More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 85

Over the next few weeks, allmediascotland.com is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

During 1998, NATO was actively planning its year 2000 intervention in Kosovo and I gave a series of lectures on regional security and intelligence gathering techniques in the Balkans. The lectures were given at a location north of London known as Chicksands, a former USAF base located completely out of sight of the surrounding countryside in a natural hollow in the landscape.

Secret and un-signposted, the facility, operated by a body known as the Joint Service Intelligence Organisation (JSIO), was entered through a farmyard where battered rustics turned hay with pitchforks. There, I found the NATO Defence Intelligence and Security Centre planning the war in Kosovo almost two years ahead of the event.

I was not introduced to the people I was addressing although I was usually invited to have lunch with them after my presentations. I remember one suited gent had a tie with the American flag and the initials, NSA, emblazoned on it.

“Doesn’t that stand for the National Security Agency?” I suggested.

“Yeah, I’m the boss,” came the terse response.

At that particular seminar, there was, present, the head of virtually every significant European security or intelligence agency. Gradually, I made some interesting contacts.

When hostilities developed in the spring of 2000, I made several trips to the theatre of war in and around Kosovo. I spent a couple of weeks observing NATO attacks on the Serbs launched from Albania and from aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the middle of the Ionian Sea.

Being on an aircraft carrier at war was a new and fascinating experience. I soon got bored by the aircraft taking off night and day to deliver their ‘smart’ weapons onto Serbian targets, but there are many things I remember vividly like using my bank card to withdraw cash on board, and enjoying the choice of half a dozen big name fast food outlets to ‘dine’ in.

There were around 5500 men and women working aboard the ship for months on end: a floating city but, for most of them, a closed-up world. Unless their work demanded it, they would never see the light of day from the beginning to the end of their ‘cruise’. And yes, unlikely as it may be, they called it a ‘cruise’.