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Book Review: The Craft We Chose: My Life in the CIA by Richard Holm

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Other than the long hours and the weekends, the continuous sniping from the public, the continuous sniping from the U.S. Congress, the perils of pissing off the wrong person, being constantly under the microscope, often in a place on Earth that most of us know only from our history and geography lessons, and the fact that you stand a fair chance of getting killed while simply doing your job, Richard Holm, in his memoir The Craft We Chose, makes the Central Intelligence Agency sound like an idyllic life. Oh yeah, and you have to always lie about where you work.

This story pulls you in before the book begins, in the foreword, as told by a doctor at the foremost Burn Treatment Center in the U.S., where Holm was medevacked to from the Congo. The first words that doctor heard from Holm were, “I got out of there.” Immediately followed by, “I have a briefcase, please take custody of it.” The story ends over 30 years later when Holm, who was repeatedly given performance awards and top ratings, including promotions to the loftiest strata of CIA-dom, and the highest award the CIA can give, is hung out to dry.

Holm’s time in the CIA took him from the early days in Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos, to the Congo, to Hong Kong, to Europe, and finally back to CIA headquarters, with many other places in between. When Holm left the U.S. the first time, CIA HQ was in what were called the ‘tempos,’ temporary, rat- and bug-infested wooden office buildings constructed in the area on the National Mall in Washington, DC. When he returned for his final tour of duty, CIA HQ was located in its present location in Langley, Virginia, and he had been subjected to a dozen different directors, some best forgotten.

If you’re looking for secrets, don’t look in The Craft We Chose. But if you’re looking for a book that gives you the straight dope on what a CIA officer does, this is a great place to start. Holm gives you a good foundation on what the job entails, the pluses, the minuses, and the in-betweens, including the seemingly mundane. Even the mundane has to be heeded, however, in the CIA, because flubbing one miniscule detail may mean somebody’s capture or death.

Along with all the detail on intelligence, tradecraft, and day-to-day duties, Holm gives you plenty of detail on his family, some of his friends and relatives, and many who he encountered in his storied career that any reader of the daily news will recognize. But the true heroes in the CIA whose names are mentioned or alluded to, you probably won’t recognize. And many of the true villains are included, too.

Holm goes into detail on tradecraft as well as the machinations in the political minefield that the CIA has become, particularly in the recent, as well as the not so recent past. If you’re looking for a ‘rogue CIA agent runs amok, tells all,’ you won’t find it here. Holm was, and remains, a professional. If you’re looking for dirt, you’ll find some, all in the expected places and pertaining to the right people, mostly political appointees.

I said earlier Holm had been hung out to dry. As an article in the Daily Beast, published by Newsweek, states: “When CIA officers retire, their bosses traditionally give them a clock. Holm is still waiting for his.”

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