Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors in Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’re hearing from Mike Howard, a 22-year veteran of the CIA. His story serves as a reminder that some of America’s warriors operate in the shadows. Mike started his career as a police officer in Oakland, California, before joining the CIA during the Cold War. He spent six years in the agency’s Office of Security and the bulk of his career in the counterterrorism center.
Mike Howard: I grew up in Northern California. Always wanted to be a police officer, probably saw too many cop movies when I was growing up, and eventually I became a criminal justice major and ended up working in the Oakland Police Department in the late seventies. And it was a great time. Unfortunately, Oakland has a lot of crime, but it was a great place to learn to be a police officer. Read a book one day, off duty, called Piercing the Reich, which I still have a copy of in my office. And it was about how in World War II, the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services were sworn up to take on Nazi, Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. I thought, "Well, that might be interesting." And I wanted to travel the world, ended up going to, believe it or not, CIA had open recruiting offices in the federal buildings back then.
It was during the Reagan buildup. After he got elected, they were hiring more law enforcement and military police. So joined the CIA, spent six years in their, what they call, Office of Security doing a lot of things I did later in life in the corporate security world, including the two years on the Director of CIA’s protective detail. Made the jump over to, sometimes we call it the dark side, the clandestine side of the house. Worked in the Director of Operations in our counterterrorism center for a vast majority of my career, I spent 22 years at the CIA.
When I got in there in the eighties, it was the Cold War, but it was also Hezbollah and some of these nation-state organizations. We'd just lost William Buckley, one of our Chiefs of Stations in Beirut. The gloves proverbially were off to go get these guys. And then the Iraq war, Gulf War I came around. And again, we were always in a good position. During the recent wars, there've been these situations where you've had enhanced interrogations and the people that were doing it there, I think were doing it fully understanding that they had the authority to do so. We were told as an organization "gloves off," right? I mean, we lost thousands of people in 9-11. We weren't going to let that happen again. Hindsight's always 20-20. Not all politicians are bad, you can't broad brush everybody. But it's interesting that, in my optic, there were people in political positions that said, "Hey, go get them and no problem" at the time. And then afterwards, when there's blowback, "Well, you shouldn't have done that." Well, as an operator, you kind of don't have that luxury, right? Similar to the military, you're given an order and yes, you can defy it if you think it's wrong, but I think you take everything in terms of the times, the context of the times in which that particular operation or activity was taking place. It's okay to do reviews and to say, "Okay, could have done better here, could have done better here," but to take today's world and then say, "Okay, project it back to when those things were taking place," I think is unfair to the boots on the ground who are just trying to do a good job.
People always talk about tip of the spear. We like to think of ourselves in the clandestine services as tip of the spear as well. I mean, when this country was founded, there were spies way back even in George Washington days. Right? But the idea is that as a democracy, it is imperative that our policymakers get the best information they can so they can make the best decisions in the national security interests of our country or in the economic security interests or political interests. To a great extent, CIA officers are the ones that provide that information. The operators who actually have to meet with assets, clandestinely, get information that we normally couldn't get as a country so that our policymakers have that holistic view of what's going on. I think, in fact, I know that this country would be less safe and would not be, in terms of information that our policymakers need, we'd have a gap if it wasn't for the operators, along with the analysts, obviously, who put a lot of that information together to get it to the policy makers. There'd be a huge gap. And so it's necessary. Operations is a necessary part, in my opinion, of any of any democracy. They have to go hand in hand, but you can't have one without the other.
I did a lot of work in Africa and Asia, primarily. My first trip overseas was to an African country. Obviously I can't speak to it. Supporting that particular country with a team, and just the cultural differences and the fact that, in many respects, it was still the Cold War. We didn't have a whole lot of friends in Africa, but we had some, and to be able to provide support for them was gratifying. We had so much in the US. We had so much in terms of money and wealth and clothes and food, and to see some of the folks that you're working with who are fighting for their cause, and fighting for their country, not having a whole lot of everything, but hopefully we can provide them something. Sometimes not even three squares a day, if they're lucky they get one. That was a lesson to me about what we were doing in these places and the value of what we brought, because hopefully we could also bring some of the economic gain as well.
