True Spies Episode 64: CIA? More like CON
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 64: CIA? More like CON.
KENT CLIZBE: Espionage is all about building relationships with people and then manipulating them. That's exactly what con men do. And the Wayne Simmons story should go down in history as one of the most successful cons ever.
NARRATOR: Secrecy defines the lives of True Spies. Undercover identities blur the lines between fact and fiction. It's all part of the job. What's real, what is not? The truth is often concealed deep beneath years of officially sanctioned lies.
KENT CLIZBE: CIA officers can live their entire career undercover. Even their family may not know that they worked for the CIA. So it's not unusual after 20, 25, 30 years for someone to say: “Okay, I'm retired now. And, I'd like to share the fact that I was a CIA officer.”
NARRATOR: But under the cloak of agency secrecy, there is fertile ground for deep deception. Tall tales can blossom here, unchecked and unprovable - that is unless you have a dogged true spy on your case.
KENT CLIZBE: My name's Kent Clizbe I formerly served as a CIA operations officer. I also served as a contractor for the CIA running counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and other operations throughout the world.
NARRATOR: Kent started with the CIA in 1994 but, after five years, he hung up his employee status and became a contractor, taking on a whole range of project work with the agency up until 2011. But the path that led Kent to the CIA in the first place... well, that’s not your usual True Spies origin story. Kent didn't grow up with laser-focussed ambition to become a spy. He followed a winding and varied career path that took him all over the place.
KENT CLIZBE: I had been a linguist in the military. I traveled the world teaching English as a second language, working in refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia. I worked for the government in Saudi Arabia, taught in a university there, worked for a consulting company in the UK, and worked for them throughout Europe.
NARRATOR: It wasn't until his mid-30s that Kent decided to settle into the world of espionage, but what drew him to the profession was not the allure of gadgets and glamor. No, his reasons were a little more practical
KENT CLIZBE: I needed health insurance really badly because I had a young child, and the CIA offered me a job and they had great health insurance.
NARRATOR: Who would have thought that joining the CIA would be the 'family man' decision? But once Kent was on board, his career was anything but pedestrian. He worked in everything from narcotics to terrorism, from recruiting spies to training them.
KENT CLIZBE: I was able to cram a lot of experience into a short period of time.
NARRATOR: And by the time Kent started to wrap up his final CIA contract in 2010, he’d accrued an extensive collection of contacts.
KENT CLIZBE: So, I had a wide network throughout the military as well as the civilian intelligence community. I'm always open to any kind of opportunities or networking.
NARRATOR: So, when a former colleague said...
KENT CLIZBE: “Hey, I've got a buddy who you really should meet. He's also an ex-agency guy and he's really cool...”
NARRATOR: Kent was up for it.
KENT CLIZBE: Yeah, absolutely. I drove up to meet them in a restaurant.
NARRATOR: Little did he know this lunch date would shape the next three years of Kent's life. So, time to meet the man at the center of this story.
KENT CLIZBE: When you first meet Wayne Simmons, he is talkative, very boastful. He was always dressed in a suit and tie with an American flag.
NARRATOR: Right, that kind of guy. As the outfit might suggest, Wayne Simmons wasn’t keeping a low profile. He was a showman, someone who lapped up the limelight.
KENT CLIZBE: Wayne Simmons had been on Fox News for many years. I don't have cable TV, and I'd never watched Fox News, so I had never seen him, but he was notorious or famous already. Looking back at clips of his appearances, what he was known for - and I guess what they wanted from him - was belligerent sounds clips of a confident-sounding person justifying the war or on terror, and justifying any kind of torture or any actions that would be taken against terrorists. They would get justification and support. When you look at him now, he's just so ignorant. But at the time, his point of view was hugely popular.
NARRATOR: Within the first three minutes of meeting Wayne, Kent knew something wasn't right.
KENT CLIZBE: Even before the waitress came to take our order, Wayne started in with: “Hey, us ‘ops’ guys gotta stick together talking about drugs, and big busts.”
NARRATOR: In Kent's mind, it wasn't just a penny that dropped, it was more like a bomb.
