Balkan Betrayals, Part 1: The Correspondent
Welcome to True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios: Balkan Betrayals, Part 1: The Correspondent.
H.K. ROY: And there was this couple. She was in her wedding dress and he was in his tux. They were stepping over the rubble. They were going to get married in the rubble there somehow - as mortars were literally landing all around.
NARRATOR: In the underground car park of a concrete apartment block, the American kills his engine.
H.K. ROY: And if the security service happened to stumble across my car, even at that point, they would probably assume that I'm in one of those apartment buildings and would spend the next three hours looking for me in there.
NARRATOR: He leaves the block on foot, turning his leather jacket against the chill of Belgrade in November. The locals use coal burners to stay warm and the pollution hangs heavy in the air.
H.K. ROY: They would toss the coal embers into the giant garbage dumpster, so you had that smell as well. And so you just turned gray and smelled gray and smelled like Belgrade after you were out on the street for a couple of hours.
NARRATOR: As he walks, shadows flicker in his peripheral vision. It’s around 10 pm. The streets are quiet. But it never hurts to watch your back.
H.K. ROY: In Yugoslavia, the surveillance was not as intense as it was in Moscow. They just didn't have the resources. The risk was because they had so few resources that they would just have people out on - staked out on - street corners, or driving around. And so they might glom onto you two hours into your SDR, just through bad luck.
NARRATOR: SDR? That’s a Surveillance Detection Route to you and me.
H.K. ROY: Essentially, I would spend a couple of hours in my vehicle, which had diplomatic tags. So it was easy to spot by the local security service. And I would just make sure that I was black, meaning that I was not under surveillance. If at any point during my SDR I determined that I was not black, that I was under surveillance, I would go to a store and not do anything to call attention to myself and then just return home, abort the meeting, in other words.
NARRATOR: Once the driving portion of the SDR was complete, he could proceed on foot to his meeting. Which is where we find our True Spy now. In a designated Denied Area like Belgrade, where American spies are unwelcome guests, an SDR is an essential prelude to a brief encounter - a quick and quiet exchange of information between an agent and their handler.
H.K. ROY: In other words, after we've both conducted our own surveillance detection routes for several hours, we meet up late at night, somewhere out of view of people, and just talk for a few minutes.
NARRATOR: And who is our True Spy?
H.K. ROY: My name is H.K. Roy. I was a staff CIA operations officer for 13 years from late 1983 until late 1996. Then received additional specialized counter-surveillance or surveillance detection training and was sent to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, for the next two years. That coincided with the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was coming down and then Yugoslavia transitioned from the Cold War to a ‘hot war’.
NARRATOR: In this two-part story, we’re following H.K. Roy on to one of history’s unsung battlefields. Sandwiched between the titanic push-and-pull of the Cold War, and the war on terror’s shock-and-awe bombast, the Balkan Wars take up precious little real estate in our collective imagination today. But this is a conflict that claimed tens of thousands of lives - the backdrop of the deadliest atrocities committed on European soil since the Holocaust.
H.K. ROY: Between 6,000 and 8,000 men and boys had been slaughtered during the first few days in Srebrenica.
NARRATOR: Since the end of World War II, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had bound several Balkan ethnic groups together under an uneasy peace. Following the death of its President, Josip Broz Tito, in 1980, the Yugoslavian economy faltered. Ethnic tensions - simmering for decades but contained by Tito - began to bubble up to the surface. Orthodox Serbs and Macedonians, Catholic Croats, and Slovenes, and Bosnian Muslims all began to consider a future beyond Yugoslavia - and their place in it. Nationalist politicians, like the Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević took advantage of the unrest.
H.K. ROY: And if you think of him as the Trump of the former Yugoslavia, he would say the Albanians are raping Serb women in Kosovo. And it was the same type of thing in Bosnia, they said, “We're protecting Europe against Muslim extremists.”
NARRATOR: By the end of the ‘80s, the Balkans were a tinderbox. A rapidly deteriorating situation was unfolding in the heart of Europe. The American government, then led by George H. W. Bush, needed a sense of what was happening on the ground - which is where H.K. comes in.
H.K. ROY: So, after going through language training and intensive surveillance detection training, my family and I went to Belgrade in October of 1989, which again was just before the Berlin Wall came down. So I was in Belgrade between late 1989 and late 1991, and I had a number of agent meetings.
