Douglas London, retired CIA Operations Officer, on life in the CIA and transformational leadership

Douglas London talks to Clint about the image and credibility of the CIA before and after 9/11, Putin and Ukraine, the Russia/China alliance, day to day life of a spy, qualities of transformational leadership, the unique challenges of publishing a book as a former CIA officer, and the ways media is used in the US and abroad.

Douglas London is a retired Senior CIA Operations Officer and author of *The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence. *


Clint Betts

Douglas, thank you so much for coming on the show. I want to start with what led you to join the CIA?

Douglas London

Well, I was looking for a job. Thanks for having me on the program. It's not a great, romantic story of my lifelong dreams about being a spy or an intelligence officer. I was going to college, and got bored of college, and dropped out for a while to join the Marine Corps. My family persuaded me to join the reserves so that I could decide whether I wanted to spend my life as a Marine enlisted guy, or not. 12 weeks of Paris Island convinced me that college was actually pretty good, and I took advantage of being a reservist to do my active duty time, and went back to school, got very interested in foreign affairs. What was going on in the world which was the 1980s, early 1980s. So, the United States was still in the midst of the Cold War with the then Soviet Union. And that pretty much dominated the headlines, and all the various other parallel conflicts, be it Afghanistan, or in Latin America, all had a place footing in the Cold War.

And I met an adjunct professor who was a former career foreign service officer and like me, after he retired, went back to teaching, which is what I've done. I teach at Georgetown University, and just a real inspirational guy, just the most articulate, eloquent, smartest human being I ever met. I thought, "I want to be just like him, I want to be a foreign service officer." But I was not quite as polished as my mentor and idol, and grew up in the inner city in New York City, in the Bronx during some rough times in the seventies. The Bronx was burning, all that kind of stuff. And I think, ideally, he was doing me a favor to steer me away from the State Department because he went ahead and dropped my name with the CIA because this is the early eighties. There was no internet, cell phones. And the agency came looking for you basically back then.

And he had mentioned me as a lead, because he was in touch with the agency having been a foreign ambassador. He would sometimes note possible ops leads among foreign diplomats, and such. And I just got a call out of the blue, out of the blue, if you would, from a federal government official offering me an opportunity to come to an info session. And I went down there. It sounded pretty cool, the idea of intelligence, and they didn't give you much detail, so I didn't really know what it meant. In fact, the CIA wasn't as public back then as it is now, but it sounded like it'd be a good fit for me. And luckily they thought I was a good fit for them, and everything sort of worked out.

Clint Betts

Well. You have a new book out called The Recruiter: Spying in the Lost Art of American Intelligence. And you kind of mentioned that maybe there's been some decline in American intelligence since 9/11, the Iraq War. Why do you think that's the case?

Douglas London

Well, I used my own career in the agency over 34 plus years, and half of it was before 9/11, and the other half was after, so it kind of lays out fairly evenly. And I sort of juxtaposed the changes that the agency went from that pre-9/11 period to what followed afterwards. And in a way, my book is a love story about human intelligence, and the art of spying, and to try to demystify it, and challenge some of the Bourne Legacy and James Bond, and Mission Impossible stuff by pointing out the real stuff is actually a lot cooler, in a lot of ways in terms of what it does. But what that life is like for a case officer like myself, or for the agents we recruit, and for our families and all the various relationships. And what I saw was during the war on terrorism that followed 2001, the agency changed its direction very much from prioritizing foreign intelligence, espionage, classic spying, to more focused on paramilitary activities, more focused on covert action.

And it was, in a sense, a plea to the agency and the government and the public as well that, that's really not what the agency does best, and it's really not what the public needs most from the agency. And so it suggested here are some things we might have lost, the loss of American intelligence, that classic elite espionage service. And here are some reforms we can consider to get ourselves back there once again, which was essentially required by our realignment of priorities to great power competition, near peer competition, depending on how you want to refer.

We see a very aggressive Russia, we see a very aggressive China and it's great to be able to fire our hell fire missiles, and geolocate terrorists in the battlefield. But what we really need are the secrets as to what our adversaries are doing. And I'd like to think that the agency is doing just that based on actions, based on what I see reflected in the declassification of intelligence, which is just exquisite pieces of information that one scratches their head. And how did we find this, and that out? And I'd like to think it's because we've reinvested in the spying business once again.

Clint Betts

Why do you think we went away from it after 9/11? What would be the meaning of that? What would be the purpose?

Douglas London

Well, if you take yourself back to those times, and 2020 hindsight's grab, but living through it, the agency, and its leadership really believed it faced an existential crisis, that the agency as they knew it might no longer exist. People wanted accountability for 9/11. They wanted heads to roll, and the agency did a lot of things right, and did some things wrong, but the agency can't talk about what it does. It has no public lobby, DOD, Department of Defense, the FBI, they're very public organizations. They've got lobbyists, and people that speak on their behalf and the agency basically is, “No comment, no comment.” So based on the pressure on our political representatives, and based on some consternation among some, particularly at the time then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld was no fan of the agency to begin with, never was, and felt upended in a sense by the agency's ability to get on the battlefield in Afghanistan long before his military was able to.

Because for reasons that are legitimate, the agency's small, agile, has the ability to maneuver. The DOD is so huge that it has so many more bureaucratic loops, and also was trying to determine what its authorities were. This was a war. CIA had a covert action authority, so it had the authorities to go ahead and get on the battlefield. But between that, and then what followed with the invasion of Iraq, where unfortunately, the agency sided with the White House, President Bush, and Vice President Cheney were very eager to prove Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. And it wasn't universally held in the agency that they did, but the pressure really resulted in the agency steering away from pure objectivity, and said, "Yep, they've got WD." And obviously they didn't. And the rest is now history. So, if you look at that time period, the agency thought it might be going out of business.

