Kungfu Secret Agent
Agent for Interpol comes clean on his career as an assassin.
by Jason Putman
THAILAND, 1991 - The white man slides behind a North Korean, steel edge of a black Ka-Bar fighting knife glittering as it plunges into the terrorist's neck, then rips out, severing the vocal chords and jugular. Visibly limping from an informant's vicious knee kick earlier in the day, the man and his South Korean partner step inside the two remaining guards' AK rifles and deliver quick, efficient blows to kill the North Koreans. They are wrapped in Kevlar, the Korean carries a Heckler & Koch Mark 23 .45 ACP pistol; his companion a Beretta 92FS 9mm. Communicating with signals developed over years of training, they throw back the flaps of a heavy truck to reveal its precious cargo: 17 children intended for sale in Bangkok's sex district, profits to fund another North Korean terrorist cell. An hour later, a plane crewed by Interpol agents takes off and drones toward Chinhae, South Korea, where the children will be delivered to the coastal city's naval base, then identified and returned to their families - if they have any.
The team will spend only a few hours in Chinhae, then clean up and separate. It is the group's third mission together, but they have worked solo and in pairs across the globe for eleven years. Combined, these clandestine operatives have saved over 300 children and killed hundreds of slavers, pornographers and terrorists. South Korean secret service agent Lee Hyung-jin reports in Chinhae; his limping companion, David Bannon, will return with the team to their headquarters outside Lyon, France. Last January, Bannon published his memoir, RACE AGAINST EVIL: THE SECRET MISSIONS OF THE INTERPOL AGENT WHO TRACKED THE WORLD'S MOST SINISTER CRIMINALS, telling of years with the international police's elite assassination team, Archangel. Part vigilante squad, part international police force, Archangel broke dozens of international laws, directed by a government agency that denied their existence.
On a hillside in rural Japan, Bannon was in a vicious fight with a rice farmer. The baseball bat Bannon had been using as a weapon broke in half during the struggle, but he managed to take the blunt end and ram it into his opponent's throat, bringing him to the ground. The farmer had nearly killed him. "This guy's qi was unbelievable," Bannon says. "I figure maybe Hung Gar." Bannon survived, but only just. "His arm techniques reflected lots of hours with the wooden dummy and he had that low, stable balance point that's so common to Hung Gar stylists. Impossibly fast, this guy, and he didn't telegraph at all. If my partner hadn't done a lot of damage first, I'd be dead." Over the past 20 years, Bannon's work for Interpol, the notoriously shadowy international police organization, has taken him across the world, prowling sex parlors, undercover with smugglers and terrorists. As a "cleaner" for a secret Interpol sub-directorate called "Archangel," it was his job to hunt down and assassinate those who kidnapped, trafficked and exploited children for use in the global sex trade. Bannon excelled at his vocation, but no matter how the ends justified the means, he was burdened by an almost unimaginable psychic weight-mixed feelings of guilt, bloodlust, despair, pride and even fear.
In April 2003, Bannon, along with his retired superior at Interpol, Commissioner Jacques Defferre, agreed to a rare interview to explain to Kungfu about their motives for working in Archangel. Sitting in a coffee shop in Charlotte, NC, the two plainly described how the underground kiddie porn industry is used to fund terrorist cells, and of the vast international networks of kidnappers and pornographers who continue to earn "billions of dollars" working above the law. Bannon is 6 foot, about 200 pounds, with a lithe, watchful ease that is an eerie clone of his slightly smaller superior, Defferre. Known in the trade as "grey men" for their ability to blend, Interpol agents can walk into any bar without earning a second glance. They are generally quiet men, emulating the tradition of such grandmasters as Pan Qing Fu (Iron Fist- shown right) and Chan Sau Chung (Tai Shing Pek Kwar, Monkey Style). Their deceptively relaxed demeanor belies the horrors they discuss so casually over croissant. "With these eyes, I've seen it - infants tortured, sexually abused, murdered," Bannon says. "Those memories, those thoughts stick with you all your life." A month after this initial interview, Bannon's comrade, friend and mentor, Jacques Defferre, became a victim to the same cloak-and-dagger violence he once practiced.
Who is David Bannon?
Ambassadors know his name. He sits with senators on trade round tables, addresses global corporations at technology conferences and publishes on history, computers and translations from two Asian languages. He holds diplomas in computer science and Asian history, and a 3rd degree black belt in hapkido. He was a Mormon missionary once. And an ex-con. His friend of nearly 20 years, Lee Hyung-jin blandly told us, "Bannon was imprisoned for three months in Taejon Prison.” After Bannon was released from prison, Defferre recruited him. "At first, I was really nothing more than a snitch," Bannon says. "Jacques needed someone that spoke Korean and was locked into that particular network, so he used me. It was about as glamorous as puking in an alley." On a joint assignment, Bannon fell in love with French counter-terrorist agent Sidelle Rimbaud. They planned on marriage; she was killed in a firefight with North Korean child smugglers and terrorists in Marseilles. "I was filled with a raw lust for vengeance," he says. "Jacques told me about Archangel. He didn't have to ask twice."
