.
O

perations Officers and Paramilitary Operations Officers of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are perhaps the very tip of America’s spear and certainly the least likely to receive public acknowledgement. Their deaths will be memorialized in a powerful, yet simple, display in Langley’s atrium, a star carved into a marble wall. Few will have their name identified in the Book of Honor accompanying that display, most will remain forever undercover, nameless but for their families and colleagues. In that vacuum of understanding and acknowledgement, fantasy and hyperbole run wild—James Bond these individuals may not be, but they are certainly the bravest.

The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence | Douglas London | Hachette Books | September 2021.

Douglas London, a former operations officer himself, offers what is the richest and most candid look at the lives of these professionals in his new book “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence” an advance copy of which was kindly provided by the publisher. London’s book provides a much needed, if complicated, look at what it takes to live and operate forever in the shadows, but also a critique of the current state of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“The Recruiter” weaves together a number of fascinating threads to form a tapestry of human intelligence today. It is partly an exploration of the life of an Operations Officer (or Case officer, as they were previously known) from their hiring to their training and eventual life in the field. It is also a recounting of his experiences handling agents from the identification of potential targets to the initial contact or “bump” onto actual recruitment to the complex management of often persnickety spies. Woven throughout this book are London’s criticisms about the transformation of the Agency from a human intelligence-focused organization to one that, in the post-9/11 world, shifted toward direct action and covert operations, while at the same time becoming more political than it once was or should be.

That London was able to get this book through the Agency’s review board is a miracle in and of itself. From the hiring and vetting of a potential professional trainee, through to their time on the “Farm” (the Agency’s Virginia training location) and onto their first overseas rotations, London offers the reader rich anecdotes from his own time as a new hire. He recounts his nearly fatal final jump, memorialized by his colleagues with a pair of upside-down jump boots planted into the ground, as well as his survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) training, which his time as an enlisted Marine made all the easier.  

The richness of London’s book is in these stories, which are raw and real, and highlight both the highs and lows of the life of an Operations Officer. It is rare that one sees the latter or hears about the challenges of a life abroad undercover—challenges which make what they do in service to our country all the more impressive. He discusses failed recruiting attempts and missed opportunities, such as the attempt to recruit one woman who clearly thought he was making an advance, a misstep he tried to correct by inviting her to meet his family, only to have the family dog relieve itself on her, twice. He describes the challenges of preparing to create a “bump” or an initial encounter with a potential recruit connected to a family deeply enmeshed in Jihadist terrorism. While the initial encounter was successful, the pitch never happened as the opportunity never materialized.

He also discusses the challenges of working with agents, some of whom he liked, some of whom he didn’t, and some of whom put him in exceptionally awkward positions. One agent, a terrorist on the run from his former associates, while intoxicated pulled a gun on London threatening to kill him when he felt the Agency wasn’t taking him seriously enough. Calmly, London defused the situation, but it is illustrative of the unpredictability of often volatile agents with varying motivations.

London goes on to describe the mid-career crisis that many officers face. At roughly the ten-year mark, many have a crisis of conscience, wondering whether the hardships are worth it, the politics necessary, and if this is something they want to do for their career. One imagines that this is similar to other career crises, only exceptionally magnified by the stress of the life of an Operations Officer and the limited community in which they can discuss or share their experiences. An officer can’t exactly pop down to the local pub and vent their frustrations about a boss or their day over a pint. Those frustrations and challenges are even weightier with a family, who often accompany their officer-parent overseas, but who are ignorant of what their mother or father do for work.

London is also very candid about the culture he encountered on joining the CIA in the 80s, a culture which was predominantly monochromatic and held views on women, religious and ethnic minorities, and other groups that were morally abhorrent at the time, if accepted, but wholly unacceptable and rightly condemned now. Indeed, the CIA is taking aggressive steps to improve the culture and diversity of its make-up, which while simply the right thing to do, also makes operational sense. Sending an Ivy League educated Caucasian male to operate in central Africa is less likely to meet with success than the daughter of immigrants from that country educated at a state school.

