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Spies and Prostitutes: Memories of a Visa Officer in Post-WWII Greece

In post-World War II Greece, U.S. consular officers met all kinds of people—from suspected spies to prostitutes.  Don Gelber was on his first diplomatic assignment. When a wealthy young American married a young Greek woman and sought to bring her to the United States, Geber did a routine background check — only to learn that the woman had once claimed to have seduced a U.S. cryptographic clerk.  She then went on to seduce the U.S. psychiatrist brought in to evaluate her mental stability. In another case, the visa applicant claimed not to remember multiple arrests for solicitation, beginning on the day the British liberated Athens in 1944. Her U.S. husband, who was apparently once employed by the C.I.A., told the consular officer “I’m no spring chicken. How do you think we got together?”

Gelber went on to a long and fulfilling career in the foreign service. After his service as vice consul in Athens, political officer in Pakistan and Turkey, and Deputy Chief of Mission in Nigeria.  He ended his foreign service career as the U.S. ambassador to Mali in 1990-93. He also worked as a political advisor to NATO at the Supreme Headquarters in Belgium from 1986 to 1990, and at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City between 1993 and 1995.

Herbert Donald Gelber’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on June 2, 1995.

Read Ambassador Gelber’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Simone van Heijst

“The lesson about the flimsiness of some of this evidence [is shown in] two cases.”

Spies and flimsy evidence: The law had to be applied as the law was crafted, but the law also provided that people have fair treatment and that they not be denied their due without the evidence being in some ways credible. The lesson about the flimsiness of some of this evidence [is shown in] two cases. One, a young American of considerable wealth married one of Greece’s most beautiful young ladies and applied for a visa. He produced letters from Senator Murphy from California endorsing the fact that at 21 he had an income of $250,000 and at 31 he would gain control of the balance of his estate and that he could well support a wife. Fine. Processed the case for final action. At those times, you couldn’t get a Greek passport valid for travel to the United States unless you had a pro forma from the mission saying that if the person is in possession of a valid passport, the embassy is prepared to proceed to final action on their visa application. So, the application pro forma was issued.

Suddenly I got a call from Greek security saying, “Mr. Vice Consul, don’t you talk to your counterintelligence people?” “What are you suggesting?” “I think in this case you want to talk to them.” So I called up Air Force Counterintelligence and said, “What have you got on an individual by the name of Sophie Armstrong?” He said, “Oh, Sofula. Why don’t you drop by? I’ll show you the file.” They produced this enormous record. Sophie alleged that she had worked her wiles seducing the code clerk and got into the crypto spaces at the air base and photographed the machines. Did she? No one could be sure.

“She seduced him. He resigned his commission.”

Scripted confessions: They also found out that her uncle, for whom she had considerable affection, was one of the leaders of the Greek left, which was the cover of the Greek Communist Party, the ETHA, the democratic Greek left, the national leftist party. Not a crime. What are the facts? They said, “Why don’t you call her and talk to her?” I called her. I took careful notes and said, “Thank you. You understand this will have to be looked into.” Then the CIC (Counter Intelligence Corps) people came and said, “What did she tell you?” Then they said, “no, let me tell you.” They produced a script that she had memorized, which was verbatim what she had told me. No crime. In the meantime, we’re getting letters from Senator Knowland and the husband who wants his beautiful wife by his side, if not in the daytime, at least at night. A beautiful girl. Can’t get any firm handle. Is she ineligible? Then: maybe she’s mentally imbalanced and has this kind of Mata Hari complex. We brought the psychiatrist down from Germany to meet with her. She seduced him. He resigned his commission. He went bananas. I never found out what happened to Sophie. But I always found consular work fascinating.

“About two weeks before she was married, she was arrested for soliciting.”

A case of amnesia and multiple arrests: The other case was also an example. My Greek secretary came in all agitated and said, “I asked her [a different applicant] if she’s ever been arrested and she looked at me and said, ‘I don’t remember.’ How could she not remember?” “Why don’t you invite her in?” This is the wife of an American citizen who was asked, “Have you ever been arrested?” When this started, I called up to the security people and said, “Look, I’ve got a clean police record here. We asked the applicant if she’d ever been arrested and she said she doesn’t remember. What the hell is going on?” They said, “We’ll send somebody to check it out.”

I called her in and put her under oath and asked her, went down through all the questions on the immigrant visa form and got to the key question, “Have you ever been picked up by the police?” I was doing this in Greek. I could do visa interviews in Greek with someone listening to be sure that I didn’t get it wrong. “I don’t remember.” I said, “Well, Madam, sit outside on the bench. Refresh your recollection.” I waited for the call to come. They said, “Gelber, the British landed in Athens on the 18th of September 1944. She was arrested that night, charged with soliciting, sent to the center for venereal diseases, found free of disease, and released.” So, she was arrested in the month of September about six times and finally found to have a venereal infection and held for treatment. Then before the end of the year, 1944, numerous arrests, again the same charges. And then he skipped over to 1959. About two weeks before she was married, she was arrested for soliciting.

“She’s got to make a full disclosure of all events in order for me to waive them all.”

Marrying a prostitute: We brought her in and asked her, “What’s all this?” She said, “I was making a crowd.” The Greek word for being with one’s friends was mazimetmetinparaya – “together with those that you’re with.” The problem is that in English that word has a different connotation. I said, “Okay, Madam, there is sufficient ground here [for] ineligibility due to you having been arrested for moral turpitude and prostitution.”

Her husband asked me what the problem was with the visa. I said, “I’m not allowed to discuss this with you without the written permission of your wife. All I can tell you is the sections of law under which the finding of ineligibility was found.” He looked at me and said, “Where do you think I met her?” I said, “Oh?” He said, “I’m no spring chicken. How do you think we got together?” I said, “Well, what do you want to do?” He said, “Well, she’s my wife.” I said, “Well, you can go down the hall to the immigration authorities and ask for a waiver of these grounds of inadmissibility.”

He went down to the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] with his wife, and the INS called me up and said, “Gelber, I can’t do anything for him.” I said, “Why?” “She doesn’t say that she ever has been arrested. She still doesn’t remember. She’s got to make a full disclosure of all events in order for me to waive them all.

That was sort of hanging between. I said to the guy, “You okay? People here, you know” He said, “Oh, yeah, I was with the station.” The guy had been a CIA type. Those were two cases where the documentation we had was not all that reliable and caused questions about some of the other documentation that we had. We had a file. There were 2,000 of these hardcore cases – after processing about 50,000 immigrant visas in a matter of about 5,000 a month, we set them up in kind of an assembly line in order to get them out. Washington thought that would take two years, but we got them out rather rapidly. Then I went over to the chancery and was a staff aide to the ambassador.




     BA in History, City College of New York                                                                       1950-1954

     MA in Economic History, Columbia University                                                          1956

Entered the Foreign Service                                                                                     1957

     Athens, Greece—Visa Officer                                                                                           1958-1960 

     London, England—Political Advisor                                                                              1973-1976

          To Commander-in-Chief Europe United States Navy

     Lagos, Nigeria—Deputy Chief of Mission                                                                     1983-1986

     Casteau, Belgium—Special Assistant for International Affairs NATO                   1986-1990    

     Bamako, Mali—U.S. Ambassador                                                                                  1990-1993