Leaving USA? Learn Elvis’ middle name

In the late 1980s, I was between careers. I had an itch to visit the Soviet satellite republics—especially Romania, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Political upheaval was threatening to change the borders and alliances of Eastern Europe. It was shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I had not yet met the woman that I would marry, and so I trekked through Europe with Sam, a former college buddy. We were seasoned independent travelers. No need for a tour package, hotel reservations or even an itinerary! The tools of conventional tourists were antithetical to our nature. We backpacked across the continent by train and by foot, moving freely between big cities, small hamlets and farms.

We talked our way into schools, homes and offices, gaining a perspective of communist life before the collapse of the USSR. We stayed at hostels or with Gypsies. On one occasion, we stayed overnight at a refugee camp. We chuckled at commentary in Foder’s and Fromer’s travel guides, because their view of political and cultural affairs was laughably distorted. But, we gained respect for The Lonely Planet. That series confirmed our observations and conclusions.

Romania was our last destination; near the end of a 3 month trip. After an eye-opening visit to Transylvania, we made our way to Bucharest to prepare for our separate flights home.

Sam picked up a travel companion along the way, a Canadian woman almost twice our age. She was completing her medical degree in Romania. Realizing that we had backpacked across Eastern Europe, and that we had rarely stayed in a full service hotel with reliable electricity and hot water, she suggested that we visit the US Embassy with her for our last evening on the continent. She explained that the US Embassy welcomed both US and Canadian citizens and that they had American fast food, ATM machines affiliated with our own banks, reliable phone service, and even showers and a disco.

After 3 months of dust and twisted ankles (we spent New Year’s Eve hiking across the frontier from Svidnik Slovakia to Tylawa Poland), and after getting into an altercation with a police officer in the Bucharest city square (he pulled the film from our cameras, because we snapped photos of a bread line), the idea of a Burger King Whopper, clean showers, and a Bank ATM appealed to us. Don’t get me wrong—In each country, we ate and moved about like locals. But in just one more day, we would be greeted in Chicago by my mom’s business partner. I had no desire to greet her in threadbare shorts and unkempt hair!

USEmbassy_RomaniaBack in the day, the US maintained a palatial embassy in Bucharest—practically a city block along each side. But this was the cold war era. Relations with Nicolae Ceaușescu were awkward and tense. And so, the Romanian government cordoned off a city sector for an additional block in all directions. The area, including the US embassy, was 9 square blocks, and was restricted to foreigners with embassy business and locals who worked at the embassy or directly supported the embassy (suppliers, landscapers, maintenance vendors, restaurants, dry cleaners, etc).

Entering the embassy district required visitors to pass two checkpoints: At the perimeter, a Romanian police sought to prevent petitions for asylum, while at the embassy itself, a US Marine guard, verified citizenship, identity and intent. Even though our visit was in the cold war era, this was before 9/11. There was no threat of violence against Americans. And so, I was only mildly amused that a Canadian citizen could access the US embassy for the purpose of dining, banking and recreation. So be it.

guard-booth-1Sam and I were flagged as we passed through the outer perimeter. A Romanian policeman in a snappy uniform waved us to a booth that was situated right in middle of traffic. “Passports please?”. We complied without any words. He looked at our female companion. “You are Canadian. Are you here to dance, eat or shower?” referring to the discotheque, restaurant and changing rooms within the embassy. “All of the above” she responded.

“O.K. my friends. You may pass. Do not talk or trade with Romanians between this checkpoint and the embassy.” We had heard this type of request from hotel proprietors and store keepers, but I was surprised to hear it from an official person with defacto boarder authority. I wondered what difference is there in talking to Romanians inside or outside of the US embassy sector?

HackySack-2aMaking our way through a working class neighborhood, we spied a circle of children playing hacky sack. They weren’t just playing, they were talking—and in English!

In Western Europe, seeing a group of preteens talk in English wouldn’t merit a second glance. Everyone learns English in school and more recently, the Internet spreads English like dandelion seeds in a windstorm. But in the 1980s, Romania had no Internet and few children spoke English. Sam and I looked quizzically at each other. Sensing a mystery, we crossed the street to get a better read on these boys. We weren’t planning to engage them…we just wanted to know what they were talking about.

Still a half minute away from the boys, were could here one boy bark questions with command excitement. Apparently, he was the leader. One by one, the other children responded:

  • “Who won the 1963 World Series?”              “The Dodgers”      “Correct!”
  • “What is Elvis Presley’s middle name?”        “Aaron”                “Correct!”
  • “Who was Richard Nixon’s vice president?”  “Agnew”
                 “Full name please …”                     “Spiro T. Agnew”   “Correct!”

Sam and I were flummoxed. What game requires detailed answers on issues of US cultural minutiae? Momentarily forgetting our instructions to refrain from engaging locals, I addressed the tallest boy. He was about 12. “What is the purpose of this game?”

