Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda
2013 | 216 pages | Cloth $28.95
Political Science | Military Science
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The 9/11 Aftermath
Chapter 2: A Return to Langley
Chapter 3: The Spreading Threat: Moving Beyond the Core of Al Qaeda
Chapter 4: The Second War: The Intelligence Problem of Iraq
Chapter 5: A New View at CIA: Deputy Director of the Counterterrorist Center
Chapter 6: The Years of Threat
Chapter 7: Watching Threats at Home: The FBI Calls
Chapter 8: One More Transfer: Intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
The Orange Bowl, Miami's iconic, rickety football stadium, was the venue for the glory years of Miami football—from the hometown Dolphins' perfect year of 1972, and their Super Bowl runs of the 1970s, to the rise of the University of Miami Hurricanes and their first collegiate national championship in 1982. When my parents moved the family, five kids, to Miami from Washington, D.C., in the mid-1960s, they bought season tickets to the Dolphins and held them for a few decades. My father often lent the tickets out, but he occasionally returned to Dolphins games after I left for college. It was part of growing up for me, watching the Dolphins in searing heat, and attending that first Hurricanes national championship victory in the Orange Bowl. It was there that my career started, and this story begins.
Months into graduate school studying English literature at the University of Virginia, things weren't going entirely smoothly. The students were too good—not competitive in a negative way, just too smart, too focused, and too driven. My grades weren't good, David Letterman was a great diversion on late-night television, and I soon understood that I would never be able to pursue a doctorate and settle into a professorship. As I searched for the next step, teaching kids to love literature seemed like a good option: until three-dozen high schools rejected my resume, all in similar letters that I taped to the refrigerator door. After earning a Master's degree in literature, I found myself working at a tiny newsletter publishing company in the suburbs of Washington. Not much of a career, wearing my dad's old suits, wide 1970s lapels and all, and commuting to a high-rise office building in suburban Bethesda, Maryland. Making $13,500 a year. It was clear this wasn't the future.
Until my father called. He told me that Al, our old seatmate at the Dolphins games and a man I had known from my childhood, had seen an employment advertisement in the Wall Street Journal. It was the years of Reagan budget bumps for defense, and the CIA was growing rapidly. They needed new people, and they were hiring. Only a month or two into the newsletter job, I already knew it wasn't for me. Not knowing anything about the CIA, it nonetheless sounded a lot more interesting than what I was doing. It was international, with the allure of travel and working with an organization with a brand name that inspired awe across America, and around the world. And despite my lack of depth on international affairs, I, like any reader of the daily Washington Post, had a regular diet of global events on my doorstep every morning. It seemed interesting. And it had to pay a lot better than my newsletter job.
There was no online Wall Street Journal in 1984, obviously, and no way I could think of to contact the CIA. Without Google, how did a prospective applicant submit a resume? Dial information and ask for the CIA switchboard? So, as an enterprising twenty-three-year-old, I hopped in my rickety Chevrolet Chevette, resume in hand, and drove right up to the front gate of CIA headquarters, in the leafy suburb of Langley, Virginia, off the George Washington Parkway that runs along the Potomac River. Security around CIA headquarters increased in later years, after terrorism at home became a concern and two CIA employees were murdered near the front gate. But when I drove up, I immediately found myself before the guard station at the entrance. No concrete barriers, no visitor center. I'll never forget it. "What do you want?" the armed guard asked. And, like naive college graduates the world over, I thought I had a good explanation for a rash drive across town to one of the most secure facilities in Washington. "I understand you are running newspaper advertisements for new employees, and I have my resume here," I answered, through a rolled-down car window.
It is hard to imagine what that guard thought, but I had no other option I could think of in order to offer my application to a place I'd only ever heard of in movies and books. I didn't have the Journal ad, which presumably had a forwarding address for resumes. He directed me to a nondescript building in nearby Rosslyn, Virginia, directly across the old Key Bridge from the exclusive townhouses of Georgetown. So I drove there, left the resume with a receptionist, and drove home, thinking that would be the end of that. A secretary at the entrance took my resume and said they'd "be in touch." That was the kiss of death for a job seeker, especially with a track record of three-dozen turndowns from high schools across the northeast.
A month or two later, I returned home to find a flashing red light on my answering machine—the old boxy type that now probably exists only in museums. I rolled the tape and knew instantly, despite my ignorance about intelligence, national security, or Washington itself, that this was the CIA. Declaring only his first name—Bob? John? Jim? I don't remember, except that it was not memorable—a voice on the other end of the line left a short, vague message, and a phone number. Please call, he asked, sounding appropriately nondescript. I was excited, hoping this was the way out of a first career step I knew would never work.
