"Black Ops: The Life of a Legendary CIA Shadow Warrior" - with Ric Prado
Andrew Hammond: Hi. And welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology, of the secret world. We are “SpyCast.” Now, sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: This week's episode features one of the most renowned CIA operations officers of his generation, Enrique "Ric" Prado. To say he's had quite the journey would be quite the understatement. He was born in Cuba, fled the Castro revolution as a young boy, ended up in an orphanage in Colorado. Later, he joined an elite United States Air Force pararescue unit. He was a paramilitary officer, living among counterrevolutionaries in the 1980s. He went to the Farm to become a case officer and had six overseas posts in his 24-year career. He describes his only bad habit as liking fast things on wheels. In this week's episode, we talk about his time as CIA counterterrorist chief of operations, which included September 11, 2001, his career battling Communist insurgents and Islamic terrorists in multiple continents, his experience living among the Contras during the Nicaraguan revolution and his time as deputy chief of station and co-founding member of the Bin Laden task force. Enjoy.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for coming on the show.
Ric Prado: Well, it is my pleasure. As you could imagine, for a intel officer to do his first podcast in something like the, you know, Spy Museum, "SpyCast," that's a heck of an honor for me. So thank you for having me.
Andrew Hammond: Well, thank you. Well, there's so much of your story that I want to dig into. And I really enjoyed reading your book. I actually read it twice now. I love the fact that you were really into the movie "Tombstone" when you were in Shangri-La. You mentioned it in the book. And I was thinking, like, my favorite quote that I can remember is the one where Wyatt Earp slaps the guy and then said, are you going to do something, boy, or just stand there and bleed?
Ric Prado: That is a fabulous movie. And for me, Val Kilmer stole the show because he did such an incredible job as Doc Holliday. So my favorite line is the old, hey, Johnny Ringo, you look like somebody just stepped on your grave.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) OK. Well, let's dig into your remarkable career. You mention in the book that when you were in Langley at headquarters, you never walked over the seal because you had such reverence for it. And I think that that's a good place to start. Take us back in time to the day that you first walked through those doors and saw that seal and saw the memorial wall and what it felt like for you to be joining the storied Central Intelligence Agency.
Ric Prado: You could imagine, being a immigrant to this country, I've always felt that I had a huge debt of honor to pay back for everything that it did for me. It was surreal for me. I mean, even though I had interviewed, I had taken the polygraphs, I had done all those things - but the first time I walk through that door to get my badge and to go in, I was literally floating across the floor. I never stepped on that seal not because it's sacrilege, but it was just - it meant so much to me that I would always go around it. I just couldn't quite do it. Wild Bill Donovan was one of my heroes growing up - Teddy Roosevelt, Wyatt Earp and him. I've read a lot of their books. And that was a big influence for me - the whole OSS portion, being military and that. It was just one of the highlights of my life, walking through there, knowing that I was going to be part of something - that I was joining something very special. I had no idea that I was going to have such a great ride.
Andrew Hammond: Talk us through that initial period, because you start off as a paramilitary officer, right? And then after a period of time, you go to the Farm. And you become a case officer. So I found that part of your journey really interesting because you were - in the book, you discuss how, for a paramilitary officer, to a certain extent, you're like a blunt instrument. You've got to be a hard charger, and you've got to just go at the problem head on. But as a case officer, there's layers of nuance and finesse. And it's interesting to me that transition that you had to make. So walk us through those first few years as a paramilitary officer.
Ric Prado: I was Air Force Pararescue. I went in Pararescue in 71. And in '74, when I couldn't get to Vietnam because there were - that's what I wanted to do, I wrote the agency. And they sent me back a very nice note saying, thank you, but we're firing, not hiring. Those were very bad years for the agency. Subsequently, around 19 - late '79, early '80, I got the bug again, and I rode again. And at the time, I was riding with the Miami-Dade Metro Fire Department as a paramedic because Pararescue, of course, are all EMT, too.
Ric Prado: So they called me back. The agency called me back and said, look. We don't - we're not hiring staff right now, but we do have some contract work that you can do as a paramilitary medic when we're doing some training or maybe even missions. And I'm going like, put me in, coach. That experience exposed me to what Special Activities Division Ground Branch was called back then, which is one of the three branches in the paramilitary side of the agency.
Ric Prado: And when the Contra program - when the Sandinista revolution started getting fought against, you know, when we - when Ronald Reagan came in, one of the first things he did was - he says, I want a covert action program on this. Well, suddenly, I got a phone call in Miami that - from the agency that said, hey; listen. We have something for you. And at the time, I was tired of the - you know, the 30 day here and no hope of getting higher. So I asked them a question. I said, just one question. I don't know - I don't care where I'm going or whatever. Is this long-term, or is this contract? And when they said long-term, that was it. I said I would do it.
Ric Prado: So it was really backdooring it into the agency through that. And the reason was they called me was because at the time, the agency capabilities were anorexic. And there have been so many firings and stuff like that after Vietnam, and they did not feel they had a native Spanish-speaking paramilitary officer that could pull off not being an American. So that's where I cut my teeth. It was for a little over three years. I slept in a jungle hammock Monday through Friday, going to the different camps. And it was arguably the best job I ever had for a myriad of reasons. But primarily, it was personal. It was very personal to me, that mission. That was the start. I did three and a half years there and had some great operations and a couple of good scares and lived to tell about them, I guess.
