What is more important, language skills or covert skills?

We’re live with Ambassador Henry A. Crumpton, answering your questions about life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service.

JavierSeattle asked: What is more important, language skills or covert skills?

Ambassador Crumpton:  

"Both are essential. But I have survived in hostile environments employing good tradecraft but without local language capabilities. I cannot imagine vice versa." 

What would you ask a CIA spy?
Today at 1:30pm EST legendary CIA spy Henry A. Crumpton will answer your questions about life in the Clandestine Service. Just head on over to our Ask Page to get started.

About Henry Crumpton and his book The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a  Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service:
For a crucial period, Henry Crumpton led the CIA’s global covert operations against America’s terrorist enemies, including al Qaeda. In the days after 9/11, the CIA tasked Crumpton to organize and lead the Afghanistan campaign. With Crumpton’s strategic initiative and bold leadership, from the battlefield to the Oval Office, U.S. and Afghan allies routed al Qaeda and the Taliban in less than ninety days after the Twin Towers fell. At the height of combat against the Taliban in late 2001, there were fewer than five hundred Americans on the ground in Afghanistan, a dynamic blend of CIA and Special Forces. The campaign changed the way America wages war. This book will change the way America views the CIA.

What would you ask a CIA spy?

Today at 1:30pm EST legendary CIA spy Henry A. Crumpton will answer your questions about life in the Clandestine Service. Just head on over to our Ask Page to get started.

About Henry Crumpton and his book The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a  Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service:

For a crucial period, Henry Crumpton led the CIA’s global covert operations against America’s terrorist enemies, including al Qaeda. In the days after 9/11, the CIA tasked Crumpton to organize and lead the Afghanistan campaign. With Crumpton’s strategic initiative and bold leadership, from the battlefield to the Oval Office, U.S. and Afghan allies routed al Qaeda and the Taliban in less than ninety days after the Twin Towers fell. At the height of combat against the Taliban in late 2001, there were fewer than five hundred Americans on the ground in Afghanistan, a dynamic blend of CIA and Special Forces. The campaign changed the way America wages war. This book will change the way America views the CIA.

If you could ask a CIA spy one question, what would it be?

  • What skills do you need to recruit counterintelligence sources abroad?
  • How do you negotiate with tribal leaders in Afghanistan to give up valuable information on the Taliban?
  • Why are there more spies in the U.S. now than during the Cold War? 

Legendary CIA spy Henry A. Crumpton will answer your questions this Friday at 1:30pm EST. …As long as the information’s declassified.

If you can’t join us then, feel free to post your questions/comments here and we’ll publish his responses Friday afternoon.

(In the meantime we recommend this “60 Minutes" feature highlighting Ambassador Crumpton’s work and where he thinks the Clandestine Service is headed in 2012.)

We asked Ambassador Crumpton a few questions to get started.

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?

Henry Crumpton: 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?

Henry Crumpton: 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.

More on Ambassador Crumpton and The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service.

Our author Henry Crumpton with Captain Sully Sullenberger.
(Crumpton, a CIA Clandestine Service veteran, has probably experienced aerial crises too, though he’s not allowed to talk about it.)

Our author Henry Crumpton with Captain Sully Sullenberger.

(Crumpton, a CIA Clandestine Service veteran, has probably experienced aerial crises too, though he’s not allowed to talk about it.)

A Happy Spy

Excerpted from The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service by Henry A. Crumpton.


With no appointment or previous contact, the young, battle-hardened African guerrilla approached a local guard at the U.S. Embassy. The visitor produced identification and submitted to a search, then entered the embassy building. He approached the bulletproof guard booth, from where the marine security guard viewed him. The visitor said he needed to deliver a sensitive political message. After another ID check, a brief wait, and a metal detector scan, he was escorted into a small conference room where we were waiting.

The embassy’s deputy chief of mission (DCM) had invited me to join him in the event the meeting would produce any intelligence and, as I hoped, lead to a new clandestine source. In my brief career, I had already debriefed dozens of walk-ins, mostly scammers and rogues. Some were amusing, some pathetic. A few were honest volunteers, wanting to share scraps of information, usually in exchange for cash or a visa to the United States. They almost all left disappointed. Very few brought anything worth the danger and effort of future clandestine meetings.

We sat quietly across the table and listened to the uninvited visitor deliver his message. He spoke fluent English, but with a high-pitched lilting accent. The cadence was full of unexpected, pleasant rhythms. He smiled often, and I first thought this was a sign of nervousness. I would later learn that he smiled because he was happy. It was his nature.

He was not a volunteer, as I had hoped. He was a messenger. The leaders of his organization, he claimed, were not Communists or enemies of the United States. They aimed to provide freedom and justice for their oppressed tribal constituents. His leaders did not want to be misunderstood. His leaders wanted respect. His leaders wanted assistance. I had heard all that before, from all types of self-righteous, self-described freedom fighters.