NARRATOR: And so, we find ourselves back on the cold streets of Belgrade, Serbia. The year? 1990, give or take. Around two years before the first gunshots ring out in the Balkans. The CIA’s H.K. Roy is certain that nobody has followed him to the non-descript apartment block. In Agency jargon, he’s ‘black’ - unobserved. A shadow against the night air, thick with Serbian coal dust. All as it should be. Lap after interminable lap of the city’s quiet streets has assured him that his surveillance detection route was thorough. Now, leaving the car park on foot, he can’t help but take in the bleakness of his surroundings.
H.K. ROY: It was gray and dismal. It was almost like nothing was in color. It was almost like a black-and-white movie.
NARRATOR: During the Cold War, the Yugoslavians were staunchly non-aligned, rejecting close ties with either side. But after the death of Tito, the USSR started making overtures towards its Slavic cousin to the West. As such, it was in the US’s best interests to keep tabs on the goings on inside the Socialist Republic. In Belgrade, H.K. is on his way to meet an asset - codename, Hitch. He’s an officer for the SDB - the Yugoslav security service - and he’s a spy for the Americans.
H.K. ROY: And he would typically provide a sports bag full of top-secret Yugoslav government documents, all in Cyrillic.
NARRATOR: Their meeting has been weeks in the making. Its location has been chosen by the outcomes of ‘casing reports’ - detailed assessments of the venue’s suitability as a rendezvous point.
H.K. ROY: In those days, we didn't have Google Maps and Google Earth so we were our own Google Maps and Google Earth. And we drew everything up and photographed the sites. And the agent had the casing report. So he knew exactly where we were going to meet and when. So at any rate, with that as a prelude, I had done my SDR and I was making my final approach to the meeting site. And again, everything is timed perfectly. I mean, almost to the second. And this particular meeting site took place in a cemetery in Zemun, which is New Belgrade, across the Sava River from Belgrade.
NARRATOR: H.K. began to make his final approach. The graveyard, a sprawling hodge-podge of tombs, loomed out of the dark before him. Zemun Cemetery had been a place of last repose for Belgrade’s diverse population for hundreds of years. It was one of the few places in the city where you could be almost certain that nobody was listening.
H.K. ROY: So I was making my final approach on foot and it's dead quiet out because it's the middle of the night and it's cold out. And I could hear a heavy footfall behind me 30 seconds before I'm going to make this meeting.
NARRATOR: The hairs stood up on the back of H.K.’s neck. He’d been so careful. Could it all have been for nothing? Had he been tailed after all?
H.K. ROY: Because that's always a possibility in Belgrade. Again, even if you're black for three hours, they may latch on to you at the last minute.
NARRATOR: Blowing the location of the meet was not an option. The consequences of discovery were chilling.
H.K. ROY: We owe it to our agents to keep them alive. And if you cannot see surveillance, you are likely to drag surveillance to a meeting and they will arrest him or her, at the very least imprison him or her, and in some cases execute them.
NARRATOR: H.K. had seconds to make a decision. There was someone behind him but was that fact alone enough reason to pull the plug on the meet?
H.K. ROY: And equally important, you have to know if surveillance is not there because some people would see a ghost, which was our terminology for a person who you thought was surveilling you but was not. It was just a random person. And so you don't want to abort an important meeting because you falsely thought that you were under surveillance. That can be just as disastrous, almost as disastrous as the opposite. I had to decide right then and there. Am I going to abort? In which case I would continue straight through the cemetery. Or am I going to make the meeting? In which case I would veer right off down this cemetery footpath,
NARRATOR: H.K. thought back to his rigorous surveillance detection training. He made a decision.
H.K. ROY: And I just trusted my training and my experience. And I made the meeting and I was confident that I was black. And sure enough, I was. The man behind me continued straight down the main cemetery sidewalk and I veered off.
NARRATOR: Sweet relief. But he couldn’t afford to let his guard down now. Wordlessly, he moved toward the still figure of his Yugoslav asset.
H.K. ROY: And my agent was there and I could see him silhouetted against the tombstone in the background. And we just stood there for a second practically without breathing, just to both listen and make sure that the man continued on his way. And he did. And I was black.
NARRATOR: Hours of preparation had made this moment possible. And it was a moment - nothing more. A hushed exchange of words and the passing of a battered old sports bag from asset to handler - a bag full of state secrets.
H.K. ROY: And he would pass me those along with some notes that he would write up with last-minute breaking news. I would always have a few questions for him. Again, for the latest breaking news on whatever might be happening - in that case, they were preparing to go to war.
NARRATOR: H.K. ROY takes the bag of papers, and turns to leave the cemetery.
H.K. ROY: I got the documents. We had our meeting. He went on his way. And now I have to make it back to my house
NARRATOR: Easier said than done. Even with the package in hand, H.K. has to think of every possible outcome before he’s home and dry.
