Veteran CIA operator Doug Patteson was an expert at hiring foreign spies but as a rookie case officer in Southeast Asia he had a lot to learn - including how to fire ‘assets’ who were no longer useful. The ‘terminations’, as they’re known in the spy game, put Doug in an awkward position, forcing him to find a middle-ground between his personal code and the duty he owed his country.
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True Spies Episode 85: Asset Terminated

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position. This is True Spies Episode 85: Asset Terminated.

DOUG PATTESON: I always thought of myself as a pretty decent sales person, but recognized that it's tough to sell something you don't believe in fully yourself. And so I had become committed to the course. I knew that there were no options. I had to deliver on this. But I also didn't fully believe in it yet. My name is Doug Patteson and I spent 10 years as a CIA case officer working across a range of targets from high-threat posts to denied-area environments.

NARRATOR: You might be thinking you know the tale Doug is about to tell us. You’ve heard the episode title, you know this man has the credentials, and now you’re waiting for the hook.

DOUG PATTESON: Every time we talk about asset termination, laypeople immediately think of James Bond and guns and blood.

NARRATOR: But you’re not a layperson, are you? As a True Spies aficionado, you know that nothing is ever that black and white.

DOUG PATTESON: If you think about it in business terms you may meet somebody, you may sell them something, and then their need for that product is no longer there. And so you may end that relationship. And so you tend to find that all of these human relationships follow a path, a cycle. And in this case, what often happens with most cases is there is a need for termination.

NARRATOR: This is not a tale of blood and gore, of silencers and cyanide, it’s the real story of what it means to work in the shadows.

DOUG PATTESON: We see lots in the press about these big, famous Chinese cases or Russian cases or al-Qaeda, but there are many, many officers working all around the world against a wide variety of targets, some of them incredibly sexy and incredibly focused on keeping people safe literally today. And though some of those sexy cases get talked about or more well-known than this, the majority of folks out there that are in journeyman case officer roles are out there every day going out, meeting and collecting information in ways that may not be super-sexy or high profile, but are important nonetheless. And so, for me, this story was more about: What’s it like to do the job? What’s it like to handle these aspects of it that are maybe a little bit less salacious and more about doing what needs to be done every day, day in and day out? 

NARRATOR: When it comes to recruiting assets and keeping a steady stream of information flowing, your people skills are one of the biggest weapons in your arsenal. But when that information runs dry, or there’s no longer a demand for it, how do you stop it? In the real world of clandestine operations, how do you terminate people?

DOUG PATTESON: It wasn't a comfortable experience. I actually cared about the individual. I wanted to make sure that he was okay. I wanted it to go well. This guy had been run by us for a long time. And so he was familiar with the process of being handed off from one officer to another. In his mind, I was just the next in the string. And neither one of us knew that I'd be the last in his particular string at that moment. 

NARRATOR: All good things must come to an end, but it may not be the ending everyone was promised. On this episode of True Spies, a story of trust, tradecraft, and termination. Before we get into the ins - and most importantly, the outs - of asset handling, it’s worth hearing how Doug came to be in the CIA in the first place.

DOUG PATTESON: So I joined CIA because I wanted to serve my nation, but I wasn't sure in what capacity. Both of my grandfathers had served in the US military in World War II. One grandfather was a fighter pilot in Europe and he flew fighter missions throughout the latter half of the war. My other grandfather was in the Navy and served in Navy Intelligence. And so, I had grown up idolizing both of those men and what they'd done for their nation and knew that I wanted to do something similar to that, but also wasn't sure that I wanted to go and enlist or become an officer in the military.

NARRATOR: Doug is what you might recognize as a classic ‘born to serve’ officer.

