The Real James Bond
“I dare you to try this,” the slender, old man across the table taunted my brothers and me, while we waited for our main courses at the Laguna Beach Ritz Carlton. His blue eyes twinkled, dancing in step with the waving spoon. As the slimy steak tartar greeted my mouth, my lips curled in defiant repulse. My 11-year-old hands cupped beneath my chin, positioned like a horse’s feed bag, catching the trickle of sticky saliva and raw, un-chewed meat. He chuckled.
Growing up, we knew him as goofy Uncle Tom, Grandpa’s brother who resembled our favorite TV character, Mr. Rogers. The cascading wrinkles on his face gathered around his eyes, forcing them to droop gently. His salt-and-pepper hair receded. Dad always shook his head with a sigh of admiration. “That’s the real James Bonds, kids.” The man we considered a comedian, the world considered a hero.
Thomas Allen Twetten, born and raised in the sleepy town of Spencer, Iowa, joined the United States Central Intelligence Agency in 1961, a mere 14 years after its establishment. He served for 34 years, working 15 of those years overseas in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa. Beginning as a field case officer, he later advanced to Deputy Director of Operations, overseeing all covert operations, a worldwide spy network under his thumb.
In the early stages of his career, Twetten hid his profession from the public, acting as a foreign diplomat. Twetten served with the U.S. Army in Germany and received his master’s in international affairs from Columbia University before beginning his Agency tenure. However, no degree or textbook could offer solutions to the ever-evolving challenges of a CIA agent; his career demanded imagination, ingenuity and an ability to act under tension.
“Getting someone to willingly give you secrets is an art form, not a science,” Twetten explained.
While undercover in terrorist hotbeds, he experienced relative comfort and safety. Though healthcare in the Middle East lagged behind U.S. standards, the American government provided American education and air–conditioned apartments for Twetten and his family. Locals treated U.S. diplomats with respect. At that time, the world viewed the U.S. with high esteem rather than as an irresponsible aggressor, according to Twetten, making it easier to gather information.
“As a U.S. diplomat, it was quite easy to get people to talk,” remarked Twetten.
He mentioned two instances of danger but remained unhindered by threats. He worked in Libya during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Arab mobs attacked 34 American embassies, including that in Libya where the CIA stationed him. With ease, Twetten described how he and others employed tear gas grenades to ward off the mob. Likewise, he nonchalantly recollected a coup in Nigeria.
Undaunted by impending danger, he stated calmly, “We kept a very low profile until things stabilized,” referring to the coup. His soft voice altered neither in pitch nor tone. No fear could be detected.
Aside from the aforementioned conditions, Twetten reflected on enjoyable experiences overseas. In 1979, he and his family visited King Hussein of Jordan, whom the U.S. courted as part of the initiative to find anti-Soviet or anti-Nasser allies. The Twetten family relaxed at King Hussein’s beach house palace for an extended weekend.
“We ate meals with him. He had pillow fights with my children. It had to do with my role as an international representative,” Twetten remembered with a hint of excitement still lingering in his voice.
Pressures and responsibilities mounted when Twetten became Deputy Director of Operations. To ensure our nation’s safety, Twetten, a true patriot, never “clocked out.” After working long hours at the Langley headquarters, he stayed on call, sometimes receiving phone calls at 3AM, at which time he executed emergency decisions regarding foreign operations. Nonetheless, Twetten labeled congressional testimonies his most difficult role.
“I had to be able to answer questions about any country in the world,” he paused adding, “I had to be careful about what I said. I had to worry about it being leaked into the press.”
He encountered political impediments from both the FBI and Congress. Although all government braches strive for similar goals, they struggle to reach common ground in their approach to achieving those goals. In particular he scoffed at the mention of Senator Charlie Wilson, mirroring his tainted attitude toward Congress.
“Congress is the most difficult, partly because members and some staff tend toward arrogance and opposition, despite both branches working for the same nation and its people,” Twetten lamented in his methodical speech.
With competing branches of government and some individuals seeking to fulfill personal agendas, controversy seems inevitable, and Twetten witnessed his share while in the CIA. In the 1980s Iran-Contra Scandal, Twetten conducted operations in Iran only, despite Oliver North’s request for him to interfere in other areas.
“I was never a suspect or target in investigations that attempted to find illegalities in what we knew at the time was a foolish foreign adventure,” he said.
In addition to political obstacles, Twetten endured personal challenges during his career. Under his watch, Libyan terrorists, in response to a CIA-directed airstrike on Tripoli, bombed Pan Am 103 in 1988, killing 189 Americans on board including Twetten’s son-in-law, Matthew Gannon, a CIA spy returning early for Christmas from an undercover mission in Beirut.
“It was happen-stance. He wasn’t scheduled to get on that plane,” Twetten clarified. A professional, he remained collected, though his voice echoed a twang of pain and regret.
Twetten, though bombarded by trials, achieved much. Among a long list of accomplishments, he supported new democracies in Eastern Europe and was a top-strategist in the U.S.-backed guerilla war in Afghanistan, which resulted in Soviet withdrawal. He served as an emissary to the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He also instigated a program of low-tech unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), still the chief weapon against Al Qaeda on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Finally, he emphasized his role in the war on international narcotics trafficking, terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. For such examples of leadership and strategic development, Twetten twice received the Intelligence Medal, the CIA’s highest honor.
Today Uncle Tom is 74 years old. His hair has faded to white. He resides in Vermont, where he owns a small antiquarian book shop, specializing in rare books on topics such as the Middle East, Islam, North Africa, Afghanistan and South Asia. In his spare time he reads history books. Wednesdays he travels to Montreal for bookbinding lessons. And, every morning he embarks on a mission in his red bug — a mission for a cup of Starbucks coffee and a copy of the New York Times from the post office a mere mile from his house.