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  • Writer's pictureLuis Rueda

What Mistakes We Make - The Iron Commander - Part 1

(This is a true story with the names changed to protect the guilty and locations obscured.)

As we all know, CIA officers are well above average. We are smarter, better looking, and more agile than the average person. That is a well-known fact. We undergo a strict screening process to ensure that we are the best of the best. However, on rare occasions, a less than sterling candidate slips through, maybe one in a thousand. It is an anomaly, that rare event when the screening process fails to catch a potential problem, maybe one in a hundred. The vast majority of applicants do not even make the first cut. We undergo multiple interviews, aptitude tests, background investigations, and polygraphs to ensure the right people are accepted. However, no process is perfect and maybe one out of fifty applicants who should not be in the CIA gets through. Even after all this, there continue to be various points throughout post-hiring where a poor candidate can be weeded out. There are various courses, evaluations, trial periods, and such where that rare one in twenty shitty candidates can be removed. One would imagine that the process does an excellent job of weeding out undesirable elements. Yet, every now and then, actually more often than we care to admit, something gets through. By something I mean the incompetent, the unbalanced, the narcists, those who believe the CIA is a license to ignore the law. In that regard, we are no different than any other organization on the planet. In this post, we will look at one of the former, what the French call l'incompetente.

Once upon a time, there was a case officer. We will call him Dash Riprock. (Those who can identify where this name comes from will win my never-ending admiration.) Dash was a former Marine officer and looked the part. Steely-eyed, square-jawed, with neatly trimmed hair and mustache—he not only looked like a Marine officer but also what one would imagine a case office should look like. He dressed to the nines: crisp, starched shirts, neatly pressed suits that fit perfectly, pocket squares, cufflinks. He likely made his way through life based on his looks and confidence, and he had the latter in spades. He was full of energy, supremely sure of himself, and quick to take command. I don't know if there were signs or indications of future problems that were ignored during the selection process, but issues surfaced aplenty.

Before heading off to case officer training, new hires, called Career Trainees (CT), serve what are called interim assignments. These are a sort of paid internship. The new hires serve at several CIA Headquarters (HQS) desks and learn how operations are run from a safe distance. The new officer learns and the perennially short-staffed HQS unit gets free help. Dash was serving on one of his interim assignments on a desk that was part of a larger group heavily involved in multiple ongoing conflicts, which, in turn, were part of a larger US government effort to confront communist aggression. I will leave it to your imagination.

Dash volunteered to come in over the weekend to help out. The various conflicts were significant and non-stop, requiring the group to be staffed 24/7. Despite this Dash was told not to come in. As a CT Dash had little experience and no authority to make decisions, which was extremely possible during a short-staffed weekend. Despite being told to enjoy his weekend, Dash came in on Saturday and Sunday to see what was going on and whether he could help. Admirable.

There is a statement, which I will paraphrase, attributed to Clauswitz, among others. He categorized officers, and people in general, into four types. The first type was intelligent and hard working. He liked these the most for obvious reasons, they got things done. His second most favorite were the intelligent and lazy. They didn't do much but came up with good ideas and were enjoyable to talk to. His third favorite was dumb and lazy. While they did not accomplish anything they at least didn't make a mess. His least favorite were the dumb and hard-working because they created all sorts of problems. Unfortunately for the CIA, Dash fell into the fourth category.

During his self-appointed Sunday morning duty, Dash read a message from the field which requested authorization to spend $500,000. Like most organizations, the CIA has well-defined spending authorities, unlike what movies and books portray. The higher up you are on the food chain the larger the amount of money you can approve. The lower down the food chain the smaller the amount you can approve. As a CT Dash had no authority to approve the expenditure of money, zero. That Sunday, Dash sent a message to the field approving the $500,000. On Monday morning, when the desk officer first read the outgoing approval message, he blew a gasket and ran to the branch chief, who blew a gasket and ran to the group chief, who was the person with approval authority for $500,000, who proceeded to blow a gasket. By that point, however, the Director of the CIA had read the approval message (he has people who highlight important messages to him) and asked the Deputy Director of Operations (DDO) whether the $500,000 expenditure was worth it. The DDO, noting the name of the approving officer was not the group chief, called down to the Division Chief, the person responsible for the entire continent where the wars were being fought, and asked who the hell approved the money. The shit was rolling down and up at the same time.

