May 26 2009

I was kidnapped by an Iranian and held hostage at CIA headquarters

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, all of it told in chronological order
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Wired magazine “outed” me as a CIA operative in a profile story they did on me in 2001. When I first saw it, I pleaded with my Air Force Reserve public affairs officer to ask for a correction. “This ain’t right,” I explained.

My PAO laughed. “Don’t worry about it. The press makes mistakes all the time and this one will make you more popular. Enjoy the notoriety.” I decided to follow his advice and have a little fun with my “secret CIA status.” Indeed, it’s now a running gag in my professional columns.

“How do you prove a nega­tive? I’m not in the CIA, but I can’t prove it…”

I remember getting asked about it once during a lecture. “How do you prove a negative?” I replied. “The truth is I’m not in the CIA, but I can’t prove it.” Then one day, Valerie Plame gets outed as a CIA officer and there’s a huge inquiry. “Congress never investigated my outing,” I thought to myself, “so obviously I’m not in the CIA.” Sadly, no one has asked me about it since Plame got outed.

Ah, but … have I ever been to CIA headquarters? You betcha! I will now tell you the absolutely true story of the time I got kidnapped by an Iranian who held me hostage at CIA headquarters. I will tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, all of it in chronological order.

The story takes place in 1998 when Vmyths reader Gabe Goldberg asks me to lecture before the Capitol PC Users Group. I have enough frequent flyer miles for the trip; a friend offers to let me stay at his place; and my congressman’s top aide agrees to give me his valuable time so I can brief him on the antivirus industry. I write back to Goldberg to accept.

{The congressman’s aide would give me his entire lunch hour, but that’s another story.}

I fly in early on the day of the lecture and I snag the next taxi in the airport queue. I give my cabbie the address for a business center in Maryland. I notice his mideast accent, so we chat for a moment about his Iranian roots and then … well, we’re guys, so we stop talking. I start to doze in & out of consciousness as we make our way through typical Beltway traffic.

It suddenly dawns on me — we’re in Vir­ginia, not Mary­land…

At some point the cabbie starts talking again. We’re driving along the edge of a well-manicured neighborhood and he’s pointing out people’s homes. “That’s where General Such-and-Such lives,” he says, “and over there is the home of General Somebody-else.” Then he drops a bombshell: Arlington National Cemetery “is over that way.” My little brain starts to kick in and I wonder “are we in Virginia?”

“Where are we?” I ask. The cabbie’s reply is classic. “Oh, we are lost, so I am going to the CIA to ask for directions. They know where everything is.” Before I can say anything, my cabbie hangs a left and — sure enough, we turn into the main gate entrance for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

What I should be thinking is, “it’s been a good career.” But that’s not what I’m thinking. Instead, I’m in absolute shock trying to wrap my brain around the notion that my Iranian cab driver thinks the CIA will give him directions to a business center in Maryland.

Four uniformed guards surround the vehicle and two of them peer at me through the back windows. I slouch in the seat to get away from their gaze.

The cabbie spends nearly five minutes talking to the gate personnel. (It felt like 25 minues to me.) My only saving grace is that it’s 1998 — three years before Americans started to overreact to every naïve mideast immigrant in our melting-pot country. No one yanks us out of the car; no one makes us taste the pavement. Heck, no one asks to see an ID.

The meter is still running and we’re in the wrong state, asking some­one at the CIA for directions…

The meter is running the whole time and my expected $40 fare is up to a whopping $67. The cabby finally gets some directions to Maryland and the guards direct him to make a U-turn.

The instant we roll back out the gate, I snap. “Stop this car RIGHT NOW!” I scream. He comes to a halt in the turn lane. “You’re not even in the right state! I’m getting out of this cab RIGHT NOW!” {I’ll forego the expletives in this story. Believe me: I spewed them.}

The cabbie realizes he’s about to lose his fare. SNAP! He yanks the lever to stop the meter. “We are going now! We are going now!” He floors it and we hurl back into traffic. He’s on his own time now and he’s convinced Allah will protect him. We’re flying down the road, weaving through traffic, and I’m still too stupid to put on a seatbelt.

I’m screaming at the cabbie and he’s screaming at me. “Pull over and let me out RIGHT NOW!” “No no no, I am taking you to your place!” “Stop RIGHT NOW!” “I know where we are going now!”

I grab my bag phone from my carryon bag and I dial the number on the placard in the back seat. I’m screaming at the woman who takes the call. “My name is Rob Rosenberger and I’m in cab {number} and the driver’s name is {whatever}! He was supposed to take me to Maryland from the airport and we’re in Virginia!”

The cabbie starts screaming at my phone. “No no no, we are not in Virginia! We are almost to Maryland!” And I’m screaming to the woman, “he took me to the CIA to ask for directions! And now he won’t let me out of the car! Tell him to stop the car and let me out!”

It’s a comedy of epic pro­por­tions, yet none of us realizes it…

The woman realizes there’s a situation going on in a cab. She hands the phone to some guy we’ll call a superintendent. Now I’m screaming at him. “This guy got lost on the way to Maryland and now we’re in Virginia—” The cabbie is screaming at my phone. “We are not in Virginia! We are almost to Maryland!” I’m still screaming. “He pulled into the CIA to ask for directions! And now he won’t let me out of the cab!”

The guy on the line tells me, “let me speak to him.” I’m still screaming. “No way, I’m paying 20¢ a minute and you’ve got a radio dispatch!” Suddenly I get a really coherent thought. “Tell dispatch to tell him to go back to the taxi pool! Tell him to take me to the taxi pool!”

The dispatcher comes over the radio to talk with my cabbie. The cabbie is screaming into his mic while I’m screaming into my phone. He’s also screaming at my phone and I’m also screaming at his mic. We’re still weaving through traffic in a high-speed race to my destination. The superintendent is telling me to relay information to his cabbie while the dispatcher is telling him to relay information to me.

It’s a comedy of epic proportions, yet none of us realizes it.

My destination pops into view and the cabbie is screaming “we are here, we are here!” He screeches to a halt at the front door and points at the meter, screaming “$67, you are here! $67, you are here!” I’m still screaming into my phone, “I’m not paying him {expletive}! Tell him to take me to the taxi pool!” The cabbie is still screaming into his mic, I’m still screaming into the phone, he’s still screaming at my phone, I’m still screaming at his mic, and we’re getting nowhere.

Then it suddenly dawns on me. “I’ve got the perfect icebreaker story for tonight’s lecture.” The phone slips from my ear as I try to wrap my brain around this thought.

Why should I give the cabbie my phone? I’m paying 20¢ a minute and he’s got a radio dispatch…

The cabbie is still screaming at my phone. I close my eyes and scream “SHUT! UP! SHUT! UP!” I guess he sees the concentration in my face because he stops screaming.

It dawns on me that American Express will take my side when I dispute the charge, so I put the phone back to my ear. “Of course we take AmEx.” The decision is made: “let’s get this {expletive} over with.” I shove my bag phone back into my carryon bag and whip out the plastic.

It takes nearly five minutes to complete the transaction. (It felt like 25 minutes.) Only then does the cabbie open the trunk so I can retrieve my laptop & overnight bag. He jumps behind the wheel and stomps on the gas.

Gabe Goldberg will confirm I told this story to my audience as the icebreaker to my lecture. And that, my friends, is the absolutely true story when I was kidnapped by an Iranian and held hostage at CIA headquarters…