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“American Spy” Chapter Excerpt: Sitting Next to a Rock Star
H. K. Roy
Chapter 28 of American Spy: Wry Reflections on My Life in the CIA.
I’m guessing that most people, if asked who they’d most like to sit next to in an airplane, would name their favorite actor, athlete, or Kardashian. I always thought I’d like to sit next to Paul McCartney—as if he’d fly commercial—so that I could ask him about his inspiration for “Let It Be.” Although I’ve never bumped into any of the former Beatles, I was fortunate enough to sit next to someone else I consider a bona fide rock star, on a flight from DC to California: General Stanley McChrystal, legendary American warrior and former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
Over the years, on the many flights I’ve taken, I’ve had several “celebrity sightings” and even had the opportunity to meet one or two of them in the process. I sat in front of a beret-wearing Samuel L. Jackson on a night flight to London, and across the aisle from late, great US Marine and Full Metal Jacket actor R. Lee Ermey on a flight to DC. American treasure Stevie Wonder wrote a touching message on my youngest daughter’s boarding pass after we gave up our seats for the kind-hearted musical genius and his assistant on a post–Fourth of July flight from DC. While all of these brushes with celebrity were exciting, none of them compared with my encounter with the man many of us in my line of work consider to be an unsung American hero.
I first noticed McChrystal, whom I’d never met in person, waiting at the hectic departure gate at Dulles International Airport before our flight to California. Recently retired, he was attired in civilian clothing. I’d been in DC the previous several days to attend my old friend R. J.’s retirement ceremony at CIA headquarters. I was wearing an OSS baseball cap that I’d purchased at the CIA gift shop after the ceremony. (The CIA gift shop has evolved from a tiny space hidden somewhere in the warren of dark, unmarked hallways in the headquarters basement to a ground-floor, Pentagon-worthy smorgasbord of CIA souvenirs and memorabilia. CIA golf balls, anyone?)
When they called our flight, I boarded and took my window seat. I generally prefer the aisle seat, but it was a full flight and this was the last seat available. Even though I was in the first-class cabin, I was not looking forward to spending the next five hours stuck in a window seat.
Much to my very pleasant surprise, General McChrystal had the aisle seat next to me.
As the general was stowing his bag in the overhead compartment, the flight attendant asked me about my OSS hat, with its distinctive spear insignia. It was clear she did not recognize McChrystal, or she would have made conversation with him instead of me.
“Is that a Batman hat?” she queried, almost hopefully.
“Sadly, no,” I responded.
I then addressed the general, who had just sat down: “Sir, I’m guessing you’re the only other person on this plane who knows what this hat represents.”
With a smile, he said he did.
After takeoff, I introduced myself and (for once) was able to share with someone the classified truth about my CIA career and past work with the US military, from the Balkans to Iraq. I told him briefly about my work with the special operators during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, before he became JSOC commander. General McChrystal was especially pleased to learn that I had recently provided the government with sensitive, actionable intelligence.
Not surprisingly, it turned out we had a number of friends and colleagues in common, some of whom worked side by side with him in his Joint Base Balad command center in Iraq. The genius of McChrystal’s approach, and one of the reasons for his unprecedented success, was his insistence on bringing together all key players (the CIA, FBI, NSA, and JSOC, among others) in one room, where they were forced to share intelligence and focus on the mission. Coincidentally, I ran our Babylon Inc. US headquarters much the same way: all of us sat around one massive, Persian stone conference table, and together we hashed out problems and came up with decisions that took everyone’s input into account. No one at Babylon Inc., me included, would segregate himself from his colleagues inside an office or cubicle.
Had the CIA and FBI cooperated McChrystal-style, for the sake of the mission and of the nation, we might have been able to prevent 9/11 from ever happening.
* * *
Aware of General McChrystal’s reputation as a “soldier’s soldier” who slept only a few hours each night, ran PT, and ate only one meal per day, I refrained from touching my airline lunch until I saw that he had started his own. The last thing I wanted was for him to witness just how weak and ordinary I really was.
We had a memorable conversation during the flight, and when I shook his hand to bid him farewell, he sincerely thanked me for my service. I was nearly speechless.
We don’t join the CIA for the money, or for public recognition. We rarely if ever expect to receive thanks for our service. Being thanked by this true American hero, who has risked it all serving his country in ways most of us cannot begin to imagine, is a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life.
General McChrystal repeated his appreciation for my service a few weeks later, in a handwritten note to me inside a copy of his memoir, My Share of the Task. His book now occupies a place of honor on my bookshelf at home.
All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or any other US government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying US government authentication of information or CIA endorsement of the author’s views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information. This does not constitute an official release of CIA information.