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David Blee — A Tribute

Posted on Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Many have asked me when, or why I resigned from the C.I.A.; and recently, a close friend asked why I thought so highly of David Blee, and who was he. With those questions in mind, allow me to ramble—a trait that I hope only developed quite recently in a long and extending life.

To attempt to put his long life in perspective, David Blee left the room on August 6, 2000. Please refer to a fine obituary that appeared in the Guardian for a detailed scope of his influence and his career at the following link.

David Blee was an NE hand, that is, a member of the Near East Division in the CIA’s Clandestine Service when I first encountered him. He seemed to be almost remote. He spent years in India, headed up the NE division and did his best to identify the change agents under his control to ensure the legacy of the CIA he had come to cherish. Most of the time, his choices were spot on—though there were a few selections he identified for speedy promotion and responsibility that I have a suspicion he would have reconsidered in hindsight—but then again, maybe not.

Quite surprisingly—especially to the old Soviet hands in the late 1970’s—David Blee took command of the Soviet-Bloc Division with no experience—they would say—in Soviet realities. He had no background in the Soviet target—though if he were among us he would beg to differ. The Cold War warriors who grew up on the streets of Berlin after World War II and before the Wall was constructed, and even thereafter must have wondered what was happening to the Agency’s intelligence priorities—but I was too junior to catch the muted conversation held among them as I was serving in India at the time. For my part, I welcomed his appointment as a breath of fresh air to a crusty cadre of officers that were fixated in the past.

I met David Blee earlier in India when as chief of NE he travelled there; and later, when he was appointed as Chief, Soviet-Bloc Division, I remember traveling to Bangkok from Delhi to attend a gathering of Soviet Bloc officers serving in the general geographic area. David Blee was indeed a character to observe—or in Polish a typ. Others might disagree, but for me he had few apparent inter-personal skills. He was not an easy conversationalist, or maybe he had no desire for light conversation. His dead-pan glance at folks could be unsettling in that it revealed no recognition—a wonderful trait if confronting time and time again by a surveillant that keeps crossing one’s path—but did little to put colleagues and juniors at ease.

At the Bangkok meeting—just as it was breaking up and officers bidding farewell to colleagues—I recall suddenly becoming aware that David Blee was standing alongside me. In almost a whisper he asked me about the details of Soviet recruitment case in which I was involved. I didn’t even think that he knew my name and here in minutes he indicated that he was current on the operation and the reporting that was being forwarded to Headquarters from Delhi; and, perhaps, as important, he took the time to encourage me to push on ahead with the recruitment effort.

Fast forward to the time I was the Deputy in Berlin in the late 1970’s. I was required to complete what we referred to as the dream sheet, that is, a questionnaire in which we would state where we would like to serve next—though no guarantees were offered. After Berlin having served eleven years consecutively abroad, I knew with certainty I would definitely be reassigned to Headquarters and not to another field station, I requested an assignment to the newly established National Intelligence Center (NIC), an organization that brought together for the first time intelligence analysts, collectors (including case officers—guys like me), and even decision/policy makers to map out intelligence strategies, especially to identify what organization or organizations in the intelligence community was/were best suited to tackle the intelligence requirement. The deputy of the NIC was a revered or alternately despised, infamous senior management, former case officer, Ted Schackley. If assigned to NIC, this would mean, I would be detailed outside the Directorate of Operations (the DO) and specifically the Soviet-Bloc Division.

(See the following link to Ted Shackley’s obituary. He left the room December 6, 2002.)

Since I was a Soviet-Bloc case officer with a respected operational track record, the brass at Soviet Bloc was not anxious to give me up. I was informed three months after submitting the questionnaire that it had been inexplicably lost, even though once completed the questionnaire was a classified document. I was asked to fill it out another—and so I did. Then, rather promptly I was informed that the position in the NIC was already filled due in part to my late application.

As alternatives assignments, I was offered two different slots in Soviet Bloc Division from which to choose: the first to work for someone I outranked—or soon would as I was promoted the next month, and the second was to report to a chap who was brought back from the field prematurely because he was an alcoholic. To say that I was disappointed is an understatement.

By this time David Blee had been assigned to be head the Counter-Intelligence Staff. (The above cited obituary nicely summarizes his contribution to the Intelligence Community and to the Nation in that capacity.) Unexpectedly, I received a back-channel cable from David, informing me that he was aware that the system was presenting some challenges to me. As a third reassignment alternative, he offered me a responsible position on CI Staff, which I accepted with alacrity, thus thwarting my host division’s plans for me.

One year later, I was asked by Lt. Gen. Camm, who was recently appointed Deputy of FEMA, to join this newly formed government agency that combined disaster relief with continuity of government programs. I had met Lt. Gen. Camm on an official visit to Berlin. He wanted me to direct the Presidential Continuity Division. Before I formally accepted the position, I tried on three occasions to discuss my decision with the then-head of Soviet-Bloc Division. He never had time on his calendar to meet with me, that is, until I formally submitted my resignation. The senior executive then immediately cleared his calendar to see me.

He began the meeting by asking how I could leave after the considerable investment the Agency made in me. I interrupted him to state that any investment in me was returned and then some during assignments in Warsaw, New Delhi, Beirut, and Berlin. I politely suggested that the next time an officer with a good record wanted to meet him, he find the time to do so.

One final note—David Blee wrote in my final fitness report this comment: If Mr. Douglas ever wants to return to the Agency, his return should be welcomed.

Indeed, David Blee was a class act.

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