Another trip in my Chevette, whose engine at this point had the unfortunate habit of regularly cutting off entirely in 65-mile-per-hour traffic on Washington's beltway, the commuter highway that encircles the city. Another reason for a new job and a new salary: time for a new car, something to replace an inherited family heirloom that was turning out to be a deathtrap. Like many potential new hires, I was so excited, and so worried about getting caught in traffic, that I arrived perhaps 90 minutes early. I drove farther down the parkway, past the CIA complex, to stop at a fast-food restaurant for breakfast and coffee, and returned in plenty of time.
A battery of interviews followed. Psychological tests. A polygraph with a humorless questioner. Face-to-face conversations with managers. A test or two on general familiarity with world events, for which I'd prepared by trying to read the Washington Post every day. Despite the seriousness of the process, and the intimidating prospect of joining an intelligence organization, my enduring memories are humorous. I've had more polygraphs at this point than I remember—never fun, but not usually memorable. That first one was. I walked in thinking it might be a good idea to build rapport with the polygrapher. At twenty-three, I didn't know any better. So I told her that I was from a family of convicted felons, the Mudd family. All true: my great-great grandfather was the doctor who had set the leg of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. Booth broke his leg after jumping from the second floor of Ford's Theater, in Washington. He then rode a horse to the home of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, a Confederate sympathizer who had met Booth before the assassination.
Needless to say, the polygrapher was not amused. Many people know the old Civil War story of Booth's escape; she did not. The first step I had to take to find my way out of this hole was to explain why I had mentioned that I was from a family of a convicted felon. That took some time—she was not a Civil War buff. The second step was to endure the humorless polygraph that followed. No smiles. No rapport building. More like "Do you have anything in your background that might make you susceptible to blackmail?" kinds of questions. End of story. Lesson learned: never mess with polygraphers, a rule I kept during the many polygraphs that followed over the next quarter-century.
Without receiving any coaching on interview skills—I don't recollect even thinking about practicing how to answer the "what are your major strengths and weaknesses" questions—and with a naive idea that an interview was just a conversation with another adult, I also fumbled my opportunity for what was then known as the "CT" (career trainee) program. The interviewer posed the classic question: Can you describe one of your weaknesses? There began a conversation, an hour long, about procrastination, which I identified as a personal challenge I had faced in college and graduate school. Like every other student, presumably. But as the conversation dragged on, I continued to add detail, and we finished the entire hour-long interview having discussed only that one issue: procrastination. The CT program, at that time, was an avenue for the best and brightest recruits to undergo an extended training program. It was longer and with more experiences than the standard training exercises, and would prepare them for what promised to be fast promotions and promising careers. Following the interview, I was rejected. When I did join the Agency, I spent the first year or two meeting those who had made the cut, thinking that I had already slipped behind my peers in failing to get over the bar for that program.
Beyond interviews and the polygraph, there was one other minor hurdle that worried me. Shortly after I received the phone call and then proceeded through the interview process, the applicant office representative told me that a background investigator would appear at my employer to ask questions of my boss, the newsletter owner. I had one request: please let me know just a bit in advance, I asked. My boss doesn't know that I am considering leaving, and I want to tell him myself before a shadowy government investigator shows up unannounced to ask him questions about some odd, top-secret government job for an agency that the interviewing agent won't identify by name.
I returned from lunch one afternoon, some time later, to notice an older man (older to me, at least) waiting in the small sitting room of the newsletter offices. This was extremely rare: we were only a handful in the company, and we rarely had unannounced visitors. Especially visitors who said they would wait indefinitely for the owner. Who dressed in navy blue suits and white shirts. Who looked suspiciously like retired government employees now conducting background interviews.
I was petrified. Certain that this was the background investigator, I quickly realized both that there would be no advance notice and that I would have to approach my boss first, to announce to him, moments before he would host an interviewer, that I wanted to leave the business he owned. He was courteous, but both of us knew this job was not a good fit: within ten minutes, I had not only told him of my CIA interviews, but we had also progressed enough to agree that I would leave the firm, and my departure would come within two weeks. All this before he even spoke with the waiting investigator. Little did I know at that point, before the bulk of my background investigation had concluded, the high number of applicants who never make it through the review process. I quit the newsletter job thinking this background check was a formality, a box-checking exercise, which turned out to be a completely unfounded assumption, I later learned.
