Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"The Wolf and the Watchman": A combat investigative journalist explains what it was like to have dad in the CIA

Author: Scott C. Johnson
Title:The Wolf and the Watchman
Publication: W. Norton. 2012, ISBN 978-0-39323980-5; 302 pages, hardcover
Amazon link is here

First, let me say that the title of this non-fiction story is catchy.  It seems ready made for the film market (probably the Landmark, Angelika  or AMC Independent audiences – mostly grownups).  It almost rhymes with “The Falcon  and the Snowman” (film from 1985), which itself is relevant now because of the Snowden and Wikileaks (Assange and Manning) “scandals”. 
The author, now about 40, was a war correspondent for Newsweek for twelve years, and his dad was a section chief for the CIA for a number of years, with a “retirement” and then a recall during the war in Iraq.

The book  hinges on the idea that investigative journalism (from a “watchman”) is similar to spying (by a “Wolf” or perhaps a house cat), except that the journalist wants to make it public, and the spy does it got the government.  Well – Assange is a “watchman” and Snowden is a “wolf” turned watchman.

The author faced more combat danger as a journalist (mainly in Iraq) than do many soldiers, and lived under conditions just as primitive.  He paid his dues.  In a sense, Scott Johnson became the “man of steel”.   
The book is valuable both as a “forward observer” into how the CIA “might “ work and what working for the CIA “must” be like, and also quite a tender story of his relationship with his father, which seemed to grow stronger once he was on his own.

In fact, Scott paid his dues, working dirty jobs on merchant ships, before rather lucking in to a news job when in Paris. 

As a kid, Scott talks about moving around, living at Camp Peary, near Williamsburg VA and Fort Eustis (maybe that’s where Stephen King’s “Shop” is) as his father trained, and then in Michigan, and then later Spain. 

His father “came out” to him as a spy or spook when Scott was about 14.  But Scott always had his
suspicions, given the way the family lived.  But he had thought his dad was a “diplomat”, but why live in Detroit?

His father had been gradually ‘recruited” by the CIA around 1968 when (at 28 himself) he worked as a dean at an American university in Mexico City.  The CIA was trying to get information on communist-inspired dissidents before the Olympics.  In time, the CIA trained him as a foreign “case officer”, although he sold insurance in the mean time.  CIA agents sometimes have to be able to get other “real job” – and so do investigative journalists.  
Shortly after Scott “knew”, the family lived in Spain, and Scott reports that one time his father helped bug a house to try to ferret out intelligence on radical Islam.  So the problems and threats of Al Qaeda were well known to the Clinton administration, even though not a lot gets written except about the missed missile hit.
It seems to be fairly common for professionals in various areas to work for the CIA under NOC, or “non-official cover”, while simultaneously continuing regular jobs as engineers, military consultants, insurance agents,  or perhaps professors or teachers.  In time, some become “full time” and go through all the training.
It seems as though a lot of the work happens through social connections, trying to find potential defectors.  But this may have been more appropriate during the Cold War specifically with the Soviets than it is today.
It would be hard to draw the lines between what the Army (and special operations units, as in the film “Dirty Wars”) do, and what the CIA does, in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. 
Intuitively, when looking at countries like Iran and North Korea, it sounds as though the CIA would be more concerned about the actual hardware and weapons capabilities than just the personal activities of the people.  It would be particularly concerned about novel WMD’s and whether they could be passed on to terrorists and deployed in western countries (for example, weapons capable of creating an EMP effect, as covered here before).
In general, intelligence would comprise tracking both the movements and communications of people, and relating it to satellite observations or ground reports on hardware.  The CIA itself says (as I wrote in postings on my GLBT and international blogs on June 10) most of its analysts stay here or in modern countries and work with computers. 

But the tendency for the CIA to look for dissidents at a campus setting is interesting. Maybe this can correlate to specific weapons or plots.  But originally there was a tendency to look just for “subversion”, from people who had trouble getting along with the expectations of “the system”.  Could I have been caught by something like that at William and Mary in 1961?

Johnson says that at one point, the CIA did a background investigation, including drug and personality tests, even of him as a family member. 
Everyone in the book seems to be heterosexual  (and an early 1970's BI had asked Johnson’s dad if he had “homosexual desires”),  and the CIA now admits that it would have fired LGBT employees until 1996, when President Clinton issued an executive order protecting all the security clearances of civilian employees.

Johnson offers his own theories as to why the perpetual civil war in the Muslim world is so intractable, and explains the tribal mindset of radical Islam well.  But this is a perception he developed as a combat journalists .  But he was almost an intelligence officer himself.  He need the same people skills to set up confidences and relationships/  

In my own novel (“Angel’s Brother”), I have set up a situation where a military intelligence officer is asked to leave uniformed services quietly, ironically after he has married and adopted a child, supposedly over gay concerns.  But then he is set up as a history teacher, mostly AP students.  Soon, he is “recruited” to track unusual events predicted in the writings of another character (like me), already noted by an unusually gifted college student and computer hacker, whom he meets overseas, leading him to track the hardware.   The “enemies” are aliens or extraterrestrials – but not in the usual sense; they turn out to be angelic extensions of us.  The time to find out we are no alone has come.  But how would the intelligence services really handles such a situation if it ever arose?  

Note: My apologies for initially titling the post "The War and the Watchman" (fixed this morning).  But that could have made a logical title for the book, too.  It fooled my brain as I was typing the post title yesterday and I didn't catch it until a night's sleep.  

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