From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.
I lie, probably, every weekend to my mom.
So, about what kinds of things?
Mostly drinking and what time I get home. Where I am. Who I'm with.
This girl is a high school senior. And let's just identify her as living somewhere in North America. And, probably, the biggest lie she perpetrated against her mom was an ongoing deception that lasted two years, starting when she was 14, a freshman.
She would stay out till midnight in the park with her friends, drinking, most Friday and Saturday nights, which her mom definitely would not allow. So she told her mom that they were at a Chinese restaurant every weekend for two years. She'd come home drunk and convince her mom she was sober.
What I'm doing, she never normally, really finds out. Like, I think she has no idea that I hung out in a park for two years of my life.
And what would happen if she found out?
I think she'd just be really upset, because she really thinks she knows exactly what's going on in my life, and she really has no idea. I think that would just hurt her.
Oh, she thinks you guys are really close.
Yeah, she thinks we are really close. And, yeah, she thinks she knows everything I do, and she doesn't.
But now, they're both at a turning point. Graduation is next week, which makes this girl just old enough that she's starting to wonder if, someday, she should let her mom know the truth about all of it. In the past when she thought about telling her mom the truth, it was actually more of a revenge kind of thing.
There have been points where, I really just want my mom to feel kind of stupid and let down. Has been points when, I've been really mad at her, we haven't been getting along, that's been like, I want to make you feel like you really don't know what you're talking about. Because every time she's always like, you know I'll always catch you. You know I always know what you're doing.
And there's been points where I just want to be like, listen mom, you really don't know what's going on. This is what's happened for the past four years of my life. You really haven't known much. It would just be like a really big power trip for me.
And now with school ending and college so soon, already her mom is loosening up the reins and not checking up on her so much. She could see that maybe it would be best for everybody, her and her mom, if the truth never came out. And if it did come out, she'd want it to be for a good reason.
I mean, I might not never tell her, might not ever tell her about the park. I'll see. I've actually thought about it. I've had serious thoughts about telling her the truth, once I'm in college. I really do want to become close to my mom again.
We had a really big falling out, especially, when she started going out with her boyfriend. And we have gotten a lot closer since we started talking again, and like we told each other how we feel and stuff. And it's just-- I have a lot of older friends who have had some troubles with their parents in the past and like, once they were in college, got really close to them again. And I really want that.
Like, I want to be closer with my mom. I want to be able to tell her everything and tell her the truth. And so I think that is the main reason that I would tell her at this point. I don't really need her to be feeling stupid anymore like, now it'd just be to get close.
I think one of the least accurate truisms, or if it's a folk wisdom, is the idea, the truth will come out. Of course, it doesn't come out. So many lies are so small, they're not even worth exposing. And then any lie that matters, has somebody invested in keeping it a lie. In a way it's remarkably rare for the truth to come out at all. It takes ingenuity, and effort, and cunning, and a decision.
Today we have three stories of lies, finally exposed, each under very dramatic circumstances. Act one, "Lieland" in which we bring you a cheerfully and surprisingly unrepentant story about lying.
Act two, "The Spy Who Bugged Me," journalist Lawrence Wright tries to uncover some basic truths about whether his phone is being tapped and by whom. And when he finds the whom behind it, they are also surprisingly unrepentant.
Act three, "Rosa In The Study With the ATM Card," A woman tries to get to the bottom of a domestic mystery in her father's house. And the suspect, one of the butlers, kind of. Stay with us.
Act One: Lieland
Act one, "Lieland," we start with this story about lying from Etgar Keret, who has been on our show before. He is an Israeli writer. This story was read for us by actor Dermot Mulroney.
Robbie was seven when he told his first lie. His mother had given him a wrinkled, old, 10 lira bill and asked him to go buy a pack of king-sized Kents at the grocery store. Robbie bought an ice cream cone instead. He took the change and hid the coins under a white rock in the backyard of their apartment building.
And when mother asked him what had happened, he told her that a giant red-headed kid, with a front-tooth missing, tackled him in the street, slapped him, and took the money. Mother believed him. And Robbie hadn't stopped lying since.
When he was in high school, he spent the better part of an entire week vegging out on the beach in Eilat, after selling the student counselor a story about his aunt from Beersheba, who discovered she had cancer. When he was in the army, this imaginary aunt went blind and saved his ass big-time for going AWOL-- no detention, not even confined to barracks, nothing.
Once, he justified being two hours late to work with a lie about a German shepherd he'd found lying beside the road. The dog had been run over, and Robbie had taken it to the vet. In this lie, the dog remained paralyzed in two of its legs. Those legs did the trick.
There were a lot of lies along the way in Robbie's life: lies without arms, and lies that were ill, lies that do harm, and lies that could kill, lies with legs, lies on wheels, lies in tuxedos, lies that steal, lies he made up in a flash and just as soon forgot about.