He stared at me blankly. At first, I thought that he might not be permitted to talk with a foreigner or perhaps he perceived a threat because I was a stranger. But then, in very broken English, he struggled to respond: “Sorry…No speak Ainglish. No understand”. The other boys were even less helpful. They didn’t speak a lick of English, not even the one who posed the questions and responded with the word “Correct!”

Of course, this presented an even bigger puzzle. These boys were playing a word game, and they didn’t even understand the words. Even more bizarre, they responded to each question with a correct answer.

Unable to communicate and with onlookers beginning to take notice, we moved on. During the remainder of our walk, Sam and I speculated on the nature of their play and dreamt up possible explanations—each more bizarre than the other. In truth, we had no idea from where they heard these questions or how they knew the answers.

Eventually, we made our way to the US Embassy. A marine guard snapped to attention and greeted us with military discipline. “Passports please.”

Marine GuardAfter a few seconds of comparing our photos with our faces, he looked each of us from head to toe. Referring to Sam’s friend, but staring directly at us, he said: “I know this woman. She has visited before. But what about you? What is your business with the Embassy?”

I offered the only explanation that I could think of: “We’re at the end of our trip. We are looking for a transition—something familiar and western. We heard that you allow unofficial visits from tourists.”

“That’s correct. And your Canadian friend is welcome too. But, you know, boys—it’s not difficult for some Romanians to acquire an altered or forged passport. I see them frequently, and some are difficult to detect.” Then he asked where each of us was born.

I sympathized with the task of an embassy gate keeper and I was prepared for a delay. I imagined that he would check our airline tickets, verify identities against a computer database, or even call our personal references back in America. “…And so, boys, I’d like to ask you a few questions. Just a little quiz to help me confirm citizenship…”

“Who won the 1963 World Series?”

This set my mind alight…I knew the answer! After all, I heard this question 15 minutes ago. What a coincidence! “I think that it was the LA Dodgers, but I have to confess…”

The marine guard cut me off, mid sentence. “Do I look like a priest? I didn’t ask for a confession or commentary Just answer the questions, please.

Now then: What was Elvis Presley’s middle name?”
        “Aaron—But wait. I just…”

“No talking! I am asking the questions. Who was Richard Nixon’s vice president?”
        “That one I know — It’s Agnew!”

“Full name please …”
        “Now hold on a second!”

The marine wouldn’t permit any interruption. Even if I could tell him about the boys and the game in the alley, I suspect that he wouldn’t care. He had protocol and procedures and was sticking to these methods with military discipline and precision.

Fortunately, Sam and I recalled every question and answer that the hacky sack youths had exchanged. Eventually, we were admitted. We had a fun evening with the embassy staff and a few other tourists. The food wasn’t free, but it was terrific!

This was all before 9/11 and before the Benghazi bombing and a other anti-American incidents at embassy’s around the world. More than twenty-five years have passed. I wonder if the embassy in Bucharest still uses the Trivial Pursuit quiz. I wonder if the locals still rehearse all the answers — and just how many of them enjoy the disco inside the embassy!

Can USA Assert Jurisdiction Over Assange?

Most Wild Ducks are aware that WikiLeaks is a rogue distributor of classified and secret documents from anonymous news sources, news leaks and whistle blowers. At the helm is the very charming self-promoter, Julian Assange. This man attracts controversy like honey attracts flies. Dozens of governments, banks and NGOs would gladly substitute honey with “horse manure” in that simile.

In the past 2 years, WikiLeaks has threatened—and then followed through—on the release of information troves containing copious numbers of memos, orders, private communications, and tactical analyses by governments, banks, charities, NGOs, and what-have-you. To generate buzz and prevent sabotage while they vet and compile controversial disclosures, WikiLeaks occasionally pre-releases an encrypted stash of secret documents that they call an “insurance file” or, more accurately, an information bomb. Once out there, it can never be defused—The contents can be remotely detonated by anyone with an encryption key. (This can be a short phrase that is easy to remember).

During the past 2 years, WikiLeaks has been doing exactly what it has threatened (or promised, depending upon your perspective). They have disseminated enormous troves of sensitive and sometimes embarrassing documents, phone calls, faxes, emails, and other private communications without permission from those who were party to the data. Among the infringed parties (think of this as the data ‘owner’ or originator) are the US Government, Bank of America and just about anyone else that claims domain over sensitive material. WikiLeaks justifies its acts as a 21st century watchdog agency with a calling higher than any government. Their PR spin conveys an ethical rudder that pushes for transparency in all affairs. The United States points out that outted documents sometimes reveal names of spies, endangering agents and their families. Other documents reveal the number and location of weapon systems, or data about the capacity and range of weapon systems. But that’s not all…

For WikiLeaks, it doesn’t matter that a telephone transcript reveals personal information unrelated to the government or business affairs targeted for disclosure. For example, parties arranging a phone call reveal that a premier is delayed because he is with a young mistress or a Deputy of State can’t take a call, because she is in the midst of a fierce hangover. In effect, WikiLeaks says “Hey! These are public officials supported by their subjects or constituents. Transparency is always better than secrecy, no matter what’s in the pudding. Just throw it all out there and let the chips fall as they may.”