Defferre had been hunting child sex slavers for Interpol since 1978. His team was created under Interpol's loosely worded charter, "To establish and develop all institutions likely to contribute effectively to the prevention and suppression of ordinary law crimes”10 to stem the flow of 900,000 child sex slaves smuggled across international borders each year, including nearly 10% of the missing kids from the United States. "These producers, the ones who buy and sell the children, do it through coercion or kidnapping; then use torture and drugs to force obedience," Bannon says wearily. "We've witnessed parents selling their infants directly at the doors of the brothels in countries where child prostitution is legal." He cites Thailand and Pakistan. "The resulting pornography could earn billions in profits from an initial investment of about $30-to-50K per child." Defferre convinced his superiors that Interpol should match slavers and terrorists for wiliness, adaptability and ruthlessness. Archangel's mission: Identify child sex slavers and eliminate them.
At the elite training facility in La Verpillere, exhaustive psychological and physical examinations gauged the suitability of candidates to work as assassins, known as cleaners. "We trained in firearms, close quarter combat, demolitions, the usual," Bannon says. "We were given fake cover identities, known as 'legends.' The cleaners had to fit in anywhere." After mastering the fundamentals, the fledgling assassins traveled alone and in small groups for supervised exercises outside the compound. They learned the basics of surveillance and the art of intelligence, such as planting "kernels" of disinformation months or even years in advance across media outlets, then using them in "blowback" campaigns to blackmail or smear targets. Interpol's technical arm, Rosetta, altered Bannon's past in a process called "sheep dipping," after the practice of bathing sheep before they are sheared, that erased the background of an operative and created a new one with family history, friends, school, everything.
These tactics didn't impress everyone. "All of the Interpol guys were always working undercover, but we prefer a standup fight," said Captain Henri Wolper with the French counter-terrorist Directorate of Territorial Security (DST). "These Interpol guys train with a mix of styles," says Wolper. "Tai Chi balance, jujitsu locks, karate blocks, hapkido strikes, low kicks, no particular set of rules. But most of what they learn would get them disqualified in an organized bout. If it would be a foul in a tournament, it's just what we needed on the street." Wolper has known Bannon for years but hates Interpol's secret army. "They got nothing you can't find in any special forces team across the world, only without authority. Vigilantism is a crime, no matter what the justification." Wolper may not be far off. Defferre recruited from all walks of life: ex-military, law officers, even criminals. This approach wasn't new to Interpol, whose president Jolly Bugarin (1980-84) used a 13-year member of his police force as an assassin, saying: "In the fight against crime, we also use criminals."
These illicit ties were confirmed when mafia boss Bill Bonanno blandly wrote, "We had contacts in Interpol.” In 1985, the organization's secretary general - Raymond Kendall, who retired in 2000 - accelerated Bugarin's initiative: "If we waited until the laws were adopted, we would wait a long, long time. Unless we have the courage to step outside the usual run of the mill responses we will not achieve anything.” Though tiny by Pentagon standards, Interpol's "step outside the usual" included assassination teams planted in Asia, Europe and even the United States. "These people operated every day around the world," Lee Hyung-jin says. "They were inserted quickly, clandestinely, without our knowledge or with it, working for or against us." Local law enforcement cooperation and subsequent supervision of the investigation by Interpol "washer/dryers" helped keep many of the assignments out of the public eye. "It's in everyone's interest to keep the secret," says Geoffrey Ries, a 23-year veteran of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), known as MI6, "whether for national security or disdain for the system's ability to queer it." Ries recalls "dozens of missions" with Defferre before Archangel was officially disbanded between 1989-91.
Some cops are less enthusiastic. "I met two of these Interpol guys, okay?" says New Orleans police officer Thomas Parker. In August-September 1998 he worked on a global raid of Internet child pornographers called The Wonderland Club. "I met two of these Interpol guys," he recalls. "One was obviously an ex-con, the other some sort of psychologist. At the time, we figured maybe they were CIA or whatever." When they raided their suspects, Parker and the Interpol team stormed the room and killed four of the seven pornographers. Parker's "ex-con" was Bannon. "These guys, they don't take no prisoners," Parker recalls. "They ain't legit cops, they're killers." The father of an 8-year-old girl that was rescued by Bannon and Parker supported the need for Archangel, but said the work "cankers their souls.”
