In between his defense of secret prisons, coercive interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects and the shredding of highly sensitive videotapes, former CIA spymaster Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. makes room in his memoir “Hard Measures” to talk about the competition: other CIA memoirists.
These days, there are just so many of them — and so much controversy surrounding them. One measure of the fallout: The CIA is conducting an internal investigation to determine whether some spy memoirs are being censored merely to scrub out embarrassing details about the agency, rather than to protect against the release of classified information. But the CIA doesn’t seem to mind letting former officers praise or slam one another.
In “Hard Measures,” Rodriguez, 63, a Northern Virginian who retired from the agency five years ago, plugs another hot new CIA memoir, “The Art of Intelligence,” published in May by former agency officer Henry A. Crumpton. But Rodriguez also settled some spy scores. Without deigning to utter his rivals’ names or book titles, Rodriguez pilloried “The Interrogator,” a 2011 memoir by ex-CIA operative Glenn L. Carle, and “The Reluctant Spy,” written in 2009 by former agency man John Kiriakou. Rodriguez believes his fellow ex-spies unfairly tainted harsh interrogation tactics — such as waterboarding — that he championed.
“[G]reat pretenders,” the memoirist labels his opposing memoirists.
The proliferation of CIA memoirs has been fueled by the public’s appetite for insider accounts into the country’s war on terrorism — real-life versions of popular shows such as “Homeland.” The books often command six-figure advances, generate headlines and propel their authors onto network television shows.
“There’s never been more interest in the work of the CIA [from publishing houses] as there has been in the last decade,” said Bill Harlow, the former CIA spokesman from 1997 to 2004, who co-wrote Rodriguez’s memoir as well as former CIA director George Tenet’s opus, “At the Center of the Storm,” in 2007.
While not exactly written in the mold of John Le Carré, the memoirs unspool secrets not easily obtainable under the Freedom of Information Act. Tales about recruiting informants or office gamesmanship at Langley often find their way past the agency’s Publications Review Board, which reviews ex-employees’ books and redacts classified details.
“In many cases, they are providing the only account there is, and people read the memoirs to flesh out a sparse public record,” said Steven Aftergood, editor of the Federation of American Scientists’s Secrecy News and a CIA memoir enthusiast. “Now, these authors are competing for control of a certain historical narrative, when even the meanings of ‘torture’ and ‘terrorism’ are contested. These [CIA memoirists] are trying to define those meanings and write the first drafts of history.”
In interviews, many of the spies-turned-authors say they are tired of ceding their stories to journalists or government officials. They want to correct what they contend are mistakes in the public domain about the work they orchestrated. Or they want to expose the agency’s wrongdoings. Either way, after living so long undercover, the ex-spies want a little credit, even if it means dabbling in public self-glorification, something seemingly antithetical to the agency’s ethos.
There’s also money to be made, though exactly how much is unclear. CIA stars such as Tenet and Valerie Plame Wilson, the former covert operative whose identity was leaked to the media by White House officials in 2003, reportedly received advances of $2 million. But most advances are far more modest, publishers and authors say.
Rodriguez and Harlow sold “Hard Measures” about a week before Osama bin Laden was killed and speculated that they could have gotten a bigger advance had they made their deal afterward.
Rodriguez and Crumpton’s books have performed well. Both authors were interviewed on “60 Minutes.” And both books have made the New York Times bestseller list.
Ex-CIA officials aren’t turning off the tap anytime soon.
Jack Devine, who served for 32 years at the CIA and helped lead the agency’s campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan, is wrapping up his memoir, to be published early next year by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. (The book is being written with Washington Post local editor Vernon Loeb); John Rizzo, the CIA’s former acting general counsel who supported the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, is racing to finish his manuscript for Scribner by the end of the year. And the Fairfax family of Brian Kelley, a CIA counterintelligence officer who died in 2011 and was once falsely accused of being a Russian spy, is reaching out to literary agents about his unpublished memoir.
Devine hopes his CIA memoir — filled with tales about his covert operations, from Chile to Afghanistan — counteracts other books by journalists and former colleagues that have slammed the agency’s covert operations. Now a partner at a New York “corporate intelligence” consulting firm, Devine argues that CIA-led paramilitary missions, not military troops on the ground, are the future of American warfare.
For Rizzo, his memoir is a chance to defend himself at length for the first time about his decision to seek Justice Department approval for coercive interrogation techniques against terrorist suspects. Rizzo, now a Steptoe & Johnson lawyer and Hoover Institution visiting fellow, believes his endorsement of those methods cost him a Senate confirmation as the CIA’s permanent general counsel.