Andrew Hammond: I mean, I think for that initial period, one of the things that I find quite interesting - and we can we can broaden this out. But what you said there that it's personal - so I found it quite interesting that you came to America as a result of a Marxist insurgency and guerrilla movement, and then you found yourself in Central America in the '80s. And for you, this was personal. There was a personal connection to it not just because of language but because of your experiences as a young boy.
Ric Prado: You know, absolutely, Andrew. I honestly believe that each one of us is given a God-given path. And if you have the courage to step into it, it is your path. And you will endure, and you will succeed. I think that from very early age, because of what I saw of the revolution, the atrocities, the persecutions, what they did to my family, I had a very strong conviction about fighting communism. Fast-forward to, you know, a couple of years later. Now I was able to come to the United States without my parents, came out through a program called Peter Pan. The Peter Pan program was bringing in kids whose parents could not get out. So lucky me; I ended up in this orphanage in Pueblo, Colo. - quite an adventure.
Ric Prado: But by the time I got to Nicaragua, it was not only my background and my experience. It was the people I was dealing with. Every night I would grab a cup of coffee, and I would go sit with a different group of freedom fighters. None of them had read Marx. None of them had read Lenin. But each one had a personal story. They raped my daughter. They beat up my priest and closed my church. They forcibly conscripted my 15-year-old son. And the litany goes on. There wasn't a single person that said to me, well, you know, we have to fight the tentacles of this octopus that is communism. They were really simple people fighting for a real simple thing, which is freedom.
Ric Prado: And I want to highlight that one of the biggest influences on me was my father because imagine taking your only child and putting him on an airplane to a country that you've never been. You do not speak the language. And you may never see him again - not for economic reasons, on quite the contrary - but for freedom. He did not want his son to grow under that kind of regime.
Andrew Hammond: I mean, on the personal note there as well, it's really interesting to me. During your career, you could almost map onto the war against communism and then the war against terrorism. So you're fighting against this ideology, but it's quite interesting to me because even in your own family, in the book you outline how your godmother's husband was a Marxist. He tipped your family off that you were going to - Ric Prado, CIA legend, was going to be sent off to the Soviet Union to become a promising prospect for the other side. So even within your family and then your cousin as well, he comes and lets your family know that the guerrillas are going to be coming through your village and stuff. So there's this kind of interesting dynamic going on.
Ric Prado: I think that that was the theme with just about everybody in Cuba. I mean, we all had - we hoped that family is - family blood is a little thicker than anything else, than ideology. In the case of my uncle, married to my mother-in-law - I mean, my godmother. He wasn't a Marxist hardcore, but he was a communist. That was his ideology. But he understood - I mean, I lived in their house for almost two years because I used to go to school away from my town. I lived in a very small town, and the school that I attended there, he was one of the professors there. So it was a private school. So I lived with him for two years. So I was like his youngest son. And that's the reason, I think, that he came over.
Ric Prado: My - the cousin story was - my dad's cousin, and he was one of the rebel leaders in the Escambray Mountains, which is where Che Guevara actually dominated. And he came to the house one night, middle of the night, and told my father - said, look; you know, you - we're going to take the town. But neither you nor your wife can leave because - it was my first lesson in counterintelligence. He said, if you - if they see you and your wife leave with your kid, they'll know something is up 'cause they know you and I are related. And so that started the first adventure, which is - was leaving that town under the conditions and coming back. It was quite a growth period for a 8-year-old.
Andrew Hammond: All of these places where you have found yourself, especially in Central America and South America, it's like, there's these authoritarian regimes or dictatorships, and then there's a - or a communist insurgency, and then there's a countermovement, so even the term Contras comes from counterrevolution, right? And then Cuba as well, the Escambray Mountains, there's also a resistance movement against Castro and that regime there. It's - yeah, it's quite interesting to me how you're located within these big historical forces that you've found yourself a part of.
Ric Prado: I believe that that was just my - that was my path. That was my destiny. And, you know, you can't use a sword unless you forged it first and have the right steel. And I think looking back now, all these lessons - I would tell you, getting on an airplane by yourself when you're 10 years old, going to an orphanage in Pueblo, Colo., which is a pretty rough town, and it was a pretty rough orphanage. That was quite a test of my survivability, you know? But, you know, I was, again, blessed with a dad that always brought me up as the little man, your responsibilities. I wish I was as stoic as he is, was. And again, just the same thing with running the North Korean programs, you know? It was all - I kept gravitating back to these things. And in many cases, they were off.
Andrew Hammond: So let's go back to your early years and working for the agency. So you're in Nicaragua. One of the parts of the story of the story that I found quite interesting was - there was one part in the book where you realize that you're being set up by a small group of Contras to be whacked. But you managed to set yourself up in a situation that that obviously doesn't happen. So can you just tell us a little bit more about that? I mean, I understand as well that you're the only agency officer who's in the camps for 14 months. I mean, you're - so tell us about that experience.
Ric Prado: It was, again - I never woke up one morning, Andrew, and said, ah, I got to go to work. Never. Not in my whole career. It was always - I got to go to work. I really found a purpose there. That incident that you're speaking is - there was an incident at the camp where the commander had been compromised, and two of his sub-guys became broke. They were stealing cattle and all this other kind of stuff. And I was sent there to bring it back and - pretty long process. As you read, there's two guys that I was able to bring back alive - but bring them back under some kind of duress. When I got there and grabbed the first guy and sent him back with one of the local captains, I stayed in the camp. And it was - I was not a case officer yet. I had never recruited anybody.