"Why do your leaders accept weapons, money, and training from the East Germans, Cubans, and other Soviet proxies?" I asked.

"Because they give it to us and you don’t," he answered pleasantly.

I first wondered if he was a smart-ass but realized that I might provide the same answer if I were in his spot. If I were born into his circumstances, what would I do? Accept weapons from the Warsaw Pact? Would I even have his courage to fight, his skill to survive in such a harsh environment?

I stared at him. He smiled even broader.

With a copy of his refugee identity card in hand and basic knowledge of the war and the actors in this horrible drama, I asked questions to determine his bona fides. He knew details, fresh and accurate, but he was careful and limited in his overall response. I sensed he was a rarity. He was careful to differentiate what was known fact, probable information, and his opinion. He was smart, exact, tough, honest, and realistic. Was he a natural born agent?

The DCM thanked him and promised to pass along the message toWashington. If there was an answer, the embassy would contact him.

I doubted the U.S.government would do much, if anything. We seemed to view all conflicts through the bipolar prism of the Cold War, which distorted and constricted our policies. What about the people on the ground, the ones who were fighting and dying? What was their agenda? This young man was in the middle of hot insurgent skirmishes, in the middle of Africa, caught in the vortex of a titanic, global ideological struggle between communism and capitalism. The Soviet plans and intentions, the nations involved, and the tribal dynamics of the conflict posed many questions for U.S.policy makers. There was so much to explore, about the conflict and about him. 

I asked where he was staying.

He gave me the name of a crummy hotel in a nasty part of town. 

I invited him for a steak dinner the following night, at a good café in a safe although not upscale neighborhood. It was sufficiently discreet, with a mix of locals and backpack tourists as patrons. Not a place for government officials. I would wear my usual out-of-office garb, worn jeans and a T-shirt.

In response to my invitation, he raised his eyebrows, grinned, nodded, and said, “You bet.”

After the dinner, we never again met in public. At the next meeting, in a rolling car, he provided more details on his organization. At the following meeting, he provided more information. I gave him medicine, cash, and requirements. He would not return from the deep bush for three more months. I had no way of communicating with him. I had no idea if he was dead or alive. I thought and hoped that he cared about the mission more than a steak dinner and cash.

He returned, after crossing several hundred miles of the most hostile territory in Africa stretched over three different countries and many tribal areas. He called the number that he had memorized.

"May I speak to Kimau?" he asked.

"There is no one here by that name. You have the wrong number," the woman said and hung up. The station’s operational support assistant then checked the call-in matrix and immediately notified me.

The call and request for Kimau triggered a meeting at a prearranged venue two days later at a designated time. I was in town. I was glad. The backup case officer, a stranger to the agent, would not have to meet him.

I ran a surveillance detection route for an hour, stopping several times along the way, to buy petrol, to grab a bottle of water, and to get a local sports magazine. All of these routes and planned stops provided opportunities to channel surveillance naturally and to spot any tails—without alerting surveillance that I was operational. I proceeded to the last block. My new source jumped into the car. I glanced at him as I began to accelerate evenly out of the area.

He had lost twenty pounds that he could not spare. We passed under a streetlight that cast an uneven glow on his Nilotic features, and I glanced again. His cheekbones protruded under his glossy purple-black skin. If he lost another few pounds, I figured, he would be a skeleton. 

"How are you?" I inquired.

"Oh, I am fine, thank you." There was no hint of weakness, sadness, or irony. He was breathing, he was moving, he was here, eager to discuss geopolitics and the future of his people. As I drove through the urban African nightscape, I thought about relative satisfaction. Was he indeed that happy? Or was he stoicism personified? What had he encountered in the last three months?

Over the course of the next two weeks, I would learn. Based on his description, I drafted detailed maps of his guerrilla organization’s camps. I learned their supply routes. I also began to understand the internal and external relationships of the organization. The Cold War was the context but certainly not the core of their concerns. He and his men fought for local, tribal reasons. I took copious notes. I wrote several intelligence reports, some confirmed by signals intelligence and by satellite imagery.

When one satellite photo arrived, adjusting for the scale, I compared it with a map of camps and supply routes that I had sketched. It matched. My new source was providing useful, corroborated intelligence. He was valuable. He was worth the risk. He was worth our investment.

I requested a CIA physician to examine him. The doctor, like all those I encountered at the CIA, was competent, dedicated, and direct. The diagnosis: dysentery, malaria, poor diet, and a very hard life.

I fed him, provided medicine, listened, and learned about a world unknown to many Washington policy makers and politicians.

He spoke about the practical and symbolic value of cattle, women, assault rifles, and a good fight. Money alone, in his world, was important but not the most important factor, not even close. You could not buy pride and honor. He taught me about tribal norms, culture, and politics, sometimes in graphic detail.