No applicant knows how long a background investigation will take. Six months? Nine months? A year? Longer? Two weeks after that fateful day, I was out on the street and unemployed, early in the summer of 1985, with nothing to do. My brother was living in a tiny apartment for the summer, plodding through Georgetown Law School and with his own summer break open. We decided, on the spur of the moment, to take a classic American road trip. New England sounded good: cooler weather, a great place to drive with an ancient station wagon. So we did.
Until Farmington, Maine, on July 4, 1985. Nothing serious, but another in the series of mild missteps that started a twisting, turning career of integration into a large bureaucracy, a dozen or so job changes, and ultimately assignments at agencies across Washington. My brother and I had decided that Washington was too hot, so we piled up the station wagon and headed out on a vaguely defined trip through the coast of Maine, by spectacular Acadia National Park, and along the rocky shore. At some point, we decided to head inland, toward Vermont and New Hampshire. That old station wagon had a big, pre-conservation engine that could really move. Assuming all rural police officers and sheriffs would be picnicking on the Fourth of July, I edged the speedometer toward 80 miles per hour in what turned out to be a 35-mile-per-hour zone. After some time, a cherry-red light appeared in the rearview mirror. Unshaven, in old Bermuda shorts, and shoeless, I stepped out of the car to find an extremely irate police officer. He yelled that he had followed us for some time, and directed me into his patrol car, after determining that I could not find the vehicle registration. I asked whether I could retrieve my shoes; he declined, in clear terms.
We found our way to the small police station, slowly talking along the way as he settled down. He initially told me he would charge me with three violations: for misdemeanor speeding, driving without a valid registration, and evading a police officer. (He said he had been following our speeding car for several miles.) He also got around to revealing—I don't remember how we transitioned into this subject—that he earned money on the side on a lower-rung professional wrestling circuit, using the persona of a police officer in the ring. Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, I suppose. In any case, this was my first and only visit to a holding cell, after a photograph and fingerprinting. I felt like a felon.
In the midst of July 4 celebrations, it took some time to find the county clerk so she could come into the jail to collect my bail money. An elderly lady finally appeared, took my money, and approved my dismissal. Months later, I pled (via mail) no-contest to the charge. Luckily, my brother's presence meant that he could drive the car to the station, following the police vehicle, and he drove me away from the Farmington police station to continue on our summer lark.
I was concerned, during the swearing-in ceremony the week I officially joined the Agency, that I might be the only person in the large audience collected in the CIA's "Bubble" (the auditorium next to the entrance of the main headquarters building) who would check "yes" in the box "Have you been arrested or convicted since you started the background clearance process," but the speeding ticket must have gotten by the CIA administrator processing those sign-in papers. Nobody seemed to notice. Another crisis averted.
Nine months after the CIA clearance process began, after the interviews, psychiatric evaluations, polygraph, investigators questioning old friends and visiting neighbors, I walked through the front doors of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. I look back incredulous at how little I really knew about a career change that would define my professional life. Still unanswered were basic questions about what job I would actually have—what is an analyst, after all, and what do they do every day?—and how long I would stay at it. I assumed in those first days and weeks that it would be for a maximum of two years. I'll try this, I figured, but I have no real idea what it is, aside from the fact that it looks interesting and pays better than my last job. But it'll never stick. It did stick, though, after many years of meetings with heads of state and briefing the president in the Oval Office, answering questions in the well of the Congress of the United States, traveling around the world, and seeing some of the most remarkable people doing some unusual and interesting things. It wasn't until twenty-five years later that I left.
This is the story of what I learned, after growing up and moving up in the CIA and then taking part in the campaign of my generation: the counterterrorism fight after 9/11. It is not only the story of what one lone junior officer did, as a Washington-based analyst multiple levels below senior decisionmakers in Washington. It is the story of what I saw, one bit of history that might help create a mosaic among hundreds of thousands of other stories, and just one angle on a complex counterterrorism campaign that is now into its second decade and that has defined the U.S. intelligence community and U.S. foreign policy. It is not a story about CIA secrets, which we were all sworn to protect when we entered the service, nor is it a critique of the many senior policy and intelligence officials with whom I worked. Observers who have spent more time watching Washington than I lament how divisive this city has become. This book was purposefully written to avoid participating in the nasty infighting here in Washington, or attacking senior officials from the safe seat of a former intelligence official who never faced the pressure of elected office himself. If that renders the book less useful, so be it.
This, then, is not a comprehensive history. Instead, it is only a simple snapshot, one slice of what it's like to be on the ground floor of something so big that no single person will ever see or understand all the angles. Like many of us who have left, I do not believe I will ever go back. But it was a heckuva ride along the way.