It is only a slight exaggeration to depict Henry A. “Hank” Crumpton as a man who reshaped modern warfare by making unmanned drone aircraft a deadly “weapon of choice” in the battle against terrorism.
The drone was a weapon born of frustration. A series of terrorist bombings - of U.S. embassies in Africa, the Khobar Towers and other sites - alerted the intelligence community that our country was in grave danger of direct attackby Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda followers. In January 2000, the National Security Council tasked the CIA “to find a means to locate, identify and document” bin Laden. As Mr. Crumpton, a CIA Clandestine Service officer assigned to the Counterterrorism Center (CTC) writes, “This intelligence would be designed to support a lethal military strike.” The deadline was nine months.
There were snags. The Defense Department “refused to put boots on the ground.” CIA superiors rejected Mr. Crumpton’s proposal to send in operatives on deep reconnaissance missions. “They viewed such an operation as too dangerous and too expensive.”
So Mr. Crumpton and colleagues identified only as “Rich” and “Alec” considered a range of possibilities, including even balloons. Eventually they hit upon the Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which had performed reconnaissance in the Balkans. They found such a craft “collecting dust in a hangar” on an Air Force base. The craft, 27 feet long with a wingspan of 55 feet, could loiter at 25,000 feet for 40 hours, and send back live video feeds.
Monitoring known al Qaeda compounds, the Predator picked up a “tall man, dressed in white,” exiting a truck. As he walked into a courtyard, “several supplicants scurried to greet him. … The sky was clear, the image excellent. No women or children. We had him.”
But launching a Navy cruise missile would take up to six hours, and the White House “decided that was too long.” Permission denied.
So the task became fitting a UAV with a missile that could be fired immediately. The Crumpton team found an engineer at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal named Chuck “Boom Boom” Vessels, whose oft-repeated mantra was, “I have never faced a problem that could not be solved with an appropriate amount of explosives.” Thus, a new generation of Predators was born, which, as Mr. Crumpton writes, has been proclaimed “the most accurate weapon in the history of war.”
The rules of engagement for UAVs were to evolve slowly over the years. There were perhaps half a dozen other “decent opportunities” to take out bin Laden,” but no absolute verifications.”
The centerpiece of Mr. Crumpton’s book is the development of the UAVs, but the art of intelligence, as the title suggests, is far more than an account of his role in the post-Sept. 11 world. His book, which I recommend as a must-read for current and aspiring intelligence officers, delves heavily into the ethics and methodology of spying.
His background belies the false reputation of the CIA as being an elitist enclave. Born in rural Georgia, Mr. Crumpton left home at age 16 to work nights in a carpet factory and earn his way through high school. After college in New Mexico, he spent a year roaming the world, somehow escaping prosecution for smuggling, “violent public disorder, and other misdeeds.” He then joined the CIA.
Mr. Crumpton spent his early career in African posts - considered by many officers dead-end assignments -but his down-home persona gave him a knack for recruiting agents in unfriendly diplomatic circles. He explores the basic ingredients of recruiting - MICE, for money, ideology, compromise and ego - and gives examples of how each was used. The hope was that low-level agents recruited eventually will reach higher offices.
Congressional blue noses might be appalled to read that a CIA station (in an “isolated, stressful”) country maintained a box of porno magazines “as emergency reserves.” Why? Mr. Crumpton explains, “I never met a North Korean diplomat who did not want porn, either for personal use or resale. U.S. tax dollars for the sexual titillation of North Koreans? No problem, if one North Korean source helps the CIA understand their nuclear threat.”
Mr. Crumpton is justifiably miffed at the 9/11 commission, which focused solely on what he called “intelligence failures.” He asks, “Why not the policy failure? Perhaps, I figured, because politicians and policy makers had set the rules and they constituted the entire commission. There was no incentive for policy makers to blame themselves. They were protecting the tribe.”
Although he is silent on the subject in his book, Mr. Crumpton has quietly expressed dismay to former colleagues at what he considers “overuse” of the drones by the Obama administration. Many agency veterans were appalled over a New York Times article in late May - obviously written with White House assistance - that depicted a resolute President Obama personally approving terrorist “persons of interest” targeted for death by drone strikes. As one retired officer put it, “The Kennedys might - or might not - have given the green light to assassinate Fidel Castro, but at least they didn’t brag about it on the front page of the Times.”
To be sure, the drone program has cut the heart from al Qaeda, and bin Laden is dead (at the hands of special forces troops who came in on the ground). But we have by no means heard the last of the debate over the lethal use of drones.
Joseph Goulden’s most recent book is “The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak Into English” (Dover Publications, 2012).
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