Do we really need todayís highly political CIA?
While reading The Earth for Sale: Money, Power, and the Traders Who Barter the Earthís Resources, I recalled an evening in 1979 when Nebraska Governor Charles Thone and I were guests at a dinner hosted by our ambassador to the Netherlands, Geri M. Joseph.
Madame Ambassador was seated at the head the table, with Governor Thone on her right. I sat below he salt. Because Governor Thone was on a trade mission to sell more Nebraska wheat, corn, and beef to the European Union, Madame Ambassador filled the other seats with commodity traders from houses such as ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus.
They were all Dutch. Educated in Switzerland, all were fluent in English, Dutch, German, French, Italian and even Russian. Their language skills became apparent as the conversation about grain trading flowed around the table. A comment begun in English might switch to French or German simply because the French or Germans had a better phrase for it, and then back to English. And, by the time the subject got around to Ambassador Joseph, she might respond in Hebrew.
Although I could only follow the conversations in English, German or French (barely), it became apparent the grain traders were all constantly aware of what time it was in all the capital cities of the world. They knew when every market opened and closed. Moreover, all them had the math gene and could calculate ship tonnages, cargo weights, and average voyage times between ports in their heads. And they all knew meteorology better than the people you see on the weather channels.
In grain trading, success or failure depends on knowing which countries have failing grain crops and which countries have plenty. That means they have to go into some rather grimy and, sometimes, dangerous places and know something about weather trends, agronomy, botany, and the plant sciences. And, most importantly, how to build personal relationships, rooted in trust.
Back then, most of their trading deals were done covertly, with only a handshake. No lawyers. Often the seller (usually the grain trader) would meet the buyer, James Bond-like, on a park bench in, letís say, London. The buyer might whisper: "I need 50 thousand tons of Durum wheat delivered to Athens on a certain date." The grain traders, always aware of what ships are available from the Baltic Exchange*, would figure time and costs and come up with a price that included a nice profit for the trading house. A handshake, and itís done. Of course, the Communications Revolution changed all that. Now, commodity trades are arranged electronically, at the speed of light.
During dinner, I wondered why do we pay billions to the Christians-in-Action (CIA)? These grain traders know almost everything that is going on in the world and are on a handshake basis with most of the 3rd World dictators. Moreover, the commodity traders are apolitical.
Unfortunately, some, like Marc Rich (pardoned by President Clinton), are totally amoral, trading with embargoed South Africa and Iran.
But still, given todayís politicized CIA, we might be better off using the commodity traders to gather intelligence. And save a lot of money.
*Since 1744 A.D., ship owners and traders have used the Baltic Exchange to arrange for ships and to settle disputes.
Suggested reading The Merchants of Grain, by Dan Morgan, 1979. The Earth of Sale by Javier Blas and Jack Farchy,
©2021. William Hamilton.