Ric Prado: But several months before, this young - very young guy comes to me from one of the camps and says, my wife is ill. I need some medicine. Can you help me out? I reached into my pocket, gave him about $20 worth of lempiras. And he went off and got the medicine for his wife. Well, fast-forward three, four, five months - whatever it is - I'm walking with another NICA that was in the helicopter with me, and literally, it's almost comical because he was behind the bushes, and you hear this - psst, psst - (speaking Spanish) major, major. And so I say, what's up? He goes, they're going to kill you tonight. They're planning to kill you tonight. I said, what are you talking about? He goes, yeah. You know, they know that you're here to get Creel (ph) and Carramallo (ph) and they're going to kill you. Normally, when we stayed in the camps, we stayed in the middle because that's how we were more protected. Well, this time they said, oh, this is where you're going to be staying was at the outskirts of the town - of the thing. And I said, OK. So as soon as it got dark - as soon as it got dark, we crawled out the windows, walked up. There was a substantial hill in front of it, and there's no way I was going to try to get back to civilization. I mean, you know, you're talking three weeks' worth of walking. But I said, well, you know, at least here we have a fighting chance. We set up a perimeter. We took our time (ph). And sure as hell, around 10, 11 o'clock at night when it was pitch black, they were there with flashlights. And you could see - you could hear them - you know, you could hear them arguing, where are they, and all this kind of stuff. Of course, they finally got off - they did not chase us. I had been training most of these guys myself, so they knew that they would be in a fight if they came after me and my guys. Walked back into the camp the next morning, just like nothing had happened, and it was funny because some of the people were like, he's still here. And the other ones were smirking, he's still here. And eventually, I got the second guy that second day, so...
Andrew Hammond: I just want to discuss the Contras. You call them my beloved Contras. It seems to me that what you're saying in the book and that example of the two deputies to suicida (ph) as an example as the - the Contras were a group that were made up of many different types of people that had many different grievances and that were fighting the Sandinistas for many different reasons. And if you have enough people like that, you're going to get people that are doing stuff that's not acceptable. That seems to me what you're saying. You're not saying that every one of them is an angel, but you're not saying that every one of them is like a killer. You're saying that we're all organically in this fight for something that was personal that related to their life and the fact that they all got painted in the same way for a small percentage of people is unfair to the memory of what they were fighting for. Tell me if I've got any of that wrong.
Ric Prado: You're 100% right. The Sandinistas revolution started with some of the former Somoza military guys. They were the first that had to leave because, you know, they were being killed; same thing that happened in Cuba. The prosecutions were there. There was no trials. These guys were being summarily executed. So you had the original were people that were lieutenants and captains and even some like Enrique Bermudez, who was later assassinated by the Sandinistas, they were former Somoza officers. But to say that the organization was Somozista (ph), as many people threw that name out, is ridiculous. You're talking 80%, at least, of the forces and even more so the fighting, they were all peasants. They were all simple, you know, Nicaraguans fighting for the causes that I mentioned before. There's - I had a special love with the Miskito Indians. It didn't dawn on me at first, but, you know, for me to be in Honduras and in Nicaragua, that wasn't a culture shock for me because I am Hispanic and I know the culture with its nuances but nonetheless. But going through the Miskito where they don't even speak Spanish - and there's three tribes there. You got the Miskito, Sumo and Rama, and that's led by a guy named Steadman Fagoth. I just talked to him a couple of days ago. We remain friends. I love those guys because there was even more purity because there wasn't a single Somozista or former Somozista around. And I want to highlight that these two guys that went rogue, that was the exception, not the rule. And that was an anomaly. And the side of the coin that I want to focus on is the fact that we did something about it. We do not let it go. As soon as we found out that this was going on, we took corrective action. So when I say we, we're talking about the FDN, the Hondurans and, of course, the Americans behind it.
Andrew Hammond: That experience with the Miskito Indians is a really interesting one, almost seems to me like they don't need to go through the training. They're, like, born special forces. They just come off the shelf like that.
Ric Prado: They really are because they're people that live off the land. They're all incredible hunters. They're all incredible trackers. Some of them are incredible divers. You read that I use some of their divers to do some serious damage to the Sandinistas. I am very proud of that one, too. These people were instinctively very adept at patrolling, and they had a lot of support in the area, too. It was a very difficult area. One of the reasons the Sandinistas always try to move into the Miskito, the Native's area, is because there are some gold mines out there that are very lucrative. So that's always been part of the impetus for them controlling that area. And they couldn't do that with, you know, the thousands of guys we were training and arming and sending in. So I had my good experiences with them and I had one bad experience. I think you read when there was a rift in the Misurasata and several commanders - I think it was like eight of them - came out. They were going to - Steadman Fagoth on trial because they were convinced that they were - that he was stealing from them because we had to stop some of the refuelling or the resupply because of political things that were going up and down. And I flew into Puerto Lempira - sorry, into Rus Rus, was the camp, directly on a helicopter when I found out this was going on. And Steadman Fagoth came in shortly thereafter. And he says, what are you doing here? And I told him. And then he looks at me, he goes, what are you doing here, knowing that? I go, I'm not going to leave you here.