It all started with a dream, a short, fuzzy dream about his dead mother. In this dream, the two of them are sitting on a straw mat in the middle of a clear, white surface, devoid of all detail, that seemed to have no beginning and no end. Next to them on this infinite, white surface was a gumball machine with a bubble top, the old fashioned kind where you put a coin in the slot, turn the handle and out comes a gumball.
And in his dream, Robbie's mother told him that the afterworld was driving her up the wall. Because the people there were OK, but there were no cigarettes-- not just no cigarettes, no coffee or talk shows, nothing.
"You've got to help me Robbie," she said. "You've got to buy me a gumball. I raised you. All these years, I gave you everything and asked for nothing, but now it's time to give something back to your mom. Get me a gum ball, a red one if you can, but blue is OK, too."
And in his dream, Robbie rummaged through his pockets, over and over, trying to find some change. Nothing.
"I haven't got any, Mom," he said, the tears welling in his eyes. "I haven't got any change. I've gone through all my pockets."
Considering that he never cried when he was awake, it was strange to be crying in his dream.
"Did you look under the rock?" his mother asked, and clasped his hands in her own. "Maybe the coins are still there."
Then he woke up. It was 5:00 AM on a Saturday, still dark out. Robbie found himself getting into the car and driving to the place where he had grown up. On a Saturday morning with no traffic on the road, it took less than 20 minutes to get there. On the ground floor of the building, where Plisken's grocery store had been, there was a dollar store. And next to it, instead of the shoe-repair guy, there was a cell phone outlet offering upgrades like there was no tomorrow.
But the building itself hadn't changed. More than 20 years had gone by since they moved out, and it hadn't even been painted. The yard was still the same too, a few flowers, a spigot, a rusty water-meter, and weeds. And in the corner, next to the clotheslines, was the white rock, waiting.
There he stood in the backyard of the building where he'd grown up, wearing his parka, holding a big, plastic flashlight, and feeling strange, like some kind of thief-- no, not a thief, a nutjob. 5:15 AM on a Saturday, if a neighbor were to show up, what would tell him? My dead mother appeared in my dream and asked me to buy her a gumball, so I came here to look for change?
It seemed strange that the rock would still be there after all those years. Then again, if you thought about it, it wasn't really as strange as all that. It's not as if rocks just get up and walk away. Half-afraid, he picked it up gingerly, as if there might be a scorpion hiding underneath. But there was no scorpion, and no snake, either, and no coins, just a hole the width of his arm, and a light shining out of it.
Robbie tried to peek into the hole, but the light was dazzling. He hesitated a second, then reached in. Lying on the ground, he extended his entire arm, all the way to shoulder, trying to touch something at the bottom. But there was no bottom. And the only thing he could reach was made of cold metal and felt like a handle, the handle of a gumball machine.
Robbie turned it as hard as he could and felt the handle respond to his touch. This was exactly the moment where the gumball should have rolled out. This was exactly when it should have come all the way out of the innards of the machine, right into the hand of the little boy who was waiting impatiently for it to emerge. This was exactly the point when all that was supposed to happen. But it didn't. And as soon as Robbie finished turning the handle of the machine, he showed up here.
Here was a different place but a familiar one too. It was the place from his mother's dream: stark white, no walls, no floor, no ceiling, no sunshine, just whiteness and a gumball machine-- a gumball machine, and a sweaty, ugly, red-headed boy. And before Robbie had a chance to smile at the boy or say anything at all, the red-head gave him a kick in the shins as hard as he could. And Robbie dropped to the ground, writhing.
Now, with Robbie down on his knees, he and the kid were the same height. The kid looked Robbie in the eye. And even though Robbie knew they'd never me, there was something familiar about him. "Who are you?" he asked the kid, who was standing up close, glaring at him.
"Me?" the boy answered, showing a mean smile with a front-tooth missing. "I'm your first lie."
Robbie struggled to his feet. His leg, where the kid had kicked him, hurt like hell. The kid himself was long gone. Robbie studied the gumball machine. In between the round gumballs, there were those translucent, plastic balls with trinkets inside. He rummaged through his pocket for some change, but then remembered that the kid had grabbed his wallet before he split.
Robbie limped off in no particular direction. Since there was nothing to go by on the white surface except the gumball machine, the only thing left for him to do is to try to move away from it. Every few steps, he turned around to make sure the machine really was becoming smaller.
At one point, he turned, and he discovered a German shepherd, with a leash dragging behind it, next to a skinny, old man with a glass eye and no hands. The dog he recognized at once, by the way it half crawled forward, its two forelegs struggling to pull its paralyzed pelvis.
