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Former CIA analyst David McCloskey on Syria conflict - "Intelligence Matters"

In this episode of "Intelligence Matters," host Michael Morell speaks with David McCloskey, a former CIA analyst and author of "Damascus Station," a spy novel centered on the civil war in Syria. Morell and McCloskey discuss the history of the Syrian conflict and the United States' engagement there, including key inflection points and how policy decisions made during the Obama administration paved the way for realities on the ground today. McCloskey details his time as an analyst at the agency and decision to become an author. 

Listen to this episode on ART19

Highlights 

Obama's "Red Line": "[W]hen it comes to the Red Line and our posture there, I think that we could have conducted a set of punitive strikes on Assad that would have stopped short of having to depose his regime. And I think it was a real mistake not to do that, especially after we had sort of committed U.S. credibility to stopping him from using those weapons or at least punishing him for doing so." 

Possibility of deposing Assad: "[I]f I look just at our track record in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya, we are adept at breaking things. And we could have no doubt broken Assad, but we have not shown a track record of being able to really build cohesive, stable, really representative governing entities back from the rubble of what we destroy. And I think in Syria to believe that it would have been different, you would have to think that there was a set of local partners who would have been able to come alongside us in that effort. And when we looked at the opposition in those early years, the most credible actors on the ground were unfortunately Salafi jihadist groups that were well-organized and well-trained and well-funded. And the opposition that we would have found more amenable to US interests was fragmented and weak and would not have been able to carry water on the ground for us in a fight against Assad." 

Writing "Damascus Station": "I think this is what I was really interested in dealing with in the book was that, there's a policy discussion we could have about the US keeping its word and its credibility. But there were also promises made to individuals who were standing up to a government that they hated and sought to bring down. And I wish that we hadn't had some of those things, and I wanted to deal authentically in the book with how those relationships, the human-to-human relationships, pan out in a world where there's also high-level statecraft and policy decisions happening above them that they don't really control." 

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS - David McCloskey transcript

PRODUCER: Olivia Gazis

MICHAEL MORELL: David, thanks for joining us. It's great to have you on Intelligence Matters.

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: Great to be here, Michael. Thank you.

MICHAEL MORELL: So David, your book, 'Damascus Station,' a novel, was published a couple of weeks ago. It was released to terrific reviews. David Petraeus, our former boss, former CIA director, said, and I'm going to quote here, "Damascus Station is the best spy novel I have ever read."

That's high praise, as you know, that's high praise coming from from David. And I'm wondering when you were working at CIA, did anyone ever tell you, David, that's the best piece of analysis I've ever read? David, that's the best PDB I've ever read?

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: Well, Michael, you're clearly forgetting some of the feedback. No, I would - there was praise given to many of the products that I wrote, but it was always a bit more measured than General Petraeus's wonderful comments on my novel. Always a little bit different, I think, in the analytical context as opposed to the world of spy novels.

MICHAEL MORELL: Sure. So David, what's the book about - without giving anything away, of course. And why did you write it?

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: Yeah. So the book is a spy novel. It's set in the early years of the Syrian Civil War, and it is about a CIA case officer named Sam and his Syrian recruit, Mariam, who break one of the cardinal rules and fall into a forbidden relationship. When they go into Damascus to track down the killer of another CIA case officer, they come across a very dark secret at the heart of the Syrian regime. And it's really a book about love, loyalty, betrayal and what it means to be human in the middle of a very dark war.

And I wrote it, Michael, I think for a couple of reasons. I mean, one was I'd always wanted to write ever since I was a kid and had never just found the right combination of inspiration and time to sit down and do it. But more specifically to this book, I was really interested -- so I covered Syria extensively while at CIA and the kind of work and writing that we do, of course, as you well know, is highly analytical. And when I left, I was really interested in exploring the human aspects of that conflict from a variety of different perspectives and really understanding and processing, I think, in some ways what it would feel like to live through a conflict like that and the very kind of hard and troubling choices that people would have to make and really to explore the wide range of human emotion and experience that a conflict like that brings out - everything from heroism and bravery all the way to, you know, the sort of tragedy and brutality of the war.

So I really wanted to bring that to life through these stories in the book. And then I also wanted -- I'm a longtime diehard reader of all kinds of spy thrillers and spy fiction. Going back to when I was very young and after, I'd say, about two days of working at the CIA, you quickly realized that almost everything you read is nothing like the real work of intel. Right? And as I spent more time at the agency, I just realized that the actual business of intelligence is highly dramatic. One example being the relationship between a case officer and their asset. I mean, that is a intimate, deep relationship that allows you to explore all kinds of emotions. And a lot of the work of intelligence is quite dramatic. So I wanted to write a book, and it's fictional, and I took some liberties for sure, but I wanted to write a book that brought to life or into the open as much as I could, responsibly, a bit more of the work of CIA to make that feel real to people.

