A Spy’s Journey: A CIA Memoir

For thirty-five years, Floyd Paseman served his country as an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. Two decades of his distinguished career were spent in foreign countries as an officer in the Directorate of Operations (DO), now known as the National Clandestine Service. The DO is tasked with collecting human intelligence (HUMINT), as opposed to imagery, signals, and other types of intelligence from technical sources. Paseman passed away from bone cancer in 2005. His book is a highly readable and entertaining account of his experiences, from the Cold War battlefields of East Asia and the beer halls of Germany to bureaucratic infighting at Langley and political backbiting in Washington.

As with many of his generation, Paseman began his government service in ROTC and a brief stint in the US Army. He writes that this experience helped him liaise later on his career with his military counterparts. An opponent of the Vietnam War and a proponent of the afro haircut, Paseman clearly took great pride in his independent personality, regaling the reader with amusing, and sometimes infuriating, tales of how he stood up to higher-ups he feels were rude and in many cases downright wrong.

Readers who are looking for in-depth discussions of specific operations or detailed explanations of sources and methods will be sorely disappointed. Paseman is extremely, perhaps overly, careful in his memoirs. Countries and people won’t be identified by name, but from the context a reader armed with Google should be able to figure things out. Instead, Paseman’s book is largely a collection of chronologically-organized anecdotes. Some of these stories provide fascinating glimpses of famous people: Senator John Warner, the distinguished statesman Vernon Walters, and Oliver Stone, who “will never get another nickel from me”. Other vignettes feature Jan Karski, a Polish freedom fighter who tried to alert the West about the Holocaust; German intelligence chief Bernd Schmidbauer, AKA “008”; and a CIA employee nicknamed Moneypenny.

Readers of StrategyPage will be particularly interested in Paseman’s chapters summarizing his views on each DCI under whom he served, beginning with Richard Helms and ending with George Tenet. James Schlesinger and Stansfield Turner, both of whom dramatically cut personnel from the DO receive the lowest marks; Paseman argues that “Turner’s cuts set our human intelligence networks back for decades” and reports that “Schlesinger forcibly fired and retired over 1,500 CIA employees,” precipitating a “rock bottom” collapse of Agency morale. James Woolsey, probably the most visible and politically active former DCI, “was arguably one of the smartest DCIs ever,” and “there probably has never been a DCI who was loved as much as Bush was.” Paseman was also a fan of George Tenet, writing, “I believe history will judge George Tenet as one of the best directors in CIA history.”

Paseman also provides a similar rundown of American presidents. He praises the use of intelligence during Desert Storm, declaring, “No president has ever been served better by intelligence than President Bush was during the war that followed,” but carefully points out that one lesson to be learned from that conflict was that “there are limits to what intelligence of all sorts can do.” He criticizes the use of covert action by the Reagan administration, mining Nicaraguan harbors and the Iran-Contra scandal, as well as the Nixon administration’s bungled attempt to prevent Chilean Marxist Salvador Allende’s election in 1970. His harshest criticism seems to be reserved for the Clinton administration, whose “attitude toward intelligence in its eight years” he sums up in one word: “neglect.”

What Paseman believed about the invasion of Iraq is less clear. Taking a cue from Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, he points out that Tenet reportedly told President Bush that the intelligence indicating Saddam had weapons of mass destruction was “slam-dunk.” He also argues that “it was clear even before the [2000] election the new president was going to be very interested in intelligence.” On the other hand, he concludes his presidential rundown by suggesting that the US intelligence community did its job, “but what they found and reported was not in line with what an administration in power desired.” Paseman also makes the bold declaration that “[t]here was no intelligence indicating that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or that he was affiliated with al Qaeda.” But why would “one of the best directors in CIA history” tell the president the case was “slam-dunk” if there wasn’t any intelligence backing that up?

His memoirs conclude with thoughts about 9/11, his own “axioms of spying” (which include such advice as training CIA officers to speak foreign languages and getting people out in the field instead of behind desks), a glossary, and a useful bibliography that runs nearly twenty pages.

Paseman topped off his career with a shore tour at two American universities, clarifying what intelligence is and what intelligence isn’t to hundreds of college students and professors. In an age where someone can work for the CIA for a handful of years, write a book, and be regarded as an expert, readers are recommended to turn to Paseman’s memoirs for real perspective from a genuine patriot.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review