In January 2000, the National Security Council directed the CIA to locate and track Osama bin Laden, in a possible prelude to a military strike. In the risk-averse world before Sept. 11, 2001, neither the Pentagon nor the CIA’s leadership could countenance allowing even limited forces in northern Afghanistan or neighboring countries to carry out the directive. At the time, Henry A. Crumpton was responsible for the CIA’s global counter-terrorism operations, and he and a small group of other officials pushed “a reluctant and even suspicious interagency bureaucracy” toward the position that unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — could provide a solution.

The CIA found a Predator drone, which had seen some service over Bosnia, gathering dust at an Air Force base and moved it to a base in Uzbekistan. After a human source revealed that bin Laden was at the Tarnak Farms compound, near Kandahar, in a now-famous incident the Predator’s cameras zoomed in on a tall man dressed in white. “Holy Mother of God,” said one of the operatives watching the video-stream. But the Predator was not armed with Hellfire missiles. It would take six hours for cruise missiles fired from the Indian Ocean to hit the target, and the Clinton White House balked.

Crumpton’s memoir, “The Art of Intelligence,” is a lively account of his 24-year career in the CIA that charts one of the most significant legacies of the past decade of warfare: the rise of drones. The failure to strike in 2000 led to a renewed fight over arming the Predator, and as Crumpton notes, “Many were resistant to the notion that the CIA should have such lethal capability and authority.”

That controversy endures, and Crumpton provides a small window into the early history of the program, describing how “mission-driven bureaucratic subversives, operating inside the huge and lumbering U.S. security establishment, had imagined and produced an armed UAV.” After the United States invaded Afghanistan, Crumpton writes, “we cranked Hellfire shots day and night.”

Crumpton likes to mix it up. He portrays himself as one of those bureaucratic subversives who, in the wake of 9/11, sometimes worked in a “barely-bounded rage.” He also uses his book to slip the knife into some old in-house foes, particularly those deemed too timid for the struggle. And he periodically rails at the press, politicians and other repositories of fecklessness. That’s standard fare for the Washington memoir.

’The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA's Clandestine Service’ by Henry A. Crumpton (The Penguin Press)

Crumpton’s account of his life as a young recruit, his years in the Africa division, and his close-up view of the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban is far more interesting and often entertainingly frank.

A native of rural Georgia, Crumpton left home at 16 and headed to Alabama, where he found work on the evening shift in a carpet factory so he could study for a high school diploma by day. He was a kid who was passionate about learning and bursting with curiosity about the world. After graduating from high school, he drifted west and first attended St. John’s in Santa Fe, but the college’s Great Books program gave way to “extracurricular opportunities” at the University of New Mexico after he transferred there. After graduation, he traveled through Asia, the Soviet Union and Western Europe, eluding law enforcement for various offenses, including “violent public disorder.”

Since childhood he had pined for a life in the CIA, and an agency recruiter saw some raw talent in the eager 22-year-old, who became the youngest and least experienced trainee in his class. Crumpton was assigned to the Africa division, where officers “thrived in fluid, unstructured and churning environments,” he writes. It was in many ways an ideal environment for luring Soviet-bloc officials into working for the CIA. Crumpton describes breaking and entering to plant listening devices, bugging the hotel rooms of visiting foreign leaders, working with anti-Marxist guerrillas and the dance of recruitment. One only wishes he could have been a little more specific about where he was operating and who the targets were, but one presumes the CIA’s publications board sanitized some of this copy.

The Afghanistan campaign left Crumpton variously exhausted, exhilarated and embittered, and he moved on to calmer assignments in 2002. The CIA and Joint Special Operations Command’s network of commandoes had briefly and brilliantly run the war but were, in the end, denied the resources to complete what Crumpton saw as the campaign’s strategic objectives, goals that still define the conflict: killing the leadership of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, denying them havens from which to operate and improving the lives of ordinary Afghans.

It is perhaps Crumpton’s misfortune that his memoir arrives in the publicity-sucking slipstream of his colleague Jose Rodriquez Jr.’s “Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives,” an apologia for “enhanced interrogation techniques,” elsewhere described as torture. (Crumpton was not involved in the secret prisons set up overseas by the CIA after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.)

“The Art of Intelligence” combines the derring-do of old-fashioned spycraft with thoughtful meditations on the future of warfare and intelligence work. It deserves to be read.

Peter Finn is a national security correspondent for The Washington Post.


Lessons From a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service

By Henry A. Crumpton

Penguin Press. 338 pp. $27.95