My recent retirement in July 2019 from the CIA and the current journey I am enjoying, involving public speaking and writing about my career, has led me to engage in a great deal of introspection and soul-searching as I try to explain to the American people what life in the CIA was all about. What did I enjoy most about my 26 years at CIA? What do I miss most in retirement? In speaking with former colleagues and reminiscing about our many decades at CIA, we always come back to a theme that is not always easy to put our fingers on, but to this day keeps drawing us together. It is quite simply the bond we felt for each other, as we served in the shadows with no fanfare or distinction. While at times we fought like cats and dogs like a close-knit family, in the end, we were a brotherhood and sisterhood, one we would defend to the bitter end when attacked by outside forces.
Why does this matter not just to us who lived it but to the American public as well? Well, we unfortunately are living in a time when the CIA, and other members of the Intelligence Community, must “dance through the raindrops” to try to keep a level of requisite analytic and operational independence and to avoid the wrath of their political master, the president of the United States. Recent press reports have revealed how the president has removed senior officials from the Directorate of National Intelligence who disagreed with his inexplicable view of a friendly Russia, bastardized the National Intelligence Estimate process, diminished the role of the inspector general at several national security agencies, and even on a daily basis reportedly shows disdain for his daily intelligence briefing, what should be the most important part of his day.
All said, this is perhaps the most difficult time to be an intelligence officer since the creation of the CIA in 1947. Yet, I would argue that all is not lost. In fact, I’m confident that President Donald Trump’s open disdain for the intelligence profession — as upsetting, unfair, and unwarranted as it is — will never be able to break the ironclad bonds that hold us together. And for that, the American people should be thankful, as we remain the nation’s first-line of defense.
Working at the CIA is not an ordinary job. It is an organization that one becomes a part of as you first walk through the hallowed halls of the front entrance and later swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. As I would always tell junior case officers in their introductory meetings with me, the operations officer career is all encompassing, both a calling and a lifestyle. It is not 9-5, not for the faint of heart, and, in fact, is done primarily at night and often alone. It means trusting your fellow case officers with conducting counter-surveillance for high-threat clandestine meetings, with your life in their hands. It involves having immense intestinal fortitude, and a willingness to engage in personal risk and sacrifice, with an ultimate belief that what we do in this grey and confused world in which we operate is ultimately designed to protect those we love back in the U.S., and just as importantly, to protect each other.
With that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to describe several remarkable vignettes in my career, that have caused me such strong emotions. They are perfect examples of the enduring feelings that I have for this organization and, more importantly, for its remarkable people. I’d also like to note that these are not feelings I only have for the operations officer cadre. My kinship for my former colleagues in the support, analytic, and technical sides of the agency runs just as deep. Their work contributes valiantly and in unique ways to the agency mission. Keep in mind that today’s president could never identify with such emotions, as he has no notion of humility, selflessness, nor sacrifice, setting him quite apart from my former colleagues, who remain heroes in my eyes.
Helicopter from the border. Several years ago, my mother died suddenly while I was serving as the chief of a frontline paramilitary base in a war zone in South Asia. This was a location once termed “the most dangerous place on the planet.” A return to the U.S. would take multiple helicopter and fixed-wing flights just to get back to Washington, D.C., before returning home to New Jersey, where my mother had lived. Yet CIA’s helicopter pilots, who were military special operations veterans and some of the most accomplished pilots on the planet, flew me through terrible weather to ultimately get me closer to home. After I thanked them profusely on the tarmac, I recall vividly that they simply noted that they had accomplished the risky mission just for me, without any hesitation, as they were aware of my mother’s death and felt it important, if not imperative, that I return home. No hesitation. No second-guessing. Absolutely zero chance that I would not make it back. I find it difficult even today to speak about the feelings I have for these men and women. On that day, they were my heroes. And by tradition, those that served together in war zones gather regularly to feel once again these bonds. I can assure you that President Trump would never be invited to my team’s reunions at the venerable Vienna Inn, the quintessential dive bar in northern Virginia that has decades of agency history ingrained in its beer-stained floor and rickety chairs.
