When I went through the CIA basic intelligence training course in late 1970, there were no women in my class. There had been women who had done the course before, but not many.
The work of the humint case officer overseas was basically a man’s game. He had three main things to do:
1) Maintain his cover. If he was found out to be a CIA person, he would be unable to operate covertly and he was usually sent home.
2) Spot, assess, develop and recruit foreign nationals who had access to information of interest to the US. This happened after his cover work was done for the day. It required untold hundreds of hours on the mean streets of the world. And it required an ability to befriend strangers and without their knowledge pick their brain to determine their access and susceptibility to work for US intelligence. And at the end to bend good candidates to the will of the US case officer, to get them not only to cooperate, but to do it without telling anyone. The recruitment argument had to be persuasive that spying for the US was the best thing for them to do. And verbal communications with the Chief of Station in the field and written communiques with Hqs had to be well composed to give CIA management the impression that the case officer was operating effectively and with good judgement.
3) Handle recruited assets. This took great attention to detail, especially in semi-hostile areas where the local service was trying to bust the case officer’s chops for espionage. Every meeting had to be arranged as if the case officer was trying to commit the perfect crime… to handle someone in a foreign culture, under the noses of those trying to catch him. And each meeting was a little theater in that the agent had to be re-assured he was doing the right thing. Sometimes agents were the underside of humanity and handling was a mano a mano struggle. His information had to be of value… otherwise, what’s the use. All intel reports were graded by Hqs. Too many low grades wasn’t good. When the case officer was finally back in a relative safe environment, his reporting had to be crafted to give the US intel community reader back in the states a factual reflection of what was goin’ on. There wasn’t the luxury of calling the agent to clarify any points, or to ask an obvious question missed at the meeting. CIA intel reports writing was a learned skill and there was no allowance for sloppy writing.
With the time required for cover work, agent development and agent handling, there was often limited time for family. Wives and kids just had to understand. If they couldn’t, their unhappiness could become a distraction, sometimes to the extent the case officer would have to return home short of tour.
Time-management was critical. There was danger involved. Stress in that overseas posting were often liquor-laced and every case officer carried around great numbers of secrets, that he had to keep vaulted in his head – sober, tired or intoxicated. Plus he was often in the company of spy handlers from other countries so he was, in that sense, monitored constantly.
Every case officer could expect a mentor during his first overseas tour – usually his chief of station or in larger posts, branch chief or chief of operations. There was little room to hide. A case officer was active and sent a lot of cables out, or he became obvious by his lack of production. Promotions were often the result of recruitments. Or agents that produced high grade reports.
A case officer overseas had to develop hard, sometimes cynical perspectives of their foreign environment and the people they work against… but they had to continue to maintain a sense of fair play and the morality of “the American way.” Case officers have to be grounded.
And it took verve, determination, smarts, persuasive people skills, a talent for writing, get-up-and-go, focus, good judgement, an understanding family and a certain love of the game.
Hard to determine who qualified for this job with normal human resources routines. How do you really decide who’ll be succeed in this demanding work, who wouldn’t?
You can get at smarts pretty easy… let’s say applicants had to have something over 125 on IQ tests, or something like that. Though this number was often confusing. Someone who scored, say 160, maybe would be just too much the thinker to work the streets, or someone with a 115 could have charm and organization that’d knock your socks off.
You want risk takers, generally, but you wouldn’t want cowboys or dare devils. You’d want people with an entrepreneurial spirit, but who at the end of each day had to understand that the CIA operations directorate was a government bureaucracy.
You needed people with upper mobility drive, who could operate in a Hqs environment, but who would be comfortable working for years out in the 3rd world.
And to be successful and more or less happy in the job, you had to swim with the sharks that the spy industry attracted. Natural born case officers make good friends among themselves, but they can be vicious enemies, too.
For those rare people who fit the bill, there is no job like a CIA humnit case office. Demanding, but with great personal rewards. And the CIA Directorate of Operations was small and, during my tenure, well organized to give everyone a voice. Enormously pleasing careers.
It was focused on field operations. In 1975 I was a Headquarters desk officer for a part of the world that Stu Methven was the COS. There was fortuitous timing in taking this assignment. Something like two weeks after I took the job, Stu, who was back at Hqs for consultations, came by and sat in the chair by my desk. I think the word count was like me 5%, Stu 95%. He talked about what was goin’ on out there in the place he ran, and how important I was to the success of what he was doing… how he would need this and that and the other daily. He asked for a commitment to help him do good.
And I said, yes. Absolutely.
While Hqs officers wrote my efficiency reports and more or less looked on themselves as my bosses, I supported Stu, and would later brief on DO operations by saying the Hqs desk officer worked for the COS, or shared allegiance with Hqs officers in support of the COS.
I did not know then, like I know now, that Stu had recruited me when we first met and in an agency that ran spies, he was my handler. All for the good of the mission.
In fact Stu was a master recruiter. Glib, he had obvious smarts. And charming? That was guy was almost illegal in his way of making friends. Presence? In all the traffic I read from Stu and about Stu, he was always the alpha animal. In the presence of Presidents and Kings, Stu was the man.
