You ever drive through a neighborhood around Christmas looking at all the holiday yard decorations and you turn a corner somewhere and holly shit, there’s a house just lit up like you haven’t seen before? Just stands out, with all the do dads and shiny things and flashing lights. If this is the kind of thing that impresses you, you just go WOW…
I was a desk officer for the CIA’s clandestine corps, reading cables coming in from the field, and doing Hqs support work when those cable called for it. Cable after cable after cable… it was like the post office, it just kept coming and coming and coming. It was back in the day before office computers and I’d have a stack of incoming messages on my desk, in piles, prioritized. I’d work the “Immediate” precedent cables first, and then get down to the “routine.”
Even though we’re talking the business of espionage, some of the traffic was just boring.
But then, like that house with all the lights, I’d pick up something from Stu Methven, a Chief of Station in the area of the world I monitored. His stuff startled – conspicuously stood out from all the rest – with his adjectives jingling, verbs getting busy, nouns sparkling, distinctive sentences shouting out a message. Sometimes you’re read his messages and go WOW.
For one thing he had a very persuasive way of writing. And an old intel axiom is that nothing happens in the field until it is reported to Hqs. Stu wrote descriptive prose. He could say in a couple of paragraphs what others struggled to say in pages. With an expansive, colorful vocabulary, he could make his point clearly in a matter of a few words. That man could write. There were some people in Hqs that once they said something at meeting, it was like that was the last word on the subject, so no one argued. Same way with Stu in his written cables. Stu would say, OK this is what I think about that… and that was it. Pretty much.
Sometimes a run-of-the-mill case officer would propose something from the field that would make ops sense, but so poorly argued to Hqs that it was hard to get its full meaning without reading the whole message and knowing the history of whatever it was.
Then something would come in from Stu and there was no waste, his lean writing style clearly stated his proposal, almost in the first word of the first sentence of the first paragraph.
Guess which got the action? Not that it was necessarily the best idea, but Stu was a master of clarity. So often he employed just the right word to make himself understood… and we’re talking gov’t writing here. Not for sale in a bookstore. It was a piece of gov’t business that originated in Stu’s head out there in the field for our consideration in Langley. But brilliant.
Sometime I’d just start reading a message without seeing where it came from, and in a sentence or two, knew it came from Stu.
I don’t think his writing style was something that can be taught. Stu Methven just had a great aptitude for espionage and he had a great facility for communications.
In sort of a side-story to this essay on Stu, the first time I met him was at a cocktail party at Jim Potts’ house in Georgetown. I don’t know if Potts’ was a dollar a year man like several other rich Agency officers, but he came from big money. His Georgetown estate was grand with a Spanish style inter-garden and a full piano in the study and just rich looking stuff everywhere. Stu was coming in from his overseas post after getting something significant done and the party was a welcome home as much as an Atta-boy. Brenda, also with the CIA, was working for the Chief of Security of the Clandestine Corps at the time and was invited to the soiree along with her boss and his wife. I was held up at Hqs doing something and was late getting to the Potts house. Had no supper. Brenda and her boss were standing in the middle of the living room, and after getting a drink I joined them. Stu was over in a corner entertaining the VIPs. The drink did a marvelous job of loosening me up and by the time I got my second drink I was telling jokes… that were tame and sort of OK. A tall gentleman joined us and something he said made me think of a racy story and I launched into it, ending the story with a necessary nasty word to give the story kick. It was funny and the tall guy almost spit his drink on Brenda’s boss’s wife he laughed so hard. He told a story and then I told another story and the boss and the boss’s wife excused themselves and we told another couple of stories – one I sort of elbowed the tall guy in the ribs as I finished – and the tall guy excused himself to get another drink telling us not to move. Out of hearing, Brenda still with a smile on her face said, “Will you act like you belong in this nice house and not some barn. That is the Deputy Director of the CIA , Henry Knoche.”
He came back and I was standing at attention.
But I was able to spend some time with Stu later at Hqs. Just a grand guy, who had people skills like Jordan could play basketball. He could work people like a carpenter hammering nails. One on one , he’d own your ass in few minutes’ time. No world leader in whatever country he served would dominate the relationship. Stu just naturally had his way with people… some girls had no chance whatsoever.