So, what can we do to preserve ourselves? The agency has one unique capability by law that no other agency has. And there's 18, actually, US intel agencies. It's the CIA that could conduct covert action. It's the CIA that could conduct activities that the president could stand in front of the world, and goes, "I don't know anything about this. We had nothing to do with this." And that's pretty unique. And the president at that time had some pretty significant challenges which he had no solutions for. Al Qaeda was driven out of Afghanistan, but they were now in a sovereign country, Pakistan, with which we were not at war. And they were planning, and plotting, and operating from there in ungoverned space. And the Pakistanis were somewhat unwilling, and somewhat incapable, to go after Al-Qaeda. There are also lots of prisoners, high value detainees. The FBI didn't want them, because they didn't have legal jurisdiction to arrest, and prosecute these people because they weren't traditional enemy combatants in uniform, and for that and had committed no documented war crimes that we knew of other than terrorism, which itself you would think is a crime against humanity.

But they couldn't take them, and the military couldn't take him as prisoners of war because they weren't traditionally prisoners of war. So, what were we to do with these folks? The agency stood and said, "We'll take them." Now, we can go back in history, and talk about the pluses, and minuses. I think that turned out to be a really dark chapter on the part of the agency, but mostly because not of what we plan to do, debriefing prisoners, but of how we did it, the renditions, the enhanced interrogation, essentially tie orture, which is very inconsistent with the way the agency practices business, because when you recruit spies, you need them to be your partners, you need them to collaborate so you don't coerce them. And even when we get into a room with a detainee, we try to find a way to incentivize their cooperation so that we could put some faith in what they're telling us.

So, for those reasons, the agency got heavily into the covert action business because it was our bread and butter, it was our source of support from the White House. It was our means of resources from Congress for our budget. And that nurtured a different culture. A culture was this is what's paying the bills, it's paramilitary activities, it's covert action activities. So, the agency heavily aligned its resources, and the way it developed personnel, which in turn meant maybe we weren't investing as much as we should in trade craft, in the evolution of technology, which so altered the landscape of espionage that we saw the Russians, and Chinese, and Iranians certainly using, to great effect, for both influence and counterintelligence, and cyber attacks, and the like over the years.

And I think we got very comfortable because it was rewarding in a way, but it also didn't exactly set us up for success in the latest chapter of what is our priority for US national security. And that's sort of a return because I think great power competition is just restating what maybe another variation of the Cold War, if you would, of dealing with enemies that truly are existential threats, truly can use weapons of mass destruction to destroy our country. So, I'd like to think we learn those lessons, and we are getting back on the right foot.

Clint Betts

What do you think the CIA can do to restore its credibility? I think a lot of American institutions have lost credibility with the American public over the past decade, or so, let's say. The CIA being one of them that lost credibility even before that with what you just mentioned with saying there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when, in fact, there weren't. And I wonder if some of the Afghanistan pullout has hurt the CIA's credibility, or not. I would actually love your take on that. But what can the CIA do to restore its credibility with the American public, or is that even important?

Douglas London

Well, I think it's absolutely important. It is particularly challenging to be operating as a secret organization in a free and open society. You have to count on the trust of the public. You have to count on their buy-in. And there's limitations in how you do that, because we can't go out and tell most of our successes, because they would no longer be successes if you started talking about them. So what you hear about, generally, are the failures because they become rather public. And that's what the public sees. And there's images of prisoners in orange jumpsuits, and torture, and waterboarding. There's “Why did 9/11 happen?” Well, you said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and there weren't. So, absolutely there was an image, and a credibility problem, and the CIA contributed to it in some ways. There were certain mistakes made, right? And we don't do PR.

And in fact, often the agency, when the times were worse, we become very insular, and rather circle the wagons and say, "Well we can't talk about that because of sources of methods." And it's true to a point. And I think those are all contributing factors to why we now have an office of the Director of National Intelligence. A major part of the DNI's job is to provide transparency to the public, it's to be the window through which the public looks at all US intelligence agencies to be reassured that they are held accountable for errors, reform when they need to, and are doing good things for the right reasons. So we see the DNI office, and not just in Avril Haines in this administration, but in the past putting out declassified reports, basically showing the public here's what the IC is doing, and here's where we're having some success and here's what we're most worried about.

Fast forward to today, in current times, I actually think Afghanistan, the final chapter, and then in turn, Ukraine, have facilitated the agency's ability to try to resurrect some of its credibility with the public. Afghanistan, while we could spend a lot of time talking about Afghanistan, whatever went wrong, certainly I start with policy in terms of what we were doing and why, and what our goals were. But the agency did pretty well for itself, at least, as it was reflected in public in getting a lot of people out. The agency got a lot of Americans out where we needed to go really behind enemy lines, if you would. And that was done by CIA officers, and their people on the ground as opposed to thousands of Afghan commandos to the US military train. The agency pretty much got its partners out, as well as any agents that were in jeopardy.

And to the extent that it was discussed in the press, and in some cases the agency allowed some limited exposure to kind of show here's what we were doing, and why, that was rather positive. And even initial suggestions at, oh, there was an intel failure because the president didn't know how bad things were going, increasing the press is documented, no, actually the CIA told the president a year out if you do this, and that, and this including the withdrawal, and the timeline, and the way of the withdrawal, here's what you're going to get in weeks. And that was documented, I saw, whether it should have been or not, in some media reporting. Now here we are in Ukraine where, amazingly, in an unprecedented fashion intelligence has been weaponized as a national instrument of power. The declassification and exposure deliberately of key intelligence pieces had an effect on the battlefield, and certainly had an impact on preempting a disillusion of solidarity in the Western coalition that was necessary to support Ukraine and stand up to Russia.

Those intelligence reports more or less, and for the most part were born out by actions, were born out by events. It was as if Putin did everything we said he was indeed going to do. And I think that went a real great distance in restoring the credibility of the agency in the public’s eyes, so much so that it might actually have embellished their expectations. Now, everybody wants to know, "Okay, what do we know? Let me know. What do we know about Russia and China? What are they doing next?" There are things you could declassify, but even as much effort as you make in protecting your resources, and methods, anything you put out is an advantage to the enemy because they know at least what you're looking for, and perhaps where you're looking at. So even if it doesn't necessarily put a finger on a person, or select collection technique, it's going to help them to defend themselves.

