Edward Snowden: Naive NSA Whistleblower, Spy, or Something Else Entirely?

Where to begin with Mr. Snowden? We are to believe that a highly paid IC contractor left his comfortable job in Hawaii, ditched his girlfriend, flew to Hong Kong and turned over a motherlode of intelligence community secrets for some sort of Manning-esque idealism. Oh, and while sitting in a hotel on Chinese turf (which has been getting absolutely hammered by the U.S. for it’s hacking and digital espionage activities) he drops comments like this:

“We hack everyone everywhere. We like to make a distinction between us and the others. But we are in almost every country in the world. We are not at war with these countries.”

We don’t know if Snowden has ties to a foreign intelligence service but if China could have planted words in the mouth of Mr. Snowden it would have sounded something like that. OK, it would have sounded exactly like that.

It is true that China is not overtly an enemy of the United States. However, in this context they are absolutely a hostile force. So we have the naive idealist Edward Snowden sitting in hostile territory, releasing information which damages the United States, and spouting a message which seems designed to deflect harsh criticism from his (indirect) hosts. Did I mention that he’s doing all of this as President Obama is meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on cyber issues? Right. Does that sound like a whistleblower or does that sound like a spy?

If we are to believe him, Edward Snowden is sitting in a hotel room in Hong Kong without a plan and without a friend in the world. He’s terrified. He’s stuffing pillows against the door to prevent eavesdropping. He’s paranoid. He doesn’t know where to turn. And oh, by the way, he claims access to nearly every secret known to the U.S. intelligence community. Perhaps Iceleand will take him in he says – apparently unaware that he’s a man wanted not just by his home country but by virtually every security service on the planet. What a pickle, right?

Is he really that stupid?

Of course, the interview in Hong Kong could have been a bit of theater staged by his handlers. It certainly feels that way based on what we are hearing. There is also the possibility that the media outlets pushing this story are engaging in a bit of deception in the interest of Edward Snowden’s security. Anything is possible at this point. Still, Edward Snowden could have crafted any number of significantly more graceful exits for himself but instead we have this and everything about it reads a bit off doesn’t it?

The bottom line at this point is that more information is needed. Very few people can claim to understand Edward Snowden’s true motives (much less call him a “hero” or a spy) but I suspect we will know soon enough. Will I be surprised if he surfaces in mainland China under the “protective custody” of Chinese officials who are offering to play host on “humanitarian” grounds? Not at all. Will I be surprised if there is a smoking hot, way out of his league, Chinese girlfriend there by his side? No. Not really. Will I be surprised if the story that we know so far holds true and Edward Snowden is as stupid, naive, alone and as reckless as he appears to be? Very.

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A Mossad Officer’s Life in the Cold

Former Mossad Combatant Michael RossMichael Ross was born in Canada and served as a soldier in a combat unit of the Israel Defence Forces prior to being recruited as a “combatant,” (a term designating a deep-cover operative tasked with working in hostile milieus) in Israel’s legendary secret intelligence service, the Mossad. In his 13 year career with the Mossad, Ross was also a case officer in Africa and South East Asia for three years, and was the Mossad’s counterterrorism liaison officer to the CIA and FBI for two-and-a-half years. Ross is a published writer and commentator on Near Eastern affairs, intelligence and terrorism. He is the author of The Volunteer: The Incredible True Story of an Israeli Spy on the Trail of International Terrorists. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrossletters

John Little: John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a damning and deeply cynical take on the intelligence profession and government’s use of intelligence and intelligence operatives. It is an uncomfortable and exaggerated (but not entirely untrue) look at the difficult human dimension of this business that will always be relevant even as technological sources of intelligence continue to advance. In a world where relationships are often built on an inherent dishonesty, empathy for the source is secondary to achieving one’s goal (or non-existent) and success may also mean that lives are damaged or lost in the process how does an intelligence officer succeed and walk away relatively undamaged? Is that even possible?