A more rational organization would have taken this as a sign that Dash Riprock was not yet at the level where he could be trusted to tie his own shoes, but these were hard times. Multiple, large-scale covert action programs were being run around the world, communism was on the move and the US Administration was pushing the CIA to do more. A new crisis developed within a matter of hours, Dash was sorted out, and off he went to case officer training. Upon completion of his training Dash was given his first assignment, a station involved in that very same war for which he had authorized $500,000. A logical move.

Taking a step back, one of the first things newly hired Directorate of Operations (DO) officers do, and most CIA personnel destined for overseas work is to obtain what we call a pseudonym. This is sort of a code name used in most official correspondence, especially between HQS and the field. The idea behind this is that if any messages were physically lost or compromised, a hostile intelligence service would not be able to identify our officers simply by having their true names mentioned in the messages. The pseudo, short for pseudonym, is in itself classified.

In preparing for his new assignment Dash was issued a bulletproof vest. Normally one sends the vest to the new station via the diplomatic pouch, which is secure and also classified. However, pouches take a while to get there and Dash wanted his vest waiting for him when he arrived at post. He sent his bulletproof vest through the APO, Army Post Office. This is a military-run postal system used by the military and US embassies. It pretty much operates like the normal US postal system. Relatively fast and reliable. In addition to sending a bulletproof vest through the mail, with all the other letters, catalogs, and packages, Dash decided to address the package to his pseudo as an added layer of protection. The manager of the APO, a retired NCO, realized there was no one in the embassy with the odd name, correctly assumed it must have something to do with the CIA and brought it to the station. The Chief of Station decided to deal with it when Dash arrived. Crisis averted, yet another warning sign that Dash Riprock, all American, was maybe, just maybe, a little in over his head.

On his way down to his new post, Dash was seated on the plane next to two lovely local girls returning home from college in the US. Dash was single, a dashing diplomat, and keen on starting his social life as well as his professional life. He struck up a conversation with the ladies and proceeded to charm them throughout the flight. Yes, my reader, you guessed it, this operation did not go as planned. Dash made two crucial mistakes. First, again in his quest for security, he used an alias in introducing himself to the women. Just something he made up on the spot. Why? Beats me, I have no idea, but it is a pretty stupid thing to do when your plane ticket is in your true name. His second mistake wasn't really his mistake, just bad luck. One of the college students was the daughter of the deputy chief of the local intelligence service.

As a good father and intelligence professional, the deputy chief had briefed his daughter on good security practices. When he picked her up at the airport she told him all about the nice American diplomat she had met on the plane who wanted to go out on a date. Her father immediately ran traces on this diplomat and was told by the Foreign Ministry that there was no current or expected American diplomat by that name. He had the airline perform a search and they found no one on that flight by that name, though they did have a Dash Riprock listed as being seated next to his daughter on that particular flight. The deputy chief put two and two together and had a quiet word with the CIA deputy chief. Those were kinder, gentler days for the CIA, and the US government in general. Many countries would turn a blind eye toward US intelligence activities because the bigger threat was communism and the US was essential in that fight.

Dash had had his ass handed to him when he arrived at the Station over the mailing of the bulletproof vest. Now, just a few days later, he was handed what was left of his ass over the airplane fiasco. A duly chastened Dash dropped his head down and slunk away. A less capable individual, a normal person, would have been humiliated and kept a low profile, trying to learn from their mistakes. Not Dash. He would double down and show them that he had the makings of a great case officer. He would not be deterred.

Dash went about the day-to-day work of a case officer (C/O) and all was well....for a time. One of the more mundane but necessary skills of a C/O is time management. There is a lot involved in collecting intelligence and there is no simple agent meeting. What with surveillance detection, lengthy agendas, operational security, and writing up all the information after a meeting, it takes time. And when multiplied by several agents, a C/O must be able to effectively manage their schedule. Many of us have had to reschedule meetings or miss them altogether when something critical has come up. Dash was starting to feel the crunch.