I can remember one particular Asian country, working a lot with their police military intelligence folks. They were under threat. They were getting killed by a terrorist organization, as well as we were being targeted, and the relationship was very, very close. You felt it when one of them got killed. Obviously you felt it when one of ours got killed too. I think the gratifying part of it was they're willing to put their butts on the line to help us and we were going to do the same. We were able to do some things out there that hopefully helped stem the tide and gave the bad guys a little bit of pause. It's situations like that when you're under extreme threat. I'm a big James Bond fan, but most CIA officers don't carry weapons unless they're in dangerous areas. We had a lot of weapons and we were driving armored cars and we were under extreme threat. But yeah, that particular service especially comes to mind. There was another group in Europe, a special unit that, just before we went there to do some work with them, one of their guys had been shot by a Libyan extremist. So it brought home what we were up to, but the fact that, again, they're willing to fight and hopefully we're able to do some damage to the bad guys there too.
For those listening that don't know or haven't heard, when you enter CIA headquarters, in the lobby, there's a wall of honor with stars that are punched out of marble, a star for every CIA officer that's been killed. There's a remembrance book and in some cases, the name of the officer who was killed is blank because their operations were so covert. So when an officer is killed, there's acknowledgement obviously by the White House and National Security folks, but it's not in the open. They may go to CIA headquarters. There are ceremonies at our headquarters. Even things like getting Meritorious Unit Citations or awards, you're given those awards at a ceremony, and then they're taken away from you and put into your personnel file because you can't take them home. You can't put them on your wall. You're a clandestine officer. But I think, for us, it was a badge of honor- that when one of ours died, we celebrated them and their lives. But we did it with our own family. We didn't need to, nor could we, share it with anybody else outside of that family.
Typically in the agency, if you're an officer and you're going to get involved with somebody and you think the relationship is going to go really well, maybe you're going to get married, at some point, you got to let the agency know. Then the agency's got to start doing a little bit of a background investigation. At some point when you can, you'll be able to tell him or her that you are a CIA officer, but they can't say anything. They've got to stick to whatever cover story you've been given. Same thing with kids. I never had kids, but one of my colleagues told me, "Yeah, we had to figure out the right time when we could tell our kids that no, daddy or mommy, we don't work for X. We work for the agency." I don't know the statistics nowadays, but when I was there, just like in law enforcement, whether it's local or federal, there's a big divorce rate. I think the statistics are better if you're with somebody who's in the agency. Even then, if you think about it, if I'm working in the Counterterrorism Center and my spouse is working for the Africa Division, there are a lot of things we can't talk about what we did during that day, because I don't have a need to know what they're doing in Africa Division and vice versa, unless there a joint operation or something. So it's a really interesting dynamic and it's something that you are faced with the entirety of your career.