Michael Ross: I think the great achievement of “The Spy Who Came infrom the Cold” is that it lifted the Bondian veil and revealed that spies aren’t all suave Aston-Martin driving sex addicts who gamble at high end casinos but what Le Carre’s anti-hero Alec Leamas describes as “a bunch of seedy squalid bastards like me.” While I think he is being a bit harsh in his assessment, I believe the underlying point he is making in this part of the book (and brilliant subsequent film with Richard Burton) is that people searching for some deeper, altruistic motive behind the actions of their intelligence services will be readily disabused of these notions when confronted with the reality of the profession. Le Carre posited that intelligence services are the sub-conscious of the nation they serve and when examined as such, you see that he has also revealed another hard truth about this milieu. I would only add to Le Carre’s observation by saying that intelligence services are also the disassociative aspect of a nation’s sub-conscious. Policy makers have a tendency to only ask questions about methods when things go awry.

A spy’s job is to meet the expectations set by his nation’s national security agenda (and in specific instances I include economic security under this umbrella) and part of this includes targeting people for sources of human intelligence who will assist you in meeting these expectations. From the dock-worker in Tartous to the network administrator for a European telecom provider, they all have to be spotted, assessed, developed, recruited, and handled by a spy in person. This involves forming a bond and workable relationship, but for obvious reasons, these relationships can only go so far. There can also be a great deal of warmth and empathy in these relationships that is often misinterpreted by the source (I heard of more than once case where a female source fell in love with her case officer), but it can never be reciprocated to the degree that it interferes with the primary objective of the relationship. A HUMINT case officer who lacks empathy and is unable to make some kind of bond with his source will never achieve the full potential of the relationship.

Things do go wrong from time to time and sources get caught and in our area of operation, this often means torture and death. I never saw a case officer remain unscathed by such an experience and I think one of the great fears of practioners is to lose a source. Some case officers are less moved by relationships with thier sources than others but in the end, it’s a question of balance; be the person that your source wants to spill his secrets to but don’t take it so far in the direction of cameraderie that your source is also your best friend. People know when sincerity isn’t genuine. Recruiting human sources of intelligence is as much an emotional and psychological construct as it is an intellligence gathering one.

John Little: The psychological dynamics of these relationships really run the whole spectrum so it’s difficult to generalize. However, agents seem to be burdened with most of the psychological stress. Once that line has been crossed and they’ve betrayed their country the case officer is both a lifeline and in some ways a potential (if not outright) threat. It seems like a really unstable dynamic. How were you prepared for this? Can role play and classroom time really prepare a potential case officer for the challenge or does it have to be mastered in the field?

Michael Ross: Let there be no mistake; it’s the source that bears almost all the risk. How often do you hear in the news that a Mossad, CIA, or MI6 case officer has been captured and/or executed? By the same token, being a case officer has its stresses and dangers (one of my Mossad colleagues was shot by a turned source during a meeting in Brussels and we all know what happened at the CIA base near Khost), but by comparison, it’s negligible compared to what the source must endure waiting for the local security goons to get wise. The worst thing a case officer can do is be the cause of his source’s capture. It’s why we do surveillance detection routes, have good cover, and make damn sure we’re not being the reason the source was discovered. The recent episode with Ryan Fogle in Moscow is a good example of what happens when you don’t take the HUMINT recruitment process seriously. You can laugh at Fogle and his wig but you have to wonder who trained him and even more importantly, thought he was a case officer worthy of deployment in Russia.

There is no replacement for experience but training is a very big part of success in the field. There is a lot of time devoted to role-playing during training. I can’t speak for other services but our role-playing consists primarily of real-life scenarios based on what happens when things go sideways. You have sources who balk, demand more money, threaten to go to their own authorities etc. I recall one Mossad case officer sitting calmly with his Arab source in a hotel in Zurich and the source engaging in histrionics and complaining bitterly about his lot in life. The Mossad case officer just smiled and reassuringly told the source in Arabic, “I kiss the words that come out of your mouth”. Sometimes all a source wants is reassurance and a chance to vent. A good HUMINT service always remembers that it’s dealing with human beings with all their failings and idiosyncrasies. A good case officer is able to evaluate very quickly what type of person he’s dealing with and conduct himself accordingly.

