NEAL CONAN, HOST:
An elite team of CIA operatives flies overseas, breaks into foreign embassies and steals secret codes, all without leaving a trace. While that might sound like the plotline of a Hollywood film, former CIA officer Doug Groat conducted such missions until he questioned his superiors about sloppy procedures on one operation that almost cost him and his team their freedom or maybe their lives. The battle that ensued between Groat and the CIA led to charges of espionage and extortion and four years in prison. Doug Groat joins us now from member station WUOT in Knoxville. Nice to have you with us today.
DOUGLAS GROAT FORMER CIA OFFICER: Great to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
CONAN: And tell us a little bit about your team.
OFFICER: About the team, well, depending on what we're up against, we'd have different specialists compromised - adding it to the team to handle whatever we might run into.
CONAN: And they would include for instance?
OFFICER: For instance, somebody in electronics, safes and locks or flaps and seals.
CONAN: Flaps and seals?
OFFICER: Correct. Flaps and seals - sorry, go ahead.
CONAN: No, I'm just going to say what was that for?
OFFICER: Flaps and seals was the opening and resealing of whatever you had in front of you, like an envelope.
CONAN: And what was your specialty?
OFFICER: Well, when I first went into the shop, I learned flaps and seals, and I did most of that for quite a while. And then probably about mid-'80s, I got into supporting operations overseas where I ran communications or I would run surveillance. And then after that I stepped up to actually running operations.
CONAN: And how did you get into such an unusual line of work?
OFFICER: Well, it was a roundabout route, but during the first year of training, we would be visited at our training site by members of the CIA and different organizations, and they would give us a little briefing about what they did with the hope that we might want to join up with them. And when I got out of the training, I was supposed to go to Moscow. They took that away from me, so I turned around and went to the shop.
CONAN: The shop. And what was the formal name of the shop?
OFFICER: Special operations division.
CONAN: And this was set up separately? You weren't in Langley.
OFFICER: No, we were outside the beltway, south of the beltway.
CONAN: And how many people were in this unit?
OFFICER: Probably eight or 10.
CONAN: And how many operations did you mount?
OFFICER: Well, according to what the agency put in the records was 60, about 60 operations.
CONAN: And this is in a day when codes are so complicated and you - sometimes they can be broken by the computers over at the NSA. But sometimes the easiest way to break them is to steal them.
OFFICER: Yes, that's true.
CONAN: And what was - literally, you would drive up in the middle of the night when the embassy was closed or how - could you describe a typical, if there was a typical operation, what happened?
OFFICER: Well, the typical operation, if you want to call it that, would be spending quite a bit of time out in the field surveilling the area, watching people come and go, find out who is using the building, who is in and out and then, you know, find out where they go, and then taking pictures, checking communications, also training the station people - those are the CIA people in the field - how to assist on our operations.
CONAN: And then the big night.
OFFICER: Then - well, then you - then it's about a 10-page report explaining all the things that you're going to do and how you're going to do it and how the security is going to run and how safety of all the people and et cetera, et cetera were spelled out. Ten it was time.
CONAN: Then it was time. And...
DOUGLAS GROAT: Then it was time.
CONAN: What was the best part of this job?
GROAT: The best part of the job was the morning after. It's, you know, it was exhilarating. I mean, you've just done something that, first of all, nobody is ever going to know you did it. Second of all, you defeated things that were supposedly undefeatable. And third is you're leaving the country, and you had a great time.
CONAN: Things that are supposedly undefeatable, these are the most sophisticated door locks and then their camera systems and special, you know, lasers, I assume, that detect you if you're moving inside, all that sort of thing?
GROAT: Well, back then, we didn't run into any of those. But there were, you know, like safes and locks and, you know, alarms and things like that that had to be overcome.
CONAN: And back then, what time are we talking about?
GROAT: Back in the mid-'80s.
CONAN: So there was then one mission that didn't go so well?
GROAT: Yes, that's true.
CONAN: Can you tell us what happened on that?
GROAT: Well, as it explains in the Smithsonian article, the - I was - first of all, I wasn't allowed to go out to the field. And the article says that it was because there wasn't enough money in the budget. But what I found out later it's because the managers, who wouldn't allow me to go, were going to use that money to give them self bonuses at the end of the year. So they short-circuited the operations, and, you know, I had to go out cold, and that was not the way to do it.
CONAN: And so as opposed to driving up when the coast was clear, you drove up and got a signal from a source saying, hold on. Don't go inside.
GROAT: Exactly. And that, we should haven't known about that. There was no way that that should happened.