Yet few people knew this guy. He wrote a book published by the Naval Institute Press in 2008 titled “Laughter in the Shadows: A CIA memoir.” It’s gone almost unnoticed. But you buy it. It tells the story about the shadowy life he lived overseas and some of the things he did… but I’m not so sure just anyone can appreciate it, unless you served in the places he served, with the people he served with. He had to use alias for most all the people in the book, and made up names for all the countries. But the book’s in the Stu Methven style. I read it, remembering how he wrote officials cables way back then. What a great read.
For the people who have asked me for more in the way of CIA operational stuff, go read Stu’s book. Some of that’s me… though I can’t write as well or bend people to my will as effortlessly. But I had the same thrills and spills. Change just a few of the details in some of the spots and that’s me. That’s what I did, sort of, but not as well.
What follows is a November 2009 Q and Q Stu had with Pau Davis of the International Association of Counterterrorism and Security Professionals (IADSP). It provides a little more insight into this CIA legend:
“My Q & A with CIA Veteran Stuart E. Methven, Author of ‘Laughter in the Shadows: A CIA Memoir’
Stuart E. Methven, a graduate of Amherst with a master’s degree from MIT, was a career officer in the CIA from 1952 to 1978. His book begins by describing his CIA training in the clandestine arts and he is then assigned to a country in the Far East he dubs “Bushido.” He later becomes involved in a nation-building effort in a country he dubs “Cham.”
His next assignment was in South Vietnam; Methven spent four years in the mountain and delta provinces of Vietnam. He was then given a sabbatical to attend MIT’s School of International Studies. Afterwards, he is assigned to a Southeast Country he dubs “Samudra” as the deputy Chief of Station.
His final assignment is in Central Africa where he serves as a station chief. He heads a covert operation that attracts Soviet and Cuban military intervention.
Ronald Olive, author of Capturing Jonathan Pollard: How one of the Most Notorious Spies in American History Was Brought to Justice, said Methven’s book is an intriguing memoir and offered rare insights into the trials, tribulations, success and failure spanning 27 years through the eyes of a CIA operations officer in Asia and Africa.
“The author is one of the unsung heroes of the CIA who dedicated his career promoting democracy and freedom by putting his life on the line to achieve those goals, in locations and some countries never before heard of by most. Methven, now 81, was interviewed by Paul Davis, IACSP’s online communist (Threatcon) and contributing editor to the journal.
IACSP: I read your book and found it interesting and often amusing. Was your career with the CIA personally rewarding?
Methven: Yes, I enjoyed it and I was sorry to leave, but it was an enjoyable career and I have nothing but good things to say about the outfit.
IACSP: Why did you use fictitious names for some of the countries you operated in but not others, like Vietnam?
Methven: Vietnam was no problem anyone back at the agency, but when I submitted the book initially, I sued fictitious names for countries because there were lots of things goin on in those places. I didn’t want to get into the business of violating security, so it was much easier to use a blanket. A lot of those things were lifted, but I just left it in there.
IACSP: But you don’t have to be an intelligence analyst to figure out what the true names of the countries are.
Methven: No, no. Everybody has been able to figure them out, except my own cousins, who looked them up in the World Atlas. That was just a precautionary measure.
IACSP: What would you consider the highlight of your career and the biggest disappointment?
Methven: I think the highlight of my career was up there in North Cham, as we called it, and probably my disappointment were when we had to pull out of certain places. The job was not finished, that’s all.
IACSP: Are you talking about Africa, as well as Southeast Asia.
Methven: Yes. I understood the reasons, but it was still a disappointment.
IACSP: Like many memoirs from CIA and military officers I detected very little bitterness.
Methven: I’ don’t have any bitterness. I point out in the beginning for and I have no regrets. I’ve been out of it for quite a while so I can’t speak for what goes on now, but in those days it was a very supportive outfit to work for and we had a great bunch of people and esprit de corps, even though we may have seemed naïve in the end.
IACSP: Do you think that Vietnam would have turned out differently if South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem had not been assassinated in 1963?
Methven: I think it was a mistake killing Diem but how it would have turned out, I don’t know. I think David Halberstam of the New York Times and all those guys had an ax out against Diem, which I think in the end was wrong, I’m not a policy maker, but I can’t hold my agency responsible for it. I think Vietnam was quite a misunderstood war. Looking back, I think we started out fine, it was a good cause, but I think it turned around. I recall the story of an American Colonel in Paris at the end of the war and the American said, “Well you know, we never lost a battle during the war.” And the Vietnamese replied, “That is true, but it is also irrelevant.” I think that some of the critics of the Vietnam War are irrelevant.
