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Behind the wire of a secret camp on the Afghan-Pakistan border, the CIA base chief had a problem.
He needed to debrief his best source, a wizened Pashtun warlord. But he wasn’t sure he could trust his Afghan interpreters.
Let’s bring in Doug Laux, another American suggested.
Laux, then 27, a steelworker’s son from Indiana, was one of the few CIA operators on the ground who spoke Pashto, the local language. Five minutes after they met, Laux and the warlord were holding hands and chatting like old friends. A few weeks later, the warlord called in the location of a top al Qaeda operative, who was “taken off the battlefield,” in the CIA’s euphemistic phrase for killing human targets with drone strikes.
Laux didn’t weep for the dead jihadi. But now Laux – whose first-ever television interview will air Saturday on NBC Nightly News -- wonders if the CIA should have done the riskier thing by capturing and interrogating the target.
That sort of ambivalence dogged Laux throughout his eight-year CIA career, Laux writes in a memoir to be published Tuesday. “Left of Boom” is the first inside account by a front-line CIA counter-terrorism operator of the post 9/11 generation.
He loved the job, but hated what he considered the spy agency’s tendency to play it safe. Especially since he never tried to recruit a foreign diplomat at an embassy cocktail party like his Cold War predecessors, or evaded surveillance on the streets of a glamorous European capital. Instead, he lived in dusty war zones, driving to rendezvous in armored vehicles, protected by ex-SEALs in tactical gear. He sometimes found himself sleeping in rat-infested shipping containers and attending tribal meetings clad in body armor under flowing robes.
“Fear runs deep through the agency and inhabits every fiber of its soul,” he writes. At the same time, he credits the CIA with giving him the time and resources to thwart a Taliban bombing network that was killing American troops.
The CIA, which reviewed and censored Laux's book, declined to comment, but a former senior intelligence official cautioned that field operatives like Laux rarely see the big picture.
Laux’s story offers the first glimpse of a younger generation of CIA spies whose careers have been defined by the War on Terror –- and for some, friction with the agency’s hierarchical culture. Many of these people have quietly left government service, each time with their stories untold. Like Laux, many of them never worked outside of the context of war.
“I wanted to be that war zone guy”
His account also sheds new light on the debate over the Obama administration’s Syria policy. In 2011, the CIA provided non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels, but no military assistance. Laux spent much of 2012 in the Middle East examining options for how the CIA could overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime, helping craft a covert plan to arm rebels and pressure Assad. A former senior intelligence official confirms that a version of his plan was recommended in 2012 by then CIA director David Petraeus. It was also backed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as she recounts in her memoir, "Hard Choices" -- but President Obama declined to give it a green light.
Later, Obama approved a much more modest CIA plan that has failed to make a dent in Assad’s standing. The agency trained and armed some rebels in 2013, and gave them anti-tank missiles in 2015. An allied coalition began air strikes against ISIS, not the Assad regime, inside Syria in 2014.
Laux was so dismayed by what he called the administration’s “feckless” approach that he recommended pulling out of Syria altogether. Critics of the Obama administration are likely to seize on that part of his story, although Laux now agrees with the president, who has said he doesn’t believe arming the rebels or moving against Assad would have thwarted the rise of ISIS.
Larger implications aside, Laux’s narrative offers new insights, bludgeoned as they were by agency censors, into how the CIA goes about the business of war zone espionage.
Laux was a case officer, an operator – the elite category of CIA employee who goes overseas to recruit spies. He served from 2005 to early 2013.
“I wanted to be that war zone guy,” he says.
He wanted it so much that he threatened to quit after spy training unless the agency sent him to Afghanistan.
His gambit worked, and launched him on an exhilarating ride through a rarified world. He used his language skills to penetrate the Taliban, and former colleagues say his spying saved American lives.