DOUG PATTESON: And while I was in the midst of exploring this and figuring this out as a young 21-year-old, I happened to come across a CIA recruiter who was recruiting on campus, looking primarily for engineers and analysts and folks in overt roles in CIA. What that means is, folks who could talk about what they did and where they worked without getting into details. Their work would still be classified, but they could say they worked at CIA. And I sat down with that recruiter and spent some time and I had, shall we say, a somewhat lackluster resume from my time in university. My focus had been more on beer and girls than it had been on academics. But he engaged me in a discussion about the various roles, and it was clear that he was unimpressed by my background, but also maybe saw a glimpse of something in my people skills and said that, basically, the only job he thought I might be suited for was the role of a case officer. 

NARRATOR: The recruiter is emphatic. This is not an office job. CIA case officers spend most of their time on foreign streets, recruiting and running assets who collect important information for the US government. 

DOUG PATTESON: Which, actually, for someone like myself who was digging for identity, that was a pretty appealing thing. And he said: “Okay, well, I'll make that connection for you. Show up at this hotel in this city in a few weeks’ time and your process will start. But don't tell anybody about it.”

NARRATOR: So far, so easy. But we’re talking about the early ‘90s here, a time before the internet and the age of social media, so certain background checks needed to be carried out in person before Doug could advance to the next stage.

DOUG PATTESON: I was living at the time in my fraternity house at the end of school. And of course, they didn't explain the ‘why’ behind it or the ‘who’, but they explained that there was a need for a security investigation in my fraternity. Brothers thought it would be hilarious to make up stories about my various predilections or habits or things I would do. And it did not go over very well.

NARRATOR: Fortunately, Doug’s frat brothers weren’t as original as they thought. So, Doug was heading off to Virginia, to the CIA training facility that seasoned True Spies listeners will know as ‘the Farm’ to begin initial training.

DOUG PATTESON: There are two primary courses that you're going through... First at that time was a paramilitary familiarization course where you learn to shoot, learn to drive aggressively, learn to do land navigation, parachute, and drive boats and all that stuff. That was a ton of fun, physical training every day, getting to really bond well with your teams. And then there's the main course that we all go through as case officers to learn how to recruit and run assets securely and get certified as case officers in that process. 

NARRATOR: And along the way, Doug and his fellow recruits are constantly being measured. They are ranked against one another, and Doug notices less and less advancing to the next stage. 

DOUG PATTESON: I was incredibly focused on making sure I was in the right percentage that was going to be graduating there. But, at the end of the day, the training was good. It taught you how to do what you needed to learn how to do. I couldn't believe I was getting paid to do this. It was a beautiful location. We got all the food we could eat. We had a whole group of folks that were roughly the same age that were going through this with us together. So we had really tight bonds and really good camaraderie through it. And often we just couldn't believe what we were getting to do.

NARRATOR: Seems like a perfect gig for a 22-year-old fresh out of college, but now you’ve graduated from the training and it’s time to see what you’re really made of. First things first, where are you heading?

DOUG PATTESON: I didn't want to serve in the division that was covering Russia and I didn't want to serve in Europe. I wanted to go somewhere else that, in my opinion, at least felt more exciting, more on the edge.

NARRATOR: Okay, so Doug isn’t interested in getting an easy ride.

DOUG PATTESON: I was always a little bit of an adrenaline person anyway and so that that meshed with my nature and character.

NARRATOR: So where does the CIA send a young, self-confessed adrenaline junkie for his first posting?

DOUG PATTESON: My first assignment was going to be in an East Asian capital that was known to have some fairly significant terrorist threats at the time, and in fact had an opening because a case officer had ended up on a targeting list that had been released by one of the local terrorist organizations. So that individual that had to go home meant there was a job opening in that slot, obviously, hopefully for an officer who was unknown. Remember, at this time, we're all undercover and virtually nobody knows who we are because we're junior officers. And so that opening came up and I was going to be assigned to that particular post. 

NARRATOR: Doug said he wanted something ‘more on the edge’. Active terrorist threats, what more could you ask for?

DOUG PATTESON: That meant that, though, because it was a high-threat post, I went to additional training after the completion of our classes as case officers in order to learn how to work in a high-threat post.