IACSP: Militarily, we basically won the Vietnam War after the Tet Offensive in 1968, but we went on to lose the psychological and political war when American politicians turned against the war and would not financially support the South Vietnamese when the North invaded the South in 1975. Of course, there were no American combat troops in-country at that time, so the Communists never defeated the American military. I think it was a tragedy that after all of our sacrifices we pulled up stakes and left Vietnam to the communist. I’m concerned that we are going to do the same in Afghanistan. I see some parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan, do you?
Methven: Afghanistan worries me. I see some of the parallels in the Afghanistan situation. It does not look very bright over there. I think it’s going to be a tough one for Obama. I’m reminded when we tried to buy up the opium crop in my day and now they are they are trying to do it again. The DEA has some guys in the slammer. I don’t envy them their jobs.
IACSP: You book was humorous and you readily admit some mistakes. Was that attitude welcome in the CIA? It was not always welcomed in the Navy or the Department of Defense in my experience.
Methven: No I never got any recriminations. The agency was run by a group of very understanding people and they sort of let you go with it. Often there were political decisions I disagreed with. I grew up in the Army. My father was a military officer and I knew we are not the guys who make the decisions. We have to live with it.
IACSP: I got the impression that you relished using tradecraft the tricks of your trade to undermine the communist around the globe. You tell some good stories in your book about the game of espionage. Some critics argue that espionage is immortal and we have no rights to interfere in other nations. How would you respond to that criticism?
Methven: Well I think that is naïve. Espionage is the world’s second oldest profession.
IACSP: It should be noted I think, that nearly all of the actions the CIA has been condemned for over the years came from presidential direction – from both Democratic and Republican presidents. Does it bother you that the CIA is often portrayed negatively in books, the press, on TV and in the movies?
Methevan: I was talking with someone today about the movie on Air America, which was a disaster. The Air America people were helping us and they were very courageous people. They were not opium smugglers. I can’t say what went on after I left, but I thought that film was a distortion. I haven’t a clue about half of the things they are accusing the agency now, but I suspect that you will find half of it is unjustified. The CIA is a ripe target and people are looking for scapegoats for what goes wrong. I don’t want to comment on the current situation because I knew so little about it. In general, the agency has always toed the line. These conspiracies about the CIA assassinating Kennedy and all that stuff is baloney. In the CIA, successes are unknown and mistakes will be heralded.
IACSP: I spent 37 years in the government and I tell the joke that if the government had been involved in the Kennedy assassination, we would have hit Jacqueline.
IACSP: John Kennedy was very popular with military and intelligence people, was he not? He was a World War II Navy veteran and he championed the Green Berets and stated the Navy SEALs. He was a Cold Warrior.
Methven: I was in Cham, as I called it when Kennedy came on television and said we are going to draw a line in the sand there. The got murky as time went on, but he was very popular with the CIA.
IACSP: You knew and worked with some of the legends in intelligence history. Who were the most impressive people you knew that you can talk about.
Methven: The greatest guy I ever worked with was Bill Colby. He was my boss when I was in Southeast in Southeast Asia. He was one of the most understanding and knowledgeable guys around that time. I was always impressed by Dick Helms, but I can’t say that I knew him. I knew Lou Conein. We were great old pals. He was sort of a soldier of fortune. A lot has been written about him and I would subscribe to most of it. A writer asked me about the Meo tribesmen and I told him about my place in it the article came out and he described me as a “dashing Amherst graduate with pearl-handled pistols.” They me mixed up with Conein. I never carried a pearl-handled pistol in my life. Conein was a good friend and he had a fabulous career. We were all out there together.
IACSP: We did you write this book? What was your primary purpose in having the book published?
Methven: Well we were spinning yarns and people would ask why don’t you write it up? When I first got out of the agency I didn’t have a lot to do and that’s when I started the book. Then I shelved it for a while as I did odd jobs to support my family and then I dug it out again.
IACSP: And we’re glad you did as we enjoyed the book. Thank you for talking to us.
Lucien Conein, 79,
Legendary Cold War Spy
By TIM WEINER
JUNE 7, 1998
Lucien E. Conein, one of the last great cold war spies, whose swashbuckling tales of war and death and sex, almost all of them true, form an enduring legend at the Central Intelligence Agency, died Wednesday of heart failure in Bethesda, Md. He was 79.
