Last month, Henry "Hank" Crumpton, a revered master of CIA covert operations, formally came in from the cold.
Crumpton gained almost mythical fame after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- always anonymously. He is the mysterious "Henry" in the Sept. 11 commission report, which notes he persistently pressed the CIA to do more in Afghanistan before Osama bin Laden's terrorist spectaculars. Two key proposals to track al Qaeda were turned down.
Tapped to head the CIA's Afghan campaign after the attacks, Crumpton is "Hank" in Gary C. Schroen's "First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan" and Bob Woodward's "Bush at War." Both books recount how Crumpton crafted a strategy partnering elite intelligence and military officers in teams that worked with the Afghan opposition to oust the Taliban. The novel and initially controversial approach worked at limited cost in human life and materiel -- and avoided the kind of protracted U.S. ground war that the Soviet Union lost.
It also changed the way the United States fights terrorism.
"Hank was a tough, focused, brave operator and an excellent organizer. His work was invaluable," said Gen. Tommy Franks, now retired, who was in charge of Central Command during the Afghan war and the initial Iraq invasion.
Added John E. McLaughlin, former acting CIA director now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, "He's a genuine American hero."
Now, after almost a quarter-century as a spy or station chief on at least four continents, Crumpton has emerged from undercover to take the job as State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism -- with the very public rank of ambassador.
The move surprised colleagues. Crumpton says he had wanted to be a spy since childhood, when he first wrote to the CIA. "And they responded -- on letterhead. In a small rural community in Georgia, to get a letter from the CIA, that was pretty cool," he reflected in his first interview since taking the job.
After joining the agency in 1981, Crumpton cut his teeth in Liberia during its disintegration into tribal clashes. "That was a good place to start, dealing with chaos and trying to understand the different political and tribal tensions," he said, noting he learned more from African insurgents than he did in his initial training at home. "They were people working with nothing," he said.
Most of his work since then is still secret, although Crumpton was deeply involved in probing the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as well as the 2000 boat bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen, colleagues say.
He has specialized in hot spots -- and looked for operatives with similar aptitudes. When he took over the Afghan operation, Crumpton posted a sign on his office door, the wording borrowed from ill-fated Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton: "Officers wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful."
Georgia-born and soft-spoken, Crumpton can be deceiving in his demeanor, say his friends and peers. "There's a twinkle in his eyes, and he's an aw-shucks guy, but he's one tough intelligence officer," said James Pavitt, former deputy director of operations, the CIA's covert wing. "He was not afraid to look people in the eyes and say they were wrong. That was his great strength. And that's the kind of thing that started making things happen" after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Colleagues recall how Crumpton would crouch down like a squad leader between President Bush and Vice President Cheney with maps to explain what the CIA was doing in Afghanistan. "He wasn't intimidated," McLaughlin said.
After Afghanistan, Crumpton increasingly focused on how to redefine and streamline the way U.S. agencies work with one another, and how the United States integrates its security with the rest of the world. Colleagues say Crumpton is relentless -- and sometimes unyielding -- when he has an idea.
Jennifer E. Sims's new book was launched after a meeting with Crumpton -- at the International House of Pancakes. "He's incredibly direct," Sims said. "I got a call from him saying he'd like to meet at IHOP at 7 a.m. in Arlington. . . . I thought it was weird, but there I was in north Arlington. He was probably 10 minutes ahead of me. I slid into the booth and we had nice chitchat, and I said, 'So what's up?' "
"He said, 'We've got huge changes we need in intelligence, and what we need is a new partnership with the American people.' . . . He said, 'I need a vehicle,' then he stared at me. I thought, 'I'm getting recruited here,' " recalled Sims, who had been Crumpton's professor at Johns Hopkins when he took a break to get a master's degree. She had given him an A. Crumpton, she added, was the only student who had ever intimidated her.
That initial meeting launched more sessions, at assorted IHOPs, when Crumpton was still undercover, as the two drew up a list of people to contribute to a book. The result, released this month, is "Transforming U.S. Intelligence," edited by Sims and former CIA operations officer Burton Gerber. Crumpton wrote two chapters: one on intelligence and homeland security, the other offering tantalizing historic details on the Afghan operation.
Crumpton stresses how the winning strategy in Afghanistan included economic and social components because Afghans fought for tribal honor as well as geopolitical gain. The tribal leader who sided with the United States was rewarded with prizes that fell from the sky within 72 hours of the request -- in the form of airdrops of tents, medicine, clothes, Korans, food and toys.
"U.S. power is usually measured in terms of kinetic strength, but the power of empathy, honor, prestige, hope and material self-interest can complement raw strength and produce a more effective, more enduring victory," he wrote.
Crumpton also has urged relying on local forces, noting the advice of T.E. Lawrence -- Lawrence of Arabia -- to his British bosses: "Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. . . . Actually also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is."
Crumpton, who has won four of the CIA's highest awards, was originally listed in the book as Henry Smith. Only after he took the State Department job did he allow the use of his real name -- leading the publisher to quickly insert little slips of paper with his real identity in the book proofs.
Colleagues joke that IHOP is a good cover for Crumpton, who is big on healthful eating and exercise -- and prefers tea to coffee. The biggest influences in his thinking, he said, are Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist born in 500 B.C. who wrote "The Art of War," and the Greek historian Thucydides, who chronicled the 5th-century B.C. war between Athens and Sparta.
Crumpton's approach to using intelligence as a tool in counterterrorism is premised on Sun Tzu's advice: "The expert in using the military subdues the enemy's forces without going to battle," he wrote.
For all the success of his plan in Afghanistan, the United States did not capture bin Laden during Crumpton's watch. It does not disturb Crumpton. "Alexander the Great never got King Darius of Persia. His own men gave him up. Pershing never got Pancho Villa," he reflected. "We will succeed. We have no doubt about that."