p“Lying is a cooperative act, and people believe a lie because they’re hungry for something—usually the thing the liar is peddling. If I chose not to cooperate, his lie held no power.”
—Jamie Smith, Gray Work
Jamie Smith is a legend in his own book, the controversial new memoir Gray Work: Confessions of an American Paramilitary Spy. By Smith’s account he was a paramilitary prodigy who joined the CIA at 19 while still in college. Then he built on that auspicious start to become a top security contractor paid to train the U.S. military and hired by foreign states to assassinate terrorists.
It’s an incredible story, both hard to believe and, given the nature of espionage work, even harder to verify. In fact, CIA veterans don’t believe it and are saying so publicly. That presents a problem for both the author and his publisher, HarperCollins, who are trying to sell a book freshly stocked on the non-fiction shelves while some veterans of the intelligence community denounce it as a fabrication.
“You have to treat the book as a work of fiction,” says James Hughes, who retired from the CIA in 2005 after a long career in the agency and now sits on the board of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. Five CIA veterans familiar with Smith’s story spoke with The Daily Beast and all supported Hughes’s assessment of Smith’s veracity.
Three days after Gray Work’s publication, the top comment on its Amazon page was from retired CIA officer William D. Murray, who spent 36 years in the agency. Some excerpts from Murray’s review: “This author is lying.” And, “shame on anyone who publishes this trash.”
Murray was no more gentle in an interview with The Daily Beast. “This guy’s incredible,” he said of Smith. Then he asked, “Where in the name of God does a creep like this guy come from?”
Because the CIA operates in the shadows of public disclosure, the agency doesn’t comment on former employees. That policy protects spies from being outed even after they have retired. But it also means that anyone with a knack for storytelling and a bit of insider lingo can call himself a CIA officer and be confident that the agency itself will never contradict that claim.
If Smith is telling the truth, it would make him a CIA superstar—a spy whose work was so extraordinary even veteran spooks think it sounds like a deception. If, instead, Smith is a liar, he’s shown an exceptional talent for profiting from it while fooling the U.S. government, investors, and, now, perhaps, a major book publisher.
Yet, a few years ago, it was almost over for Smith. In August 2011 a federal jury found that he’d bilked a retired couple out of their savings. In October 2012 the government shut down his lucrative contracting business. In the spring of 2014 his publisher delayed Gray Work’s publication without explanation. Then in October 2014, Outside magazine published a profile of Smith in which old friends and former colleagues went on record calling him a fraud whose biggest accomplishments were pure invention.
Just when things looked bleakest, Smith’s luck turned. This year HarperCollins, the publishing division of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, rescheduled his book for publication, with the claim that the CIA had vetted the manuscript.
Gray Work represents a first of sorts in the publishing world. Readers are used to seeing prominent true-life accounts revealed as fabrications after they hit the shelves. But Smith’s case reverses the order. The backlash came first. Only then was his book still published despite public doubts about his credibility.
When questioned about his past, Smith has mostly let his lawyer do the talking. Outside magazine is now fighting a $30 million defamation lawsuit from Smith.
“Unlike an executive who claims to have been employed by IBM for 25 years and whose claim is challenged, Defendants quickly realized that Smith was under a tremendous handicap. His obligations of secrecy and confidentiality to the United States Government, other Government agencies, and, in some cases, private clients, prevented him from fully meeting the false and malicious allegations,” the suit reads. “Nonetheless, he is able to, and can and will in this litigation, bringing to an end a malicious campaign of falsehood, disingenuous deceit, and flat out lies.”
When The Daily Beast posed questions to Smith’s publisher and PR agent about his book, a brief exchange led to this note from his lawyer, David Oliver:
“Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.”
Smith told The Daily Beast that his CIA career began when he was plucked from a recruitment seminar at Ole Miss, based purely on his moxie. He began a decorated career with the agency while taking correspondence classes. It was hard, Smith said, to return to school “a semester behind” his classmates.
But a call to Ole Miss showed he graduated on time “with no break in his education,” according to Danny Blanton, the university’s director of public relations.
