CIA Stories: Bob Dougherty on Life Undercover

As a CIA officer, Bob Dougherty tackled dangerous South American cocaine traffickers and hung around cold train stations in eastern Europe waiting for sources. 

Now he’s applying his counterterrorism skills to environmental crime and corporate training.

Dougherty instructs US Green Berets and Navy SEALs, but on the conservation side, he’s teamed up with Andrea Crosta, founder of Earth League International (ELI), to bring down wildlife traffickers. Some estimates suggest the illegal trade could be worth up to $23bn a year, much of it linked to China.

“It is soul-fulfilling to do this kind of work and apply my skills to it,” Dougherty told SPYSCAPE. He grew up in Los Angeles and always considered himself a conservationist. 

Earth League uses a HUMINT (human intelligence) approach to trafficking: find, fix and finish. ELI gathers intelligence using human sources, spots and assesses problems on the ground, and penetrates trafficking groups by going undercover or using other methods to gather evidence. They then build ‘targeting packages’ so that local authorities or international groups like the UN can act on the intelligence.

Bob Dougherty is a former CIA officer and agent handler
Bob Dougherty spent more than two decades undercover at the CIA


“These same tactics and techniques have been carried out for the past 20 years by the intelligence community and Special Operations Forces to find, fix and finish violent extremist organizations. Now we are taking this same skill set and this same modus operandi - which has been honed and hardened in the past two decades of counterterrorism work - and we are applying it to real world non-military problem sets like wildlife crime, poaching, smuggling of endangered species,” Dougherty said. 

Crosta outlined one of ELI’s undercover missions involving the illegal ivory trade in China on SPYSCAPE’s True Spies: Operation Game Over. Dougherty has also worked with ELI on a major operation to save the Vaquita porpoise in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, which are starving to death because organized crime groups are catching their main food, a fish called the Totoaba, to sell the gills for use in medicine.

CIA Stories: Bob Dougherty on Life Undercover

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As a CIA officer, Bob Dougherty tackled dangerous South American cocaine traffickers and hung around cold train stations in eastern Europe waiting for sources. 

Now he’s applying his counterterrorism skills to environmental crime and corporate training.

Dougherty instructs US Green Berets and Navy SEALs, but on the conservation side, he’s teamed up with Andrea Crosta, founder of Earth League International (ELI), to bring down wildlife traffickers. Some estimates suggest the illegal trade could be worth up to $23bn a year, much of it linked to China.

“It is soul-fulfilling to do this kind of work and apply my skills to it,” Dougherty told SPYSCAPE. He grew up in Los Angeles and always considered himself a conservationist. 

Earth League uses a HUMINT (human intelligence) approach to trafficking: find, fix and finish. ELI gathers intelligence using human sources, spots and assesses problems on the ground, and penetrates trafficking groups by going undercover or using other methods to gather evidence. They then build ‘targeting packages’ so that local authorities or international groups like the UN can act on the intelligence.

Bob Dougherty is a former CIA officer and agent handler
Bob Dougherty spent more than two decades undercover at the CIA


“These same tactics and techniques have been carried out for the past 20 years by the intelligence community and Special Operations Forces to find, fix and finish violent extremist organizations. Now we are taking this same skill set and this same modus operandi - which has been honed and hardened in the past two decades of counterterrorism work - and we are applying it to real world non-military problem sets like wildlife crime, poaching, smuggling of endangered species,” Dougherty said. 

Crosta outlined one of ELI’s undercover missions involving the illegal ivory trade in China on SPYSCAPE’s True Spies: Operation Game Over. Dougherty has also worked with ELI on a major operation to save the Vaquita porpoise in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, which are starving to death because organized crime groups are catching their main food, a fish called the Totoaba, to sell the gills for use in medicine.

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Dougherty’s focus as a CIA officer was mainly recruiting and running foreign agents in counterterrorism operations, but his skills apply equally to tracking down environmental criminals or training C-Suite executives.

“A good intelligence officer is probably a good people-person. They’re good at perceiving someone, what their motivations are, what their personality is, what their desires are. And to do that it can’t be staged,” Dougherty said. “You can’t be a used car salesman. You have to be genuine, authentic, and legitimate yourself. And that comes through and you can establish a strong personal relationship with someone. That is the basis for all good human operations.”

During one particularly memorable meeting before the Iraq war began in 2003, Dougherty and an FBI agent found themselves in a crowded train terminal in a city he still can’t name: “We didn't know if this guy was going to come out of Iraq. We had traveled thousands of miles to meet with him.”