So, I think it's great we've done that. Honestly, I do. I support it. I just think it needs to be done with great care and caution and balance. And I think we need to manage the expectations of the public, which it's wonderful that they now hold the agency in higher regard that, oh, we must know this, and we must know that, but that we're a little careful in how we do it. And in fact, just the last couple days there have been some reflections in the press about, well there's intelligence reporting about Russian military officers talking about the use of nuclear weapons, which is what caused so much alarm in the Biden administration. I would suspect since we haven't seen a declassified report, but we've seen spokesman for the US government kind of addressing those reports, and then going, "But I can't go into detail,” tells me that that was deliberately put out there for the same purpose, but it allowed them to not have to declassify a report, but just put out some vibrations if you would, to have the same impact.

Clint Betts

Well, yeah, I want to go a little bit deeper on the situation in Ukraine. I mean the way it's being painted right now to us is like Putin's kind of a madman, who knows what he'll do? He could use nuclear weapons. What is your take on this guy? Because I've read some things that you've written about him. I don't think you believe he's a madman.

Douglas London

No, I think he would like us to believe he's a madman, but he's not. I'm a Russian speaker. I spent lots of my time in the agency chasing Russians, Soviets before, and then Russians thereafter. And particularly those of Putin's generation, those who came up in the KGB in the seventies, and we're out in the field in the eighties where I was doing my early tours. And obviously our priority was during the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and counterintelligence. So, Putin has a calculus, and a calculus that I argue is either consistent and predictable. It's just not the same calculus that we have. It's not necessarily the way Americans, or even Westerners in general look at the world, or look at what our priorities are. So Putin was nurtured, if you would, in society where he was rewarded for supporting the communist party even before he joined the KGB.

Clearly people in the KGB went out, and spotted, and recruited were people that they tasked against fellow students to be informants, prioritize the party, show that's where your first loyalty, because the party is the center of the universe. It's the moral righteousness, and everything that we do must preserve that ideology, so that we can preserve the greatest traditions of greater Russia than the Soviet Union. And you are the cream of the crop. You are the elite of the elite as a KGB officer, and you're working to protect us from the morally decadent, and valueless west, the elitist west, which has set up these rules of order designed to punish, and prevent Russia from achieving its right place. So you've got a guy who grew up with this ideology who's now an intelligence officer who's conditioned to identify, and exploit weakness, to never show weakness himself, to always embellish his strengths to, in that way, back people down who might otherwise challenge you, and be threats. And to pursue a sort of utilitarian approach that is to do what is best for you, in this case, also the party.

So, Putin's not been shy about telling us what he wanted to do for these last 20 years. You see these deep dive investigations, and Putin said this, and did this. Well, believe him because that's what he meant. This whole I look Putin in the eye, and saw his soul. You didn't. But he's not a madman. He has a very calculated approach. So, I think it's important for us as Americans to understand, look, we need to look at the world the way our adversaries see the world in order to understand them, to anticipate them, encounter them. So, while I appreciate, oh we need to negotiate, we need to find him an exit, yeah, maybe if you're talking about another American, or European, or whatever, but Putin sees that as weakness, and when Putin sees weakness, he doubles down. When Putin feels weak, he doubles down, because what he feels threatens his position by showing, or exhibiting weakness in any way.

So, it's really strength, and consequences. Putin does understand that. He's not an advent. He understands practical consequences. If he knows for sure the United States is going to obliterate his army on the ground in Ukraine, if he launches a tackle nuke, he's probably less likely to use one because if he loses 300,000 Russians, despite how brutal he represses his people, he's got a problem on his hands. And I think we've seen reflections, at least by former US officials like former CIA Director Patraeus, and former defense secretaries, that that's largely the playbook. And Biden has said that himself, if Putin uses a nuclear weapon, he's going to face catastrophic consequences. But we're not necessarily going to use a nuclear weapon in kind. And you know why? Because we don't have to, right? Putin has to because he can't go toe to toe with the west militarily, in a conventional battlefield.

But the US, and its NATO allies probably without landing soldiers even on the ground in the Ukraine, could probably destroy every little piece of equipment he has there, and really set him back. So, I think by telegraphing that, by not just messaging but also actions that demonstrate we are prepared to do so is important. But if you show daylight to Putin between partners, or even in America where there's, unfortunately, and this is not a partisan issue, but Republicans are campaigning to reduce aid to Ukraine, America first, we need that money here, but to protect America, we need to stop Russia there. Otherwise, the consequences for a subjugated Ukraine mean a subjugated Poland, and Hungary, and we start rolling into NATO. So, it's pay me now, or pay me later and pay me now without the expense of American blood, God willing, that we could do it the way we're doing it now. So again, it's about making sure we get into the shoes of another to understand their world, and then act accordingly.

Clint Betts

I wonder, I actually think it'd be useful if you could give us your assessment on what led to him invading Ukraine. I don't know if it's as simplistic as we're we're reading about or hearing about from the media. Is it possible he doesn't invade Ukraine if the United States says, "We're never going to let Ukraine enter NATO." Was it really kind of that black, and white that could have stopped this whole thing, or what led him to, "I'm going in there."

Douglas London

So, what's Putin's priority? It's preserving his power. Whatever threats his power is what he's going to act against. Developments in Ukraine, he saw as, ultimately, a threat to his power. So next door to Russia, a country of 144 million people, once part of the greater Soviet empire is Ukraine, 44, 45 million people. And it'd be like us looking at some country in the western hemisphere looking at them as our poor cousins. Now, all of a sudden the poor cousins have more freedom, a better economy, a better life than Russians do. And they don't have the same degree of repression, where much has been written that Putin had a social contract with the Russian people. Stay out of politics, keep your mouth shut, and you can live your lives. You can have jobs, and money, and go to McDonald's and travel to the beach and whatever like that and you'll be fine.

