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Slick shares thoughts on "Conversations with a Masked Man" for The Cipher Brief

Feb 19, 2016

ISP Director Steve Slick recently reviewed John Hadden's book "Conversations with a Masked Man" for The Cipher Brief's "Dead Drop".

The complete post is available here.

“In the book, an adult son describes his belated effort to reconcile with a distant, enigmatic father from CIA’s first generation of operations officers. This is not another volume on the lengthening shelf of intelligence memoirs, how-to’s, and tell-all’s. Rather, the arc of John L. Hadden’s eventful career in the clandestine service is traced through transcribed interviews conducted and annotated by his son. Conversations is neither a sweeping Cold War history nor an espionage thriller, but an engaging retro- and introspection on the intelligence profession by a distinguished practitioner confronting his own mortality.

Hadden Sr.’s clandestine service began with an assignment to post-war Berlin as the victorious alliance was collapsing and the contours of the Cold War intelligence struggle between the CIA and the KGB were taking shape. With three decades’ removed, Hadden recounted only vaguely the urgency and brutality of émigré spy operations in Central Europe but more vividly the bureaucratic absurdities, aberrant personalities, and misjudgments that often characterized CIA’s early years. Legendary Cold War operators like Tom Polgar, Tracy Barnes, and Bill Harvey crop up during interviews, but Hadden’s career was shaped most dramatically by Richard Helms (a future director, and mentor) and James Angleton (counterintelligence chief, and nemesis). Reflecting on the later – and largely peaceful – fall of the Berlin Wall, reunification of Germany, and disintegration of the Soviet Union, Hadden assessed skeptically the impact of either side’s espionage operations.

Any attention Conversations attracts outside of intelligence circles will likely be focused on Hadden Sr.’s account of his service in the Near East in the late 1960s and his final assignment at CIA Headquarters managing the same bilateral account under Angleton’s obsessive glare. An Appendix to Conversations includes Hadden’s personal notes on Israel’s alleged diversion of nuclear fuel from the NUMEC facility in Pennsylvania. These notes were apparently prepared in connection with briefings Hadden was authorized to provide after his retirement to Executive and Legislative branch officials. In the hands of experts, these cryptic notes may contribute to the historical understanding of what role NUMEC and its then president may have played in any such diversion. Despite recent declassifications, these questions remain unanswered nearly 50 years after the events.

The author recounts in a preface that his father, near death, ultimately relented and authorized him to publish the transcripts of their interviews, but there is no indication that the text (…or Appendix notes) were submitted for pre-publication review by CIA. In view of recent critiques of the Agency’s pre-publication review policy and practices, Conversations may at least stand for the proposition that employee security obligations are not intergenerational, and actually expire on death.” (DD comment: who says dead men tell no tales? Slick continues…..)

“Current and former CIA officers who have lived, worked, and raised families overseas will find the Haddens’ descriptions of keeping secrets within tight-knit American expat communities, “breaking cover” to adolescent children and managing teenage rebellion overseas, both familiar and witty. The interviews, however, raise a number of weightier issues for the intelligence profession. They are all the more serious when framed by a gifted practitioner who had no more skin in the “game” …as John L. Hadden insisted on labeling his chosen profession.

The son’s attempted reconciliation with his father was apparently incomplete, but the Haddens’ written account of that process in Conversations is a meaningful legacy.”