The CIA Directorate of Operations (the clandestine service) has always hired and promoted smart, articulate people with presence and moxie. It is not a place where the meek inherit anything. The meek get chewed up and spit out the back door.
I was assigned to Africa Division at a time a CIA Task Force for operations in Angola was run by John Stockwell with Bill M. and Jon R. as his co-deputies. All 3 had enormous personalities. All 3 made big names for themselves in the clandestine service. M. and R. as the best of the breed; on the all-time, all-star effective CIA Case Officer team. Stockwell is remembered – by me – as a muddled-minded doofus. He had presence, a big ego, was smart but made no effort to be likeable. Someone said the “receive” button on his brain’s transmitter was broke.
Stockwell had a private office in the section of CIA headquarters dedicated to Angola operations and right outside his door were two secretary desks. I sat at the one on the right. For three or four months another UNC grad, John B., sat on the left. John had been in the USAF working the command and control Air Force plane over Long Tieng, Laos when I was there. He would go on to eventually take over CIA operations in Angola, but for a few months we worked together as Stockwell’s assistants.
Stockwell claimed that he grew up in Africa, either the son of missionaries or oil executives in Cabinda, depending on when you talked to him. He had a rugged look about him and a full head of black hair. He wore a large silver cross on a lanyard around his neck. Sometimes in conversations, he would move the cross in front of his CIA badge either to indicate that he worked for a higher authority or that he was a vampire hunter and the cross was warding the off evil spirits of the person he was talking to.
He came into the Agency with a preconceived notion of what an intelligence officer should look like. This involved a pipe. Maybe he had seen this in some movie. He brought several to the training site and a big tin of tobacco and he would sit at the back of class and work meticulously to clean the pipe-of-the-day and then fill it and pack it and light it with a special lighter that fired the flame down. And he would lean back in his chair, there in the back of the classroom and draw slowly, deeply from his pipe bowl of tobacco and then blow the smoke out through pursed lips.
Stockwell was an individual who desperately needed to be humanized. One day when he was away from his pipe accessories some of his classmates took the shavings from a pencil sharpener and mixed them in his tin of tobacco. Not quite half and half, but close; in the tin the pencil shavings were indistinguishable from the tobacco. The next time this young intelligence officer candidate smoked his pipe he looked like he was firing a little wood stove there in the back of the room. And even though he was almost lost in a smoke cloud of tobacco and pencil shavings, he didn’t know. He was oblivious to others snickering around him. He never knew.
And I don’t think he cared.
He rode a bicycle to work; someone said he paddled across the Potomac River to get to CIA Headquarters in Langley in a kayak. I’d pass him sometime at the end of a workday peddling his English racer as fast as he could out the northern gate towards the parkway and the Potomac. He would wear racing gear; goggles and a helmet before they were mandatory. Speeding by on his racer he looked like some super hero on his way to save Gotham City.
He was always busy, always thinking; there was no doubt about that. Fluent in French and several African dialects, he had a way with African visitors. He didn’t come across as Tarzan as much as he did a white African tribesman.
But I think he was crazy. I had occasion to talk with him about his social relationships, and everything was just weird and jumbled up. He was getting divorced, or was divorced, or was married or was thinking about marriage, I never got it straight. There was an adopted child, a step child maybe, in Texas, overseas. Who knows. He never had time to be clear about his personal goings on, he had this to do, that.
Once I was in charge of a security delegation from a small African country that was visiting the CIA as part of an officially sanctioned good will trip to the states. In arranging their schedule in Washington, DC, I decided to sign them up for the VIP tour of the White House. This was at a time local luminaries and foreign officials were still permitted private tours, but there was enormous paperwork and security vetting involved. Several times I had to hand carry information on my visitors to the Secret Service offices in the Old Executive Building. I had to overcome some initial suspicion by the Secret Service because some of the names on the first list received from the field were aliases. One name was something like “Mr. Bongo-bongo” which sounded legitimate to me, but to those more familiar with African names, it was pure hokey. Another name, unbeknownst to me, was a cartoon character in that particular country. Apparently the men coming didn’t want the CIA to know, or have on record, their real names. When forced to present their passports in getting on the list for the Washington, DC trip, more reasonable sounding names came forward, names the Secret Service were able to verify with the State Department consular department. Then there was the thing about the timing. These VIP tours were booked long in advance and when my group’s visit was delayed for a few days; all reservations were affected, including the White House visit.