It was the run-over dog from one of the lies he'd told at work. The dog panting with effort and excitement, wagged its tail. He licked Robbie's hand and looked at him intently, with glistening eyes. The man held out the hook attached to the stump of his right arm, for what passed as a handshake. Robbie couldn't place him.
"I'm Robbie," he said.
"I am Igor," the old man introduced himself and gave Robbie a pat with one of his hooks.
"Do we know each other?" Robbie asked, after a few seconds' awkward silence.
"No," Igor said, lifting the leash with one of his hooks. "I am only here because of him. He sniffed you from miles away and got worked up. He wanted us to come."
"So, there's no connection between us?" Robbie asked. He felt a sense of relief as he said this.
"Between us? No, no connection. I'm somebody else's lie."
Robbie almost asked whose lie he was, but he didn't know whether the question was considered polite around here. For that matter, he'd have liked to ask what this place was exactly. And whether there were a lot more people there, or lies, or whatever they call themselves. But he thought that this also might be a sensitive topic, and that he shouldn't bring it up just yet.
For the moment, he patted Igor's handicapped dog. He was a nice dog and seemed happy to have met Robbie, who felt bad that he couldn't have gone and made up a lie with a little less pain and suffering in it.
"The gumball machine," he asked Igor, when a few minutes had passed. "What coins does it take?"
"Liras," the old man said. "If you don't have any--"
"There was a kid here, just now," Robbie said, "he took my wallet. But even if he hadn't, there wouldn't be any liras in it."
"A kid with a tooth missing?" Igor asked. "That little scum steals from everyone. He even eats the dog's kennel ration. Where I come from in Russia, they take a kid like that and they'd stick him out in the snow. And they wouldn't let him back in the house until his whole body turned blue." With one of his hooks, Igor pointed to his back pocket. "In there, I got some liras. Help yourself, it's on "
Robbie hesitated, but he took the lira out of Igor's pocket. And after thanking him, Robbie offered to give him his Swatch in return.
"Thanks," Igor nodded. "But the last thing I need is a watch, especially a plastic one. I'm in no hurry to get anywhere anyway." When he saw Robbie looking around for something else to give him, Igor stopped him and said, "I owed you. If you hadn't made up that lie about the dog, I'd be here completely on my own. We're even."
Robbie hobbled back in the direction of the gumball machine. He was still smarting from the red-head's kick, but much less now. He dropped the lira into the slot, took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and twisted the handle quickly. When he made one full turn, he found himself stretched on the ground in the yard of their old building.
The dawn light was painting the sky dark shades of blue. Robbie pulled his arm out of the hole in the ground. When he opened his fist, there was a red gumball inside. Before he left, he replaced the rock where it had been. He didn't ask himself what had happened there in the hole. He just got in the car, backed up, and drove away.
The red gumball, he put under his pillow for his mother, in case she came back in his dream. But she never did. And he never went back to their old yard. He thought about it all the time at first, about that place, about the dog, about Igor, about other lies he'd told and how lucky he was not to have met them too.
He kept lying at first. But the lies he told were sort-of positive, the kind of lie where no one beats anyone up, and no one's crippled or dies of cancer. He couldn't make it, because he had to water the plants in some aunt's apartment while she was visiting her successful son abroad. He was late, because a cat just had kittens practically on his stoop, and he had to take care of the litter, stuff like that.
The trouble with all these positive lies was how much more complicated they were to think up, at least if you wanted them to sound plausible. In general, if you tell people something bad, they buy right into it, because it strikes them as normal. But when you make-up good things, they get suspicious.
And so, very gradually, Robbie found himself tapering off with the lies. And to make sure he did less lying, he did less talking too. And to do that, he met less with people, which was supposed to leave him more time to think about life, and about the lies, and about the hole in the corner of the yard next to clotheslines. But he didn't.
At least, not until the morning when he overheard Natasha, from accounting, talking in the hallway with the boss. Her uncle Igor had had a heart attack, and she needed some time off. Poor guy, a widower-- lost both hands in an accident a few years ago, and now his heart. He was so alone, so helpless.
The head of accounting granted her time-off right away, no questions asked. She went to her office, took her bag, and left the building. Robbie followed her to her car, then approached her.
"You work in requisitions, don't you?" she asked, turning to face him. "Securities assistant?"
"Yeah, my name's Robbie."
"Cool, Robbie," Natasha said, with a nervous Russian smile. "So, what's up Robbie, need something?"
"It's about the lie you told earlier to the head of accounting," Robbie stammered. "I know him."
"You follow me all the way to my car just to accuse me of being a liar?"
"No," said Robbie. "I didn't mean to accuse you. Really, your being a liar is cool. I'm a liar, too. But this Igor from your lie, I met him. He's a good guy. And you, if you don't mind me saying so, you've made things pretty hard for him as it is. So, I just wanted to say--"
"Would you get out of my way," Natasha said. "You're blocking the door of my car."