NARRATOR: Remember, this is Doug’s first job - the first time he’s had to do anything outside of a training facility - and he’s headed into a highly volatile environment, where he doesn’t speak the local language, and doesn’t yet know exactly what it takes to be a good case officer. How would you feel? Whatever job you’re in, I’m sure you can think back to a moment when you’ve stood on the edge of what felt like a precipice, preparing to launch yourself off into the unknown and hoping you’d had enough training to land safely. But in this case, it’s more than just Doug’s livelihood on the line. It’s his life. A natural disaster meant Doug’s departure was delayed. His new flight arrived in the country in the dead of night. 

DOUG PATTESON: And so you're landing in this Third World country after midnight, and yet the place is wildly alive. And I remember it being dark but light at the same time from all of the streetlights and all of the motorcycle lights and all of the car lights. And I remember the sounds of livestock on roadsides. And I remember the burning smells of trash and coconut husks and these things, and honking of horns like you've never heard of in your life. And it just hit you in the face, sensory overload, arriving here and going: “How am I going to do this? How is this going to work?”

NARRATOR: Yes, even CIA officers know a little about imposter syndrome.

DOUG PATTESON: We had had Americans killed in this country regularly... over the last 15 years. Those threats were real and current and active. The reason I was there, the slot had opened up because somebody needed to be pulled back home. But in reality, I knew that the threats to the folks I was meeting with were higher still. And so it was… Get on the ground. Learn the area. Learn the streets. Learn the city.

NARRATOR: A few weeks pass, and finally it’s time for Doug to be given his first asset. The person whose safety will also be in his inexperienced hands. Farm-fresh case officers don’t often begin recruiting new assets as soon as they touch down. There is still much tradecraft for them to learn and hone. Instead, they are assigned existing assets to handle. 

DOUG PATTESON: And so you have to learn how to take on an asset that had been recruited and run by somebody else, which for junior officers gives you a really solid platform for taking them from a training environment to a real-world environment by allowing them to do most of the agent handling cycle with somebody who's already been there and done that. And in my case, I was going to be handed a case that had been a long-time case, maybe up to 20 years. And it was also on the fringes of some of this threat-related stuff. So it had some importance but was also getting a little old in the relationship. So it was a good asset to start me with and was being handed over to me by a very experienced officer who was a hard-charging, fast-rising officer who is happy to free time up in his schedule so he could go do other things.

NARRATOR: So, here are two Caucasian officers, walking around an Asian capital, trying not to attract attention. It’s not unusual to see Westerners in the city’s business district during the day, but you’re less likely to expect them there as you edge closer to the witching hour.

DOUG PATTESON: And so what you have to learn to do is also learn to operate in ways that leverage the folks that would still be out. Right? So you might end up spending more time in red-light districts because, again, a Western face in a red-light district in Southeast Asia may stand out less than in the business district where all the businesses are closed at that time of night. So you have to figure those things out and learn your area and learn how to operate within those environments.

NARRATOR: Doug has lots to learn, and he’s got to learn fast. How confident would you feel racing across the city that night?

DOUG PATTESON: So the said person I was meeting was significantly older than me, significantly more experienced than me, and had lived in an environment where his life was under constant threat anyway. So I was just an added threat in his world. But he was definitely an added threat in my world. What I mean by that is the nature of the work he would engage in. There would be people that would want to kill him any time, including if he's meeting with a foreigner who is providing intelligence on that sort of stuff.

NARRATOR: What sort of stuff? Well, that’s confidential I’m afraid, but True Spies aficionados, I’m sure you can use your imagination. So after 15 months, Doug’s on the cusp of putting all his training into action.

DOUG PATTESON: You know the theory, right? You practice the theory in controlled environments where everybody wants you to actually get through it. In training, they want to make sure they get the best people through. But at the end of the day, it's an incredibly expensive training process. So they also don't want people to fail who actually can make it through. 

