On January 5, 2010, the chief of the CIA’s secretive paramilitary operations division accused one of the agency’s elite undercover operatives of financial shenanigans and getting too friendly with a female colleague.
The operative, who uses the alias Mack L. Charles, said the allegations are not only false but part of a larger smear campaign to tarnish his stellar CIA career, run him out of the agency, and keep him from marrying the woman he loves. And now he’s suing the CIA, demanding a jaw-dropping $25 million in damages, and accusing one of his bosses of launching a conspiracy against him, all while she abused alcohol and helped run a failed multibillion-dollar intelligence program rife with fraud, waste, and abuse. It’s a legal fight that threatens to expose some of agency’s dirty laundry, involving tales of internal rivalries and bureaucratic backstabbing rarely seen in public.
The accusations are included in a now-declassified memo introduced in Charles’s lawsuit, which he filed in January in U.S. District for the District of Columbia. Charles (perhaps quixotically) is representing himself in the case and says the CIA has tried to throw up roadblocks to keep him from obtaining legal counsel, a move that one lawyer said is practically unheard of in all his years representing intelligence agency employees. (Click to view the memo).
With Charles ousted from the ranks of the world’s most-storied intelligence service and facing a lengthy and potentially expensive litigation, his supporters are asking the public for financial donations via the website GoFundMe.com.
To hear Charles tell it, he was the victim of a conspiracy of lies and manipulation by a group of master spies. But CIA managers describe Charles as a mediocre employee who was playing fast and loose with the agency’s money and a “nightmare” for finance officials trying to keep track of his expenses, which they suspected he’d inflated.
It’s remarkable that you’re even hearing Charles’s story, given where he used to work and the nature of his job. Charles says was offered a job at the CIA in 1996 and worked abroad as a so-called NOC (pronounced “knock”), which stands for “non-official cover.” NOCs are the most covert of the agency’s operatives, working in jobs with no connection to the U.S. government. Charles’s mission, as he described it in a 25-page complaint, was to “go overseas without diplomatic immunity, spy on America’s adversaries—at the risk of his freedom and potentially his life—and send secret foreign intelligence back home.” When NOCs get caught, the U.S. government doesn’t necessarily come to their rescue. (Click to view the complaint).
According to his complaint, which was first reported by the Associated Press, Charles won four awards for “exceptional performance,” served voluntarily in a war zone, investigated sources of terrorist financing, helped recruit a key source in a Latin American country, and achieved the civilian rank equivalent of a lieutenant colonel in the military.
He also fell in love while working in the shadows, with another NOC 21 years his junior. Charles, who hasn’t given his exact age but is over 45, began to suspect in May 2009 that his bosses were trying to separate the pair, after they became engaged and planned to spy overseas together as a “tandem couple.”
Charles says he wrote an email to his managers, warning them that they were meddling in his personal life by trying to get between him and the woman. And the next month, Charles says he filed a formal employment complaint alleging age discrimination.
And all the while, Charles says, his bosses were planning a retaliation campaign. The day after Charles sent the email, he claims, unbeknownst to him his managers began a “security scrub” of his personnel file looking for “derogatory information” that could be used against him.
A senior CIA official, whom Charles calls by the alias Imelda, would later accuse him of time and attendance shortcomings, as well as what he describes in his court filing as “late accounting submissions.” Charles says he provided information disproving the time and attendance issues, and that in October 2009, an internal CIA review board chose not to take any disciplinary action against him.
A few months later, however, the chief of the CIA’s Special Activities Division penned that damning memorandum, alleging that Charles’s managers suspected him of “manipulation” of CIA funds by submitting “inappropriate, inflated, or inaccurate” expenses and accounting information. Charles was “consistently late” in his filings and a “nightmare” for finance officials trying to reconcile how he spent CIA funds in the course of his spying duties and his work as an operations instructor. The memo concluded that he “lacks the integrity to be trusted” with the CIA’s money.
You see, even spooks aren’t beyond the reach of the bean counters. “I tell my students, incompetence may not get you in trouble, but money will,” Joseph Wippl, a CIA veteran who spent more than 30 years in the clandestine service and now teaches intelligence studies at Boston University, told The Daily Beast. “It’s contingent upon any operations officer to do good accounting. I was a manager in about six different places, and boy, you really watch accounting and make sure things are done correctly. It’s the public's money,” said Wippl, who served as the chief of the CIA’s Europe Division.
But the CIA memo didn’t just accuse Charles of financial misdeeds. It also claimed that he had been cautioned about “alleged inappropriate personal contact with a female student” when was serving as an instructor. And the memo described his overall job performance, contrary to Charles’s record of superior achievement, as unremarkable, singling out one foreign tour as “hallmarked by a lack of operational accomplishment and mediocrity.”
