Warren joined the CIA during a time when it was way more Burn After Reading than Zero Dark Thirty – a borderline incompetent intelligence service on a serious losing streak. It had missed the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998 and were caught stealing economic secrets from allies. (In 1995, four CIA officers were accused of espionage by France.) In the Middle East, the agency was involved in a foiled attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein. Somalia ended badly, Rwanda ended worse and the Balkans were a punch line ("Q: How do you know there was an open bar in the war room during the bombing of Belgrade? A: They ordered Serbian food and bombed the Chinese embassy!").
As the CIA tried to find itself, the threat of international terrorism emanating from the Middle East, Africa, North Africa and Central and Southeast Asia grew with each strike: the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.
Warren, with his experience in the Middle East and fluency in Arabic, was ideally positioned to fight these new threats. His first undercover job was as a clandestine officer in Kuwait in 1999, where he worked an office job during the day and hunted for sources. He rose through the CIA ranks quickly, becoming a GS-14, a civilian rank equivalent to a lieutenant colonel in the Army. His superiors seemed to like him, and he hadn't made any big mistakes. But quickly, the day-to-day grind of espionage frustrated him – he didn't like having to answer to State Department officials, could barely contain his contempt for the ambassador and diplomatic security officers, got bored with attending embassy cocktail parties and would later claim the stress and boredom of being in Kuwait "exhausted" him. In short, there wasn't any action. He felt like he was running errands for D.C. big shots who didn't know what to do with the answers to the questions they asked. The overseas work took a toll on his personal life, too. He'd gotten married to a fellow operations officer he met while in training, but the relationship didn't survive the stresses of the overseas assignments and lasted only two years.
Warren left the CIA in 2001. During his final months at the agency, he wrote and self-published a spy novel, People of the Veil. He described himself on the book jacket as a "foreign service officer for the U.S. State Department" who had "worked with the National Security Agency." He told family and friends that he was leaving because he was worn out and wanted to make money. On August 1st, 2001, Warren took a job at Citigroup in New York, working out of its office on Wall Street. (Others weren't so sure he had ever left the CIA and believed he was just building up a deeper cover.)
A month later, on September 11th, 2001, Warren went to work and saw the Twin Towers fall. "I was five blocks away from the World Trade Center when the attacks happened," he wrote on his book's website. "When I saw the second plane hit, I knew it couldn't be an accident and had to be an act of terrorism. I didn't know if it was the first part of larger attacks. . . . There were reports that car bombs were going off in the Battery Park area."
Before the day was out, Warren had received a call from the CIA's counterterrorism center, whose office in the World Trade Center had been lost in the attacks. The agency set up temporary headquarters on the USS Intrepid – the decommissioned aircraft-carrier-turned-museum docked in the Hudson River – and changed the focus of its activities from recruiting U.N. diplomats to tracking down potential terrorists in the tri-state area. Warren, fired up in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, eagerly arrived the next day to get his assignment. He was back in the agency, a spy again.
By the third week of September, the agency began inserting the first CIA teams into Afghanistan. But Warren was stationed in New York, where he worked with the Joint Terrorism Task Force – which teamed CIA agents with the NYPD to monitor "Muslims at places they eat, shop and worship," as the AP would later put it. (One NYPD agent infiltrated a white-water-rafting trip that was organized by Muslim students at New York's City College; other informants reported back to the NYPD-CIA operation from the campuses of Yale, Rutgers and the University of Pennsylvania, among others.)
Though he was glad to be back in the game, his contempt for the CIA hadn't subsided. During one stakeout, Warren expressed doubts about the ability of his bosses to prevent another terrorist attack. An FBI-agent colleague recalls Warren telling him the CIA "has some of the biggest weasels." "Drew was savage in his criticism of the CIA," the FBI agent says. "He told me flat out they were still fighting the Russians on 9/11." But overall, Warren was considered a major asset, and he made a good impression on his colleagues. Says the agent, "He was very well thought of by the guys."
In March 2002, Warren got called up to the big leagues. The Global War on Terror had started – and when CIA Counter-terrorism Center Chief Cofer Black said, "The gloves come off," and Vice President Cheney said that we'd play on "the dark side," they were speaking to guys like Warren. He left New York bound for the hottest spot in the world: eastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. For an ambitious field agent, Afghanistan was the place to be: Kabul and Kandahar, the two biggest cities, had fallen, the Taliban was in disarray and the commanders thought they were closing in on bin Laden. In his 2006 book Jawbreaker, Gary Berntsen, who supervised the CIA team in Afghanistan, described leading Warren's wave of officers into the country. "On the day before departure, Cofer Black called me into his office and shut the door," he recalls. "He said, 'It's now your time to make war . I want you killing the enemy immediately. I know how aggressive you are in everything you do. That's why I approved you to lead this team.'" Black told Berntsen to expect that a third of his team would be killed or maimed. Black's message was clear: Be as brutal as needed. "The modern battlefield is a terrible place," he said. "Bad things happen, and our Afghan allies are less than fully reliable. Am I clear?"
