The Dark Side of a CIA ‘Black Ops’ Memoir
Enrique Prado is long on tough talk and short on reflection about his 24 years as a CIA ‘meateater’
Former Washington Post and NPR editor John Dinges is a winner of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize for excellence in Latin American reporting. His latest book is The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents
READING Black Ops: The Life of a CIA Shadow Warrior, you can understand why it is so difficult for the CIA to shed its terrible reputation. The author, Enrique Prado, who goes by Ric, was a 24 year veteran of some of the shadiest of the agency’s operations against Latin American leftists and Middle Eastern Jihadists. The nasty looking switchblade pictured on the cover points us to Prado’s approach to his job, or at least to the tough guy image he paints of himself in this book.
A career-long paramilitary and counterterrorism operator and official, Prado dives right to it in describing his first job in Central America. “I’d become a blunt instrument, at ease with a weapon in hand and a target to take out.” Whether he actually took anyone out is left to our imagination. In recounting his exploits as a field officer and later in second tier management positions, Prado delights in the prose of spy thrillers and detective novels, making more than a dozen allusions to fictional accounts of the CIA, such as the Jason Bourne/Matt Damon movie franchise. He says he intends to correct the fictional accounts, but his own overblown style tends instead to reinforce the vengeful and violent portrayals of CIA field operatives, yearning to break the wussy rules that keep them from dealing death blows to the bad guys.
Fidel Castro, the CIA’s ultimate bad guy and nemesis, marked Prado’s life and career . He was born in Cuba a few years before the 1959 revolution. A few years in, the Castro regime confiscated his father’s coffee business, spelling the end of the family’s comfortable but not sumptuous life before Castro’s guerrillas ousted the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Young Enrique was the first of his family to go into exile, sent on a “Peter Pan” flight bringing Cuban children to the United States. He was housed in a Catholic orphanage in Pueblo, Colorado, until he was able to join his family, which arrived in Miami a few months later. Reflecting on those early experiences, Prado more than once describes himself as a “Cuban orphan,” a “dirt poor” kid and juvenile petty criminal who stole hubcaps on the hard streets of Miami. Good training, he observes, for his true calling as one of the CIA’s “meat eaters” doing the CIA’s dirty work in the war against communism and terrorists.
Prado is frank about his rightwing ideology, criticizing Democrats for handcuffing the CIA and even echoing a Trumpist trope by referring to an African nation as a “shithole.” CIA employment, he notes with gratitude, gave him ample opportunity to “strike back” at the Marxists who had so damaged his family.
In the pinnacle of his career, Prado rose to deputy director and—briefly—director of operations in the Counter Terrorism Center. His chief was Cofer Black, who headed the CIA’s search for Osama Bin Laden before and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The book is replete with fulsome praise for the agency and Prado’s various “legendary” CIA bosses such as Black, Dewey Clarridge (who he describes as his mentor), and Jose Rodriguez, all figures linked to CIA misdeeds in the post 9/11 period. Prado avoids mention, much less criticism of any of those much publicized abuses, notably the rendition and torture of terrorism suspects.
Lessons from Latin America
It’s Prado’s accounts of his postings in Central and South America—about half the book—that I’m best equipped to assess after writing about and reporting from the southern hemisphere for decades. In his first CIA job starting in 1980, he served as CIA paramilitary advisor in Honduras, arming and training the Contras guerrilla army and participating in operations with them against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. He describes training a team of Miskito Indians, called the Barracudas, as scuba divers and supervising them as they planted bombs to blow up a fuel pipeline in the harbor of Puerto Cabezas.
He also played a minor role in the Iran-Contra affair, the Reagan administration’s off-the-books operation to trade arms to Iran for the release of hostages and use the proceeds to fund the Contras. It was the blackest of black ops, hidden even from Congress, which passed the so-called Boland amendment prohibiting the expenditure of any money to aid the rebels. The scandal erupted when a CIA plane carrying weapons to the Contras was shot down inside Nicaragua. Prado, working in southern Honduras, dispatched a Contra unit to find and destroy the plane. Despite what he calls the Contra’s “heroic effort [by] force march” [sic] to reach the scene, a Sandinista patrol got there first and captured the lone survivor, an American named Eugene Hasenfus, who ended up providing the regime with a trove of intelligence tying the Reagan administration to the illegal arms supplies. More damagingly, Hasenfus’s evidence blew the lid off the CIA’s clandestine scheme with Iran.
Prado sheds new light on the role of another country in Nicaragua: Argentina, whose “dirty war” and international antiterrorist alliance I have written about extensively. In 1980, Argentina’s military dictatorship had defeated its own leftist insurgencies using tactics of mass torture, killing, secret prisons and the disappearance of thousands of victims. That task accomplished, the Argentine military sent advisors to support the Contra insurgency. It was reported that the Argentines provided the first large amounts of cash to fund the fledgling insurgency being organized by former officers of Nicaragua’s National Guard.
