As most readers are aware, as National Clandestine Service (NCS) case officers we are entrusted with the lives of the assets with whom we meet, we take great pains to protect their identities and ensure that we are meeting free of surveillance. Sometimes though, the best of plans can be scuttled because of human nature and lazy assets. What do you do then?
I was living and working in a known high threat environment. My predecessor had been recalled when his true name ended up on the targeting list of a local terrorist group with a penchant for killing American intelligence officers. On top of that, this little city had a fair amount of other unsavory folks from various terrorist/fundamentalist/facist groups all trying to raise money, train operatives and execute ops in support of their various causes. It made for a sporty operating environment, where the USG vehicles were all up-armored, the case officers were always armed, and we had active counter surveillance support from some of the best former operators out there.
In any event, I was tasked with meeting a former asset who was professing to have regained access to information of important value. He was a soldier from a Middle Eastern country with whom we were on a war footing. He had been previously terminated primarily for loss of access, but also because he brought with him some handling challenges.
So, after grabbing supplies, some light disguise materials, and a pile of cash, I headed out on an extensive surveillance detection route (SDR). The details are irrelevant, but, with the traffic in that city and tools and training I had, I was 100% certain I was black (surveillance free).
The established plan was to meet, establish bona fides and then enter a local watering hole selling bad food, booze and bar girls. These types of establishments often are well suited for these types of meetings. Many of the other patrons are there for less than noble reasons and so are ignoring the others and likewise hoping to be ignored. They tend to be dark and out of the way as well. And folks come and go through out.
In any event, as we were not back on a full clandestine relationship with this gent, we treated it more like an advanced developmental meeting. Low profile, but not willing to blow some of our clandestine resources until we determined whether or not he had regained access.
As I entered the establishment, it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the dim, smoke filled interior. Unusually, this was a later afternoon meeting, unlike my normal late night working hours, so the place was almost deserted except for the asset and a few bar girls moving languidly on stage. Oh, and a 5 year old boy. Sitting at the table next to the asset.
What??? I’d spent hours making sure I was surveillance free only to get blown to the asset’s son? And as it turns out, this was one of his favorite bars, a place where he was quite well known by the employees.
He’d seen me walk in and approached me by the door, apologetic about showing up at the meeting with his son, explaining that child’s mother (his wife/girlfriend – I wasn’t sure which) had to work and was unable to watch him. It was clear he’d been there awhile already and was a couple of drinks in. I handed him some cash, told him to pay one of the bar girls to order some food for his son and watch over him at a nearby table while “Daddy and his friend talked.”
It rapidly became clear that the not only had the asset’s opsec (operational security) depreciated noticeably, but he really hadn’t regained any access of note. He was in desperate need of funds, caught between two worlds - no longer on the inside in his host nation and living in a nation not his own with virtually no skill sets of note, a drinking problem and a bad habit of hanging around in girly bars.
As quickly as I could, I terminated the meeting. I paid him a small fee, for which I had him sign a receipt and had him sign a quit claim with the Agency. I advised him to not put us through another incident like this and got up and left. As I left, I noticed he just sat there, shoulders slumped, caught up in his own poor circumstances.
Irritated and stressed out, I began the process of heading back home. Over the course of several more hours turning myself back in to who I normally was, before crawling in bed late long after midnight, spent. The evening felt like a waste, though I guess there is always something to learn in this business. And sometimes all you learn is that assets are human and make bad decisions.