"I know this sounds far-fetched, but I can prove it," Robbie said, feeling more and more uneasy. "This Igor doesn't have an eye. I mean, he has an eye, but only one. At one point, you must have made up something about how he'd lost an eye, right? See, how would I know that if I hadn't really met him?"
Natasha had already started to get into her car but stopped, "Well, how do you know that, about the glass eye? Are you a friend of Slava's?"
"I don't know any Slava." Robbie muttered, "Just Igor, really. If you want, I can take you to him."
They were standing in the backyard of his building. Robbie moved the rock, lay down on the damp soil, and pushed his arm all the way into the hole. He kept going till his fingers felt the cold, metal handle. Natasha was standing over him. He held out his other arm and said, "hold on tight."
Natasha looked at the man stretched out at her feet: thirty-something, good looking in an ironed, white shirt, now slightly more wrinkled and soiled. His one arm was stuck in the hole, his cheek was glued to the ground.
"Hold tight," he said.
And as she held out her hand to him, she couldn't help wondering how it was she always wound up with the oddballs. When he'd started with that nonsense by the car, she thought maybe it was a cute way of hitting on her. But now she realized the guy with the soft eyes and the bashful smile, really was a nutcase. His fingers were clasping hers. They stayed that way, frozen for a minute or so, him on the ground, and her standing over him slightly stooped, looking bewildered.
"OK," Natasha whispered, in a gentle, almost therapeutic voice. "So, we're holding hands. Now what?"
"Now," Robbie said, "I'll turn the handle."
It took them a long time to find Igor. Igor was in pretty bad shape. His skin was yellow, and he was sweating heavily. But when he saw Natasha, his face lit up. He was so thrilled that he got up and hugged her, even though he could hardly stand. At that point, Natasha started to cry, and asked him to forgive her. Because this Igor wasn't just one of her lies, he was also her uncle, a made-up uncle, but still.
And Igor told her she shouldn't feel bad. The life she invented for him may not always have been easy, but he enjoyed every minute. And she had nothing to worry about because, compared to the car crash in Minsk, the stick-up in Odessa, the lightning that struck him in Vladivostok, and the pack of rabid wolves in Siberia, this heart attack was small change.
And when they got back to the gumball machine, Robbie put in a one lira coin, took Natasha's hand and asked her to turn the handle. And when they were back in the yard, she found herself holding a plastic ball with a trinket inside, an ugly, silvery, heart-shaped charm.
"You know," she said, "I was supposed to be going to Sinai tonight for a few days with a girlfriend, but I think I'm going to call it off and go back tomorrow to take care of Igor. Would you like to come?"
Robbie nodded. He knew he'd have to make something up at the office. He wasn't quite sure what it would be. All he knew was that it would be a happy lie, full of flowers and sunshine, maybe even a baby or two. And they'd be smiling.
Actor Dermot Mulroney reading a story by Etgar Keret. The story was translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Schlesinger. Etgar has a new book of short stories called The Girl in the Fridge. His movie, Jellyfish, is in a handful of theaters around the country.
Coming up, yes, when your parents get old, you have to help them run their lives, deal with doctors, handle emergencies, and of course, do their detective work. That's in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Two: The Spy Who Bugged Me
This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week in our show we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, "The truth will out," stories of people trying to get that rare thing to happen, for the truth to actually come out.
We've arrived at act two of our program. Act two-- "The spy who bugged me." Lawrence Wright got to the bottom of a mystery in his life by reading a front page article in the New York Times a couple of years ago. Wright is a reporter for the New Yorker Magazine.
And, most important, for the story you're about to hear, he's an expert on Al Qaeda. He won the Pulitzer prize for his book called, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which reconstructed how we got to September 11. He's interviewed hundreds of people with links to jihadist organizations, including relatives of Osama bin Laden.
He knows so much about Al Qaeda that in June of 2003, several people from the FBI called him and ask him for an informal briefing that he would give on the history of Islamic terrorism. He took them to lunch. Talked to them for a couple hours. The agents were very appreciative. Wright was happy to have helped. He spoke with one of our show's producers, Alex Blumberg, about what happened after that.
I got a call from one of those FBI agents that I had previously spoken with. And he said that he and another member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Austin wanted to come visit me. And I thought it was the same kind of thing, they were asking for guidance. But it was pretty clear that this was a more formal kind of interrogation.
He and the other man, who was a member of the Food and Drug Administration, a clerk there, they were asking me questions about telephone calls that had been made from my home office number to a number in England. It was a plus 44207 number, and could I tell them who it is?
