Douglas Laux brings a raw perspective to his memoir about working undercover for the CIA thousands of miles from the U.S.
WASHINGTON — In Douglas Laux’s final days as a CIA officer, the futility of his mission prompted him to quote George Orwell to his boss.
Laux had spent months in 2012 working with various Middle Eastern nations that were trying to ship arms to Syria to help disparate rebel groups there. But it had become clear to him that the CIA had little ability to control the squabbling and backstabbing among the Saudis, Qataris and other Arabs.
He told a senior CIA officer he felt like Winston Smith, the character in “1984” known for his fatalism, because he was carrying out his work without comprehending the politics and competing agendas thwarting progress in aiding the rebellion. “I understand the how,” Laux said, paraphrasing one of Smith’s famous lines. “I do not understand the why.”
It is a sentiment that might sum up much of Laux’s career at the CIA, an organization he served for eight years as an undercover case officer and soldier in the agency’s shadowy conflicts overseas. His career at the agency began with a tour at a remote firebase in southern Afghanistan and ended with a spot on the agency’s Syria Task Force, a life in war zones that is emblematic of the lives of a large cadre of U.S. spies who joined the CIA after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He left the agency three years ago, but is speaking publicly about his experiences there for the first time in conjunction with the release of a memoir.
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The collective weight of all CIA memoirs written since the Sept. 11 attacks could collapse a bookshelf, but Laux brings a raw perspective to the canon. His memoir is not filled with recollections of White House meetings or lengthy defenses of waterboarding. Laux was thousands of miles from the U.S., a grunt in a secret war.
“We have officers who have only done war-zone stuff since they walked in the door,” said Laux, an intense, sometimes edgy 33-year-old with an athletic build and a trimmed beard. “The big question for the CIA is whether it can be sustained, and whether it finds enough people to invest that time psychologically and emotionally.’’ Laux spoke in a recent interview in a quiet Washington, D.C., bar owned by a friend.
He arrived in southern Afghanistan as part of a surge of CIA officers to the country in early 2010, the same time that President Obama had ordered the deployment of tens of thousands of additional military service members in the hope of beating back a resurgent Taliban. Laux lived in a concrete fortress that was once a prison built by the Soviets during their war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, part of a ramshackle base surrounded by razor wire. He spoke Pashto, which he learned during his CIA training.
Raised in rural Indiana, Laux had never ventured far from home when he watched the World Trade Center crash to the ground via a television on the campus of Indiana University, where he was a freshman. He submitted an online application to the CIA in his senior year, waited months and, after a series of mysterious phone calls, was told to report for an interview in Washington. He was accepted into a CIA program that eventually led to the standard course for operations officers at “the Farm,” the agency’s training facility at Camp Peary in Virginia.
Laux was in Afghanistan when U.S. troops were dying in large numbers, many of them from roadside bombs built in makeshift factories across the border in Pakistan. In his book, Laux recounts how he ran a web of informants to try to hunt down people who had turned bomb making into a lucrative business. (The book’s title, “Left of Boom,” is Pentagon-ese for efforts by soldiers and spies to dismantle the militant networks before they were able to plant the bombs.)
The role that Pakistan’s intelligence service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, played in the bomb making is most likely central to Laux’s story, but CIA censors have blacked out those sections, along with other large chunks of the narrative, as part of an agency review process required for all books by former CIA employees.
Laux was struck, he said, by how little the military seemed to know about Afghanistan after so many years in the country, and that many CIA officers had little more insight. Soldiers and spies served short tours of duty — with much of that time spent just becoming familiar with their surroundings — and then turned their jobs over to new arrivals forced to make the same mistakes as their predecessors.
By 2011, Laux said it became a common refrain among Americans in Afghanistan that the United States had not been in the country for 10 years. “It had been in Afghanistan one year, 10 times,” he said.
Thousands of U.S. troops were patrolling eastern Afghanistan hunting for Taliban fighters, while CIA operatives focused almost exclusively on al-Qaida. Laux recalls the confusion this sowed, and the occasionally tragicomic results.
One example was the military’s regular practice of broadcasting on Pashto-language radio stations the names of Taliban fighters they were hunting, offering money for information about their possible whereabouts. Laux and other CIA officers, not knowing of the military broadcasts, would pay people who approached them with what they claimed was specific information about the same names that had been on the military broadcasts. The information was often bogus.
Laux and his colleagues, who at first thought it was valuable intelligence about high-level Taliban fighters, eventually realized it was a game that had been going on for years. The Americans were desperate for intelligence, and some Afghans were exploiting that desperation to line their pockets.
Laux, concerned about reprisals from his former employer, refused to give details about what is in the redacted sections of his book, including a section about collecting information about an al-Qaida operative who appears to have been killed by a CIA drone. A source had been tracking the operative, and one day sent Laux a text message “*73”— the signal that the operative was in a specific location.
Laux said that 20 minutes later, his source confirmed the militant, given the code name Scimitar, had been killed. But how he was killed is redacted from the book.
“He ended up dying,” is all Laux would say about the operation’s outcome.
He returned from Afghanistan feeling like a stranger in his own country, and his life began a downward spiral of alcohol and OxyContin abuse. Laux said he tried hard to keep his substance abuse from his bosses at the CIA, who had little oversight over case officers in between their overseas postings.
The CIA initially declined to comment when asked earlier this week about Laux’s book. On Friday afternoon, a spokesman said that maybe “with age and greater maturity,” Laux might at one point have a different perspective on his time at the agency. “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,” said the spokesman, Ryan Trapani.
In spring 2012, as the civil war in Syria escalated, the CIA sent Laux to the Middle East as part of the agency’s nascent task force charged with making contact with the Syrian rebels.
He developed relationships with the rebels, but frustration followed. The Obama administration was divided over how much to support the rebels, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar and other nations decided to arm them on their own, usually keeping their efforts from the CIA. Many details of Laux’s time working on the Syria operation are redacted. A version of a plan he drafted to arm the Syrian rebels was eventually adopted by David Petraeus, the CIA director, who then proposed it to the Obama White House.
He left the agency in 2013, burned out from the deployments and frustrated by bureaucracies both foreign and domestic. He said he began writing the book almost immediately after leaving the CIA, when the memories and emotions were fresh.
He insists the book should not be read for cosmic conclusions about the state of U.S. intelligence, but as the account of one person’s CIA career. But he hopes it can be a useful snapshot for understanding how the post-9/11 wars changed the CIA, and the lives of the people who fought them.
Or, he jokes, maybe it is a self-help book.
“Want to kick your drug habit?’’ he said. “Go to Syria.”