Dash was tasked with conducting a technical operation, fairly common for first tour officers. He loaded the two technical officers in his car and headed for the location of the operation. Halfway through his surveillance detection run (SDR) he remembered that he had also scheduled a meeting with an intelligence source. Not wanting to miss the opportunity of obtaining possibly valuable intelligence, Dash asked the two technical officers to scrunch down in the back seat of the car and hide while Dash picked up his source and conducted the meeting while driving. Being good technical officers and accepting the fact that the C/O is always in charge, they did as instructed. The meeting was conducted, though the source kept staring into the back seat, apparently worried that these two men hiding in the back might be assassins waiting for the right moment to kill him. When the meeting was done and the agent dropped off, Dash continued on with the technical operation.

Also being good technical officers, they duly reported the events to station management because they believed the entire event to be a security problem. Couldn't agree more. As the British would say, Dash received a right good bollocking, an ass-whooping. He was humbled, he was contrite and would never do it again—until he did. A month later he was driving a polygraph operator to a meeting where a polygraph would be administered to one of Dash's sources. Dash was again running late and traffic was horrible, a log jam. If he did not hit his time window the source would leave, per instructions, and Dash would have to do it all again 48 hours later. Unfortunately, the polygrapher would be tied up with other polygraph tests and Dash's source would have to wait. Trying to make up time, Dash slapped on one of the station-provided sirens, designated to be used in case of emergencies in this war-torn country. Dash deemed his tardiness an emergency and turned the siren on. The polygraph operator stared with wide eyes in disbelief, virtually clutching his heart as all pretense of clandestinity was thrown out. But little did he know that worse was to come. This being a less than organized and obedient country, few people moved out of the way. In an act of desperation, Dash wheeled his car onto the pavement in order to pass by the stopped cars blocking his way. As Dash drove along the sidewalk an unsuspecting pedestrian stepped in the way, somehow believing that the sidewalk was solely for foot traffic. On this day he was wrong. Dash's car clipped the pedestrian and threw him to the side.

To be fair, it was more of a fast-moving tap. It did little damage. Dash saw the pedestrian get to his feet in his rearview mirror.

He turned to the polygrapher and begged, "Please don't tell management. I am already in enough trouble. Everything will be ok."

The polygrapher nodded in a state of shock, wondering how badly he had soiled his trousers. Dash turned the siren off as he passed the traffic jam and proceeded to the meeting site. Back at the station the polygraph operator did what any reasonable CIA officer would do and reported the entire incident to station management. At this point, it would be the end of a mortal's career, but alas, it was not to be. The local country was a wild and wooly place, worse things happened every day so it was unlikely that Dash's antics would come to anyone's attention. There were daily gun battles in the city and numerous assassination attempts. A car driving on the sidewalk wouldn't draw a comment. Dash was again saved. His downfall came several months later.

The local insurgents decided it was time to get the attention of the US government so they decided to launch a rocket attack against the embassy. Two to three rockets were fired into the compound, hitting the main building, one hitting the outer wall of the station. The chief and deputy were experienced officers, having served in several war zones and been under attack several times. They did what you expect competent station leadership is supposed to do. They walked around the station telling personnel to stay away from the windows, find shelter under a desk and stay calm. It was a harassment attack and not likely to be followed by any serious attempt against the embassy, and such it proved. When it was over the chief and deputy walked around checking to make sure no station personnel had been injured. They found Dash under his desk, healthy and hale. The problem was that Dash, a former marine, refused to leave the safety of his desk. No amount of cajoling could get him out from under his improvised bunker until he was given an official all-clear by embassy security.

This was the final straw. Station management viewed this as cowardice in the face of the enemy. They could tolerate many things, but not this. They were old school. Dash was sent home forthwith.

At this point, all that would be left was Dash's out processing, but again this was not to be. Duty and necessity called again and Dash was offered a new assignment, in a less hostile environment. He would survive to fight another day and prove his worth to America.

To be continued......

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