A pivotal bone-chopping moment of awareness

A pivotal bone-chopping moment of awareness

On his radio show National Security This Week, thriller author and former US military intel officer Jon Olson asked me why I’d specialized in Western Hemisphere issues as an intelligence officer.

Related: National Security this Week broadcast

Build things and Fix things

As I told one senior manager during a career development talk, I like to build things and I like to fix things. That was sort of the theme of my career, especially in the last half.

The Western Hemisphere appealed.  I grew up Italian and Catholic and easily embraced local traditions of family, church, and holidays in Mexico and Central America.

So the Western Hemisphere gave me the opportunity to combine problem solving with a cultural fit.

Related: Inside my CIA Career: The Point of it All

Related: More about Carmen

The precise moment of awareness

I can tell you the exact minute my fate was sealed.

I was sitting at my desk in the office eating lunch and surfing around online. Came across a video posted by the Blog del Narco website.(I tried to link but my anti-virus software advised against it.)

For those who aren’t familiar, this uncensored site posts graphic content of narco activities in Mexico, much of which is created by the cartels and gangs themselves. It’s a “look what we’re up against” kind of site that has ebbed and flowed over the years. As you can imagine, staff is continually targeted by cartels.

So this particular video shows a clearing in the woods. There’s a dead man in the foreground, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts. The video is kind of grainy, but he’s definitely dead.

There’s another guy, fully dressed, and he’s got an axe and he’s trying to chop off the dead guy’s arm at the bicep.

But either the axe is dull or the dead guy has bones like concrete because our woodsman is chopping and chopping and getting nowhere.

Meanwhile, off camera, male voices are hooting and hollering at the guy with the axe, yelling advice, questioning his strength and technique.

My bite of sandwich literally fell out of my mouth. It was such a visceral lesson in what was happening in Mexico.

You know, I remember that video in black and white. But I am not sure that it wasn’t in color.

The moment lasted

The Agency is a fairly flexible organization that wants well-rounded officers. If you have transferable skills, an understanding of how the intelligence community works, and how the different intelligence mission areas support each other, you can move across the organization.

CIA challenge coins

 

Related: Inside my CIA Career: Variety and the Spice of Life

It’s not common. Most folks, stay in a single mission area for their entire career. I was very lucky to have been able to work across all 3 major mission area: analysis, operations, and S&T, largely because I had transferable skills that could be applied to a variety of positions that focused on or were in the Western Hemisphere.

Remember, I wanted to fix things . . .

 

Featured image by Jason Abdilla via Unsplash

Inside my CIA Career: Encounter with a Spyplane

Inside my CIA Career: Encounter with a Spyplane

FLYING

Several years ago, my husband got his private pilot’s license and we owned a small Piper aircraft. Our son was in kindergarten and promptly fell in love with all things aviation.

This rubbed off on me. Our family was soon immersed in flying stories, books about airplanes, model airplanes, and innumerable trips to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum to see among, other aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird spyplane.

I even wrote an aviation adventure story for my son, entitled THE SECRET BLACKBIRD. It was the start of a Hardy-Boys-meets-Dale-Brown middle grade fiction series. The second book in the series was entitled THE PACIFIC GHOST.

Both books remain on a floppy drive (!) in some desk drawer and were never published.

The real secret Blackbird

Work gave me another reason to be enthralled with the SR-71.

In the 1950’s, as the Cold War ramped up, the CIA wanted a way to peer down at the Soviet Union to determine military capabilities and such. The U-2, built by Lockheed’s “Skunk Works,” was doing the job, but was slow enough to be shot down, as happened to pilot Gary Francis Powers.

Lockheed built a new plane for the CIA. The new aircraft was designed to defeat Soviet air defenses by flying higher and faster than anything else in the world. This meant a whole host of innovations, materials, designs, etc.

The single seat A-12 OXCART emerged after 2 years of development. The overall design and titanium construction was the basis for the more well-known SR-71, the Air Force variant. The two-seat SR-71 was slightly larger and carried a different camera and sensor load.

SR71 and Oxcart spyplanes

Comparing the SR-71 and the A-12, courtesy cia.gov

 

After flying 29 missions in Southeast Asia During the Vietnam War, the OXCART program was shut down. The SR-71 Blackbird continued to fly and became infinitely more famous.

A scale model of the A-12 hangs from the ceiling of the atrium connecting the two main buildings of the CIA Headquarters compound. I have a paper model created for the CIA’s 50th anniversary.

What happened to the A-12?

Eight are in museums. One stands guard over the CIA Headquarters compound.

Encounter of a distant kind

I drove onto the compound one sunny day shortly after the A-12 OXCART was installed on a special platform with two stars carved into the marble to remember the CIA crew members who died in the line of duty.

Now, general parking at CIA HQ is a bit like Disneyworld. You have to remember which parking lot and which row.

But that day, there was no need to memorize my parking space. The nose of the A-12 OXCART was pointing right at my car. Perfect line of sight.

When I was ready to leave, I just had to follow the trajectory to my spot.

I was in awe of the enormous sleek black aircraft, a reminder of our intelligence heritage. I crossed the parking lot to the massive titanium plane and read the information display before heading inside.

The day passed. When I was ready to head home I took another walk around the A-12 before following its nose to my car.

Except like a portrait whose eyes follow you, the A-12’s nose pointed at all the cars in the parking lot. Acres of cars.

For the next hour, no matter where I walked in that $%&$# parking lot, every time I turned around there was the A-12 in the distance, pointing straight at me.

I eventually found my car.

But now I know why they call it a spyplane.

See the aircraft on the CIA compound in this short video from the National Air and Space Museum:

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

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