There is no more sacred and somber day for the U.S. than Memorial Day when we commemorate the men and women who died in military service, whether in combat or as a result of wounds sustained during combat. Like many families, my sons and I will take time to reflect on the impact and legacies of our fallen heroes. It is they to whom we are in debt for all of the freedoms we enjoy.
The bookend holidays for Memorial Day are Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. It is during this period of about a month when we remember what binds our families together including all too often our sacrifices.
My sons and I will also reflect on the work of our Intelligence Community, which has provided such critical support to the warfighter, especially during the past two decades.
In war zones, where I served for three years of my career, the IC collects strategic intelligence about the enemy’s plans and intentions as well as tactical intelligence about the enemy’s location, movements and composition. It is the tactical intelligence, like the location of IEDs, a planned ambush or a suicide attack, that saves soldiers’ lives because it gives us the precious time to detect and preempt threats “left of boom,” before any harm comes to our presence in-country.
While serving at the CIA, my colleagues and I rarely had the time for counterfactual history, namely hypothesizing about what might have been if conditions had been different. We were too singularly focused on dealing with the reality of recruiting spies and stealing secrets so that policymakers could better understand our nation’s wickedly challenging national security landscape.
But this year I found myself taking a new path of inquiry as I imagined what might have befallen some of the soldiers with whom I had the honor of serving in war zones had we not obtained the most timely threat warnings from our sensitive source penetrations.
Intelligence as one of the mentors at the CIA was fond of saying, is not like a fine wine getting better with age. Time is precious. That means after collecting raw intelligence from our sources, we must perform analysis with lightning speed so that executive decisions can be made with the greatest precision and alacrity. Tactical intelligence about a terrorist who placed a roadside bomb where our troops were planning to be is of value only if we deliver it in time.
That’s why on this Memorial Day I will remember one of our sources in particular, from whom we obtained a treasure trove of intelligence on a particular terrorist group in the Middle East, which had our soldiers in its crosshairs. From the source, we learned about planned terrorist attacks far enough in advance so that our soldiers could safely “get off the X”.
And we learned the identities of the other terrorists in the network, who had not the faintest inkling that one of their own had betrayed them on our behalf.
I’ll never forget that late night one autumn when I happened across one of our young case officers who was the source’s handler. The case officer was slumped over his desk watching a video of our source, who had been killed in battle. His body was being washed and shrouded in cloth for Islamic burial.
I sat with the case officer, who pointed out evidence the source had been tortured. We would later confirm it was a rival militant group, which had been responsible for the source’s death. We had been focused on doing everything possible to protect our source from discovery. But this was what happened all too often in wartime.
Still, the fact that we were unable to keep our source out of harm’s way weighed on the case officer’s conscience and mine as well. Our source had saved countless American lives. He had repeatedly risked his own life on our behalf. It would be our sacred duty to ensure we gave his family the financial support they deserved.
It’s counterfactual history to be sure, but on this Memorial Day I will be thinking about how many of our soldiers would not be on this earth were it not for our brave source and countless others like him. My sons and I will remember them all with prayer and reflect together on the ultimate sacrifice they made to keep our comrades safe from harm.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018.
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