Bob Baer and Larry Johnson, old agency hands with decades of CIA experience between them, say his hiring story sounds impossible.
To be an eligible applicant to be a CIA officer, “You have to be a college graduate. Period,” Johnson said. “The only exception to that is if you are a veteran military officer or NCO [non-commissioned officer] with 15 or 20 years in the military.”
Smith’s military service, on the other hand, appears to have been brief and undistinguished. Records reviewed by The Daily Beast indicate that Smith quit an ROTC summer training program in June 1993. By October of that year, the records show that he was disenrolled from ROTC and discharged by the Mississippi National Guard. In all, Smith’s military career appears to consist of just over a year spent in the training pipeline before he decided to “voluntarily withdraw.”
Yet according to Gray Work, not only did Smith excel at the CIA, he was chosen for a special mission his very first day on the job—to work undercover as part of the Iraq-Kuwait Task Force at the State Department, during one of the region’s most dangerous periods.
“Those a**holes aren’t telling us anything that’s going on, and I want you to damn well change that for me—understand?” Smith writes his chief told him.
As if anticipating the incredulity of future readers, Smith goes on.
“Surely, he knew I had zero training at that point. It was hard to believe. The chief just asked me to basically spy on another government agency.”
No way the CIA would do that, according to agency veteran James Hughes. “We would never hire somebody at 18, 19, or 20 years old,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen.”
“He said he was sent as a liaison to the State Department?” Baer asked. “It’s crazy. It just doesn’t happen. They didn’t even like to send me to the State Department when I was a GS-15 with 20 years in. A 20-year-old sent to liaison? Zero chance.”
But somebody believed Smith’s stories. As Smith tells it in Gray Work, after his stint as a CIA agent, he built a career in the world of private security contracting that bloomed after 9/11, allegedly becoming a founding member of Blackwater before starting his own security company and deluxe training facility in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
For the better part of a decade Smith was on the rise, pulling in multimillion-dollar government contracts to provide training to the military. He appeared as a talking head who helped narrate the War on Terror for cable news viewers on nearly every network, from MSNBC to Fox News.
Then, piece by piece, the lucrative business that Smith had built as a military contractor began to fall apart.
In 2011, a federal jury in Virginia handed down an almost $10 million judgment against Smith after finding that he had funded his fledgling company, SCG LLC, by defrauding a retired Pennsylvania couple out of their life’s savings.
Craig and Mary Jo Sanford gave Smith the windfall from the sale of a business they had spent their life building. They did so in the belief that he was an ex-CIA officer, a Harvard Law graduate with a degree in accounting, and a man with heavy government ties. They signed a contract promising their investment would be returned in 18 months with interest. Instead, according to Smith’s bank statements included in court documents and in sworn testimony, he used the money to make a string of bad investments, fund his business, pay off credit cards, upgrade his wife’s wedding ring, and buy a Mercedes-Benz.
During the fraud trial, Smith stuck to a story that he had never met the Sanfords, even after being presented with an email he had written to Craig Sanford explicitly saying it had been nice to meet him.
The jury ruled in favor of the Sanfords, but Smith has paid back almost none of the money, according to their attorney. Smith lost an appeal (PDF) in 2012, but still maintains that he plans to fight the judgment in court.
Smith addressed the Sanford case in Gray Work, giving it one paragraph in the almost 400-page memoir, less space than he spent on a bowel movement in a previous chapter. In the book, Smith writes that the ruling was an injustice but that he’s no longer angry about it, and “more important,” focused on his new business at a company called Gray Solutions.
“I blew past it [the lawsuit],” Smith said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “It happened but we’re dealing with it.”
Or rather, he dealt with it—at least for a while. After the ruling, Smith’s company continued to collect from Air Force contracts for security training for nearly a year. But in 2012 the Air Force (PDF) barred SCG from working with them, making Smith’s firm ineligible for all federal procurement programs, for three years. The Air Force’s acting deputy general counsel determined that Smith’s company—which did not respond to a government request to oppose the ban—had “failed to demonstrate its present responsibility” and wrote in his decision that debarment was “in the public interest and necessary to protect the government’s interests.”
