The Inspectors: Agency Without Borders

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January 23, 2024
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The Inspectors: Agency Without Borders

The Inspectors


The two men peered from their respective window seats at the wintry landscape rising up to greet them. Turning to each other, they flashed the ‘thumbs up’ hand gesture in acknowledgment of a TDY (temporary duty travel) that was off to a promising start. On the short hop from Amsterdam, the inspectors found time to complete their yearly Peer Evaluations. The Evaluations had gone better than anticipated–both men couldn’t say enough good things about the other and, while they sometimes found each other irritating, they never let their feelings get in the way of a five-star Performance Appraisal. In their own minds, they were a great team. They were ‘Starsky and Hutch, Batman and Robin, Butch and Sundance…Seals and Croft’–they were that and so much more. They were the Inspectors!

Joe Piva and Tony Slatky were the creme de la creme of the Inspector General’s Office--consummate professionals who had dedicated their public lives to ferreting out waste, fraud and abuse. Now they were only minutes away from touching down behind the former Iron Curtain and embarking upon another government sponsored adventure. Slatky savored these few moments, his thoughts turning to their final evening in the Netherlands. That Amsterdam was quite a town…people of all ages so full of life, walking in the streets, laughing and acting like Europeans. The Amstel River, the quaint narrow storefronts with their red lights…the sudden tempest. The rainstorm had taken them not only by surprise but with a rare vengeance soaking them to the wrinkly skin as they frantically searched for an elusive cash machine. As they exited a dark alley and turned into Rembrandt Square, the driving sheets of rain caused Piva to become disoriented whereupon he was run over by a Dutch cyclist. Initially, Slatky thought the accident somewhat amusing but Piva was clearly embarrassed, complaining to his counterpart that he’d seen enough for the evening.

Slatky slapped the taxi driver’s thigh in the same manner a rider would urge a horse to gallop. Meanwhile, Piva mumbled incoherently as he wiped the rainstorm and broken bicycle spokes from his eyes. His night was plainly over–Slatky put him to bed and returned to that fun place where all the foreigners were gathering. It was a Pub presided over by a bartender who sang ‘cheesy’ songs in foreign languages and poured local beers and other spirits. It was Slatky’s kind of place and, for a few seconds, he felt sorry for his partner knowing Piva would have enjoyed these rare international moments. But he also knew his partner was serious about the work ahead of them and, as lead inspector, he would most likely be rehearsing ‘Miranda’ warnings in his hotel room. In the meantime, Slatky vowed to enjoy himself smiling at the nocturnal patrons, potential friends all. This was precisely the reason he had joined the Foreign Service–to soak up moments like these. There were Polish students and British backpackers, a Dutch cyclist, an American military officer and a pleasant looking Middle Eastern man sporting a keffiyeh head scarf who furtively smiled at him from across the bar. The bartender with a Mohawk and bushy handlebar mustache placed a beer mug in front of the startled Slatky. Not missing a beat and in fluent English, the bartender pointed at the pleasant looking Middle Eastern man across the bar, “It’s on him!”

Slatky mused, “It wasn’t easy being an American–so many people like us!”

Missing Allegation

The Inspectors stepped over the other seated passengers to huddle together and discuss their working files. However, these were unusually thin files which greatly worried the veteran Piva.

“So what’s the crux of the problem, Tony?”

As was his nature, Slatky looked puzzled and kidded, “Well Joe, if it’s Tuesday, this must be “Embezzlement.” The Inspectors snickered while the stewardess raised her eyebrows at the inside joke.

“Seriously though,” said Slatky, ” I don’t have an allegation. I thought you did.”

“That’s funny, Tony. Let’s cut with the jokes for now. We have to brief the Mission Director…we should try looking intelligent!”

But it was no joke at all. Piva and Slatky had no allegations to speak of, no anonymous hotline tips, and no confidential source information. Nothing but a travel itinerary. How had that happened? They were screwed!