KENT CLIZBE: Boom. Nothing rang true. It was just like red lights flashing, alarm bells ringing. Who does this dude think he is? Who does he think I am to not see through him?
NARRATOR: There's the saying: ‘It takes one to know one’. But in this case, we should say: ‘It takes a true spy to sniff out a fake one.’ And Wayne Simmons was playing a dangerous game.
KENT CLIZBE: Simmons claimed he was an expert in the Middle East, in Islamic extremism in counterterrorism. And these are all things that I actually am an expert in. I have lived and breathed them.
NARRATOR: So it didn't take long to spot the inconsistencies, the errors, the implausibility of the stories Wayne Simmons was spinning.
KENT CLIZBE: I've met and known hundreds, thousands of CIA and ex-CIA officers. And nothing he said was congruent with what a conversation between ex-CIA officers would have been. He was talking about busting narco-traffickers in the Caribbean and yeah, he took down $X billion worth of drugs. He was like a caricature of what an espionage operational officer would look like or sound like in a bad movie or a really cheap thriller.
NARRATOR: Ouch. A harsh diagnosis. Would you confront this man then and there? Call his bluff? It's tempting, isn't it? But Kent's a professional.
KENT CLIZBE: Of course I didn't say anything.
NARRATOR: Because playing your cards close to your chest gives you more options later down the line. Never a wise decision to act in the heat of a moment. For this moment was most definitely heated.
KENT CLIZBE: Let me explain a little bit about my character. When I was young, I was very hot-tempered. I got into fights. I hurt myself in fights. I hurt other people in fights. I had a very quick temper, but as I have matured, I don't get angry. The only thing that really makes me mad now is somebody trying to play me for a fool - and that's exactly what Simmons was doing.
NARRATOR: Or trying to do. Kent was suspicious from the get-go but not everyone is as scrupulous as our true spy here.
KENT CLIZBE: He had obviously played many people for a patsy, many people for fools. He was a constant guest on a major media outlet, and he was in effect representing the CIA. Every time he was on, he'd be represented as a CIA counterterrorism expert, CIA intelligence officer, former CIA covert action operator with vast expertise.
NARRATOR: And Kent Clizbe was having none of it.
KENT CLIZBE: He had gotten in my face and, in effect, dared me to call his bluff. So, on the drive home after that lunch, I was determined to find out who the hell this guy was. So I started doing the due diligence that I hadn't done before the meeting because I trusted my buddy - who now, was clearly not trustworthy anymore. His judgment was very much compromised.
NARRATOR: Okay, so maybe this mutual friend should have been a little more discerning when it came to buying into Wayne Simmons' story. But it's worth zooming out for a moment to see just how widely accepted the story was. Not only had Wayne Simmons convinced Fox News that he was ex-CIA, but he was also using the regular airtime to convince millions of people all over America - and around the world - that he had solid CIA credentials. And that's not all. Wayne Simmons even published a novel. He claimed the book was based on his own experience, and guess what? On the back of the book, there's a blurb from the then-US secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. The blurb reads: ‘Wayne Simmons doesn’t just write it. He’s lived it.’ Wayne Simmons hadn't just convinced the media, the public, and a few gullible characters in Kent Clizbe's network. The story was accepted at the highest reaches of government but Kent wasn't buying it.
KENT CLIZBE: I just had to confirm my gut instincts which told me he was a fake and a fraud.
NARRATOR: And so, Kent began mining the resources he had to hand. By this point, he was out of the CIA. This was strictly a personal investigation, so access to secret files was out of the question.
KENT CLIZBE: Everything that I developed was completely open-source, from records, from people that were not classified at all.
NARRATOR: Kent begins with every true spy's most valuable source of intel: human assets.
KENT CLIZBE: I started working my network, and working the network that Simmons was part of, to get to the bottom of who Simmons was, how he got to the position he was in, and what was going on here? I did extensive vetting, gathering details, keeping an eye on him, asking other people at all levels of the agency - if they knew him, what did they know about him? Hey, y'all, Wayne Simmons. What's his story, man?
