Monday, August 19, 2019

"In a Secret Bunker in the Andes, a Wall That Was Really a Window"

Jonah Kessel for the NYT:

We were in the mountains outside the capital, Quito. A van-sized, unmarked metal wall built into the mountain slowly opened to reveal the hidden intelligence bunker, and guards brought us into a small room.

We planned to interview Col. Costa for our documentary and story. Senain had carefully orchestrated the entire affair. Every member of our party had a name tag marking where we were supposed to sit. We were not allowed to film or to go anywhere else but this single room. We could not use our phones to take pictures either.

From an aesthetic point of view, the room was a disaster: It was very small, with loud air conditioning, an enormous table that took up the entire space, and the type of office lighting that makes everyone squint. And worst of all, there was a wall directly behind our subject, creating a lack of depth that I typically try to avoid.

And nothing was negotiable. The tension in the room was palpable, and the clock was ticking. It was a video journalist’s worst nightmare.

But it was a big interview, so I accepted my fate and tried to make it work as best as I could, starting by trying to turn off their air conditioning and lights so I could use my own. This is where camera people can get a little nosy; often, we’ll start pushing any buttons or switches we can see on the walls to optimize the lighting.

But one of those switches was not what it seemed.

It looked like a standard dimmer switch. However, this dimmer didn’t connect to a light. When I pushed it, the wall behind our subject — which I had no reason to believe wasn’t a normal wall — went transparent. It was frosted glass, and this dimmer controlled the level of opacity. I realized we were looking into a room filled with dozens of large monitors, and intelligence officers who were watching the screens.

My heart skipped a beat.