you,” he said, propping his right Frye boot on his upper desk drawer, leaning back in his swivel chair. “It’s about that Russkie what disappeared—turns out he’s in real de-mand. They’re all looking for him one way or the other. They want his ass back.”
“They think he’s still around here?” I sat circumspect on a chair across from him, trapping a messenger bag between my knees, wary of asking they who. “But where?”
“That’s for you to help me find out, numbnuts.”
Personally, this terrain all dated back to September 2, 2017. I was coming out of the LucasPlex in San Francisco’s Presidio, already working up a powerful sweat hiking along the former fort’s low stone wall from the Lombard Gate up to Green Street. Earthquake weather ne plus ultra, must have been over 90 degrees. I was estimating the bastioned mansions piled chockablock up to Presidio Heights like layers of a stately ceremonial cake—on a steep mountain of power and prestige, old money and acceptably new—with priceless Bay-wide views. Green Street digs were no less imposing, tidy rows of trim two-to-three story single-family pastel manses, manicured like grand geometric gardens all the way out to the soaring Presidio eucalyptus tree line. Then came the biscuit-brown brick fortress at Baker Street.
A big, boxy Comrade Hilton of a place, it was subversively outsized to the surrounding neighborhood—six stories of foiled, reflective windows shielding the secrets and stratagem therein. The Consulate General of the Russian Federation: San Francisco’s cinnamon square consulate was a red scare just standing there. Reputatively six stories plus of offices and residences—of geo-plotting, phone taps, computer network hacking, third-degree grilling and probes—all sorts of strangely nefarious activities: the place propagated rumors by the Gaz load.
This brick C.G. strongbox was the Russian sentinel to nation-state secrecy and surveillance—its oldest, most established U.S. diplomatic mission—more so even than its Washington D.C. embassy. Location ruled from the start: owing to its proximity to Bay Area research and industry, not least the Energy Department’s affiliated nuclear weapons lab. Some observers claimed the outpost has been a hub for Russia’s technology interests and collection efforts over the entire Western Hemisphere.
“So you know about that situation over there, right?”
“R-r-right, first hand…”
“I was an early spotter of the smokestack…”
But first, a little historical backstory I happened to dig up shortly thereafter: pure idle curiousity. The Russian consulate presence in San Francisco actually began in 1852, the Soviet Union having moved from downtown out here to this former apartment building on Green Street in 1973, part of a Detente deal between Nixon and Brezhnev. It had been operated by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs since Gorbachev ushered in Glasnost and Yeltsin toasted Perestroika. Back then, economic intel was the focal point, namely industrial development to play cold war catchup with the U.S. by intercepting and recording phone calls.
“Smoke, fire—see, that’s what I’m sayin’,” said Eisenhoff, shuffling aside some note papers and news clippings Geldora Reno had handed him. “I mean, who really knows what’s gone on in that place all these years?”
“Sure seemed a bit too hot for fireplaces that morning,” I recalled first noting the smoke from between two gnarly, knuckled corner sycamore trees.
“No shit, Sherlock—how they managed to throw that monstrosity up there in Pacific Heights to begin with, I’ll never know…”
“No, the McCreery crowd. My partner Tracer used to tell me about how they sold it to the Soviets for chump change. City welcomed the commies into their new haunts with a caviar and Moskovskaya Vodka housewarming—Alioto’s minions, Cyril Magnin, Harry Bridges, Shirley Temple Black—the whole red carpet routine.”
By the early 1980s, high technology was centered in Russian surveillance crosshairs with greater range and frequency. During 1986, for instance, 13 Soviet diplomats were expelled from the country for alleged tech espionage; soon, 50 or more spies were reportedly operating out of the consulate. Reagan era turncoats flipped in an out of the joint, selling Soviet agents all sorts of American defense secrets. One quisling even slept with a sultry Russian operative, apparently on a tits for tat basis. And this was all before KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennov Bezopasnosti) strongman Vladimir Putin slammed the door on any pretense of post-wall perestroika.