Prado seems to confirm, perhaps unintentionally, allegations in the 1980s that Argentina’s financial support to the Contras was actually U.S. money, covertly laundered through the friendly Buenos Aires regime. He writes that the CIA “sold supporting the Contras back in the D.C. political swamp by highlighting that we’d just be buying our way into the existing Argentinian effort. They’d lead the way; we’d support them with a few trainers and money.” The Argentine advisors were “taking American money,” he writes, but were so corrupt that Prado’s CIA boss assigned him to go over the Argentinian’s books to make sure “every dime” of the U.S. funds was accounted for. The Argentine advisors described by Prado, according to my own investigation, had worked as intelligence officers in Operation Condor, the South American alliance to assassinate Marxists abroad, before coming to Central America.
Prado’s other Latin America posting was to Peru, where he ran agents trying to infiltrate (with little success) the vicious Maoist guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso. Curiously, Prado does not identify Sendero or say the country is Peru, even though both facts are clearly obvious from his description of the insurgency and the capture of its leader, Abimael Guzmán, who also goes nameless.
Prado claims he applied what he learned in Latin America to antiterrorist struggles around the world: Essentially the lesson is that the terrorists and fanatics are so evil and incorrigible they cannot be changed or bought off. They are not susceptible to recruitment; they cannot be turned. Instead, following the Latin American military guidebook, “More often than not they must be compromised, and that requires resolute strong arm tactics that are not for the faint of heart.”
If that’s not an obvious paean to the effectiveness of torture, I’ll admit I’ve wasted a career investigating human rights abuses by the Latin American regimes that Prado says he emulates.
As is required of former agency officers, Prado submitted his book to the CIA’s publications review board for approval and numerous passages referring to operational details are redacted. Some redactions seem self-serving, concealing evidence developed in an investigation of Prado’s connections to a Miami friend convicted of cocaine trafficking. Prado was cleared and allowed to continue his CIA career. CIA censors nevertheless allowed Prado to name numerous fellow CIA officers he worked with at the Counterterrorism Center. Oddly, he uses the real first name of at least one colleague but puts it in quotes as if it were a pseudonym.
The coyness of the censors continued in Prado’s description of his later assignments. He is sent to an unnamed North African country as chief of station—a Jihadist stronghold whose capital is the aforementioned “shithole”. In another episode the chief of the East Asia Division requests him for a special assignment targeting North Korean embassies in Latin America. In one heavily redacted passage, he recounts an operation to compromise a North Korean intelligence officer by photographing him opening a briefcase stuffed with cash. Exciting spy-versus-spy stuff, lots of bravado in the telling, but the target refused the offer and resisted the threat that the photo would be sent to his bosses.
Six blacked out lines seem to indicate the intel officer came to a tragic end.
Prado’s reaction when he hears the news will give you a flavor of his style: “I went home and cracked a bottle of champagne. … In a world filled with dirtbags and murderers who want to do harm to Americans, sometimes you have to play hardball. I was okay with that, especially when the good guys win and the dirtbag gets his due…. Don’t fuck with my country.”
Five years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Prado was assigned to Alec Station, a standalone office in the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center in charge of tracking the movements of a then-little known terrorist leader named Osama Bin Laden. Prado treats his newest adversary with respect: “How many sons of billionaires were so devoted to their faith that they lived in a cave and fought side by side with others to protect it.” And this: “He proved to be courageous and calm in a fight,” Prado writes in reference to OBL’s time in Afghanistan, battling the Soviet occupiers.
High praise for the man responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent Americans, especially in contrast to the disgust and invective Prado showered on the Sandinistas and assorted Marxist adversaries in Latin America, who, far from being saints, were nevertheless responsible for a zero body count against the United States.
Prado mostly rode a desk during his final years at Langley, albeit at a senior level, but laments his inability to get back into the field with the “meateaters.” When September 11, 2001 comes along, he is at CIA headquarters working for the unit developing intelligence on Bin Laden—a key element, it must be said, in the government’s failure to prevent the attack. In the “hate, fury and vengeance” Prado feels after the disaster, unquestionably shared by so many, Prado explores a counterfactual argument for the utility of assassination.
“What if we had killed Bin Laden in 1995?” he speculates, recounting the many opportunities his friend Billy Waugh, a paramilitary contractor, had while surveilling OBL in Khartoum. “The three thousand people who died in the World trade Center would still be among us, living ordinary lives of average Americans. … The entire world changed the day Billy Waugh was not allowed to kill a single man, a known terror broker.”
Indeed, assassination has been banned by presidential order since the 1970s. But Prado does not let the issue go in his final years at the agency, which are somewhat difficult to follow in his telling. His final project was to design a counterterrorism program for CTC chief Cofer Black, to “develop new capabilities we could use to hammer Al-Qaeda, as well as other enemies.”
He would be “at the tip of the spear!” he exults.
Prado, maddeningly, is unwilling or unable to tell the reader what the master plan entailed, except to say it led to his unwilling exit from the agency. Prado says he briefed Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice at the White House on the new “special capability.” He says he led his team through weeks of training that involved lots of live ammo drills in street situations and high-speed driving scenarios. But the plan was never put into operation.
Weeks after the White House visit, CIA director George Tenet called Prado into his office and canceled the special mission. Reason: “political considerations.”
“It became very clear I was not welcome in the agency anymore,” Prado concludes mysteriously, and after months of walking the halls without a position, he resigned and went to work for Erik Prince at Blackwater Security.
He is secretive about what kind of work he did for Blackwater, too, except to say it was “Fucking with the bad guys.”
Of course. Maybe that will be the title of Prado’s next book.