MICHAEL MORELL: David. You said you were a fan of spy novels, and I wonder, besides 'Damascus Station,' what's your favorite novel of all time?

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: Oh gosh, that is a hard question. I think it is probably 'Little Drummer Girl' by John le Carré, which has recently - there's also a great streaming show based on the book, and a movie too. I think the wonderful thing about le Carré is that he's a spy novelist, but not really. He's just a phenomenal novelist and storyteller. But I love that story for the human relationships in there and the sort of plumbing of the depths of a relationship between a case officer and an agent, which I think is fascinating and and is so well told by him. That is probably my favorite book.

MICHAEL MORELL: You know, one of the things that I've always wondered about spy novels, and I guess about mysteries too, is when you sit down to write, do you have the arc of the story in your mind? Do you know where you're going? Do you know all the twists and turns? Do you know the secrets that are going to be revealed? How does all that work?

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: Yeah. So when I sat down to write 'Damascus Station,' I had a short outline and I had an idea of a highly climactic scene that I wanted to occur at the end of the book. And I would say upon, you know, sitting down to actually write the thing, all of that got blown up. And what I discovered, and I think this is different for different writers, but for me personally, what I discovered was that the writing process was something akin to an archaeological dig where I kind of knew where I wanted to dig - in this case, the CIA and Syria and the war, and I had some idea of the characters.

But as I wrote more, I found that they surprised me and I found that there were times where I would be digging in a particular part of that site for an extended period of time. And I would realize at the end that writing my outline wasn't the best story I could tell, and the characters would reveal -- as weird as sort of mystical as that sounds, maybe -- the characters would would guide the story and would point in the right direction.

And so I found that it was helpful to have the outline. But the results in 'Damascus Station' bears almost no resemblance to it, and there was a much more improvisational process as I went along to build the story. There's a great E.L. Doctorow line about writing novels, which is something to the order of, 'It's like a long car trip in the middle of a storm at night with the headlights on: you don't see much of the road, but you can drive the whole way in that manner.' And I think that's what my process was like.

MICHAEL MORELL: So David, I would love to jump backwards in time here and have you walk us through your career. What brought you to the CIA? What did you work on?

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: So I was recruited at college. I went to a small, liberal arts school in the Midwest that is not typically a school at which CIA recruits. But when I was a sophomore, the gentleman who ran the CIA analytic office formerly known as NESA, Near East and South Asian analysis, was an alum of my school, and when he was on a recruiting trip going through the Chicagoland area, he came by and did a talk about the CIA and working in intelligence, and I was a 19-year-old international relations major who listened to that and thought that sounded pretty darn cool.

So I applied and joined as an undergraduate intern, actually as a 19-year-old, and I did two summers and then was an analyst for about six years, and during that entire time at the agency, I was focused on Syria and the Middle East and counterterrorism issues.

And then, up until that point, like I said, I was polygraphed and joined as a 19 year old. My major experience working in the private sector had been when I was a cashier at Wendy's in high school and I got to a point where I thought I wanted to see what it was like outside of CIA and D.C. And I loved working at the at the agency. It's a wonderful place and I hope people who read 'Damascus Station' note that speaks to them.

But I joined a consulting firm after leaving CIA and I had a few months in between the two jobs. And so I sat down in a coffee shop in D.C. and just started to write about Syria and the agency, and I put together about a hundred thousand words in three or four months in between the two jobs, and then started the consulting work, which now was pretty intense. And so I put the manuscript aside and did a consulting job primarily focused on transportation and logistics and energy companies. So very separate from the work that I'd been doing it at the CIA.

But I kind of had always had this itch to go back to the writing to see if I could at least finish the book. And so I had an opportunity for a number of reasons to take some time, about two years ago, to take some time and to focus on writing. And I went back to that old manuscript and I looked at it and I reread it and I thought, 'Man, this is terrible. This is really awful.'

And I put it aside and I thought, 'If I got this time, I'm going to be a little bit more structured about writing a book that's fun for me, and that also might be fun for others to read.' And so I started writing, and the result of that is 'Damascus Station.' I'm now working on another book. It's not Syria-focused. It's got a whole different crop of characters, and it's more focused on imagining the next phase of the US-Russia Spy War. But I'm now working on that and writing full time.