Of course, the US Government, it’s allies, and many public and private organizations don’t see it that way! Just because a disgruntled employee or consultant has access to sensitive documents shouldn’t mean that a 3rd party organization can air it all on the bathroom wall. And so, Julian Assange is a wanted man.

For the past two months, Assange has been holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in Great Britain. I mention “Great Britain” as a geographic footnote and not to imply ownership or jurisdiction. An embassy is sovereign territory no matter whose land surrounds it. Right?

…Well, not according to the British.

Today, Ecuador’s foreign minister announced that the country is granting asylum to Assange. But now, the British government threatens to storm the Ecuadorian Embassy and forcibly extradite Assange to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in cases of alleged rape and sexual molestation.

The US government seeks Julian Assange for trial in a US court on charges related to his role in the massive WikiLeaks disclosure of confidential documents and communications. Of course, the US considers these documents to be sensitive and they are each labeled at various levels of “Secret”. The US has laws that govern access, copying and disclosure. It’s safe to assume that the charge would be treason, conspiracy, theft, aiding the enemy, or something related to willful interference with process.

US Jurisdiction: How Can it be Asserted?

I understand all of that. But I have never seen an explanation as to how the US could assert jurisdiction or request extradition. Assange is a foreigner and his acts related to WikiLeaks took place in foreign countries. Does the US assert that anything labeled as “secret” by its military is automatically secret everywhere on Earth? That would be a tough argument, because it would require a bilateral reciprocation agreement. Assange has lived in Nairobi since 2007. Does the US protect documents and extradite individuals over everything that the Nairobi government considers to be a secret?

Of course, the United States is pursuing enablers within or serving in uniform, but Assange is not among them. His actions may have harmed US interests (this is certainly debatable)—but how can the US claim that it has domain over the legality of his acts or his capture and punishment? Having an extradition agreement doesn’t mean that you can demand any individual that you seek. There has got to be a reasonable basis for the extradition. Doesn’t a bench warrant need a viable basis in law?

We Just Want to Try Him for Rape

The Swedes interest in Assange is ostensibly to charge him with a sex crime. That certainly sounds like a legitimate interest that is unrelated to the beef with Uncle Sam. But the Swedish government refuses to guaranty safe passage to a region that is not party to a US extradition treaty. They claim that they are bound by law to turn Assange over to the US. The solution to this quagmire is not simple, but it is achievable. Assange claims that he is willing to face that charge. Why not try him in Ecuador (or the country that becomes his safe harbor from American extradition). If he refuses, he could be tried in abstention by a Swedish court and the court sentence could be negotiated with authorities in the safe harbor country.

WikiLeaks: Is the Wholesale Release of
                   Secret Communiques Ethical?

What about the 900 pound elephant in the room? Can WikiLeaks claim that its mission is moral or ethical (carried out in the current fashion) morality of what Assange has done vis-à-vis WikiLeaks. My own readers at awildduck.com have pressed for an editorial opinion on the whole affair. Has Assange harmed US interests? Does it matter outside of the US? Did he break an “international” law? Should he be held accountable?  Should he be turned over to American authorities to stand trial?

I won’t weigh in on these issues here. The purpose of this posting is to question US jurisdiction and earnestly seek information & opinions on the basis for extradition. If you have knowledge of the law, the basis or the justification for that request, I invite your analysis and comment.

Could the Brits Really “Storm an Embassy”?

I certainly can’t imagine that the Brits would “storm the Ecuadorian embassy”. Good God, man! Regardless of treaties and acts, it is a sovereign country. In fact, I would think that the Ecuadorian could, at their discretion, grant Assange citizenship and then confer diplomatic status. This would compel a host country to guaranty safe passage to the Airport. Isn’t that the whole idea of ambassadors and the exchange of territory? Storming an embassy would place the UK in the unenviable and undistinguished company of Egypt (2011) and Iran (1979~1981). Who can forget the hostage taking? That event spawned a nightly TV show in the US and the career of Ted Koppel.

         Ellery Davies clarifies the intersection of Technology, Law and Public
         Policy. He is a contributor to Yahoo, CNet, ABC News, PCWorld and
         The Wall Street Journal. He is also Chief Editor of A Wild Duck.

Photo Mural—Sam Spratt, Gizmodo