And write. Stu always – as I remember it – had a summary at the top of his messages. Nouns and verbs. Direct. Persuasive.
Sometimes from other countries I’d get in a cable with a good proposal that would be almost hidden in the body of the message… I’d get in something from Stu, though, maybe with something of lesser importance, but that summary – like a Headline on steroids – would capture my attention. Same with other Hqs readers.
Stu’s messages had presence.
Later in my career when I was a COS, I had contact with Hqs directly with the desk officer and tried to implement what I had learned from reading Stu’s messages years before, to some lesser extent… but also as COS, I had the feeling that I ran the show. If I wanted to send a message to the Chief of Division I could. If I wanted to send a message the chief of Operations in the CIA’s DO, I could… and by extension if I wanted to reach the Director of the CIA (DCI), I could.
As a field COS in the CIA I was 3 levels removed from the big boss. And if I was amind, I could have climbed those 3 levels easily in a message from the field. The CIA ran an organization that everyone felt plugged in.
Below is a plumbing chart of the CIA during my time. Not complicated. Fluid. Lean. I operated in the far right box of this chart, but in a chain of command that clearly put most of the emphasis on what isn’t shown, field operations. But there was connectivity to the top.
Nowadays, things are different. Trying to operate a clandestine service in a free democracy is necessary, but problematic. Seems that the public, or the media and politicians, want transparency in most everything done with tax dollars, but running intelligence operations requires secrecy, certainly for sources and methods. How do you reconcile secret operations in an open society? This conflict has weathered the CIA shell over the years.
For another thing, there have been changes to the CIA mission. In the cold war, we faced off against the USSR and Cuba and East Germany and China… big countries that could destroy us with their missiles and armies and subterfuge. But the targets were identifiable.
Now primary dangers to the American way of life have been in brought on by the population explosion. It isn’t 4 or 5 or 6 main enemies… it is a billion home grown enemies of the US that we have to guard against.
We are greatly assisted by all that salt water between us and the middle east and the far east, but real dangers lurk.
Plus with terrorism, we must fear fear itself. And fight to minimize its effort on our state of mind. Who could believe 50 crazy people from the Arab world could have changed our whole way of being on 11 Sept 2001?
It’s a tough target to work.
We always seem to be in reactive mode to what a few crazies are up to. And it isn’t their religion really, they are simply fucked-up-in-the-head people, killing themselves to gain attention, creating terror.
Worldwide people, I’m also convinced, are stupid. It isn’t that you get a crowd of people and they reflect the smartest thoughts among them. It is that you get a crowd of people now a day, and they reflect animal proclivities. Primal man instances. Culture and morality – intellectual qualities – get trampled in crowds.
And that’s the new enemy. Numbers. And Terror.
With these new dangers to our society, what kind of case officer does it take now for the CIA’s humint division to be successful?
Well the CIA faces distractions in its hiring efforts. And my guess is the number of staffers in the Directorate of Operations has not increased much going from cold war targets to the new threats today.
And you’d think this new thing is certainly more labor intense to work against than the old cold war targets. Plus we still gotta keep an eye on Russia and China and other assorted hold over from the cold war days.
Don’t know what the ceiling number is, but you can bet Congress keeps a lid on it. I don’t know but hiring may only be possible with attrition through retirement or resignations.
And there is now outside oversight… which protects our gov’t from egregious excesses in our pursuit of foreign intelligence and our covert ops. This umpire work makes the humint operations essentially risk averse. And with oversight by non-professional intelligence people, guidelines over time become confusing. For example CIA humint people were roundly criticized for interrogation techniques that made known and captured terrorist “uncomfortable,” at a time POTUS was killing suspected terrorist by drones.
And more to the risk averse thing… no Hqs person wants to put their name to an operation that might not work… not career enhancing. Yet there are no “slam dunks” in the field. Consider Tenet.
Also understand that our society’s emphasis on diversity effects hiring. How? Well, for one thing, my bet is that many women have been hired to do case officer work… just because. We have the experience from the 90s where selected male case officers in position of authority were summarily replaced by female case officers.
You can argue it would seem if you have a case officer who speaks Arabic, it doesn’t matter that much in the field whether that case officer is a man or a woman.
But then it might. Two tours in the 3rd world where the stink of shit hangs in the air. Who is most likely to take a third tour, a man or a woman?
And what do you do with someone hired to be a case officer, who won’t go to the field? Can’t fire them.
And it seems if the world is more dangerous, and the understanding of the case officer family is so important, that there is going to be less interested in going to the hell holes of the world, where numbers dominate, where there is less law and order.
And if perception or being politically correct is as important, or more important, as being effective, then it would seem that mechanisms would necessarily be created to enhance the appearance of political correctness.
Battered by these winds at Langley, below is an unclassified schematic of the CIA today. While I certainly don’t know for sure, like I said, I’d suspect that the number of staffer is about the same now as when I served, years ago. Look at it carefully… at the “Enterprise Functions” and “Mission Centers.” Compare this head-shed to the old CIA. Come to your own conclusions.