Piva recalled something similar had occurred to another pair of Inspectors in Bolivia. Those Inspectors never tenured and were let go by the Agency. This was not a career enhancing situation for Piva and, with Slatky’s tenure date fast approaching, the missing allegation spelled trouble. Plus the Mission Director’s reputation as a stickler for details was well known. Piva’s mind went into overdrive; Slatky had fallen asleep again and was drooling.

The country expediters, Goran and Irina, were waiting for the Inspectors at the airport where they would usher the two Americans through passport controls. Slatky prided himself on his language abilities and attempted to engage a passport officer in conversation, wielding idiomatic expressions from his newly self published “foreign phrases” book. The conversation was abruptly terminated with a steely gaze and heavy-handed stamp pounded into the diplomatic passport. It was obvious that, in this country too, Americans were held in high esteem.

Slatky bantered with not only the expediters but the driver, a former KGB agent, in near-fluent English and a halting version of the language of that country. His linguistic babble included topics ranging from privatization, judicial reform and the latest movies. Piva remained grumpy throughout the long drive to the Agency Without Borders (AWB). He could hardly enjoy the scenery as he envisioned a dozen scenarios of their meeting with the Misson Director–none of them playing out well.

AWB Mission

The Agency Without Borders (AWB) Mission was located on the bustling thoroughfare in the ancient capital city. As Slatky entered the Mission’s Reception area, he spotted an old face–a friend possibly. It was Ted from the New Entry Class of years past. Ted had advanced through the Agency ranks and was now a well-respected Contracting Officer for the Mission.

“Hey Ted, it’s me….Tony…Tony Slatky! You know, from the New Entry Class.”

“Oh Jesus, what the hell are you guys doing here!?! exclaimed Ted.

“Not to worry Ted, my friend. Joe Piva and I are here for liaison purposes..wish we could chat about it. We”ll catch up later.”

“Odd,” thought Slatky., “Ted didn’t even say good-bye.”

It was funny, ruminated Slatky, Inspectors seem more popular in European cities at night than in their own Missions during the day.

The Director’s office space was impressive–regally furnished with a pair of Louis XIV gilded armchairs and several medieval tapestries. However, the moment they’d been dreading had arrived. Joe Piva nodded at the Director who nodded back. Slatky grinned a the Deputy Director who returned the smile just like the Middle Easterner in the Amsterdam bar. The Mission’s Regional Legal Advisor (RLA) kicked off the meeting coming right to the point–the Mission had a very good idea why the Inspectors had come so far without any notice. This was news to the Inspectors. Nervous, Piva nodded, his gaze now fixed on the exotic carpet suspended from the Director’s office wall.

“Nice rug!” blurted Piva.

Slatky’s eyes fell upon the RLA’s receding hairline. He liked that about his partner–Piva could be direct and brutally honest. And besides, Slatky also surmised the RLA was wearing a toupee.

“Thank you,” responded the RLA who steered the conversation to the business at hand. “Let us cut to the quick. We were recently informed of a delicate issue. As you may know, one of our local Foreign Service Nationals (FSN) was waylaid last week as he was carting supplies from the warehouse to the Mission. As we didn’t wish to trouble your office at the time, we initiated an internal investigation.”

Piva cocked his head, nodded at the Director and reflected, “Internal investigations were tricky–lives and reputations, but mostly reputations, were at stake.

The RLA continued, “Of course, we rounded up the usual suspects–some whiny contractors. Unfortunately, without any evidence, we had to cut them loose.”

“Where is the warehouse?” Piva soberly inquired.

“Across the border, in another republic,” replied the Mission Director matter of factly.

The Inspectors nodded in unison–they had seen things like this before and were not intimidated. They were professionals–they spoke foreign languages, ate foreign foods and could convert foreign currencies into dollars. Within the Agency, they were known as Agents Without Borders. They could handle things such as ” warehouses across borders.” Wasn’t this the Agency Without Borders?

Their minds were in sync as they posed the next question, “Where is the FSN victim?”

The Regional Legal Advisor beamed with a smug pride and confidence as he informed the Inspectors the Mission had moved the FSN to the cafeteria where he had been detained for two days. The Regional Security Officer (RSO) and several Marines had conducted the initial interrogation.

“Initial?” queried Piva.