John Little: So maintaining a productive relationship with the source requires a lot of work. Does all the effort that goes into maintaining security and managing the agent’s psychological state help the case officer maintain the necessary emotional distance? It’s never really a “normal” relationship and it would seem that those extra layers of activity would constantly reinforce that.

Michael Ross: That’s an excellent way of framing the relationship. As a case officer, there is so much to be done in the professional domain that the logistics and requirements of the job prevent the relationship with your source from becoming a true “friendship”. It’s important to also remember that a case officer has other sources on the go at varying degrees of development at once and therefore is too busy managing each relationship like a plate spinner to somehow turn work into the kind of relaxing and fun construct that real friendship entails. The essence of real friendship is effortless, the essence of being a good case officer is making it look effortless when it’s not.

Having said that, there’s moments to debrief and there’s times when you can hit the bars and relax with your source. Some case officers are fun people and some are very businesslike. It’s a question of personal style and if it works, then nobody will question it. I’m an introvert at heart but the work forced me to overcome that part of myself and become someone else for the purpose of getting the job done. I actually enjoyed that transformation and still do on the rare occasions that I still have to step out on myself.

John Little: How does this dynamic change when a case officer’s leadership gets involved? It’s not too difficult to imagine a scenario where all three players have different expectations from the relationship. Do these kinds of breakdowns occur? Are there common strategies for managing this problem?

Michael Ross: The Mossad, because of its size and small cadre of case officers at its disposal, has to be really selective about the sources that it recruits. This means that the case officer’s leadership is involved in much of the process in a collaborative way. Having said that, I remember taking two senior managers from HQ to a country in Africa who had never visited before to meet some sources and one of the managers – who served in France – made a comment about the conduct of my source that I took rather personally. In defence of my source I made an angry comment about Africa not being exactly the same as Europe. I knew the terrain and the local attitudes and my manager was looking at it from the perspective of his experiences in Europe. I received a stern rebuke and the moment was instructive. I endeavored thereafter to educate my managers about the way business is done in the places I chose to serve and also remember that yes, a source needs his case officer to be his advocate with his own people from time to time.

Even in the most collaborative environment, the friction between field and HQ will always exist.

John Little: It sounds rare but when the collaboration does break down, and the case officer and leadership find themselves at odds, is there a specific approach to working that out or do they eventually end the conversation, pull rank, and force the case officer to carry out their instructions? And while we are on the topic is it fair to say that headquarters has to manage it’s case officers to some degree the same way case officers manage their agents?

Michael Ross: I don’t think I ever saw a complete break down between case officer and HQ but there are differences of opinion on how to approach a recruitment operation. These details are always hashed out in advance. Case officers are expected to work with little guidance and a fair amount of autonomy but the reporting structure makes sure that there is no real disconnect.

As far as case officer management goes, that’s a really interesting question because case officers tend to be people with subtle (and at times not so subtle) powers of persuasion and manipulation. Issues arise when case officers think it’s okay to use this finely honed skill in their personal lives and with colleagues at work. It’s considered very bad form in the Mossad for a case officer to try and use his skills on colleagues or as a means to advance his or her career. It’s extremely rare, but it does happen. Case officers (and combatants) are a special demographic that requires careful, but not overly stringent management. One of the advantages that the Mossad has is that it’s senior ranks are not professional bureaucrats but people who have earned their position through successful careers in the field – and these are not people to be trifled with. In fact, it’s not usual to have a new division head appointed that has barely spent anytime at all inside Mossad HQ.

