Featured photo courtesy of Fox News
Kent Clizbe, a 55-year-old former C.I.A. officer and intelligence contractor, has cultivated a diverse set of interests in his later years. He loves bird watching and participates in his local Christmas Bird Count, an informal census organized by the Audubon Society. He has a patent on a device, the TimeOff, that prevents unattended-stove fires. But Clizbe’s true motivating force — a holdover, perhaps, from his decade with the agency — is an unrelenting compulsion to get to the bottom of things. He vets every person he meets, interrogating every fact presented to him. This perpetual need to turn everything inside out is the defining trait of Clizbe’s personality, and he remains faithful to it, even when it incurs him great personal expense.
Clizbe grew up poor in Halifax County, North Carolina, raised by a single mother. In 1980, after failing out of East Carolina University, he joined the Air Force. Aptitude tests revealed a gift for languages, so Clizbe enrolled in intensive Vietnamese courses and then was shipped to the Philippines, where he spent three years monitoring Vietnamese radio communications. When his tour ended, he went back to school at Southern Illinois University. On campus, he fell in love with a Malaysian girl, who told him that if he wanted to marry her, he would have to convert to Islam. He converted, married her and followed her back to Southeast Asia, where he found work at a refugee camp in the Philippines. Clizbe made frequent trips to her hometown outside Kuala Lumpur, where he immersed himself in the local customs.
He and his wife lived in Asia for a year before finding jobs at the business college at King Saud University in Qassim Province in Saudi Arabia. He taught English as a second language and made the pilgrimage to Mecca. It was 1988, and the war in Afghanistan was dragging on. At the mosque on Fridays, Clizbe would hear calls for young men to travel east and wage jihad against the communists.
After returning to the United States in 1990, Clizbe earned a master’s degree in linguistics and studied business and instructional design. While he searched for a job, he sometimes paid the bills by working the phones at a venereal-disease hotline. He was eventually hired by the C.I.A. as an operations officer.
He was sent to an island overseas, where he worked a day job unrelated to his real responsibilities. At night he recruited spies. His experiences in the Philippines, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia all came in handy. ‘‘You have to understand your target and immerse yourself in his or her culture and the context from which they come,’’ he said. ‘‘Do they have access to something of interest to you? Are they suitable to do what you want them to do? What are their motivations? What problems do they have that I can solve? Solve their problems, and they’ll become your best friend forever.’’ (This fixation on immersion was a big reason Clizbe practiced Islam in the Muslim world; he stopped going to mosques, for the most part, after leaving.) He told me that during his first overseas tour, he probably recruited as many spies as anybody else in his region. ‘‘I was really, really good at what I did,’’ he said. ‘‘Never pitched somebody who said no. This process of elicitation is really like the slow hitching up of a woman’s skirt.’’
Clizbe quit the C.I.A. in 1999 but returned shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, working as a contractor. In 2008, he started a blog about intelligence and public affairs that mercilessly criticized the Obama administration, including his eventual boss, John Brennan. The political tension cost him his next contract, he said, so he focused on his writing. He had self-published books with titles like ‘‘Willing Accomplices: How K.G.B. Covert Influence Agents Created Political Correctness and Destroyed America’’ and ‘‘Obliterating Exceptionalism: A Chronicle of Obama’s Politically Correct Progressive Destruction of America.’’ He wrote articles for conservative sites like Newsmax and Breitbart, joining a universe that has expanded over the last decade and a half with people like him: generals, intelligence workers and special-forces veterans who found that, like everyone else, they could now contribute directly to mass media.
In the fall of 2010, Clizbe was summoned from his Northern Virginia home to a restaurant at Baltimore-Washington International Airport for lunch with a Department of Defense contractor named Kerry Patton. The two had grown friendly on an email list affiliated with the International Association for Intelligence Education. The lunch was Patton’s idea; he wanted Clizbe to meet a mentor of his, Wayne Simmons. Simmons had served in the C.I.A. for 27 years and appeared regularly as an analyst on Fox News. He was ‘‘all Kerry could talk about,’’ Clizbe recalls.
Though Simmons had become well known to people in that right-wing media circle, Clizbe didn’t know his name. He never encountered Simmons during his days with the C.I.A. — it’s a massive, compartmentalized organization, after all — and he didn’t have cable TV. Still, Simmons and Clizbe should have had plenty to discuss. Their political leanings were similar enough. Simmons claimed to be ‘‘far right of Attila the Hun.’’ But something about Simmons didn’t sit right with Clizbe.
Over lunch, it seemed to Clizbe that Simmons was oblivious to the routine ‘‘butt-sniffing’’ that C.I.A. veterans routinely engage in: questions about time spent at the ‘‘Farm’’ and about stints in war zones. Simmons said he had operated separately from Langley; he hinted at brazen operations against drug cartels, opining on the painful isolation of an operative’s existence. ‘‘ ‘You and me, we know what it’s like,’ ’’ Clizbe recalls him saying. ‘‘ ‘It’s how we have to live our lives.’ ’’
Clizbe added: ‘‘He was so full of bluster that anybody who hadn’t been in the C.I.A. would have had their socks knocked off. But the things he said were so not C.I.A.’’
Five years later, in October of last year, Simmons — who, as a frequent guest on Fox News discussing intelligence matters, had become a prominent commentator on national security — was arrested for fraud, on charges that (among other things) he used a fictitious background in the C.I.A. to gain real government contract work. Today, the garrulous 62-year-old is under house arrest pending trial. He claims that he was done in by a vindictive Obama administration, which is taking advantage of the fact that his agency past, while real, is almost unfathomably classified. ‘‘Nobody could see us,’’ he said. ‘‘Nobody knew who we were. The program I was in was so black it made the black hole seem white.’’
Fox News may have been surprised by the allegations, as were many close to Simmons, but doubts about his background had percolated for years within Clizbe’s social network of ex-spooks, and they began in earnest at that fateful lunch in 2010. As Clizbe drove home, his thoughts drifted to a passage from George MacDonald Fraser’s 1969 novel ‘‘Flashman,’’ about a wealthy misfit who, because of a series of misunderstandings, earns a reputation as a war hero. It opens on the fraudulent narrator considering a portrait of himself: ‘‘I can look at the picture above my desk, of the young officer . . . tall, masterful and roughly handsome . . . and say that it is the portrait of a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward — and, oh yes, a toady.’’
Read more at The New York Times
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