Ric Prado: So that night, I had a - I called a meeting with the commanders. And they all come out. And it was something out of "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly." All these guys had the bandoliers with the stuff. And, you know - and they were not happy. I was there by myself. I had a Browning 9mm. What do you do with a Browning 9mm against 600 guys, right? But I had credibility with them because I ate their food. I slept in their, you know, hammocks. I was the guy coordinating the resupplies for them. I had credibility with them. And so I was able to parlay that into a treaty that said, look; if you want to get rid of Steadman democratically, OK. But if you harm one hair on his head, we're going to get you. I mean, we got shot at several times because Sandinistas were all over there. But that one was one of those that, you know - one thing is combat, where your blood gets up and your - you know, your adrenaline kicks in. But when you're walking into something like this and you have to keep your cool and you know that the consequences are going to be severe if you screw it up, it was quite a challenge.
Andrew Hammond: Is that something that you were born with, or is that something that you learned to do when you were in the Air Force, during the PJ? To what extent is it born, and to what extent is it created?
Ric Prado: Well, I think, like in everything that we have, you have, you know, your DNA wiring, and you got your acculturation. Like I said, my father brought me up to be a young man. I learned to shoot when I was a little kid. I would, you know, help him drive the cars. I would sit on his lap and drive the cars. I had a horse before I had a bicycle because it was a small town. And so all those experiences - yeah, the wiring was there. And the mentoring from my dad were there. But then, the trip to the orphanage - and then definitely when I got into pararescue, as being one of our special operations forces, you know, the training is very, very intense. The washout rate is no less and no more than Seals or Green Berets. And making it through that, making it through SERE school, making it through mountain-climbing school, there's a certain level of conquering your emotions that you have to do in order to do all that. But I think that the most important thing was that I believed in what I was doing. I honestly never doubted that I was wearing the white cowboy hat.
Andrew Hammond: One of the other things that I wanted to ask before we move on to your transition to become a case officer was you speak about having the Miskito Indian camps - they weren't penetrated by the Sandinistas because they were such a tight kin group and community, but some of the other ones were penetrated. And one of the questions that I had was, did you have to be cognizant of foreign intelligence officers being around this game as well? Like, was there ever something that was on your radar, like Soviets or Eastern Europeans or...
Ric Prado: We knew that the Cubans primarily were the surrogates for for Soviet Union at the time, and we knew that they were coaching the Sandinistas and they were, in many cases, leading them, some of their pilots and stuff like that. In any insurgency - I'll just go back to the OSS days. How many elements of the resistance were compromised because they turned somebody or they recruit somebody or they force somebody into that? You're talking people that it's hard to imagine immorality - you don't understand. If somebody comes up and puts a gun to your daughter's head and says, you know, you're going to help us with this, like they do in these in these places, what choice do they really have? So it was - overall, like, I think believing in what I did was probably the single most important thing because that cleared my conscience and that steeled my spine.
Andrew Hammond: Let's talk about your transition to become an ops officer. Some of the other people that you were going through with were straight out of college, and you say that trying to get good recruits that way is almost like trying to choose Tom Brady amongst the NFL draft or something. So help us understand that transition from paramilitary to case (ph).
Ric Prado: I had no training from the agency going into the Nicaragua program - none. I got some briefings from analysts about what to expect and this, that and the other, but there was no training whatsoever. So the transition to - the point is, I had no idea what the agency really did. And you hit on something that a lot of people do not understand. In my business, in our business, unless you're there to do a rendition or something, the minute you grab your gun, your mission's over. Our missions - even if the mission was accomplished, you bugged that terrorist safehouse, then you get into a firefight, your mission is compromised. Your government is embarrassed, and you're PNG'd (ph) from a third country. So that is - for us, tradecraft and awareness are our tools. You know, awareness beats fast draw every single time because our main job is to be - you know, to detect something and be able to avoid it. So the subtlety of the program was something that fascinated me. And, of course, I had read a lot. I've always - I was a reader since middle school. I had one teacher that really infected me with reading. So I was always reading about the French Resistance and about the OSS and that kind of stuff. I understood that there was both sides of the coin, that there was a very physical, aggressive part. And I think that's why I was so well-suited for it - because I really felt at home in both camps.
Andrew Hammond: We'll be right back after a word from our sponsors.
Andrew Hammond: In the book, you outline your respect and reverence for Bill Casey. You say he's the best leader of intelligence since "Wild Bill" Donovan. I think Casey's such an interesting figure for a whole variety of reasons, but tell me why you hold them in such high regard. Is it his leadership style, or is it his actions? Or is it something else?
Ric Prado: You know, it's one of the highlights of my stay down there. Also, I mean, you've got to understand that I was a GS-10. And here I am. I get called in from the camps, no reason given. You know, my colonel said, we need you to come in, Alex (ph). And I show up at our command post, and there is this guy in a pressed vest with really nice clothing on and a Rolex, big cigar in his hand. He said - and I was introduced to Dewey Clarridge, who is a legendary man, one of the - wonderful friend. He was a mentor of mine from that day on.
Ric Prado: And I will tell you, I still get goosebumps because Bill - all of a sudden, he introduces me to Bill Casey. And he says, Mr. Director, this is your man in the camps. And you talk about a badge of honor. I was - you know, and then Casey says to me - he says, son, you know those photographs that you take in all the camps and you send in? He said, I keep those on my desk. And any time somebody tries to push back against this program, I use those photos to beat them over the forehead. Keep them coming.