He ran agents behind the Iron Curtain in the early 1950's. He was the C.I.A.'s contact with friendly generals in Vietnam as the long war took shape there. He was the man through whom the United States gave the generals tacit approval as they planned the assassination of South Vietnam's President, Ngo Dinh Diem, in November 1963.
He was the chief of covert operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration in the 1970's -- a job he imperiled by publicly declaring his honorary membership in the Corsican Brotherhood, a syndicate said to be skilled in smuggling certain controlled substances.
He was decorated by four nations and recruited by the Watergate burglars (he turned them down, and later boasted, ''If I'd been involved, we would have done it right.'')
Mr. Conein also told fellow spies and more than a few journalists that he had served in the French Foreign Legion, which may or may not have been true, and that he had lost two of his fingers on a dangerous secret mission. In fact, he lost them fixing the engine of a car carrying him and his best friend's wife to an assignation, so the story had a basis in truth.
These stories were often told in a smoky restaurant at a table holding empty wine bottles and a dwindling flask of pear brandy, said Stanley Karnow, the historian and author of ''Vietnam: A History'' (Viking, 1983), who spent 70 hours interviewing Mr. Conein (pronounced co-NEEN) for a proposed biography. The project was abandoned when Mr. Karnow decided that his subject was beginning to resemble Somerset Maugham's fictional spy Ashenden, a man so consumed by espionage that he cannot sort out his cover stories from the story of his life.
'He was out of his time,'' Mr. Karnow said. ''He was the swashbuckling soldier of fortune -- the guy who has ceased to exist except in fiction. A marvelous storyteller. Whether the stories were true or not was beside the point. They were almost always almost entirely true.''
Born in Paris in 1919, Mr. Conein was sent to Kansas City to live with an aunt, a French war bride, in 1924. He raced to enlist in the French Army when World War II erupted in 1939. When France fell in 1940, he made his way to the United States and joined the Army, which assigned him to the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime spy service.
The O.S.S. trained him to parachute behind enemy lines. In 1944, based in Algiers, he was dropped into occupied France to rendezvous with the Resistance. In Algiers, during a different liaison, he conceived his first child with a Frenchwoman who later became the first of his three wives, Mr. Karnow said.
With France liberated, the O.S.S. sent Mr. Conein to southern China to join a French-Vietnamese commando team assigned to attack a Japanese post in northern Vietnam. He formed an attachment to Vietnam, an affair that ended badly for both.
When the C.I.A. was begun in 1947, Mr. Conein was on board. He infiltrated saboteurs into Eastern Europe and trained paramilitary forces in Iran. In 1954, he was sent to Saigon, where he laid down caches of arms -- in coffins, buried in cemeteries -- for anti-Communist uprisings that never came. He also met and married his third wife, Elyette.
He returned to Saigon in 1962, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, as the C.I.A.'s liaison between the American Ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, and South Vietnam's top generals. In that role, he delivered a message that the generals read to mean that the United States would not object if they assassinated the President, Mr. Diem.
''Few secret agents are ever given the opportunity to scale the professional summit by arranging the overthrow of a government,'' Neil Sheehan wrote in his book, ''A Bright Shining Lie'' (Random House, 1988). ''Conein was transmitting the power of the United States to influence these generals to do its bidding.''
The war did not go well for Mr. Conein. He was increasingly unhappy as a small covert operation grew into a huge military disaster. He retired from the C.I.A. in 1968 and contemplated a war-surplus trading venture in Vietnam. In 1971, he declined an offer from E. Howard Hunt, another retired C.I.A. officer, to join President Richard M. Nixon's ''plumbers,'' the secret team that bungled the Watergate burglary.
From 1973 until 1984, Mr. Conein ran secret operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Much about these missions remains secret, although Mr. Conein became a public figure of sorts in 1975 by candidly testifying about his role in the Diem killing to a Senate committee investigating the United States role in the assassination of foreign leaders. His own role, he testified, ''was to convey the orders from my Ambassador to the people who were planning the coup, to monitor the people who were planning the coup, to get as much information so that our Government would not be caught with their pants down.''
Mr. Conein, who is survived by his wife, Elyette, six sons, one daughter, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on July 14, Bastille Day.