NARRATOR: So, on the one hand, Doug is confident. He made it through the infamous Farm and his grades suggested he had what it takes. But what if their faith in his ability was misplaced? He’s a long way from Virginia now.

Once you're overseas, you're meeting with an asset, it's not just his personal security or my personal security that's at risk. He's providing information that we desire to have. And if I don't handle the relationship well, he can get up and he can walk away. If I don't handle the relationship well, he can go to the press and say: “Hey, here's this secret CIA case officer out here meeting with us. And by the way, he's collecting information on X, Y or Z, things that you guys should know that they're trying to collect.” So, the risk becomes very real.

NARRATOR: But luckily for Doug, he was the only one who was new to this situation.

DOUG PATTESON: This guy had been run by us for a long time. And so he was familiar with the process of being handed off from one officer to another. And so in his mind, I was just the next in the string. And what I recognized, though, was I had a great opportunity to learn from somebody who had been doing this for a long period of time. And he took it from that controlled environment - because it's no longer controlled in the sense of the desired outcome is - that we both get through this, but that he has power in the relationship to say whether this is worth continuing or not. And so, learning how to interact with him and to leverage the things I learned about him or knew about him to manage the relationship, well, that became, in essence, a finishing school for me on the handling of assets that would benefit me throughout the rest of my career.

NARRATOR: Over the next year, Doug learns more and more about his asset.

DOUG PATTESON: He had some strong ideological motivations for helping us that were important. And so he was living in a world where he had to be two people. He had to go do this job that ultimately he was ideologically opposed to. And then he was undermining that job by helping provide information to us. And so I had to understand those aspects of his personality and figure out how to help him, encourage him with those sorts of things through that. But I also recognize that as I'm sitting there with him, I'm engaging with somebody who has a lot to teach me about my craft and not just in handling an asset, but also in collecting intelligence and turning it into useful reporting.

NARRATOR: But what exactly were these lessons in tradecraft that Doug’s asset had in his locker? How did this man in his 50s help shape a bright-eyed, eager new case officer?

DOUG PATTESON: At the end of the day, the goal is to have folks who are willing and eager to do things on behalf of our interests. Right? To collect information or to engage in covert action or other things like that, or to stop doing things or stop others from doing things like that. And so success for recruitment is easy. It's recruiting a source and getting them to agree to do that thing. Success for handling an asset is going to depend on the nature of what they're doing. In this particular case, success for handling would be the provision of information of a secret nature that would inform US policy interests and US policy decisions - information that was going to help keep Americans safe from threats in this environment, [that] was one significant aspect of it.

NARRATOR: In this instance, successful handling is measured in the quality of the information that Doug is able to extract from his asset. So, he is mostly honing all-important people-management skills, learning how to develop relationships in order to get the good stuff. 

DOUG PATTESON: And so, learning which threads to pursue or learning how to task him to gather additional information, to flesh something out, those are the sorts of things that define successful handling in that while trying to encourage him not to increase risk to himself by doing that. And so you have to manage that balance and make sure that you're keeping them safe, even in what they're asking questions about. We had built a relationship where we trusted one another. He trusted me that I would keep him safe and that I would take care of the promises I made to him while I was with him. He was going to help keep me safe by doing the things he was supposed to do to ensure that we would be able to meet unobserved and that sort of stuff. So we had established a relationship. And, it is often the case when you're working with assets overseas, you actually develop a pretty tight connection with folks. Because of that risk and because of the trust that's involved, they end up being very intimate relationships and sometimes with very strong emotional connections between officer and asset as well.

NARRATOR: There was a key word there, did you hear it?

DOUG PATTESON: He trusted me that I would keep him safe and that I would take care of the promises I made to him. 