Ric Prado: So, I mean, I was walking on air. I had the pleasure - although it was difficult because I had the best Spanish of the guys there. When we had a couple of meetings with the Honduran - senior Hondurans and some of the Argentines that were there at the time early on, I was his interpreter. And as you probably have heard, he was always a mumbler.
Ric Prado: And so I'm sitting there. We're at this one training camp, not one of the operational camps but one of the training camps just outside of Tegucigalpa. And my food, of course, was getting cold. It had flies on it. I couldn't eat. I was paying attention. And all of the sudden, he kind of, like, does one of these. He closes his eyes, and I go, oh, boy. This is going to be something. And there was this Argentine that was kind of noticing what was going on, so he started pressing. And Bill Casey just all of a sudden looked up and gave him the most precise, articulate answer. And the guy went like, oops.
Ric Prado: I think the other thing that fascinated me about him was that he was no assassin. He was - I mean, he wasn't a guy that parachuted into France. But he conceptualized a lot of great operations, and he did a lot of great stuff. And, again, there's a common theme here. They're believers. Casey was a believer. Dewey Clarridge was a believer. Ray (ph) was a believer - Vietnam vet, the whole nine yards.
Ric Prado: To tell you the truth, this is the reason I wrote the book - because, you know, my agency is the most maligned, misunderstood agency in the whole federal system. We are always being painted as being immoral, corrupt, you know, maniacal assassins. You know - what is it? - "American Made" and Jason Bourne and all these movies that are out there - there is very few movies or books that portray the agency in a realistic light. We don't do the James Bond stuff. Yes, we get - sometimes you get into trouble. And you got to - you fight your way out. But it is a completely different thing than what people expect from us.
Ric Prado: And people don't realize that our successes cannot be recounted. I mean, the Nicaragua stuff - I can talk about it now because that was 1980. How many years have gone through then that I am now being allowed to talk about some of these things? I really wanted to be the voice of my colleagues as much as possible because, you know, you mentioned when I first walked into that hall. When I saw those stars on the wall, that's a chilling effect 'cause, you know, the agency is not big in numbers when it comes to operational officers. And, you know, sadly now, Andrew, there's 137 on that wall, and a third of them are post-9/11. I would say that the successful operators in the agency, they're not looking for a job; they're looking for a purpose.
Andrew Hammond: Just when you are talking about Casey there - I'm sure you've heard this one (laughter), but the joke was that they didn't need a telephone scrambler for him because...
Ric Prado: (Laughter) Nobody could understand it.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) I'm sure some people say the same thing about me.
Ric Prado: I can understand you clearly. So we're good.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) OK. So let's walk forward then. So you're - and you have made the transition over to a case officer. So we've got this period when you make the transition from - you know, and you go back and forward. But you make a transition from fighting communists to fighting terrorists. And it's quite interesting because that - in the book, you outline that one of the jobs that you went for, you later found out that you were the only person that applied (laughter) because at the time, the agent - counterterrorism was the bastard child of the CIA. Tell us a little bit more about that transition over to counterterrorism.
Ric Prado: Again, it was one of my bosses that came to me and said, this is the perfect job for you. We need to have more peace officers that have paramilitary credentials. We need to get our guys to be recognized, and they are. They definitely are, especially now. So I put in for this job, and I waited, like, three weeks. And, you know, I'm sweating it. And finally, the guy that - our PM officer, a personnel officer, calls me in. And he was kind of a jerk anyway. He calls me in, and he says, yeah, you got the job. And I go - I did, like, a high-five or whatever. And he says, what are you so excited about? You were the only guy who applied for the job.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Ric Prado: And I'm not saying that I'll be - that place, as you read, was very dangerous at the time. But that was probably the most dangerous time in that country's history, up to date, as far as, you know, the insurgencies and the terrorism and the murders and the sabotages that were being done. So, people - you know, it discounted a lot of people, a lot of people with families that now want to go there. The other one was the language. You know, my agency moves with this language. You know, that is our key trait. If we don't - if you cannot communicate, you cannot recruit. Or you cannot develop, then you cannot recruit. Quite a pleasant surprise. And I never told my wife that the guy told me this was the - that I was the only guy who had applied.
Ric Prado: I know better than that.
Andrew Hammond: So help us understand that transition, for you personally but also for the agency that you loved, this move over to counterterrorism because you play such an interesting role because your mentor, Dewey Clarridge, he becomes the first head of the Counterterrorism Center, and then you later on become the chief of operations. Help us understand that gradual transition through the '90s over to the early 2000s, where the agency and you both start pivoting towards counterterrorism.
Ric Prado: You know, counterterrorism was probably one of the biggest game-changers for the agency because most of our work was done in the diplomatic or the business circuit. Recruiting foreign agents with access to intelligence but in very socially acceptable, you know, areas and over dinners and - well, you cannot get terrorism information or counternarcotics information from somebody in the DIP circuit. So it was a new set of skills, which - it really helped a lot of the paramilitary officers because now you had individuals that had a little different grit. And I think that was an advantage. But that was such a big deal. And I've heard the charges that, you know, we as an intelligence community took our eyes off the communist ball and thus only focused on terrorism. And I disagree because I know that we were still working against the Soviets and against the Chinese and against the North Koreans.