“Actually, there have been several…er…interrogations,” confessed the RLA.

“Of course, gentlemen,” the RLA continued…”the interrogations were videotaped and rights given. You can never be too careful with rights these days!”

He went on, ” We couldn’t get much from the FSN…he became hysterical and started babbling about pencils, rubber bands and jumbo paper clips.”

Odd thought Slatky, ” What do you think he meant?”

The Deputy Director chimed in, “Those happen to be the supplies lost during the robbery. And it poses a huge problem for us–we won’t be able to replace these supplies any time soon, requisitions being what they are.”

Piva seized command of the meeting, “Good, we’ll want to interview this poor fellow. Let’s see…it’s Friday now and we’ve just arrived. So, let’s drop off our belongings at the state run hotel and get the ‘lay of the land.’ In the meantime, hold the FSN in the cafeteria over the weekend and put a 24 hour watch on him. If he asks for a conjugal visit, let us know.”

The Mission Director liked what he heard. This Piva was a man after his own heart. Not only was this Inspector decisive where others were not, but he seemed to know what he was doing…not at all like the previous ‘spineless jellyfish’ Inspectors who refused to share their findings on a sensitive Congressional matter.

Marine House Party


“Call me Joe,” responded the cerebral Inspector to the Mission Director.

“Joe, why don’t you and Tony join me and my wife this evening? We’re planning on attending a party at the Marine House and think you would find it…well…how can I say…like a slice of ‘Americana.’

“We’re so there Mr. Director!” beamed the Inspectors in unison.

Slatky and Piva arrived at the Marine House an hour early, settling for small talk with the muscular Marines while they showered. The Inspectors acquired a great deal of ‘Intel’ from the young, wet and naked ‘Jarheads.’ According to the Marines, the ‘chow’ at the post was good, letters and packages normally arrived on time, and they were in first place in a local basketball league in that country.

Both Inspectors were waiting to greet the Mission Director and his lovely wife, Natasha. The Mission Director informed them a special treat was in store for the Inspectors–one of Senator Deleo’s staffers would be in attendance.

However, as the evening wore on, Slatky found himself growing increasingly melancholy.

Almost forty-eight hours since they had left the United States, Slatky began missing those things he loved most–cheeseburgers, Starbucks and college football. As a boombox blared Pearl Jam a small crowd, including the Senate staffer, gathered round him.

The Dancing Inspector

Slatky made his way to the punch bowl depositing the contents of a local beverage. Within minutes, everyone had loosened up. It was no secret Slatky could dance. He was well-known for dancing at clubs in Arlington (VA) and in Bethesda (MD) but this would be different. There were foreigners in attendance so he’d have to be good…very good. He unabashedly launched into his favorite dance routine garnering much attention. At first, the guests were mesmerized. For Slatky, the moment had come to unveil his latest moves. Some in attendance began shouting and screaming. Obviously, the crowd’s reaction signaled success! So successful, that the Mission Director and his wife had to unexpectedly excuse themselves for the evening. Eventually the music ceased and the crowd surrounding the dancing Inspector thinned out. A rude Texan contractor began playing a Texas two-step. Slatky would not be goaded into a dance-off with the Texan.

At that moment, Piva’s old friend, Ted, approached him and introduced Piva to a thin bald man in his fifties.

“Joe, this is Leonid. Leonid, this is Joe Piva!”

Piva had seen the man dancing alone in the corner of the room and realized his partner and Leonid were much alike. They were both free style dancers although Leonid’s style contained mixed elements of dance from his own country together with modern pop. It was, Leonid claimed, like a fusion of ‘ballet and ABBA.’

“Cool!” Slatky exclaimed brimming with excitement.

Leonid’s day job was at the Mission’s Motor Pool; his English was extraordinary…almost as good as Slatky’s. Nattily attired in black shirt and pants with matching suspenders, Leonid modestly admitted to picking up English ‘along the way.’

“Me too,” gushed Slatky.

Leonid, Piva and Slatky could be seen cheering on the Marines during their arm wrestling competition. Leonid whispered to the Inspectors he had been eagerly awaiting their arrival ever since a local news story surfaced describing the heist of the Mission supplies.

