The First Time I Had To Terminate An Asset

on January 7 | in Bureaucracy, CIA, Intelligence Collection

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This originally appeared in Inglorious Amateurs.

To the non-practitioners of our line of work, particularly those who like to read the more salacious authors of the genre, termination of an asset carries a particularly nefarious connotation. It is assumed to mean the actual killing and/or some other means of disposing of an asset. We all know that this is one of those instances where a word is just a word, nothing more.

I was a first tour officer, a baby-faced 23 years old and newly certified from the Farm. I had been assigned to a country in Asia where I spoke only one of the languages common there, and looked nothing like a native. I know I was technically an adult and was well trained, but I woke up every day hoping no one would realize they had made a terrible mistake hiring me to be a case officer. Don’t get me wrong, I was having a blast! I still couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do this.

As a new officer in a post with a wide range of targets and threats, I had a chance to pursue just about anything I wanted to do. Jumping out on the social circuit in search of developmentals was a natural starting point. I realized quickly, though, that the shotgun approach to spotting and assessing was not very efficient, nor did it carry a high likelihood of a return. Fortunately, online I had good senior officers who helped direct my efforts and temper my neophyte’s enthusiasm. Oh, and I also learned, it was kind of like courting a beautiful woman. Sometimes, the more you showed interest, the more the target pushed you away.

While fumbling around trying to find my first developmental, the station management made sure that I, like all new officers, was also given established assets to handle.

I’ll never forget my first asset. There was nothing high speed about him but I didn’t really know that yet. He worked on the periphery on one of the station’s primary mission areas of focus. He seemed old to me at the time, but he was probably only in his late 50’s.

On the night of the turnover, his handling officer drove on our surveillance detection route (SDR). It was my first SDR through this crowded Asian city, all the smells and sounds and sights overwhelming me as I tried to process how two white guys were going to prove they were clean in this environment. I was definitely not in northern Virginia (NoVa) any longer. I was excited, nervous, confident and thousand other conflicting emotions.

I don’t remember much about the actual meeting. It was relatively non-eventful as he had been an asset for a long time and been handed over before, and his handler had transitioned other assets many times as well. He was a golden boy in the then-DO who later went on to the 7th floor and as Chief of Station (COS) of multiple large stations in hard target environments. I was the only one new at this game and I think they were both amused by my wide-eyed naïveté. The turnover was successfully made. I had my first case.

We met for about a year. I realize now that he was the perfect first asset. He knew what he was about but never over-valued what he did. He was careful with tradecraft, as the risk to his safety was real, and expected me to be the same. Much later on it occurred to me that he was training me as much or more than I trained him. I was able to apply the full spectrum of skills we had learned at the Farm, and in particular, learned to task and collect intelligence, then draft and re-write intel reports, and lather-rinse-repeat. It was a discipline that served me well for the rest of my time in the Agency.

He provided some good intelligence, but nothing stellar. It remained on the periphery of our primary targets, but never crossed in to the real meat. At one time, it seemed, he had had that access and provided that reporting, but no longer. We were also entering an era where interest in his primary areas of access was becoming less pertinent to analysts and policymakers. It was one layer deeper than press reporting, and just about as exciting.

At this time in the Agency’s history, we had no real hot wars and eventually, budgets came under scrutiny across the globe. In the end, his reporting was deemed to fall below our risk/budget/need trade-offs. My branch chief called me in and said I would need to terminate him (i.e., end our relationship).

I went back to the file and pulled his original agreement from his recruiting officer. According to his file, we had agreed to pay him one month’s salary for each year of service as termination pay. As he had been an asset for almost 20 years, it was not an insignificant sum.

I drafted the termination plan, including the proposed termination payment in accordance with the agreement, submitted it to Headquarters and continued about my day-to-day responsibilities. A few uneventful days passed and I received my response. In no uncertain terms, my request to honor the terms of his recruitment was denied. I was only allowed to pay him 5 months’ pay, not the 20 he had been promised.

To me, the biggest shock was that we as an organization would intentionally decide to disregard our own commitment to an asset. A promise we had made, in exchange for his risk and provision of intelligence. A risk that would continue long after the termination. Any exposure of his previous involvement with us would result in grave risk to his life. The difference in money wasn’t really that much in Western terms, but huge in the Third World.

Wouldn’t this undermine every promise made to any asset we recruited? That we could, at a whim, renege on our promises. Our reputation was all that we had. We were the good guys, we didn’t do this to our people.

I was mad. I went in to my branch chief’s office and argued, yelled, cajoled, trying everything I could to make my case. The branch chief and station management agreed that it was wrong but they also said we had no other choice. No room to maneuver. It was my job to sell the change to him in the termination, leaving him happy with us and the amount.

In the end, I did it. Or maybe he made it easy (continuing his own training of me as a case officer). Probably both. I sat there and watched his twinkling eyes and smiling face as he listened to my tortured logic about both the termination and the payment. I thanked him for his many years of service (this was the first time I had ever fired anybody) and that we just couldn’t, well, work together going forward. I even got him to sign the quit claim, acknowledging that we owed him nothing more. And we parted ways.

We all lose a little of our hope when we see some of the shine of our Agency dulled by decisions such as these. I guess I needed to grow up some. And I learned lessons I would apply throughout my time in the DO, chief among those not to make promises that I couldn’t keep.


Doug Patteson is a former CIA officer with extensive overseas experience in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. He holds an MBA from Wharton and has worked in high tech, private equity and manufacturing

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. He regularly writes on business and intelligence topics for both web and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @DavisMountains.

Photo: One way to deal with problematic assets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Luke Kitterman/Released)

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