The Art of Intelligence
Lessons from a Life in the CIA's Clandestine Service
A legendary CIA spy and counterterrorism expert tells the spellbinding story of his high-risk, action-packed career while illustrating the growing importance of America's intelligence officers and their secret missions
For a crucial period, Henry Crumpton led the CIA's global covert operations against America's terrorist enemies, including al Qaeda. In the days after 9/11, the CIA tasked Crumpton to organize and lead the Afghanistan campaign. With Crumpton's strategic initiative and bold leadership, from the battlefield to the Oval Office, U.S. and Afghan allies routed al Qaeda and the Taliban in less than ninety days after the Twin Towers fell. At the height of combat against the Taliban in late 2001, there were fewer than five hundred Americans on the ground in Afghanistan, a dynamic blend of CIA and Special Forces. The campaign changed the way America wages war. This book will change the way America views the CIA.
The Art of Intelligence draws from the full arc of Crumpton's espionage and covert action exploits to explain what America's spies do and why their service is more valuable than ever. From his early years in Africa, where he recruited and ran sources, from loathsome criminals to heroic warriors; to his liaison assignment at the FBI, the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, the development of the UAV Predator program, and the Afghanistan war; to his later work running all CIA clandestine operations inside the United States, he employs enthralling storytelling to teach important lessons about national security, but also about duty, honor, and love of country.
No book like The Art of Intelligence has ever been written-not with Crumpton's unique perspective, in a time when America faced such grave and uncertain risk. It is an epic, sure to be a classic in the annals of espionage and war.
In the summer of 2002, I embarked on a new mission. After two decades in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, including the last ten months leading the CIA’s Afghanistan campaign, it was time for a change.
This mission was a departure for me. There were no Mi-17 helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) Predators, M4 assault rifles, Glock model 19 pistols, ceramic-plated body armor, inoculations, polygraphs, disguises, cover, or even basic tradecraft. There was no surveillance to avoid, agents to run, or terrorists to nullify. The assignment did, however, require that I enter a strange culture, readjust my attitude, and assume a different identity.
I returned to university as a student.
The CIA granted me an academic sabbatical at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. This new assignment, more sedate than some recent experiences, was nevertheless exciting. It was a full academic year of intellectual indulgence. I gorged on a feast of courses and books covering political thought, military strategy, China, history, foreign policy, terrorism, and philosophy.
I savored it all.
Searching the Spring Semester 2003 course catalog, I stumbled across something unexpected: a class on intelligence. The catchy title “The Art and Tradecraft of Intelligence” prompted me to research the background of the course’s professor, Dr. Jennifer Sims. She had an impressive résumé, both in academia and government.
As a veteran intelligence professional still on the CIA payroll, I felt obliged to take the course. I also figured the class would be fun and easy.
It was a hoot. We explored how George Washington, one of America’s great spymasters, ran agents with superb tactical tradecraft and then brilliantly exploited their intelligence for strategic value. We studied the advances of intelligence capabilities in the U.S. Civil War. We learned that
President Lincoln spent many of his days in the White House telegraph room, turning it into his de facto intelligence and command center. We followed how the advent of wireless telecommunications, airplanes, radar, satellites, and other technical marvels transformed intelligence throughout the twentieth century.
We observed how, unlike Washington and Lincoln, most political leaders forging national security policy and waging war failed to understand or appreciate intelligence. When they also failed to keep pace with geopolitical changes, it was in part because of the gaps among intelligence collection, intelligence analysis, and policy implementation. We reflected on how the government and the broader society perceived and treated intelligence professionals, with comments swinging from deep loathing to cartoonish fantasy. Uninformed and sometimes unreasonable expectations, low and high, of intelligence professionals have whipsawed these officers and their agencies throughout U.S. history. As a nation, our collective ignorance of intelligence has undermined not only our intelligence capabilities, but ultimately the policy makers and citizens served.
