Prior to Ben Affleck bringing Anthony Mendez’s story of exfiltrating six Americans from post revolution Iran in 1979 in the movie Argo (“See you later, exfiltrator!”), most people would never have even heard of Technical Operations Officers (TOO) or the Directorate of Science and Technology (DST) at the Central Intelligence Agency. Even still today I’d bet most people don’t really understand the scope or what DST TOO’s actually accomplish in the intelligence community. There aren’t enough things written about them, even though the vast majority have countless stories of TDY’s to exotic locales, creating and using all the cool gadgets the public thinks of when they think of “spytech”.
I didn’t give much thought to positions within the CIA when I applied and went through recruiting. The vast majority of books on the Agency only cover broad history, operations or are memoirs by former Case Officers. That’s a pretty minute picture of a large agency. With the exception of Anthony Mendez’s memoir, “Master of Disguise” and the more recent “Spycraft" by Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton (I’m leaving out “The Wizards of Langley” because I haven’t read it yet) there are very few works related to the officers I like to think of as the real “James Bond’s”, the Technical Operations Officers of the DST.
So, no shit, there I was….the first day of the CIA’s new hire training. Basically a Human Resources indoctrination: death by PowerPoint. The main goal being tackling a mountain of health care, direct deposit and countless other forms for all new Agency employees. The course coordinator was a crusty GS-15 with quite a sarcastic sense of humor and a gravel-filled delivery showing off years of chain-smoking and, I’d guess, interest in whiskey. Upon finding out I use to work as a criminal investigator at another Federal agency he relentlessly poked at me about why I left, asking if I just got tired trolling Home Depot parking lots for cases. I found it quite amusing.
“You were an ICE agent huh? Why did you leave ICE?” He asked me as I handed in one form or another.
“Did I mention I was an ICE agent?” I said with the stiffest deadpan I could muster.
He laughed. Good sign I thought, this boring course might bearable after all.
When I told him about my Internet sector background, he asked me what had led me to choosing the Targeting Officer path I was on. He just nodded knowingly when I explained I had just applied and went with whatever the Directorate of Operations (DO) recruiting folks said I might be interested in. In truth, it was all interesting to me.
Over the week he subtly suggested that given my previous “big time Federal heat” background I might be more than a little bored as a Targeting Officer, and then mentioned maybe I should check out some TOO positions. He was the first to point out, as an obvious joke, that James Bond would have been a Tech Ops Officer. After all, they got all the gear and gadgets; they broke into buildings and defused bombs. Though they usually drank cheap beer in seedy hotels, didn’t wear tuxedos and quite a few were divorced from their “Bond girls”….but I digress.
I found this new information fascinating. The whole experience was like drinking from a firehose at that point, but DST in particular was especially refreshing. Hearing how TOOs were involved in most of the major Agency events since its creation, including the then recent operations that utilized TOOs to include capturing key Al Qaeda members, the hook was set.
Fast forward to a later training course where I met another TOO who was getting ready to go on a DO operations tour. Little did I know that the Agency sends quite a few job specialties through the Farm to get operations certification. Bill (not his real name, or is it?!?) had been on multiple war zone TDYs (temporary duty assignments) as a TOO. Enough in fact that his management asked him what he wanted to do in his next assignment. Bill said he wanted to get ops certified and try his hand at recruiting agents. He got his wish and was preparing for his slot at the Farm.
So not only did I find that TOOs got to get out in the field and involved in all levels of operations from a very early stage, but they could also get ops certified and recruit assets. This opened up a whole new world.
None of this would have meant anything if I hadn’t had an interest in tech work to begin with. At my previous agency I had already conducted technical surveillance for multiple cases, out of necessity more than anything else. I had rewired an old surveillance van, configured a few home-brew wireless and wired camera systems and even taken part in technical acquisition through researching various surveillance products for task force purchases. Small potatoes but enough to know it was an area of interest.
The Office of Strategic Services was officially created on 13 June 1942. Consisting of five branches, the OSS was a civilian intelligence agency serving during wartime. The Directorate of Science and Technology most readily finds its roots within one of those branches, Research and Development. R&D was charged with developing the tools, devices and weapons used by OSS officers and their agents to enable intelligence gathering, conduct sabotage and defend themselves.
