This column was written by Tara McKelvey.
Given how battles within the Bush administration have played out, liberals have found themselves embracing the CIA in recent years. CIA officers — so the argument goes — are hard-working professionals with a keen understanding of the world and its problems, victimized by administration officials who have distorted their analyses for political gain. In fact, it's hard to believe CIA officers are all they're cracked up to be — especially after reading a memoir by T.J. Waters, a member of "the most talked-about spy class in CIA history," as he describes it, "the best and the brightest the United States had to offer."
The book, Class 11: Inside the CIA's First Post 9-11 Spy Class starts out on a hopeful, albeit self-congratulatory, note. After the September 11 attacks, Waters, a 37-year-old former consultant in intelligence and training, is working hard with his classmates to create a new kind of CIA that will protect Americans from future al Qaeda attacks. As one of Waters' classmates announces one morning in November 2002 on a government bus, one of three vehicles transporting them to a CIA training facility in central Virginia, "'It's no longer a gentleman's game.'"
"Terrorists aren't on the diplomatic circuit," explains Waters. "They quietly toil in towns and villages, away from the capital cities where the United States maintains an official presence. Commercial cover operations, paramilitary action, and covert influence programs have replaced embassy parties. Unfortunately, there's a shortage of qualified field officers to do the work. That's where we come in."
Waters and his colleagues belong to the CIA's Clandestine Service Training Program Class 11. They're an unusual bunch: Seventy percent of the students have never worked for the military or the government. They include a private chef, a New York City comedian, and an NFL football player — all of whom joined the CIA after the terrorist attacks of September 11. (In at least one case, the reasons were personal: a member of Waters' class lost her fiancé in the World Trade Center). Many of them had led comfortable lives prior to joining the agency. Waters, for example, left behind "a waterfront Florida home" and a bride of six weeks. Still, the sacrifice is worth it, given that it is, in Waters' words, "the sexiest job in the world."
"We are, in essence, investigative reporters for the most expensive newspaper in the world — the President's Daily Brief," he writes. CIA officers are entrusted with "providing policy makers with the information necessary to defend the nation." Under the pressing circumstances, Class 11 was put on a particularly fast track to begin carrying out that mission. Agency officials processed their applications in an abbreviated period — six months instead of 18. Afterwards, Waters and his classmates entered a one-year program, including six months in the Washington, D.C., area and six months at the central Virginia location known as "the Farm," a "concrete and steel fortress" guarded by men "holding Heckler & Koch MP-5 submachine guns."
Educated, committed, passionate future spies — trained with the best resources available. It all sounds promising, until one arrives at Chapter 2, "On-the-Job Training."
In this chapter, and in pages that follow, Waters describes how he and his colleagues learn the ropes. As it turns out, clumsy, old-fashioned methods, in some cases pushed by incompetent private contractors, are used, producing a class that has a lot of zeal but only a superficial understanding of the world. In other words, the new CIA seems plagued by the same old problems. Waters — often unintentionally — describes many in his book.
For one thing, in Waters' telling, CIA training is apparently modeled on an International Spy Museum tour. Early on, Waters is given a false identity, and he uses the names of old fraternity brothers for members of his made-up family during the exercise. He and his colleagues spend time practicing "hotel and restaurant meetings right out in the open, having innocuous conversations alongside congressional aides, lobbyists, and every variety of private-sector vendor who prowls the swirling maelstrom of the capital city."
In a comical, Spy vs. Spy incident, Waters and his colleagues accidentally collide with members of two other undercover teams — one involved in a Defense Department surveillance exercise and Secret Service agents providing security for a family — all in the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Old Town Alexandria. The Torpedo Factory, along with La Madeleine in Bethesda, where Waters studies maps of the surrounding area, may not be ideal places to train in the skills needed to hunt down Osama bin Laden.
And indeed, the training regimen doesn't appear to involve in-depth study of other cultures. Many of the officers-in-training Waters describes have never been abroad on a business trip. Yet foreign-language training, or even a cultural-studies curriculum, are missing from the program, with the exception of a crash course on Muslim terrorism, which Waters dutifully summarizes: "We learn that Islamic extremists don't exclusively kill Jews and Christians."
Meanwhile, TV shows provide the frame of reference for Waters and his colleagues to a disconcerting degree. 24, The Agency, Alias, Mission: Impossible, and other shows and films provide a guiding light throughout the book. One of the students makes a presentation at the end of the course. "You see, everything I ever needed to know about espionage, I learned from watching Magnum, P.I.," he explains. In a final session, a course leader plays a clip. "When you leave the building today," he says, "You are stepping out on to the rice paper."
Many of the instructors are retired officers who've been hired back as CIA contract workers. They're not exactly charged-up teachers. One confuses Waters with someone else in an evaluation of a training exercise. Another contractor writes an evaluation of a student before her training exercise even takes place. (The student quits.) Later, the same contractor writes an evaluation of Waters' work, mixing the two students up in his report. Waters is, understandably, furious.
"The independent contractors provided to us in training were the result of haste, urgency, and shortsighted decision making," he writes. "The CIA simply did not have enough instructors for the number of new employees it was training, and quality was sacrificed for expediency … These independent contractors had no real management and little oversight; their failure was a virtual certainty."
Waters makes a persuasive case throughout Class 11 for the importance of human intelligence (such as recruiting spies) over long-distance intelligence gathering (such as electronic surveillance) in the terror war. He writes about the CIA training he and other students receive with the authority and knowledge of an insider. His prose is sometimes un-illuminating ("Let it never be said the fairer sex isn't also the smarter one;" "as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz so eloquently put it, 'There's no place like home.'") Yet he and his colleagues come across as hard-working, earnest, and committed: "Osama bin Laden will be caught," he writes. "This simple mantra is the motivation for the careers we have chosen." Tragically, though, he never manages to convince the reader he or his colleagues are up to the task.
Tara McKelvey is a Prospect senior editor.
By Tara McKelvey
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved