Review: Cash on Delivery–CIA Special Operations During the Secret War in Laos

5 Star, Asymmetric, Cyber, Hacking, Odd War, Biography & Memoirs, Insurgency & Revolution, Intelligence (Government/Secret), War & Face of Battle
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Amazon Page
5.0 out of 5 stars The Real Deal–Gripping Details & Lessons Learned & Lost
November 21, 2009
Thomas Leo Briggs
I served with the author in the clandestine service, saw the galley of this book in its early form, and was delighted when I received a copy of the finished book in the mail.

This is an absorbing detailed reference work, professional lessons learned document, “oral history” of the hidden war in Laos and Cambodia, and above all a patriotic “after action” report that should be–but has not been–absorbed by both Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Special Operations Forces (SOF) “leaders” and program managers.

Portions of the book are somewhat numbing in *necessary* detail, and other portions of the book gave me goose bumps. The book is something of a counterpoint to Blond Ghost, about Ted Shackley and his war in Laos, the most famous quote being his deputies, “We spent a lot of money and got a lot of people killed,” Lair remembered, “and we didn’t get much for it.”

I take this officer at his word, and have absolute confidence in this book and its details. The two most important points:


+ CIA Special Operations Group (SOG) officers are program managers, and are NOT in competition with SOF “direct action” A, B, and C Teams.

+ Done right, ONE CIA SOG officer with TEN interpreter/assistants can manage THREE HUNDRED indigenous intelligence collection or guerrilla precision attack personnel. The interpreters have to be co-located with teams that can be reached in person or by radio.

The book is gripping from both a “here’s what happened” reality depiction of the minutia of CIA SOG at its best, and “dumb-ass bureaucracy strikes again” all too familiar litany of errors of management.

For myself, the most important lesson, one that is also communicated in Jim Wirtz’s The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War (Stemme) and War Without Windows, is that at the human intelligence (HUMINT) level in sustained combat and infiltration operations, the intelligence failure is NOT at the collection level, but rather at the country team level (failure to share) or HQS level (failure to analyze, connect dots, and disseminate to rest of government.

I learn for the first time of multiple successes in cross-border snatches of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) prisoners, of successful interdictions called in by non-combatant road watchers, and of a priceless SIGINT interdiction site for Ho Chi Minh trail intercepts discovered by one of the teams that was never properly reported to the National Security Agency (NSA).

The final chapter, “Speaking Truth to Power–Lessons Learned” is the one I will summarize, and the most important, but only in the context of reading the entire book and for those that do not know the author as I do, absorbing the righteous nature of his account. This is the real deal.

01 US officers FLUENT in the local language are an essential means of recruiting individuals all too worried about “false flag” recruitments and betrayals by others posing as CIA principal agents.

02 Core lessons on building a sustainable SOG presence that produces reliable results are readily available in this book and elsewhere but getting the “NOT INVENTED HERE” stonewall in AF and Somalia and Yemen.

03 Neither CIA managers for SOF leaders understand the distinction with CIA SOG as a program management and collection function, and SOF direct action options.

04 CIA needs SOG but has trashed it (for AF, retirees had to be recalled, see those accounts, that do NOT contain the level of detail this book does, at Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA’s Key Field Commander and First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan.

05 The new CIA SOG–if and when–must be populated with people who have deep military experience and ideally combinations of civil affairs, military police, and special operations experience. Putting young people that have not had that background into CIA SOG leads to disasters. The author pointedly mentions the CIA deaths in Afghanistan when the prison riot killed a new CIA officer fresh from SOF who never learned how to manage prisoners, to include search and disarm.

06 CIA SOG cannot be the “knuckle draggers” of the past, where all that was wanted was the ability to fly helicopters, shoot straight, and blow things up. CIA SOG officers *must* be fully trained clandestine case officers with a full grip on tradecraft, *and* also be intelligence analysts able to make the most of what they touch where the rubber meets the road–this is especially true now that we have CIA “Stations” that are hollower than ever before, and often out of touch with local realities.

07 CIA suffers from a crisis of leadership. Enough said, Leon Panetta has been sucked into the vortex, CIA is worthless for the foreseeable future.

08 Contract fraud and abuse at CIA is much, much more of a problem than I had realized, in part because normal case officers (C/O) like myself tend to handle, at most, $100,000 a month, while CIA SOG program managers and CIA IT and others can manage millions. Dusty Foggo, a GS-12 when we served together in Panama, comes to mind.

09 Directorate of Operations (DO) records at CIA were, at the time the author retired, in total disarray. I do not think they have improved, and learned myself the hard way that the DO refuses to modernize, and refuses to be serious about indexing what they know. In one small program I ran, after calling up all names for a specific target and seeing that many of the names I had reported from overseas were not there, I was given an annuitant who went through all the hard copy files, and we went from 300 names to 3,000–the clerks in the basement had been refusing for over a decade to “index all names” as instructed.

10 Chiefs of Stations (COS) are not properly evaluated, this will get worse now that there are conflicts between CIA and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). I myself failed all COSs world-wide for failure to meet DCI priorities on the Nicaraguan target in the Bill Casey era, and I know the author is correct on this point–COSs are hiding behind their myth, and NOT producing.

I put the book down with a smile–great author, great book, highly relevant and very professionally-presented information. This book should be a reference work in all the war colleges, and if CIA ever gets serious about having a global clandestine and covert operations service, there as well.

Other books I recommend on this era:
Who the Hell Are We Fighting?: The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars
None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam
The Tunnels of Cu Chi: A Harrowing Account of America’s “Tunnel Rats” in the Underground Battlefields of Vietnam
Decent Interval: An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the Cia’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam
In Search Of Enemies

And of course my own books, beginning with On Intelligence: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World (2000).

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