Throughout “The Recruiter” London frequently offers up very personal and sharp assessments of many of his colleagues who, in his telling, suffered from innumerable vices, were careerist, nepotistic, and often vindictive. Its candor can be rather stark, interjecting into what is otherwise a rich narrative look inside the world of an Operations Officer. The challenge for the reader is that it is impossible to comment on London’s assessments given the insular and clandestine world of the CIA, and the pervasiveness of his stark criticisms detracts from his interesting core arguments about the state of the Agency at a policy-level, arguments which fully form by the end of the book.

What London finds most wanting in his former colleagues is reflective of, in his mind, a bureaucracy that has lurched away from its mission and core values. For London, after 9/11 the Agency became vastly more political in its efforts to survive and stave off potential dismantlement in the fallout of not predicting or intercepting the attacks. This led, not indirectly, to the intelligence failures of the war in Iraq and the “politicization” of intelligence. It also led to the Agency taking on missions for which it was not prepared and it otherwise may not have done so e.g. extraordinary rendition, “Black Sites”, enhanced interrogation, etc. In London’s telling, the Agency lost its focus on human intelligence and some of its “humanity”, and became more focused on target prosecution and manhunting e.g. elimination of high-value targets via drones and paramilitary covert operations.

While the reader can’t see or know the inner workings of the Agency, they can, perhaps, see the broad-brush themes he outlines. The Agency in the wake of 9/11 did “go to the mattresses” in the War on Terrorism and, take on new taskings for which there was no precedent. These were missions asked of Langley at a time when everyone feared a second attack and, therefore, all options were on the table. At the same time, there were substantial calls for reform within the Intelligence Community to prevent future failures, reforms which did ultimately materialize. While many in Congress had selective memories, especially after programs emerged that were no longer politically palatable, the Agency did what Congress and the country asked of it and followed the oversight process. It was and is, then, unconscionable that many representatives and senators sought to hang various officers out to dry for their actions in defense of the country.

In London’s view the Agency needs to go back to its spying roots and away from its fixation on counterterrorism via drone. Here, again, it is hard to dissect the specifics, but there is likely some merit and reflects overall trends within the national security establishment. For over two decades, the United States focused on the Global War on Terrorism much to the exclusion of everything else, and the Agency was not immune to this trend. Counterterrorism became the priority—failure was unacceptable.

Of course, the Agency and others remained focused on traditional human intelligence and hard targets—Moscow House very much remained open—but time, energy, resources, and personnel went to the bright, shiny object of targeting and removing threats from the battlefield, which was often more immediately rewarding in London’s telling, than traditional source development and agent running. Ironically, the end of the war in Afghanistan may in fact see not as large a pivot away from counterterrorism as many expect—the vacuum created by President Biden’s decision to precipitously withdraw from the country, against the Intelligence Community’s advice, may see more resources directed against that target in the near term. Nonetheless, the return of strategic competition will demand a resurgence of human intelligence against the hardest of hard targets—Russia and China.

The only aspect of the Agency’s management machinations civilians see are those that take place as related to the seventh floor, the director’s level, and even there it is limited to confirmation hearings, hiring and firing, and the snippets that manage to find their way to the Washington Post via reporters like David Ignatius. Chris Whipple’s “The Spymasters” offers an interesting look at the past directors and the turmoil that surrounded many of their tenures. There too, London, as Whipple does, raises criticisms of recent directors, such as Gina Haspel, but it is, perhaps, too premature to evaluate her time at the helm of the Agency.  

On finishing “The Recruiter” one can’t help but feel as though they’ve been recruited, in a way. Of course, the reader certainly had an interest in the subject, but maybe the book was at the right place at the right time, almost by design—the “bump” of first contact. London then pulls the reader in, establishing a relationship by relating personal details and anecdotes, just enough to make the connection, but not so much as to overpower. As the book progresses, London draws the reader further in, relating more stories of derring-do, but also the mundane aspects of office life and corporate bureaucracy, all of which the reader can understand and perhaps to which they can relate. By the end, the reader will likely be ready for the “pitch” should one materialize. They understand the ups and downs of an Operations Officer, appreciate the risks and rewards, and are for wont of a better phrase, recruited, by London.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Defending the Country from the Shadows

Photo by Marco Bianchetti via Unsplash.