Smith, suddenly, was in need of a new source of income.
In Gray Work, Smith tells his story through life lessons. The book hops back and forth between formative Mississippi boyhood and later exploits. Tales of espionage, rescue missions, and assassinations bleed with bravado. If only the government had listened to him, Smith suggests, the deadly consulate attack in Benghazi would have never happened, and the Syrian civil war would have ended in 2012.
Gray Work’s back cover features quotes from some impressive names, including CIA veteran Baer and retired Army Delta Force commander Colonel Lee Van Arsdale. But those endorsements don’t actually add up to much.
Van Arsdale, for instance, told The Daily Beast that he has never met Smith. A mutual friend asked for the quote and Van Arsdale provided it on the strength of his friend’s word, the retired colonel added.
Baer meanwhile said his quote “was never an approved blurb.”
“I sent the quote to his agent about three years ago, but it wasn’t meant for publication and it didn’t relate to any non-fiction book I knew about,” Baer said. “I had no idea what kind of book he was going to write.”
Nor is the blurb that appears on Gray Work exactly what Baer provided. “Frankly, I’ve never listened to a better storyteller,” was how Baer concluded the quote he provided in 2012. But for reasons that Smith and his agent declined to explain, “storyteller” was dropped from the blurb. “Frankly, I’ve never listened to better,” is how the second line of Baer’s quote now appears on Gray Work, with “storyteller” left off.
HarperCollins did not deny Baer’s assertion that he was never contacted by the publisher despite his blurb appearing on the book’s back cover.
In his book and in interviews, Smith dismisses questions about his past. Most of those passages follow a formula: a simple explanation of the supposed wrongdoing, a dismissive comment on the misunderstanding, and a sentence or two about what he’s learned or how he’s grown from the experience.
Blackwater CEO Erik Prince denies Smith was a “founding director” of Blackwater? Chalk it up to bad blood.
Fired from Blackwater after a short tenure? He was going to quit first.
Entangled with disbarred attorney and convicted fraud Troy Titus, who is currently serving 30 years in federal prison for operating an $8 million Ponzi scheme? Hardly knew the guy and only hired him to help support Titus’s wife and “a lot of kids.”
Doubts about his CIA background from almost a half-dozen old agency hands with more than a century of service between them? “We’re going to definitely prove that I was in the CIA,” Smith told The Daily Beast. “That’s not an issue.”
But it definitely is an issue for former members of the CIA. Bob Baer, for one, read the Outside article questioning Smith’s bona fides, and figured that was the end for him.
“The Outside piece I thought was devastating,” Baer said. “I’d crawl under a hole at that point and never come out.”
And it’s still an issue for Larry Johnson, another former CIA officer whose extensive comments about Smith’s claims are best summed up by a stand-alone quote in the Outside article: “Horseshit.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Smith responded to his critics: “Well, the field that I’m in—security contracting and private military contracting—is a very competitive field and a lot of people play dirty pool in that arena,” he said. “I’m not going to get into that work of fiction and dignify any of the specific rumors and allegations, but I wouldn’t have been able to be in this business for 25 years if those types of things had been true.”
Aside from questions about Smith’s CIA service, there also appear to be inconsistencies between his book and his previous stories. Smith told Outside that he had nothing to do with the company Gray Solutions. He even pointed to it as an example of one way the magazine had libeled him in his January lawsuit. Yet on page 10 of his memoir, Smith writes, “Today our new company name is Gray Solutions, but our mission is the same…”
Of all the questions that continue to dog Smith, perhaps the most puzzling is what convinced one of the world’s largest publishing companies to bank on a story that people familiar with Smith have decried as more fiction than fact.
Gray Work was originally scheduled for publication in spring 2014. Only months later, when the Outside piece ran in October, it had been pulled from the release schedule. According to Smith, the delay was caused by the review process. He said the book passed through HarperCollins’s legal vetting and the CIA review board with the manuscript going back and forth at least five times.