NARRATOR: Promises. When you’re risking your life every minute of every day to hand over sensitive information to the CIA, you have to believe in their promises, right? When you, like Doug, are knowingly putting someone in that position to keep your country safe, you’re surely only making promises you can keep? Because there will come a point when those promises will be tested. And it will all come to light when the asset needs to be terminated. Fresh from the Farm, 23-year-old case officer Doug Patteson has been sent to an active, hostile territory in Southeast Asia. He’s been gifted a first asset who has more real-world knowledge about leading a clandestine existence than he does. But a call comes down the line; the asset needs to be terminated. 

DOUG PATTESON: Every time we talk about asset termination, laypeople kind of immediately think of James Bond and guns and blood. And in reality, it's far simpler, far more benign than that is just the ending of a relationship.

NARRATOR: Less James Bond, more break bond.

DOUG PATTESON: And so very early on in a relationship, at least on our side of things, we make plans for what that termination might ultimately look like and figure out: “How do we think through the issues that might be of concern?” Because, even after the relationship is ended, there's still risk to him, to us, etc. And so, inevitably you want those to go - whether it's a recruitment pitch, a handling of an asset or a termination - you do always want them to go well because that reduces risk. And so eventually, in this particular case, the time came that we needed to terminate the relationship with the asset. And that's because the information he was collecting had fallen lower and lower on our priority list. And so, we had less need for it. The threats were changing. The budgets were changing back in Washington which flowed out to the fields as well. And every case officer has a limited amount of time, obviously, to do what they're supposed to do. And so you are constantly re-evaluating your choices and where you spend time.

NARRATOR: In truth, asset termination is less about target practice and more about paperwork. 

DOUG PATTESON: That's right, in this case, there wasn't a contract per se, but it was a document within his file that said: “Hey, here's the discussion we had with him about what we would do and what we would promise him and those sorts of things when the relationship ended.” And I think again, in hindsight, looking back at it, some of the choices the officer had made to offer all of those things were definitely rooted in: “Hey, the risk you're taking here is a high risk. I need to make sure that you're appropriately compensated for that. And therefore, we're going to do this. We're going to pay you X amount.” So we had made a promise we would pay this individual a month's pay for every year of service. And so that meant that we were going to be paying him a pretty significant chunk of money - money that would be significantly more than he would normally have access to. And so I drafted it up, sent it back to headquarters and said: “Here's the plan. Here's what's going to happen.” But headquarters came back and denied our request and, in essence, reduced what we were going to be able to pay him by 75 percent.

NARRATOR: This man has helped the CIA for over 20 years. Not only had he put his own life in true jeopardy to do so, but he’d also been gracious enough to recognize a new recruit when he saw one and try to make life easier for his young case officer. Not only is Doug effectively going to have to fire him, Doug’s also going to have to tell him that the payout he was promised is going to be a quarter of what was agreed. Some thanks.

DOUG PATTESON: I felt like it was my job to advocate for doing the right thing and I was convinced that the right thing was to honor what we said we were going to do. And I still believe that, inevitably, the right path is always to do what you say you're going to do. It's a core tenet that that underscores who we are and why you should trust us. But I came to recognize that there are realities that sometimes force you to make choices as well. And I was angry and I was upset - well, as angry and upset as a first officer can be while facing folks that had literally been involved in covert operations since the Korean War.

NARRATOR: Even if your work is covert, sometimes your faith can be tested overtly.

DOUG PATTESON: I felt that it was my integrity that was undermined somewhat. I certainly felt that the organization's integrity was undermined. So as a young officer, I was looking at it and I was questioning: “How can I trust this? How can I make promises on behalf of this organization, if so easily there they're willing to overturn and change a previously made promise?

NARRATOR: Your work - your cause - doesn’t seem quite so noble now, perhaps?

DOUG PATTESON: And I think about that a lot lately because I've been watching our withdrawal from Afghanistan. There are going to be some questions asked, rightly so, about: “Okay, you tell me you're keeping me safe. You tell me you're going to do these things. But we've just watched Afghanistan and we've seen that your ability to follow through on some of those promises can be constrained.” And I think when you go back and look at the history of the CIA, you see that - as with any other intelligence organizations around the world - that sometimes the world intervenes on the best plans. And whether it's a budgetary reason that things get changed or a military situation or some other operation, things often don't go according to plan. And you have to be flexible, adapt, and overcome these changes and challenges. And so, I was able to sit down with him and work through how to communicate this change to him so that we could have the actual termination meeting and kind of part ways on a healthy basis. And we were able to do that.