H.K. ROY: And I'm not so worried about being pulled over by the police and them finding the documents because I wasn't under surveillance. But what I'm worried about is getting into a car accident because the driving there was pretty insane. And where I'm unconscious, the police come along and they just happened to discover the documents that way. So I still need to make sure I'm still black and then drive very carefully until I get home.
NARRATOR: His vigilance pays off and his journey goes smoothly. An album by the Traveling Wilburys crackles softly from the tape deck. H.K. always listens to the same record on his way back from a meet. Superstitious? Maybe. But why risk it? In the dead of night, H.K. pulls up outside his house. Quietly, he makes his way upstairs reeking of Belgrade.
H.K. ROY: Stash the bag under my bed. Try not to wake my wife and children. And then, the next morning, I would put the bag into a grocery box to carry it into the office so that they wouldn't see me carrying this guy's sports bag into my office.
NARRATOR: Now, the real work begins. At the CIA’s Belgrade Station, the documents need to be translated, processed, and transmitted back to Washington.
H.K. ROY: And then I go upstairs and into the station and it's like Christmas morning. We take out this foot-high stack of top-secret Yugoslav documents and we're just kind of blown away every time by what he has given us. And it's what we call foreign intelligence and what they're planning and this type of thing, but there's also counterintelligence. In other words, what was the local service doing against the American community or against us in particular? So that's a very valuable insight as well.
NARRATOR: But extracting this information is no simple task.
H.K. ROY: In those days it was very low-tech. We couldn't use computers because we were worried about them being able to monitor through our very old building and office. And so we had literally three or four of us in a tiny little office with music blaring, would get to work and translate all of these Cyrillic language documents using a legal pad and pencil and then turn them into intelligence reports.
NARRATOR: The loud music in the office serves a purpose - it’s there to mask any incriminating conversations in case the room is bugged. Once the intel is translated and transcribed, it’s passed on to the next link in the chain.
H.K. ROY: We could then hand them to our communications guy or our comms guy. And he had a little booth that he could go into, a secure booth, and he could retype everything and transmit the reports that way securely by satellite. But it was a long and elaborate process and the whole reason it was, was for the security and safety of our agents. And the results were really good.
NARRATOR: You can’t hack paper, after all. The intelligence that H.K. collected from his Yugoslavian source was duly transmitted back to headquarters stateside. It warned of a rapidly deteriorating situation in the Balkans.
H.K. ROY: We informed the US government, “This is what's happening, Yugoslavia is no more. It is falling apart, it's going to fall apart, whether we like it or not.”
NARRATOR: In the early 1990s, the cracks in Yugoslavia’s fragile unity developed into deep and impassable fissures. Slovenia, and then Croatia, declared independence. This put them in direct conflict with the Serb-dominated government of the Yugoslav Republic.
H.K. ROY: The bottom line is, since there really weren't many ethnic Serbs in Slovenia, the Yugoslav government, which was dominated by the Serbs, didn't really care. And so they let Slovenia go its own way. Now, Croatia, we had predicted, would be especially bloody. And so again, in the late summer of ‘91, things started to heat up in Croatia.
NARRATOR: James Baker, the Secretary of State in the first Bush administration, made the American stance on the conflict clear.
H.K. ROY: He basically informed all the parties that the US would only recognize a single, unified Yugoslavia. We would not recognize the independent republics of Slovenia, Croatia, and so on. And that essentially gave the green light to the Serbs to launch their wars, first in Slovenia, which nobody remembers - except maybe Melania - and then in Croatia, followed by Bosnia. And there would be Serb militias. They were even training behind my house in Belgrade. They would go off to Croatia and kill police or blow up a train or whatever. And if you would ask them, “Well why did you do that?” They would say, “Well, you don't understand. You're an American. You can't understand. It was self-defense. If we hadn't gone and killed those four policemen who were standing there, they were going to kill us and our families.” And it was that sort of mentality that you're up against.
NARRATOR: By the summer of 1991, the Croatian War of Independence was in full swing.
H.K. ROY: It was kind of shocking because the Berlin Wall had come down and most of these countries were transitioning from communism to democracy - more or less - and they were doing so more or less peacefully. But in Yugoslavia, they were going the opposite direction. They were going into civil war close to the heart of Europe.
NARRATOR: While the US had no intention of intervening at this stage, the CIA needed a presence in Croatia to monitor the ongoing conflict. H.K. Roy spoke the language - Serbo-Croatian - and he was already stationed in the Balkans. He was the obvious choice.
