It was all thanks to Caesar Civitella that I was dressed up in a monkey suit and mingling with a ballroom full of spooks.
Civitella was an amazing character and, when I knew him, one of a dwindling number of living veterans of the Office of Strategic Services. We spent many hours talking about his exploits, like dropping into France to help the Maquis, or traipsing around Italy with a bunch of gold, searching for Mussolini.
So when George Tenet, former director of the CIA under Presidents Clinton and Bush, offered up a toast to the OSS, I raised my glass of ghastly green liquid known as a Leatherneck and made one of my own. To honor the man who died in 2017 at the age of 94.
“Hail Caesar,” I said, much to the bewilderment of my seat mates.
Everyone who’s anyone
There is nothing quite like the OSS Society dinner to draw in the men and women who followed in the footsteps of Civitella and the others.
Hundreds of the nation’s intelligence and special operations elite gathered in Washington on Saturday night to celebrate the amazing deeds of legends like Wild Bill Donovan, who started it all, and Virginia Hall, Hugh Montgomery and Peter Ortiz among many others. It was all against a backdrop of real-world tensions, which seem more fraught than usual.
Intelligence officials have frequently found themselves at odds with the president over a wide range of issues including North Korea, the Middle East and the on-going reverberations of 2016. A number of folks with direct involvement in those issues filled the room. So too did Joe Maguire, the acting Director of National Intelligence was at the center of the controversy involving Trump’s conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and whistleblowing about it.
Meanwhile, as the gathered spooks and commando types settled into tables in the hotel’s grand ballroom, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that took the fight to Islamic State have been left to fend for themselves against an invasion by one of America’s NATO allies.
And now the SDF have turned to the Russians and Assad regime for help, creating a geopolitical Gordian Knot that many folks here will have to untangle .
Plenty of guests have or had direct involvement with the Kurds, too. And many were privately displeased.
"Who will trust us to keep our end of a bargain? " asked one rhetorically.
So there was a lot to keep these great minds occupied in between the numerous toasts.
Honoring the fallen
The recently former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was the guest of honor, and the first Marine to receive the coveted William J. Donovan Award.
But before it came time to fete the man now on a book tour, Senior Chief Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) Shannon Kent was posthumously given the Virginia Hall award. The award is named for a Maryland woman who went on to work with the British version of the OSS, helping the French resistance against Nazi Germany. All while using a wooden leg, designed to replace the one she lost after a hunting accident.
Kent’s death in Manbij, Syria, on Jan. 16, 2019, marked the first time a woman service member was killed in the fight against ISIS.
Kent was very much in the Virginia Hall mold.
A wife and mother of two children, who was 35 at the time of her death, Kent was an “example to all of us,” according to the web page for U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, a Democrat from New York.
Kent survived thyroid cancer in 2016 and in 2018 was selected to participate in a special officer program to earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences. She was later disqualified, having not met the required medical standards established under a DoD rule, from seeking the commission as an officer in the armed forces. She appealed, and was denied a waiver, and in November 2018 deployed to Syria. Kent was the recipient of the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, two Joint Service Commendation Medals, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Joint Service Achievement Medal.
Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan Farmer, 37, and DoD civilian Scott Wirtz, 42, also died in that attack.
Failure to appreciate
Mattis, without specifying the target of his umbrage, took issue with criticisms of the intelligence community.
“Over decades, I’ve heard these breathless accounts of alleged intelligence failures and once in a while, yeah, we have an intel failure,” said Mattis in his keynote address. “So what? The last perfect guy died on the cross a long time ago.”
Mattis, who garnered hearty guffaws by talking about how he was fired by two presidents, castigated the unnamed those who besmirched the IC.
“Most of those who claim intel failure — they’re alleged by people who contract out their thinking on a host of issues and it’s hard to do that and be a leader,” he said. “You can’t contract out your thinking. And I think there are also people who need to clean the wax out of their ears and listen better when told, but they refuse to hear on too many occasions.”
All hail Caesar and his colleagues
The long story of Caesar Civitella I will have to boil down to this:
He served with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and helped capture thousands of Nazis for the CIA forerunner. He later joined the Army and became one of the first Green Beret instructors, teaching future special forces soldiers the art of guerrilla warfare. Then he joined the CIA and came up with a creative attempt at stopping the North Vietnamese from traveling the Ho Chi Minh trail.
One day, if OSS Society President Charles T. Pinck his way, future generations will be able to learn about Civitella and all the 13,000 other members of the OSS at the National Museum of Intelligence and Special Operations.
The museum is still in conceptual design phase and is planned to be located in Ashburn, Virginia, along the technology corridor, said Camille Johnson, the planned museum’s capital campaign director.
The current estimated capital costs are anticipated to be about $85 million, she said, adding there is no scheduled opening date as it is still in conceptual design.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.