10 questions with former CIA operative and ‘KH601’ author Richard G. Irwin

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

Richard G. Irwin is the author of “KH601: And Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free.”

Irwin, a former senior special operations program officer at the Central Intelligence Agency, served 28 years with the agency before retiring in 2005. He currently serves as vice president of Homeland Security and the Intelligence Community at MELE Associates.

Irwin recently agreed to answer 10 questions from The Daily Caller about his book and other current events:

1. Why did you decide to write the book and what does the title refer to?

After reading Gary Schroen’s book “First In” about the CIA Northern Alliance Liaison Team (NALT) that was sent into Afghanistan on 27 September 2001, 16 days after 9/11, and then the book “Jawbreaker” by Gary Berntsen, who led the second team into Afghanistan, I thought it might be a good idea to write about the exploits of the third team that went in, which I was on. Once I started putting pen to paper, in addition to my time in Afghanistan, I decided to write about some of the other interesting aspects of my 28 year career with the CIA.

As a covert operations officer, I had the opportunity to serve at the “right time and the right place” on several historic occasions, and was fortunate to have been involved in some of the most successful operations in the annals of the agency — stories that normally are only told inside the hallowed halls of the CIA. Along the way, I battled communism with the Contra’s in Central America, witnessed the rise of global terrorism, Al-Qaeda, and the events that led up to 9/11, and laid my life on the line in Afghanistan.

KH601 refers to my CIA badge, which I received when I joined the CIA on 11 September 1977. The second part, “And Ye Shall Know the Truth, and the Truth Shall Make You Free” is a John VIII-XXXII (8:32) King James Bible biblical verse, etched on the wall inside the lobby of the CIA, which characterizes the intelligence mission in a free society.

2. You detail in the book your time working in a counternarcotics capacity at the CIA. From your experience in the trenches, what do you think about the War on Drugs? Where do you stand on arguments for legalization or decriminalization of narcotics?

During my time in Central America during the 1980s, my time in a European post during the mid-1990s managing a new counternarcotics program, my time in the CIA’s Counternarcotics Center (CNC) as a Deputy Group Chief, and later while in charge of special operations in CNC, I was fortunate to have been involved in some of the largest narcotics seizures on record involving cocaine, hashish, and heroin. The most difficult part of this work was convincing our foreign government counterparts that it was more important to focus on disrupting entire networks rather than individual traffickers. After providing intelligence, lead information, technical equipment, and training, we eventually won them over however, and together began dismantling trafficking organizations. With the number of successful seizures we have had to date, I am confident that our efforts are forcing drug traffickers to constantly change their modus operandi, methodology, and routes. When we are able to freeze a drug trafficker’s money or seize their assets, they take notice. As for legalization or decriminalization of narcotics, I do not agree with either.

3. I found your writing on the immediate aftermath of the attacks of 9/11 interesting and sometimes alarming. Specifically, you write about how the CIA was so unnerved by the attacks that the CIA headquarters was nearly completely evacuated for fear of being a target. CIA Director George Tenet and other top echelon members of the agency ended up in a makeshift facility that didn’t have the proper infrastructure to communicate and provide information to the White House. Why was the CIA not prepared for a scenario where the headquarters could be a target?

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and Ramzi Yousef are believed to have started thinking about using aircraft as weapons while working on the Manila Air/Bojinka plot, and speculated about striking the World Trade Center and CIA headquarters as early as 1995. Prior to 9/11, although the CIA had volumes of emergency preparedness plans to respond to, mitigate, and recover from a major incident, like many agencies, no one had ever taken the time to implement them, keep them up to date, or more importantly, test them. This included ensuring that we had the proper communications equipment on hand and a hardened facility to report to where we could continue our mission’s essential functions.

You are indeed correct. Upon seeing the second plane crash into the Twin Towers in NYC, the decision was made by the executive director to evacuate both the new and old headquarters buildings which resulted in a massive traffic jam as thousands of employees tried to depart the compound. Therefore, when the buildings were evacuated, everyone stood outside with nowhere to go in that Route 123, Route 193, and the George Washington Parkway were impassable. The only personnel allowed to remain in the building was a skeleton staff in the Counterterrorism Center (CTC), after the Chief CTC, Cofer Black, refused to evacuate, and in the Directorate of Operations (DO) Global Response Center, and the Security Operations Center.

Even though the underground facility on our compound at the time did not have the proper communications equipment for DCI Tenet to communicate with President Bush and the White House, our main headquarters building did, thus, the reason for DCI Tenet and his staff of approximately 25 returning to the main building, although it easily could have been the target for the fourth hijacked plane (flight 93) that crashed into Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Lastly, for the record, shortly after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 9/11, a small team of senior CIA personnel were immediately dispatched to an underground facility 60 miles outside of the Washington, D.C. area to ensure Continuity of Operations Planning (COOP) and Continuity of Government (COG). Since 9/11, all of these facilities have been equipped with state of the art communications.

4. Another interesting aspect of the book is how you found caches of weapons hidden in the Fontainebleau Forrest outside of Paris during a 1980s terrorism investigation which led to the arrest of about 75 Hezbollah operatives. Do Hezbollah’s tentacles run as deep today as they did then and do you believe there are Hezbollah assets in the United States that could be activated in the event of a confrontation with Iran?

Everyone forgets that prior to 9/11, Hezbollah, not Al Qaeda , was responsible for killing more Americans than any other terrorist group, including 241 American servicemen during the 23 October 1983 Beirut barracks bombing in Lebanon. While I do not have any concrete evidence, yes I believe Hezbollah’s tentacles run as deep today as they did then and that there are Hezbollah assets (sleeper cells) in the United States that could be activated in the event of a confrontation with Iran. With that said, I also believe that the FBI has a good handle on who these individuals are and what they are up to.

