Douglas London is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, teaching courses related to national security and intelligence following his 34-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency. London served with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations as a Senior Operations Officer, Chief of Station, and Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia. He recently authored “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of Intelligence,” a look at his career, the state of the CIA, and the crossroads at which he believes it finds itself.
What made you write this book? What did you want to contribute to a conversation or have people take away from it?
My original intent was to write fiction or a novel because I had 34-plus years of angst to process when I retired. There’s a weird process you go through after doing something for so long. There were conversations I wanted to start about issues such as leadership, accountability, and diversity, things where I felt the Agency needed some reform. Human operations is a human business and it’s all about people, our obligations to those people, and how we deal with and handle them. I felt the need for more transparency and resolution concerning the way the CIA operates.
The subtitle of your book is “The Lost Art of American Intelligence.” Why the “lost art”?
I believe spying is an art, and to do it well and do it right, really is an art form. A lot of that magic and art form was lost and deliberately deflected based on a number of factors that were political, which unfortunately showed less virtuous aspects of people who were ambitious or opportunistic as opposed to focusing on the mission and on what they were supposed to do. I hope it’s not “lost,” but I feel that the Agency lost its way and now is at a crossroads. To be able to successfully prosecute their mission they need to make some adjustments.
Your book talks a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion which is a topic we don’t get to hear about often from the CIA, especially from someone who spent a lot of time there. Why is DEI important to the CIA?
If there’s any organization that should be at the front of the line in embracing diversity and inclusion it should be an intelligence service, especially one that goes out and recruits spies. The CIA has to collect against all various countries, issues, peoples, and subsets of peoples. Where is there a greater pool of expertise than in the United States which is the most diverse country in the world? Our diversity is very much an American strength.
There are obstacles for officers who are outside of that traditional White male mold. The Agency became a lot more open to women in the 1990’s, but they were also white women. The 2015 unclassified Vernon Jordan internal report showed how the CIA was hiring more people of color, however, the Black community of officers was advancing through Agency ranks even slower than previously. We cannot dismiss the value of someone who lived different backgrounds and different cultures.
Your book mentions the amounts of stress that could be felt by CIA employees, which accompany a high chance of divorce, substance abuse, and other mental health issues. Throughout your time at the Agency how has the climate surrounding mental health changed and how is it viewed now?
I think the organization has become much better about mental health, but more needs to be done. There’s a natural reluctance to come forward when you have these problems because it can appear as a sign of weakness. Intelligence officers, particularly case officers, tend to think you don’t show weakness or vulnerability, though I would argue that I was able to engage certain people by showing vulnerability and by being human. The Agency has always done better with alcohol abuse than anything. If you had an alcohol abuse problem and you came forward, there was no harm no foul. They would allow you to go to rehab, pay for the treatment, bring you back to work and it would not be held against you. And that really was true, I saw officers come back and their careers were not impacted in the least. There needs to be a more aggressive way to help people with mental health issues, and not just for the case officers. We have analysts and desk officers who deal with the stress of the job, some who have to look at videotapes of people being gunned down, blown up, or executed. It’s unbelievably traumatic. The Agency makes mental health professionals available and encourages managers to remind their people that there’s no harm in seeking help.
You worked under six presidents, four republicans, and two democrats. What was your experience with top political leadership impacting your day-to-day within the office and in the field?
The best time in my career was when I didn’t have to worry about all of that, and all I had to do was recruit spies. As you move up and deal with the policymakers, you see more of how things impact you directly. Now, I’m not just spying and writing intelligence, I’m seeing how my resources and priorities are shaping what I can do and how different viewpoints affect how I do it.
You talk about individual people like “Ian”, “Alex”, and “Vicki”. How much do you think it’s the individual human that is making those decisions which negatively impact the culture versus the reality of the organization as a whole?
I think people make a big difference because they wield tremendous power, which is why a lot of them don’t want to leave. It’s a systemic problem that allows these people to accumulate this kind of power which I know for a fact that Ambassador Burns is changing by imposing certain limits, constraints, and qualifications on leadership. At a minimum, it’s helping to spread leadership opportunities beyond that very small circle of people.
In your book, you say the CIA transitioned from being a “spy service” to being an “intelligence agency.” What’s the difference there? Especially because it is the Central Intelligence Agency
Any government agency is a bureaucracy of sorts, but the CIA prided itself in being different. It was an elite, agile spy service. It was focused on using that elitism to do what no other organization could do and to do it extremely well. I saw it transform into just another organ of policy, another tool. After 9/11, the Agency believed, rightfully, that it was facing an existential crisis. America wanted accountability for 9/11, somebody to blame, and who better to blame than the intelligence service who was supposed to see it coming. I think you can be elite without prejudicing yourself or being exclusive. Fighter pilots think they’re elite, and they are. They do a very particular mission that requires a particular personality. They can be any gender or any color but they’re elite by the nature of what they do. So are spies. I think if you’re telling an intelligence officer that they’re just a basic intel officer, interchangeable with anybody else, it doesn’t capture what is expected of that person in their day-to-day work.
At the end of the book, you talk about the current threat atmosphere. You name the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, domestic terrorism, and social justice, which have largely domestic impacts. How do you think the IC and CIA can mitigate or contribute to those threats?
CIA is a foreign intelligence service so in contributing to domestic terrorism it would have to be looking at links with outside groups, which include inspiring domestic terrorism. Are they taking training lessons through videos and books? That sort of thing. Climate change and social justice abroad are absolutely security issues. Egypt is about to go to war with Sudan over water. Iran had protests in the streets over water. Those are climate change issues. Particularly, a lot of the Arab-Israeli issues are focused on resources and those kinds of things. The pandemic has done to the world what no terrorist act could have done. There are 900,000 dead Americans right now as we speak. There has to be room to allow intelligence services to identify that these are the threats that are coming so we can align resources to mitigate them. These are real issues that need attention.
What do you think you were able to impact throughout your career?
I was very lucky. I was able to work on a lot of issues that had consequences, impacted the course of history, and saved lives such as the various counterterrorism issues, dealing with our strategic enemies, and stealing some of the enemy’s most prized secrets. That’s one of the great joys of working in intelligence, that one individual can make a lot of difference. One case officer meeting one spy in the middle of the night can collect information that saves people’s lives, and that happens on a regular basis.
Is there anything that you think is important to talk about that I didn’t ask?
I think it’s important that Americans have a sense of confidence in the IC and particularly the CIA. There has to be a balance of transparency that tells people not only that their tax dollars are being used well, but that CIA is accountable. It makes mistakes but it addresses those mistakes and overcomes them. That’s what we need more of from the DNI, serving as that umbilical cord between the IC and all Americans. I’m not talking about releasing documents and exposing spies, but the DNI makes sure that if the CIA did something wrong, or did something right, that the right gets perpetuated and the wrong gets fixed. All of that starts, however, in-house, at the CIA itself, doing the right thing. I don’t think there’s enough of that yet, and we have to start moving in that direction.