Warren's job was to make those bad things happen. Before he was sent to Afghanistan, he spent time at the CIA's training facility near Williamsburg, Virginia, to receive the paramilitary training CIA agents needed for their agency's new mission. "Those selected for deployment were sent for a week of training in map-reading, communications training and weapons training, focusing on Soviet-made arms," according to Berntsen.
Warren's team ran all over Afghanistan before they wound up in Gardez, a hard-scrabble Taliban town strategically located in a valley near the Pakistan border in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan – the provinces of Paktika, Paktiya and Kunar. Warren was there as a sort of hybrid soldier-spy, collecting intelligence and meeting and recruiting tribal leaders and anyone else who could help in the hunt for bin Laden and Al Qaeda. In addition to going through stacks of documents, hard drives and pocket litter, they needed to interrogate prisoners and arm and train local mercenary forces to hunt bin Laden.
The operations Warren was involved in were only partially successful: bin Laden's trail had gone cold, but the relationships formed between the men from the CIA and the military, and the hard lessons learned, shaped the fast, brutally effective counterterror programs we've employed since. "Although he was not a trained soldier, he was required to act in that capacity, along with his job as an intelligence officer," according to the court-ordered psychiatric assessment of Warren, obtained by Rolling Stone. "He recalled that on the first day in [redacted] . . . a grenade went off, blowing off the arm of one soldier and killing another."
Despite failing to get bin Laden, the U.S. government and media portrayed the early Afghanistan war as a great victory. The U.S. military began a series of operations around the country, including Operation Anaconda, designed to trap and destroy the remaining Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. There was a darker, more secret side to those early days, too – the beginning of the enhanced interrogation program. After overthrowing the Taliban in 2001, there were hundreds of prisoners, and the CIA needed somewhere to hold them; and one of the biggest secret prisons would become the Gardez Detention Facility, where Warren lived for two months in 2002. Many of these detainees were hapless young men in the wrong place at the wrong time, or picked up on a tip or a hunch or for the bounty Americans gave. Some were not: What they knew could possibly lead to bin Laden. Often, however, the results were disturbingly wrong: Khalid el-Masri, a German citizen with Lebanese heritage, wound up in Afghanistan's notorious "Salt Pit" prison for five hellish months before being exonerated. (Warren declined to say if he was involved in the case of el-Masri.)
While he was there, Warren participated in what he would later describe as "severe interrogation techniques," or what human rights groups call torture. He moved among the different theaters of the hidden conflict, possibly including the secret prisons in friendly nations like Poland, Romania, Egypt, Algeria, Pakistan and Thailand. "The Paks said to us, 'We're going to put some dry ice on this guy. Want to watch?'" one U.S. official recalls. "We'd say, 'No way, we can't see this, we'll be in the other room.'"
All manner of tactics were tried at the Gardez Detention Facility. The tactics included kicks, punches, whipping with extension cords, forcing prisoners into stress positions, electric shock, prying off toenails, being rolled in snow. Warren later claimed his time in Gardez contributed to his "post-traumatic stress."
Warren had been shot at, seen men blown up and committed acts of brutality. But he survived, and even thrived, in Afghanistan. His evaluation for the period ending in June 2002 noted that he had "transformed himself into one of [the Directorate of Operations'] most knowledgeable [officers] on Islam, the Islamic militant target and counterterrorism." But the war in Afghanistan was quickly overshadowed by the Bush administration's next move: invading Iraq. Warren was sent in advance of the March 2003 invasion. Based in northern Iraq, Warren was assigned to one of the two CIA teams tasked with paving the way. Warren's job wasn't easy. Working with Kurdish militias, he identified bombing targets and tracked down Al Qaeda training camps. It was old-school OSS shit, blowing up rail stations, sabotaging equipment, liaising with opposition leaders on the ground. "It was a relatively intimate setting, small team, and I was base chief and busy as hell – basically I saw him on many occasions, interacted with him, joked with him, ate meals with him," recalled Charles Faddis, a CIA officer who worked with Warren in Iraq. "The only qualification: He was always a guy who seemed up, pumped, good sense of humor, hard-charging, wasn't an ass kisser, never attracted my negative attention."
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