Ric Prado: However, I will say that it was a triage of resources. You know, terrorism is the equivalent of getting shot, where communism is the equivalent of cancer. So to fight either one, at least with the cancer, you have some medical, and you have some paths that you may be able to take, and most importantly, you've got a little bit of time. In terrorism, if you miss the cues and you lose the timing, people die. So we had to do a triage kind of concept of - what is most important with the finite resources that we all had?
Andrew Hammond: How much was your - where you're focused on whatever was in front of you or the task at hand? And how much were you thinking about what was over the horizon? I know that - help us understand how much someone like you, who's rising through the ranks, who's doing this transaction, how much are you focused on what's in front of you, and how much space or time do you have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture?
Ric Prado: I think it's – it’s an excellent question. I think it's a combination. You know, in the agency, you don't get anywhere if you are just a blunt instrument. It's a career of sophisticated complications. You know, you have to understand that, you know, intelligence operations, you know, you're talking exhaustive collection, exhaustive internal analysis. You're talking meticulous planning, and then you're talking expert execution. Those are things that are very hard to achieve if you're a one-trick pony.
Ric Prado: We always kept in the big picture as part of our education and as part of our training of the farm is understanding that you have to know the global dynamics and how that affects your account. That said, as you so properly said, when you're there, tunnel vision, you are focusing on your stuff. And in that one Latin American country, I remember the first thing I used to do every single morning. I used to get into the office before 7:00, grab a cup of coffee and I would take the left-wing newspaper, the right-wing newspaper and the middle-of-the-road newspaper. And I wouldn't even turn on my communications until I had read through those because I needed to know in whatever microcosm was, what was going on.
Ric Prado: So I think that, you know, it's - again, it is the characteristics of an agency officer over an intel officer is more of a jack-of-all-trades than an expert. You know, I think that our analysts, for example, are the most incredible. I mean, I love our analysts. We couldn't do our work without them. They have the luxury of coming in and picking a topic, and they can carry that topic for their whole career. And I know a guy - we EOD'd together - entered on duty together - and he literally went from GS 10 or 11 to an SIS-er doing the same kind of work, just more and more sophisticated and more and more knowledgeable, where we have to go to different countries, learn different languages, learn different customs.
Ric Prado: For me, the transition of terrorism was heaven sent because I still like that part of it. I mean, I have done the other - I've done some great recruitments of diplomatic circuit individuals, and I do it - own a tuxedo to this day. So I clean up well. But deep in my heart, I like getting my hands dirty, and I like meeting folks. And that period in Latin America where I was literally - I literally recruited a terrorist - through coercion, but nonetheless, it was something that it was easy in my character to say, hey, this is justifiable. And of course, we had the permissions to do so. It was an easier transition than somebody that was used to, you know, Paris or something like that, and all of a sudden now they're being sent to a place where it is a third world, and people are trying to kill you.
Andrew Hammond: Another thing that I find quite interesting is it seems to me from the book that a lot of your work is South or Central America and then and East Asia, Korea, also North Africa. Sorry. So there's quite a lot of ground that you cover. I guess the question is, for many people, like, you find your niche. You stick to the niche because it reaffirms your sense of self-worth because you're the person that knows about that niche. So that seems to be the more typical thing, not just for people in intelligence but just in life. But for someone like you to go from PJ to paramilitary to case officer, from Latin America to Korea to Shangri-La, there's a lot of lateral moves. There's a lot of adaptations and chameleon-like behavior, and I mean that in the best possible way. For people that are less than, like, how does one go about doing that? Because typically, you just find the thing that you are comfortable with. You stick to that because it makes you feel secure, and then you don't move.
Ric Prado: Perhaps I just have a short attention span...
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) Maybe.
Ric Prado: ...And have to, all of a sudden - you know, I've conquered this. I got to go do something else. You know, our officers seldom do more than three years in country because of exposure and just wear and tear. So you are going to be moving from different accounts and different cultures, to a certain degree. For me, it came easy just because I wanted to go where the average person wasn't going. That was always my niche. Shangri-La was a perfect example. I was four years into my sister rank when Cofer said, hey, you know, we need - I need you to get me somebody to go to Shangri-La and help us, you know, with the station that was just reopening. The embassy had been closed for a couple of years, I believe. And I couldn't find anybody. I made a bunch of phone calls to all the personnel officers, and they all said, no, we don't have anybody that's interested.
Ric Prado: And for several reasons - one was my wife did have a medical scare there when we were in Korea - and also because our kids were now of school age - they were in high school, different grades in high school, we decided we were not going to take any further overseas tours, that I would, you know, continue to do my work, but do it more from headquarters and TDYs. And so when I went to my wife with the fact, I said, look, I want to do this. It's going to be probably six to eight months. She's a trooper. I mean, I couldn't have done anything that I did in my career without her. And you read that in the book, she even participated in some pretty cool adventures. But it was – that the change came natural just chasing what was the highlight topic. And there is also - a thing I concluded the book is that I didn't do any career planning. I never sat there and said, you know, I need to get this job in order to get my GS-13, -14, -15 or SIS (ph). I always followed the - I hate to use the word the action, but where the importance of the pointy end of the spear needed to be. And there's two or three incidents in the book where those changes came to me. I wasn't looking for them. I was chief of the Koreas, and that's how I made senior grade. And I was the rep to the NSC for the agency on that hard targets board. And it was a great, conventional job. I loved it - again, fighting communism, very sophisticated. I got involved in operations because I like to lead from the front. And that's in the book. At least one of them was - they allowed me to talk about.