“As the CIA’s chief lawyer involved in the very creation of the enhanced interrogation techniques program, I’d like to give my personal perspective since I couldn’t during confirmation battles, and why I thought the Justice Department’s memos made sense to me,” said Rizzo, who spent 34 years at the CIA before retiring in 2009. “I don’t think we had any other choice, which was critical in preventing the next terrorist attack.”
Crumpton is also an agency loyalist, defending his prescience and the CIA’s in the run-up to the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war. Years before the hijackings, he writes that he and others at the CIA were fixated on al-Qaeda’s threat to the United States, while the FBI seemed clueless.
But Crumpton doesn’t shy away from needling Langley, which declined to comment for this article. Crumpton writes that he once had to evaluate whether to promote some of the senior-most officers and thought that 10 percent of them didn’t belong at the CIA.
“My book is about educating the American people about intelligence,” Crumpton said in an interview, “and setting the historical record straight.”
American spy memoirs date back at least several decades. One of the first was “Undercover Girl,” published in 1947 by Elizabeth “Betty” McIntosh, who wrote about her days as spy for the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s precursor.
During the 1970s, ex-CIA officers began writing memoirs that exposed wrongdoing or information the agency did not want made public. By 1976, the agency formally created the Publications Review Board, which must screen all books written by current or ex-employees to ensure that no classified information is released.
A year later, ex-officer Frank Snepp published his Vietnam memoir “Decent Interval” — which revealed that the agency had left behind in Saigon classified documents listing the identities of local spies — without taking it through an agency review. Even though the book contained no classified information, the CIA sued him, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court and winning the rights to the book’s profits.
More than three decades later, an ex-officer using the pen name Ishmael Jones published his 2008 book “The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture” without letting the agency finish its review of the book. (Its back cover screams the words: “UNAUTHORIZED BY THE CIA”.) In April, a federal judge ruled that Jones must forfeit any future money he earns from the book.
Another CIA critic/memoirist is Glenn Carle, a 55-year-old from Bethesda who served for 23 years in the CIA’s clandestine service before retiring in 2007. Carle’s 2011 memoir, “The Interrogator,” gave readers a first-person account of his interrogation of a terrorist suspect at a secret prison.
Carle wrote that he never physically harmed his detainee, a person he could only identify as CAPTUS, who the CIA believed could lead the agency to bin Laden. Carle instead established a rapport with him, never beat him and tried stopping others seeking to harm him. Eventually, CAPTUS was sent to another secret prison where, Carle said, he was abused.
(Scott Horton, a Columbia University law professor, identified CAPTUS in Harper’s magazine as Pacha Wazir, an Afghan who ran a money transfer business throughout the Middle East and who was eventually released.)
“The standard CIA memoir says, ‘If only anyone [had] listened to me, everything would have been all right.’ Mine isn’t a tale of derring-do,” Carle said. “I set out to write the definitive work capturing the zeitgeist of our era, how our delusions gave us ideals, how we destroyed ourselves. The whole book is an objection to torture.”
Rodriguez, who thinks that enhanced interrogation techniques work, wrote in his memoir that Carle’s memoir amounts to “fiction.”
“How can that happen?” Rodriguez asks in “Hard Measures.” “I can tell you that it is much, much easier to get a book deal highly critical of the CIA than it is to write accurately and supportively of the work the Agency does.”
To bolster its credibility, Carle’s book does have a glowing blurb on the back cover from John H. Hedley, the agency’s former chairman of the Publications Review Board. But, as Rodriguez notes in his memoir, the Publications Review Board only checks books for classified information, not for accuracy.
Some old CIA hands think the commercial CIA memoir is a bit unbecoming of a spy. Besides, they say, the books might hand over to adversaries too much from the CIA’s playbook.
Burton Gerber, a retired CIA officer who was once Soviet and East European division chief, figured out a way around that problem.
In 1994, Gerber wrote his memoir “Splendid Day.” He said the book, which covers his 39-year career of successful and failed operations, teems with classified information.
The thing is, Gerber wanted his memoir to be read only by CIA employees, not the general public. He just wanted to write something to inform the next generation of spies.
So Gerber wasn’t required to present “Splendid Day” to the agency’s Publications Review Board to scrub out the classified stuff. For now, Gerber’s memoir sits in a CIA library. And only those with security clearances can read it.
“My best friend who doesn’t work in government said that when I die, he’ll sue to get the book released,” said Gerber, 78, now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University who lives in Adams Morgan. “I told him, ‘No. They’ll never release it.’ ”