Like I said, I was in Counterterrorism for most of my career and I worked a lot with foreign military and intelligence police groups to go after bad guys. Now in one particular country, there was a particular foreign national that we believed was possibly supporting terrorist activities and working out of his embassy. We knew from our intel that once a month, this person was flying from one country to the country that I was working at at the time to another country for suspected meetings with his colleagues. My superiors at the time wanted me to fly to this other country where this person went once a month to get back on a flight with him back home to our home country where his embassy was and to try to get some assessment data, see if he could talk to me. And the fact that I was Black, and this person was from a third world country, they figured maybe he'd be willing to talk to me more than somebody else. As I said earlier, I've been in Africa a lot prior to that time. So you have to come up with a cover story. My cover was that I was a professor of Black history doing a sabbatical, which I could certainly talk about, and heading from this person's home country back to where I was assigned to visit an old friend of my dad's, who served with him in Vietnam. One of the guys working for me was an African-American former Special Forces Captain. So he could certainly fit that bill if he needed to. So I flew to this other country. Back in those days, there was no internet. I had a picture of this person, but as it turned out, I didn't have to be a super-duper intel officer to figure out who this guy was because as soon as this guy entered the airport, he was shadowed by a lot of the police and the intel from the country that we were in at the time, because they were watching everybody from his particular embassy. And I was supposed to have a seat next to him on the plane. But as Murphy's Law goes, it didn't work out. As we got on the plane, I was seated right across from him. So I was like, "Oh, how am I going to make contact now?" There was an incident where it was a woman with a baby and spilled milk and crying and everything. We both looked at each other at the same time, started laughing a little bit, and we started talking. At some point he came, sat next to me, and we were talking and he asked me if I was an American. I said yes. I told him what I was allegedly doing. I played very sympathetic to this person and his country, I haven't always been treated well in my own country and I tried to get that sympathy, which I think I got. He actually ended up showing me documents from his embassy. He was very sloppy that way. Now, it could have been recipes for fried chicken for all I know. I didn't read the language, but I'm pretty certain they were legitimate documents. He talked about the pressure that they were feeling back at his embassy from the local services, who they felt were working with the Americans. A lot of atmospherics about what was going on with different personalities in there that I was able to glean, and also the fact that he didn't seem like he was too happy with the situation that he was in. We got back to our home country. He got scooped up by his security folks. We tried to make a few other contacts, but he was certainly under wraps. But I got a lot of good atmospherics from that. I got a lot of good information from that. So your clandestine CIA skills, you've got to be a chameleon. You got to play different roles and you've got to understand what pushes someone's buttons so that they're willing to give you information or at least be sympathetic with you. So that was one vignette. I wanted to talk about that, because that was the traditional CIA operation as it were.
I was in another country, and this country had a history of coup attempts. This particular time, this was a bad one. A faction of the military had started a coup against the government. They had a wide swath of the city that we were in under their control. I remember we had one case officer that happened to be in a hotel and was reporting to us at the embassy that there were tanks coming up into the courtyard of the hotel and they were starting to knock on doors and he was joking, "I'm starting to empty the mini bar because I don't really have anything else to do." So at that point we had probably 200 Marines that were flown in to surround the embassy, to protect it, and to augment the Marine security guard detachment there. Again, I happened to be there on some other business, and we had a case officer that was behind enemy lines. This case officer had been out there meeting with an asset and an asset's family, and when the coup attempt hit, they were behind those lines that the coup plotters had taken over. He didn't feel that he could leave that house with the asset. Then the asset said, "I'm not leaving here without my family” to get them to safe harbor, which is probably near the embassy or at the embassy. So the decision was made. There happened to be a team of people that I knew there that were pretty good shooters and had good kinetic skills. We loaded up, brought our weapons, put on the vests, and told the CO we're coming to get him and we took off. It was pretty hazardous because we never had to engage, but it was hairy because these guys had checkpoints everywhere. We had to figure a way to get to this case officer without being caught. We brought an extra large vehicle. We brought two vehicles actually, because we needed to compensate for the asset's family. We finally got there. They were all frazzled, needless to say, scared as heck. So we got them all loaded up in our armored cars, and we had to make the same hazardous trip back. That whole op probably took three to four hours. When you look on the map from where the embassy was to where this place is, even the traffic in that particular country- which is pretty bad- you’d make it in an hour. But just having to take these circuitous routes, seeing a checkpoint, backing off, going to another side street; there were no GPS coordinates at the time. We had maps under low lighting, and trying to figure out how to get there, and making sure that we were all staying with each other too, because at the end of the day, we didn't want to lose one car. We eventually made it back and got the officer and his family to safety. But it just gives you another sense of what we can do. Or, the fact that we can do that kind of action if we need to, in addition to the traditional clandestine spy stuff.
KH: That was former CIA officer Mike Howard. Mike was a CIA station chief before he left to be the Chief Security Officer at Microsoft.
Next time on Warriors in Their Own Words, we’ll hear from a member of the First Special Service Force. Lieutenant Bill Story served in World War II, in the joint American-Canadian unit known as the “Devil’s Brigade”.
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Warriors in Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcast, in partnership with the Honor Project. Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Senior producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Dave Douglas. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Warriors in Their Own Words.