A few days ago, I was going through a collection of calling cards looking for a contact's phone number when I came across a card that brought back memories. To be more exact, it brought back how I might have become a spy.
OK, not a spy. Maybe more an asset.
It happened like this. About five years ago, out of the blue, I got an email from somebody -- let's call him "Z" -- who apparently was an official of an embassy in Manila. He wrote how glad he was to finally find someone like me, I was exactly the kind of person he wanted to talk to, and when could we have lunch?
Now, I should say that diplomats and journalists often meet. They can do so at official functions -- the "National Day of Excavation", or "Anniversary Celebrating Our Grabbing Some Islands", whatever -- where they stand around, drink wine and talk about generally harmless things such as "have another drink?" or "Excuse me, I think I'll get another drink."
They can also meet for lunch or dinner in private, where nobody else might be listening, and things can become more interesting. It's where fascinating information exchanges take place (depending on the levels of trust and intoxication), such as what the real circulation of a particular newspaper might be, or which diplomat -- always of ANOTHER embassy -- has highly informal nocturnal activities.
So I had no problem agreeing to have lunch with Z at a restaurant. There, he handed me his calling card, said he had found me through my website and thought my articles informative. Flattery: it will get you everywhere.
About talking: as people who know me are aware, I like doing it. I've been known to talk people under the table, drive them to their hands and knees, force them to their elbows and continue chattering as they attempt to, slowly, agonizingly, crawl away. But Z didn't mind. We talked about the weather in his country (terrible), his background (a stint in the military), how he liked chicken rice (he didn't - he preferred blander food).
And then we talked about everybody's favorite topic in the Philippines, politics, moving on from there to regional affairs. He brought the discussion to Muslim Mindanao, fundamentalism and terrorism and I gave some theories --every journalist has at least a couple of theories he or she carries around for every occasion -- about the power groups developing in that area. After a couple of hours we parted, with Z saying we should definitely have lunch again. I'm not sure if we split the bill or I paid over his objections, on the understanding that the next lunch would be on him.
We met some weeks later in a Makati steakhouse. Again we talked about many things, but somewhere in the middle of lunch he said something like this: "This is all good information, I like your analysis."
"Thanks, but these are just my opinions", I said.
"No, no, I like them and I want to hear them regularly. I could pay you a little something."
Startled, I watched with mounting fascination, as Z went on: "I have a budget, and there'd be several people like you reporting."
"But you'd have to write what you're saying. On paper."
I said, again, "we can just meet like this, I do that all the time with other sources..."
"I'll need it printed on white paper. Single-spaced. And in a brown envelope."
"A brown envelope?" I asked
"Yes," he said. "Unmarked."
That's when I blew my chance at being an intelligence asset. I burst out laughing.
I don't think Z was amused. He had a poker face as I repeated how we could just have long conversations (in the meantime, images were running in mind of people wearing trenchcoats and hats passing around documents in parks).
The lunch ended on a quiet note. He paid.
I never heard from him again. And I never got any approaches from other embassy officials. Maybe my name has been blacklisted by the Fraternal Order of Attaches Seeking Press Informants In Manila (FOASPIIM).
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