Still living with the immense weight of blood on his hands, Bannon decided to expose the horrors of the sex trade to the world. His book came out in January 2003, and was met with howls of disapproval. Michael Rose, the organization's chief press officer, released a statement: "If the claims in Mr. Bannon's book are in fact as have been reported to Interpol, they can only be seen as deceptive and irresponsible fantasy." By April, Interpol officers were beating down the ex-agent's door in North Carolina, demanding that he recant his tale. "Leaving the secret world," Defferre said, "is never easy." Defferre estimated that each of his operatives accounted for "three digits" worth of arrests or assassinations. Now almost all of the original 250 cleaners are dead or missing.
It wasn't the first time Interpol worked above the law in the United States. In Steinberg v. Interpol (1981) the District of Columbia federal appellate court found that "Interpol appears to occupy a rather ambiguous and shadowy existence in this country. It claims not to exist in the United States, yet it...defames American citizens in the United States as well as elsewhere."34 The court cited a memorandum dated 6 June 1979, from Interpol Director John E. Ingersoll to John Warner, Chief, Strategic Intelligence Office: "The Secretariat consists of international police officers who have given up their allegiance to their individual countries for the term assigned to Interpol." The organization's Constitution and General Regulations required that officers "shall neither solicit nor accept instructions from any government or authority outside the Organization," and President Reagan's Executive Order 12425 in 1983 granted Interpol, the world's second largest international organization, diplomatic status and "complete immunity from prosecution in the United States."
As the enemies of Interpol, the world's second largest international organization (only the UN is larger), Bannon and Defferre needed help. "Interpol is furious that I betrayed them," Bannon says, "but my loyalty is to my family and to the friends who sacrificed so much over the years." Bannon and Defferre found powerful allies. The U.S. Department of Justice had once condemned "the secretive nature of Interpol," and found that "the development of Interpol into a worldwide agency has not been accompanied by a concurrent expansion of Interpol's accountability."38 In 1989, the European Council significantly curtailed Interpol funds, finding: "Interpol was above the laws of any land and not legally accountable for its acts." In May 2003, Defferre and Bannon flew to France to meet with U.S. and European intelligence officials. At customs, Bannon was arrested. Defferre and longtime friend Henri Wolper of the DST used their influence to get Bannon released. Then began a race to gather all of Defferre's juiciest documents, amassed over thirty years of fieldwork. Over the next three days, they collected material across France, then drove to Brussels and flew to London, where an MI-6 operative, known as a "scalp hunter," handed over Defferre's insurance policy - eyewitness accounts of Interpol's involvement in the death of a notorious child pornography ringleader.
U.S. intelligence officials agreed to meet with Defferre on May 11, 2003 and exchange excerpts of the documents for protection. The night before they were to deliver the goods, three officers broke into Bannon and Defferre's hotel room to steal the documents, and confronted them. During a struggle, two of the three attackers were killed and the third fled. Bannon was left badly injured, with a dislocated knee and three cracked ribs. Crawling over to Defferre's crumpled body, Bannon found the 67-year-old master spy, his friend of 20 years, was dead. "Bannon called me and I could barely hear him," Wolper recalls. "He needed a team of washer/dryers." Wolper sent a group of clean-up specialists and rushed Bannon to a medical facility to reset his knee. The next day, he personally chauffeured him to the all-important meeting. Since then, Bannon's safety has been guaranteed by the information he supplied - and the 256 pages of documents he has carefully hidden across three countries as insurance.
"Jacques was father, friend, enemy, boss," Bannon says. "Labels are too weak and small to describe the depth and breadth of years sharing sweat and blood and death together." He pauses. "Toi qui savais que le tombeau des heros est le coeur des vivants: It's from a monument for Joan of Arc: 'You who knew that the tomb of heroes is the heart of the living.'" The quote cuts through philosophy, politics and theology to the heart of every intelligence officer's fear: Is it all worth the cost? "Then you come home and your mom fusses about the dishes or your wife is upset that you forgot bread at the store and you think, 'It's so nice that there are people who still worry about normal stuff.' When I think of my family, your family, so many children, all of them safe to worry about groceries and chores, because some of us walked a line to stop this horrific crime; then I think that maybe it was worth it."
Now living in North Carolina with his family, Bannon is a church-going man, but his career as a killer has taken a mighty toll. "A day does not pass that I don't echo David's lament: 'Deliver me from bloodguilt, O God.' You kill so much you lose count and you learn to love it. You're rewarded for it, an entire mechanism patting you on the back for being a good killer," Bannon explains. "When you've felt the dull throbbing horror of taking another human's life, it's difficult not to feel remorse. Maybe Archangel wasn't the answer, but these guys were above the law and needed to be stopped."