Since then, hardline eastern realpolitik had towered over cushy soft western power: but really, why here exactly in the first place? Pure and simple L.O.S. advantage. Safely perched up in the Heights, Sovio-Russo agents had a direct line of sight out to the Pacific Ocean, which enabled them to clearly, securely communicate with their trawlers, submarines and listening posts located in international waters off the northern California coast. Moreover, they monitored nuclear-armed U.S. subs that routinely patrol the Pacific from a base in Bremerton, Washington. Lest there be doubt, the strategic might and range of their encrypted shortwave radio transmission, the magnitude of their data-gathering heft and deftness, was brazenly evidenced above the consulate’s commanding corniced roofline, all protected by diplomatic immunity.
“But you are aware of the scuttlebutt…”
“Which one, there’s…” No matter, attention drifting out the bay window down Fillmore Street to Moulton alley, I still couldn’t get past the dead girl image in Moulton alley.
“That it was a controlled burn. Red-handed, file records—pilfered data and docs,” Eisenhoff sputtered, grabbing for his Sierra Springs water bottle, handing me one as well. “I can just picture those pinkos frantically stuffing all their spycrap into the flames, sweatin’ their skeevin’ brains out.”
“Couldn’t have been for hot toddies by the hearth, that’s for sure. Hell, I was sweating buckets just standing outside,” I twisted off the cap, slugged long and hard.
“But you know what they’ve long been up to, don’t ya? I mean with all that dirty laundry they got rigged up on the roof?”
My half-block climb up Bakers Street to Filbert had revealed the scope of C.G.’s intel/ communication arsenal. Instead of a rooftop pool or garden, this Comrade Hilton was loaded for bear with directional microwave gear, satellite dishes, and various other transmitters/receivers inside makeshift shacks and sheds to conceal whatever else Russian techies had going on up there. In any case, it was clear the San Francisco facility was a speartip of Sovio-Russo espionage. Evidently they had moved the goalpost from playing cold war catchup with the U.S. to leaving their torpid rival in the superpower dust.
As the KGB turned FSB, with some GRU thrown in, weirder, seemingly random incidents began occurring about the Bay Area. Mysterious ‘chance’ meetings were spotted in the oddest of places.
‘Legal travelers’ under diplomatic cover or ostensibly in for scholarly presentations were touring the Wine Country down through Silicon Valley. Dark suited Russian intel officers were seen up at Stinson Beach, small devices in hand, aimed out to sea. Then Putin’s regime signed on to a global “Open Skies” arms control treaty with the U.S. and 32 other signatories—designating a limited number of unarmed surveillance and reconnaissance flights over one another’s territory, all highly regulated and circumscribed, at that. Only the Russians proceeded to link their U.S. overflight paths with shortwave data locations and transmission.
“Sounds like some real Boris and Natasha stuff…” Had to say something, as time was wasting and I had a hamper full of my own communiques as it was, beginning with that new folded missive back under my apartment door.
“Smarten up, Herbert. They want to mess up our connections, be able to pull the plug, power wise—leverage, bargaining chips when the time comes…”
U.S. intelligence had soon suspected that Russian ops were appearing before and after these overflight missions, utilizing fresh data to locate GPS coordinates and places/objects of strategic interest. Intercepts signaled Russian spies were positioning directly beneath these flyover routes, either communicating with the passing aircraft of using them as roving cell towers for uploading cribbed data, in violation of the 2002 treaty. All this was being managed out of this very San Francisco consulate: fascinating place, however misplaced it may be.
Over the years, Russia was accused of engaging in a massive, continuous data collection operation out of Green Street, mainly to pinpoint and map out U.S. underground communication nodes, catalog the intersections in its fiber-optic network where data was being transferred. That meant attempting to penetrate its communications infrastructure, like where underseas cables came ashore on the Pacific coast; cultivating certain Bay Area heavies (from oil companies to scientific research) for further information. To what end? Vis. to cut communications, paralyze military command-and-control systems in the event of a two powers confrontation—to freeze the U.S. telecom grid and render it blind, thereby leveling the playing field, if not everything else of consequence.