And I said, well, you don't know? I mean, it seemed quite a failure of investigation that they couldn't figure out a London telephone number. But I said, I'll look on my computer. And so, I looked up on my Palm. And it belonged to Gareth Peirce, who is a solicitor that-- matter of fact, Emma Thompson played her in a movie called, In the Name of the Father. At that time, she had been representing IRA people, and now she was representing jihadis that I'd been talking to in London.
And so I told them who it was. And then they said, that we understand the person who initiated the calls is a person named Caroline. Somebody by that name in the house? I said, that's my daughter.
And they said, well, would her last name be Brown? I said no, but she just graduated from Brown. Caroline's name is not on any of our phones. So I don't know how her name would have arisen.
What is your feeling as you're hearing this, is it fear, is it confusion? Describe your state of mind.
I would describe it as confusion boiling into anger, as I began to realize what must be going on. it suggested, they must have gotten information that they overheard. And I had assumed that the laws were such as they were written, that in order to listen to an American citizen's telephone conversations, one needs a warrant. It seemed really unlikely to me that there had been probable cause for a warrant for me.
And I didn't know at that time, nor did most Americans, that there was a secret program under way called the Terrorist Surveillance Program that superseded this. And it had been created by the White House, allowing warrantless wiretaps on an untold number of Americans.
So how'd you figure it out?
It was in December 2005, and I'd read the New York Times front page story about warrantless wiretaps. And I thought, that happened to me. It was just immediately a moment of recognition that that's what had gone on. At once, I connected the dots. The FBI coming to my house with what, obviously, seemed to be actual information that had come from my telephone call. All of that, suddenly fell into place.
What had been puzzling me all along, was the law as it was written which forbid this kind of government intrusion. How did they know about these calls that I'd been making to London? And where did they get the name of my daughter? These things had been on the back of my mind for a couple of years. I couldn't figure out how, legally, those things could have happened. And then suddenly, I saw the New York Times story, and I realized that, well maybe it wasn't legal, but this is how they went about it.
I see, right. And it's interesting, because, one of the things that people started to think about when that story first broke-- I know the question occurred to me, and I'm sure other people as well-- like, oh, does that mean that they've ever listened to me? The hard part about that story was there's no way to verify because you don't--
They're not going to tell you.
They're not going to tell you. So, it strikes me, that you're one of the few people in the country that actually knew they were being targeted by this program. And you ended up talking to the guy in charge of the program. You wrote a profile of Mike McConnell, he's the top dog in United States intelligence, for the New Yorker Magazine.
So again, you're in a completely unique position. You're one of the few people who actually knows that you were targeted by this wireless surveillance program. And now, you're writing a profile of the person who's in charge of that program. When did you first to bring up your own experience with this program, with him?
The first we had a conversation was in early July last year. And it was a, kind of, get acquainted meeting. And he was talking about the thing that was most on his mind, was for him to have more flexibility in accessing calls between people abroad and American citizens or people who might be in America at that time.
And I said, in the interest of full disclosure, I want you to know that I've been monitored. He seemed a little surprised and taken aback. And I told him about the FBI coming to my house. And we went over this conversation three or four different times in the course of our interviews, because he kept coming back to it. It clearly got under his skin.
Because I told him about them getting Caroline's name. It really bugs me, because I don't know how her name could have come up. And so he said, well maybe you mentioned her name. Which is what I think that probably happened, but that obviously implies they are listening to it.
And I said, well that troubles me. And his response was, it may be troublesome, it may not be. You don't know. And of course, that's exactly the position any American citizen would be in.
Did you ask him, is that something that should be happening? Should your daughter's name-- should that become information that is now in the hands of the intelligence community?
You know, he didn't seem to be particularly disturbed that my daughter's name would have arisen in it. His response, essentially, is that I have to trust the government. But first of all, there were profound misunderstandings involved in our case, in my daughter and myself. And secondly, we have a history of a government that exceeds its authority and has often intruded on to people's lives such as-- even McConnell and I talked about it.
When he was young, growing up in South Carolina, there were these big billboards on the side of the highway, impeach Earl Warren, who was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. And then, it made quite an impression on him, when he got into the intelligence business to learn that the intelligence community, the FBI had actually been wiretapping the Supreme Court Justice's own telephone and other members of the supreme court and of course, Martin Luther King and civil rights activists.
The history of our government's overreaching into the private lives of American citizens is really profound. It's one thing to give the power to the government to try to prevent terrorists from attacking America. I understand the thinking about that, but when you actually see it at work, you realize how flawed and human the operators are behind it. And what kinds of mistakes that they can make. They could be potentially very damaging to people's lives.
I do remember when the FBI and the FDA clerk came to my office, I had a big whiteboard with names of Al Qaeda members written all over it. My book was all laid out. I had thousands and thousands of note cards with bin Laden and Zawahiri and all the members of Al Qaeda, and dozens and dozens of books and so on. Either I was an avid reporter or I was an insider in Al Qaeda. From the look on the face of the FDA clerk, it was probably the latter. He had a bead of sweat on his upper lip. He thought he must have stumbled into some den.
