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by on October 4, 2022


Untold Stories of Tonio

by Marco M. Pardi

In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Winston Churchill

Oh. What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” Marmion by Sir Walter Scott, Canto VI, XVII.

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Tonio was well aware of the image Hollywood and fiction writers drew of Clandestine Service Officers: consistent liars skulking about in oversized trenchcoats. But he also knew this image applied only to agents, people who had been seduced or accepted into betraying their country’s secrets. Case Officers, on the other hand, were intensively trained in blocking or misleading inquisitive individuals. Most embassy based COs knew their “cover” — Cultural Attache, Economic Development Advisor, etc., was transparent to any local really qualified to be recruited as an agent but they maintained the ruse anyway including such practices as using only a false first name, never allowing any information about their personal lives (if married they did not wear a wedding ring; if not married they might wear a borrowed ring even if it didn’t fit well), and never identifying where they live or other staff. This was different from outright lying, and Tonio welcomed the difference although he was never embassy based.

Tonio’s position as a NOC – Non Official Cover, meant he rarely if ever went near an embassy. Anything he needed from an embassy, such as weapons or most recent photos, was provided via dead drop or brush pass. Tonio strongly felt himself an actor, playing out a role created for him by the Division which provided NOCs with their legends, credentials, and other supportive information. All this material was carefully crafted to the NOC’s actual background and capabilities. Thus, people with degrees and experience in international banking, health and medicine, social sciences and college teaching, journalism, international business, or a myriad of other fields were placed in those fields sometimes with the knowing consent of the host and sometimes not.

Sabbaticals, business or academic conferences, medical programs and other opportunities for travel and absence were developed and provided and a NOC could alternate from field work to academia and back to vary his profile and avoid becoming moribund or too questionable. The NOC became that person. But having no official cover also meant that a mistake could leave him or her with absolutely no protection. And that was a key deterrent against lies.

Tonio viewed a lie, no matter how small, as a cancer cell, needing to be fed, growing ever more powerful and complex, and sooner or later exceeding his ability to control. Ultimately, he viewed lying as immoral; perhaps a surprising attitude in a profession thought by outsiders to be utterly amoral at best. But for Tonio, the mission came first, the person came second. In his mind, lying was something done for personal reasons and the resulting confusion of subsidiary lies and the additional burden of protecting the lies put the mission at risk.

Tonio was a strong adherent to the principle that: People never hear a word you say; they hear what they tell themselves you said. Further complicating this, many people fancy themselves able to read non-verbal cues. He knew that was not only foolish, it was useful, especially in a person schooled in producing those cues when needed. Tonio knew a skilled operator avoided lies; he knew a skilled operator only provided the context in which people deceived themselves.


The American people have an interesting history with the interplay of honesty and deception, especially in politics.In fairly recent history we can look back to President Richard Nixon and his secret seven day trip to China in 1972. Breaking a 25 year isolation from China, a declared enemy, the trip was prepared, also in secret, by Henry Kissinger and covered up with a variety of obfuscations from the White House. On Nixon’s return the trip was announced to the American people as a great success. Of course, China had long been supplying North Vietnam in its effort to take over South Vietnam and continued to do so. But the American people largely accepted the trip with a chuckle, considering it just another of Nixon’s “tricks”. In fact, his history had by then merited him the nickname “Tricky Dick”. One of my preferred bumper stickers of the era read, Dick Nixon Before He Dicks You.

But by that time Nixon had already become infamous for his “Southern Strategy”, a technique he developed while campaigning against Kennedy. Effectively, he played on the animus of Southerners toward desegregation and perceived cultural elitism. In doing so he unwittingly opened the floodgates for the strategies of division, deception, and outright hypocrisy which would one day bring a person like Donald J. Trump into the White House. Interestingly, Nixon’s greatest rival in his campaigns was a Southern bumpkin named George Wallace, a man who, if you now view his recorded speeches you will see prefigures Trump in almost every way. But it was another Southerner who ignited and tirelessly fed the flames of the resentment and hatred which now characterizes so much of American politics: Newt Gingrich. Throughout his political career he preached that Republican candidates should utterly destroy their opponents, using all available means including baseless stories and accusations, an early form of “conspiracy theories”. His tactics and strategies are now mainstream.

The Gingrich strategy was quickly adopted by Rush Limbaugh, a first semester college drop-out, whose talk radio program grew to 300 stations and 5 million listeners, many in “Rush Rooms”. Others include Sean Hannity, a drop-out from two universities, and Tucker Carlson, a B.A. graduate of Trinity College and listed member of the “Dan White Society” (White assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk) and whose application to the Central Intelligence Agency was denied are watched by millions per day. Hannity and Carlson dominate the airwaves throughout the United States.

