The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA's Clandestine Service
Speaking with Henry A. Crumpton
Why did you choose Africa as the place to begin your espionage work?
Although having no experience or substantive knowledge of Africa, I had a brief training assignment in CIA headquarters Africa Division. I soon learned that Africa Division afforded rookie officers great opportunity to engage in a wide range of operations against many targets, including the Warsaw Bloc, Libyans, North Koreans, Chinese, and Iranians. In addition, the U.S. waged many of the hot, proxy battles of the Cold War in Africa and this offered unique espionage access, plus gave Africa Division officers a chance to advance policy makers’ understanding in this important arena. I was attracted to the independent, entrepreneurial, unconventional, iconoclastic, and bold CIA officers working in Africa. It was a “fluid, unstructured, and churning environment” where operational creativity was prized – and had a huge influence on my leadership decisions years later in Afghanistan.
You describe the important lessons you learned from African insurgent leaders. What were those lessons? What is and should be the CIA’s role in so-called unconventional wars – civil wars, guerilla wars, insurgencies?
Insurgents in Africa taught me many lessons about war, from the tactical to the strategic, but most of all they impressed upon me that war is ultimately about people, fought by people among the people, all with their own values and aspirations. They taught me that understanding and charting the human terrain is an intelligence imperative, especially in unconventional war. I learned first hand the importance of pride, prestige, and honor in war. Why men fight will determine how they fight. The CIA will continue to play a leading role in intelligence and covert action where needed in irregular wars. Without understanding this human terrain, there is no victory for the U.S. or our local allies.
After 9/11, why did the CIA have the lead role in Afghanistan? You had no military experience. Why were you selected to run this campaign? How did the U.S. overthrow the Taliban and cripple al Qaeda in just 90 days, with fewer than 500 Americans on the ground?
The CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) first established an office working exclusively against al Qaeda in 1996 and, after I joined CTC in 1999, we deployed CIA teams into Afghanistan to work with our Afghan allies against this terrorist target. The CIA knew far more about this enemy and Afghanistan than any U.S. government entity. During the summer of 2001, the CIA repeatedly warned the White House about an imminent al Qaeda attack against the U.S. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack, President Bush asked his national security team for a plan. CIA Director George Tenet and CTC Chief Cofer Black immediately responded with a clear and compelling argument for CIA leadership. The Department of Defense had no plan. President Bush, therefore, assigned unprecedented authorities to the CIA.
Cofer Black selected me to lead the CIA campaign because for the previous two years, while serving as his Deputy in charge of all CIA global counterterrorist operations, I had advocated for a stronger role in Afghanistan. Moreover, I had run many high risk operations in many harsh environments, demonstrated strategic thought and planning capabilities, and exercised strong leadership skills.
The quick defeat of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan was a result of the CIA’s robust intelligence networks and Afghan alliances built over the previous two years, reinforced by unique technical collection platforms such as the UAV Predator and superb precision bombing. This intelligence based strategy, executed by an extraordinary network of CIA team leaders on the ground, placed covert action and U.S. special operations in the forefront – and ultimately rallied Afghan tribes to our side against the Taliban and their foreign interloper allies, al Qaeda.
What are the key military lessons learned during and after the successful 2001-02 Afghanistan campaign? Why, more than 10 years later, are we still fighting in Afghanistan?
The campaign underscored the value of intelligence, integration of multiple U.S. government entities, empathetic understanding and support to local partners, application of technology driven by specific needs (not vice-versa), a bias to the field, flat and networked organizations, speed and precision in force projection, and leadership.
The United States, distracted with Iraq, and international community failed to secure the 01-02 Afghanistan victory with non-military power and did not address the growing enemy safe haven in Pakistan. Moreover, the U.S. struggles with accepting the changing nature of war, wherever it might be.
You ran the CIA's clandestine operations inside the U.S. Why are CIA officers engaged in operations inside the U.S.? Does this pose a conflict with the FBI? What about the issues of civil liberties? What are the roles of U.S. citizens, universities, and companies in helping the CIA's Clandestine Service?
The CIA’s Clandestine Service relies on other government organizations and the U.S. private sector to achieve collection of foreign intelligence, both in the homeland and abroad. U.S. citizens may have direct access to this foreign intelligence or indirect through their foreign contacts. Sometimes there is a conflict with the FBI, although areas of cooperation are common and often deep. The CIA’s relationship with the U.S. private sector is completely voluntary and confidential; U.S. citizens have the right and responsibility to cooperate with the CIA – which is not a law enforcement organization. Concern about civil liberties rests more with expanded law enforcement authorities, with the overlapping powers of arrest and intelligence collection.
The CIA has become more and more a paramilitary force, in some respects. Where is the line between intelligence and unconventional warfare?
The line is increasingly blurred, which underscores the growing value of intelligence in not only war, but with all areas of statecraft. The CIA’s Clandestine Service, first and foremost, should be about espionage, the clandestine collection of intelligence. This intelligence can determine and drive covert action, paramilitary or otherwise, but that should always be subordinated to and complementary of a robust foreign policy. Covert action should never be a substitute for foreign policy.
You have criticized the post-9/11 bureaucracy that has put a supervising authority, a National Intelligence Director, above the CIA, is that working any better, or does it continue to make us less effective and thus less safe?
The growing intelligence bureaucracy, including the DNI, is not effective. The entire effort is expensive, duplicative, Washington-centric, and burdened by an irrational Congressional oversight system. And, there are still major weaknesses in U.S. homeland intelligence collection and analysis. Paradoxically, the old pre-9/11 system outside the U.S. worked to a larger degree than policy makers?who failed to heed the CIA’s warnings about al Qaeda?care to admit. The emphasis for intelligence improvement should be more about education, training, policies, and practices rather than more agencies in Washington DC.
You lived and worked undercover in the foreign field for 14 years, mostly in Africa, accompanied by your wife and three young sons. What are the challenges on a CIA Clandestine Service officer with a family, especially when living abroad under cover? What is the spouse's role?
The challenges are many, such as employing falsehoods for operational reasons and sometimes enduring prolonged absences from home, but for us the rewards far exceeded any burdens. We loved living overseas, and our children learned so much in these fascinating environments. We endeavored to create learning adventures for our boys, from exploring castles in Europe to backpacking in Africa. My spouse played an essential role in operations. Although unpaid and unrecognized for her brave duty, she participated in many of my operations, including the assessment/development of foreign agents, the smuggling of communications gear, and countersurveillance runs. She never waivered. She is my hero.
What motivates a foreigner to spy for America, for the CIA?
There are many motivations, including money, ideology, compromise, ego, revenge, and coercion. In most cases there is a blend of motivations. The best agents, in my experience, are those driven by a higher purpose. They are some of the bravest people imaginable. The prospective foreign agent, of course, must also have confidence and trust in the recruiting CIA operations officer who will be responsible for his security.
Why did the CIA develop the UAV Predator program? Why not the Department of Defense?
The CIA developed the UAV Predator program as a means to complement human intelligence reporting against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. U.S. policy makers lacked confidence in our human intelligence reporting as a basis for covert action. In response to this, the CIA’s CTC built a network across the intelligence and defense community to imagine and construct a unique and highly effective surveillance system. Eventually, again in response to policymakers’ reluctance to take action against al Qaeda, this same CTC team figured out how to arm the UAV with Hellfire missiles. It was an extraordinary feat: the CIA cobbling together this intelligence/weapons system, by strapping an Army weapon on an Air Force vehicle, in only a few months. It would revolutionize warfare.
There are several detailed accounts of you briefing and advising President George W. Bush and his leadership team at Camp David, the Situation Room, and the Oval Office dur...