Ric Prado: But, you know, I had Henry Crumpton, who to this day is a dear friend of mine - he called me up. And I had never met the man. I had heard of him. And he says, I want to talk to you. And he's the one that - I went over, and we chatted over coffee. And he said, look. You know, I want you to be my replacement in a year. And I wasn't thinking of going back to the center at the time. So all of the sudden, I find myself back at the center as the chief of international terrorism, which was everything except bin Laden, and then from there, moving to the - going to Shangri-La and coming back as the chief of ops and then being the chief of ops when 9/11 actually happened.
Ric Prado: It's very similar to what happened to me in going to Costa Rica and going to Korea. It was the chief of station that had asked for me. In both those incidents for different reasons, they had asked for me to be pitched to do that. And there were both surprising changes because in both cases, I was already assigned to another country. And at the last minute, you get this phone call that says, hey, man; the chief wants to talk to you. And I end up in these other two assignments, which were absolutely wonderful. But they weren't of my picking. It was my, you know - my mentors or leaders say, that's a good fit for them.
Andrew Hammond: That certainly comes across in the book. Like, it wasn't a chess match of trying to get as far up the hierarchy as you could get. It was more, where is the action on the chess board? That's where I want to be.
Ric Prado: Yeah. I think that the greater majority of the agency folks - and, you know, you got to understand - and you know this. The agency is not just operators. So the guys who are ops officers, case officers - there's a finite number. We cannot do anything without the support of everybody else, from logistics to security to our analysts. It is a team sport. And each one of those individuals goes into - in that career track - logistics, security, whatever it is. But you do it through the agency because you believe in it. You believe that you're trying to make a bigger difference.
Ric Prado: So whether a DO officer or a DI officer or a DEA officer, I found that the majority of the people that I work with were mission-oriented. Whatever their mission was, mission-oriented - they were proud, and they were very focused on making sure that they kept their end of whatever needed to be in operations.
Ric Prado: That said, like in any culture - I mean, in the military, you have guys who go in and - you know, the Billy Waughs of the world that go into harm's way for four tours in a row and have eight Purple Hearts. And then you have the other ones that, you know, gravitate towards the circuit and become military attaches. And they all end up at the same place but by different means. I was blessed with opportunities that allowed me to polish myself and to grow. And each one of these tours, because they were so different - when you come out of there, you have a different level of confidence because now you've conquered yet another culture or another challenging things or working at a different kind of a target.
Andrew Hammond: Let's go forward to September the 10, 2001. I think that was quite interesting because you're there at the counterterrorism center. News has came through about Ahmad Shah Massoud, who's been assassinated by al-Qaida operatives. In the book, you outline how you're thinking to yourself, this is pretty sophisticated. The way that they've done this seems like something else is happening. Take us back to that day, September the 10. Help us understand what it was like to be Ric Prado on September the 10, 2001.
Ric Prado: You know, to paint you a better picture, I will start with, again, one of these jobs that I was asked to take that I didn't even know existed, which was - I'm a plank owner of the Bin Laden task force. Mike Scheuer, a brilliant analyst, was the chief of the station, and I was the deputy chief of station. That was my first exposure to what became al-Qaida and the Taliban and everything else, so I had that knowledge behind me of their modus operandi. And the one thing that I learned really early on in counterterrorism, especially when it comes to the - you know, the al-Qaida type of terrorism is the guys who pulled off 9/11 had enough education to fly a 747 into a building. Killing Massoud was one of the most clinical operations anybody could tell. They went in there into the hornet's nest in that kind of dedication. So you cannot underestimate your enemy if you want to win your fights. So 9/11, I was - like every single one of us, we knew exactly where we were standing and what we were doing. And I knew there was something bigger as soon as that second plane hit. My first comments to the chief of staff was, I need you to send out a cable to every station telling them, No. 1, watch your six. This is not a singleton act. No. 2, turn up every rock because we need to know who these guys are and where their softer belly buttons are at. That was my very first action. As you probably know, the agency was forced to evacuate because that other - there was other planes, and they felt that the agency was a viable target. I mean, I would have hit it first, knowing what I know, but I guess they went for the political part of it or the economic impact. But CTC stayed open. Counterterrorist Center stayed open. Cofer Black, who to this day is one of my dearest friends and mentor, he said, I'm not going anywhere. You're all free to go, and especially if you have kids who came out of school and all that other, you're free to go. But the Counterterrorist Center stayed open. I slept in my office for three nights without going home, literally taking showers in the gym.
Ric Prado: And one of my one of my favorite stories of that period - and I use it to show the contrast from what the media portrays our people like to the reality of the courage and conviction that my colleagues display every single day. It was around 8 o'clock at night on 9/11, and I was making the rounds because, you know, CTC was a huge open area with a gazillion cubicles. And I walk up to the area where Hezbollah branch was because my office was on the other side, and there was this young lady that was sitting at the desk. She was the deputy of the Hezbollah branch. She was eight months pregnant. And I walked up to her and I said, what are you doing here? And she says, well, I'm not convinced that this was bin Laden. I want to make sure that it wasn't Hezbollah. Well, let's face it, Hezbollah had killed more Americans - 246 of them as a matter of fact. Before 9/11, they had killed more Americans than anybody else. And I looked at her and I said, look, I've delivered two kids in my life. None of them were mine. I ain't about to do the third. So I forced her to go home. I had one of our logistics guys take her home that night.
