Retired from the clandestine service in the early 90s, I went back to work for the CIA after 9/11. One of my first jobs had me at the end of the day in a bay area with other retired CIA case officers.
Occasionally a bottle of wine was opened.
Not that it was needed to get this particular group of old retired spies to talk about what they had seen and done over the years.
There was a certain one-upmanship involved in the story-telling along the lines of “Oh yea, well listen to this.”
Caused a natural tendency for grander and grander acc’ts of CIA field duty to the point that some of the stories there towards the end of the end-of-the-day sessions were hard to believe.
With that in mind here are three of those stories:
A) There was an up and coming firebrand of a case officer, who after three tours was made Chief of Station of a small 3rd world country. He had this piece of business that he was sure this one particularly busy larger station would want to know about.
So he wrote them a long involved message giving the background to this piece of business and where it stood now and how it might be of use to them.
He got no response.
A few days later he wrote again, referencing his first message, giving some minor details about how the situation had changed and asking the busy station to respond, at least to provide an expression of interest.
He got no response.
A few days later he wrote again, referencing his first two messages, and gave this large station a piece of his mind about professional courtesy.
The response from the busy station referenced his three messages and the text had only one word.
B) The Agency in its relatively short life has gone through several “riffs.” Good men have been let go, although most of the bottom quarter of the case officer corps have periodically been purged too.
Usually a panel of officers two grades over the grade under review would be convened and they would make the determination of who stayed and who was let go.
The Chief of Station in a significant geographical location was called to Hqs to sit on one of these panels. By all acc’ts he didn’t want to be there doing this distasteful work, and he was the most severe in his recommendations. The most damning.
When he got back to his station, finally, he found waiting for him, his own riff notice.
He sent a two word message to Hqs.
C) An old experienced ops officer from Hqs flew out to a foreign station to pay off a long time asset.
Reasons why he was being paid off and terminated and his exact country of origin, isn’t part of the story.
The story told in that group of old case officer late one day was about the large amount of money the agent was to receive.
The officer coming from Headquarters had arranged to have the cash sent from Headquarters and it was awaiting him when he arrived at the CIA field station. He introduced himself around, picked up his package and found an empty desk. When he opened the package he found instructions on how the officer was to transport the money from station to the hotel room where he would meet and pay the agent.
An old hand, he didn’t feel the need for some Headquarters bean-counter to tell him how to do his business, so he put the instruction letter away and began counting the money slowly. When he finished he checked the total against the amount listed in the package and then checked the amount against the due amount in the agent’s file. All matched.
Looking around the desk he found a blank sheet of paper and listed the amount on it, with intentions of writing a receipt around that number for the agent to sign once they were together.
He checked that he had a pen in his shirt pocket and then took bundled money by the handfuls and placed them in different pockets of his suit coat and a newly purchased black wool overcoat.
On the way out he stopped by the Chief of Station’s office, an old contact. There was some re-introductory chit chat, and then the Hqs guy went over his plans for the afternoon, evening ahead. His comments were brief and to the point.
Station Chief made a few comments about security and ended by saying that the newcomer should be careful because of the threat of street crime, especially aimed at tourist. Pickpockets, street walkers and street thugs would be along his route to and from his destination. The Headquarters officer assured the Chief that he could look after himself and took his leave.
All went well for the Headquarters officer as he walked along the streets of this old city, passing through the crowds with his hands in his overcoat pockets. His coat collar turned up against the winter wind, he kept his head down and did not stand out from others rushing by. He had memorized his route and walked it casually, effortlessly taking note along the way that he wasn’t being followed.
Two hours he walked this way and that before going into a subway station, bought a ticket to a stop several beyond where he was going and waited in the shadows. The train arrived and the officer boarded. The trip to his destination stop was uneventful although the officer had a local newspaper up as if he was reading it and kept his attention on his surroundings in the noisy fast moving underground train.
When he reached his stop, he got up, folded the newspaper and waited for others to get off before he did. The last to leave, he stepped out on the platform and looked around.
Suddenly he was swarmed by young kids. Filthy, laughing, grabbing kids, yelling in some odd language. They were at his back, his front, his sides. Hands everywhere all at once. He tried to shoo them away by hitting them with his newspaper and his open hand. He grabbed a hand that was inside his overcoat pocket then turned around to stop a kid from pulling his wallet out and that took his focus, because he didn’t want to lose his documents. The kid – with unkempt hair, dark eyes and ratty clothes – was smiling but was biting his lip as he tugged at the wallet, yanking again and again to get it out of the man’s back pocket.
The officer tried to slap the kid but he ducked and then there was sharp electronic “bing, bing” in the subway station and the kids were gone. Completely swarmed by youngsters one minute, the next, they had stopped yelling and leaped away. The man, getting his balance, looked up and saw a tall dark man standing in the door of the subway, holding it opened against the constant sounding door-ajar “bing, bing.” All the kids scampered by him, safely aboard. A few waved gleefully as the train left the station.
They had taken most of his money… almost every dollar of that enormous amount. In no more than a dozen seconds.
In the sudden quiet of the empty underground station, the agent collected himself and then carried on.
Hqs was not pleased when they got his report. Eventually he suffered career ending consequences.
The incident sent shivers down the spines of everyone in the local station, because they had to work on those streets every day. Gangs of young thieves – some coming from other countries – were a constant menace, targeting tourist and other foreigners primarily, but going after anyone who looked prosperous. They operated on plazas where tourist congregated and also near bus and subway stations. Everyone at the CIA station made renewed vows to be absolutely professional at all time on the street and to stay out of the grasps of the local young thieves.
They also checked their wardrobes to make sure they dressed down to the common level of working people when they went out on the streets.
Late one Wednesday afternoon several months later, a CIA officer from the station went out to pay a local agent. Coincidentally he ended up at the same subway stop were the Headquarters officers was robbed. He was well aware of where he was and what had happened before. He buttoned his worn overcoat to the top and locked his arms around his chest, pulling the slack of the coat to the front, took a deep breath, put his head down and was quickly out the door as soon as they stopped.
He was immediately swarmed by kids, pushing him around, backing him toward the subway door. Yelling amongst themselves. Laughing.
The officer didn’t hesitate. He swung out both arms at the same time, catching one young boy on the temple who dropped to the platform floor. Turning he picked up another boy and used him as a bat against another youngster, screaming now as loud as he could.
As he was widening his stance ready to do more battle a large grown man dove in like a football player hitting the officer in the chest, knocking him to one side. He fought to keep his feet after stepping on one of the boys still down on the platform. But he was losing the battle – there were more men on him and he fell to the floor – so he sought to put his hands in his pockets, covering his money.
One of the angry men sitting on his chest asked in a very excited, very US mid western voice, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?”
The CIA officer had stepped off the subway train into the path of some US Boy Scouts on an international field trip rushing to make the train.
Sipping our wine there in that bay area, we all agreed that this CIA spy business is tough. You just never can be sure.
This was a late afternoon story… and some agreed later it was awfully cute to be true. But then who knows?