John Little: Despite the Mossad’s laser focus on its mission, the excellent training and a generally effective chain of command I still get the sense that you can personally relate to the source of Alec Leamas’ cynicism. Can you, in very general terms, touch on the decisions or outcomes during your career that didn’t set will with you and perhaps still don’t?

Michael Ross: As someone whose career was almost entirely based in the field I can very much identify with Alec Leamas and his cynicism. There’s a great (and in my view under-noticed) part in “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” where Le Carre talks about the essence of being a spy and living a life under cover: “In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence trickster, a play-actor or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief. For him, deception is first a matter of self-defense. He must protect himself not only from without but from within, and against the most natural of impulses: though he earn a fortune, his role may forbid him the purchase of a razor; though he be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide.”

For all the cool professionalism of my service as I describe it, there are the petty banalities that one cannot escape; the source you detest and yet must cajole and entertain, the bigot, the venal, the malodorous, and the foul. The constant and monotonous surveillance detection routes (try doing one in Delhi in 42 C. heat, it’s very unglamorous). Then there is your own desk officer who forgets to maintain your commercial cover address and brings your credibility into question within your operational environment, the constant loneliness, and the occasional failure. This is compounded by those instances where you are putting a source and his family at risk yet he knows it and agrees because you can help his family or keep him afloat financially knowing his dependency on you is like a drug. He’s your worst enemy and now your best friend. After someone looks at you in the way a drowning man looks at a life preserver, believe me that it changes you and makes you second guess yourself and who you really are. At the center is a sense of duty. This is the only place where soldiers and spies walk a common road; you are expected to do the worst things because it’s a contract you signed and fulfill because if you don’t, then who will?

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The Former CIA Officers, Analysts, and Intelligence Professionals Who You Should Be Following on Twitter

Following spies on Twitter can be a dicey proposition. For every legitimate account there are hundreds, if not thousands, of imposters. Many of the fakes are obvious but others are expertly crafted and potentially up to no good. And then there are those who go to great lengths to obscure their affiliation while still producing quality content on the subject. That is why I generally take Twitter bios with a grain of salt and focus on the quality of the content (and apparent intent) instead.

The people and organizations listed here to not represent a complete inventory of experts on the topic. I follow, and regularly communicate with, many people who more than worthy of inclusion. However, in this case I’ve narrowed the scope to primarily include people who openly declare their professional backgrounds. There are many more highly informed, but discreet, people worth following. This list just represents a good starting point for those interested in intelligence matters.

@nadabakos | Nada Bakos
Former CIA analyst on team charged with Iraq-AQ-9/11 & Zarqawi. Now: the horizon and @ManhuntDoc

@GaryBerntsen | Gary Berntsen
Former CIA Officer, Author of JawBreaker and The Walk-In, Father, Husband, #NatSec #Counterterrorism Expert, Patriot, @ConcernedVets Reg Director

@quartusoptio | Theodore W. Weaver
Ted is a former Intelligence Officer within the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and the Directorate of Science and Technology. – Blogs of War Contributor

@haplesspursuer | Sean P. Sullivan
Sean P. Sullivan has over 15 years of Federal and Military experience in the US Navy and within the CIA’s Special Activities Division of the National Clandestine Service. Mr. Sullivan is now an intelligence, security, and surveillance systems consultant. – Blogs of War Contributor

@TaraMaller | Tara Maller
@NewAmerica Research Fellow & former intel analyst tweeting on foreign affairs, intel & whatever else captures my imagination. @MIT Ph.D. & @Dartmouth grad. – Blogs of War Contributor

@AkiPeritz | Aki Peritz
Third Way Sr. Nat’l Security Policy Advisor. Cowrote Find-Fix-Finish: US v #alQaeda after 9/11

@LindsayMoran | Lindsay Moran
Former CIA officer, author, consultant, mom.

@CIAspygirl | Emily Brandwin
Spent years working in the CIA as a disguise officer and as an operations officer, AKA – spy. Now I focus on writing, comedy, Broadway and keeping secrets.