Commodity Import Program?

Winter had not yet released its icy grip on the country. The Inspectors, together with Leonid and Ted, sat shivering inside the AWB vehicle while they munched on pastries from Sergei’s Donut Palace– a joint venture financed by the Agency Without Borders.

Disguised as locals, the Inspectors crossed the slush splattered street and entered the nondescript state run store. Leonid and Ted remained in the vehicle. Once in the store, Piva began browsing the shelves, looking for products with the Agency’s telltale sign–the “thumbs up” hand gesture. He was the first to spot the the distinctive AWB logo stamped on row after row of boxes lining the shelves. Surreptitiously, he opened one such box revealing jumbo paper clips. Other boxes overflowed with barely concealed rubber bands and environmentally friendly ‘unleaded’ pencils.

Meanwhile, Slatky was struggling mightily with the local language. His first attempt at communication, “I wish to speak to the manager,” resulted in the store clerk’s handing the Inspector a phone book. Pushing his eye glasses up the bridge of his nose, Slatky persisted, this time accenutating the second syllable of a word from his phrase book. He was promptly handed a knock off version of a “Joe Camel” cigarette. “These guys must speak some kind of dialect,” he groused to Piva. Thanking the clerk, Slatky walked over to the window where he could plainly see Leonid and Ted in the government vehicle still ingesting the rust-colored donuts. Piva’s voice brought Slatky back to reality.

“Tony, it’s all here,” he whispered. “The loot’s all here!”

Slatky’s eyes widened with excitement. The thieves had made no attempt to disguise the contraband articles. And customers were coming and going within the store buying up the stuff like hotcakes, paying for the goods in local currency and flashing the Agency’s logo–the ‘thumbs up’ sign–at the store’s cashier. The Inspectors had to admit the Agency was benefiting from the good PR.

However, Piva had to make the call. it was time to confront the perpetrators!

Shaking, Leonid entered the store with powdered sugar clinging to his mohair suit. Leonid was either freezing or in the middle of a sugar rush. The inspectors pointed out the pilfered supplies to Leonid who was able to summon the youthful looking owner. In English rivaling that of Leonid, the owner, a distant relative to Leonid, calmly explained, “We are indebted to your kind Agency for giving us this creative idea you call ‘capitalism.’ Our method is known as “borrowing.” We borrow your high-tech American goods and sell them at, how do you say, a ‘killing’, yes? In doing so, we eliminate the cost of goods and earn a surplus of local currency. With the profit, we can employ more workers. Our economy improves, we are grateful to your Agency, your country and…your Administration takes credit. We also have two other stores in the city with products from other donor countries. Like many of your own American companies, we are looking to expand!”

Although Piva and Slatky had heard it all before, in a strange way, the owner’s justification made some macroeconomic sense. And besides, how about the intangibles–thousands and thousands of local consumers flashing the Agency’s “thumbs up” sign every time they conducted business with the store. The Inspectors closed their notepads and left.

“And that, Mister Mission Director, is the whole story! The store owner is seeking more structured guidelines to follow in the future. Maybe a contract is in order?” proffered Piva.

Case Solved

Slatky chimed in, “There’s also talk of sub-contracting this kind of work. But that’s beyond the scope of our work. Nevertheless, you may wish to discuss it with your Deputy and the RLA. From where we sit, “‘Case Solved!’ We’ll send you our usual Report.”

The Mission Director was rendered speechless, mouth agape. But with the Inspectors, it was always like this. Agency management was once again awestruck with their stellar work. It was time to leave.

On the return flight, the Inspectors relaxed and let the experience of the last few days settle in.

“Joe, I really feel we’re making a difference in the world…with what we did for the Mission and Leonid’s country.”

Piva could only agree, “Tony, you’re only as good as your last Performance Appraisal. Let’s add this episode to our Peer Evaluation.”

The Inspectors chortled at the inside joke, flashing the Agency’s thumb gesture at each other as they headed back across the ocean to home.

Kenneth Strange Jr. (Washington, DC 1998)

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