One tribe aligned with his organization had launched a cattle raid on a neighboring tribe. It was planned as a simple stealth operation but had spiraled into a slaughter of women and children. In retaliation the off ended tribe had launched a string of attacks along one of the main supply routes. Their Warsaw Pact patrons were perplexed and angry. This distraction, they said, did nothing to advance the war against U.S.interests. Relations between his group and the East Germans, in particular, were tense because of these tribal conflicts.

Having been educated in the West, my agent understood Jeffersonian democracy, and he doubted he would ever see such progress in his country in his lifetime. He was right. But he and I understood there was no substitute for progress, even if only slight and incremental. There was also no substitute for our hopeful collaboration.

I ran him for almost three years. I turned him over to another officer. A couple of years later, yet another officer was handling him. He served the CIA loyally. He produced hundreds of reports. He earned a good salary, but his true reward was seeking to help his people. He wanted for his people a viable and secure nation with what he believed was a necessary and close relationship with the United States. He understood the concept of liberal institutions, free markets, and democracy. He aspired to help transplant those ideas and ideals to his patch of Africa.

He never realized his dream. Returning from a CIA mission, he died at a desolate, dusty border crossing. The CIA did not learn of his death for several days. On another mission, in another part of the world, I would not learn of his tragic end for several weeks. To the world, of course, this hero-agent is unknown, and within the CIA long forgotten—except for a couple of other case officers and me. That is the nature of espionage.

Today, if he were alive, I would invite him to my home. I would introduce him to my wife and sons, who were raised in Africa. We would discuss the wonders of the bush. We would talk about politics. We would sit on the deck under the oak trees. I would grill steaks and enjoy watching him eat. He always ate with relish and gusto. Just as he lived his life.

He was more than a happy spy. He was more than one of my best agents. He was my teacher. He was a brilliant, strong, and courageous man who loved and served his people. He was a friend and an inspiration. He represented a hope for Africa. I miss him.

Henry A. Crumpton is the author of The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service and Chairman and CEO of Crumpton Group LLC, a global business advisory firm. He was an operations officer in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for twenty-four years, then served as the U.S. Coordinator for Counterterrorism with the rank of ambassador at large.

"Covert action should never be a substitute for foreign policy."

— Henry “Hank” Crumpton, veteran of the CIA Clandestine Service and author of The Art of Intelligence, from an interview with Omnivoracious.

How 110 CIA Officers Toppled the Taliban

From yesterday’s “60 Minutes" with Henry Crumpton, author of The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service.

Hank Crumpton, now 55, spent 24 years in the murky world of the CIA Clandestine Service, including a year on loan to the FBI and a decade at CIA stations across Africa. We first met Hank Crumpton three years ago. That’s when he agreed to return to Afghanistan with us and tell 60 Minutes about the capstone to his career as a spy, how the CIA forged a secret alliance with afghan tribal leaders, and how fewer than 500 Americans — 110 CIA officers backed by teams of U.S. Special Operations Forces — toppled the Taliban after 9/11.

Lara Logan: What were the orders you gave your men?

Hank Crumpton: Orders were fairly simple. Find al Qaeda and kill them.

Cofer Black was chief of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center and for a quarter century he was Crumpton’s boss and mentor. He personally chose “Hank” for the most important mission of his life.

Cofer Black: Why did I pick Hank Crumpton to lead the CIA team? ‘Cause we wanna win. Hank’s the kind of man you can bet your life on.

Lara Logan: When a career CIA officer or someone like yourself says, “Hank’s the kinda guy you can bet your life on,” you mean that literally.

Cofer Black: Literally. Let’s not— this is not, you know, working for a Wall Street law firm, you know. Dog eat dog and nobody dies. We’re talking— where the life and wellbeing of your colleagues are at risk.

The CIA was given the lead role in prosecuting a war for the first time in history and Black promised then-President George W. Bush the agency was up to the task.

Cofer Black: And I said, “Mr. President, by the time we’re through with these guys, they’re gonna have flies walking across their eyeballs.” This isn’t a joke. This is a statement of fact of what’s gonna happen.

Lara Logan: And he responded?

Cofer Black: He asked me again to validate whether I could do this. And I said, “Mr. President, there’s no doubt in my mind.” There was no doubt in my mind. I knew our planning. I knew our people. I knew Hank Crumpton.

Lara Logan: What was your first meeting with President Bush like? What did he say to you?

Hank Crumpton: I sat down with some maps and walked through what our initial strategy was going to be. He asked good questions. At the end of the meeting, I remember we were walking outside, we’d left the building at Camp David walking to the cars. President Bush came up. He put his arm on my shoulder. And he told me to go get ‘em. And I said, “Yes, sir. I will.”

Lara Logan: The world was expecting a conventional response?

Hank Crumpton: They expected that we would not respond in any meaningful way.

Read the full story here.

Our author Henry “Hank” Crumpton tells “60 Minutes" there are more spies in the U.S. now than at the peak of the Cold War. He should know - he worked for the CIA’s clandestine service for over 20 years. 

I know I’ll be watching this tonight. Crumpton’s book The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service goes on sale this week.