CONAN: And what actually did happen was that a maid was in the embassy that you had targeted that was not expected to be there, cleaning up, and, obviously, in the way.
GROAT: Well, part of the problem, too, was at one point, my group chief said, you don't have to send anymore questions to the field. They've asked - you've asked enough questions. And those are the kind of things I would have asked, and I had asked in the past.
CONAN: Those kinds of questions that they said, never mind. We were all set this time.
GROAT: Correct. Right.
CONAN: And it turned out those questions had not been asked or answered, at least not sufficiently.
GROAT: We were hanging out to dry. I mean, it was terrible. We were sitting in a car in a non-white neighborhood, you know, six white faces. There's somebody sitting on my lap in the car because we didn't have a big enough car. And, you know, we're sweating, and we're waiting for the go-ahead. And then when we get in, there was no perimeter security. There was nobody to tell us that somebody is walking through the door or anything. Yeah, it was bad.
CONAN: And these are dangerous things to begin with and, obviously, things can always go wrong. But if you don't do the advance work, clearly, things can go wrong.
GROAT: Well, when I ran an operation, there were - well, first of all, the mission was the primary, but there were three heavy responsibilities within that mission. One was the safety of the team. If we got caught - I mean, especially depending on the target, you know, you're not going to be seen again probably because you're in the target's country when you're in something like that, you know, in the embassy.
CONAN: So if, for example, you broke into - I'm making this up out of whole cloth.
CONAN: The article in the Smithsonian does not identify the nations that - whose embassies you targeted, and I don't know anything about it. Let's say you broke into the embassy of, oh, Romania. As soon as you're in the embassy, you're on Romanian soil?
GROAT: Correct, correct.
CONAN: And so if they arrest you, you're going to get packed off back to Romania or maybe just disappeared.
GROAT: Well, most of the time, the local chief of station had some kind of - something in, or set up that he could try to get us out of the situation if something happen like that. But technically, no. They don't - nobody has to listen to the law - local laws because they're - you're in their country.
CONAN: And so did this job that, well, was not set up properly, did it go off all right in the end?
GROAT: Luckily, yes. But one - two other things I want to mention though. That there - not only the safety of the team, there was the reputation of the United States. I mean, if we got caught doing something, or in somewhere we shouldn't be, that would have been an international flap between our country and whoever else, and probably the country we're working in. And then the third and most important was the life of the agent. I mean, the CIA leans on agents almost, I mean, not exclusively but, you know, a large percentage of the time to gather information. And this guy was very critical to their operations. And when I came back and complained about it, nobody cared.
CONAN: There is - one of the important things, and we'll get to the aftermath of that in just a second. But one of the important things...
CONAN: ...is to make sure that there are no traces left behind. You mentioned flaps and seals, things had to be opened and then resealed exactly the way they were. If you lifted a document out of a safe, it had to be placed in exactly the same spot it was before.
GROAT: Exactly. Correct. Go ahead.
CONAN: These are not easy things to do.
GROAT: Well, it's - that's where the, you know, patience and, you know, focus on what you're doing comes into play, and that's all you can do. I mean, we were - you're hanging out there when something is open, of course, especially in the situation that was described. In other situations, maybe they were given to us, and we'd work on them. But, yeah, that was very important. And you - I mean, if you had to, you made notes, you may took pictures. You did whatever you could to make sure everything was in the same place as you started out.
CONAN: And were you ever informed as to whether the codes that you received, well, were important, that they resulted in some important breakthrough or not?
GROAT: Well, normally after an operation, we get word that there had been X amount of - I mean, of intelligence reports written based on what we have found out. And that was just the tip of the iceberg because, you know, in a lot of places, we found stuff that would, you know, last several months, where they would be reporting, you know, day after day after day of intelligence, information.
CONAN: And did you ever run into something serendipitously, something lying on the ambassador's desk, for example?
CONAN: No. They're pretty careful too.
GROAT: Evidently. I mean, everything was tucked away.
CONAN: We're talking with Douglas Groat, a former Central Intelligence Agency agent. His story appears in the October issue of Smithsonian magazine. You can find a link to that at our website at npr.org. He's with us today from member station WUOT in Knoxville. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. So in the aftermath of this operation, which was, in part, botched, but eventually everybody got out all right, complaints and nobody wanted to listen to it.
GROAT: Well, the problem is, I mean, we - the agency had had this organization for probably about 30 years and there had never, ever been anything that close to screwing up. And, yeah, you're right. When I talked to the group chief and the office director right on up to the executive director of the agency, and all they worried about was me confronting them.