NARRATOR: While the alarm bells kept ringing for Kent, it felt like his concerns were falling on deaf ears.
KENT CLIZBE: I thought there would be a vigorous response - officially and unofficially - from former CIA officers as well as from the government agency itself. And there wasn't.
NARRATOR: But this was not the end of the road. Kent had an idea.
KENT CLIZBE: At that time there was a very public and vigorous campaign against what they call ‘stolen valor’. That is, people claiming credit for military service, military decorations, a military experience that they don't have. There was a pretty large network of military veterans that got really good at vetting claims. They knew exactly how to work the bureaucracy to either confirm or refute someone's claims of military service. So as part of my effort, I thought: “Hey what Simmons is doing is stolen valor. It's CIA stolen valor.” So, I approached the stolen valor military networks and suggested: “Hey, let's, let's join forces here.” When they first heard about it, they were: “Whoa, cool. Yeah. Oh, this is great, man. Yeah, we can work together. This will be a really great extension of our existing efforts. And we'd love to work with CIA veterans to expose stolen valor cases. Send me what you got on Simmons and I'll get working on it.”
NARRATOR: Great, someone's finally listening. The ball is rolling, or is it?
KENT CLIZBE: Very quickly, they either went silent once I sent them information or they came back and said: “Simmons is who he says he is. We have no interest in this. Period. And we're not going to be working on this.”
NARRATOR: Something wasn't right.
KENT CLIZBE: These stolen valor guys are relentless. I mean, they're pit bulls trying to get to the truth. Something scared them when they looked into Simmon's background. Nobody would tell me why they were scared and nobody could give me any kind of confirming information about what led them to believe that Simmons was real.
NARRATOR: What would you do in the face of such a shutdown? What if Wayne Simmons is legit after all? Is that why the query is shut down so fast? Do you persevere in your quest for the truth, or walk away? No prizes for guessing what Kent did. He carried on, of course. The reaction from the stolen valor network only made him more suspicious, more determined than ever. So he went back to Plan A, working his personal network, and it began to yield results.
KENT CLIZBE: My efforts were gaining traction among CIA veterans.
NARRATOR: Kent reached out to former colleagues and new connections throughout the Agency, sharing his assessment of Wayne Simmons and asking them to share theirs in return.
KENT CLIZBE: I'll read you some examples here. These are what they sent me: ‘I was at Fox about a year ago in the green room. He's never said a word that indicates real service. This message went to Fox management and they were told that Simmons was not real and that they risked great embarrassment if he continued appearing on the air. A month later, he was on the air again. He was on C-SPAN and he was commenting on Benghazi. It was weird beyond belief.’
NARRATOR: From these responses, Kent knew he was not alone. Others suspected that Wayne Simmons was a fraud but to Kent's disappointment, no one within the CIA was willing to escalate the issue.
KENT CLIZBE: One of them had really put any energy into exposing Simmons and ensuring that the fraud came to an end.
NARRATOR: Kent, on the other hand, was like a dog with a bone. He was willing to go all the way.
KENT CLIZBE: I didn't have much to lose. I wasn't on the CIA payroll. I wasn't getting a pension. I was more focused on doing the right thing than worried about the blowback from bringing this issue up. I was focused like a laser beam on proving he was not a CIA officer. I can tell you that for three years, I was researching him, vetting him, using my networks to do due diligence on him. So, what I did is, I put together a short dossier of his claims.
NARRATOR: And the first place to look for those claims?
KENT CLIZBE: From his website, his: ‘About Me’. It's one paragraph. He claimed he'd spent 27 years working for an outside paramilitary special operations group, that he was a CIA officer, and that he was a non-official covered officer.
NARRATOR: Kent shares the claims on Wayne’s website with other legit CIA people in his network.
KENT CLIZBE: And all you have to do is, as a real agency officer, read that one paragraph and know this guy's fake. Then I shared assessments from other actual CIA officers who had interactions with Simmons.
NARRATOR: All the while, Kent keeps his investigation under wraps because, at the end of the day, he's a true spy using the true tradecraft of secrecy.
