An Open-Source Brief: former CIA Officer Marc Polymeropoulos

Havana, Cuba – December 22, 2015: A Cuban flag with holes waves over a street in Central Havana.

We’re starting a new segment on The Cipher Brief’s Open-Source Collection Podcast and adding to the line-up of curated headlines we bring you from around the world with expert insights on today’s news. 

The Cipher Brief’s Brad Christian talked with former CIA Officer Marc Polymeropoulos this week about what’s next for the US Government when it comes to investigating ‘Havana Syndrome’, making sure Afghan interpreters aren’t left behind and why a White House visit by Jordan’s King Abdullah was a bigger deal than some may realize.  

Cipher Brief Expert Marc Polymeropoulos served 26 years in the CIA before retiring from the Senior Intelligence Service in June 2019.  His positions included field and headquarters operational assignments covering the Middle East, Europe, Eurasia and Counterterrorism. 

Christian: What’s top of mind for you this week in the world of national security?

Polymeropoulos:  Havana Syndrome, CIA’s response to the Afghan withdrawal, and the visit of Jordan’s King Abdullah to D.C. Let’s start with Havana Syndrome.

You saw in the press the last couple of days, the notion that the CIA’s inspector general is conducting a review of CIA’s handling of healthcare, of how officers were coming to them starting in 2016 after these attacks started in Cuba. I think that’s a good thing. It’s a necessary evil. I think a lot of your listeners and readers know that I was affected by this in December of 2017. It caused my retirement in July of 2019. I’ve been very vocal on the need for healthcare for our officers.  We have to think about Havana Syndrome in three bins.

The first, is accountability and that’s good. It’s a necessary evil, but we have to look at how the agency responded to officers because that’s critical. The agency workforce is watching. I think the IG review by the CIA is good as well as a look at what’s happening in the House and Senate oversight committees as well.

The second, is continued healthcare for officers, the officers getting to Walter Reed’s National Intrepid Center of Excellence. CIA Director Bill Burns is doing that, so that’s positive.

And then the last piece is culpability. I think you also saw recently in the press, that a senior intelligence service officer who was integral in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has been named to the task force. So, a lot of stuff is happening on Havana Syndrome, I think all of it is moving in a positive direction. I applaud Director Burns. This is something that I think is going to be at the top of the news cycle for days, weeks, and months to come.

Christian: Do you feel like now there’s a unified awareness at the entire government level outside of CIA?  Is Congress focused on this? Is the White House focused on this in the ways that you think they need to be?

Polymeropoulos: What a great question. The White House for sure. Congress has been absolutely integral both in the Senate and the House. They’re about to pass the Havana Act, which is going to provide financial relief for officers affected, but in all US government agencies. I will say that the Department of State has been woefully behind and that’s a big concern of mine. I feel for my State colleagues. There are 41 State Department officers who have been affected by this. Secretary of State Blinken has not even met with them while Director Burns has met with nearly all of the CIA victims, so State’s got a long way to go. I think we’ll look to the White House and to Congress to keep the pressure on.

Christian: These are events that are still occurring, even as they’re being investigated. Tell us a little bit about the latest that’s happened on the attack front.

Polymeropoulos: I think you see what the press reports of what can only be considered a kind of slow-rolling mass casualty event in Vienna, Austria. There were numerous State Department and intelligence officers affected at our Embassy there. Again, this is coming out in the press, so it’s important to note that. But these things are still happening and I think that we have to look back to the old counter-terrorism model that CIA employed so effectively of detect, disrupt, and deter attacks by our terrorist adversaries. We have to apply that same type of mindset to this problem set.

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Christian: The Afghanistan withdrawal, there’s a lot going on there. We’ve seen reports of US airstrikes supporting Afghan forces in Kandahar. This week, it was reported that just under 50 Afghan troops requested refuge in Pakistan when their border posts near Chitral, which is a Pakistani city, was overrun. The Pakistani government let them in. And we’re seeing now an Afghan strategy focusing on protecting the capital regions and maybe ceding some of those provincial capitals.

Polymeropoulos: I look at this from a narrow optic. As a former CIA officer who was the base chief in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2012, I ran one of our paramilitary bases in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan. What is unique about life as a CIA officer out in the field, particularly in the bases, was that there were only a few of us. We had a very small number of Americans, yet we had hundreds, if not over 1,000 Afghanistan indigenous personnel, whether they were troops who were fighting with us or whether they were support personnel.  We lived with them. I think this is a little bit different than perhaps big US military’s experience with the Afghan national army.

I trusted my life to these guys. They were armed in front of us all the time. We ate together at the mess hall. We sat around the fire pit together, certainly went on patrols together. So, it’s really personal for me. I remember our Afghan interpreters. I remember our indigenous personnel and I really worry about them. The future, I think is one that certainly is bleak. I don’t support the administration’s decision for a full withdrawal. I don’t understand why we couldn’t have left a residual force, but that policy decision has been made.  I think that the things I’m looking to in the near future are even after the end of August, will the US military still conduct airstrikes in support of Afghan forces?  There is something about betraying those who really made that pact with us. That’s just something as a CIA officer that’s ingrained in us that we don’t want to do that. So, this is something I really worry about. I remember the faces of our interpreters and indigenous personnel every day. These were great heroes. I think a lot of us at CIA wouldn’t be alive today without their heroism.

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Christian: The third issue you raised was interesting, the visit to D.C. by Jordan’s King Abdullah. It didn’t get a lot of press.  But you say it’s a significant story.  Tell us why.

Polymeropoulos: President Biden has had a long-standing relationship with King Abdullah. It’s a sign that Jordan is back. We call Jordan the lily pad for the United States for a lot of reasons. I mean, when you think back to 2006 and Jordan’s integral role in the Anbar Awakening, that’s when we were rallying the tribes in Iraq to fight terrorism. When you think about how the US has access to strategic bases in Jordan and when you think about the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate as one of the US Government’s most critical counter-terrorism partners. But the fact of the matter is that under the last administration, Jordan was not treated well, so it’s really significant that Abdullah was here. I think this is a really good thing. Don’t forget that CIA Director Bill Burns was ambassador in Amman quite some time ago. I think this is a really positive development, not only for the United States going back to an old strategic partner, but also for Jordan as well, which has been a steadfast ally not only during King Abdullah’s reign, but also of course, under King Hussein before him.

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