Although enjoyable, the class was not easy. Dr. Sims demanded far more study and thought than I anticipated. It was almost embarrassing to realize how much I did not know and how much I learned—even with my many years of experience in espionage, covert action, and war on several continents. Although chagrined by my own ignorance, I was enthralled by the learning experience.
I gained a broader perspective, well beyond the intelligence business, during this academic interlude. It was the first time in twenty years that I was not focused just on the immediate, operational tasks of intelligence. With the opportunity to study and reflect, I better appreciated that the world was transforming rapidly, not least in terms of the nature of conflict, risk, competition, and cooperation. But there was one common denominator: The value of intelligence was increasing. Our Afghanistan campaign of 2001–02 offered many examples of this. The transformative geopolitical trends of our time, many fueled by exponential advances in technology, suggest that intelligence will play an even greater role in an increasingly interdependent and complex world. Our collective understanding and appreciation for intelligence, however, lags far behind our country’s needs, just as it often has throughout U.S. history.
After the United States and its allies won the Cold War and the Iron Curtain collapsed in November 1989, many responsible and respected leaders, such as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, voiced their doubts about the need for robust intelligence. Some questioned the need for a Clandestine Service. In the 1990s, Congress cashed in the “peace dividend” and slashed intelligence budgets to the bone. As a field operative during this decade of budgetary collapse, I witnessed operations collapse and agent networks wither. The CIA closed stations all over the world. It was as if our leaders expected that geopolitical risk would fade away.
Some CIA leaders wondered out loud about their nebulous mission. Some quit in confusion and disgust. Remarkably, some CIA veterans even embraced the concept of a new world without real enemies. One CIA Clandestine Service division chief, Milton Bearden, declared that Russia no longer posed any significant espionage threat. His argument gained traction until the exposure of a string of Russian penetrations, such as those of Aldrich Ames in the CIA and Robert Hanssen in the FBI. These traitors dealt great harm to U.S. national security. They also provided information to their Russian handlers that led to the execution of almost a dozen brave Russian agents working for the CIA. While the United States clearly has far more to gain from a cooperative relationship with Russia, as with China, espionage remains an indisputable fact. These great nations are U.S. partners in diplomacy, science, commerce, and much more. They are also espionage adversaries. Both Russia and China probably have more clandestine intelligence operatives inside the United States now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, than at the height of the Cold War.
In the prosperous calm after the Cold War, however, America as a nation enjoyed a delusional respite, in an imaginary world without serious threats and deadly enemies. Policy wonks bloviated about America’s unrivaled supremacy and the universal, unstoppable, unhindered march of liberal political thought and free-market principles. Life was good.
Then al Qaeda (AQ) attacked the U.S. homeland. It was September 11, 2001. Usama Bin Laden (UBL) and his 19 hijackers murdered 2,977 people. The victims were mostly Americans but included citizens from many other countries. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others perished that day. New York’s World Trade Center’s twin towers were destroyed, leaving human remains shredded among the huge piles of urban rubble. Some of the victims had chosen to jump to their deaths, holding hands, instead of being burned and crushed in the buildings’ collapse. Outside Washington, D.C., the Pentagon, the headquarters of the greatest military on earth, lay wounded, a deep, black, smoking hole in its side. U.S. military men and women, dead and wounded, were strewn throughout its corridors.
The heroic passengers of United Flight 93, in the only effective response to the enemy on that grim day, overpowered the hijackers. The plane, out of control, exploded upon impact in the rural lands near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. This citizen band, a spontaneous, self-organized team of nonstate actors, collected intelligence from their cell phones, analyzed their situation and the risk, and planned and executed a daring counterattack. There were thirty-three passengers and seven crew members on the aircraft. They all died, almost certainly saving hundreds, including perhaps our political leaders in Washington, D.C.
America and the world, shocked and outraged, struggled to grasp what the attack meant. Who was this enemy? Why? What had the United States done to protect its citizens? What could be done in response?
That horrible day ushered in a renewed sense of vulnerability. Citizens wondered if their communities would be attacked. The violation of our homeland sparked a debate about war and security with intelligence at the forefront. Congress would later establish the 9/11 Commission, with an emphasis on the role of intelligence. The conclusions of the commission and the sentiment of policy leaders were clear: 9/11 was a colossal intelligence failure, not a policy failure—that was not in the commission’s charter to explore.
The commission and policy makers, many of whom had voted to slash intelligence budgets, all agreed: Intelligence was at fault. Intelligence was now important. The United States needed more resources for intelligence.
In the decade since 9/11, U.S. intelligence budgets and bureaucracies exploded in an orgy of growth, replication, and confusion. The annual intelligence budget ballooned from a few billion dollars to $75 billion by 2011. Overnight, U.S. political leaders became champions of intelligence. They established more critical commissions, spent more tax dollars, created more rules and regulations, and built more Washington-centric organizations, such as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Meanwhile, Republican and Democratic administrations, along with Congress, selectively abused the CIA to garner political benefit while demanding more from the agency than ever. Some on President George W. Bush’s staff sought to undermine the integrity and even the security of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame, whose husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, had publicly criticized the Bush White House. For political gain or for any reason, how could White House officials jeopardize the sacrosanct cover and life of a CIA officer? How could they risk her agent network, those foreigners who also risked their lives spying for America? Senior White House adviser Scooter Libby was sentenced to prison for failing to cooperate in the federal investigation of the leak.
Along with this horrible breach of trust, President Bush and his team embraced the CIA for its intelligence and its services—particularly if they conformed to the administration’s policy expectations. CIA Director George Tenet developed a close relationship, perhaps too close, with the White House. During my briefings with President Bush in 2001–02 at Camp David, the Situation Room, and in the Oval Office, he invariably inquired about operations and encouraged me and my officers deployed in Afghanistan. He provided clear guidance and great moral support. How could he allow, perhaps condone, a political attack on a CIA undercover officer?
When President Obama assumed office in January 2009, his Justice Department threatened CIA officers with jail—because they had carried out lawful orders under the previous administration. Was this an attempt to criminalize previous policy as a way to punish the CIA? Or were intelligence officers just being kicked for political benefit?
For more than two years the attorney general’s prosecutors pursued CIA Deputy Director of Operations Jose Rodriguez, an honorable and brave leader, only to drop the case after they found zero evidence of wrongdoing and the political spotlight had dimmed. Despite the objection of then CIA Director Michael Hayden, along with every living former CIA director, President Obama released the details of enhanced interrogation techniques that had been approved and directed by the previous administration. The Obama administration sought to curry favor with elements of the Democratic Party at the expense of the CIA and its officers.
Meanwhile, the defense attorneys for AQ detainees in Guantánamo supplied their clients, the terrorists, with photos and names of CIA officers. Why did the Obama administration’s Department of Justice allow this? I could not fathom how responsible leaders could pursue this course of action, given the growing reliance on intelligence officers and intelligence resources to prosecute the war against AQ.
President Obama turned more and more to the CIA. He unleashed more target-specific attacks in South Asia in just a few months than President Bush had ordered during his entire term. President Obama tasked the CIA to track down and kill more terrorists and called and congratulated individual operatives upon the completion of successful missions. He grew to trust the CIA’s assessments, and his trust was rewarded. The CIA found UBL, and this gave President Obama the opportunity to garner extraordinary political credibility as commander in chief. He bravely ordered the CIA and U.S. Navy SEALs to launch the operation that killed UBL in his Pakistan hideout on May 1, 2011.