KENT CLIZBE: I never shared with Simmons, or our mutual friend, that I thought he was a fraud. I kept in contact with him, and Simmons always had some kind of: “Oh, I've got something coming up. It's going to be big business and blah, blah, blah.” It was always smoke and mirrors and it was really cool. Things were going to happen. And he was high level and he was plugged in.
NARRATOR: Wayne Simmons kept boasting, and Kent kept listening, collecting more and more material for his investigation. But Kent couldn't resist baiting Simmons a little.
KENT CLIZBE: What I did do was, I arranged an introduction to a couple of other ex-CIA officers. One, specifically, was very high level. He'd been one of my bosses when I was new in the Agency and he had retired, pretty much, at the highest level that you can get. So I introduced them. And my friend was an avid Fox News junkie and he knew of Wayne, probably seen every time Wayne had ever been on TV. And I had shared with my friend - I'll call him Mr. X, he doesn't want to be identified - I'd shared with Mr. X all of the details that I had discovered about Wayne. And it was very clear to him that Wayne was a fraud, so he started interacting with Wayne on social media and he was very aggressive. He was like: ‘Dude, you're not who you say you are.’ I mean, he came right out and confronted Simmons. It's very interesting. Simmons went into a sort of... Admit nothing. Deny everything. Make counter-accusations.
NARRATOR: But then, the tide changed, Wayne knew the game was up.
KENT CLIZBE: After a couple of exchanges, he told my friend: “I will never personally hold myself out as CIA again.”
NARRATOR: Gotcha! Not only did Kent and his CIA friend have an admission from Wayne Simmons, but they had the admission in writing.
KENT CLIZBE: So, once we got that admission, that's when I wrote this article.
NARRATOR: That's right, Kent was going public with his suspicions. He drafted an article detailing all of Wayne’s far-fetched claims about his Agency experience and offered evidence that they were bogus. And this confession from Wayne, it was the pièce de résistance, the cherry on the cake. It was gold, but there was just one final step to go before publication.
KENT CLIZBE: So, as an ex-CIA officer, I have signed a secrecy agreement and anything that I publish has to be cleared by the Agency. They have a special committee that's set up. Before you publish something, you have to send it to them and they'll just come back and they go: “Well, page six, line three, don't say that.” And then, you negotiate what you can and can't say, and then they'll finally give it the stamp of approval. So I drafted the article and sent it to that committee. Now, if in my article I am exposing something classified - something secret, something covert, that there was this very deep, special outside paramilitary group that Simmons was a high-speed, low-drag member of...
NARRATOR: In other words, if Wayne’s claims about his CIA experience were real...
KENT CLIZBE: Then the Agency's official publication committee would have said: “No, you can't publish that. In fact, you need to take his name out. You need to take out any mention of this special group.” If there had been any truth to Simmons’ claims but, that didn't happen. The Agency publication committee said: “Go for it. Good to go. You have our clearance.”
NARRATOR: Because of the way the CIA operates, they can't confirm or deny if certain individuals were or were not involved in CIA activities.
KENT CLIZBE: So that was pretty much the only official support and or confirmation that I had for the claim that Simmons was a fraud. So now I went to Simmons and said: “Wayne, I'm going to publish an article. I want to share it with you. Before I do, you're welcome to respond to it.” And what did he say? He retracted his confession. In response to the article that I shared with him, he reiterated his claim that he'd been a CIA officer.
NARRATOR: Wayne Simmons was doubling down. He wasn't going to see his reputation pulled apart without putting up a fight.
KENT CLIZBE: In effect, he threatened me with retaliation. Here's what he says: “I categorically deny your accusations. For 27 years, I acted in the capacity of an operative for the CIA. I worked for the CIA. I have prepared a very intense response for you and your friend. It will be published shortly. You are publishing lies and you know them to be lies.” So that was his response.
NARRATOR: An 'intense response'? Sounds... intense. And it was. Before Kent’s article was even published, Wayne’s threat began to materialize.
KENT CLIZBE: I was totally shut down.