A CIA spokesman declined to comment for this article, citing the pending litigation.
Charles, in his court documents, calls the memorandum “false,” and says it was “solicited” in order to bolster his bosses’ case for firing him. The allegations never came up months earlier when the CIA convened a review panel to consider management’s complaints against him, he says. In Charles’s telling, his bosses wanted him gone after he struck up a relationship with the younger NOC, and they’re retroactively tarnishing his otherwise stellar service.
That internal review panel was reconvened and Imelda provided the memorandum, and this time it recommended firing Charles. He adds that he was never given the opportunity to refute the allegations and that Imelda knew the memo was false and intended to mislead the board.
If Charles’s story stopped there, it might well be written off as a run-of-the-mill employment dispute. But Charles eventually wrote a novel about the CIA, and in January 2014 he sent a copy of the manuscript to the CIA’s Publication Review Board, which screens former employees’ writing to make sure it doesn’t reveal secrets.
The book’s title is the first clue that Charles has penned a jeremiad against his ex-employer: Madhouse: A Forbidden Novel of the CIA. In his complaint, the author says the fictional work exposes “the myriad ways CIA has devolved into a corrupt bureaucratic basket case that is no longer focused on its original mission of protecting America and is desperately in need of overhaul.”
The CIA cannot forbid former employees from writing unfavorably about the agency. The mission of the review board’s tiny staff, as the agency puts it, is “to balance CIA’s secrecy agreement with the Bill of Rights. Business is brisk, as a growing number of former CIA employees seek to become published authors—especially former operations officers reflecting on their clandestine careers abroad.”
According to Charles, five months after he submitted the manuscript, the review board informed him he would not be allowed to publish the book. He claims the board reached that decision “at the direction” of the group that manages NOCs’ assignments, a group that was then headed by Imelda, the same woman whom he accuses of fabricating claims about his service.
Even though Charles wrote under a pen name, his book could reveal his true identity and former connections to the agency, he says he was told. But another ex-NOC, who uses the pseudonym Ishmael Jones and, Charles says, “served in exactly the same position” as him, had published a book in 2008, and his true identity hasn’t been reveaeld.
The CIA, which didn’t authorize Jones’s manuscript, eventually won a lawsuit against him and has sought to claw back any proceeds from the book’s sale. But still Jones has continued to write critically of the CIA, all without blowing his cover, and even penned a blog post in November 2014, half a year after the CIA rejected Charles’s manuscript.
Charles says the CIA’s decision not to let him follow in Jones’s path is just another example of “further and continued retaliation by Imelda.” Now he demands a jury trial, where he says he intends to prove her conspiracy with other officials and to show that she “has exhibited major alcohol abuse behavior that has substantially interfered with her ability to carry out her work and required her to undergo rehabilitation.” Charles is also promising to detail Imelda’s role in a multibillion-dollar program to place more NOCs around the world that critics say has failed and is riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse.
The knives are clearly out. But whether Charles ever gets his day in court is far from certain. The CIA could try to block the introduction of any classified material that Charles might need to prove his case. And already, he claims, the spy agency has tried to throw up roadblocks.
In November 2014, Charles says, he attempted to hire a lawyer, Mark Zaid, who is well known for representing current and former intelligence officials in disputes with their respective agencies. But Charles claims that the CIA told him he’d have to sign a new secrecy agreement before he could hire the attorney, separate from the one he’d already had with the CIA in his role as a NOC.
“That seemed out of the ordinary,” Zaid told The Daily Beast, adding that while representing NOCs presents particular challenges, there are standard protocols that all current and former employees know they must follow. Charles’s case didn’t seem any different. Indeed, he had previously hired another attorney, Victoria Toensing, in his employment dispute and says he didn’t have to sign a new agreement. Charles refused to sign the document, and it’s not clear from his lawsuit what precisely it asked of him.
“All I can say is something seemed superficially different [in Charles’s case], and he didn’t go in to look at the documents, so I never found out,” Zaid said.
Now Charles finds himself in a holding pattern, suffering from depression and unable to see his fiancee, he says. In March 2011, Charles claims that Imelda “took the monstrous step” of ordering the woman to cease all contact with him, threatening her with an assignment at CIA headquarters in Washington if she disobeyed, effectively an end to her career as an overseas NOC.
Charles says he has had no contact with his fiancee since and that he “thinks about [her] every day and misses her as much today as on the first day of his forced separation from her.”
The CIA, of course, may have plenty to say in response to Charles’s accusations of an elaborate conspiracy, threats, and payback. The government has appointed an attorney to represent the CIA in the case, but the agency hasn’t yet responded in writing to his allegations. If and when it does, the next chapter in Charles’s saga could get even uglier.