In the decade after 9/11, European allies joined the anti-intelligence political fray, indicting CIA officers while ignoring their own intelligence officers’ complicity in joint operations gone sour. Italy serves as the prime example. The CIA wondered about the reliability of foreign intelligence partners and their political masters. Meanwhile, foreign intelligence and security services pondered whom they could trust in the U.S. intelligence community. They debated among themselves which U.S. agency had what responsibility. Who could blame them, with all the press leaks and the confused proliferation of senior intelligence officers and various agencies and departments with a bewildering set of roles and overlapping authorities? As an example, the new office of the DNI, with no charter restricted to coordinating U.S. intelligence agencies, acquired a staff of protocol officers to attend to visiting foreign liaison officials. The DNI’s office would balloon to more than three thousand staff members and contractors, most of them looking for a mission.
On the home front, American public sentiment varied widely. There was admiration for CIA officers, especially as their leading role against AQ seeped into the public domain. The first American killed fighting for his country after 9/11 was CIA paramilitary officer Johnny Mike Spann. There was wide, respectful, and justified press coverage of this fallen American hero. The loss was particularly acute for us in the CIA, because Mike was the kind of officer we admired: selfless and courageous.
It took only a couple of years after 9/11, however, for America and some of its leaders to grow ambivalent about the role of intelligence. In some quarters there was growing suspicion and antipathy for intelligence, particularly interrogation techniques and lethal covert operations. There was also justified concern about intelligence in the homeland, both its paucity and its challenge to civil liberties.
Popular media and entertainment businesses hyped and distorted all sides on the intelligence spectrum, from painting superhero portraits to loathsome images of intelligence operatives and their missions.
More fundamentally, political leaders and lawyers struggled to determine if we were even at war with al Qaeda and, if so, how we should treat the enemy. Are they criminals destined for civilian courts or enemy combatants shipped to the Guantánamo netherworld? Why approval for CIA operated unmanned drones to kill a designated enemy leader, perhaps including his unlucky family, but disapproval and potential legal action against a CIA officer who compels an enemy prisoner to forgo sleep during interrogation?
And why is the CIA at the forefront of this conflict? This is not just intelligence collection but covert action on a grand, global scale. Why so much covert action? What about other instruments of statecraft?
I participated in some of this operational and political conflict, particularly that in Afghanistan before and after 9/11, both in the field and in Washington, D.C. Often I had a ringside seat and watched in both awe and disgust as U.S. intelligence missions and foreign policy twisted and
turned, seeking to protect our nation but at times making matters worse. As an example, the brazen invasion of Iraq, followed by a feckless occupation, undermined the global sympathy for us after the 9/11 attack and the admiration and goodwill after our initial success in Afghanistan.
At the root of all this, it seemed, was a weak understanding of intelligence among policy makers, elected officials, and leaders, both in government and in the broader society. I wondered how much was honest ignorance and how much was cynicism and manipulation by politicians, journalists, entertainers, and profiteers. If intelligence plays such a paramount role in our national security and is deemed to assume even greater importance, and if citizens need to understand this arcane art, how is that best accomplished?
Here lies the paradox. Because of the deep functional and cultural bias toward secrecy among spies, especially in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, intelligence leaders often dismiss the need for public outreach or education. Political leaders generally reinforce this attitude, not wanting any expert views divergent from their own surfacing in the public domain. In fact, politicians want to protect intelligence for their own use, even among themselves. This necessary secrecy, particularly of sources and methods, all too often prevents a deeper public understanding of intelligence.
Dr. Sims and I debated this paradox during and after her course. We also discussed the ethics of intelligence. I introduced her to Burton Gerber, a good friend, retired CIA spymaster, and devout Catholic. He visited Dr. Sims’s class and lectured on the ethics of espionage. This sparked important debate.
Dr. Sims and I agreed that the study of intelligence was immature. We needed more reference points, more resources, greater focus, and more dynamic, respectful, well-informed discussion. I encouraged her to organize and edit a text on intelligence, something she had been considering. She convinced Burton to be coeditor. I agreed to contribute a couple of chapters in the book; they became “Intelligence and War: Afghanistan 2001–02” and “Homeland Intelligence and Security” in Transforming U.S. Intelligence, published by Georgetown University Press in 2005.
It serves as a useful text for those interested in the academic study of intelligence, an important but relatively small audience. I was proud of my modest contribution.
