It’s been a sad week. We lost two extraordinary actors, one of them a movie legend and the other arguably the most versatile comedian of our time. However, losses in entertainment pale in comparison to the agony now exploding in Iraq and Syria, which have gone beyond the crisis stage. These tragic events where civilians have been targeted for what amounts to genocide have knocked the Palestine-Israel conflict off the front pages, at least temporarily. That’s not a good thing for the few among the two camps actively seeking solutions. I fear a ceasefire and uneasy truce will only create another explosion in the near future, which will cause even more misery later. The one positive thing about the fighting and newsworthiness of the conflict is the world is talking about the problem and there are now many interests who would like to see some kind of two-state solution.
Most of my yesterday was spent on Capitol Hill in Washington.
We were filming and interviewing for what promises to be one of the more interesting upcoming features for the new television series “Poker Night in America.” The reality-themed weekly show about poker debuted in late June and can now be seen on CBS Sports Network.
The crew visited the Capitol Hill Club for lunch. We met Congressman Pete Sessions, the third highest-ranking member of the House of Representatives. Later, we met and interviewed Rep. Joe Barton in his office. He’s been a true champion for poker players’ rights. That was just for starters.
We also filmed out in front of the White House (President Obama was too busy to see us). We paid respects to Abraham Lincoln (well, his statue anyway). Then, we did happy hour at “Bullfeathers,” where the real business of Washington gets done (it’s a bar).
Once there, we interviewed former Nevada congressman, the honorable Jon Porter. We were also joined by longtime Capitol Hill correspondent and USA Today writer Vin Narayanan, who is known in poker for his great work at CasinoCityTimes.com.
Later that night, we all gathered for a private poker game which was just steps away from congressional offices. One wonders what goes on inside some of the old Victorian-era townhouses around the Capitol. Well, the answer to that is — poker games. Two tables of congressmen and staffers gathered for their weekly game. Poker pros Phil Hellmuth and Robert Williamson III even made appearances.
Here’s some impressions that I came away with by end of the day:
I’m talking about a jaw-dropping, take-your-breath-away “wow” factor.
The Grand Canyon instantly comes to mind. So does the top of the Empire State Building. Other places, too. But they’re few and far between. That’s what makes great vantage points so special. That’s what makes us remember not only what we once saw, but what we felt when we were entirely consumed by our surroundings.
Think back to a moment in your life when you became totally absorbed by the things around you. I’ll venture to say that if you have trouble remembering such an instance, perhaps you have not truly lived as you should. No worries. It’s not too late. One remedy is to get out more. Read. Learn. Live. The rewards of walking in the shadows of what mother nature and our own ancestors have bestowed upon us are priceless.
Between 1993 and 1999, most of my workdays were spent inside the Turkish Embassy, in Washington, D.C.
Typical duties consisted of writing and editing official correspondance. To this day, most foreign missions along Embassy Row hire at least one native-English speaker. This is because the language used in diplomatic communications must be positively precise. The wrong word in the wrong place at the wrong time can be misunderstood, triggering unintended consequences.
I was also fortunate enough to be assigned to the public information office during that time. This put me into direct contact with many of Americans who needed assistance with something or someone in the Republic of Turkey. You can’t even imagine some of the inquiries we received.
Reminiscing now, I look back fondly on those six years. What a wonderful experience that was. The Turkish diplomatic corps and embassy staff were always kind to me. Not only were they thoroughly professional at all times, they were also lots of fun to be around. I shall always have a soft spot in my heart for the Turks.
This is the only photo I can legally show you of my recent visit to the National Security Agency.
Three flaps of a starlet’s wing off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, peering over and above the surrounding treetops of piney woods nestled in the rolling Maryland countryside, there’s an ugly rectangular building tiled in grey-mirrored glass.
Several buildings actually. They’re grouped into one ominous compound, almost in circle-the-wagons mode, purposely secluded from the outside world and walled off by high-fences topped with razor-wire, ringed by heavily-patroled parking lots with late model vehicles driven by black-ops bureaucrats.
It’s them versus the world. Within their universe, everyone is a suspect. All are potential enemies, even those who walk in and out of those ugly rectangular buildings every single day. No one is trusted.
Every movement within and around the compound is monitored by non-stop surveillance. All the time. Everywhere. And — those suspicious eyes and nosy ears extend way beyond just the piney woods. They know what we do. They know what we say. They know what we write. They know what we text. All this leads to speculation about what’s coming next — will they ultimately know that we think?
This place has no visitors. This place doesn’t welcome guests. This place might as well not exist at all. Aside from the towers and wires and otherwordly white domes, those ugly grey buildings might otherwise blend in well with the broader and more expansive federal quilt of the national security and defense establishment which has come to blanket (some would say suffocate) the greater National Capital area, a mammath region of three states growing by the month which now stretches from just south of Baltimore all the way down some 50 miles south through the District of Columbia, across the Potomac, into Northern Virginia and on to Triangle and Quantico — best known as the home of the U.S. Marine Corps, and what’s known in intelligence inner cicles as “The Farm.” [See Footnote 1]
This is a complex of secrets and secrecy. It’s an arena of perpetual paranoia. It’s a regimented information labor camp where the loyal foot soldiers who come and go 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year, are the spookiest of spooks. Not because they’re evil people. Rather because they’re so extraordinarly knowledgable and powerful, and yet so ordinary.
Today’s superspy isn’t James Bond sitting at a Baccarat table sipping a martini. He (and increasingly she) is a GS-11 civil servant wearing some cotton-polyester blend purchased on sale at Target with kids’ soccer games to attend on Saturdays. This is what the national defense establishment has become — not massive armies of soldiers and tanks and navies of battleships — but countless anonymous faces toiling silently behind desks topped with the latest flatscreens who can change lives with a single mouseclick.