Smith’s editors wouldn’t reply to requests for comments on the editing process or whether Smith’s book had been checked for accuracy. Kaitlyn Kennedy, a senior publicist for William Morrow, the HarperCollins imprint publishing Gray Work, sent The Daily Beast the following statement:
“The book is focused on Jamie Smith’s time as a private warrior. It offers a unique perspective into military contractors and we believe the exploits in the book. The book went through the standard legal vetting process and was reviewed by the CIA. We cannot comment on the specifics of the editorial and legal review process as it’s confidential, but we had enough documentation that we felt comfortable proceeding.”
Smith’s public relations representative, Steve Honig, gave The Daily Beast an almost identical comment.
“This book was vetted by the CIA and FBI, published by one of the largest publishing companies in the world and the movie rights are being handled by a leading and very well-respected talent agency. Plus Jamie has been in this business for a quarter century. That should be ample assurance for anyone.”
Both Morrow’s representatives and Smith’s suggested looking to the CIA, both claiming it had reviewed Smith’s book. And indeed, Gray Work’s pages are littered with blacked-out redacted passages. The implication is that what’s left is there with the CIA’s blessing. But it doesn’t work like that, according to the CIA.
To protect the anonymity of its officers, the CIA neither confirms nor denies employment, and it wouldn’t comment on whether its Publication Review Board had actually reviewed Smith’s memoir.
Even if it had, that doesn’t mean the CIA backs Smith’s claims. The agency is not in the business of fact-checking memoirs. The sole job of the CIA review board, as explained in a post by John Hollister Hedley, then-director of the review board, “is to assist authors in avoiding inadvertent disclosure of classified information which, if disclosed, would be damaging to national security—just that and nothing more.”
“Permission to publish cannot be denied solely because information may be embarrassing to CIA or critical of it, or inaccurate. People have a right to their opinions, and they have a right to be wrong,” Hedley wrote.
Smith’s lawyer, David Oliver, provided evidence that he says proves his client’s claims about his decorated CIA service. Among the roughly two dozen documents Oliver sent to The Daily Beast were letters of support of Smith’s operations in Libya and Syria from a congresswoman; a certificate showing a black belt in martial arts; a media badge Smith says was his cover for an intelligence-gathering mission for a classified agency during which he was shot in 2004; and a folder stamped with “Orientation Program,” along with a stapled packet containing a schedule. Smith’s name heads the first page, and below that, it reads: “Welcome to the Central Intelligence Agency.”
The document dump is part of a $30 million libel suit Smith filed in January against reporters Atkins and Fechter and Outside. In it, he claims the Outside article was a hit piece, whose authors “coached and cajoled” their dozens of sources in an attempt to humiliate Smith, all to undermine his contract with HarperCollins and interfere with the release of his book. The suit also alleges at least two dozen errors in the Outside story, including its reporting on Smith’s CIA duty, the denial of his decorated service in Desert Storm, and classification of the fraud judgment as criminal instead of civil.
One of the sources who was allegedly cajoled into defaming Smith, according to the lawsuit against Outside, is Mike Rush, the former president of Smith’s security company SCG.
“I don’t know that I could be cajoled,” said Rush who spent more than a decade as a Navy Seal. “I stand by everything I said in the Outside article,” he told The Daily Beast.
The publishers of Outside stand by their authors and their story and have filed a motion to dismiss.
Larry Johnson, who was quoted by Outside as a seasoned CIA officer dubious of Smith’s service, told The Daily Beast that Smith contacted him personally in the wake of the article’s publication.
As proof of his CIA past, Smith sent Johnson the same scrapbook of documents provided to The Daily Beast. It left him unconvinced. “What I’ve seen, from materials that Jamie gave me, actually ended up raising more questions,” Johnson said.
In Johnson’s view, Smith’s records indicate that he probably did work with the CIA in some capacity, just nothing like the version he tells in Gray Work.
“I do believe that he was at CIA, probably as an intern,” Johnson says. “But his claim is that as basically a 20-year-old he was sent to the front lines of operations with no training.”
“I can show you cleaning ladies and people that work in the cafeteria that have a CIA badge,” Johnson said. “Does that mean they’re James Bond?”