“Time comes? What time…”
“Yeesh, what good are you? Showtime, baby, high noon—gung-ho or go home.”
“Home to what, for chrissake?”
“Massive dystopia, Herbert—bombs away, open your blinkin’ eyes.”
Talk about neighborhood gossip. Such nefarious C.G. activities had become far more of U.S. concern than the mere fritzing of local TV reception, so let the NSA (National Security Agency) eavesdropping begin. Therein commenced a more concentrated American approach to counterintelligence—as in quid pro quo, spy v. spy—with undercover FBI agents moving into apartments right across the street. As U.S. intelligence sniffed deeper around Green Street, Russian officials commenced snooping more widely and further down south. But not before they charged that American counter intel was illegally bugging their encrypted transmissions, even boring a secret tunnel beneath the consulate building. In response, they tried confounding U.S. counter-surveillance with overwhelming ‘burst transmissions’.
All the while, other Russian agents were busy honing their tradecraft to conduct hybrid digital warfare utilizing cybertools. As far back as 1983, the State Department had prohibited Soviet diplomats and journalists from visiting Silicon Valley. Yet Russian science-tech savvy intel officers continued courting valley techsperts and VC firms. Engineers and data scientists—legal travelers under non-diplomatic cover—sidled up to SV leaders and developers to glean the latest in cryptology and next-gen internet applications. Silicon Valley was just too target-rich for them to avoid—some of whom were already planting backdoor malware on critical websites, hacking utility or military scada servers and ‘jump boxes’. Essentially cocking their cyber warfare armaments without squeezing the trigger.
“But I thought Trump and Putin were bosom buddies.”
“Suure, as in Putin’s hand puppet.”
“Uh, right, kompromat, all that…”
Then came 2016, and the Trump-Putin bromance. Decades of mutual deceit, denials and diplomatic dekes were suddenly kissed off as the world leaders hugged and huddled, for reasons as yet fully uncovered. But with revelations that Russian troll farms’ spearfishing expeditions, and stone WikiLeaks e-mail dumps may have proven pivotal in the U.S. presidential election, their collegial mulligan stew boiled over. Tensions around sanctions and territorial encroachment finally cleaved the White House-Kremlin closeness, to where Putin ceremoniously ordered a 755 person cut among U.S. diplomatic mission staffers—many not American diplomats and intel officials, but Russian nationals.
“Well, looks like the two fearless leaders got too footsie for comfort,” Sedge replied. “They had to break into an expeller two-step before the co-conspiracy crowd waltzed in…”
“But Trump’s really overstepped, closing the whole place down on such short notice?” I replied.
“Just a nod to the Mueller investigation, serving up a bus token to save his radiated skin.”
Collusion, collision and/or miscalculated overreaction: Nevertheless, Trump felt politically obliged to retaliate by shuttering Russia’s Green Street outpost with a 48-hour notice to vacate their very own consulate building, amid claims that half its staffers were full or part-time spies. Hence, moving day, which brought me back downhill past clustered mansions and condos looking askance at this unneighborly behemoth. I bounded back down Baker Street to Green, watching those smoke signals waft up from C.G.’s shanty cluttered roof, sooting a hot blue sky and the Marina District and bay unfurling below and beyond. Come the northeast corner, neighbors were already milling about, pointing to the ill-seasoned smokestack. Fire trucks and media vans were converging; police yellow taped the entire intersection, with Bekins trucks already moving in.
“So how do you think Vlad’s going to respond?”
“Aww, he’ll cool his heels awhile. He wants back into that building again. Just watch, he’ll start doing Trump a favor or two to smooth things out.”
