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Haveth Information Everywhere

March, 2006
By John Huckans

A thief’s attempt to sell a stolen copy of Casino Royale (Ian Fleming’s first book) went nowhere last month as the result of bookseller cooperation and fast e-mail alerts.

On December 20th, or thereabouts, Jon Gilbert of Adrian Harrington Books (London) took a call from a person who wanted to buy one of two copies of the first edition that Harrington’s had on offer. The man, who called himself “Richard”, said he wanted it as a Christmas present and after some conversation agreed to buy the cheaper copy for £12,000 (about $22,000).

More phone calls followed and it was arranged that the book would be paid for by bank draft and that Richard’s agent, who was to show up at Harrington’s driving a black limousine, would pick up the book and make payment. The transaction took place on the 22nd but the next day Harringtons learned the bank draft was a forgery.

In early January “Richard” contacted McConnell’s in Kent and offered them a first edition of Casino Royale for about £8000, but by then ABA, ABAA and ILAB members had been notified by e-mailed “stolen book alerts”. Failing to find a buyer in the U.K., he contacted at least two New York City booksellers, including Bauman Rare Books who showed some interest. “Richard” then arranged for a woman to fly to New York and deliver the copy to Bauman’s, maintaining his pattern of hiding behind the scenes while getting others to act on his behalf.

In the meantime Eric DuRon, a Bauman’s staff member, had received a “stolen book alert” from the ABAA and contacted a detective from the NYPD in order to arrange a suitably interesting reception. The woman waited in the gallery while Eric—with the detective listening in—was on the phone discussing payment terms with “Richard”. Shortly afterwards she was placed under arrest for attempting to sell stolen goods and the last we heard she had been returned to London and was detained by the authorities there. The investigation continues and as this is being written the true identity of “Richard” remains a mystery.

About a week after we learned about the Casino Royale caper, Stephen Poole of Biblion (London) wrote to us as follows:

A man claiming to be a student who needed to sell books he had been given to help pay for his studies offered me a copy of Scott-King’s Modern Europe inscribed by Evelyn Waugh and with a hand-written postcard from EW in a Ritz Hotel envelope. As is my normal routine, I checked this on the Internet and found a perfect description of the book and postcard contents. The item belonged to a neighboring Mayfair bookseller and a subsequent phone call established firstly that the thief had been in their shop just 15 minutes previously and had obviously walked straight round to Biblion and secondly that the theft had gone undetected! When confronted by this information the thief looked puzzled, said he couldn’t understand it and asked for the return of the book. I said that the book had clearly been stolen and that I would retain it prior to returning it to its rightful owner. The mention of the word Police was sufficient to cause the thief to do a runner (i.e. had it off on his toes). After my immediate phone call to the bookshop from which the book had been taken, a message including a full description of the thief was circulated to all ABA members.

We are offered books regularly and have procedures in place to cover situations in which we suspect a book may have been stolen. You will forgive me if I don’t reveal them all in this e-mail. It is a hazard of book buying and while I feel uncomfortable writing this, I think it not improbable that many scrupulously honest book dealers must at some stage have inadvertently bought a stolen book. The best way to prevent (this) is to advise the trade at the first opportunity that specific books have been taken and to provide as much information as possible about the books and about the thief, if known…

One of the obvious consequences of offering books on the Internet is that common criminals, who might otherwise be bookishly ignorant, can easily get pricing information about expensive literary high spots and conduct their thieving accordingly. The reverse of the coin is that the Internet also contributes to their undoing. Open Source Intelligence is a double-edged sword.

*

The Internet has added so much to the information mix that specialized government offices have been set up to expand intelligence gathering. Covert operations and activities, such as those carried out by the CIA, M15, KGB, Mossad and the like, are old news. Countries have always tried to steal private, privileged or classified information from each other—are pleased when they succeed, less so when others do. And sometimes when the intelligence is not to their liking, governments are not above making up something that is. But such is the nature of the intelligence business and foreign policy.