@FranTownsend | Frances Townsend
Former Homeland and Counterterrorism Security advisor to President Bush: 2003-2008 CNN National Security Analyst: 2008-present

@20committee | John Schindler
Professor, Naval War College; Chair, PfP Combating Terrorism Working Group; Senior Fellow, Boston University; former NSA & NAVSECGRU – talking intel & security

@IngloriusAmatrs | Inglorious Amateurs
Inglorious Amateurs was created by former Intelligence Officers of the CIA to give readers a timely and informed look at Intelligence and related matters.

@AllThingsHLS | David Gomez
Opinion & commentary on CT, DOMTERR, NatSec & HLSec. Retired FBI ASAC, former FBI Profiler, former LAPD Detective. NPS/CHDS grad. Now just a retired Sheepdog.

@JCZarate1 | Juan Zarate
Juan Zarate, former Bush nat’l security advisor, is CBS News’ senior nat’l security analyst & CSIS scholar. Series Flash Points airs weekly on CBSNews.com.

@Levitt_Matt | Matthew Levitt
Matthew Levitt is a senior fellow and director of The Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. From 2005 to early 2007, he served as deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. In that capacity, he served both as a senior official within the department’s terrorism and financial intelligence branch and as deputy chief of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis.

@geointer | USGIF CEO
USGIF CEO / Non-Profit Exec / GEOINT Advocate / ISR Futurist / Husband / Father / Former DoD & IC Sr Exec / Former Army Officer (Not in that order)

@ODNIgov | Office of the DNI
DNI James Clapper oversees the U.S. Intelligence Community and serves as principal adviser to the President on intelligence issues related to national security.

@ODNI_NIC | National Intelligence Council
Welcome to the National Intelligence Council’s Twitter! The NIC reports to the Director of National Intelligence.

@NGA_GEOINT | National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
The NGA provides imagery, map-based intelligence and geospatial information in support of the nation’s military forces, national policy makers and civil users.

@HouseIntelComm | House Intelligence Committee
The primary committee in the U.S. House of Representatives charged with the oversight of the United States Intelligence Community.

@RepMikeRogers | Rep. Mike Rogers (MI-08)
Representative for Michigan’s Eighth Congressional District, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Army Veteran, Former FBI Agent.

Again, this list is just a starting point. If you feel like you should be on this list, or on my radar drop me a line here or on Twitter. I am very discreet but please do not overshare and definitely do not disclose someone else’s affiliation unless you have their express permission to do so. This post highlights accounts which are already public and will not be used to “out” someone as an intelligence professional.

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Robert Levinson: Our Unfinished Business

It might seem odd that someone who worked at the CIA would offer up an opinion piece not related to Osama Bin Laden, on this, the 2nd anniversary of his ending. I actually think that now is the perfect day to talk about more important issues. I can think of no more important issue than the repatriotisation of captive American citizens abroad. That objective is complete….Levinson isn’t.


The receptionist had a bowl of mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups on her desk. I remember that much. The large conference room where the asset validation / recruitment pitch security reviews were held for the Iran Operations Division was located in the main Iran Operations Division (IOD) Secure Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF). It was through a short maze of cubes filled with an operational targeting group and support staff. At the top of a raised section of the SCIF were a row of offices, and a few large sections of ceiling high glass that made up one wall of the conference room. Like most of the conference rooms I had been in at the Agency (and come to think of it, the other government jobs I’ve had) this one was mostly crammed full of a much too large conference table surrounded by an unwieldy amount of swivel chairs. To make matters worse, the outer edges of the room were encased with more chairs for overflow. It gave you a good sense of what goldfish must wake up to every day. Minus the reception desk with candy, and no I didn’t eat any.

I didn’t have access to this wing yet, having just moved to IOD, even though it had been over a month. I was in a SCIF across the hall and found this all out while on my way to the late morning meeting. Moments before I had grabbed my files and notes, headed out the SCIF I was in, and across the hall to the main door.