But don't mess with politics, let me run the country, and that's fine. But now they look next door and different circumstances with people that were once their fellow citizens are freedom of expression, freedom of the press, democracy, pluralism, and son of a gun, their economy is getting bigger, and bigger, and they're becoming more integrated into the global economy, the global world. They're integrating into the European Union, they're seeking confederation, and eventually partnership, and membership in NATO that these are all good things. That's the last thing Putin can afford to have his people going, "Why don't we have that?" And then for Putin as well, where his aspirations of reclaiming the wealth of Ukraine, and Ukraine has often been called the bread basket of the world for a good reason, and also tremendous industrialization. And you've seen, I'm sure, pieces on the things that come from Ukraine that you don't realize, when you drive your car, or go to the grocery store, and such.

It's just amazing what comes from there. And that very much in Putin's mind was part of the greater Soviet empire, which to him is still Russia. One actionable reflection of his mind. So, Russia has two principal intelligence services. They have the SDR, the Foreign Intelligence Service, which is their CIA, they're the overseas service, they spy abroad and they have the FSB, the Federal Security Service. And they're more like the FBI. They're primarily a counter-intelligence internal domestic security group. Well, for all the former Soviet states, be it Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, the principal intelligence collector is the FSB, it's the internal service. And that was Putin's design when he became director of the FSB in the late nineties, because he sees those countries as still being part of his country over which he's going to institute and wield control.

So, I think it was inevitable that Putin had designs on Ukraine. I think he had opportunities at different points to sort of cut his losses. He made tremendous progress reaching his goals in 2014 where he forcibly seized Crimea, which historically has been a bedrock associated with former Russian empires. I mean it was Catherine the Great that gave Crimea to what was then Ukraine. It was Khrushchev under the Soviet Union who formally annexed it. And it was the late nineties Russian leadership in the mid nineties that formally recognized Ukraine's borders at the breakup of the Soviet Union. So, he always had that desire to bring Ukraine back in the fold because he's always seen Ukraine as part of the greater Russian, greater Soviet empire. So, I don't think there's anything he could have done or we could have done, but were he to, in 2014 said, "I'm going to stop here. If you all formally recognized Crimea as Russia, formally recognized Donbas, and Luhansk, the two problems in the east, we're done here."

And maybe 2014 Ukraine, and 2014 America would've gone, "Okay, we'll go for that." But he always planned to do more as he felt himself positioned to do so. And obviously Russia embarked on what they thought was a spectacular modernization of their military, which was clearly very over hyped, probably believed by Putin himself, but clearly over hyped. And they believed that the Ukrainians were going to greet them as liberators, particularly the Russian speaking Ukrainians. And there's a lot of dead Russians who died at the hands of Russian speaking Ukrainians who certainly didn't see them as liberators. So, he's now made his bed. But I think what he's counting on now, having mentioned it earlier, is that it's going to be awfully cold in Europe come winter, and Russian energy supplies have been cut, it's hurting the economies, it's hurting everybody's economy.

The United States has a real high likelihood of having the House, the Senate, go to the Republicans. Republicans haven't been shy about talking about cutting aid to Ukraine, so he thinks he's got time. If he can make it through the winner, and circumstances tilt his way, then he believes the long game will favor him, and he will eventually achieve his ultimate goals. And I certainly hope he's wrong.

Clint Betts

How would you grade Obama's response to the invasion of Crimea in 2014?

Douglas London

You see a lot of former Obama officials in the Biden cabinet, and in the Biden national security structure, and the constant refrain is, “We made mistakes. We made mistakes when we were young, and bright eyed, and whatever, and looking at the Arab Spring, and not doing certain things we should have, and looking at Russia's invasion, and annexation of Korea. And we should have done more. So, one would like to think mistakes were made and they were. But the fact that these folks now are there who bear the scars of those mistakes are fool me once, shame on you, and are going to be more resolute about making the right adjustments, taking the right tax, and such like that. If they have the opportunities, and if they have the tools. But no, I certainly won't defend the Obama administration's choices in Ukraine. I think fortuitously what they did right was they embarked on programs to strengthen Ukraine. That you see clearly an overt US program to arm, support, train Ukraine, provide them the wherewithal to fight back.

And there are reflections of covert support to Ukraine's military and intel security services to give them the capacity to withstand a Russian invasion of beyond where they were, and to, if need be, fight an insurgency that would ideally bleed the Russians into withdrawal. Things have actually worked out even better because those foundations, the training, the intelligence support has had amazing effect because we've given all these great high speed, low drag weapons, but they only are affected because for the last seven years before 2014 to 2021, we had been restructuring how the Ukrainians do intel, how they do defense. And that's what prepared them, because what we see are amazing tactics on the battlefield. So, using these weapons with creativity, and such that I'd like to have us take some credit that we've taught them, but also their own innovation, because they're the ones on the ground. And I got to tell you, nobody knows the Russians better than the Ukrainians who live next to them for thousands of years.

Clint Betts

It does seem like Obama's calculus, and I believe you even said something to this effect, is like Crimea, and Ukraine are not vital to the United States national security. And you do start hearing that argument being made a little bit more now. It's like why are we, and it's kind of just blank checking Ukraine? How does this enhance, or help the United States in terms of their national security? Do you have an answer to that?

Douglas London

It's clearly a dangerous precedent when a country could say, without legal justification, we have a right to someone else's territory. And it establishes a precedent as you recognize it, or as you dismiss it, as an issue, and look the other way. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, we went to war, the first Gulf War, it was the illegal seizure of territory. And yes, you could say there were other national interests, clearly oil and energy. But similarly we have the same vital interest in Ukraine as a European country. I think that's lost on a lot of people. Ukraine is part of Europe, it's a European country. It's right next to multiple NATO members, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary. That should be very clearly part of our area of focus and interest because whether Europe backs the United States politically, economically, militarily. Which is why the United States got involved in two world wars over Europe.