NARRATOR: Wow. That really is an intense response. This guy even has the power to silence the press... The press, who - up to this point - Kent had been enjoying a decent relationship with. When he’d initially sent his article out to a few media outlets, there was quite a bit of interest. It was received well.
KENT CLIZBE: One had already pre-okayed it. Yes. Give us an article on Simmons and we will publish it.
NARRATOR: But suddenly, it all changed.
KENT CLIZBE: And they backed out. They refuse to publish it. No media outlet would publish my article on Simmons. Clearly, part of his very intense response was working. He and his network of people who bought his story denigrated me and my efforts. So, if a tree falls in the woods and nobody's there, does it make a sound? No. Nobody heard what I had to say. Wayne continued appearing on Fox News. He was everywhere.
NARRATOR: When is it time to call it a day? For Kent, this was it. He'd tried to take his story to the government, to the Agency, to the media. Nothing had worked. He packed up his files on Wayne Simmons and resigned himself to defeat. At this point, you've got to wonder... Has it been worth all that trouble?
KENT CLIZBE: Oh, yeah. Oh definitely. My career has had many different facets. The only thing that is constant throughout my career is that I do the right thing. I have a clear conscience. And the people that did me wrong know that they've done me wrong, and I don't know if they can sleep at night or not. But I don't care. I did the right thing.
NARRATOR: Kent made peace with the whole thing and moved on.
KENT CLIZBE: There's a song back in the ‘90s that: “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You ain't never going to keep me down.” And that's me.
NARRATOR: And sure enough, a couple of years after Kent gets knocked down the case gets picked up again, this time by the FBI.
KENT CLIZBE: Clearly, I had come up in their investigation. And I don't know how or why they began investigating him. Is it because I stirred the pot and I had been questioning him in many different areas? Maybe I, I don't know. They never told me.
NARRATOR: Either way, Kent was finally seeing the results he'd been pushing for all these years: a thorough exposé of the life and lies of Wayne Simmons. And he was going to do everything in his powers to assist the investigation.
KENT CLIZBE: I shared all of the details I had, including his confession, and then his retraction, and his threats and that kind of thing.
NARRATOR: It all proved useful, all that work, all that due diligence. None of it went to waste because in 2015 Wayne Simmons was taken to court and tried in front of a Grand Jury. Among other things, he was charged with two counts of major fraud against the United States. And when the results of his trial went public, Kent finally learned the true story. So who is the real Wayne Simmons?
KENT CLIZBE: He was a street dude from Annapolis, Maryland, A street-level hustler who had been involved in cocaine, who had been involved in various street crimes. He was charged and convicted for a shooting incident, multiple driving under the influence arrests, multiple felony convictions.
NARRATOR: And as for his CV, well it wasn't as illustrious as the ‘About Me’ section on his website implied. Here's a brief summary of Wayne Simmons' real career history.
KENT CLIZBE: A bouncer at a nightclub, ran a hot tub business or something.
NARRATOR: But Wayne did, in fact, secure legitimate government jobs and contracts.
KENT CLIZBE: What he tried to do was build on his notoriety and his fame as a Fox commentator by getting paid jobs with the government based on his connections and his notoriety as an expert. He was not accepted because of his expertise. He was not accepted because of any content he had to offer. He was accepted because of his name.
NARRATOR: And it was these jobs that landed Wayne Simmons in the deepest trouble.
KENT CLIZBE: One of the things that he was convicted of was lying about his background for a security clearance. He had to fill out a standard security clearance form. And, on that form, he said that he'd worked for the CIA. And that was the crime that he was convicted of.
NARRATOR: The job that Wayne had lied to get was with the Department of Defense.
KENT CLIZBE: In what they called, back then, the ‘Human Terrain System’, they needed some kind of on-the-ground cultural expertise in the areas that they were operating in at that time - Afghanistan, Iraq. So what the Human Terrain System did was to engage mostly anthropologists and send them out as consultants contractors into the field with the idea of understanding what's happening among the humans in the target area. Simmons was offered a job. I'm sorry, I can hardly say it without laughing. It's hilarious in retrospect, but it's terrifying that they offered him a job and they hired him as a Human Terrain Systems expert consultant when you know his background. He had been a bouncer at a disco or a nightclub owned by an Iranian American. That was about his cultural expertise, but they hired him as a cultural expert and sent him to, I think Afghanistan.
