Retired Clandestine Service Officer’s New Book Filled with Spy Stories and CIA Critique
WASHINGTON — After 34 years in the CIA — both in clandestine service and as an operations officer — Douglas London has some great stories in the life of a spy, but he also has some criticisms of the agency he’s been waiting to get off his chest. He shares both in his new book “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.”
“Challenge convention, don’t be a conformist, and we’ll be the spy service we need to be,” London said at a book discussion hosted by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. “What the agency needs is that ability to innovate and take risks.”
In London’s mind, the CIA is at a critical juncture, but its path really started to diverge with the Sept. 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“I tell my story of the CIA post-9/11 and pre-9/11,” London said. “If the agency is at a crossroads, I wanted my audience to understand what that crossroads was…. [and] it’s easy now to have 20/20 hindsight when I think about what it was like on 9/12.”
With panic at the certainty that there were going to be other attacks, the CIA shifted from its main purpose of foreign intelligence to a new problem-solving mission focused almost entirely on counterterrorism, London said.
And while the agency did foil potentially catastrophic terrorist plans, “we nurtured a completely different atmosphere and culture. And that change hurt the agency in terms of diversity and innovation,” he said.
Among the changes London laments were minimizing both the investment in traditional foreign intelligence and the investment in nurturing careers.
“Our ‘Find, Fix, Finish’ focus missed the opportunity to grow officers that we would need to lead,” London said. “We had nurtured a different leadership culture. And we got away from what was at our core — our credibility, our integrity…. Meanwhile, our adversaries, rivals, competitors were getting better.”
Now countries, like China, are confronting the United States with great power competition, and tradecraft has changed, with artificial intelligence and other digital technologies taking center stage in foreign surveillance.
And while London says we have the capability to handle all of these new threats, he believes CIA operations are still weakened because they lack diversity, strategy, and strong leadership. He also claims the agency’s mission has gotten too political.
But he says the CIA’s shift after 9/11 shows that the agency is capable of changing quickly, and to make a course correction, he wants it to pivot back to stealing secrets and focusing on its greatest asset — its people.
In the end, London asserts that for the U.S., “terrorism is not an existential threat — perhaps we overreacted,” and to take back its foreign intelligence mission, the CIA could move forward with a new focus and some new tactics “that will be more potent in warding off threats than tit-for-tat [retaliating symmetrically].”
“I’m still confident the CIA is the best agency in the world,” London said. “But we’re not going to be able to kill our way or simply use force… that’s not today’s great power competition landscape.”
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