H.K. ROY: And so I was sent up there, up to Zagreb from Belgrade because I was in-country. I had no military background other than the paramilitary training that we had at the Farm. But I was sent off to this unique experience, sort of like a war correspondent, but also a CIA officer trying to still report intelligence from this war zone.
NARRATOR: H.K.’s feelings on the assignment were mixed.
H.K. ROY: I was excited, but I was also very nervous because I'd never been in a war zone. I’d traveled all over and been in some interesting situations in Latin America. But this was the war zone.
NARRATOR: In Belgrade, he’d had the US consulate to lean on if things went south. Zagreb offered no such luxury.
H.K. ROY: In Croatia, our consulate there had been evacuated. And so just a couple of us went back in to report on what was going on. In that sense, you're observing, but you're out talking to people, anybody that you can. You're not so worried about surveillance and that type of thing at that point.
NARRATOR: Understandable. The Croatian Security Service had bigger fish to fry.
H.K. ROY: There had been reporting by our consulate beforehand that they were parroting Croatian propaganda, saying the JNA, the Yugoslav National Army - the Serbs essentially - are going to overrun Zagreb.
NARRATOR: But when H.K. arrived in Zagreb, he found a city that was, to all appearances, relatively safe. It was not being overrun by Serbs. You see, American spies and diplomats aren’t immune to local bias. And it can take root early on in their training.
H.K. ROY: It starts in language. So those students in Serbian class were just constantly told the Serbian point of view. And we're kind of rolling our eyes. Not that we knew any better, but you could just tell what they were trying to do. And those in the Croatian class would have a Croatian teacher and they would give you the opposite point of view. So when I got to Zagreb, I wasn't handicapped by a pro-Croatian bias. I really tried to stay objective about all of it.
NARRATOR: And when you’re a spy/war-reporter, objectivity is key.
H.K. ROY: I wasn't given a sensitive agent to handle the way that I was in Belgrade. I maybe had a couple of contacts, but I was sent there primarily just to keep the US government informed on what the hell was happening. And so I quickly ruled out the idea that the JNA, the Serbs, were about to overrun Zagreb and kill everyone. That wasn't going to happen.
NARRATOR: Which isn’t to say that Zagreb wasn’t on a war footing. Artillery blasts shook the surrounding countryside and the crack of small-arms fire was part of the soundtrack to daily life. Overhead, the Yugoslavian Air Force forced the city’s residents into underground shelters with depressing regularity. While the Serbs had yet to make a full-scale incursion into the Croatian capital, their presence was keenly felt. Which meant that our True Spy had plenty to report on. Doing so, however, proved challenging - especially to a confessed technophobe like H.K.
H.K. ROY: I'm not a very technically-inclined guy. And so and typically when you're overseas in a station, you'll have a communicator, somebody who is a technically-inclined guy who can handle communications for you. And so, you can hand him or her the report and they will take care of all the technical bits.
NARRATOR: In Zagreb, and in the absence of a communications officer, H.K. relied on a Tactical Satellite - or TacSat system - to file his reports.
H.K. ROY: So they handed me this duffle bag with an old-fashioned military-secure satellite communication system, which required you to open up this big antenna like a spider web and find the satellite. And in those days, they had a strip of ribbon that was used to encrypt communications. And I had to do this without anybody seeing me. And I had to find a satellite between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6:20 p.m. every day. And that's when I could transmit the report. And so it was all very complicated and cumbersome. And fortunately today, secure satellite communications have become much, much easier - and case officer-proof.
NARRATOR: After a few weeks of wrangling with his TacSat in Zagreb, H.K.’s tour came to an end, and he returned to the US to spend a few precious months with his family. But in 1992, as the situation in now-former Yugoslavia continued to deteriorate, he returned to Croatia - this time as a declared CIA officer, working above the radar to forge connections with the Croatian Security Service.
H.K. ROY: There's something about the place that gets in your blood. When you're there, you want to leave. But when you're not there, you can't wait to get back. This time I went and I was declared in my true name to the Croatian Security Service, and it was kind of a big deal. And so, on the one hand, I was honored that they had chosen me to do this because it's such an important job. But on the other hand, it was nerve-wracking because I had just spent every day since I had joined doing everything I possibly could to make sure that the local security service didn't find out who I was. And now that was all thrown out the window. “Here I am.” And so, you're no longer undercover, obviously.
NARRATOR: Operating out in the open has its perks. A better social life, for one.
H.K. ROY: We would hang out at the… I think it was the Intercon Hotel, which was all blacked out. But the basement restaurant and bar were open. And so, every night there would be Sky News reporters and foreign mercenaries and the rest of us hanging out, eating, and drinking down in the underground restaurant bar of the Intercon Hotel. And so you would also talk to all those people and it was a lot of fun. We'd watch Sky News and often somebody who we were having dinner with would appear on the TV and cheers would go up.