Death of a colleague. Every day, this was what we hoped and prayed would never happen, yet it is in such times of incredible sorrow and grief that you feel the strength of the bonds you’ve built with your fellow colleagues. I will never forget standing up in front of hundreds of officers and announcing what had occurred. I can still hear the howls of one officer when she heard the news, and it was awful and gut-wrenching, and it is almost impossible for me to speak of this incident without myself breaking down. Such an event never leaves your heart, and to this day I have feelings of intense guilt, as I was in a position of responsibility for the operation and I can think of multiple instances where I feel I personally had failed. I also recall years later, when I received a promotion to the senior intelligence service ranks, that my first thought was that I did not deserve this honor, as I had lost someone under my command. I will note that the outpouring of love and affection that the agency cadre showed to the officers’ family — then and to this day — was what enabled all of us to cope with the tragic event. We promised to never forget them, in offering both emotional and material support as they rebuilt their lives, and I hope that we have lived up to that promise.
My father and the director. My Greek heritage was quite important to my family, and in particular my father. He immigrated to the U.S. to attend graduate school, and served as a college professor for almost four decades. He also had clear opinions on the controversial role of the CIA in supporting the right-wing Greek junta in the mid-1970s, and as a result, was never comfortable with the agency. I never challenged him on this, as he lived through the “rule of the colonels” and our policies supporting the right-wing Greek government, in retrospect, were suspect at best. His mixed view of the CIA may even be shared by others today, who frown upon some agency activities that are controversial even in the post-9/11 era. But that is never a reason to question the dedication of CIA officers.
For my father, a singular event changed his mind about my career choice that, while not necessarily changing his mind about the CIA, certainly allowed him to better understand why I chose such a unique path. After my return from Iraq in 2003, I was awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, one of the agency’s highest honors. I invited my father to the awards ceremony that was held in our headquarters building. I provided the then-CIA director, also the son of Greek immigrants, advance knowledge of my father’s misgivings, and he subsequently took the time to speak with my father, in Greek and in private, for several minutes after the ceremony. It was highly unusual, and I stood nervously as I watched them talking. As I approached my father after his private audience with the director, I saw tears in his eyes, and I asked him what happened to cause such a response. My father responded that the director simply stated that I had been a hero in Iraq, and that my father should be very proud. I was taken aback by this personal gesture from a member of the senior leadership at CIA, and, to this day, it has had a profound effect on my family.
Watching our kids grow. Finally, and most importantly, I have a group of friends who I have served with across the globe, and, together, we have watched our children grow up together. There are few professions like ours, where the tight bonds of a field station translates into ironclad friendships amongst colleagues, spouses, and even children. To wit, I have watched the daughter of my dear friend—currently one of the most senior officers in the Directorate of Operations—graduate from a prestigious military academy, and yet, I clearly remember when she was in grade school and trying to teach my children how to swim at the pool at a diplomatic club in the Middle East. I also remember our respective children huddled and hugging each other at their diplomatic school, as the U.S. embassy in the country where we served was attacked. The students were on lockdown at their school, and later described their terror wondering if we all had survived. And, finally, I think of my best friend, both at work and in life, who is the godfather of my children, who look to him now as a blood relative since he and I have been inseparable since the day we walked through the front gates together, nearly three decades ago. From the streets of Beirut to Baghdad, to back home in northern Virginia, we have been together for what seems like forever. All said, these bonds between CIA officers go beyond work, and are inextricably linked with our most cherished possessions — our children. The CIA is an extended family, and for the operations officer cadre, who serve and live together overseas in some very difficult environments, this bond is immensely strong. As I reflect on what binds us so closely as professionals, I think again about President Trump, who could never come close to understanding these feelings of rock-solid camaraderie. I’m sure they are as alien to him as the narcissism, racism, sexism, and egoism that so clearly fuels his fire is alien to a CIA officer.
I will close with a narrative that I will steal from a venerable former senior operations officer. He noted that when he would enter a station, he would describe it as a living and breathing organism. It had a vibe, and you could tell if the office was high-performing almost immediately upon entrance. I love this description of a CIA outpost, and yet I take this narrative even further. I believe that the CIA as a whole has a “soul,” both at headquarters and in the field. This “soul” is real and tangible, and it’s centered on the kinship of those who serve, and the sacrifices they are willing to make for the country and each other. The CIA is an organization of immensely dedicated and talented men and women, who have chosen a profession that offers no public reward nor praise. The love for one another remains deep, and it fuels the daily struggle to protect America. It’s this that I miss most in retirement. It is also why President Trump will never be able to break it, despite all of his deliberate efforts to try and do so.