MICHAEL MORELL: So let's just bracket your time at the agency. What year did you start and what year did you leave? I just want to get a sense of the Syria timeline here.

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: So I started covering it as an intern in 2006, and then I left in the spring of 2014, well into the unrest and the civil war.

MICHAEL MORELL: And did you work on it from both the political perspective as well as the counterterrorism perspective?

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: I did, yes. Most of my work was from a political standpoint, but I did some rotations inside CTC that were focused on it from a counterterrorism angle, mostly prior to the conflict, when Syrian issues were much more about the foreign fighter networks going into Iraq.

MICHAEL MORELL: David, if it's OK with you, I'd like to dig into your experience a little bit more about working on Syria. And I'm wondering if you can talk about how you, not the CIA, but you, from an analyst perspective, saw the evolution of events in Syria. How you thought about them at the time, how you think about them today, from sort of the the start of the Civil War on?

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: Yeah, absolutely. I covered Syria for a long time when it was sort of a sleepy, second-tier Middle Eastern autocracy -- at least from a U.S. policymaker standpoint. So our focus and analysis on it was much more about its foreign policy and its relationships in the region and the problems it created for us.

And when the Arab Spring began - so this would have been late 2010, early 2011 -- I spent a decent amount of time in the region in the run up to that on a number of TDYs. And it was, from a personal standpoint, the beginning of this was extremely exciting, and the region for so long had felt maybe a little bit -- and in particular, Syria -- felt a little bit kind of frozen and stale in some respects, and obviously that wasn't really true, but it felt that way as an analyst sometimes. And there was a sense of excitement and promise in the region that I think was pretty infectious. And we talked at the time with some analysts who had covered the fall of the Wall and the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe. And you kind of had this sense that you were seeing the tectonic plates of history shifting in real time, and that was really exciting and being in the Middle East for part of that period. You also could just see it and feel it.

I remember watching a lot of the protests in Tahrir Square from another Middle Eastern capital, and I would sort of look around and watch how these people were viewing it. You just got this sense that, two months earlier, everyone had felt like this wasn't possible, and now the kind of wall of fear in this country was breaking down and and there was a promise for change in something better, which I think was very infectious.

MICHAEL MORELL: I remember that, yeah.

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: I would also say at the time, as an analyst, there was this feeling of, I think, a profound anxiety that we were going to get something wrong and a feeling, perhaps -- there wasn't any way around this -- but a feeling that we had been caught a little bit flat-footed by Tunisia and Egypt, and working on Syria we felt a lot of pressure to write honest and objective analysis and but also to not, you know, to not make mistakes and to give the president and those around him the best possible information.

So there was this kind of, I think, duality of infectious excitement, but also a tremendous amount of responsibility that we felt to to make the right calls and to provide the best analysis possible to policymakers early on in the crisis.

MICHAEL MORELL: So David, the big inflection points, right? The arrival of the Iranians and Hezbollah, the arrival of the Russians. Talk a little bit about those key inflection points.

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: Yeah, absolutely. So, broadly, I think there were a number during the arc of the conflict and you've pointed a few of the big ones out. I think even going back a little bit further, there was -- so the protest movement started in the spring of 2011, and I think that was obviously a large inflection point. The wall of fear that broke down and people got out onto the streets and protested in ways they hadn't before.

For that first year, there was a kind of waffling response by the regime. There were growing protests, there was a sort of bubbling insurgency. And I think in the early part of 2012, there was an inflection point on the regime side where they moved to a kind of scorched-earth military campaign that also brought in the Iranians. And from 2012 to 2015, I would say, or somewhere around there, you saw the steady erosion of regime control and the growing kind of militarization and militia-ization of the conflict and a variety of foreign actors pouring in support. The Iranians and Russians doing it in a fairly directed way. And others, the Saudis, the Qataris, for example, doing it, Turks in a bit more of a haphazard way.

I think that a huge inflection point, as you mentioned, was the Russian intervention in 2015, which at that point in time, the Syrian regime controlled --estimates vary, but maybe around 20 to 25 percent of Syrian territory -- so it had been significantly beaten back. And the Russian intervention set in motion a four or five year period where the Syrian regime clawed back most of the territory. Today, they only control maybe 70 to 75 percent of it, but that Russian intervention really turn the tide and brought the regime back from from the brink of of destruction.

I would also argue, going back maybe a little bit further into 2013, which I neglected to mention, that there was a period of time early on in the crisis where it was possible that we would get a fairly full-throated U.S. military intervention in Syria, or debate it. And there was a serious inflection point when we very clearly decided not to do that after the chemical attack, the sarin attack in Ghouta, a Damascus suburb in August of 2013, when the Obama administration effectively decided to punt the decision to Congress. And we did not conduct a punitive or regime damaging strike in response to that.