Ukraine is part of that calculus. So, to allow Russia to say, "We have every right to Ukraine", and the world goes, "Well, not legally so, but okay." As long as you cut it out, and don't make our lives anymore difficult, then what's to stop them from saying Poland's borders aren't really historical, and indeed they're not. Poland has moved literally as a country over the centuries from one part of the world to another because the Germans, and the Russians, and the Russians argued about what part of that territory they wanted. So let's say Putin decides, "We're going to go back to the 1890 borders because that's what Poland is, and that means half that country is ours,” what then? So, I think if you allow Russia to have this unprecedented permission to basically go where they want, then you're looking at Lithuania, Latvia, which were parts of the Soviet Union, and again, Putin go, "They're parts of the Russian Empire, so I'm going to go there too, by the way."

So, where do you draw the line? Those countries are part of NATO, there's no doubt, Article V, we're going to war. But if you let Ukraine go, then you fortify Putin politically and legally because then he'd go, "Well I've got precedent here. What's the difference? What's so different about these countries?" And he could seed some doubt, particularly with those who don't want to go to war, who don't want to invest in the blood, and treasure. But it's sadly that highway of appeasement, which historians go, "Look what happened with the Germans in World War II." And look what happened with, I mean you could list so many analogies. So, what I try to educate and enlighten for Americans, this really is our war. This is not all, we're just being really nice, we're helping somebody else, or this is like Vietnam. The whole, well we're fighting communism, and it's dominoes because we don't stop communism today. This is an unrepentant aggressor who has consistently told us his plans to take back all parts of what he considers greater Russia, greater Soviet Union, and, friends, that includes existing NATO countries.

Clint Betts

What do you make of this Russia, China alliance? It seems like that, that's really been deepened.

Douglas London

It's a complicated relationship. I know those are buzzwords, but the Russians and the Chinese are not natural allies. They are both people deeply immersed in their own history where they see the other as the great aggressor. I remember speaking to Cold War era Soviets and then Russians who still refer to the Chinese, "You can't trust those Mongols, because they'll come over the border again like Genghis Khan,” and such. They remember their history, similarly the Chinese remember Russian incursions into China in Manchuria, and such like that. So I think that they have a lot of common interests which bring them together, and they have interest to align right now, just like in the eighties, China was delighted to cozy up to the United States to counter Russian hegemony, which was a Chinese phrase. But right now the Chinese feel threatened by the west. They feel threatened by liberal democracies.

They likewise have a social contract with their people. It's, “We'll give you eight to 10% of GDP growth every year, you keep your mouth shut.” You can have your apartments, and your cars, and such like that. But China, it's not easy to keep eight to 10% GDP growth every year. And China's trying to position itself to be as galvanized, and fortified internally as it possibly can. And the risk to that is the west, because China needs to continuously grow. They need to continuously grow their economy, and then they need to continuously defend their spheres of influence, whether it's fishing rights, industrial rights, their belt and road initiative, which is their grand economic plan to try to expand influence and integrate other economies, and such like that. And the threats to those ambitions are the United States, and its allies in East Asia. So it's an autocracy, Russia's autocracy, they're both fighting the west.

They're both fighting liberal democracies, they're natural allies, but to a point. What Russia has done in many ways has hurt China, because it's hurt China economically, because it's hurt the world's economy. And China depends on selling things in America, in Europe, in the far East. It requires those external markets, and if we're not buying Chinese goods, that's a problem for China. So you see some stepping back on the part of Chinese officials. You see this recent conference that was done in the stands where the Chinese were there, the Indians were there, and they basically lectured Putin publicly about the evils of aggression, and war, and give peace a chance kind of thing, and these were his buds.

So I think the US has done well to leverage what we know about where China has considered helping Russia out by selling military goods, to providing support, to which China has clearly stepped back. So, right now in that whole dynamic, China's a big player. Russia's not calling the shots. China's the boss over Russia in that degree. So I don't think it's as happy a relationship. I certainly don't think despite some language that we would do anything for this relationship. I think ultimately they don't really trust each other, they use each other because it serves their interests. And that could change as quickly as the way the world goes.

Clint Betts

So what is the off ramp, do you think? How do we get out of this? How do we avoid World War III, and a nuclear weapon being set off?

Douglas London

I think the easiest path to World War III is allowing Putin to succeed. I think his ambition, and his plans are clear. They're not secret. When somebody tells you what they're like, what they think, believe them, kind of thing. It's standing up to him here and now, and putting enough pressure that Putin believes it is more costly to him to continue this campaign than to find for himself a way out. I think if you try to identify yourself and off ramp which is face saving, it's like, "Okay, let's compromise this. Let's compromise that." First of all, it's not ours to compromise. Ukrainian belongs to the Ukrainians, it doesn't belong to the United States. And they're a partner, but they're not an ally. We don't have a mutual defense agreement with them. They're not under common command. So we don't tell the Ukrainians what to do.

And we made a huge mistake in, one of the huge mistakes in Afghanistan was we negotiated with the Taliban, and we cut out the Afghan government. That didn't end well for the United States. And it didn’t particularly end well for the Afghan government. So, if the Ukrainians on their own go, "We're tired of this, we're willing to concede A, B and C", okay, that's fine. But I don't see the Ukrainians doing that, and they know better not to, because that will simply incentivize Putin to put up the temperature to escalate. I think we continue down our path, we maintain our coalition, we maintain our unity. We continue to provide the Ukrainians with every means to hurt the Russians in Ukraine so that the Russians feel they need to withdraw for their own, and that's the offering. I think anything else actually brings us closer to World War III.

Clint Betts

Interesting. Tell us about what it was just the day to day, this is a total pivot here, but the day to day life of a spy, and being in the CIA, what was that like?