After my academic sabbatical, I returned to the Clandestine Service in 2003 for a two-year stint as chief of the National Resources (NR) Division, one of the most sensitive components of the CIA. NR Division has offices scattered throughout the United States. NR works with U.S. law enforcement and U.S. citizens and institutions, public and private, to advance the mission of the Clandestine Service. I gained a new understanding of my country and the depth of goodwill toward the CIA. I also realized, firsthand, the centrality of the private sector in our national security. As chief of NR, I saw the advent of U.S. technologies and the growing globalization of profit and loss. The access and understanding of U.S. private-sector executives and experts working in all corners of the world impressed me. The public/private interdependence in intelligence stunned me, as did the wealth of intelligence and the potential that we do not harness.
Our limitations seemed to rest, in part, on the lack of responsible, public study and dialogue about intelligence, particularly the role of intelligence in the shifting nature of risk. There indeed were voices, but often of the uninformed, politically motivated, or bitter espionage veterans facing a new world that did not conform to their ideological views or career expectations.
As a Clandestine Service officer, I knew that was not my responsibility. I was proscribed from any such public advocacy role. Besides, I had already stretched the limits of the CIA’s cultural norms by writing a couple of chapters in an academic text.
In 2005 circumstances propelled me into a public role, one that I had not anticipated. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked that I serve as the coordinator for counterterrorism with the rank of ambassador-at-large. This was a presidential appointment and required public Senate confirmation. I accepted the offer, realizing that my life as a spy was over.
I leaped from the closed, secret world of the Clandestine Service to the stage of global public diplomacy as the president’s and secretary’s representative for counterterrorism policy. I began a new life and went from spy to diplomat, from clandestine operations to international TV interviews, from a mix of aliases to an Honorable title. Most of all, I shifted from intelligence collector to intelligence consumer, from an operations officer to an adviser, maker, and implementer of policy. When President Bush first saw me at the Department of State, he asked Secretary Rice, “The throat slitter as a diplomat? Is that working?”
I had worked in counterterrorism across many different agencies and departments, and I understood the interagency process, so the transition from operations to policy was not difficult. My many years steeped in global counterterrorist operations and my cooperative relationships in many countries also helped. During the eighteen months working for Secretary Rice, I spent most of my time traveling abroad, working with our ambassadors, military commanders, and foreign partners. In this transition, there may have been some missteps, but I endeavored to learn and improve. There was one major gap in my experience and understanding, however. I vastly underestimated the extent and the importance of the public part of this mission. I conducted more than a hundred interviews and other press events worldwide. Audiences, foreign and domestic, seemed eager for somebody to engage, to discuss counterterrorism policy and the supporting role of intelligence. If nothing else, they wanted a senior U.S. official to listen.
During this assignment, I was struck by the importance of education and responsible, public discussion. I worked diligently to represent my country in these open forums, communicating with public audiences from Bogotá to Berlin to Beirut.
After I retired from U.S. government service in 2007, with the support of my wife of many years, I shifted to the private sector to pay for our children’s college tuition. I also wanted greater flexibility to enjoy my family and friends. That hit home when I realized that I was spending more time thinking about the enemy than anybody else. After twenty-six years of government service, retirement was the right choice.
In my heart, however, I will always hold dear my service as a CIA operations officer. My service was more than a career. It was indeed a great mission, a way of life. And with that honor and privilege of service, that love for my country, comes responsibility. Given my unique experiences in counterterrorism, academia, NR, public diplomacy, and now the private sector, I feel a compelling responsibility to educate, especially given the monumental shifts in geopolitical conflict and the associated demands on the intelligence mission and intelligence professionals.
The paradox remains. How does a former CIA officer maintain the cultural code of the quiet professional and at the same time seek to inform the public, to advance understanding and thereby support for the intelligence mission? I seek to strike the right balance between a retired spy’s honorable discretion and an active citizen’s public responsibility.