So, you know, I think that there were a number of cases or number of points in this conflict where things could have decisively gone against the Syrian regime and that did not pan out.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, David, that's exactly where I want to go. As you know better than anybody, analysts are trained not to let their policy views affect their analysis, but that doesn't mean that analysts don't have views, right, of what the United States should be doing. And I'm just wondering, today, with 20 20 hindsight, how you think about the evolution of President Obama's approach to Syria and what we might have done differently, what more risk we might have taken that might have changed the outcome?

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: Well, this is really the $64,000 counterfactual question on Syria, and it's one that -- let me say, first off, that I don't envy at all the decisions that the Obama administration had to make around Syria. This was happening in an extremely volatile regional context and it was all happening at a time when the administration was really trying to extricate itself from from heavy involvement in the Middle East and it found itself sort of drawn back in.

That said, I think that when you look at when you look at our Syria policy in those early years, there was a tremendous gap between our objectives and the national power that we were willing to commit to achieve them. And any time that happens, it's just a recipe for confusion on the part of allies and enemies alike, which is counterproductive and a loss of credibility.

And I think that, we said we wanted Assad to go. We made that pronouncement in August of 2011. We said we wanted to support an opposition against him. We really didn't do things to achieve those objectives. And and I think that, you know, that gap was always very problematic.

Now, when it comes to the Red Line and our posture there, I think that we could have conducted a set of punitive strikes on Assad that would have stopped short of having to depose his regime. And I think it was a real mistake not to do that, especially after we had sort of committed U.S. credibility to stopping him from from using those weapons or at least punishing him for doing so.

Now when I think about, more broadly, should we have tried to unseat the regime or done more to support the opposition or to destabilise them, I think that I said no, and the reason for that is because if I look just at our track record in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya, we are adept at breaking things. And we could have no doubt broken Assad, but we have not shown a track record of being able to really build cohesive, stable, really representative governing entities back from the rubble of what we destroy. And I think in Syria to believe that it would have been different, you would have to think that there was a set of local partners who would have been able to come alongside us in that effort. And when we looked at the opposition in those early years, the most credible actors on the ground were unfortunately Salafi jihadist groups that were well-organized and well-trained and well-funded. And the opposition that we would have found more amenable to US interests was fragmented and weak and would not have been able to carry water on the ground for us in a fight against Assad.

So I think we would have ended up with a situation where, 'you break it, you buy it,' and we would have owned it. And I don't think that the dynamics today with us owning it would necessarily be better for U.S. interests. And so I think we were right not to depose Assad, but wrong not to respond to the use of chemical weapons and to to frankly be more punitive with him or create some kind of deterrence for the use of those weapons.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. On your first point, I think that's exactly where President Obama came out personally and why he made the decision he made not to intervene much more significantly. But you know, to your earlier poin, that says to me that we should never have announced that our policy was to get rid of Assad because that set in train a bunch of expectations on the ground that we were not able to support or not willing to support at the end of the day.

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: I think I think that's exactly right. And if I go back to that time period and really think about how the administration was looking at the region and looking at Syria, I think that the original sin of of our policy and something that really drove, as I said, that gap between objectives and where we were willing to commit resources was this sense of inevitability to his demise. 

And when you look at the region at the time, you know, Ben Ali had fled in January. Mubarak stepped down in February, I believe, of 2011. There were massive protests in Yemen and Bahrain. I think in eastern Saudi there were; Libya had broken out. And so there is the sense, I think of these dominoes are falling and Assad is going to be gone at some point. So we can kind of say the right things without having to do much to affect the outcome. And over time, it became clear that the regime actually had a significant amount of resources to use to keep itself in power. It had the willingness to use them. And that gap widened as we we continued to say the same things rhetorically without backing them up.

MICHAEL MORELL: So David, when I read the book, you're right, there's a strong sense of loyalty and betrayal in the book. I won't say any more than that. And when I was reading it, I was wondering to what extent you were thinking about how the opposition might have felt about the United States at that time. Is there any truth to that?

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: Well, I would certainly be lying if I said that the experiences in particular working on the war didn't dramatically and sort of greatly inform the writing of this book and I think I'D try to capture in a couple points, without giving too much away, the sense that we made a lot of promises to many different people in the region. I think this is what I was really interested in dealing with in the book was that, there's a policy discussion we could have about the US keeping its word and its credibility. But there were also promises made to individuals who were standing up to a government that they hated and sought to bring down.