Bob Dougherty is a former CIA officer and agent handler who flew thousands of miles to meet potential spies
Dougherty flew thousands of miles to meet sources in safe houses and train stations 

The man had inside information about Saddam Hussein’s government and, possibly about how Iraq was harboring a suspected terrorist named Abu Abbas. But how could Dougherty convince a source he’d never met to spill secrets at the risk of the man’s life? A mutual acquaintance made the introduction, but Dougherty had to get the conversation flowing.

You've got to develop that rapport first. And so, you talk about family. You talk about his trip. And maybe at the very end of that very first meeting, you talk a little business - but maybe even not. Maybe that's just to get to know the guy.”

Dougherty routinely flew in and out of Europe to meet his source, eventually gathering intelligence that helped the US capture two people on America’s Iraqi deck of cards including a bio-weapons scientist. (Dougherty recounted the full story in an episode of SPYSCAPE’s podcast True Spies: Justice for Leon Klinghoffer.)


Bob Dougherty is a former CIA officer and agent handler who gathered information on Iraq
Saddam Hussein was the Ace of Spades in America’s ‘most wanted’ playing cards


Dougherty’s laid-back approach to agent handling was refined over two decades at the CIA. As an economics graduate from the University of California, it felt natural for Dougherty to also apply those same skills to business.

“When you talk about the recruitment process of convincing anybody in any field to do something - whether you're convincing a girl to go on a date, whether you're convincing some other corporate guy to accept your deal, whether you're convincing someone to trade secrets with you - you have to appeal to that human emotion, that rapport with them,” he said. 

Life on the edge

Dougherty’s career highlights read like a spy thriller, a life of high adventure in difficult circumstances, recruiting and running agents in the Middle East, Europe, and South America for operations linked to counterterrorism, narcotics, and weapons of mass destruction. 

When the first jet hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, he was working on a CIA-FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force in Los Angeles. It was a moment that helped shape his career.

“I had this visionary mentor in the Agency who saw what was coming and really got us started working on the Sunni Salafi Jihadi extremist networks worldwide years before 9/11,” Dougherty said. “We called ourselves ‘The Hunting Party’ because we were using intelligence methods to hunt terrorists.”

The Los Angeles office took the lead on 9/11 intelligence-gathering connected to American Airlines Flight 77 as the jet was en route to L.A. when it crashed into the Pentagon. Two other hijacked planes were also L.A.-bound and two of the suspected hijackers had visited California in 2000.

Dougherty, a native Angelino who grew up surfing the coast, knew every corner of the city and was an integral part of the team, working for months on rotating 24-7 shifts.  

Bob Dougherty, ex-CIA officer, surfer and agent handler
Bob Dougherty, an avid surfer and athlete, now trains Green Berets and Navy SEALs


He spent the next few years zigzagging around the globe, collecting intelligence and analyzing data from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the Gulf. At other times, he focused on Iran, Russia, and China.

It was a tumultuous time but Dougherty feels lucky to have worked as a CIA operations officer recruiting foreign agents: “Only a small percentage of all CIA case officers ever recruit human sources during their careers and I was lucky to be one of the people who could do that.”

Dougherty, the son of a local politician, said he was searching for a way to serve his country back in 1985 and found his calling at the CIA.

“It was a very patriotic era, coming back from the troubled years during the Carter administration, the oil embargo, and then the Iran hostage crisis, so I was motivated by that,” he said. “I had a strong urge to do something for the government.”

Paper trails

While life at the CIA may not be quite as action-packed as Homeland (sorry Carrie Mathison) it certainly has dramatic moments of subterfuge. This is an Agency whose motto is, after all: First in. Last out.

“But bureaucracy always takes hold,” Dougherty said. “I laugh when TV programs never show operations officers ever writing stuff up at the desk because that’s the vast majority of our careers - dispersed with times of action and excitement to be sure - but you’ve always got to write it up.”

He started his work as an operations officer in 1986 but retired about a decade ago. Now he’s working as a senior instructor providing classified training to the next generation of US Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs, some of whom were young students - even toddlers - back in 2001.

“I have to be careful when I’m teaching classes now, especially with the young military guys, because I think: ‘Oh my God, you guys were in grade school then.’”

The shock and loss of life still resonate, no matter what the age group.

“Unfortunately, 3,000 of our citizens have had to die for us to take this seriously,” Dougherty said.


In addition to training Navy SEALs and Green Berets, Bob Dougherty now trains corporate employees to apply CIA strategies and tactics to business development efforts, leadership development, and the protection of people, data, and intellectual property. Contact
SPYEX.

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