I recently had the pleasure of meeting with and interviewing Charles Faddis, a 20-year former case officer with the Central Intelligence Agency and author of multiple books, including “Beyond Repair,” which I recently reviewed. In addition to the aforementioned, Faddis is also the founder and president of Orion Strategic Services, which specializes in threat analysis, operational tradecraft training, and commentary/public speaking related to news developments, counterterrorism, and counterproliferation.
According to the company website and Faddis himself, before his time at the CIA leading a team into pre-invasion Iraq in 2002, he was lieutenant and later captain in a U.S. Army armor unit and Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG), as well as an assistant attorney general with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. He holds a BA in political science from Johns Hopkins University and a JD from the University of Maryland School of Law, and has tested 3/3/3+ (speaking, reading, writing) and 3/3+/3+ in Turkish and Greek, respectively. While at the CIA, Faddis held every operational position from trainee to a department chief within the Counterterrorism Center, where he oversaw worldwide operations against the terrorist weapons of mass destruction (WMD) target.
What led you to join the CIA?
After leaving service with the United States Army in 1988, I ended up in Washington State doing trial work, all the while knowing that I didn’t want to practice law for life. Around that time, the Directorate of Operations (DO, today’s National Clandestine Service, NCS) posted an advertisement in a national magazine for interested applicants. I didn’t really know what it would fully entail, but intuition told me that this was the thing for me, a calling, so I decided to apply. At first, I heard nothing and actually forgot about it. I had actually applied to other agencies, such as the State Department, and was getting some pretty good responses. But then I got a letter inviting me for an interview, which I gladly accepted. The process from application to EOD (entry on duty – starting the job) took about 15-16 months (Author’s note: By contrast, it took the author almost three years to the day from application to EOD due to overseas travel restarting the security background-check process. Hint: That vacation to Pyongyang can wait….)
I ended up in a nondescript office—from the outside—for the interview, but once inside I got a nasty surprise. For some unexplained reason, the recruiter I interviewed with had me in the pipeline to be an analyst! No disrespect to the analysts out there, because they are part of the heart and soul of intelligence work, but that is not what I signed up for, and I made that known. Turns out, as is always the case—whether military or government—someone from the DI (Directorate of Intelligence) decided to try and “poach” me, stealing a candidate from the DO. It got straightened out and on to the DO I went. I should be clear that at this time, I knew nothing about the CIA and the DO; this was before the Internet.
What about writing? We know that we do enough of it in the intel world to last a lifetime, so what prompted the book?
Well first, my retirement from the CIA was not one of necessity. I actually passed up promotion and onward assignments in order to retire. My decision to do so, as well as the decision to write “Beyond Repair,” was a conscious decision out of anger over what I had witnessed our national security and counterterrorism efforts degrade into. In short, I was angry at what amounted to good people getting killed for no good reason and with no return on that sacrifice. I had a decision to make, one that I knew was not going to make me the most popular guy in the community, but I made the decision to go all the way with it within legal limits. I figured that I could be of more value to the CIA and the community as a whole on the outside, so I retired.
Honestly, “Beyond Repair” seemed like I wrote it overnight. The thoughts, emotions, and words just flowed out of me. Deep down inside, I felt like I was writing the words that many of my colleagues and friends still in the community wanted to say, but for professional or personal reasons, couldn’t. I left because I wanted my voice back, and I wrote knowing that it wasn’t just me doing this, but it was also the men and women still on the front lines of this war. Once it was published, and seeing the buzz that it generated, my publisher immediately wanted to follow up, and “Willful Neglect” was born.
Can you give an example of the things that frustrated you about the Agency and the community?
Sure. I had recruited a hard-core jihadi from a Middle Eastern country circa ’97-98. He had been active in funneling money and arms to other jihadis in a number of locations including the Balkans, and had also fought in these places, but his real value was as the guy who was getting the cash to the bad guys. He was also very opposed to any type of Western influence. At the time that I made contact with him, the subject was having a ‘crisis of conscience’ about the violence being carried out in the name of Islam, and he had decided to relocate to East Africa. During that time, we had a number of very intense, difficult meetings—a lot of back and forth. In the end, I recruited the guy, he is 100 percent onboard and has agreed to stay in place. (Author’s note: Getting an asset to agree to stay in place—at the ministry, nuclear power plant, military unit, wherever they have access to the secrets we want them to report on—is the ultimate achievement for an operations officer.)
Then, you guessed it, I was ordered to break contact with him because he was friendly with a liaison nation (meaning a nation that we share intelligence information with) and continued contact “might upset delicacies.” Then, two days after 9/11—and years after being ordered to break contact with the guy—almost comically, headquarters contacted me and asked, “Can you find subject and reestablish contact?” I was floored. My answer was, “Uh, no. We don’t exchange Christmas cards.”
That story is just one of many, and I am not the only one who has experienced that frustration and anger at seeing one’s hard work wasted because someone is so risk averse. The Agency that I left was one that was opposed to teaching young case officers that ops like the one I described are their chance to capitalize, to make a difference.
Any particularly hairy ops that you are able to tell us about?