Is your response to try to let him sweat or is your response to try to reassure him as much as possible?
I thought it was the kind of absurd. Because it's one of those moments when you begin to see how it might look in another person's eyes. He worked for the Food and Drug Administration. This is not his main gig. So, suddenly he comes out, and he comes into this room, and it's just filled with Al Qaeda memorabilia and information, and so on. And I can see through his eyes, suddenly, that he must feel like, this could really be real. I was a little amused by the look in his face, but I also realized it was kind of dangerous. That level of misinterpretation could get me in trouble.
Have you changed your behavior at all now that you know that your phone calls were listened to, and that the government was acting outside the law as you understood it? Has it made you change your behavior, in terms of like, what you say on the phone, how you talk to people, what you leave around the house?
Alex, I've been talking to other reporters about this. You know, there's a dilemma. I was talking to some Times reporters-- they've been advised by one of their intelligence sources that they should get new cell phones. ABC had a similar kind of discussion about whether we should all change our phones, or whether we should behave like terrorists by getting disposable cell phones, have a conversation and throw it away. That's the way terrorists evade this kind of monitoring.
I, so far, haven't done that. And maybe I'm being naive about it, but there are times when, if I come up on a question that might require a really confidential answer, that I've been more interested in doing it in person than on the phone.
Have you had a situation where you realize that you know more about Al Qaeda than the people who are supposed to be the experts?
All the time. I mean, it's pretty demoralizing when you are talking to people that are on the Al Qaeda Squad, and they can't pronounce the names of these guys. When the head of counterterrorism for the FBI testifies under oath that he doesn't know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite. and he thinks that's an irrelevant question. I mean, if you don't know the first thing about the enemy you're fighting, you're always going to be handicapped, blindfolded, deaf-and-dumb. And really, that's the situation that you find.
It seems like, in a weird way, that is the most frustrating thing of this whole thing. If it seemed like they had more information than you do, with their heightened ability, than it would maybe make more sense. But it seems like they're doing all this, and it's still not putting them ahead of a single reporter with no special access to anybody and just his own reporting skills. I mean, is that too strong?
No, it's not at all. There are some good people involved in this effort. I'm not denigrating them. But when I wrote my book, one of the heroes in my book was a native Arabic speaking FBI agent who came closer than anybody to stopping 9/11. He was one of eight Arabic speaking agents in the FBI at that time. Now, nearly seven years later, there are nine.
And I'm picking on the FBI because they are open about their figures. It's true all across the intelligence community. They don't have the kind of people that really understand who these people are, where they come from, and what they're fighting for. Who's in the FBI, especially in headquarters seventh floor in Washington? Irish and Italian guys.
And if you look at the history of that organization, which made its reputation fighting the mafia and, to some extent, the IRA, it's no wonder that they were successful in fighting against those communities. They came from the same neighborhoods. They spoke the same languages. They knew the culture. They don't know these people.
And if you have family in the Middle East, essentially, you are not going to be a candidate to be in America's intelligence community. And that rules out almost everybody who fluently, natively speaks not just Arabic, but Farsi, Dari, Pashto, all these languages of these communities that we need to understand so vitally. We've done such a poor job of understanding, much less penetrating and disrupting that organization simply because we don't have the right people.
Lawrence Wright, talking to This American Life producer Alex Blumberg. Wright is the author of the book The Looming Tower. Just a few weeks ago, he did another story about Al Qaeda for The New Yorker. You can read that story for free on the magazine's website, newyorker.com where you can find lots of great stories.
Act Three: Rosa In The Study With The ATM Card
Act three-- "Rosa in the Study with the ATM Card." We close today's show about uncovering the truth with a story about how difficult it can be to get to what really happened, even when you're looking at what seems like the simplest kind of crime possible. To preserve everybody's privacy in this story, we have changed all their names. And the woman in the story, who is going to remain anonymous, has an elderly dad. He's over 80, and he's has gone through a variety of medical emergencies, kidney stones, growth on scalp, heart attack, blood in his urine, hernia surgery. And he has several caretakers who come to his house. His daughter steps when there's a crisis.
During a recent visit, my father tells me that Lourdes, who cooks his meals, is on the verge of quitting. "It is something about Rosa," my father says.
I look at him blankly. "Rosa?"
"You found her for me," he says.
"You mean they sent her from one of the agencies," I remind him.
"I guess so. Anyway, can you deal with it?"
As my father has aged, he's grown proficient at delegating. Some of this stems from his Parkinson's, but some of it is just my dad. Though he grew up working-class in the depression, his passions run more in the line of those of a rich, country squire: opera, fine wine, domestic servants. Gradually, he's enlisted a growing army of caretakers to minister to his needs.