Douglas London

Well, when you think about what you're going to be doing before you do it, and then you think about what you've done after you've done it for four decades, it's kind of surreal. Because, and I speak specifically to being a case officer, to being a spy. Undercover, stealing secrets, recruiting spies, that sort of thing. You're living a fabricated story, but the fabricated story becomes your reality. So, your day job, whatever you claim to be doing, and I'm not allowed to talk about specific covers, but clearly I wasn't out there as a CIA officer, I was out there as something else, a US official or a non-US official. And that's a life that extends to your family. It extends to everything you do, to taking your kids to school, to being available for parent teacher conferences, for getting a mortgage, or a credit card. Everything you're doing is, well, it's not exactly true.

And you're representing yourself in a very conscious, deliberate way to live that story, because it's that story that enables you to successfully do your job. It's that story that enables you to meet the people you're going to recruit, and to be able to securely handle them so they don't get caught, and we can keep stealing their secrets. So, it becomes very natural when you do it day in and day out because it is so conscious and it is so deliberate it becomes vocational in a sense. It's not just a job because you don't shut it off. You're overseas, it's 24/7.

It's not like you can think, "I just don't feel like being a spy tonight. So I'm going to call up the local counter intelligence and tell people, and say, ‘Would you mind not listening to the bugs you have in the house? Don't follow me. I'm just going to have dinner with my wife.’" That's not what you do. Everything you do, every part of your life has to fit into your espionage, your patterns, your profiles, your routine, so that you're able to have this great camouflage to what you're really doing. So, it's not necessarily simple, it becomes second nature. And it also becomes part of your family's lives as well.

Clint Betts

How did you maintain that balance? How did you keep your family together, and really maintain these family relationships as you were doing what you just described? That seems like it'd be really difficult.

Douglas London

So, your spouse is going to know if you're married, or you have significant others, and we expect them to, they need to because you need their help, you need their help to protect you. So, even if they're not working for the organization, they need to be briefed about who you are, and what you do. They don't know your agents, or where you're going necessarily. They don't need to know that, but they need to know enough to protect you. Your kids can't. Your five year old, your 10 year old, your 12 year old kid. So, they ask a lot of questions that can be hard, sometimes harder, and more dangerous to protecting your cover than trying to foil the Russians, or the Chinese, if you would. So you have to have cover stories for them of where is mom, or dad going tonight? So there'd be many a night where I'd go out, and do my things and my kids were old enough to be up to see Daddy was going out, and it's like, "Oh, I'm doing some late night shopping, or I'm doing this."

But then your kid's at some dinner party, some event, and talking to some member of another embassy who's talking about how bad the crime is, or the terrorist threat, or the local government has all these checkpoints because it's a police date and your little daughter pipes up, "Oh, not my dad. He goes out late night on purpose because he doesn't want to do shopping when we're around because he wants to spend time with us." And then the person looks and you go, "Uh, oh." I know who you are and know what you're doing. So it's tricky, and there's sacrifices, and because it's a vocation, and because it's 24/7 and when the flag goes up, you might be celebrating your wedding anniversary, you might be having your kids' birthday party, you got to go. And so it does affect, certainly, balance, life balance. I think the agency does its very best, and certainly better today than in yesteryear where you were expected to be out there seven days a week, and now it's like, well you could have the occasional couple hours off for something for yourself.

And I'm being dramatic, but there's certainly more consciousness of it. But it's sort of unavoidable because it literally goes with the trade. So it does have an impact. CIA has a tremendously high divorce rate. CIA has a tremendously high substance abuse rate. And I don't think those are coincidental. The pressures are immense. And particularly for those who are living that type of life, everybody works hard in the agency. Everybody works incredible hours and renders amazing service. But the case officers who are out there spying, it's not a team sport, it's the case officer on the street doing these things, having to live this life. And it certainly has an impact. But all that said, and a second marriage later, I'll confess, I wouldn't trade it for anything else.

I think the contributions an individual can make as an intelligence officer, and particularly as a case officer, are so outsized from what you might be able to do elsewhere. I mean, you're not curing cancer, or the cold, but you're stealing the manuals of the latest Russian missile, so that we could defend ourselves. You're foiling a terrorist plot, which is going to blow up a school, a hospital, or what have you. I mean that's one person collecting the information from one agent providing and it is just amazingly consequential, and very rewarding.

Clint Betts

What did you learn about leadership as you observed leaders in various countries as you worked in, I mean, obviously your assessment of Putin, who is a leader. What makes a great leader? What makes a bad leader?

Douglas London

Wow, that's a really good question. And I'm looking inward because I've certainly had both working for good leaders and bad leaders, and I've certainly worked so many years overseas in societies where they were autocratic societies, they weren't democratic institutions. And you see what the trickle down effect on leadership is in all the institutions of state, and all the various people. The agency obviously, like the US military, like any institution, speaks to leadership, speaks to thinking strategically, trying to encourage leaders that the greatest gift you can offer is not you doing great things, but empowering, enabling others to do great things. That's really the mark of leadership that you, as a leader, are willing to endure sacrifices to shield the folks you lead, so that they may succeed, to provide them top cover, to inspire them to be an example that they may be, and they should be, vocationally better at certain career skill sets than you.

But your specialty is allowing them to thrive, to develop, to have confidence, to enjoy what they do, and to in turn, become good leaders to others. And leadership isn't necessarily statutory in the sense that you've got to have a responsibility, you're the boss, you're the branch chief, or the chief of station. Leadership is by example. I was inspired by folks that were my same grade, doing my same job, and I look to them and think, "Wow, I like how they conduct themselves. I like how they handle controversy. I like how they get along with difficult people." Some people don't endure fools very well, but signs of leadership are how you rechannel that, how you redirect that, and how you bring teams together. So I've been amazed at great leaders who weren't my boss, who were my peers, or actually people who worked for me, or subordinates that so impressed me. So, the qualities of leadership, I think they tend to be experiential.