Each of the above, and their several acolyte imitators, has learned that What you say is not as powerful as How you say it. Interesting examples of how the technique overtakes the facts appeared recently in the Letters to the Editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The contributor pointed to the incessant Right Wing mantras that Democrats want “open borders” while ignoring the fact of over two million arrests at the border so far under President Biden. As the writer said, if there were truth in the borders claim there would be ZERO arrests. Yet, the mantra is repeated constantly in political ads and Right Wing media. The other example given was that of Trump freely giving speeches to mass audiences in which he claimed Americans had lost their freedom of speech. No one seemed to catch the inherent contradiction; instead, they cheered wildly.

But, why? Why do so many people feel that something is wrong and it can only be fixed by an authoritarian take-over? Are they right, or are they deceived? Many years ago politicians on the campaign trail made famous the promise, “A chicken in every pot.” That seemed to work. Until the public aspired to a house in the suburbs, a car – then two cars in every driveway, the latest cellular phone, the biggest flat screen tv, and on and on while cheering the deception that all this and more can be achieved with little or no taxation and now with free education.

An acronym held dear among Case Officers in training is MICE. Money; Ideology; Compromise (you have something on a prospective agent recruit); Ego. With a little flexibility and patient insight one could determine the soft spot in an adversary’s defenses and turn him or her into an agent betraying their country’s secrets to you, even carrying out dangerous activities. But what accounts for the unrest which even now drives the throngs to an electoral failure, an unmasked pariah?

There’s an old saying, “The figures don’t lie but liars do figure.” What have we been told? How do we explain the rapidly growing disparity between the vanishingly few well-off and the growing masses of everyday Americans? Many people are resisting even controlled immigration and carefully vetted asylum on the grounds that these people are “taking American jobs.” Yet, when we ask the farmers and the construction managers – to name just a few, we find that they are crying out for the labor we are turning away, leaving us with either diminished products or products which, when harvested or produced by “Americans” (when we can cajole them into doing so) are astronomically more expensive as a consequence of “American” labor.

Behind all this is an ownership class which is increasing its financial wealth at rates almost impossible to accurately calculate. How are so many people led to believe this is the fault of immigrants and of people who are “other than” Right Wing Republicans?

Professional magicians have long used the attractive assistant to distract the eye while they work their sleight of hand. Looking at a broader picture in the United States, we see a well orchestrated groundswell of book banning in school and even public libraries. What’s more, the banned books are disproportionately written by minority authors. In a growing number of States parents are encouraging their K-12 children to inform on their teachers should the teacher mention, much less discuss, certain disapproved topics in class. This is already percolating up into post secondary education. I propose this is no coincidence. Tonio knew a skilled operator avoided lies; he knew a skilled operator only provided the context in which people deceived themselves.

Skilled operators know that by selectively narrowing the context from which to draw information people have much reduced chances of developing fully informed opinions. In recalling yet another age old saying, Knowledge is Power, we can at least realize, and perhaps develop and employ, the power that the cabal behind this rapidly changing national crisis fears the most. We can free ourselves from Deception.

  1. William Boyd permalink

    Thanks, Marco (and Tonio). Much to ponder here. For now I’ll mention only still having my “Impeach Nixon” sticker hidden away in my top dresser drawer. Bill in VA


    • Thank you, Bill. I do remember that bumper sticker. Indeed, those days seemed to be the Day of the Bumper Sticker. Nowadays, having such a sticker criticizing a Right Wing politician is an invitation to road rage, vandalism, or worse. Better to keep it under the socks.


  2. How is it that I have only now, in the middle of a sleepless night, discovered this wonderful offering. That it speaks of Tonio first is a source of entertainment, as well as deep truth. I despise a liar, especially as I have had to deal with so many of them in the past few years. I realize that it isn’t always possible to tell the whole truth, but when prevarication becomes necessary, then it needs to be as simple and as near that truth as possible, if only because the truth is easier to remember.

    I have noted over the past few years that some tales of Tonio have varied in small ways from those shared with me so many years ago. That they are primarily echoes of the originals speaks to the percentage of truth to be found within them. I have always felt honored that you trusted me with your stories at all. I am only now beginning to realize how out of context so many of those stories must have been.

    I have frequently told others that it doesn’t matter what I say so much as what you hear. As you say, the art lies in making people hear what you want them to hear without actually saying it. Politicians are particularly good at making you believe that they said what you wanted to hear. Remember the old saying, “Are all fishermen liars, or do only liars fish?” Substitute the word politicians… it’s not a clean substitution, but I think you get my point.

    A disturbing trend in this election cycle is the practice of ostensibly casting the deepest of aspersions against an opponent, with the results of defining them in the exact terms most likely to attract voters which think as they do. What might repel one voter would be equally attractive to another. I call foul, and wonder if the candidate being maligned is not possibly the author of their own hate mail. I’ll have to watch more closely next time to ascertain who “approves this message”.


    • Thank you, Rose. I’m sure you understand the reasons for the contextual variations so long ago: remaining active for decades to come.