Lourdes arrives at his house later that afternoon. I ask her if there is anything she wants to say.
"Si," she says pivoting towards my father. "I'm leaving you, Mr. Ken. There are too many people in your business. Yesterday, you couldn't find your cash. And I don't know who this Rosa is. Why does she have your ATM? I ask you two times Mr. Ken, who is this Rosa?"
"It sounds like you don't trust her," I say to Lourdes.
"No, she is always whispering, giggling, an ass kisser."
A couple weeks later, I get a message from my dad's bookkeeper, Amy, the general of my father's army of caretakers. "I'm looking at your dad's books and there's something going on here," she says ominously. "Please, give me a call as soon as it's convenient."
Amy tells me she's discovered strange charges on my dad's Visa card, huge ATM withdrawals, and fat checks signed in an unfamiliar handwriting and made out to a woman named Rosa. "I'm looking at upwards of $6,000 missing from your dad's checking accounts. And then there's $20,000 that seems to be missing from his investments," she says. "I never heard of this Rosa before. Your dad says you found her."
For the rest of the day, my brother and I are on the phone with Amy getting updates on her accounting discoveries. For a long time, we kids have felt my father is pressing his luck living alone. Amy calls to say she has gone over to my father's and confronted him.
Apparently, he told her it was all easily explained. He had lent Rosa money for her mortgage. Amy says, she asked to see the paperwork for the loan, and he refused. Then he said it was a gift. Then he said he didn't remember.
Amy goes on, "I found these weird charges, like one at Macy's and another Victoria's Secret," she says. "Your father says, he was out with Rosa, and she saw some jewelry, and so he bought it for her. He said it was only $40. And I said, but Ken, the charge was for almost $100. And he said, oh well, maybe that was it." Then she adds, "Lourdes told me she thinks Rosa is a prostitute, because of how she acts and dresses. She says she thinks your father has fallen in love with her."
Apparently, Lourdes has told Amy that she's been cleaning up a lot of dinners for two with wine glasses, which she took to be signs that Rosa was visiting him at night. I get this awful feeling. Amy tells me she has a plan.
She wants to go to my father's house tomorrow morning when Rosa is scheduled to pick up my father for a dentist appointment. The plan is to confront Rosa and get to the bottom of this. Amy's husband, who happens to be a high-ranking military officer just home from Iraq, will also help. She wants me to be there too.
The next morning, I drive south through the oaky hills of central California to my father's home. As I approach, the weedy medians give way to manicured landscaping, roses, carved bushes, and lawns clipped like French velvet. My father had once cultivated a similarly refined community of friends, people with multiple homes, colleagues with charitable trusts, but now that's changed.
Though he still lives in the same place, his friends mostly include his caretakers and their families. A lot of them live paycheck to paycheck. He hear stories about broken hearts and broken down cars, bouts of depression and unemployment, and tells them to me.
When I arrive, my father sits in the monstrous Naugahyde recliner we bought for him, a veritable throne of old age. C-SPAN is on, as it often is.
"I'm glad you came," my father says.
When Amy and her husband, Mike, pull up, I meet them outside. Mike is wearing crisply ironed fatigues and army boots. We enter the house, and Amy bends down to my father and hugs him. She broaches the subject of Rosa's use of his Visa over the weekend, which my father gave her to buy herself some hospital scrubs for a new job.
"We're looking at nearly $700 spent at Target and Walmart," Amy says. "If it turns out she's stolen this money, do you agree to press charges?"
My father looks at her, "You haven't met her. You can't just accuse someone. You don't even know her."
"Ken, I don't need to know her. I have the evidence right here. What kind of services is she providing to you, Ken?" she asks.
Her face is inches from his. "I know this is hard for you to accept that someone you care for is taking advantage of you, but what's going on is just not right."
"You shouldn't accuse her. You need to talk to her first." My father bangs his hand on the arm of the chair, "God damn it. I've told you everything is all right, and it is. If you won't listen to me, you can get out of my house." His hands are shaking, but not the loose trembling that comes from neurological misfiring. It's concentrated rage.
Amy stands, "You want me to leave? I'm leaving." Mike stands, holding Amy's coat for her. Amy turns to dad, "It won't break my business, losing you as a client, but it will break my heart."
As she walks towards the door, I look at my father, "Dad, say something."
My dad relents, "I don't really want you to go," he says. "I just don't want you yelling at this woman."
We sit and wait. Finally, an old-model American car pulls up. We peer through the windows, careful not to tip her off. Then Rosa walks in. She's wearing baggy layers over a heavyset frame. Her hair is cut short. She wears no makeup. She bears no resemblance to the Victoria Secret-wearing wine-swilling seductress I had imagined.