My blue badge just coughed at me; the obvious clunking of the magnetic lock suspiciously missing from my attempt at getting into my meetings. Nothing but silence, so I tried again.


Nope, not a fluke, I couldn’t get in. Just then the door burst open and a few people walked out, most likely on the way for a mid morning Starbucks break down the hall. In I went; ‘tail gating’ my way into the SCIF.

My first stop was down a long row of cubes straight ahead of me. My first office-mate from initial training was working as a Targeter somewhere along these rows. I had been bugging her for a few weeks to meet up and talk shop about IOD. She’d been there longer than me, and I wanted info on the Division. She’s also extremely focused and not surprisingly kept putting off meeting because she’d had too much she wanted to get done. Also no surprise, her cube was empty as she was in another meeting. Oh well, off to the conference room I went.

I was the second Staff Operations Officer (SOO) presenting a case at that mornings meeting. As this was my first, I was a little nervous. I knew the case, but felt like I had a vested interest given my previous line of work. These meetings were used to present potential agents, or HUMINT sources, for further development, recruitment, some sort of operation, handling issue or termination in a peer review setting. The peers in this case were more senior officers from the given division or operation group, as well as referents from the Counter Intelligence Center, Office of Security, the appropriate Directorate of Science and Technology officer and the ever present legal representative. The meetings were a clinical affair, at least based on my experience. I had written up my briefing packet and had pretty much gotten is signed off by the relevant officers already the day before via email. I figured this would be a formality.

I started my Federal career as a Special Agent with what was the US Customs Service / Immigration and Naturalization Service Post 9/11 Bush era mash-up formerly known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (now Homeland Security Investigations). After a half decade of working a spectrum of customs and immigration cases I decided I needed a change and went through recruitment and hiring for the National Clandestine Service at the CIA. During that time, on March 9th, 2007 retired FBI Special Agent Robert Levinsonwas kidnapped while working a post retirement private sector investigations job that took him to Kish Island, a resort spot and free trade zone in the Persian Gulf, in Iran.

I have never been a traditional “cop” type of investigator. Though I respect and honor the “thin blue line”, I think I’ve always done a pretty good job at maintaining my old friendships and not being “that guy” who looks like a cop and only hangs out with other cops. That said, I did and do take law enforcement very seriously and one thing that has always been a constant for me is looking out for my brothers and sisters on the job. I never knew Robert Levinson, and wasn’t a Bureau agent (worked with plenty), this event really made me take notice however. A part of me filed it away and though I probably wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time, I assumed that the Bureau would do right by their former agent and move heaven and earth to get him back.

Now over two years later, everyone is filing into the IOD conference room, and Robert Levinson is fresh on my mind. I had been working the desk of my particular IOD branch for a number of months and felt good to be finally making some headway on a developmental asset, especially when that asset was saying they had information about Robert Levinson. I’d like to think that anyone sitting on the desk at that time would have been interested like me, but most likely it was my previous Special Agent background that made me push the officer in the field on this case.

The officer in question was a bit of an oddity. Not only was he based in National Resources; he was also a Staff Operations Officer (SOO) like myself. This meant he had been a SOO for a while before heading to Ops Certification at the Farm, so he could then officially recruit his own agents. This was also one of his first developmental assets, so it was our own special “big deal”, not that any of the more seasoned officers around seemed to care.

National Resources (NR) seems to be one of those misunderstood offices within the NCS. A few previous CIA officers, Henry Crumpton and “Ishmael Jones” for example, have detailed a bit about NR in their recent books. I had exposure to NR while working for the agency formerly known as ICE (or HSI as its called now), and later worked in NR for a time once inside the CIA. I find that most people I speak with see some kind of nefarious purpose for having what are supposed to be overseas “Spies” working within the United States. For clarity sake, NR is charged with a few very important functions that make operating within the US essential and beneficial to the Agency and our nations citizens.

