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.