“Yeah, maybe more WikiLeaks drops…”
“If nothing else, Putin’s always got the golden shower tape and Trump Tower-Moscow IOUs.”
Scooting along the Comrade Hilton’s stone cold, light gray granite base that September morning, I had been mindful of the barred windows, arrow-point steel picket fencing and all those panning security cameras. A pair of scowling Russian guards manned the sealed oaken front doors, muttering in broken English about the unlawful, flagrant diplomatic violation of this action. By then, all Consulate General staff and residents were long gone, media and moving trucks angled in for curb space. I was undiplomatically shooed away toward a row of proper Green Street Victorians—not giving any of it a second thought until now.
“That’s not to say that his Russkie operatives won’t continue their spyin’ ways—the Bay Area’s too juicy a source of tech booty,” Eisenhoff leaned forward, with a slam to his desktop. “They might even Cozy Bear up to sabotaging campaigns, or even share the malware and intel with enemy rats like Iran.”
“How so without all their roof hardware?” I in turn was taken aback.
“They’ll lone wolf it, that’s what my client tells me. Adjust their networks with young engineer and programmer agents under non-diplomatic protection. Deep-cover illegals mole into the Valley armed with portable spy devices, hoovering up the latest tech from the best, working unicorn to start-up to trade show or firm. And who knows where, because the Bay Area’s thick with Russkies and their rubles these days.”
“Guess it doesn’t hurt that high-tech companies happened to covet Russian hackers…”
“Yah, love them some black-hat cyberactors. But I hear they all prize cryptographers and translators, too—which gets us to our marching orders.”
“Our? Why so? I sure as hell don’t speak Russian.”
“Let me spell this out for you,” Sedge leaned back again, arms clasped behind his head. “We’ve got two parties wanting to find this missing cryptographer guy. Looks like the Russians worry he may be playing hide and flip, but they don’t want to be going public tracking him down, especially with all the Skripals and Novichok hit stuff still in the news. They’d never get their building back going that down that road.”
“Yeah, so…what’s that got to do with your agency, let alone somebody like me?”
“Connect the dots, skippy. The FBI would like to see this bird for reasons of their own. But they don’t want to make a federal case out of it, turn it into an international confrontation that embarrasses President Putin. At least his buddy, Trump doesn’t. I guess the feds aren’t into bagging and tagging this guy, stoking ‘fake news’ coverage and all. Could be Justice and the State Department just want to locate him, coddle and cultivate him some before the Russians do. Find out what he knows about 2016, more importantly about what the trolls are cooking up for 2020. But the ‘Deep State’s’ probably decided to keep this local, on the down low for now, too, understand?”
“Not exactly, but…” I took another gulp of water.
“All I know is somebody likes the cut of my neighborhood gybe around here. Authorized my client to ask me to quietly track the sucker down, flush him out without any splashy headlines. You know, GPS the way…authorities will sort it all out from there.”
“Whoa, that’s way beyond my pay grade…”
“Trust me, we’ll work that out once you’re onboard, set you up nice and fat,” he said, toasting with his water bottle. “But there is a complication. My client says they told him the crypto is a nervy late-thirtyish nerd who’s always wearing rumpled suits. He’s been known to drag this raggy old babushka around by the hand, real mumsy like, only she happens to be a long-time expert translator goin’ back to Khrushchev days—seems they work as a covert intel/counter intel team. So they’re after the both of them. We’ll work out the juicy details in short order. So you with me? Because this one’s the big leagues.”
“Aww, I don’t know, Mister Eisenhoff…” I glanced out his windows south to a mustering Fillmore Street bus stop. “This all sounds pretty damn…spooky…”
“Eyes and ears, Herbert…I’ll be back in touch before you know it. Meantime sniff around the Green Street place now and then. But pay attention wherever you go, keep track of your time,” he extended his hand for the shaking. “Remember, hush-hush, and just call me Sedge…”
Care for more?