- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 31, 2004

Richard L. Holm should have been dead four decades ago. That he is alive, and enjoyed a long career as a senior officer for CIA, is a story of incredible human bravery and endurance which he tells in The American Agent (Trafalgar Square Books, $35, 450 pages, illus.).

Mr. Holm was a young officer assigned to the Congo in 1965 when the light plane in which he was flying crashed in the African veldt. Flaming aviation fuel splashed over his face, both hands, and much of the rest of his body. The pilot dragged him to a Simba village and left him to walk for help.

Mr. Holm should have died. But a native doctor plastered his burns with a poultice made in large part from river mud, and he was alive when rescuers arrived eight days later. A doctor who saw him in Leopoldville “took one look, saw no hope, and left the room.”

It was at the insistence of CIA that the Air Force flew him to a burn treatment center in Texas. The agony that he suffered over the next years is sobering reading. But a cornea transplant restored partial vision, and skin transplants gave him limited use of his hands.

But what about his morale? John Waller, Mr. Holm’s boss in CIA’s African division, knew he needed a challenge to take his mind off the incessant pain. Thus Mr. Holm was assigned to learn Chinese. He did, and he resumed a CIA career that involved much time in Hong Kong and Brussels and culminated as chief of station in Paris.

Mr. Holm’s book is leavened with anecdotes about the practicalities of intelligence field work. In a European city he leaves unnamed, an agency surveillance team acquired an apartment overlooking a location that it wished to monitor. All went well during the winter, but spring brought foliage to a tree that obstructed the line of sight.

Hmm. Almost overnight the tree died. Mr. Holm writes wryly, “Neighbors may have found it strange that the tree should die so suddenly, but no ‘autopsy’ was conducted … The tree had died because of the poison that was injected into its root system late one night after the leaves started coming out.”

Mr. Holm was forced into resignation from the Paris station through some nasty actions by former Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch concerning a row with the French government that remains classified. From what I have been told of the story (not by Mr. Holm), a brave man got a raw deal from perhaps the worst director the agency ever endured. Dick Holm has friends among the Old Boys; Mr. Deutch does not.

• • •

Although Dick Holm’s name does not appear in Billy Waugh’s Hunting the Jackal (William Morrow, $23.95, 237 pages, illus.), he played a seminal role in the major operation described in this book — the tracking and capture of the notorious terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka Carlos the Jackal.

For almost two decades, Carlos wreaked havoc in Europe and the Middle East — “spreading panic from the Baltic to the Mediterranean,” in the words of terror expert Claire Sterling.

Mr. Waugh, a highly decorated Special Forces veteran of Vietnam, after military service worked for a quiet little niche of CIA populated by so-called “ICs,” or independent contractors. ICs are hired for a myriad of special tasks (some drew notoriety in the recent prison abuse scandals in Iraq), but fellows such as Mr. Waugh do chiefly paramilitary work in odd spots around the world.

Mr. Waugh is somewhat of a legend in the special operations world, one of those quiet warriors who seemingly has been around forever. His book traces a remarkable 50-year career (he enlisted in the Army at age 18) that took him from Bastrop, Texas, to service in no less than 64 countries.

Durability? Mr. Waugh celebrated his 72nd birthday hunting Taliban warriors in Afghanistan, lurking behind a “scraggly beard that was supposed to make me look more like a local Afghani and less like a freezing old man from Texas.”

In 1993 he was a member of a four-man CIA team dispatched to Khartoum, Sudan (“K-town”) to check a tip that Carlos had gone to ground there, with a young Jordanian bride named Lana. Sudanese officials gave Carlos refuge with the understanding he would forego further terrorist acts.

Through tedious 24/7 surveillance of likely haunts, Mr. Waugh found where Carlos was living and obtained surreptitious photographs confirming his identity.

But what to do with the wanted man? “I requested we save the government a lot of money and kill Carlos,” Mr. Waugh writes.

But CIA counter-terrorist boss Cofer Black had other ideas. So, too, did Dick Holm, then CIA station chief in Paris. The French wanted Carlos for the murder of three security officers, and not much persuasion was needed for them to pressure the Sudanese into snatching Carlos and handing him over. He was strapped to a hospital gurney and flown to Paris and prison.

The author devotes considerable space to prolonged surveillance of Osama bin Laden, also in Khartoum, in 1991-1992. Mr. Waugh drafted an operational plan to ambush and kill him. Permission denied.

He writes, “For the price of one 10-cent bullet, all of that tragedy [of September 11] could have been averted. One 10-cent bullet, and he would have been dropped in K-town’s dusty streets … and left to rot like the dog that he is.”

• • •

I am often amused at how persons can be remembered for famous remarks which they never uttered. Consider the bandit Willie Sutton, who supposedly robbed banks “because that’s where the money is.” In his memoir, Sutton denied ever saying any such thing, attributing the remark to a reporter “who apparently felt a need to fill out his copy.”

Another statement of questionable provenance is often put into the mouth of Henry Stimson, who upon becoming secretary of state closed down the State Department’s code-breaking operation, supposedly sniffing, “Gentlemen do not read one another’s mail.”

Intelligence historians have searched Stimson’s papers in vain for this phrase, and some maintain that it is apochryal.

Now comes the phrase again from David Kahn, the respected historian of cryptography, in The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail: Herbert O. Yardley and the Birth of American Codebreaking (Yale University Press, $32.50, 318 pages, illus.). Mr. Kahn reproduces a Stimson diary entry of June 3, 1931, in which he recounts halting funding for code work because diplomats “are supposed to deal internationally on a gentlemen’s basis.”

Close enough. The authenticity argument is over, as far as I am concerned.

An odd duck in a field where eccentrics abound, Yardley formed the government’s first code-breaking agency in 1917; his greatest coup was intercepting diplomatic cables during the 1921 disarmament conference. After Stimson put him out of business, he wrote a tell-all memoir, “The American Black Chamber,” which the Justice Department tried unsuccessfully to suppress. It did block a later book on intercepts of Japanese codes.

After a stint as a code expert for the Chinese Nationalist government, Yardley spent the remainder of his life hacking out magazine articles and investing in such ventures as “Yardley’s Secret Ink.” A lively read, even for those of us who know not the slightest thing about ciphers and codes.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]aol.com.

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