She walks into the room and kisses my father on the cheek. "How are you, Ken?" she asks.
"I've been better," says my dad.
Then she looks around, noticing the strange faces in the room. Amy, Mike and I introduce ourselves and shake hands with her. Mike stand sentry at the door. Amy asks her to sit down and tells her that there's money missing from Ken's accounts. We ask her about getting a loan or a gift from Ken.
She looks baffled and turns to my father, "No, Ken, I earned that money. Remember, I spent 10 days here, 12 hour shifts." My father nods.
I explain, "It's that he can't exactly recall how this money has been spent, but he's spending it a lot faster than he has in the past."
She looks at me pleadingly, "I'm sorry," she says quietly. "I thought he was alert."
Point by point, Amy goes over his suspicious expenditures. At every point, Rosa defends herself. All the hours she's been working, neither she nor Ken kept track, but she says they were extensive. The Visa use over the weekend, she bought a lot of scrubs and planned to pay my father back.
Since my father gives out his ATM card to all his caretakers, she can't really be expected to explain all the withdrawals. She says the checks made out to her name were payment for more work. I don't know what to think. The relationship between my father and his caretakers is so intimate. They do stuff for him I won't do, all for a few bucks an hour.
It hardly seems crazy that my father and Rosa might have had long talks over dinner, that my father would have wanted to repay her kindness, and that Rosa would have wanted to accept. Still, I can tell Amy remains unmoved. For her, the numbers tell the whole story. If I defend Rosa, dad will lose both Lourdes and Amy, and I still won't know what happened.
With halfhearted logic, I decide she's crossed some professional line Even if she isn't swindling my dad, caretakers shouldn't go shopping for jewelry with their clients or use the client's ATM card to buy hundreds of dollars' worth of clothing. When I tell Rosa she can't work for Ken anymore, she looks like she doesn't know what hit her.
"Can I say goodbye to him?" she asks.
I watched her lean over him and whisper in his ear. I realize, if this were a movie, and I were watching this scene, I know one thing for sure. I'd hate the daughter. After it happened, we really didn't talk about it. I wondered if he was angry at us, or if he just wanted to forget the whole incident. He's 81 and tires easily. But I thought that if I could just get him to tell me what he thought happened, I could stop guessing.
Well, what do you remember? I mean, do you remember giving her a loan, or do you remember giving her gifts?
Yes, I gave her $1,000 because she had a $3,000 mortgage. She was divorced. She didn't have a lot of money. She was in transition from one job to another. And I helped her out.
And did you feel like, did you think at some point that it was a loan or a gift?
I guess originally, I thought of it as a loan, but I think as time went on, I assumed it would be a gift because she just couldn't pay it back in any reasonable time. And that was fine with me. It still was helpful to her, and I felt good about it.
So, how did you feel when people started to question your judgment?
Well, I didn't like it of course, because I felt like it was my own business, what I did with my money. You know, you might be heir to my money, but you don't control it now, right?
I feel like I've been misrepresented on the situation, that I can't take care of myself. And that I somewhat resented it, because I felt like I was in control. You know, I know these things happen, where these older people get taken. I just didn't feel like I was one of them. Even if she had taken me for every dime, it wouldn't be a big deal. It's not a lot of money.
It also made me feel like, you're were kind of feeling a certain kind of sympathy. Where you were like, even if she stole several thousand bucks from me, that's not a big deal. She's struggling, she's got little kids.
Right, absolutely. Absolutely, that's part of it. From what I understand, she's a good mother. She just struggles to get along. Anyway, I'm tired of talking about it.
My father never used to seem like someone who lost sleep over other people's troubles, especially people radically different from him. But now I think he might. Amy the bookkeeper tells me, she's always canceling generous contributions he makes to far flung charities he's seen on late night TV. She thinks these bouts of insomniac philanthropy are a sign he's not looking out for his own best interests.
But I'm not so sure. What if instead, my father is becoming the person we all want to be, someone who doesn't fixate on the bottom line, but empathizes with people in need. Then again, as I'm getting ready to go home after our interview, I hear my dad talking on the phone, making an appointment, giving out his address. When I inquire who it was, he says it was a very nice guy selling reverse mortgages. "A telemarketer," I ask, "coming to your home?"
"Don't worry," he says, playing with the remote control. "I know what I'm doing."
Well our show was produced today by our senior producer, Julie Snyder and myself with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Lisa Shipley, and Nancy Updike. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help Seth Lind, Odette Yousef. Music help from Jessica Hopper. Special thanks to Bob Carlson and Sarah Vowell. Our website-- www.ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management are excited for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who knocked on my door at 5:00 in the morning today, unshaved and disheveled, looking like hell. He explained it this way, "My dead mother appeared in my dream and asked me to buy her gumball. So I came here to look for change."
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life. PRI Public Radio International.