      The Senate race in Georgia, Walker (R) vs. Warnock (D), seems to validate the feeling that the Republicans would gladly run Charles Manson, were he alive, simply to have a person on the ticket for voters to elect their Party. And it seems that many do understand that Walker, like Reagan and George W. Bush, would be only a mouthpiece for the cabal behind the scenes. So, they will vote for him no matter what. This is what we have come to, and it is frightening.


      • The differences between stories then and now are so slight as to be attributable to lapses of memory. Of course I understand “need to know” any and all fine details which might be altered or omitted in the telling, then or now. My point and my pride and pleasure is derived from the fact that you trusted me with your stories in any form.


  3. Dana permalink

    Marco, I’m always delighted to discover another educational and philosophical chapter from Tonio’s Untold Stories. Interlaced with world history and unfolding current events, these vignettes from his life and career are relevant today. Clearly he has seen a lot and knows even more. And to paraphrase what Rose said, the stories are entertaining. I’m reminded of your classes where we learned an incredible amount of information and improved our critical thinking skills. Yet even with the heaviest of subjects you always managed to entertain us. And make us laugh!

    Tonio’s attitude toward deception is deeply admirable. How can relationship trust be developed if it’s stacked with lies? I think it’s wonderful you are sharing some of his commendable qualities. Some people are known for being conscientious and trustworthy, and it seems he is one such person.

    As for deception, I’m not convinced lying is immoral as a whole. Might there be a distinct difference between telling a lie and just plain being deceitful? I would argue intention is key here. Donald Trump as a pathological liar comes to mind; he is a terrific example of gross immorality. The number of lies he told while holding the highest office in the country is astronomical – greater than 36,000! The data compiled by Washington Post fact checkers is stunning! At least the numbers don’t lie.

    But ……….

    Lying can sometimes be an unfortunate yet crucial aspect of self-preservation for certain people. It’s comforting to think we could always tell the truth, even if not in its entirety. Would our species have survived this long without a degree of untruth? Certainly there are ways to work around it without telling lie upon lie. Your comparison to a growing cancer cell is perfect and I can agree with your perspective for the most part. Conversely, I can also attest there are specific circumstances where being transparent or truthful can result in unfair punitive action or even worse. Further, lying has probably saved my life in enormously dangerous situations many times over the decades. So is deceit with the intention of self-preservation immoral?

    By now most of us have probably heard the trite “Speak your truth.” That pairs well with “Be yourself.” This is where I insert an eyeroll. Maybe this has worked for some. Doing so has rarely been advantageous for me in numerous past circumstances I won’t share here. Most of the time I would rather have said nothing at all but that is sometimes impossible.

    Thank you for feeding our heads, and I can’t wait for the next installment!


    • Dana, I’m going to put my two cents in here if you don’t mind, or even if you do, I guess. Feel free to ignore them.

      I would agree with you that the harm in a lie lies in the intent. Those “little white lies” that we tell to save someone’s feelings are okay for the most part. Lies of omission are still lies, but sometimes acceptable if the intention is to save pain for someone, even ourselves. Prevarication (altered truth) depends on the alteration and the intention behind it. Certainly, any (well, almost any) untruth told for the express intention of self preservation is acceptable, if sad in its necessity. All of these lies fall into a grey area, some darker than others.

      That’s my truth; prove me wrong. Rose


      • Dana permalink

        Rose, sorry for taking so long to respond. Both yours and Marco’s replies had me at ease. I don’t think I would be alive today without some of the lying I’ve had to do in some dangerous situations. Thankfully those days are over.

        I do not lie when people ask me for fashion advice, although it does make me feel awkward to be asked in the first place. If you like it and you’re comfortable, wear it. That’s usually my suggestion. Thankfully my housemate through the pandemic gave me choices.

        I’m definitely not a deceitful person though. At various businesses I’ve worked there have always been tales of former employees who somehow managed to embezzle money or commit other crimes. I don’t have that “skill,” and even with a horrible employer there is no justification.


    • Thank you, Dana. Even as I wrote about the distinction between lies and deception I did have thoughts of how frank lies, for “the right reasons” can be acceptable. But, I’ve been referred to as “The Black Hole” (everything goes in and nothing comes out) because I tend to be silent even more than I’m consciously aware of.

      Yes, a lie to save someone is acceptable. I’m just not very verbal when pushed to that level.


      • Dana permalink

        Silence is golden, Marco. Silence for me can be difficult, because I’ve faced discrimination and harsh remarks throughout my life for being so. But it is a good practice and sometimes does prevent having to lie.
        I detest having to lie for any reason, even calling out of work. I would rather be truthful and say, “I’m experiencing a bad mental health day” than lie about being “sick.” But many companies aren’t there yet even though our mental health seriously affects the physical.
        Lying on a challenging mental health day produces added anxiety for me


        • Thank you, Dana. I fully sympathize with your position and can see how it brings you problems in our less developed society.


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