5. What was your favorite agency assignment at the CIA?

Serving President George W. Bush at the White House as the Director of Incident Management, after returning from Afghanistan following 9/11, was definitely my favorite assignment in the CIA, and a real privilege. Being asked my opinion on matters of national security was an honor.

While it may sound corny, every day upon arriving on the 18 acre compound at 6 a.m., I would look up, see the American flag on top of the West Wing of the White House, and say to myself: “It is still there, those colors won’t run.”

6. I imagine you still have many friends at the CIA. How is their morale under President Obama? Which president do you think was the best for the CIA during your time associated with the agency?

While we have had our share of morale problems in the CIA due to defectors like Aldrich Ames – the experienced counterintelligence officer who turned out to be a Soviet mole, resulting in the deaths of 10 Soviets working for the agency – we also have had some very unpopular DCIs, including James Woolsey and John Deutch during the Clinton administration, and Porter Goss during the Bush 43 administration. Under Woolsey and Deutch, in my opinion, morale was at its lowest point. With a “buy out” program initiated throughout the federal government to downsize departments and agencies such as the CIA, the agency lost many of its senior officers in the 40 to 50 year old age group who could no longer stand the bureaucracy anymore. Therefore, a whole generation of the agency’s best and brightest departed – leaving a huge void and hardly anyone with any institutional memory.

With the appointment of Leon Panetta as the 19th Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) on 13 February 2009 by President Obama, I can honestly say that I had my doubts about him because he did not have any intelligence experience, although he had served as President Bill Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff and was a member of the United States House of Representatives. From what I have heard, since taking the reigns from George Tenet, Panetta is doing an excellent job and morale is very high. The agency especially loved when Panetta confronted former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she claimed she was misled seven years ago about harsh treatment and interrogations and that intelligence officials had lied to her.

Although former President George H.W. Bush was DCI for a little over one year, from 30 January 1976 to 20 January 1977, to many, he is the best friend and president that the agency ever had. Thus, it is no great surprise the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1999, signed into law by President Clinton on October 20, 1998, directed that the headquarters compound of the Central Intelligence Agency located in Langley, Virginia, to be known and designated as the “George Bush Center for Intelligence.”

Lastly, in my opinion, of the eight DCI’s that I served under from 1977 through 2005, Bill Casey was the best DCI and also the most admired and respected within the agency.

7. What are your thoughts on the statement by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently that the Muslim Brotherhood is a “largely secular” organization?

Like the administration, I disagree with Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper’s 10 February 2011 statement that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is “”largely secular” and that the organization has “pursued social ends” and a “betterment of the political order,” downplaying its religious underpinnings. While General Clapper suggested the “term ‘Muslim Brotherhood’…is an umbrella term for a variety of movements, in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried Al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam,” one of their goals is to pursue the creation of an Islamic state. Therefore, I do not agree with his assertion that “the Egyptian part of the Brotherhood is not particularly extreme, that the broader international movement is hard to generalize about, and that there are also chapters or franchises of the Muslim Brotherhood, in other countries that do not have an overarching agenda, particularly in pursuit of violence, at least internationally.”

8. What do you think your most lasting accomplishment as a CIA operative was?

When I joined the agency on 11 September 1977, I was 22 years old and did not have a clue of what I was getting into. The only thing I knew about the agency was what the recruiter had told me, what I had read in books and newspapers, or heard on television and in the movies. I later found out that, despite receiving over 100,000 applications, the CIA had only hired 54 people that year (1977) and I was lucky to have been one of them.

Looking back, little did I know that this journey would take me to 87 countries in the world, afford me the opportunity to learn three languages, have me serve under eight Director’s of the Central Intelligence Agency (DCI’s), take me to the White House to serve a president and have me end my career at a newly created domestic agency known as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as part of the largest U.S. government reorganization in the past 50 years.

During the 28 years that I spent with the CIA, the agency had been very good to me and I had a great career. Thanks to the agency and Uncle Sam, I have stood on the equator in both South America and in Africa, visited the Cape of Good Hope and the Cape of Good Horn, have visited the Mayan, Aztec, and Inca ruins, and even the pyramids.

The only sad memory that I have when reflecting on my agency career is that during my tenure, which spanned almost half of the CIA’s existence, it is sad to say that I knew almost half of the individuals who died in the line of duty which are represented by the 107 stars on the CIA’s Wall of Honor today. Each day it seems they are adding new stars however, in that in December 2009 eight more CIA officers were killed, when an individual whom was allegedly recruited, drove into one of our compounds in Afghanistan with his case officer/ handler, and blew himself up leaving 11 orphan children behind.

9. What 3 books have most influenced your worldview?

First I would say the Bible which is the foundation for my principals. Second, “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, one of the oldest and most successful books on military strategy in the world, although it was written in the sixth century BC. Lastly, “The Entire Sherlock Holmes Collection” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which taught me how to use deductive reasoning skills focusing on logic and the powers of observation and deduction.

10. Any plans to write another book? If so, about what?

No, I do not think I am going to write another book in that it took me three years to write “KH601” and another 1.5 years to get it approved by the CIA’s Publication and Review Board (PRB), which made me take out over 1/3 of the original contents. KH601 is one of the most scrutinized books in Washington D.C., having been reviewed by the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Homeland Security Council (HSC) and the National Security Council at the White House.

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