NARRATOR: The scale of Wayne Simmons’s con is almost unbelievable. And you have to give it to the guy, it was impressive.
KENT CLIZBE: So yes, I admire the savvy and skills that it takes to build such a criminal enterprise.
NARRATOR: As for the motivation behind the con, well Kent has some theories there.
KENT CLIZBE: I think the bottom line is he had no marketable skills. He had an extensive criminal background. He had failed in multiple businesses. He had no future. He had no way of legally making money. So what else was he going to do? “Hey, they'll buy that I was a CIA officer.” Yeah. Go with it, man. Why not? So he carved out his own little niche and he was very successful at doing it. So I guess I can completely understand why he did what he did.
NARRATOR: The whole lie was the perfect way to explain away a lifetime of crime and professional failures. If anyone questioned the felonies and flops of his past, he could just tell them he was operating as an undercover CIA officer. It wasn’t real. It's genius when you think about it. How Wayne Simmons came up with the idea will never truly be known, but again, Kent has his own ideas on that.
KENT CLIZBE: So what I believe is that Wayne was a street punk. He was a thug. He was a loser from a good family. He was the black sheep of a good family.
NARRATOR: That part at least, we know to be true. Wayne Simmons was from a high-flying military family. His sister had held a number of high-ranking positions in the Defense Department and the Department of the Navy. His mother had been an FBI fingerprint analyst. As for the next bit, well, it's one theory.
KENT CLIZBE: And I think that he was a snitch. I think he was a snitch for local and federal drug authorities, the DEA, the state Bureau of Investigation, and the local police. I believe that he was very likely providing them with information on the drug dealers and other criminal activities in his area. He's involved in criminal activity and he agrees to provide information to law enforcement in return for leniency In regards to his own involvement in criminal activity.
NARRATOR: And if that's true, then this experience would have equipped Wayne with deviance and manipulation - two skills that come in handy if you want to become a spy, and even more handy if you want to pretend to become a spy.
KENT CLIZBE: And my guess was that somebody probably said: “What we're doing is just like the CIA. This is high-level espionage, buddy.” I think somebody planted that in his mind and it grew into the story that he ended up portraying.
NARRATOR: To this day, it's not clear how, exactly, Wayne Simmons first began to construct one of the most elaborate and effective cons in history. And, as for the question of how he got away with it for so long, well, there's no concrete answers to that either, but again, Kent has a hypothesis.
KENT CLIZBE: I don't have a smoking gun. There is no paper that says it. It's very clear that he had what we call ‘top cover’ in the bureaucracy. That is somebody up above, somebody at high levels in the military bureaucracy was vouching for him and saying: “Simmons is my boy. Don't touch him. Hire him. Do whatever it is. Get him on Fox. Get him on the military’s special journalist program.”
NARRATOR: Kent believes that this would explain how Wayne was able to get away with such a brazen fraud for so long.
KENT CLIZBE: If a con man has 'top cover', if a con man has the trust of higher authorities, it just opens up everything. The keys to the kingdom are at his disposal.
NARRATOR: No one can say for sure how Simmons was able to fool so many for so long, but one thing's for sure. His con was a dangerous one and had the potential to endanger national security and put American lives at risk. In 2016, he was sentenced to 33 months in prison for his crimes. The case will no doubt go down in history but what can we take from it all?
KENT CLIZBE: Hmm. Yeah. So the lessons from the Wayne Simmons story... I think the lesson is that vetting means doing due diligence, and being absolutely certain of who you're dealing with, and what their real background and expertise are. And if you don't do the vetting you end up with Simmons.
NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another mission with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Kent Clizbe is a former CIA agent and author of several novels including Willing Accomplices, about KGB influence in the US. He now works as a director of a corporate counterintelligence consulting firm in Virginia.