Open source intelligence, which is just a fancy name for public information, is more interesting and sometimes harder to ferret out than the secret or classified variety because the important stuff is often hidden in plain sight, camouflaged by masses of related or unrelated material. Edgar Allan Poe even wrote a story about it. You will remember that in The Purloined Letter, Auguste Dupin helps the prefect of the Paris police locate a letter stolen by a cabinet minister who intends to use it as part of a blackmail scheme. The police search everywhere, especially in hidden areas and potentially secret locations, and are completely baffled. Dupin looks in the obvious places and quickly finds it turned inside out and placed in a card rack in full view of everyone. Mystery solved.

Open source intelligence people (OSI is one of the newer buzz words these days) spend a lot of time checking out public information sources—newspapers, magazines, books, pamphlets, radio, television, internet chat rooms, web sites, public meetings and demonstrations, even posters and graffiti. As an example, if the administration’s foreign policy advisors had paid closer attention to the open source intelligence laid out plainly in T.E. (Shaw) Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926)—found on the shelves of any decent library or antiquarian bookstore—they would have known what to expect when they invaded Iraq. Among other things, they would have learned that Lawrence and his Arab allies were early pioneers in the use of railroad-side explosive devices that made continued occupation of Arab lands less than pleasant for the Turks.

The current Abramoff situation, with suggestive overtones of the Iran-Contra scandal, has received some coverage in Newsweek and the better print journals, but network news reporting (upon which semi-informed people depend) has barely cracked the veneer of the real story. My impression is that television journalists know more than they let on and appear to be walking a thin tight-rope, being careful to avoid a misstep that might tumble their viewers smack in the middle of the truth.

Type “Abramoff and Foreign Policy” into your Google search engine and information overload, both the strength and the weakness of Open Source Information, will direct you to countless articles and reports you’re unlikely to find summarized in USA Today. Like anyone following a story, we should certainly consider our sources, and in that amazing electronic haystack called the World Wide Web, there are many sources to consider. Some are obviously well-researched and at least as credible as the network news—others little more than cyber-tabloid rants. One of the most intriguing is a rather substantial piece by Trish Schuh entitled “Faking the Case Against Syria,” (see: www.informationclearinghouse.info/article11336.htm), an article that should interest anyone of military age.

Schuh’s interview with Ziad Abdel Nour of the “United States Committee for a Free Lebanon” is remarkable for its candor and frankness as is her narrative of the workings of Abramoff’s “Capital Athletic Fund,” a “charitable” entity apparently used to purchase sniper scopes, camouflage suits, thermal imagers, night vision goggles…and other paramilitary equipment for occupants of Beitar Illit, a northern West Bank settlement. Parenthetically, B’t Selem, the on-line publication of The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (www.btselem.org/english) has several easily-downloadable video clips that go a long way towards explaining the politics of the region as well as issues in which Abramoff and his American supporters (both in and out of Congress and on both sides of the aisle) are deeply involved. In conventional print, Michael Isikoff and others have also reported on Abramoff’s personal foreign policy objectives, while more timid commentators have attempted to muddy analysis by comparing his congressional lobbying activities and expenses-paid golfing vacations to a third rate Gilbert and Sullivan plot.

In reality this is no laughing matter and so for a better understanding of the Abramoff situation, of which he is but the convenient metaphor, I’d also recommend the writings of Juan Cole. Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and well-known to Shaman Drum, West Side Book Shop, and other Ann Arbor booksellers. He is the new president of the Middle East Studies Association and runs a web site called “Informed Comment” (www.juancole.com), where a number of relevant articles have been archived.

Government agencies employ teams of experts to gather, sort through and analyze incredibly massive amounts of public information “hidden in plain sight” yet freely available to anyone with the patience to dig through it all. One must wonder how much of this information, along with covertly obtained intelligence, is used selectively in order to reinforce predetermined foreign policy agendas that no longer have unanimous public support.

BSM Loses a Good Friend

Tom Benton, a longtime contributor to this magazine, died on January 13th of this year. I had phoned Tom about a week before, hoping he’d be up to writing another article for us, yet fully aware that his failing health might not permit it. From the time he first told me, a few years ago, that congestive heart disease was a real bummer because it meant he’d have to give up his cheese Danish, he always seemed to make light of his situation.

His next to last words to me were “the worst thing is that I can’t win arguments anymore—after two or three sentences I’m all out of breath.” His ebullient, sassy and irreverent style will be missed.

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