Democracy Dies in Darkness

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The Spy Museum director talks counterintelligence — and living with paranoia

September 4, 2018 at 7:00 AM

Christopher Costa is executive director of the International Spy Museum. (KK Ottesen/For The Washington Post)

Retired U.S. Army Col. Christopher Costa, 56, became executive director of the International Spy Museum earlier this year. Previously, he served as special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council following 25 years of active duty. He received two Bronze Stars for intelligence work in Afghanistan and was inducted into the Commando Hall of Honor for the U.S. Special Operations Command. He lives in Washington with his wife.

Stepping way back, can you talk about how you got involved in the whole intelligence world? What captured your imagination?

I watched the massacre in Munich play out live on TV in 1972. I was 10 years old when that happened. So, I saw terrorism. It was a terrible thing to witness. That really animated my interest in national security and counterterrorism. It planted the seed.

And what did you do as a human intelligence officer?

It was my job to spot individuals — foreigners, in most cases — build a relationship with them, train them. And provide security so they can take the highest risks — committing espionage. It takes a high degree of emotional intelligence. You have to have chemistry with that individual. And you have to care. Because if that guy or gal who walks in with information, risking their life, feels you’re insincere and don’t care about their personal security, what risks are they going to take? They are putting everything on the line. And responsible intelligence officers live with the ramifications.

So how do you find somebody you think would be a sympathetic “asset,” I think is the term.

The easiest way is you hang a shingle up. In Afghanistan, for example, we had a Taliban defector that walked into a forward operating base and said, “I want to provide information that I think will be of interest to you.” I met with that particular source, developed a relationship, and it led to a very successful operation that probably prevented Marines from being killed by explosive devices. In other cases, a foreigner who worked in his government decided that I was better than his own government at working with, and that’s how the relationship starts. And that allowed me to start building a network.

How do you figure out if a person is telling the truth? And do you have times your gut is still screaming, This isn’t right?

With a source, it could be contrived. It could be an operation to disrupt, to lead us into an ambush. Those things have happened. So, there is a protocol. Validation of that information. Analysis. I really believe — and this is just my personal opinion — that the best intelligence officers are always uncomfortable. You just live with that feeling in your stomach. Your senses are heightened to expect that you are being manipulated by a foreign intelligence service. Having been trained in both human intelligence and counterintelligence makes you a little bit — and I hate the word — paranoid.

I was just thinking of that word. So how do you live with that sense of paranoia?

You just accept that discomfort. And frankly, that’s a healthy thing. It allows you to ask incisive questions and check yourself. You’re constantly analyzing. Because if the intelligence is excellent, then you question, Why is it so good? Why does he have such good access? It seems almost too good to be true. In fact, the times that I was super comfortable was usually when something didn’t go the way I wanted.

Now that you are at the museum, do you still have that feeling in your stomach?

The pressure here is different. I can’t let down the team, but I don’t worry about people’s lives day in and day out. I don’t worry about being under surveillance. But I am still operationally aware. When you see our exhibits on basic tradecraft — a “dead drop,” a “signal site” — once you learn what those things are, you can’t take them out of your brain. I have literally told my wife [while driving], “Turn around.” “Why?” “I can’t tell you.” And then I go back and think, Jeez. That is the perfect site — maybe for meeting an agent, or a dead drop. You just look at the world very differently. You can never change that.

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