Timothy Dahl, Popular Mechanics
The complex life of a CIA officer is unveiled in this fascinating AMA on Reddit, which reveals an existence that is both terrifying and amusing, but never boring.
Names, places, and timelines are redacted, but that doesn't lessen the impact of his words, as it's easy to assume his involvement in a number of covert operations that have shaped our recent history based on the information he can share. His answers are often sprinkled with humor and compassion that you don't feel from any military mouthpiece.
Here's a bit on his background.
I was a Central Intelligence Agency Case Officer who served in the Directorate of Operations (DO) with multiple tours in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East. I was in Afghanistan throughout President Obama's 2010 Afghan Surge, during which time I worked on eliminating the most deadly improvised explosive device (IED) network in the world; as well as the removal of numerous al-Qaeda and Taliban High Value Targets from the battlefield.I was in Kandahar, Afghanistan during Operation Neptune Spear which resulted in the death of UBL in Abbottabad, Pakistan. My final assignment was with a top secret task force operating amidst the Syrian Civil War.
We've pulled our favorite exchanges from this AMA, which is filled with enough acronyms to make your head spin. He hid his identity for 10 years from everyone except his brother. It probably helps that he's single with no kids, but any relationship starts with a lie which must have been gut-wrenching.
So for context, since you asked about family - I classify that as solely my mom and dad. And I kept it from them by telling them I was a low level sales guy - which I also told everyone else - and since that's pretty boring, their truthfully weren't a whole lot of other follow up questions. I just told my mom and dad last week. It's also a gigantic weight off my chest that I have been carrying for the past ten years.
Spies can come from all walks of life.
There are no skills that you can learn per se prior to joining the Agency that will make you a stronger candidate. Yes, the military would help to a degree but in order to be a case officer, which is what I did, you really can't prepare for it ahead of time. Which is a good thing. That way everyone is starting on a level playing field. Which, for me especially, was a good thing given that I was just an average guy from the Midwest.
Danger comes in many forms.
Well I was a warzone Case Officer (C/O) so you can imagine that it is already dangerous by proxy of being in a warzone. Then you add in the idea that you are CIA and that puts a tremendous target on your back. Which is why it is so important to maintain sound tradecraft and stay off the radar. Add to that the fact that Afghanistan in and of itself is trying to kill you every chance it gets. Whether that be via the terrain or a virus (which I got and almost killed me) that is not common for a midwest guy like me.
What is tougher? The mental or physical toll?
Mentally. Because I kept it turned up to 11 the entire time I was there. I was generally pretty safe physically during my time there with a few exceptions but nothing that left me debilitated or maimed. That said, I have an entire chapter in my book called The Downward Spiral which talks about my trying to cope with the stress through drugs and alcohol. Not my best stuff but it happened and I thought it was integral to share because lots of guys come back and have a hard time adjusting.It is hard to replace that adrenaline and its also hard to deal with petty shit not being so petty back home. But I have come around.
Do you really track your targets, like in the movies? How about avoiding being trailed and losing those trailing you?
Great question. Let me answer your first question by referring you to Zero Dark Thirty. That is highly authentic movie, and as we learned yesterday via Vice.com, it is because the Agency helped them along the way to ensure its authenticity. As for the second question, I refer you to the Billion Dollar Spy by Bruce Hoffman which lays out the tradecraft involved with surveillance and counter-surveillance.
The tough man culture is strong.
Silliest thing I ever did was take a huge dip of Redman chewing tobacco trying to fit in with some of the hard core door kickers we employ. I turned green, puked in the trash can, drank a coke, then took another even bigger dip to prove to the guys I wasn't a pussy. Turns out, I am. Puked again. Went home early. Sleep tight America.
Do you use a fake name?
That is 100% true. Most of my friends still call me by my fake name even though they know my true name. Wild huh?
Was it all worth it?
I ask myself the same question every goddamn day. Was any of it worth it? Will the Taliban retake Afghanistan? They very well might. Will ISIS continue to grow? I think they are starting to decline but, will someone else readily take their place depending on the raison d'etre of the day? Absolutely.