a former CIA agent, now CEO of private espionage firm Total Intelligence Solutions
**Update: Click here to read the partial transcript of a taped interview in which Rob Richer discusses the forged Habbush letter
From Act II, Chapter 2
Rob Richer is a can-do guy.
Can-do guys may end up running the world--and doing all sorts of things, no questions asked, in the name of America--unless they can be stopped first. and that's really an issue between the American people and their government.
But in making that decision, you have to understand how Richer ended up at the top of the can-do mountain, and further see why that mountain moved from inside the government to the land of the contractors.
A short version of how this happened would certainly note changes starting in the 1960s, when there was a concerted effort to bring government order, audit oversight, and quality control to a vast, varied souterrain of secret foreign operations being run by the United States.
CIA, springing in 1947 from the WWII Office of Strategic Services, had grown by then into a force of several thousand in the official task of clandestine operations. The agency was also paying thousands of foreign agents for their services and information. These assets and sources were sometimes officials of foreign governments or businessmen, and sometimes they were criminals and thugs. Of course, much of the money was wasted and plenty unaccounted for, but that was to be expected with this sort of enterprise. In the scheme of the vast U.S. budget, it was a penny on a hundred-dollar bill.
In any event, government did what government does. As order was imposed on this vast intelligence bazaar, some ugly practices were revealed, and this prompted a number of investigators in the early and mid-'70s. It seemed that duly elected officials, including but not limited to Richard Nixon, were periodically asking CIA to quietly do things that violated basic American values--attempted assassinations of foreign heads of state, for instance--;and many U.S. leaders decided it was time to reconsider CIA's "by any means necessary" ethos.
By the late 1970s, the clandestine service was halved, only to dwindle further over the next two decades. Many of those remaining found themselves without much to do once the Soviet Union fell in 1991, and then more operatives and their bosses left during the polygraph craze of the late '90s. It's hard to repair this sort of thing, to reverse course. The world's top intelligence services--the Israelis, the British, the Syrians--agree that it takes between ten and twenty years to build a top-drawer secret agent. But beneath all this attrition was a fundamental question: Can a democracy such as the United States--a nation that derives much of its persuasive power from a public embrace of grand ideals--afford to have a robust intelligence arm doing things it might not want to admit to in public? The answer they came to thirty years ago was maybe not. All major operations needed to be briefed through Congress to make sure no laws were violated. Every action merited a pile of thick reports. The clandestine service that remained had largely become bureaucratized--ardent, but sleepy and slow-footed.
Then came 9/11, and U.S. leaders awoke into a frenzy of urgent improvisation, convinced they needed a large, skilled army of operatives to hunt down a new kind of enemy--terrorist networks--that had perpetrated the worst attack ever on the U.S. mainland. They enlisted people from every department--branding whole agencies, such as the FBI, as part of the intelligence business--and they hired a lot of new personnel, clean-scrubbed and ready to learn.
The government simply lunged forward. The new enemies were al Qaeda, first, and then a host of other radical groups, mostly Muslim, whom we termed terrorists; that was not to mention a growing band of rogue states, many of them in Asia and the Middle East, that may or may not have been supporting terror but were undermining U.S. interests in any number of ways: a grid of potential opponents charged white hot with the generalized fear of WMD. Flush with cash, CIA started to hire back the waves of agents who'd left the agency as contractors and found itself relying heavily on those few remaining members of the clandestine service with key contacts in the Arab world.
At the top of that list was Rob Richer: the man who had helped create a king. . . .
Rob Richer spent three decades in the CIA's clandestine service before leaving to help run the private espionage firm Total Intelligence in 2005. The Way of the World looks at Richer's plan to run a private sector version of the Armageddon Test--an undercover operation to buy black-market uranium--in conjunction with his old partner Rolf Mowatt-Larssen. The book also looks at Richer's role in the rise of Jordan's King Abdullah and in prewar intelligence concerning Iraqi WMD.