NARRATOR: One of H.K’s new friends was the head of the new Croatian Security Service who was keen to show the Americans the realities of the war they were fighting.
H.K. ROY: So they wanted to continue the - I don't want to say brainwashing - but ‘influencing’ to make sure that we saw things the Croatian way. That's always part of their job.
NARRATOR: These efforts included so-called ‘field trips’ to the Croatian frontlines.
H.K. ROY: And they would take us out and there weren't a lot of vehicles, just a couple, and we'd take somebody’s Audi and maybe one or two other vehicles. For the most part, it was in territory that Croatia controlled. And one thing I remember is going to one frontline in Croatia, and there were these long trenches that had been dug. It felt like I'd stepped back in time to a World War II, if not a World War I movie. They had these front lines that didn't move and they were all dug in and they had the old equipment.
NARRATOR: One of these field trips took H.K. to Mostar, a historic city then under Croatian control that was besieged by Serb forces.
H.K. ROY: When I was in Mostar, it was a live-fire zone and there were mortars landing all over the place. And what struck me about my Croatian colleagues was that they just shrugged everything off. And it was, “Hey, if it's 500 meters away, it's somebody else's problem.” And it was all in a day's work for them.
NARRATOR: The ordinary people of Mostar seemed to take the chaos in their stride.
H.K. ROY: There was also a bombed-out Catholic Church. I guess this was in the Croatian part of town, totally bombed out and just destroyed. And there was this couple, she was in her wedding dress and he was in his tux. They were stepping over the rubble. They were going to get married in the rubble there, somehow, as mortars were literally landing all around.
NARRATOR: During his time in the region, H.K. was moved by the resilience of the Croats. He’d begun to nurture a fondness for the people of the Balkans - their dark sense of humor, their stoicism in the face of death. But the fighting was a long way from over. And things were about to get so much worse. In the summer of 1992, war had broken out in Bosnia when the majority-Muslim country declared its independence from what remained of Serb-led Yugoslavia. By 1995, Serbian aggression had taken a terrible toll on the country.
H.K. ROY: So in 1995, the war in Bosnia had been raging for three years. The US had not really done much to help. We actually had an arms embargo on the whole of the former Yugoslavia, which really only hurt the victims, the Bosnians and the Croats. It was a mass slaughter. There were rape camps. There were people starving. In Sarajevo, they were eating rats and eating weeds because the city of Sarajevo was completely surrounded and cut off by hostile Serb forces. It was a humanitarian disaster.
NARRATOR: The Americans recognized that their policy of non-intervention was no longer sustainable. Hillary Clinton, then the First Lady, was one of the key voices speaking up for a US presence in Bosnia.
H.K. ROY: And she had decided that we needed a station in Sarajevo so that we could establish liaison with the local service and begin to report because the idea was Nato would probably go in and start attacking on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims in the fall of '95.
NARRATOR: H.K., now a recognized expert in the complex politics of the region, was asked to volunteer his services once again - this time as the CIA’s chief of station in Sarajevo, the war-torn Bosnian capital. His mission? To establish first contact with the Bosnian Security Service in preparation for a large-scale Nato intervention.
H.K. ROY: And I said, “Okay, how? What's the game plan? How am I getting to Sarajevo?” And they said, "We don't know. You're on your own."
NARRATOR: Next time on True Spies, we follow H.K. on his most dangerous assignment yet.
H.K. ROY: There weren't many cars on the road because of the constant sniper fire. So when I would drive to and from my daily meetings at the Interior Ministry with the head of the Bosnian Security Service, I would drive as fast as I could. Not because they were targeting me personally but just because they would shoot at anybody. The Serbs would shoot at anybody they saw.
NARRATOR: And in Sarajevo, trust is as scarce as silence.
H.K. ROY: By the time I showed up in Sarajevo in July of '95, the Iranians were well-established in Bosnia. In fact, we found out later that the Bosnian interior minister and the head of the Bosnian security service, Marko, my buddy, were completely under the control of the Iranian intelligence service.
NARRATOR: I’m Sophia Di Martino. Join us next time for the heart-stopping conclusion to True Spies: Balkan Betrayals. Or subscribe to SPYSCAPE Plus to listen right now. Sign up for early access and bonus content on Apple Podcasts.
H.K. Roy was a staff CIA operations officer for 13 years from late 1983 until late 1996. He is also the author of American Spy: Wry Reflections on My Life in the CIA.