October 2, 2021

Douglas London offers a rich and candid look at the lives of CIA Operations Officers in his new book “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence,” providing also a critique of the current state of the Agency.

O

perations Officers and Paramilitary Operations Officers of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are perhaps the very tip of America’s spear and certainly the least likely to receive public acknowledgement. Their deaths will be memorialized in a powerful, yet simple, display in Langley’s atrium, a star carved into a marble wall. Few will have their name identified in the Book of Honor accompanying that display, most will remain forever undercover, nameless but for their families and colleagues. In that vacuum of understanding and acknowledgement, fantasy and hyperbole run wild—James Bond these individuals may not be, but they are certainly the bravest.

The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence | Douglas London | Hachette Books | September 2021.

Douglas London, a former operations officer himself, offers what is the richest and most candid look at the lives of these professionals in his new book “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence” an advance copy of which was kindly provided by the publisher. London’s book provides a much needed, if complicated, look at what it takes to live and operate forever in the shadows, but also a critique of the current state of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“The Recruiter” weaves together a number of fascinating threads to form a tapestry of human intelligence today. It is partly an exploration of the life of an Operations Officer (or Case officer, as they were previously known) from their hiring to their training and eventual life in the field. It is also a recounting of his experiences handling agents from the identification of potential targets to the initial contact or “bump” onto actual recruitment to the complex management of often persnickety spies. Woven throughout this book are London’s criticisms about the transformation of the Agency from a human intelligence-focused organization to one that, in the post-9/11 world, shifted toward direct action and covert operations, while at the same time becoming more political than it once was or should be.

That London was able to get this book through the Agency’s review board is a miracle in and of itself. From the hiring and vetting of a potential professional trainee, through to their time on the “Farm” (the Agency’s Virginia training location) and onto their first overseas rotations, London offers the reader rich anecdotes from his own time as a new hire. He recounts his nearly fatal final jump, memorialized by his colleagues with a pair of upside-down jump boots planted into the ground, as well as his survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) training, which his time as an enlisted Marine made all the easier.  

The richness of London’s book is in these stories, which are raw and real, and highlight both the highs and lows of the life of an Operations Officer. It is rare that one sees the latter or hears about the challenges of a life abroad undercover—challenges which make what they do in service to our country all the more impressive. He discusses failed recruiting attempts and missed opportunities, such as the attempt to recruit one woman who clearly thought he was making an advance, a misstep he tried to correct by inviting her to meet his family, only to have the family dog relieve itself on her, twice. He describes the challenges of preparing to create a “bump” or an initial encounter with a potential recruit connected to a family deeply enmeshed in Jihadist terrorism. While the initial encounter was successful, the pitch never happened as the opportunity never materialized.

He also discusses the challenges of working with agents, some of whom he liked, some of whom he didn’t, and some of whom put him in exceptionally awkward positions. One agent, a terrorist on the run from his former associates, while intoxicated pulled a gun on London threatening to kill him when he felt the Agency wasn’t taking him seriously enough. Calmly, London defused the situation, but it is illustrative of the unpredictability of often volatile agents with varying motivations.

London goes on to describe the mid-career crisis that many officers face. At roughly the ten-year mark, many have a crisis of conscience, wondering whether the hardships are worth it, the politics necessary, and if this is something they want to do for their career. One imagines that this is similar to other career crises, only exceptionally magnified by the stress of the life of an Operations Officer and the limited community in which they can discuss or share their experiences. An officer can’t exactly pop down to the local pub and vent their frustrations about a boss or their day over a pint. Those frustrations and challenges are even weightier with a family, who often accompany their officer-parent overseas, but who are ignorant of what their mother or father do for work.

London is also very candid about the culture he encountered on joining the CIA in the 80s, a culture which was predominantly monochromatic and held views on women, religious and ethnic minorities, and other groups that were morally abhorrent at the time, if accepted, but wholly unacceptable and rightly condemned now. Indeed, the CIA is taking aggressive steps to improve the culture and diversity of its make-up, which while simply the right thing to do, also makes operational sense. Sending an Ivy League educated Caucasian male to operate in central Africa is less likely to meet with success than the daughter of immigrants from that country educated at a state school.

