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That Fake African Interpreter and the CIA


Aside from the fact that the prank was disrespectful to Nelson Mandela’s memory, the notion that a mentally ill person with a documented history of violence (and who claimed to be hallucinating at the time) could get himself placed next to President Obama, putatively the most powerful person in the world, and then flash “gibberish” sign-language to the audience, is hilarious.

Granted, as funny as it was, the whole thing could have ended badly. This mentally ill man could have pulled a dagger from his waistband and plunged it into President Obama’s neck, turning the memorial event into a macabre horror show and creating chaos in the U.S. (and by “chaos” I mean causing the stock market to drop precipitously). Yet, because nothing bad happened, we can all laugh about it.

But consider the other scenario. Mr. Jantije (the “interpreter”) stabs Obama in the neck, fatally wounding him, and is instantly mowed down by gun fire from South African security and U.S. Secret Service agents. Jantije lies dead on the stage, his body riddled with bullets. Security men hunker down, anticipating another attack. Pandemonium ensues.

The next day the media report the facts as they know them. Jantije was a 34-year old schizophrenic, once wanted for murder, who had somehow finagled his way onto the stage, pretending to be an “interpreter.” No one can adequately explain how it happened. Obviously, egregious vetting errors had been made. Blame is assigned. Excuses are made. It becomes a jurisdictional shit-storm.

Except no one believes that story. With Jantije dead, conspiracy buffs are free to smirk at the preposterous notion that one guy, a mental patient no less, acted alone. Their version is far more sinister. Jantije was a CIA assassin, equipped with a phony medical record to deflect suspicion. Then, after the vile deed, instead of being whisked off stage as planned, Jantije is killed, Jack Ruby-style, guaranteeing he won’t talk.

As to why the CIA would want the president dead, pick your poison. Obama wanted to leave Afghanistan, which the military-industrial complex couldn’t abide. He wanted to reach out to Iran, which Israel couldn’t abide. He wanted to curtail electronic spying, which the NSA couldn’t abide. He wanted to limit the use of drones, which the military couldn’t abide. When it comes to CIA mischief, there’s never any shortage of theories.

Which is not to say the CIA hasn’t been guilty of reprehensible acts in the past. Among other things, they helped assassinate Salvador Allende and Che Guevara; they replaced Mossadegh with the Shah in 1953; they torpedoed Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954; and, by all accounts, rogue agents used Air America to fly opium out of Vietnam. A disgraceful record.

But one can argue that the CIA’s glamorous, high-octane image is largely a Hollywood creation. Hollywood movies have made American spy-craft look infinitely smarter and more efficient than it actually is. One could go so far as to say that the depiction of the CIA is no more “accurate” than the depiction of Old West cowboys, courtroom lawyers or medical doctors.

Consider: the CIA never saw the 1979 Iranian revolution coming. They failed to predict the imminent dissolution of the USSR and end of the Cold War. In 20 years following the Bay of Pigs, not only couldn’t they assassinate Castro (a top priority), they were unable to put a single spy close to him. According to Tim Weiner in “Legacy of Ashes,” every single Cuban spy they recruited became a double-agent. Every one of them! That’s more Keystone Cops than world-class intel agency.

How brilliant is the CIA? They couldn’t figure out that fellow agent Aldrich Ames was a well-paid Soviet spy, even when he showed up driving a Lamborghini. They accepted the lame story that his wife had bought it for him. CIA inefficiency goes all the way back to the 1940s, when they assured President Truman that the USSR was 3-5 years away from producing a nuclear weapon. Six months later the Russians had the atom bomb.

If the Jantije episode “proves” anything, it’s that bizarre stuff happens in this world, and that we don’t need insidious plots to explain them. Of course, not everyone will accept that. Indeed, Oliver Stone is rumored to be re-making a Western classic. It will be called, “The Men Who Killed Liberty Valance.”

David Macaray is a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”).  He can be reached at

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at

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