Smith disputes such claims in his libel suit. “I was an officer within the CIA, serving in a covert capacity in the classified project office for the director of operations working against the Iraqi target,” he writes in a response to the Outside allegations. And responding directly to the charge that he was no more than an intern: “An intern won’t work for the Director of Operations and certainly wouldn’t be taking explosives training,” he writes.
Douglas Murray spent more than three decades in the CIA’s clandestine services and served during the Gulf War during the same period Smith says he was “working against the Iraqi target.”
“There were basically less than five people who ran any division in the first Gulf War,” Murray said. “Only two of us are still alive and I’m one them.” Clandestine CIA operatives operate in a shadowy world but a small one. The secrecy that shrouds operations doesn’t cover personal relationships among the clannish intelligence elite. The fact that none of the five agency veterans who spoke with The Daily Beast knew of Smith professionally, or could find anyone to vouch for his service, was as damning in their estimation as any far-fetched claim of his covert work.
According to Johnson, when Smith called him personally, he was ready to be proven wrong and withdraw his earlier doubts. “When Jamie contacted me, I genuinely wanted to say if I’d made a mistake.” Establishing that would be easy, he said. All Smith had to do was provide the name of someone he worked with in the CIA who could vouch for him.
Bob Baer said the same thing about the process for screening an agency vet’s bona fides: “If you actually worked with the CIA, you’d name a building you were in, a supervisor, the name of a group. Any number of things.” Conversely, Baer said, “when someone actually works in a place, if they get into details you can figure out within minutes whether it’s fraud or not.”
A follow-up email to Smith’s representative, Steve Honig, asking for the name of his agency supervisor, or any agency employee who might be able to verify his service, was similarly dismissed.
“We’re not going down that path,” Honig wrote back. “We don’t feel we have to prove anything.”
Scandals over fabricated narratives, from James Frey to Somaly Mam, have rocked the publishing industry in recent years, but none of their troubles seem to have significantly changed the way publishers operate when it comes to making sure an author has his facts straight. The truth is, publishers often lack the time and the resources necessary to make accuracy a priority.
“It would be impossible for a publisher to fact-check everything—we just publish too many words,” says Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic Inc. “But when you feel something is wrong, you have a responsibility to react … particularly if you were forewarned. Usually what happens is you end up publishing it and then it pops up at you.”
“What I would hope happens—and it seems to me happens pretty much in every instance—when the publishers find that [a book] has real flaws, problems, or inaccuracies, most often they end up taking it off the market.” As for any lasting fallout from the fakes that make it through, Entrekin calls the backlash “just another tiny chip in the wall.”
After the Outside article appeared, Baer—who is featured on the jacket and within the text—assumed that the book would be buried. “They didn’t call me up and say, ‘What do you think about him now?’ They could have. I know HarperCollins. They didn’t call my agent. I just never thought it was going to get published.”
According to David Oliver, the attorney representing Smith in his libel suit, HarperCollins knew about the allegations made in Outside and was in fact spooked.
“Oh, sure. It was on many calls when we talked about shelving it… They’re the publishers of American Sniper, [the book from military celebrity Chris Kyle whose later discredited chronicles included picking off looters from the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, shooting dead two carjackers without consequence, and beating up ex-SEAL and former governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura] and now they’re doing Gray Work,” Oliver told The Daily Beast. “They were scared to death about being on the Oprah Winfrey Show and someone dissecting this.”
It’s not clear what HarperCollins has done in the year-long pushback from the original release date. Perhaps Smith’s book has, as he asserted in our interview, been fact-checked. Perhaps the intended audience won’t know enough to care.
True or not, Gray Works is at times a surprisingly gripping account. But it’s not the book that Baer was hoping to read. “I was hoping he would have had a come-to-God moment,” says the man whose own name is used to lend credibility to Smith’s tales. “He was an extraordinarily good storyteller and if he had written a story of redemption about his contracting work and the rest of it, it would have been brilliant.”
But that’s neither the book Smith chose to write nor the one that HarperCollins chose to publish.