The Case Officer
I have been thinking about this topic for some time now, sort of reviewing my career at the CIA. I find it a complicated topic because it is hard to condense what being a case officer is into one blog post. As a result, this post might be a little disjointed, jumping around somewhat, but I will give it a try.
I chose to discuss case officers because that is what I was, that is what I know best. Case officers are not better than anyone else. The CIA employs numerous people in a variety of jobs that would be familiar to anyone in the private sector. There are people who keep the physical infrastructure running. They keep the lights on, make sure there is heat in the winter, and air-conditioning in the summer. They keep the building clean. Without them we would live in a plague zone, we are that sloppy. Thanks to them we have modern, clean facilities. There are people who handle finance and logistics, without which we could not run operations. The Directorate of Administration (DA) gets a bad rap because they are viewed as part of the "bureaucracy." But, in all fairness, when I was running the Iraq program they were the most helpful of any CIA department. When I needed two logistics officers they would say “No, you will need four. The first two will arrive Monday and we will send the other two next week.” They were proactive, extremely supportive, and helped us succeed in our mission of supporting the U.S. military. The chief of support for Iraq, Jim, was the best support officer I ever worked with. We could never have accomplished our mission without his effort and the effort of those officers who worked for him. I never met anyone who worked harder than he did, and he was a great human being.
The officers who work at CIA Headquarters (HQS) never receive enough credit. They work tirelessly to support field operations. If I needed information to help in an operation they found it. If I needed medicine for an asset that wasn't available in-country they got it and sent it to the station. They not only made my job easier, but they made me — and many other case officers — look good. I could go on, but to sum it up: everyone's job, everyone's part of the mission, is important.
Having said that, the case officer's job is critical. Without the case officer, there is no CIA. The CIA is a foreign intelligence collection organization. It is the case officer who goes out and collects this intelligence by recruiting and handling foreign sources, as well as conducting covert action. It doesn't make case officers better than anyone else, but their job is the most critical one. That is not a value judgment, I have met really shitty case officers who were terrible at their job, but it is that job that makes the CIA unique. A very, very senior CIA official (not a case officer) once told me that the CIA had a place at the table because the President can turn to the Director of the CIA and ask him or her what is going on in some country or region of the world, and the Director can pick up the secure phone, call the COS and pass on the question and get an immediate answer. The CIA sets the terms and level of discussion at policy meetings.
I won't discuss analysts here. They too play a critical role, but there are analysts at most policy level agencies in the US government. They do great work, but I don't feel qualified to discuss their role as much as I can discuss the case officer.
I have been to overseas stations without support officers, without reports officers, but I have never been to a station without a case officer. A friend I knew had spent a successful career in Africa. When the crisis happened in the Great Lakes region of Africa, involving the Rwandan genocide and war between the various nations in Central Africa, the CIA was caught flat-footed. We had closed the stations in Africa as a cost-saving measure. It was short-sighted, but the Soviet Union had collapsed, budgets were cut and the CIA had to find some way to save money. They sent my friend to find out what was happening. He took an African guide he had known for some years, a small communications package, money, and some weapons for self-defense. Within a few days of canoeing upriver, he was providing intelligence on events on the ground. Not the most elegant solution, but we had a viable station with one case officer.
THE MEN AND WOMEN OF THE CIA
Who are the men and women who make up the case officer corps? The best answer to that question is that we are America. We are recruited from across the country, from all walks of life, from every state. Maybe we have fewer minorities than we need, less ethnic representation than we should have because we are, after all, a foreign intelligence organization. We are better when we have people who understand foreign cultures from the inside, who can blend into the local population, but nonetheless, we are America. That comes with all the good and the bad. Every problem in modern society is reflected in the CIA.
There will be a high degree of patriotism within the CIA and the case officer corps. None of us will get rich working at the CIA, so there need to be other motivators to compensate case officers. We come with a sense of love of country, an idea that what we do, we do to protect the U.S. For that, we will sacrifice much. Case officers will have a tolerance for ambiguity given that we work in a shadowy world. Few things are clear-cut. We need to accept that ambiguity and still make the right decisions. Good case officers will have sound judgment, which is not found in all case officers, but in most. Case officers will have a strong sense of self-sacrifice, willing to do what it takes to get the job done. Frankly, given the things we have to put up with, we will have a small masochistic streak.
Case officers are also selected for their ability to work in the shadows. I don't mean in the dramatic sense described in the novels, but rather being able to work on our own with few accolades, never being able to tell most people what we do and our accomplishments. These accomplishments generally remain secret, while the failures are heralded in the news. Yes, there is teamwork, but in the end, once a case officer steps outside the doors of their station they are on their own. They will make life and death decisions, decisions that can impact the national security of the U.S., with no one else to advise them. One senior U.S. general working at the CIA told me how surprised he was at the authority given to relatively junior officers at the CIA, the equivalent of a military lieutenant or captain. He commented that the military wouldn't give that amount of responsibility to a colonel, let alone a relatively junior officer. We accept great responsibility.
During the most recent Iraq conflict, a Special Forces (SF) colonel came up to one of our officers explaining that he needed to provide funds to one of the tribal leaders helping the SF. DOD guidance at the time required the colonel to obtain approval directly from the Secretary of Defense. He said that such a request would take weeks, if not longer. He asked if the CIA could help, assuming that the CIA's approval process was faster than DOD's. The case officer opened his money belt and handed the colonel $50,000. He wrote out a receipt on an index card and asked the colonel to sign it. That was it. The colonel was shocked, confirming that the case officer had the authority. He did.
