Mixing terrorism with tourism while on the sea

Former CIA director Porter Goss talks to passengers taking part in a "SpyCruise," on Nov. 14.

ABOARD THE MS EURODAM—The passengers sitting in a gently rocking conference room are enraptured by the man who, depending on your perspective, once held the easiest or most frustrating job.

Bill Harlow was the public face of the CIA during one of the agency’s most tumultuous times.

A spokesperson for a secret organization may sound like an oxymoron, Harlow concedes.

But this week, aboard the Caribbean “SpyCruise” where former CIA agent and organizer Bart Bechtel is our “SpySkipper,” and speakers include former NSA director Michael Hayden and CIA director Porter Goss, the point is not about keeping secrets, but starting a discussion on national security.

It is an incongruous setting for talk about homegrown radicalism, drone attacks and whether the West has become complacent about terrorism.

While the presentations are officially “not for attribution,” speakers are happy to talk if tracked down poolside or standing in line at the Lido deck’s expanse of buffets.

The 130 participants — distinguished from the other hundreds of passengers by a little American flag with the U.S. secret service’s star embedded in it — spent all day Sunday in a third floor conference room as other passengers drank margaritas, had shoulders kneaded with hot stone massages or gazed down at the 20-foot swells from the sunny top deck.

“One thing I’ve learned is people learn best and retain things if they are enjoying themselves, if they’re comfortable and if they feel included in the whole process,” explains Bechtel.

So after Sunday’s heavy itinerary, participants are free to once again engage in tourism during Monday morning’s port stop — then it’s back to terrorism when at sea.

It might seem like a daunting prospect for former top intelligence officials to be trapped on a ship with eager participants.

But both Goss and Hayden (who also led the CIA after Goss’ retirement) said in interviews that they relish the opportunity to deliver their message and defend their records.

“For me to say, ‘Heck, I’ve got no place to hide for a week on a cruise ship.’ That’s ridiculous to compare to these people who have to survive every day of their lives,” Goss said of the members of the organization he once led, in an interview with the Toronto Star.

“So no, when you get to be my age and are no longer ready for the prime time front lines this is the best you can do to help.”

Oversimplified, the message includes a warning that terrorism is growing among what they believe is a complacent public, that agents are more “risk adverse,” which could hurt intelligence gathering and that lawyers who fight for the human rights of terrorism suspects and unfair criticism by the “left wing media” are putting the U.S. at risk.

Discussions could become animated, as neither intelligence leader was immune to controversy. Hayden, a retired Air Force general and longest serving director of the NSA, was at the heart of the warrantless surveillance controversy. Under Goss’s leadership in 2005, the CIA destroyed videos of the harsh interrogation techniques of terrorism suspects.

But most of the passengers — who range from retirees to former service members to students — ask question about the future risk, rather than concerns about past records.

“I am a groupie you might say of the spy cruise,” says Diane Jay Bouchard, a writer who is on her second spy cruise and currently working on a fiction book about terrorism.

“When you look at these gadgets that they show you, you never look at a hair brush the same again, or a tooth brush or a cell phone. It just blows your mind,” she says of a past cruise that focused on Cold War espionage.

Prices for this weeklong cruise ranged from $1,200 to $2,000 US.

There have been four cruises organized by Bechtel since 2001 although this one has drawn some of the most current and well-known names. A portion of the proceeds is donated to funds for the families of fallen CIA agents and armed forces veterans. The speakers volunteer their time.

For guests like Bouchard, and many here who own private security companies, the research and connections to former high-level players is invaluable.

And while topics may be serious, it does not dissuade spy jokes of both the participants and other cruise passengers.

At Sunday’s formal night dinner, all eyes were on the martinis, both shaken and stirred.

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