And I wish that we hadn't had some of those things, and I wanted to deal authentically in the book with how those relationships, the human-to-human relationships, pan out in a world where there's also high-level statecraft and policy decisions happening above above them that they don't really control. And so I think one of the key themes I look at in the book, both from a CIA standpoint, but especially from a Syrian standpoint, is, how do people behave in situations where they don't really have a lot of control or agency? And how do they protect people they love and their family? And how do they love others in a setting where you're beholden to these larger forces that seem to be dictating a policy of ripping the country apart? It was definitely one of the one of the things I was most interested in exploring in this book.

MICHAEL MORELL: Do you do you still follow events in Syria? Do you still pay attention to them?

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: I do. I do I had to go through a period of detox after I left because it had become upsetting and hard to watch, and you know, it wasn't what I was focused on really at all in my consulting work. And so I took a little bit of a break.

But in particular, as I was writing the book starting a few years ago, I started to dive back into it and follow it. And you know, the the book is dedicated first to my wife, but secondly, to the people of Syria. I feel a very strong emotional connection to them and to the conflict. And I'm hopeful that in some way, there will be a a future better than the past.

MICHAEL MORELL: What do you think the future portends and why does it matter to the United States?

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: I think, you know, from a geostrategic standpoint, not a human standpoint, but a geostrategic one, I often do have to remind myself, and I think we, as analysts had to remind ourselves that Syria is a relatively small country that doesn't move global energy markets that thankfully does not have a nuclear weapon and with which we have very few economic relations or cultural relations whatsoever. So Syria is a small place from a geostrategic standpoint.

And I think that, from a policy standpoint, it's just important to think about that when we talk about the the U.S. response.

But when we look at the conflict today and where it's headed, I think that civil wars either end through political settlement or through a military victory for one party, and it seems clear to me today that a political settlement is not in the cards. All the parties on the ground have wildly divergent interests, and the UN-brokered process in Geneva has gone nowhere and it seems to be going nowhere.

From a military standpoint, the country is effectively divided into four or so zones of influence. The Syrian regime controls most of the territory, but not most of the natural resources. And there are parts of the country that are occupied by us and our allies and by the Turks and their allies and Canton that the rebels still hold. So the idea or concept of a unified Syria at this point in time is just that; it's a concept.

But I think we're at a point where no one can really win and also no one thinks that they can fully lose. And so we're at a kind of a stalemate in the conflict today. And I think there's a tendency, because we look at Syria as if it's a real country that of course, its natural state is to be unified and put back together, that we think, 'Oh, well, the war has to end at some point.' And I remember we we looked actually during the early days of the conflict at some of the political science research and civil wars and the average duration of one is ten years. We've hit that in Syria. But they go on for much longer when you have a bunch of different factions on the ground. And when you have foreign parties involved.

And the Lebanese Civil War next door lasted for 15 years, you could argue that Afghanistan was in civil war for much of the 80s through today. And Sri Lanka lasted for about twenty-five years, I think. So there's no real reason why the conflict needs to end any time soon. And I think we're at a point where the lines in control are fairly well drawn for now and where many of the different parties can get what they want by just sitting tight. So I think, unfortunately, we're sort of headed for more of the same in Syria, barring some kind of unforeseen event.

MICHAEL MORELL: David, let me come back to the book. I want to ask you how the CIA pre-publication review process went for you.

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: The headline here is it went very well. I have found the PRB to be extremely responsive to - I think they read the book, honestly, Michael, I think they got through it in like three days. I like to think that is because the person reviewing it had so much fun. But they're also very efficient and I also was, I think, smart about what I chose to include and not include and had a sense of what would be, you know, responsible versus irresponsible, and so I tried to not include things that would be irresponsible and that they would have objection to.

They made a few changes to not to storylines or anything really big like that, but they edited out some detail that I think was was appropriate. And my favorite part of the PRB process is that they will return a PDF that has the blacked-out highlighter on it.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah, I remember that.

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: It's got kind of a vintage Cold War vibe to it that I appreciate. But I have found working with the PRB to be, they're pros at this. They're efficient and I didn't have any issues with with 'Damascus Station.'

MICHAEL MORELL: Well, David, good luck with with with this book. I think it's going to do extraordinarily well. I encourage my listeners to to read the book and good luck in writing your next book. Thank you for joining us. The book is 'Damascus Station.' The author is David McClosky. David, thank you for joining us.

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: Thank you, Michael. Great to be with you.

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