If ever there was an opening sentence to a book that was going to make you read on, it is this one: “‘I’ve been targeted for assassination, sir.’”
Add to that chilling line the fact that this is a true story.
The words were spoken by Colonel James Nicholas Rowe in 1989 over his desk phone in Manila to Deputy Secretary of Defense William Taft in Washington. The way it is written, by Thomas Pecora in his riveting Guardian: Life in the Crosshairs of the CIA’s War on Terror (Post Hill Press), is so matter-of-factly –as if an office employee is telling his boss he needs a personal day–that it makes it all the more stunning.
It’s the opening anecdote in a bracing memoir from Pecora, who for 24 years was a CIA security officer tasked basically with keeping alive America’s intelligence personnel in some of the most dangerous pockets of the world at some of the most precarious moments in history.
What makes the Rowe story all the more dramatic, as with all the narratives throughout this book, is how Pecora humanizes the situation. While readers immediately fear for Rowe’s life and for the circumstances that prompted his opening call, Pecora takes pains to describe Rowe as “a creature of habit,” waking at the same time each morning, having the same breakfast of coffee and toast, showering, shaving and brushing “a quick kiss on his wife’s sleeping head” as his ride pulls up to the driveway.
Pecora describes a life under the constant threat of ambush and enemy fire while providing diplomatic security in some of the world’s most dangerous and lawless environments.
He writes in the first-person narrative, noting, “The majority of this book is about things that I experienced or did first-hand. Although written as a narrative, this is a work of non-fiction. No major events or time lines were altered significantly.”
As for major events, Pecora, a Protective Operations Cadre officer in the CIA, found himself assigned to multiple war zones across Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, Europe and the Middle East, working behind the scenes and doing the kind of work few are even aware exists.
Nearly two years after his initial POC training, Pecora found himself in Mogadishu, Somalia—a country torn apart by civil war. As Pecora recalls the environment, it was difficult to distinguish friendly from hostile actors as the locals increasingly became resistant to the UN mission. It did not surprise Pecora to come under attack from both rocket-propelled grenades and hidden land mines while operating in this environment. With each passing day, the streets became more dangerous.
At one point in Somalia, while escorting a deputy along the treacherous 21 October Road, Pecora describes how he and his team were ambushed. The deputy was shot, his blood covering the car seat and Pecora as he tried to help him. Then seeking entry to a U.S. Army hospital and showing the guard his blood-covered hand, he heard this response: “I can’t let you in until I clear it with my supervisor.” So they smashed right through the gate with their steel plate-enforced car.
Scenes like this are so vivid they seem right out of a movie, and not real. Pecora and his team left Mogadishu ten days before the infamous battle dramatized in Black Hawk Down that killed U.S. troops. He describes an intense sense of foreboding as his plane left the ground. Their requests for aid had been unheeded, “even after our departure from Somalia in the wake of the brutal attack on the Nigerians, the wounding of our deputy, and the threat of a price on our heads.”
Pecora’s subsequent assignments with both the POC and the Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU) brought him into areas of the world in which terrorist gangs such as Osama bin Laden, Hezbollah, Hamas and Abu Nidal reigned supreme. Though these were short assignments, often lasting no more than eight weeks, their intensity cannot be understated.
Operating in treacherous places with responsibilities ranging from providing protection for key diplomats to actively gathering actionable intelligence on some “bad actors” from various terrorist groups, Pecora functioned in a constant state of hyper vigilance to both protect himself and others.
Ironically, for the greatest terrorist act in history, Pecora was some 10,000 miles away. He was returning from dinner in Southeast Asia when his cell phone rang and he got news of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. “It hit me like no other world event ever,” he writes, noting the next day at work his fellow American employees were ‘just going through the motions of their jobs.”
Strangely, as he went to a local shopping mall, “I could not believe how normal local people acted, as if they were oblivious…..Somehow, the bad guys had gotten past our defenses…Now it was time to shake off the rage-infused shock and redouble our efforts to protect the American homeland.”
Guardian, for which Pecora gives credit on the cover to Jon Land and Lindsay Preston, presents a fascinating narrative and rare opportunity to get an insider’s look into the little-known and often-misunderstood world of the CIA protective operations. Whatever your current knowledge and perspective of America’s war on terror, Guardian will make you open your eyes even wider, despite any temptations to keep them shut.
Guardian is available for purchase.
About Thomas Pecora:
Thomas Pecora has more than 27 years of experience working in the security field, 24 years working in the CIA. He retired from the CIA as a GS 15 Senior Security Manager working in protective operations, counterterrorism and security training, most of it operating in low-intensity conflict areas. He was Chief of Security in several countries where he was responsible for countrywide security programs ensuring the safety and security of all CIA personnel in high-threat environments. He received the Intelligence Star, the CIA’s second highest honor for valor, and the Career Intelligence Medal for service reflecting exceptional achievements.