Blake Dreiser, the Assistant Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. State Dept. in Myanmar, was calling me late on a Tuesday evening (Wednesday morning, Myanmar time). His first words were to warn me that anything we were talking about might be monitored. “Let’s keep details vague,” he said.
Having accepted the State Dept. offer to visit Myanmar on an official mission, I was busy getting ready for the big trip. I was researching the country, preparing for the long flight(s), buying appropriate clothes, and thinking about how I might structure the workshops while I was there. But we had hit a snag.
My visa was the issue. The State Dept. had initially tried to get me a business visa under their auspices, but the application had lingered on a desk at the Myanmar embassy in Washington, D.C. (The U.S. and Myanmar having strained relations, Myanmar figured there was no great incentive for them to approve official American visa requests.) Panicking a bit, the State Dept. had retrieved the application and my passport, and asked me to apply for the visa, as a “tourist,” here in New York, at the Burmese consulate.
I was worried about what exactly this meant. I knew that Myanmar was an Orwellian country with extreme censorship, no political parties (let alone free elections), and a secret police that spied on its populace. Wouldn’t the Burmese consulate know that I had already applied and essentially been rejected? And couldn’t I get in trouble if I showed up in Myanmar with a tourist visa under false pretenses, and then immediately took part in an official week-long program sponsored by the U.S. State Dept.? I had a lot of questions for Blake.
Despite the apparent risks, I threw myself into the game. After all, I had read my share of John LeCarré and Tom Clancy novels. I was ready to discuss the situation obliquely, maybe even refer to my situation as that of “a friend.” And from what I guessed, whoever was monitoring the call probably knew that it was coming from the U.S. embassy but not the extension Blake was calling from. And the same thing with my identity. Blake had called me “Josh,” but not my full name. And even if they knew the number he was calling, it would be a bit of work to figure out who exactly I was.
Blake quickly dismissed my concerns about the visa situation. He took a fatalistic tone, saying he didn’t think the Burmese embassy in D.C. and their consulate in New York were coordinated enough to catch the fact that I was re-applying. And he figured that once I made it into the country, the secret police wouldn’t put many resources into tracking me. Easy for him to say! But all the same, he did a good job of easing my fears.
But then Blake began systematically blowing whatever “cover” we had established. “Listen” he said. “If you have any trouble, or need anything, give me a call.” And then he proceeded to give me his office number — down to the direct extension — and his personal cell phone number! To top it off, he dictated me his personal email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. So now whoever was listening in knew exactly who was calling.
But he wasn’t through. As we got ready to sign off, Blake blurted out, “Oh, hey, Josh. I meant to tell you, I really enjoyed your book, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge!” Great. Thanks, Blake. Now they knew me as well.
Blake Dreiser: Worst. Spy. Ever.
P.S. Names have been changed to protect people’s identities.