Overall, the single most tense and rewarding operation was the run up to the invasion of Iraq. This was eight or nine months before the air campaign began, and at the time, only a mix of CIA, 10th Special Forces Group, and some other special operations troops were in-country. The team was diverse: a mixture of black, white, Asian, and Hispanic operators. We had to quickly come to the realization that most of us were not going to blend in with the local populace, so we adapted to the situation, running our ops mainly at night and having our assets brought to us. Our mission was the full spectrum of operations: collection, set up/conduct sabotage ops, conduct covert action, etc. We also managed to make contact with and maintain interaction with Kurdish fighters.
When you work counterterrorism, pretty much everything is hairy. You have limited or no backup. You are meeting sources who by definition are dangerous and unpredictable. You wear a gun on your ankle. You plan meticulously, and you learn to react instantaneously. I have recovered highly radioactive sources in the field intended for use in dirty bombs. I have had guys hand me what they claimed was nerve agent and which my field test confirmed was sarin. (Fortunately it turned out to be simulant.) I have had guys turn on me and rat me out to the other side. Every day is something different.
“Willful Neglect” seems to be a bit of a departure from “Beyond Repair” in that it takes on homeland security from a more narrow perspective. Can you talk about what led you to that project?
Much like “Beyond Repair,” this second book was born from a depressing realization that our homeland security situation was in a sad state. I had the opportunity to travel to many places to assess site security, nuclear and maritime, across the board, and the theme was always the same. Everywhere I went, there was virtually no security to assess. It was almost all window dressing, with cookie-cutter defense plans, a willfully lax attitude on the part of some, but not all, security personnel—the people paid to protect critical infrastructure—and canned force-enforce exercises that had the opposing force attempting to breach at a set time and place, and with limited gear (Author’s note: For a little background on nuclear security, see my article here). No real-world bad guy is going to follow any such rules, and the continued practice was lulling us into a false sense of security. Now don’t get me wrong, we are safer. We are safer in the sense that, unlike in the past, we are now shooting back. Before 9/11, we had embassy bombings, the U.S.S. Cole was attacked, and our response ranged from minimal to non-existent.
An example of this is rail travel. Successful attacks have occurred, as evidenced in Madrid, India, and other places, and communications chatter shows that the bad guys are interested in conducting more. I can head over to the local Amtrak station and, with the exception of the one or two, sometimes more local and state policemen—and they do a great job with what they have to work with—there isn’t any real security in place. No baggage checks or other screening; you just purchase your ticket and off you go. Once on the train, the security is even more lax. I could get on a train, leave a bag in a car, get off at the next stop, and it detonates one or two stops away. (Author’s note: Before anyone starts with the “stop giving the bad guys ideas” rant, cool it. They already had plans to do these things, and they are smarter than many give them credit for. They don’t need to rely on us for ideas.) And what is our response to these attacks? Build a new agency, have folks stare at screens in some ops center, and assume that this makes us safer.
Tell us a little about Orion Strategic Services.
I started OSS with my wife (Gina, also a former case officer and owner of her own company, Artemis LLC) in 2009. The company focus is on training—mainly tradecraft related. We are not a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter service; we build and teach our courses based on the client’s needs and wants. Our clients range from government agencies to private corporations and companies, and our instructors are former CIA, other intelligence community, and special operations. We like to keep the company as “flat” as possible, and in keeping with that philosophy, I act as one of the instructors or role players. Our SDR (surveillance-detection) training is probably the most intensive logistically, as we provide, depending on the client and the mission, role players and surveillance teams.
Where do you think intelligence and the intel community needs to focus for the future? Most so-called experts point to getting better at HUMINT (human intelligence).
“Well one thing that we do extremely well is SIGINT (signals intelligence). Of course there is always room for improvement, but overall we do that well. I do, however, agree that we are just not as good at HUMINT. Unlike what some decision-makers believe, HUMINT does not respond well to just having money thrown at it. It is an art, not a science. We have done it right at times, but inevitably bureaucracy rears its ugly head and we have to start back at square one. This is my reasoning for the Office of Strategic services as the model in “Beyond Repair.” It is a more a matter of mindset rather than technique. “Wild Bill” Donovan was criticized for approving hair-brained schemes, but it wasn’t so much the scheme as it was that Donovan wanted his junior officers to be able to come to him with any ideas, no matter how crazy they might be.
If we are to learn anything and apply it to the future, it is that the CIA cannot afford to be a ‘regular’ organization. As an example, in May 1944, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) carried out an operation to kidnap Heinrich Kreipe, a German Army general and commander of the 22nd Air Landing Infantry Division, from the German-held island of Crete. Two SOE agents and a handful of Cretan resistance fighters conducted the raid successfully, and right under the noses of not just the 22nd Air Landing Infantry, but also the 164th Infantry Division, successfully evading pursuing troops and making it to the coast before being extracted by the Royal Navy. Now imagine that operation being proposed and carried out today. (Author’s note: Yes, yes, I get it—it has been done, just on a smaller scale.) The teaching point for a future CIA is how quickly the op was approved and with how few people were involved in its approval.