Sunday, 8 October 2017

Person of Interest: Institution M (Night's Black Agents)

Earlier this week the story of Werner Mauss' tax evasion conviction, and two hundred thousand euro fine, broke, and brought the shadowy Institution M back into the international spotlight again. Since he's exactly the sort of person your Night's Black Agents players are going to want to meet, he's this week's Person of Interest.

Mauss, born in Essen in 1940, became a private investigator in the 1960s, and soon started working with the German police and intelligence services exclusively. It's not clear how this happened. His website claims he was trained by a former member of the intelligence services, and that may have given him the contacts he needed to start working with the authorities. Otherwise it's difficult to fathom how an otherwise undistinguished former agronomist and vacuum cleaner salesman in his twenties got the attention of the powers that be. He'd enjoyed success working for insurance companies, but presumably he wasn't the only private investigator in Germany with a decent success record. Reading the site gives the impression that here is a man who is neither shy nor lacking in self-promotion skills, so a certain amount of bluff may have been involved.

He began as a police spy, infiltrating criminal gangs and filtering their secrets back to the police. He claims over 2,000 arrests all told thanks to his evidence, over a forty year career, everything from diamond thieves and tracking down barrels of stolen toxic waste, to the arrest of Red Army Faction fugitives and alleged police murderer Alfred Lecki, in Spain. However from the 1980s he began his South American work, and it is at this point that things get murky.

He started by helping Mannesmann AG in Columbia with troubles it was having over an oil pipeline, but Mann soon found himself negotiating the return of hostages from the ELN. The National Liberation Army -  Ej√©rcito de Liberaci√≥n Nacional - has been fighting the Columbian government since 1964. Its more famous fraternal organization FARC gets all the attention, but the ELN is also a Communist group - Marxist, as distinct from FARC's brand of Marxist-Leninism - and the ELN is no laughing matter. It engages in attacks on infrastructure, like the pipeline, as well as extortion and kidnapping. At this moment it is estimated to have over two hundred people in captivity. The ELN calls it war taxes and retentions; the retentions - kidnappings - are used to encourage payment of the war taxes, or extortion.

Mauss successfully recovered retentions, which got the attention of the German government, at that time Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrat/Liberal coalition. Kohl needed a way to get German civilians back from the ELN, and Mauss was perfectly positioned to play intermediary. Soon Mauss became involved in a more ambitious project, aimed at brokering peace between the ELN and the government. From Germany's perspective this could be nothing but good news; finally the kidnappings and damage to German businesses would end.

The negotiations went reasonably well, but didn't prove as successful as everyone hoped. Moreover the Columbian government was becoming suspicious; was Mauss actually collaborating with the ELN to drive up ransoms, collecting his cut from the kidnappers for this service? He was arrested and jailed for nine months, before being cleared of all charges in 1998.

If he was being paid by the ELN, it was just one of a long list of clients. Mauss' personal fortune grew. His 40,000 acre estate, bought in the 1960s when land was probably a lot cheaper, has been built up into a fenced-off Disney World castle according to the German papers, complete with its own zoo, exotic animals, and the largest private riding hall in Germany. All of which seems reminiscent of a certain film, or possibly more than one.

The Panama Papers leak threw a little more light onto Mauss' world. He had been a busy man, helping the rich and powerful in their business dealings, and in the process built up substantial accounts in Luxembourg and the Bahamas, for which he paid no tax. Mauss claims this is because the funds were actually given him by Western intelligence agencies to help his fight against terrorism and organized crime, even Isis. He also promised a string of star witnesses at his trial, none of whom showed up - and one of whom had died five years prior. Even had all of them materialized, it would have been difficult to explain a slush fund in excess of $50 million whose stated purpose was to fund a Werner Mauss memorial museum after Institution M's demise.

Mauss claims his defense was hampered because so much of his work has to remain secret, covered in a blizzard of non disclosure agreements. All this may be so, but NDAs can also be used to cover up a mountain of bullshit, and in Mauss' case it's difficult to separate the man from the legend. Given the amounts discussed at his trial, his two year suspended sentence and fine seem remarkably lenient. The trial judge said Mauss' lifetime achievement was the reason why his sentence was so light. Clearly the judge couldn't tell the difference between Mauss, the man with $50 million in unexplained funds, and Institution M, the tireless crusader against crime.

So from a gamification perspective, what do we have?

A Night's Black Agents character, clearly. Possibly a mentor; Institution M seems an unlikely Solace. There's a certain murkiness about his whole career that just screams plant - but whose? After all, he buys that 40,000 acre estate in the 1960s, when he's just starting his private investigative career. Even in the 1960s, it's difficult to believe land was quite that cheap. A fictionalized version would have Institution M backed by some shadowy force - but whether it's Dracula or the KGB is an open question. It's easy to see why the Soviets, for example, might want an independent private investigator deeply embedded in the German intelligence apparat, particularly in the 1960s when the Cold War might get hot at any minute. Or the Americans. Or any number of foreign governments, but the Soviets or the Americans are the two most likely to have the funds and the hutzpah.

As a Node he's clearly at the National level at the very least. All those government contacts, in several different jurisdictions; all that foreign travel. He's not what you'd call a bruiser - his legend claims he's only ever fired a gun once in his entire career - but as an information gatherer he's unsurpassed. He's spent his entire career persuading people he can be trusted; someone like that can be more dangerous than an entire tank battalion, in the right circumstances. A Grima Wormtongue with significantly more panache.

It's tempting to write him into any number of stories. For example, Helmut Kohl's legacy has been tainted by the CDU donations scandal, in which cash donations to the party were swept under the rug. It's never been shown that Kohl actually took bribes or benefitted financially in any way, but it paved the way for Angela Merkel's rise. Someone had to be the go-between in the whole unsavory affair; it's not as if Kohl could attend to the matter himself. Suppose for a moment it was Mauss, a man who Kohl had come to know well at least by reputation, and perhaps personally. Or suppose that Mauss was a go-between for Karlheinz Schreiber, the arms dealer at the heart of the scandal, and that Mauss leaked the whole thing for reasons of his own, possibly to avoid prosecution, or to settle some kind of grudge. He could be fictionalized in all sorts of ways, is the point; the man who knows everybody's secrets, but who ensures nobody knows his. Did he use his go-between status to act as Kingmaker, and is now the man behind Merkel - or better yet, the Renfield behind Merkel? Did Germany's pre-war vampire project information find its way into his hands? What awful secrets does his German estate conceal? After all, 40,000 acres is a lot of ground - plenty of space to bury bodies if need be ...

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

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