NR officers handle communications and debriefings with US citizens who willingly cooperate with the Agency. These would be people traveling to countries of interest, or working with specific people of interest to the Agency. There are some other mechanisms here I won’t detail, but they pertain to agreements with companies in the US for similar activities.

Officers from NR also work to spot, assess, develop and recruit foreign individuals who are traveling inside the US. These might be people who live within the US continually with some form of permanent immigration status (green card, etc) or with a visa. Their access may involve them traveling back to their country of origin and then returning to the US. At that point they’d be met and debriefed by the NR officer. The scenarios vary quite a bit, but most NR spots are quite busy, and I’ve assisted in some very interesting requirements based on NR cases. One such recruitment was facilitated by utilizing my previous years working immigration cases as a Special Agent with ICE to dig through hundreds of files in a targeting assignment to find a good lead for an officer to approach. In the end, the officer used my targeting package to successfully recruit and run this individual. I only know all this because my supervisor in that office was nice enough to keep me updated on the cases after I moved to DS&T.

My specific case on this day centered on an individual within the Iranian security apparatus. As things panned out they claimed to have access to a wide variety of information, some of which was related to Kish Island activities as well as the kidnapping of Robert Levinson. His motivation was purely financial, and our hope was to get some kind of good validating info about his access from an upcoming meeting. I felt the review was a moot point, so when it was my turn I quickly presented the case and led with what I thought was the most crucial bit of information we wanted to know more about: Levinson.

“I don’t want to hear fucking Kish Island mentioned again!”

It was blurted out with such a bureaucratically laced snide plop that I was caught a bit off guard. Factor in that it was one of the Deputy Chiefs of Operations for IOD who threw it down at me in the middle of my brief, well, let’s just say I wasn’t used to being talked to that way. I took a quick breath, sat on the comment for a second, suppressing my initially reaction that I won’t detail here, and then continued explaining why I thought the issue was important.

He wasn’t having any of it. He said he didn’t care to hear more, and that he had been led to believe there was more to this potential asset than anything to do with Kish Island. I quickly made my case and roped in one of the referents that had given me the unofficial sign off to present the case that morning. The Deputy Chief then seemed to sputter out, as if it had been some sort of compulsory obligation, not unlike the Brooks Brothers he was sporting that day. The operation was given an initial approval, so basically the officer could meet the potential asset and potentially recruit them. It all seemed really a strange and unnecessary way of recruiting people. When I’ve worked confidential informants in the past, well, I had done it differently, but I don’t own a nice suit, so what do I know?

Now, at this point I should say that I really wish I had some miraculous breakthrough with the Levinson case. It’s obvious that I did not, and had no other real part in this. I don’t know much of what happened after I rotated out of the office for a training course. After my certification course I jumped Directorates and moved to the Directorate of Science and Technology. I didn’t get any other updates from that office. This was, and absolutely still is, common for officers moving around to different offices in their careers at the Agency. As much as Agency HRS folks like to talk about “Hall Files” (your reputation at the Agency, as whispered in the halls), I found out early that just about every officer is as good as their most current assignment or operation. You might have things keep you in the spotlight throughout your career, but as soon as your flame goes dim, the giant information pit that is the Agency swallows you up. Much like Iran swallowed up Robert Levinson.

I have spoken with a former colleague and friend of Levinson, as well as exchanged messages with members of his family. I’m no expert on the man, by any stretch, but its clear that he is highly respected by his friends and loved by his family. In January of this year the Levinson family started a White House online petition that requested the government focus their energy on finding and freeing Levinson. The shocking result was that way more people turned out in favor of the creation of a “Death Star”

I found out more recently that several offices did get spotty information about Levinson during my time at the Agency. It seems like those cases and experiences were kind of like mine. Some initial interest, then nothing. Not like an effort not to do anything about Levinson, more a general uncertainty or inaction with regards to the information that was coming in. For instance, one officer I spoke with had been asked to review a video that was believed to be of Levinson while working in another IOD office. There was no follow up that he knew of, however.

