Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been excerpted from the playwright John Hadden’s Conversations with a Masked Man: My Father, the CIA, and Me published by Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing. In the book, Hadden interviews his father about the latter’s long career in the CIA, the intricacies and follies of espionage, and dramatic decisions that altered the fate of the Cold War. In this excerpt, Hadden and his father discuss the precarious task of how a CIA officer cultivates informants and runs secret agents.
Son: Spy technique in Israel was a slightly different ball game than in Europe, yes? You say you just talked to people.
Father: No, it was pretty much the same. People would tell me things. By talking to everybody, see, soldiers, businessmen, judges, archeologists and farmers and opera singers and everybody, they couldn’t tell who was talking to me and who wasn’t.
Son: So having a formal arrangement is a vulnerable …
Father: It’s not important and very often stupid and counterproductive.
Son: Then how do you get them to talk?
Father: People always want to talk. A person will be most likely to talk if he’s somebody who hasn’t been properly appreciated—the best people are often left behind because they make people uncomfortable, they’re too smart for their own good. Then he really needs somebody to talk to, somebody who’ll understand how good he is.
Son: So you used friendship to get what you wanted.
Son: But there comes a point where you’re close to a mother lode of information and they have access to it … Then what do you do?
Father: Well, then you have to wait. I did finally recruit somebody … and, ah, yeah. It worked, it was …Yeah. It was the best thing I ever did. I got … [CIA director Richard] Helms liked it so much he took it to the president and …That was one thing, that was my one real … good one, yeah.
Son: And was your personal relationship different with this guy?
Father: I winkled him out and then I had somebody else dealing with him, under my control.
Son: So you stayed in the background.
Father: Oh yeah, Christ, I couldn’t have the Israelis knowing that I was doing things like that.
Son: So he went to other people and they passed it on to you.
Father: I only dealt with third parties.
Son: Were these third parties in danger?
Father: Not that they knew it, no. In Hamburg, all I did was …
Son: But you knew it.
Father: Well, that was what I was there for. In Hamburg all I did was talk to people.
Son: Did you know any of them well? Did you get into their lives, and …
Father: I would see them all the time.
Son: You must have gotten to know about their families, their sex lives …
Father: I suppose. Your mind sifts that stuff out very quickly.
Son: For them to have somebody to talk to …
Father: Especially if they think you’re friendly and if they think you agree with them anyway … so that you don’t have to be convinced of anything. Once you get into an argument with somebody, then you don’t learn anything. Then it’s gone.
Son: In order to be convincing, you have to become really interested in them …
Father: Yeah, you keep nodding your head …
Son: And then you bring them a book that you think they might like …
Father: Oh, gifts are the sine qua non.
Son: You have to give the right gift.
Father: You have to figure it out. I used to spend a couple of days at the Savile Book Shop in Washington, before Christmas, picking out a book for each one of these birds. There was an endless list.
Son: And you have to know the culture, the language.
Father: That helps. There was a guy in Israel named Karmon, who told his people never to speak Hebrew in front of me. I couldn’t speak enough Hebrew to get out of a paper bag, but he thought I was faking it. We went to a dinner party one night and I was sitting across from him, and there were two Israeli ladies sitting at our little card table, because that was kind of dinner party it was. Halfway through this meal one of the ladies said to Karmon in Hebrew, “Pour this guy a lot of wine, maybe he’ll tell you some secrets.” Of course they all knew who I was. And I picked up the only word I distinguished in all of that, yayin, the word for wine. For some reason I had learned a phrase from my two guys, my cartoon interpreters, which was “Nichnas yayin, yatzeh sod.” Which meant, ‘in goes the wine, out pops the secret.’ And Karmon turned white, because of course he thought I’d understood everything they’d said, and of course I hadn’t understood a thing. [laughs]
Mother: He was a good friend. He stopped to see us here.
Father: He was, he was a wonderful man. It would be people like that I would talk to. He was in a position where he didn’t have to worry what he said to me. They left it up to him as to what he would tell me. It was up to me to listen.
Son: And would you feed stuff back to him, to make it worthwhile for him?
Father: I would try. Intelligence is a kind of currency and you have to spend it. There’s no point in keeping it locked up in a safe. You lead a little bit and you take a little bit, you win some and you lose some. My young friend Shlomo Argov had gotten a pretty good post in Washington, when I was head of section. He had become a senior officer when[Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin was ambassador there. So we made a deal. I said, ‘I’ll get my guys and you get your guys, and that’ll give me the cachet to set the whole thing up, and we’ll go to Gettysburg and we’ll both see it like we’ve never seen it before, and maybe we’ll have fun. I think Rabin will enjoy it too, because he has a big interest in the Civil War.’
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