The US visit did finally take place, not without incident, but the White House tour went by just fine. When I finally put the people on the plane back home, I came back to Stockwell exhausted. He didn’t understand why. Well for one thing he was busy doing this and then there was that to do and the other before he got on his bike and peddled madly towards the Potomac.
A few months later a very high ranking African official was coming to town and he asked specifically that John Stockwell escort him around. He was going to be here for two or three days to attend some official functions, and then was off for home via the UN in New York City. I kept asking John what he was going to do with the guy when he was in town, and John kept saying they’d play it by ear. There was plenty to do, plenty of time.
The day the guy arrived I was sitting at my desk at Headquarters when John telephoned to say that he had been talking with his visitor and he wanted to go on that VIP tour of the White House in two days. I said there was no way. Absolutely, positively no way Secret Service was going to allow it on such short notice and he told me that he didn’t want to hear that negative, “can’t” shit. He expected me to line up a VIP visit in two days hence and he’d call back the next day for the time. And the phone went dead.
Throughout Headquarters building at that exact moment, there must have been others who faced more daunting, more important challenges, but it didn’t make my work easier. I got some particulars on the visitor and took the CIA shuttle to the Old Executive Building where I visited the Secret Service friends I had made there previously. Nope they said, absolutely no way, sorry, not possible, we don’t make exceptions, that’s it, good-by, so long. I nodded silently only I didn’t leave. Stockwell just would not understand. So I went over to some chairs in the Secret Service admin office and sat down. The Secret Service people pretended not to notice, but they did and finally one of the ladies came over and asked what I didn’t understand about not getting the VIP ticket for my visitor and I said that I understood but I couldn’t go back to my headquarters because my boss wouldn’t understand. And she sighed, finally inviting me to sit beside her desk as she looked at what was scheduled that day, and found, by an act of God, that there had been a cancellation for one of the two tours scheduled the morning two days hence. She would have to redo the entire security folder for the day to insert my boss’ visitor, but she’d do it. She didn’t know why, because Lord knows she had plenty to do already.
So I went back to Langley, proud as punch. I waited for John to call that day, but he didn’t, he called early the next morning and I told him against all odds I had gotten the VIP ticket to the White House for his buddy at such and such a time the next morning and then sat back ready to be congratulated for doing a difficult job far beyond the call of duty. Only, John ripped me for not getting him a ticket too. “What am I going to do, Parker? Sit in the parking lot while he goes through the tour? Huh? Huh? Are you a dolt? Get me a ticket too, numb nuts. I’ll call back later this afternoon and you better have something lined up.” And the phone went dead.
And I sat at my desk and just stared straight ahead. Finally I got up and told someone the story ending with a guess that I might not live through this, that the Secret Service probably had a Secret Service jail somewhere that they put pests like me. But I had no choice but to go back and ask for another VIP ticket to the White House.
When I walked back into the Secret Service office later that morning my friend from the day before looked at me without expression. When I sat down at her desk and told her what I was there for, she didn’t say a word. So we just sat there; her behind her desk looking at me and me in the chair looking back. She finally smiled and shook her head, saying that there was something else she had to do at the moment but she’d look and see if there was anything else she could do and call me, if there was. But really I had to go, she said, she was busy.
So I left to dragged-ass back to Langley, a failure. When I got back to my desk someone said I had just received a call from the Secret Service and I returned the call. My lady friend had found a way to get two VIP tickets but it required her to go down to the White House guard station at the first tour launch and take the ticket there for a guest who wasn’t going to show and use that one with the other ticket we had already reserved, so all told it would take her two trips outside and it was snowing. And no one to her knowledge had ever been given this kind of consideration and she hoped I knew how lucky I was. I told her I loved her, I loved her husband and her mother in law and her children and all the children in the free world because she was so wonderful. And she said thanks; she was looking forward to meeting this boss that caused all this trouble.
And John called back soon thereafter and I told him about how I had moved mountains to get two tickets and he said, “Yea, yea, yea.” He got the time for the tour and hung up.
Late the next afternoon John called. He had just put his visitor on the plane and he was calling to say he wouldn’t be in the next day. I asked him how they liked the VIP White House tour and he said they had decided not to go.