Ric Prado: I saw her again a few years later, and she came to me and she said, you know, every birthday that my daughter has, I think of you because you forced me to get out of there. And the moral of the story is the strongest drive in the human race is the mother instinct to protect her child. And this woman, eight months pregnant, was able to turn that off and stay in harm's way to get her job done.
Andrew Hammond: And there's a really beautiful vignette at the end of the book where you discuss Dewey Clarridge phoned you up and said, you need to come. And you go, and the two of you sit, and you have this moment where you realize that he's passing the torch on to you. I was wondering, have you thought to yourself, who's the person that I am going to pass the torch on to? Dewey...
Ric Prado: I already have, actually.
Andrew Hammond: Oh, you already have? Can you tell us who and how?
Ric Prado: Yeah. I cannot mention her by name. My old deputy, for one, in the last effort that ended up being an extremely high rank in the agency, he was a guy that was always smarter than I was and just as good as anything as I was. I would consider him, like, one of the two or three people that I actually mentored and passed on the baton inside the agency and even afterwards. My deal with Dewey was actually helping him post my agency career. I was still working with the community. This is outside of the book, so I cannot go into details, but for the next eight years after retirement, I did nothing different than run programs for the community in a very different way. And Dewey - that was one of the things he wanted me to take over was some of these great thing connectivities (ph) that he had here and there. Yeah, and they ended up being really sexy (ph) things to run.
Ric Prado: But yeah, it was never a career thing. It was always a purpose, and, you know, I made some mistakes, as a lot of young guys would do, like being kind of a jerk, getting into fights and crap. But, you know, I believe that we can build enough good karma that it will get us to the right afterlife, as far as I'm concerned. And for me, it was always a mission. For me, it was a - the purifying fire for me was the agency and Pararescue. I'm very proud, very, very proud. I would have not gotten into the agency had it not been for Pararescue.
Andrew Hammond: It's been so great to speak to you. I could speak to you all night. Just to bring it to a close, I think there's another really beautiful vignette at the beginning of the book, which I alluded to earlier. You're 7 years old. You're looking out of the window, and you see this guerrilla on your front porch firing into a bar that policeman used to frequent - and then your journey to be where you are now. And I guess the question is, have you been back to Cuba? Is there still that part of you inside that still longs to go home? Or do you feel like you've moved on now and - help me understand.
Ric Prado: You know, Cuba is my roots. That's my cultural roots. That's my family roots. I'm very proud of being Cuban-born. I'm an American first and foremost. That I have an affinity towards Cuba - of course, because that's home. You're giving me more credit, probably, than is deserved in that sense. I mean, I didn't plan any of this. These things just were things that went - came in my way, and I had to walk - some of the other ones I chose to walk. But it is not that unique.
Ric Prado: I will tell you, I have a very good friend of mine - I will not mention his name because I can't. But - agency guy. That's how he retired from the agency - senior grade. But he was in the Bay of Pigs as a 17-year-old. He turned 18 in a Cuban jail. When Kennedy extricated them through the trade of tractors and medicines, he joined the Green Berets, and he went to Vietnam. And he had tours in Vietnam. Then he came back, and he went to Georgetown, got his degree and then joined the agency and had a fantastic career and retired SIS something.
Ric Prado: So organizations like the agency have a lot of Ric Prados. We will never have a shortage of warriors. We could do better in leadership, but we will never have a shortage of people that are willing to go in harm's way. And that was the fascinating thing for me. And then - and working with the CIA was that if I looked right or left, I saw people that I admired - some junior to me, some senior to me, some of my peers - but were people that I was extremely, extremely proud to be part of. And again, that's why I'm writing the book because I want the average American to see what a real CIA operation looks like. Not Jason Bourne, not James Bond, as many books of his as I read - that's not what we do. I'm still waiting for my Aston Martin.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Ric Prado: We don't - he was a Scot, right? And so...
Andrew Hammond: Come to the Spy Museum. We have one in the lobby (laughter).
Ric Prado: I know. I might drive it off.
Ric Prado: But it was that trajectory that being - seeing the amount of talent and conviction and patriotism that all my peers displayed - day in, day out - was humbling - very rewarding career.
Andrew Hammond: I think that that's one of the things that, in a humble way, I am trying to do with the podcast, is to humanize intelligence professionals. You know, the regular folks in some senses were extraordinary folks in other senses. That's one of the humble goals I have for the podcast - just to try to get these stories out there.
Ric Prado: And I truly appreciate your time on this and your effort on this because it is very important to me. You know, when my grandson was born and I - he was starting to read, I said, I don't want him to learn about the agency from the movies. So it's great. Well, and the next time that we talk, I will tell you my Scottish story. When I went to MI6, that's exactly what happened. The Scot guy that was my counterpart taught me how to drink single malt scotch and was just getting into cigars, and I taught him about cigars. So why not do it again with another good Scot?
Andrew Hammond: It's perfect. Let's do it.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks so much for your time, Ric. It's been really a pleasure to speak to you. I've enjoyed it very much. And I really loved your book, and I hope it does gangbusters and everybody hears about your incredible story.
Ric Prado: Look forward to meeting you...
Andrew Hammond: Yeah (laughter).
Ric Prado: ...In person. Thank you. Thank you very much. Take care.
Andrew Hammond: Thank you. Bye-bye.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter @intlspycast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter @spyhistorian. This show was brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.