When I retired, I did not intend to write a book, but literary agents Andrew Wylie and Scott Moyers were persuasive, as were others. Scott first read about me in the print media. He then did some research. This included a call to a mutual friend, Bill Harlow, who vouched for me. Harlow had served admirably as the CIA’s public affairs officer under Director George Tenet. Scott and Andrew invited me to their New York office, where they convinced me that I could and should share more of my knowledge.
Relying on recall and updated discussions with some of the other participants, I have written personal stories to convey an understanding of the deeper issues related to intelligence, war, and policy. The stories, based on my direct participation or those of officers under my command at the time, are also important because they are about people. Intelligence, of course, is ultimately about people: those who engage in espionage and covert action; those who analyze intelligence; and those who use intelligence. Intelligence is also about those who are recruitment targets and foreign agents, and those who benefit from or suffer the consequences of intelligence operations and intelligence-informed policy, good and bad.
The first section of the book deals with the fundamentals of the business. Intelligence collection, in which I served for twenty-four years, receives the most attention primarily because that is what I know best. Covert action, the most controversial aspect of intelligence, warrants extra treatment. The most important covert action of my career, the Afghanistan Campaign of 2001–02, serves as the primary example. There are several reasons. First, I played a leadership role and can write about these operations with authority. Second, this conflict served as an excellent case study of intelligence integrated into covert action, war, and policy. That campaign is a window into the future, a complex blend of nonstate actors as enemies and allies and something in between. Third, because of Bob Woodward and others, there is an unprecedented amount of open-source information that allows me to discuss topics that would otherwise be off - limits. Fourth, the characters played dramatic, compelling roles. Fifth, South Asia will remain a critical area of U.S. national security for many years to come, and we need to learn from our successes and our mistakes.
This text also outlines a new world of risk and the role of intelligence collection and covert action in this environment. This includes an exploration of strategic principles and of the complex dynamic between intelligence and policy. The book reviews the nexus of conflict, intelligence, government, and society.
I hope to cast some light on the art of intelligence by relating some lessons learned over the course of my career, reinforced by the experiences and views of others. This book is my attempt to describe the value of intelligence and how it can protect liberal institutions and advance our increasingly networked, interdependent, global society. It is also about the value of intelligence officers to our nation.
The book’s title is a tribute to the late CIA Director Allen Dulles, who in 1961 wrote The Craft of Intelligence, and to the fifth-century-b.c. Chinese strategist Sun-tzu and his The Art of War. In the first sentence of his book, Dulles references Sun-tzu. I owe a debt of gratitude to many others who have guided me as well.
After all, intelligence is not exactly new.
Sun-tzu emphasized that the art of war is necessary for the state. He added that “All warfare is based on deception” and that “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” He was referring to the value of intelligence.
What was true in ancient China holds true today. Increasingly war and intelligence are vital not only to the state but also to nonstate actors and citizens—because we are entering a new era of conflict with its own unique characteristics and requirements.
Because of this epochal shift, the world of intelligence is in great fl ux. Pulled in many directions by new forces of conflict and cooperation, contorted by shifting political interests, our intelligence community struggles to function effectively. This syndrome is particularly acute in the United States, where society holds variant expectations and ambivalent views about the role of intelligence. Respect, romanticism, knowledge, ignorance, suspicion, fear, and loathing are jumbled together in our national psyche when we think about spies. Or as National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told a congressional hearing, “We have an allergy to intelligence.” As a nation, we struggle to understand and to support intelligence agencies and intelligence professionals.
As the nature of war continues to shift, the role of intelligence will grow. All citizens, not just government officials, need a better grasp of intelligence, both its capabilities and its limits. Better intelligence can protect and advance the interests of the United States and our allies and help promote liberal democracy worldwide. That is why I served my country and why I still honor my oath to the Constitution. That is also why I am writing this book.
I hope to pass some of what I have learned to you.
Federal Bureau of Investigation
The Counterterrorism Center