OK - so my FBI interrogation story and how it relates to this story:
Back when I’d been out of grad school and working for about 3 years, I was in my office at work and I got a call. The caller identified himself as special agent James Cooper of the FBI, out of the Houston office, and he asked if he could speak with me that day. He would not tell me over the phone what the subject was, just that he wanted to meet me that day. We set a time of 1:00 PM and he said he would come to my workplace.
OK - all kinds of thoughts run through your head. I was (not proud of it) involved in a couple of “elite” invitation only BBS “clans” in which you had to have developed a reputation in some area and then be invited by them to join, so that was my first thought. When the guy showed up, in our reception lobby, he showed me his badge and we went to a private meeting room. He then opens up this folder and I see all kind of “Secret” and “Top Secret” red stamps on folders and papers and he shows me a picture of a visiting professor from Hungary who had been in my research group. He asked me how well I knew him. I knew him pretty well. He then showed me a picture of a no-necked guy in a black turtleneck with a Russian name on it, looked like a bad guy in a Bond movie, and he asked me if I’d ever seen the professor with this guy. He did that for two other guys. He then asked me if the professor seemed to be authentic, i.e. was he truly a professor, did he know his science, did you ever meet anyone who had studied under him in Budapest, etc. Did he seem to have a lot of money, specifically cash? Did he ever ask you to buy anything for him?
I had a light bulb go off then -this guy had asked me to take him to a computer store in town, this was back when the IBM PC was new and about $6000 for a basic system, and asked me to purchase 4 of them for him - and he had the cash for them. He insisted that I approach the salesman and I actually buy them and give them my name, because “my English is so not so good.” I thought it was odd at the time, but he said they were for his kids in Hungary and they could not yet buy them there. He also bought lots of other stuff while at the store - or had me buy them.
The other one, though, really set the bells off as I recalled it and told the agent. I was at home, sick as a dog with the flu, and this professor calls me at my house. I told him I was sick, but he insisted that I call a phone number for him, “because of his poor English” and he wanted me to purchase a computer language for him for “their mainframe at the University in Budapest.” The language was ADA. So I called the number, sick as a dog, and I get some guy, and he starts telling me the price (expensive - again, this was probably around 1982 or so) and then he asks me for my SS#, etc. and what type of computer and where it would be used. I asked him why so much info, and he told me ADA was restricted by the Department of Defense for use in the U.S. only and only to approved customers. I told him I’m sorry, I think I’ve made a mistake and hung up. The prof calls again, I told him you can’t buy that, the whole DOD restricted, etc. and he says “Oh, I know, and we can supply all that paperwork, but it’s a pain in the ass and it would just be simpler to do it this way, and I’ll be happy to give you $500 for your trouble in helping me out.” I told him, no way in hell, then he threatens me by telling me that he didn’t think Professor Kennedy (my prof) would be happy to hear I was unwilling to help a visiting professor out, and I told him when I got back in the lab the two of us could go into Prof Kennedy’s office and discuss this, to which he said no, we should not bother him with such trivia and hung up.
So - I told the agent all this, and he smiled and wrote it all down, then after we’d talked for about an hour, he told me that what often happened was the intelligence agency from an Eastern Bloc country would recruit “normal” people traveling to the U.S. and give them a shopping list. If they could obtain items on that list - things that were restricted for sale to the home country - they could drop it off at the embassy to be shipped back and they would get a financial reward, the amount depending on the item. The FBI agent said that the foreign intelligence agencies did not want to put real “spies” or agents at risk when they could get some average guy or gal who was motivated by greed or loyalty to the country or some other motivation to do these things. If they got caught - who cares? They don’t work for the agency, they’ve never been told they were even dealing with the intelligence agency, just some guy gave them the list. And the foreign agency didn’t lose anything if these people got arrested. Turns out this professor had tried to blackmail a Hungarian couple who were good friends with my wife and me. The couple had defected to the U.S. and this professor told them if they didn’t help him get this stuff on his list it would be bad for their families back in Hungary. The agent got my name from the couple who were our friends.
So I wonder if (trying for SOME relevance to this thread) if agencies like Al Qaida don’t do the same thing. Sure, they have members who they highly train and who are capable and valuable to their organization, but I would suspect they also welcome some poor sap who they give some rudimentary instructions to and if he blows up a plane, great, if he gets caught, no loss for Al Qaida, just a dumb patsy