I started out writing this piece before March of 2013, hoping to have this completed in time with Robert Levinson’s 7th anniversary in captivity. That obviously did not happen. I noticed that several organizations made statements about Levinson’s plight, including various former and current FBI Special Agent Associations, to include a moment of silence marking the dubious anniversary. While the attention and respect for their own is to be respected and honored, I can’t help but wonder what exactly has changed?

Robert Levinson is not the only American in captivity, not even the only being held by Iran. How many other anniversaries have gone by without much notice? How many other junior intelligence officers have pitched access agents who are said to have knowledge of Americans being held overseas? Were those cases given more attention by management?

Now that I am out of that direct stream of knowledge, I really could not even guess. As a country we seem to have a very short memory when it comes to critical events, so I would not be surprised if the Robert Levinson’s captivity, and that of former US Marine Amir Hekmati or pastor Saeed Abedini are not garnering the kind of attention that should really be given to those of our citizens being held captive by another nation.

Popular culture has educated people with the common US Military motto of “No Man Left Behind”. Though not always a reality, the spirit of the motto is something we could all do better at.

CIA Memorial WallThis is the point where I reach back to new officer training at the Agency and try to tie in history with the present day. As part of new officer training we all were encouraged to read “The Book of Honor” by Ted Gupp. His book details a number of the fallen Agency officers that have stars appearing on the Wall of Honor in the Original Headquarters Building (OHB) , and appear in the Book of Honor at the base of the wall. I bring this up because I think its very relevant to this discussion of our citizens in captivity around the globe.

I also bring it up because I just recently listened to the audiobook (I drive a lot for my current job and listen to quite a few audiobooks). Upon hearing these stories again, all the while thinking of Robert Levinson’s case, I see a definite pattern emerge. While the “Book of Honor” details CIA officers who perished in the line of duty, the lack of positive action, or downright inaction of our most senior officials in doing everything possible within their power to help US Citizens in harms way or captivity is shocking. If you are not familiar with these people I urge you to read or listen to Ted Gupp’s excellent book. In it you will learn about the likes of legendary Hugh Francis Redmond who spent 19 years as a captive in China, or John J. Merriman who though not a captive, was seemingly denied much needed medical aid after a plane crash in the Congo in 1964.

It seems to me as if government officials don’t care about what happens to Levinson. My feeling is that the issue is so far out of hand, that unless a direct and easy solution presents itself, the predominant risk adverse nature of our current intelligence apparatus will drag its feet until that “sure thing” comes along. This I believe needs to change. We as citizens should demand that our government takes immediate action to secure the release of our fellow citizens being held captive overseas. Its time to stand up and fight for people like Robert Levinson. We can choose to spend our precious time foaming about previously authorized interrogation programs, the stock market or movie stars, or we can take a stand for something more lasting and meaningful. People like Robert Levinson spent a career in service to our country. I don’t know his career trajectory, but it is safe to say from my first hand experience as a Special Agent, he gave more than he got to the citizens of this nation. He doesn’t deserve to sit locked up by a sworn enemy like the Iranian regime.

You might be asking yourself what you can do to help. If so, I’m glad to hear it. I’m not sure what good it actually does, but Internet access makes it very easy now to contact your representative. Why not check out http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/Twitter, retweet it. Then follow @HelpBobLevinson and show your support.

You can find that information on the Levinson family’s website as well as on the Wikipedia page devoted to him.

Theodore W. WeaverTheodore W. Weaver is a former Intelligence Officer within the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and the Directorate of Science and Technology. He has close to a decade working as a Special Agent with several Federal agencies and has worked against counter proliferation, human trafficking/smuggling, child exploitation, Intellectual Property Rights violations and narcotics. You can follow him on Twitter or via the nascent Inglorious Amateurs website.

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