NEWS

No protection for the most valuable information source

Born in 1953, in Rochester, New Hampshire, Lalas grew up listening to the stories of his grandparents, who came from a village near Smyrna. He enlisted when very young in the American Army and served in Vietnam. In 1977, Lalas was a US communications officer for NATO in Smyrna. He was approached by a capable Greek officer who worked for Greece’s national intelligence agency (EYP). Pointing out the strength of Turkey’s forces, the officer asked Lalas to help Greece. Lalas consented and gave the officer classified documents about the deployment of Turkish forces. He later received a salary from EYP. People he worked with believe he did it for the love of his country and fanatical devotion to his parents’ homeland. Lalas left the army for the State Department, where he handled classified information centers for embassies. He served in Belgrade (1983-85) and Istanbul (1985-89), where he continued to feed information to EYP. The information went to EYP headquarters, which used it in briefing memorandums for the prime minister and sometimes the foreign minister without revealing the source. While stationed in Istanbul, Lalas would cross the Evros River and meet a Greek agent to whom he gave the information, A Greek politician who has handled very sensitive cases told this writer: «I was shocked when I got the first memorandum based on Lalas’s information. I read it, didn’t believe it at first; then I heard my American counterpart refer one by one to all the points I had read. It was unbelievable.» In 1990, the State Department sent Lalas to Athens, where he worked in the top-security center on Vassilissis Sofias Street. Instead of disposing of documents, Lalas would keep the papers and deliver them to his new handler, a man of dubious professionalism who used the safe house for his extra-marital activities. When the issue of a name for FYROM came to the fore, Lalas was under immense pressure. The prime minister of the day, Constantine Mitsotakis, wanted more information. The method of transmitting Lalas’s messages had changed, and the memos now went also to deputy foreign ministers. On the basis of one such memo, a Greek official at the center asked the Greek Embassy in Washington to make a demarche to the State Department. The diplomat who received the demarche was surprised because it was based on information that Athens was not supposed to have. He betrayed no sign of concern but reported at once to the State Department’s security branch. A few days later, American agents arrived in Athens and placed secret surveillance cameras and microphones in offices where the document referring to the classified information might have been. They immediately noticed that Lalas was acting suspiciously and removing classified information. They followed him and within days had found him keeping his regular appointment with an EYP officer. Unbelievably, the Greek secret service had no counter-surveillance unit to protect its most valuable agent. The following day, the US Embassy asked him to go to Washington on urgent official business. Lalas didn’t sense the danger, didn’t tell EYP and left, though he could have applied for asylum in Greece. FBI agents met him at the airport in Washington and took him to a nearby hotel for a «friendly debriefing.» At first he denied everything, but confessed when they started showing him videos from the communications center and photographs of his meetings with the agent. Lalas avoided a life sentence because he collaborated with the authorities, giving them a full picture of the documents he had passed on. Behind the scenes, ministers expressed concern that the Americans would exclude Greece from the case. Mitsotakis admitted in private conversations that he felt bad about what happened to Lalas. He and PASOK Deputy Michalis Chrysochoidis were the only politicians to state publicly that the Greek state should help to reunite Lalas with his wife Maria and their two children in Kavala. Thanks to Lalas’s Cypriot friend Michalis Kyprianou, the Greek government became more sensitive to the matter and then Justice Minister Anastassios Papaligouras took the first step toward fulfilling its duty to Lalas, after a 14-year delay, «A spy should be a prince in his country,» the Israelis say. The Greek state failed miserably to protect its most valuable source of information in recent decades, through a combination of incompetence, partisan appointments that put the wrong people in key positions, and outright stupidity. Following this story from the outset till the day Lalas left prison has taught me a lot. I learnt that the first to run for cover when trouble starts are the so-called patriots who are ready to drag Greece into risky situations but who leave the professionals who don’t care about publicity to put out the fire. I learnt that the post-dictatorship Greek state had allowed its secret service to rot at the core. It was still functioning in 1977, but by 1993 had mixed up agents with party appointees. Last of all, I learnt that the patriotism of overseas Greeks bears no relation to the ultra-patriotic verbiage of homegrown professional patriots. It is a crazy love for a country that only exists in their own minds, a pure patriotism that conceals no ulterior motives, no desire for self-promotion. That is what Lalas – the man I met, the man who was due to meet his family yesterday for the first time in 14 years – paid the price of.