One of the best, if not only lasting positive things to come out of working in CIA Hqs is the access to the various museum displays and photo walls throughout Langley’s NHB and OHB (New Headquarters Building and Original Headquarters Building respectively). I spent many hours wandering the OSS museum (back when it was tucked under the NHB atrium/escalators) just looking at collages of OSS detachment photos, captured crypto machines and Research and Development created gadgets. Sticky bombs, grenades, stamped single shot handguns (a gun used to get a gun), and lock pick sets among others. It wasn’t until I met more TOOs that I realized where my chosen path’s history branched off from. The same ingenuity that thought up sabotage kits was now at work within DST creating modern day devices used in operations around the globe.
The most recent incarnation of the Directorate of Science and Technology was created by then Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) John McCone in 1963. The history is a bit murky, given each divisions uneasiness with giving up their individual responsibilities and holdings. In essence the 7th Floor ended up combining the Directorate of Research, the Office of Special Activities, Office of ELINT (electronic intelligence) and the Office of Research and Development under the guise of the Deputy Directorate of Science and Technology. Albert “Bud” Wheelon was appointed the director after former Deputy Directorate of Research head Herbert Scoville resigned out of frustration with the whole reorganization. The Office of Scientific Intelligence and Office of Computer Services were then moved in as well and finally in 1965, the whole mass was renamed the Directorate of Science and Technology.
It wasn’t until 1973 that my old office was formed, when Technical Services Division was moved from within the Directorate of Operations (DO) to the DST, and renamed the Office of Technical Services. OTS provided technical support to CIA case officers in the field. This was done through the development of audio and later video devices, weapons, disguises and forged documents.
Current day DST is composed of many offices, each one providing a multitude of services. Within each office are engineers, researchers, targeting officers, a full staff of support officers and Technical Operations Officers that each provide specific skillsets to solve any operational problems or collection gaps the agency faces. One “center” that was in the news recently, Information Operations Center (IOC, though I believe it has since changed names and grown once more) is actually a DST component that includes officers from DST, DO and the Directorate of Intelligence. As the recent news would show, IOC focuses on HUMINT enabled cyber or Internet operations. During my time they also housed another group of TOO’s who were specialists in physical access to facilities, devices and pretty much anything with an alarm or a lock or seal of some kind. I heard one rumor that one TOO from that group had been the winner of a public safe cracking contest, which seems entirely believable having supported their officers when I was a OTS tech ops officer and witnessed what they were capable of.
Quite frankly, you could get down in the weeds with a lot of detail on what each office is responsible for, but the primary concern is providing tailored technical services to enable the collection of intelligence for policy makers. My OTS office was charged with providing HUMINT enabled technical services to DO operations. What does that mean exactly? Basically we deployed DST technology to CIA officers (and other US agency officers) and their recruited assets. That included building out their tools, teaching them how to use them properly, teaching them tradecraft around the tool use, trouble shooting their systems (in the field or back in Hqs) and handling information they sent back to get it going to where it was intended.
We had all sorts of “Q” branch type tools and concealments. In fact, I almost ended up taking home one device entirely on accident when I was cleaning up my desk before my final day in the building. Around the time I started in my OTS office an older (mid to late 70s) DST engineer came into my bullpen area and asked me if I wanted to see a secret writing device he had worked up. Of course I jumped at the chance and he showed me how it worked. Then he said “I’ll just leave it here for you to mess around with. See if any of your officers are interested in using it” and then he left the thing on my desk. It was one of those small “pinch me” moments I use to get when I’d meet some huge figure in the community, or work on something mind boggling, or in this case, get to play around with some cool tech that only a handful of people had ever seen.
OTS wasn’t entirely unique in its approach, there were many other offices in the Directorate that approached technical operations and support to the DO in the same fashion. There are offices that conduct audio install operations, basically planting listening devices, or training officers and their agents how to plant them. Same for video devices. There are offices that conduct tracking tagging and locating operations, track mobile devices, exploit communications systems, implant measures and signatures equipment, forge all manner of electronic and paper documents, create disguises and train on their use, create tailored internet access, work with explosive devices and gain access to facilities (physical access). I am missing quite a few offices there, but once I started looking into it, there seemed to be an office for just about any technical thing you could think of.
In the next installment I’ll share more about DST history, positions and the winding path that led me to working as a TOO.