A Not-So-Great Recruiter

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Former Senior CIA Officer Robert Dannenberg puts the new book, The Recruiter to the test in a candid review you’ll only find in The Cipher Brief.

BOOK REVIEW: The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence

By Douglas London / Hachette

Reviewed by Robert M. Dannenberg

The Reviewer – Rob Dannenberg is a 24-year veteran of the CIA, where he served in several senior leadership positions, including as chief of operations for the Counterterrorism Center, chief of the Central Eurasia Division and chief of the CIA’s Information Operations Center. Dannenberg is a member of the Board of Advisors to the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

REVIEW — Ambitiously titled, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence, this book does accurately describe the life of a field case officer and is at its strongest when illustrating various points of field tradecraft ranging from “denied area” operational settings to operations in “high threat” environments. The author accurately describes some of the required evolution of operational tradecraft in the post-9/11 world. For those who have not had the privilege of serving in the field as a CIA case officer, these anecdotes might give a flavor of what that career and life is all about.  The author especially accurately describes the requirement of field case officers to think quickly on their feet.  In my experience, I found that the training I received was excellent and provided latent knowledge that helped me make the correct decisions in the field.  This book may also serve as a useful primer for those not familiar with the current and pre-9/11 structure of the Agency and its workforce or how the Agency fits into the current structure of the US Intelligence Community following the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.


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The book is at its weakest in trying to explain and criticize the changes in the Agency’s mission and focus after 9/11. The author belabors the point that the Agency’s focus shifted from espionage operations directed at nation-state rivals to counterterrorism operations. Well, the mission changed. At the time, the President, Congress, and the American people expected the Agency, first and foremost, to ensure that there was not another 9/11.  (And they’ve done that.)  Some difficult decisions were made and controversial programs were implemented but I believe there will come a less politicized and more objective time when historians might assert the mobilization the Agency undertook to neutralize the global jihad in the years following 9/11, were its finest hour.  I would also note during this period that the Agency’s focus on at least one hard target – Russia – never wavered.  The operations resulting in the arrest of Robert Hanssen and the round-up of a large Russian illegals network operating the US in the mid-2010s, among many other successes serve as examples.

Lamentably, as the author notes, the “reforms” brought about under DCIA John Brennan, including the subordination of the operational entity responsible for Russian operations into a broader Europe Mission Center, (at about exactly the same time Russia was maximizing its focus on the the United States) seems particularly poorly thought out and ill-timed. The author’s criticism of Brennan’s tenure and his politicization of the Agency ring more accurate and informed that his criticism of Director Gina Haspel, with whose field work and operational achievements he seems entirely unfamiliar.

The trend of former case officers writing of their extraordinary exploits is fully evident in this book. There are literally dozens of references to how “cool” it is to be a CIA case officer, immediately followed by the author’s self-deprecating observation “but I’m not a cool guy” or some such phraseology.  Usually quickly followed by some reference to a movie character or a famous spy from a novel. “As I’m sure I’ve made clear by now, no one would ever confuse me with Liam Hemsworth, Matt Damon, or Jason Statham.”  Then there is this sort of nonsense, “…and putting on my suit to arrive at the opening of business to perform my official day job.  I would again resume my public persona of Clark Kent, after my evening as Superman.”

At over four hundred pages, the book is 350 pages too long. It is also incredibly poorly edited and proofed. For example, former DCI George Tenet is repeatedly referred to as “George Tenant.”  Most egregiously, the author makes repeated references to colleagues, mentors, superiors and seniors who allegedly “turned” against him and surrounded themselves with sycophants while he “took” himself off the path toward the Senior Intelligence Service by taking a difficult field assignment. The book is filled with thinly disguised expressions of bitterness that even, incredulously, extend to his suggestion of some conspiracy by former Agency seniors shunning him in the private sector. Perhaps the book would be more appropriately titled, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of Case Officers Remembering they were in the Silent Service.

I rate this book with the sleeve of a trench coat.

Author’s Note: In full disclosure, I believe Agency officers below the rank of director, particularly operations officers, should not write autobiographic accounts of their careers, which are almost inevitably really about self-aggrandizement and explaining how their careers were stifled by corrupt and/or incompetent superiors. This book is no exception to that rule. Despite the requirement to submit manuscripts for Agency review in order to make sure there is no classified material that is being shared, there is still far too much operational tradecraft and its philosophical underpinning revealed in this book. In my view, this is a fundamental violation of the oath we took and more importantly, the obligation we hold to those still serving and the sources who have entrusted their security to the CIA.

(The Cipher Brief taps independent reviewers with experience in national security issues to review books for our undercover readers.  The views expressed represent those of the reviewer and not The Cipher Brief.)

Read former Deputy Director of CIA’s Counterterrorism Center Phil Mudd’s review of Toby Harnden’s book, First Casualty exclusively in The Cipher Brief

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