CONAN: And going outside the chain of command, as it were.
GROAT: Well, actually I went all the way up to chain of command one at a time. Yeah.
CONAN: And so it was just that they say we've got this squeaky wheel down there and he's a problem.
GROAT: That's it. That was it. Exactly.
CONAN: And so you got essentially sidelined. You were sent to another job.
GROAT: Yeah. I was released from the shop in October '91, and I sat with nothing to do till May of '93.
CONAN: And what did you decide to do then?
GROAT: Well, I decided to - May of '93 - let's see, well, we were negotiating from that point till 1997, we were - I was negotiating with the Office of General Counsel, which was the legal side of the agency and trying to resolve the whole issue.
CONAN: The whole issue of your departure from the Central Intelligence Agency?
GROAT: Correct. Plus, I filed a grievance and that was being investigated, which I found out wasn't really being investigated.
CONAN: But then there were other actions that you undertook to say, look, if the Central Intelligence Agency is not too interested in my skills anymore, maybe somebody else is.
GROAT: Oh, that's further down. My first reaction was from '91until September '92, I heard continuously, day after day after day, that what you did meant nothing. And finally, I said to somebody, yes, well, then maybe I should just cancel everything that I did if it meant nothing. And they thought I was joking. So finally in September of '92 when I realized I wasn't getting my job back, I had found a job. Somebody went behind my back and had me taken off the job within the agency. And so what I did is I wrote a letter to a foreign embassy and advised them that their - the equipment had been bugged.
CONAN: You could understand how this might not be entirely square with the CIA.
GROAT: Absolutely. But what I figured was because I had trained several of the FBI officers in Flaps and Seals and I'd also gone on operations with them, I knew a little bit about what they did within the country. And I didn't even figure that would get out of the country, the letters.
CONAN: Did they - did you get any response at all?
GROAT: Well, the only thing that the - when the FBI had talked to me, they said that they had picked it up from some foreign intelligence service that passed it to them. But when I was debriefed in 1998 by NSA, the lady who debriefed me was asking questions. We talked about the letters, and she said, don't you realize what those letters - how much those letters could've hurt NSA? So I don't think they got out.
CONAN: But she's right. They could've hurt.
GROAT: Sure. Sure.
CONAN: And was that the point?
GROAT: No, the point wasn't to hurt anything. I mean, well, first of all, I picked an operation I knew no agent was involved so it wouldn't hurt anything. But - or wouldn't hurt them. But at the same time, I didn't expect them to get out.
CONAN: Then there is the issue of offering your services elsewhere.
GROAT: That was in 1997. What happened was is the agency sent me an offer for, you know, a contract, and the contract said, you know, that they would give me five or $300,000 over six years and then I would drop down to another grade and all that stuff. But what nobody knows is the contract - and I'll read it to you: Failure to comply fully with the above - without the discretion of the agency will be considered a breach of this agreement. Under such circumstances, the agency would have the option of terminating the contract. When I saw it, I said, they're not telling me the truth and I'm not going to back it.
CONAN: Long story short because we're running out of time...
CONAN: You were called in for what you thought was a negotiation and put under arrest.
CONAN: And put in, you say, isolation for six months.
GROAT: For six months with the lights on 24 hours. One time, I woke up, I said, what time is it because I was going to ask for some breakfast, and they said it's 4 o'clock. I said, I'm going back to bed and then, you know, it's 4 p.m. I didn't even know what day it was or time it was or anything.
CONAN: And eventually, well, it became criminal charges.
GROAT: That's what they filed, yes.
CONAN: And you would end up spending four years of a five-year sentence in prison.
CONAN: And I wonder, after all of this, are you bitter?
GROAT: No. No, no. I mean, I spent my four years doing a lot of reading. I'd always wanted to read about philosophy. And I've found peace in myself and I hope everybody else that was involved can find the same thing.
CONAN: And quickly, do you think the CIA continues to do these sorts of things? Is the shop still in business?
GROAT: No doubt, no doubt. If they've been doing it for 30 years before I was there, I'm sure they're still doing it. I mean, it's very important. It's very important.
CONAN: Doug Groat, thanks very much for your time today.
GROAT: Well, you're welcome.
CONAN: Doug Groat was a CIA officer. Again, his story appears in the October issue of Smithsonian magazine. You can find a link to that at our website at npr.org. He joined us today from member station WUOT in Knoxville. Tomorrow, growing concerns over putting children with disabilities into nursing homes. Join us for that conversation. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.