Obituary: Howard Bane
I only knew Howard by reputation when I was staff, but I was his friend as a CIA annuitant after September 11, 2001 when we were brought together out of retirement to help train a whole new generation of CIA case officers.
For you who didn’t have the opportunity to know that grand ol’ man, he was an irascible, well dressed, tough talking, cultured, unassuming, irrepressible, ass kicking curmudgeon who could discuss comparative religion and philosophy with the same ease that he could discuss effective clandestine tradecraft.
He had a character forged from decades of dangerous, important work overseas and he had enormous presence. Yet to see him, you smiled.
He was a gifted conversationalist - our latter day George Patton – and he did not suffer fools gladly.
New-hires in the clandestine service feared him and loved him.
He did more to make this country safe than most anyone you’ll ever know. And yet there were only a few dozen who knew his worth. That’s OK, he’d say, he didn’t do this CIA work for fame or fortune. He did it because he believed in the mission.
We loved him so.
God speed Howard. Good job.
Original CIA spymaster
August 2, 2007
By John B. Roberts II -
In our YouTube, media-saturated, 15-minutes-of-fame Warholian world, it may seem incomprehensible that there are actually people who keep their greatest achievements secret. They shun publicity, book and movie deals, and the unrelenting self-promotion that characterizes our era. They are spies, and not just any kind of spies, but the cadre of intelligence officers whose creativity, daring and discretion make them the CIA’s greatest generation.
They are an unlikely amalgamation of Ivy Leaguers, OSS veterans and country boys, who came together to form an elite organization. They served the CIA from its beginning through the gutting of the clandestine services under CIA Director Stansfield Turner.
Unlike today, when intelligence officers are recruited over the Internet and even through television ads, their recruitment itself was a clandestine affair. Secrecy was the foundation of their organizational culture. It was born of loyalty to one another, a sense of honor to the agents they recruited whose lives and safety depended on them, and to the cause they served.
Like World War II veterans, these spymasters are fast leaving us. Howard T. Bane, whom I was privileged to know over three decades, is one who will be laid to rest this week.
Howard’s 39-year career exemplifies the best of the CIA. He held the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the CIA’s highest award, and spent more than 20 years in overseas posts. Twice he participated in rebuilding the CIA’s capabilities, first in the 1980s as a Reagan administration transition team member and a member of the Vice President’s Task Force on Terrorism, and then again after September 11, when he returned to the CIA as a “re-employed annuitant.” Despite a cancer diagnosis, Howard worked until the end, calling the CIA his support group.
Early in his career, Howard showed an astonishing ability to pitch and recruit agents. In one three-year posting, he recruited 33 quality agents. He likened it to seduction, and had a rare talent for spotting junior politicians on the rise, insiders in foreign intelligence agencies and mavericks with unique access to hard targets.
He took up flying gliders to get close enough to pitch one particularly productive agent. When a coup in Africa overturned a pro-Soviet government, the Soviet ambassador had heart palpitations. Knowing that the diplomat had no access to an EKG, Howard took the U.S. Embassy’s machine and went to the Soviet’s heavily guarded residential compound, where he administered the test — and pitched the diplomat to spy for the United States. Such exploits earned him the nickname “Give-it-a-Go-Bane,” a paraphrase of the cables from headquarters OK’ing his more unorthodox agent recruitment proposals.
After years in the Third World, Howard became station chief in The Hague just in time for the Japanese Red Army terrorist takeover of the French Embassy. Howard kept his teams going in round-the-clock shifts and worked in tandem with the Dutch for the duration of the hostage crisis. It earned him a promotion to chief of the CIA’s first-ever Office on Terrorism.
Howard also handled risky covert actions. In one Cold War operation, the agency netted 1 million AK-47s stockpiled in Africa and flew them to Laos for use in the covert war there. In 1979, he ran the CIA’s end of Desert One, the Iranian hostage rescue attempt. The military failure at Desert One is well known, but the CIA’s exploits remain untold. Although the CIA’s clandestine capacity had been badly damaged by the late 1970s, Howard found one CIA asset, a Tito partisan retired in Italy, who returned to Iran under deep cover to prepare for the raid. Given current relations with Iran it is inappropriate to say more except that had there been no helicopter collisions at Desert One, the affair would have had a surprise ending.
In the early 1990s, Howard was among the first to identify militant Islam as a direct challenge to U.S. interests. He monitored events in the Middle East and Iraq very closely and was keenly aware of the shortfalls of U.S. intelligence. He deplored the CIA’s cutbacks in stations, posts and personnel. The shortcomings he identified were serious enough that in the summer of 2002 I wrote to my former Reagan-era associate, then-Chief of Staff Andrew Card, to urge him to discount intelligence purporting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
After September 11, Howard and other “re-employed annuitants” kept vital functions at CIA going so that the agency could rapidly staff up overseas stations with experienced younger officers. The CIA literally could not have expanded to cover the breadth of terrain required to combat terrorism without men and women like Howard willing to continue their service in their golden years. Among the things they have tried to pass on to the thousands of new intelligence officers brought into service since September 11 are the risk-taking, creative techniques and spirit that characterized the CIA’s “Silent Generation.”
Howard understood that there were no guarantees that a revitalized CIA would be his legacy. He hoped for it, but also recognized the bureaucratic and cultural obstacles. That isn’t what motivated his return to service. He did it because it was the right and honorable thing to do, without fanfare or acclaim, just as he and his generation have done from the start.
John B. Roberts II is an author and television producer who served in the Reagan White House.