Secret Agent Man

Secret Agent Man

Protecting the nation’s security requires more than security products

Very late in The Craft We Chose: My Life in the CIA, author Richard L. Holm writes, “The United States continues to defend itself against enemies who are hell-bent on destroying us. The National Clandestine Service is playing a vital part in that seemingly unending fight because electronic intelligence gathering can take us only so far. The human element is indispensable and must endure.” Those lines echoed in my head for days after I sat the book aside, and now I think I know why. For one thing, I had just read more than 500 pages recounting circumstances and events that clearly demonstrated the indispensability of one human—Holm—and what a difference he made in what we call history, or even reality.

Clandestine Service

Holm’s memoir—his second, for the record—covers more than three decades, beginning with his joining the CIA’s Junior Officer Training program in 1960 and ending with his retirement in 1996, the same year he received the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the agency’s highest award. Those 36 years—more than a lifetime for too many of his fellow agents— spanned the Vietnam War, Watergate and its aftermath, the Iran-Contra affair and the end of the Cold War, among many other chapters of history. During those events—indeed, while enswirled in them and later dealing with their fallout—Holm steadily rose through agency ranks, working in the Directorate of Operations—now the National Clandestine Service, the component directly responsible for collecting human intelligence—and eventually becoming one of the agency’s senior operations officers. His career included deployments to seven countries on three continents and service under 13 CIA directors.

The book’s chapters, and the years they represent, fly by, with Holm’s first-person accounts setting the reader squarely in the midst of them. Throughout, Holm maintains focus on the art and craft of intelligence (and counterintelligence) gathering, consistently referring to it as “tradecraft” as matter-of-factly as others might discuss shoemaking or metallurgy. He writes:

Most movies and the media in general portray agency personnel as either cloak-and-dagger types, sometimes with superhuman abilities, or ruthless bureaucrats who would rather sacrifice one of their own than give up power. The fact is we do sometimes train people extensively before we dispatch them on dangerous missions. It’s also true that once in a while a rogue wave washes its way into our sea of personnel.

But the overwhelming truth is that most of what we do parallels government work in general and much of the private sector. Some of it is downright ordinary, involving mountains of paperwork. Someone has to supervise that ordinary but important work. For a while, and for a part of it, that someone had to be me.

Before eventually becoming a “headquarters bureaucrat” (his phrase), Holm served the agency as a “man on the street” (also his phrase, although given the crude conditions of some of his missions, it’s using the phrase loosely). And, as his publisher contends, Holm’s story does contain “suspense worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster or a best-selling novel.”

Need-to-Know Basis

One of the most riveting (and, in retrospect, cinematic) episodes involves Holm’s survival, at age 29, of a harrowing plane crash in central Africa’s Congo that burned more than 35 percent of his body and led to the loss of his left eye. Holm survived the surreal ordeal on sheer determination (“I simply would not die in this rotten Congo, I decided”) and with the angelic assistance of an unnamed Azande witch doctor and a small band of men who walked and rode bicycles 100 miles across enemy-held and cannibalinfested territory to reach help.

Many years later, while serving as a station chief in Europe and as head of a U.S. counterterrorism group, Holm participated in the hunt for the international terrorist and assassin known as Carlos the Jackal. While caught up in the reading of such experiences, it is easy to forget that Holm and his fellow agents were doing such work—and routinely facing danger as part of it—without the benefit of technologies that were anywhere on par with the systems and devices highlighted every month in the pages of this magazine. At the time, such technologies simply didn’t exist, but even if they had, Holm’s observation about the limitations of electronic intelligence gathering would still ring true.

Holm’s memoir is a testament to that fact, and it’s a good reminder for those in the security profession at whatever level—local, national or international. As good of a read as it is, though, The Craft We Chose is a book that almost didn’t happen.

In the memoir’s final pages, Holm credits former CIA Director Richard Helms with convincing him to overcome reservations he had about chronicling his mostly secret career. Helms, Holm says, advised keeping in mind a larger purpose.

“If we don’t write about the Cold War period it will be written by journalists and academics, and they will get it wrong,” Helms said, to which Holm writes, by way of reply, “I couldn’t disagree with him. . . . Dick Helms knew it is imperative for Americans to understand and support what the CIA does. To put it plainly, the agency needs a constituency. He believed, and I concur wholeheartedly, that the more the public appreciates what we do, the stronger their support will be.”

Even if scholars and media types earnestly attempt the task of reporting the years Holm covers and try to get things right, they will necessarily lack the insider vantage of Holm’s lifetime on the streets and behind closed doors. His work is something worth being grateful for—both the book itself and the actual decades of service detailed in its pages.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Security Today.

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