Yet his writing bristles with frustration over his role as a cog in the agency’s bureaucracy, which he says nickel-and-dimed him on expenses even as it blanched at his recruitment of sources with American blood on their hands. The sorts of operational setbacks and organizational stupidity that pervade government work appear to crush his spirit, putting him in a downward spiral that drove him to drinking binges and a pill addiction.
“I didn't handle it well,” he said.
He wrote of those struggles, as well as his checkered love life, he says, because he wanted readers to confront his flaws. Especially his former CIA friends, most of whom are furious with him now for breaking their code of silence.
“They will say, ‘Hey, man. You weren't perfect,’ " Laux said. “And this is me going, `You're right, I wasn't. Here it is, everybody.’"
He joined the agency in 2005 at 23, with what he acknowledges was a Hollywood understanding of what the CIA was about. After training, he spent a year learning Pashto and then found himself exiting a helicopter in the dark at a remote base on the Afghan-Pakistan border with no boss and no playbook.
That was a good thing, he says, because he had to improvise. He says he quickly concluded that after the American invasion of 2001 toppled the Taliban, the CIA had become obsessed with an al Qaeda that was a fading factor in Afghanistan. He believed the agency was neglecting the lethal and resurgent Taliban, which was killing American troops almost daily.
He grew his beard long and set about attending local tribal councils, and put the word out that he would pay for information, as CIA officers have been doing for generations. His assets risked their lives visiting him at his base inside an old Soviet prison. As he readied for each meeting, he thought about the seven colleagues who died at an Afghan border base in 2009, when a would-be CIA source who wasn’t searched by an agency operator detonated a suicide vest.
Soon enough, Laux was running a network of spies who gave him photos, cell phone numbers and other valuable details about Taliban militants, he says. When a Chinook was shot down in 2011, killing 22 Navy SEALs, he asked one of his sources, a Taliban commander, who fired the RPG. The commander rejoiced over the blow to his enemies, Laux recounts, but gave up three names for a fee. Hours later, they were dead, he learned later. How the U.S. government determined they were the guilty parties, Laux doesn’t say.
Laux believes his command of Pashto made him a much better case officer in Afghanistan, allowing him to suss out liars and bond with the locals. One of the absurdities he highlights is how few CIA officers spoke that language in 2012 and 2013 after a decade or more of war in that country.
The reason, he says, is numbingly bureaucratic — it takes two years of intensive study to become proficient in Pashto, but CIA war zone deployments are typically only one year. The agency won’t train a case officer for two years so he can do a one-year war zone bid, he said. (A U.S. official said that isn’t always the case.)
The highlight of Laux’s CIA career was his penetration of a roadside bomb-making network that ran like a business. He isn’t allowed to say it, but the context makes clear the network was run out of Pakistan, and Laux believed it was backed by that country’s intelligence service, something Pakistan has long denied.
When his months of work finally brought about the capture of the leader of the network, he celebrated. But just as quickly, the man was released, and a despondent Laux turned to booze and pain pills from an ankle injury.
Like a lot of spy stories, the outcome was murky. The bomb network was out of business, but others stepped in to take its place. The leader disappeared. One theory is that he was killed by Pakistani spies so he couldn’t betray them.
By then, although he had kicked the booze and pills, Laux’s zest for the job – his desire to go full speed every second, volume on 11, as he likes to say — had faded. After a year of wheel spinning in Syria, he had had enough.
He’s spent the last three years writing the book and working as a contractor on the Top Secret world, though those opportunities may disappear, now that he’s gone public. He’s got no career plan. But he is not a man to dwell on regrets.
“I loved it,” he said of his CIA career. “I learned what it was like to be on the inside and have that knowledge and have that power, you know, and what that feels like. And it's pretty sweet.”
In a statement, a CIA spokesperson said of Laux's book, “Sadly, Mr. Laux’s career at CIA did not work out. We hope that someday, maybe with age and greater maturity, he will have better perspective on his time here. The American people should know that his former colleagues continue to do extraordinary work despite his departure, and do so without the need for public recognition.”