Throughout “The Recruiter” London frequently offers up very personal and sharp assessments of many of his colleagues who, in his telling, suffered from innumerable vices, were careerist, nepotistic, and often vindictive. Its candor can be rather stark, interjecting into what is otherwise a rich narrative look inside the world of an Operations Officer. The challenge for the reader is that it is impossible to comment on London’s assessments given the insular and clandestine world of the CIA, and the pervasiveness of his stark criticisms detracts from his interesting core arguments about the state of the Agency at a policy-level, arguments which fully form by the end of the book.

What London finds most wanting in his former colleagues is reflective of, in his mind, a bureaucracy that has lurched away from its mission and core values. For London, after 9/11 the Agency became vastly more political in its efforts to survive and stave off potential dismantlement in the fallout of not predicting or intercepting the attacks. This led, not indirectly, to the intelligence failures of the war in Iraq and the “politicization” of intelligence. It also led to the Agency taking on missions for which it was not prepared and it otherwise may not have done so e.g. extraordinary rendition, “Black Sites”, enhanced interrogation, etc. In London’s telling, the Agency lost its focus on human intelligence and some of its “humanity”, and became more focused on target prosecution and manhunting e.g. elimination of high-value targets via drones and paramilitary covert operations.

While the reader can’t see or know the inner workings of the Agency, they can, perhaps, see the broad-brush themes he outlines. The Agency in the wake of 9/11 did “go to the mattresses” in the War on Terrorism and, take on new taskings for which there was no precedent. These were missions asked of Langley at a time when everyone feared a second attack and, therefore, all options were on the table. At the same time, there were substantial calls for reform within the Intelligence Community to prevent future failures, reforms which did ultimately materialize. While many in Congress had selective memories, especially after programs emerged that were no longer politically palatable, the Agency did what Congress and the country asked of it and followed the oversight process. It was and is, then, unconscionable that many representatives and senators sought to hang various officers out to dry for their actions in defense of the country.

In London’s view the Agency needs to go back to its spying roots and away from its fixation on counterterrorism via drone. Here, again, it is hard to dissect the specifics, but there is likely some merit and reflects overall trends within the national security establishment. For over two decades, the United States focused on the Global War on Terrorism much to the exclusion of everything else, and the Agency was not immune to this trend. Counterterrorism became the priority—failure was unacceptable.

Of course, the Agency and others remained focused on traditional human intelligence and hard targets—Moscow House very much remained open—but time, energy, resources, and personnel went to the bright, shiny object of targeting and removing threats from the battlefield, which was often more immediately rewarding in London’s telling, than traditional source development and agent running. Ironically, the end of the war in Afghanistan may in fact see not as large a pivot away from counterterrorism as many expect—the vacuum created by President Biden’s decision to precipitously withdraw from the country, against the Intelligence Community’s advice, may see more resources directed against that target in the near term. Nonetheless, the return of strategic competition will demand a resurgence of human intelligence against the hardest of hard targets—Russia and China.

The only aspect of the Agency’s management machinations civilians see are those that take place as related to the seventh floor, the director’s level, and even there it is limited to confirmation hearings, hiring and firing, and the snippets that manage to find their way to the Washington Post via reporters like David Ignatius. Chris Whipple’s “The Spymasters” offers an interesting look at the past directors and the turmoil that surrounded many of their tenures. There too, London, as Whipple does, raises criticisms of recent directors, such as Gina Haspel, but it is, perhaps, too premature to evaluate her time at the helm of the Agency.  

On finishing “The Recruiter” one can’t help but feel as though they’ve been recruited, in a way. Of course, the reader certainly had an interest in the subject, but maybe the book was at the right place at the right time, almost by design—the “bump” of first contact. London then pulls the reader in, establishing a relationship by relating personal details and anecdotes, just enough to make the connection, but not so much as to overpower. As the book progresses, London draws the reader further in, relating more stories of derring-do, but also the mundane aspects of office life and corporate bureaucracy, all of which the reader can understand and perhaps to which they can relate. By the end, the reader will likely be ready for the “pitch” should one materialize. They understand the ups and downs of an Operations Officer, appreciate the risks and rewards, and are for wont of a better phrase, recruited, by London.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.