There was dark talk of treason at an annual gathering of spooks in Washington, D.C., over Congress’ refusal to honor the World War II generation—but also word of a behind-the-scenes plot to save the measure.
“I think we’ve found a new target to blow up,” joked Charles Pinck of the Republican House leadership’s refusal to pass a bill that would award all members of the OSS a Congressional Gold Medal. Pinck is president of the Office of Strategic Services Society, and son of a former member of the OSS.
The OSS was established in 1942 to send daring American agents behind enemy lines, to rescue soldiers, sabotage enemy craft, conduct disinformation, or whatever mission would help the allied effort, no matter how creative or quite frankly insane some of their missions sounded. The foundation built by those agents later gave rise to today’s CIA and U.S. Special Operations Command.
A bill to honor these daring members of the Greatest Generation unanimously passed the Senate last February but has stalled in the House, where Republican leaders have yet to bring the measure to a floor vote, although they did for a similar bill to honor civil rights activists.
It’s the ultimate example of a do-nothing Congress for the crowd Pinck was addressing, including Navy SEAL commanders and CIA officers linked to the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, as well as a handful of the surviving nonagenarian members of the OSS.
Ninety-year-old OSS member Bill Becker received France’s Legion of Honor for flying agents behind enemy lines.
“The government in France made it happen. The government that I fought for is not,” Becker told The Daily Beast.
“It isn’t for us. It’s for my children, my great-grandchildren, and their children,” said OSS member Irv Refkin, 95. He wryly counts among his favorite missions, “finishing up an assignment and still being alive. That was always good.”
Leaning on his cane, Refkin described how he’d tried to reach Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy several times, only to be rebuffed by staffers who’ve said the Republican chief was too busy.
“I don’t think he should be too busy to talk to me. I don’t think he knows what the OSS is,” the spritely Refkin said, adding that there are only four members left to honor anyway from the original group who started the OSS.
Pinck jested about blowing up Congress last Friday, the first night of the annual two-day OSS commemoration. (The society was first called the Veterans of OSS, set up back in 1947 by the group’s founder General William Donovan, whose statue graces the entrance of the modern-day CIA.)
The first night was held in a ballroom at Washington, D.C.’s Omni Shoreham Hotel, where the forerunner to the Navy SEALs, the OSS Maritime Unit was born. The second night was held at a cavernous-but-packed ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton, replete with a Big Band dance floor and a lesson from cocktail aficionado Dale DeGroff on how to make a Hemingway martini.
Attendees included the soon-to-be-retired former commander of the Navy SEALs, Rear Admiral Brian Losey and his martial arts-expert wife Ivy, and the former top Pentagon intelligence official, Dr. Michael Vickers, who is rumored to be a leading pick to lead the CIA, whoever gets elected.
The subterranean ballroom at the Omni Shoreham was an indoor swimming pool back in 1942, where OSS chiefs gathered to watch University of Pennsylvania medical student Christian Lambertsen demonstrate an underwater breathing device that produced no telltale bubbles, called the Lambertsen amphibious respiratory unit, or LARU.
The Navy had nixed the technology, but the OSS embraced it with fervor for their underwater unit. The closed-circuit underwater breathing device helped the “First SEALs” sneak onto enemy coastlines, where no one saw them coming because no one expected the allies to try something that crazy.
Perhaps that’s why this cadre of outside-the-box-thinking patriots was a bit stunned to be blocked at the final hurdle by “rules”—rules the House Republican leadership has said it’s unwilling to change because it would cost too much politically to bend in the lame duck session. House GOP leaders McCarthy and Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have insisted they can’t grant an exception to the recently-passed rule banning giving such medals to groups, although the bill has 320 co-sponsors in the House.
OSS Society President Pinck, who runs a high-end detective agency as his day job, has led a yearlong effort by OSS Society members including former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus to change their minds and honor the surviving members.
But they already did once this session, awarding Congressional Gold Medals to the civil rights activists who led the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama. The veterans salute that, but their supporters are asking, why not the OSS veterans too?
“You would think this would not be such a hard thing to do,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), a Senate intelligence committee member who helped shepherd the bill through the Senate. “I know the House leadership wants to say, ‘No mas, no mas’ at some point, but the members of the greatest generation will not be with us for a long time.”
Warner previously fought to get recognition for OSS member and U.S. Army Captain Stephanie Czech Rader. She passed away at the age of 100 in January 2016. She was finally recognized for her bravery in May 2016, four months later.
OSS Society’s Pinck has been on a national media shaming tour, lest the same happen to the surviving OSS founders. He’s been speaking to any outlet that will listen, from The Dallas Morning News to The Washington Post, trying to force the GOP to take heed, and honor the OSS while there are still a few 94- or 95-year-olds alive to receive the medals.
Some OSS Society members griped to The Daily Beast that his negative comments will backfire, and multiple Congressional staffers expressed exasperation as they try to work a compromise, but there were just as many former members of Congress and intelligence officials who lauded Pinck’s dogged ferocity.
Amid the recriminations, there’s a plot afoot to save the bill that is worthy of the spies it hopes to honor. The bill’s original sponsor Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) is working with the Republican leadership to modify the arcana of the Republican majority’s rules to pass it before the year is out.
“We’re planning on proposing a rule change in November after the election that would allow the bill to be brought to the House floor,” Drew Griffin, spokesman for Latta’s office, told The Daily Beast Monday.
Essentially, the Republican conference needs to gather behind closed doors after the November election and modify the rule that blocks giving such awards to groups, at least for this one case. Griffin said the leadership was working with them to make it happen.
“The congressman really cares about the OSS members and he really wants to make this happen,” he said. “It’s going to take optimism and working with the leadership and building a coalition to get it across the finish line.”
So the mission is not quite over for the old spies of the OSS, or rather, for the few that are left.