I think certainly some people are born with great traits, but I think you learn by seeing things, but you learn leadership by being secure about yourself, that you're willing to change, you're willing to be accountable for when you make mistakes instead of like, "Oh, I'm the boss, and everything I do is great." And sadly we see that. The emperor has no clothes. You can't tell somebody that maybe there's another way of doing things. A real good leader wants to hear the alternatives, wants to exhaust the options. And I don't know how prevalent that is. I think it's the ideal, but human nature is a funny thing, and power is a real funny thing. And once people start tasting power, it's sometimes easier to say, "Yes, I'm going to be a transformational leader. I'm going to go beyond myself, and think, well, I like all the attention, and I like people telling me how great I am, and I'm going to lean in that direction." And I certainly saw that not just overseas among foreigners. I saw it in the US government at times.

Clint Betts

By the way, you've got such a great spy name. Douglas London is the perfect... It's right out of a novel. And speaking of novels, or you didn't write a novel, you wrote a book here about your experience in the CIA. What was that like? What was the process of writing the book, and why did you feel like you needed to get that out there?

Douglas London

The CIA is organized to deliberately discourage you to publish a book, or anything else in that matter. It has a very rigorous review process, and their charter, by statute, is to not let you write anything that's classified. But sometimes that's subject to interpretation. If the agency feels by revealing some transgression that will hurt its chances to collaborate or secure cooperation, they can say that's classified. So, it gives them a little bit more right to redact things that aren't secrets, but that don't make them look good. So, I'm a obliged as any agency officer to submit anything I publish, whether it's a book, an article I write in the newspaper, or what I teach to my Georgetown class. I've got to submit that through review. And at times the process is pretty good. They can be pretty quick, they're very accommodating on what I teach. They're usually indulgent on what I write in The New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal, or Just Security or one of these other media publications.

They are not as accommodating on books, and particularly when they see it as a tell all. When they see it as embarrassing and exposing. So, I actually did fairly well, all things considered. I sent him my manuscript, and I wrote my manuscript with care because I didn't want to compromise any secrets either. I mean I have an obligation not just to my country, and the constitution, but to the agents with whom I've worked, and who I'm obliged to protect them forever. So, there's certainly nothing I wanted to do. And I actually had very little difficulty with the anecdotes, because my book is largely a lot of anecdotes, and they're spy stories, they're war stories. And as long as I was very careful, I didn't mention what country it was, and I didn't really identify the agents so that they could be exposed, they were actually pretty good about those stories.

What they didn't like is the internal business, how the agency made decisions, leadership issues, mistakes we had made, accountability problems. That's where they took a finer hand. And there was a lot of negotiation, because they would send me back redactions, and I would negotiate some, and I won in some cases, and in some cases I didn't. And the agency allows itself to say, "Well, yeah, even though that's in a newspaper and you've sent us a newspaper article, which in a court of law means it's no longer a secret, it's now reveal to the public." And we've seen that in court cases, which is why the agency never goes to court on a publication. It just never has, because it never wins. It tries to intimidate, negotiate, threaten, but it doesn't go to court. So, I would send supporting documentation that, oh, well this episode was featured in these newspaper articles, or this book.

They go, "Yeah, but we didn't authorize it. So since you're a former agency officer, you can't speak about it." So there was some negotiation and the process took me an initial turn of about four to six months, and then another two months thereafter where we negotiated parts of the book that we went back and forth from. So eight months really isn't bad for the CIA. I've got colleagues who've had books for a year. I've had colleagues whose books have never, and will never be authorized because the agency is just literally putting its foot down. And I have colleagues who went to court, Nada Bakos went to court for her book, I think. And one or two others, and their names escape me, senior moment, who went to court and the agency went, "Okay. Fine, go ahead." Because they can't afford to do that.

I wrote the book, it really wasn't my intention to write a nonfiction work.It wasn't my intention originally to write a book at all. But I left under circumstances that I would've actually preferred to stay. I mean 34 plus years. And I still wanted to stay, I'm a glutton for punishment. But I loved what I did, I loved my colleagues, I loved the mission, and I loved what I was able to contribute where I knew I could do that nowhere else, but it was hard for me under the administration at the time. This is 2018, I made my decision. I retired in 2019, and I felt that it was hard for me to do my job effectively at that point. And it was hard for me to look myself in the mirror for some of the things I had to go along with. So I had to leave. And then you have this period of time when you leave a career, right?

Whatever you've done, you've been a longshoreman, a truck driver, a doctor, whatever, and you go through this period of reflection, don't you? It's like you're thinking about it, you're reflecting about it, and you have this angst maybe. And so I decided I'm going to take this angst and I'm going to write a story, but I'm going to write a novel because I want to write something that the agency will clear, and if I make it fiction, I could sort of speak to the issues good and bad without doing anything that would endanger my ability to get it published. And I struggled. I struggled to write a novel because I'm looking at my own experiences, and I'm looking at my own stories, and I'm trying to find what is a fair, fictional parallel. And I found myself writing out anecdotes, actual anecdotes, that had happened to me in my career. And I looked at them, and I thought, "Those are powerful in different levels, powerful in teaching people", not teaching, that may be unfair to say.

Enlightening people to what the world is really like and how important espionage is for them. While you sleep at night, the CIA is protecting you, and I really believe it does. And giving people an appreciation of that. So I started writing anecdote after anecdote, and eventually it's like, this might work better as nonfiction, particularly if I take great care and caution. And as I said, pretty much none of my anecdotes of spy stories, recruiting an agent, hailing an agent, nearly getting blown up, or shot or whatever silliness I experienced in my life, they were pretty fine with that. It was, and this guy made a terrible decision and got these people killed, and whatever, that they wanted out of the book. So, it went pretty well. And I'm proud of the work. I feel that even with the redactions, it conveys the points I want. I think it conveys my love of the mission, and the vocation, and the art, and my concern for areas that need to have some reforms or changes so it can keep doing that all important mission for our country.