NARRATOR: Again his asset had tried to make life easier for Doug.

DOUG PATTESON: I knew that there were no options. I had to deliver on this. But I also didn't fully believe in it yet. And fortunately, he was such an incredibly pragmatic individual that he saw almost immediately that I was grappling with and struggling with it and just made it easy by accepting it very quickly and saying, “Yeah. No, I totally understand this. These things happen.”

NARRATOR: And like that, it was done. Asset terminated. Any relationship they had was over, and perhaps a part of Doug’s unflinching enthusiasm for the job was over too. Sometimes you can’t always keep a promise. Sometimes the context changes or the budget changes. But either way, it’s out of your hands. You’re faced with a decision; either deliver, or step aside. Doug delivered, and in turn learned a valuable lesson that would stay with him for the rest of his career.

DOUG PATTESON: How somebody else who might have to execute on my promise later would be able to do so, or might be hindered too in doing so, and so trying to find ways to not over promise something and make sure that it was still equitable, but also achievable.

NARRATOR: Almost three decades later, this story is still important to Doug. Sometimes our formative experiences are the ones we remember most vividly. Doug must have wondered... What happened next? Where did the asset end up?

DOUG PATTESON: I happen to know that this individual actually passed away a long time ago. But you still think about those folks and things come unbidden to mind periodically about, “Hey, where is this person? What are they doing? Are they well?” And you hope that you've done what you could to keep them safe through that while also having done what you could to support the nation's goals and needs. But even in the cases I know of - where an asset was captured, arrested or killed by others - it's often the case officer has done everything that they could to do, knows that they've done everything they could to prevent that, and is still wracked with guilt over the whatever happened to that asset and struggles with that for a long period of time. But at the end of the day, every one of these relationships is a two-way relationship with two people involved. And the case officer can really only control his or her own actions in this. And the asset has to be willing to do what they need to do to preserve themselves as well.

NARRATOR: This was Doug’s first experience of terminating an asset - or, what we might better recognize as letting someone go - but it certainly wasn’t his last. What wisdom might a former CIA case officer have to offer, when it comes to having those tough conversations? 

DOUG PATTESON: So my advice to somebody that's having to do this - whether it's a case officer terminating an asset with more experience or even somebody in the business world who's having to let somebody go - who is older than them or more experienced than them - is i) start with from a position of self-awareness; and ii) to develop as much empathy as possible for the individual in the role. But then iii) to be as transparent as possible. At the end of the day, you have a reason why you're doing it. If the reasons are budgetary, then you can have a budgetary discussion. But if the reason is performance oriented, have that performance-oriented discussion. Don't shy away from the reality of the why. Right? Execute on the why honestly because that's how you're going to demonstrate that you respect the other individual and you want to respect the other individual, even if you're ending the relationship for valid reasons because they're human and they deserve the same respect. In this case, if a case officer terminates an asset, they have literally put themselves at risk. Even in those benign environments, every day that asset is breaking the law and they're breaking the law at our request. They deserve our respect and transparency and empathy in that process. So approach it from that perspective. You can do the right thing and you can do it the right way by showing them respect.

NARRATOR: Respect; having due regard for someone's feelings, wishes, or rights. A simple yet highly effective bit of tradecraft we should all have in our repertoire already. This is True Spies. I’m Vanessa Kirby.

Guest Bio

Former CIA officer Doug Patteson is an adjunct professor at the University of New Hampshire and holds an MBA from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is a SPYEX consultant, certified in HUMINT (human intelligence) collection and counterterrorism, and has extensive overseas experience in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.

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