Handling stress is a given. All the authority and responsibility placed on case officers, and the results of failure, generate stress. When we were working the Iraq program, three of us — all senior managers — had a contest to see whose blood pressure was the highest. We would go down to the medical unit once a day and have a nurse read our blood pressure. We were having a grand time trying to beat each other. One day the nurse took the blood pressure of one of my friends, her eyes opened wide, she ripped the blood pressure cuff off his arm and said, "You need to go on blood pressure medicine immediately and I want to take an EKG." It was sobering. We were clearly heading towards serious health issues. In response to the problem, we used the case officer solution and stopped going to the medical unit altogether. A case officer needs to be able to handle stress. Most importantly, he or she needs a good sense of humor to deal with the stress.
The process to become a case officer is long. The hiring process, which includes an extensive background check and numerous tests, can take upwards of one year. Once accepted, the training process can take another year with stints at HQS to learn how the field operates, how to write cables and intelligence reports and to learn a bit about various units within the DO. This is followed by operational training at a secret, undisclosed location that everyone knows about. The attrition rate is high. I have heard that 1 out of 1500 applicants makes it into the CIA. The training program will eliminate another significant percentage. Even after successful completion of the training program, there is a two-year probationary period where case officers can be moved on to other roles within the CIA if they perform poorly.
Jumping to another — though related — topic, I have noticed throughout the years that case officers start to take on some of the characteristics of the areas they work in. For example, officers working the Soviet target (SE Division) tended to be a very secretive lot. They had to be in order to protect some of the most sensitive and important sources the CIA had. That left SE officers a highly paranoid group. It was even difficult to walk into one of their offices without an invitation. If you walked in they would look at you as if you were some Russian KGB threat.
Officers in Europe (EUR) primarily work liaison. By this I mean they develop close relationships with NATO intelligence services to cooperate on targets of mutual interest and to leverage capabilities some of these intelligence services have on a given target. EUR officers always had a bad reputation because they were seen as not doing traditional case officer work such as recruiting spies and worked nine to five jobs. That is somewhat unfair given that EUR officers produced excellent intelligence from our liaison partners and initiated many joint operations that led to successful conclusions.
The officers that worked the Middle East tended to be very tribal. They formed strong cliques that were difficult to get in unless you had served with them in previous iterations. There was a lot more conflict among these tribes than I was used to.
Officers in Latin America and Africa were more free-wheeling. Someone once described them as proconsular officers. After decades of covert action, coups and civil war in the different continents they tended to be more directly involved in influencing the various countries in their regions. One example from Africa: During one of the many coups in a particular country, the Chief of Station (COS) drove to the Presidential palace. The army had taken over and was swarming around the palace. The COS approached the nearest officer who seemed to be giving orders and asked him to direct him to the new man in charge. The officer was a little taken aback, but the COS was authoritative and seemed to be someone important so he took him to meet the new president, the colonel who had launched the coup. Without batting an eye, the COS said, "I assume we will have the same arrangement as I had with the last president." The colonel looked at the COS who said, "I pay you $2,000 a month and you tell me what your plans are and provide me access to the safe full of classified papers." The colonel looked at the safe, then back at the COS, and nodded yes. Few recruitments are that easy and simple, but you get the picture.
THE BEST OF US
Finally, I have met some of the finest people you can find as a result of my former job. Some of the individuals have been agents, those people we recruit to provide us with intelligence. They have proven patriotic, both to their country and the U.S. They were, in turn, funny, dedicated, intelligent, and courageous. Some have been colleagues from other intelligence services. They have helped us when we needed it, demonstrated daring, creativity, and equal patriotism and courage. They are represented by numerous intelligence services of many countries on different continents, but I will give a special nod to Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), who have stood with us time and time again, despite disagreements and conflicts. My deepest thanks, ladies and gentlemen.
Some of these fine people have been my fellow CIA officers. They have been individuals who have had my back on numerous occasions, people who I had no hesitation to trust with my safety. They have made me laugh, made me think, challenged my beliefs and ideas. They have made me a better officer, but more importantly, a better person. I will provide one example of these officers, without revealing too much. I will call him F. I met F early on in my career and served with him overseas in a war zone. We had very different responsibilities at the station so we did not work closely with each other, but I got to see him operate. F was a Vietnam veteran, common back then in the CIA, and had served with SF. He was sort of a big teddy bear of a man, easy going, never getting angry or ruffled. At times he was like a child. If you asked F to drop you off at the airport in the morning, he would forget. He would always miss meetings, forget appointments. He had a habit of leaving his car keys locked in the car.
One time he called the station technical officer explaining he had locked his keys in the car, for about the tenth time. Each time the technical officer had shown up at the car, used a slim jim to open the car door, and retrieved F's keys. Once again, the technical officer arrived and met F who explained his dilemma. The technical officer went to his car, retrieved a crowbar, and smashed F's car window. "Now maybe you won't lock your keys in the car," was all he said and drove away.
That was F. However, if you needed to be extracted from someplace upcountry, F was there when needed. He had taught himself to fly a helicopter. He would fly into a firefight, oblivious to the bullets whizzing around, and land the helicopter and extract whoever needed help. At those times, at one's moment of need, F found the ability to be on time and would place his life in jeopardy to save yours. You could place your life in his hands and he would be there.
Many times you will see former CIA officers on TV or in print criticize the CIA for one thing or another. Most times the criticism is valid. What you need to understand is that most of the time the criticism is not anger or hatred toward the CIA itself or the men and women who serve. It comes from disappointment when the CIA fails to live up to expectations. The CIA and the Intelligence Community as a whole are considered by its members to be one of the greatest places to work. While frustrating at times, there is still a sense of purpose, a sense of mission. It is when those expectations are not met when the men and women of the CIA see their managers and leaders fail them, that criticism arises.