Clint Betts

Something I've always wondered is how the CIA and intelligence agencies utilize the media as a tool. I'm talking like these legacy media institutions like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, name a publication. And I also wonder about the new media, social media. And we're hearing a lot about TikTok and whether it should be banned in the United States because it's run by a Chinese company, which ultimately reports to the Chinese Communist Party. How do you think about legacy media institutions like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, those types of publications, and then social media platforms like Twitter, and TikTok, and Facebook, and how they are used or not used as tools in intelligence?

Douglas London

Well, I mean there's been such an evolution in how intelligence is collected, and used, because of the revolutionary expansion of information from social media, and online in addition to the traditional media platforms. So, any intelligence service worth its salt is going to try to leverage open source information, OSINT is a new source of intelligence. There's six actual, getting my academic side, sources of intel. One now is open source intelligence, OSINT, and there's lots of people talking about it, and writing about it. Oh, we should invest in it, we should do more. Obviously, we should invest in it because the value is multiple fold. It clearly has a value of information. News that's out there that is available through people's telephone. Everybody these days is a reporter. Every human being in the world who has a cell phone is a journalist of sorts, or a collector of information because they're taking pictures, and films, and documenting things intentionally, and unintentionally.

And so intel services, all this is open, it's nothing secret, have this amazing streams of information that they could benefit from for knowledge, but also for targeting. If I'm pursuing an agent who can answer the question of, “What are the capabilities of Russian hypersonic missiles,” right? I'm going to look for anybody who might be involved with the program, who has an online media presence to learn about them as well. So there is very tactical information that comes from open source that is used operationally as well as analytically to understand. Clearly it's a source of influence, it's a source that could be actioned. And we've clearly seen the Russians do that in the 2016 election, and 2020 elections, and the Iranians, and the Chinese, and clearly the United States has its own influence programs, but we're a liberal democracy and we've got laws. So, US intelligence can't plant things in the press that will influence US opinion.

That is literally against the law. And that's a double edged sword, because that world is so interconnected, it's no longer like putting a newspaper article in some obscure journal in some developing country in Africa or Asia. It's going to probably be online, which means it could land on Twitter. It could land in US media, which was, I remember one of the questions I got when the US started declassifying intelligence before the February 24th attack that the Russians launched. I had journalists, very seasoned, very knowledgeable national security journalists telling me this stuff is made up. It's lies. It's part of the Covert Influence Program. And I was saying, "That's illegal. The United States is not allowed to put out that information that is targeting a Western audience, that's targeting the American audience, targeting our allies, our NATO partners,” and such like that. But we could message. So, if we're putting out the truth, the State Department puts out the truth.

The CIA could put out the truth. That's “messaging”, and stuff like that. But it's true, it's not made up. It's not fabricated. So, I think it's harder for the CIA or a western intel service to legally run an influence program, which includes fabricated material, but there's no restrictions on overtly amplifying truth. And you know what's the greatest danger to a death spot? It's the truth. The greatest threat to Putin, to Xi in China, is the truth. It's what's really going on in their countries and other countries. So, it's really just an evolution of the landscape, and how we use it. But to your point, it's been a revolutionary change to the landscape. And there's threats, too.

Open source intelligence is a counterintelligence threat to me if I'm out there spying because people are tracking me, and my phone is a beacon, my car is a beacon. Hell, my washing machine is a beacon, right? It's computerized. It tells them when I'm doing my laundry if they're tapping into it. To kind of get my profile of life. So those, and we call it ubiquitous technical surveillance, UTS, it's a challenge, but it's not existential. It's just, okay, here's more adaptations we're going to make. When Alexander Bell invented the phone, that was an adaptation we made in the spy world, when there were telegraphs. So, we merely adapt, and adjust to the beauty of human intelligence. There is nothing more adaptable than a human being, so we adapt to our dynamic circumstances.

Clint Betts

What do you think, an FCC commissioner just came out and said, "The United States should ban TikTok." What is your take on that?

Douglas London

I'm of two minds. As an intel officer, the more people are out there talking, the more means I have of learning about them and maybe means I have of accessing them. The danger is when your adversary gets more value than you're getting out of it. And I don't have the expertise to tell you, is TikTok a greater threat as it is? I mean, I have family members on TikTok. They love TikTok videos, and such like that. What's the danger? So the danger is what are you trying to protect, and what TikTok gets. Chinese software, their involvement in the software world, Russia as well, they've infiltrated through commercial software, so many different back doors, and means. Yeah, TikTok is yet another way for them to access things. It's probably about being smart online. Most cyber attacks are phishing, catfish-like, where they send somebody something that you're tempted to open, which you really shouldn't open. So, it's normally they're preying on human weakness and not technical weakness, because we've got great technology, and we have all sorts of back doors and fixes and stuff.

But if people don't practice safe trade craft, trade craft, I'm sorry, I used the word, in these days? The day doesn't pass that I get a text from somebody, Hi, is this Mia? So, that I'll just answer back. Or emails with, "Oh, the IRS is investigating you click on this and we'll defend you." So, I'm smart enough not to open those, but I've been a spy. I've been chased by the Russians and Chinese. All the bad guys have chased me, so I kind of get it. But to people who are just living their lives, they shouldn't have to worry about those things. But it's just a feature of life. So, I don't have a conclusive point of view on should we ban these things. I think it's a real double edged sword. I think we should certainly educate. I think the more we educate the public, and there's a great role for the DNI, being that transparent conduit, then more people will get smarter about how they use all this great technology we have available to us.

Clint Betts

Douglas, thank you so much, man. What a fascinating conversation. And it just flew by for me as your experience, and your take on things that are happening in the world is so valuable to me, and to this audience. Thanks for coming on. I highly recommend everybody get your book, The Recruiter: Spying in the Lost Art of American Intelligence. Douglas, thank you so much. I'm sure we'll talk again at some point, but what an honor to be able to spend some time with you today.

Douglas London

Oh, it's my great pleasure. Thank you so much. And I really appreciate the people who are tuning in to listen and wish the opportunity comes again.

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