CIA acknowledges legendary spy who saved Hamid Karzai's life — and honors him by name

Washington Post

Up until Monday, the CIA had never publicly released the full name of its legendary spy. Even former director George Tenet couldn't completely identify him for his 2007 bestselling memoir, "At the Center of the Storm," which reveals only his first name and last initial: Greg V.

Within the halls of Langley and in the pages of prominent newspapers, Greg V. enjoyed his fair share of lore. When the U.S. military accidentally bombed the location of Hamid Karzai in December 2001, it was Greg V. who reportedly dove on top of the future Afghanistan president, saving his life.

But on Monday, on the 70th anniversary of the agency's founding, the CIA let the world know that Greg V. is officially Greg Vogle, in a ceremony honoring him as the 83rd recipient of its Trailblazer award. Journalists, national security professionals, and foreign governments had long known Vogle's name. The New York Times, in fact, was the first news organization to publicly reveal it in 2015, over the CIA's objections, in a story about the agency's personnel who oversee drone strikes. (Ironically, Vogle's first appearance in the mainstream press was botched: The Times misspelled his last name as "Vogel.")

Vogle, who lives in the Washington region and retired in 2016 as the head of the agency's covert operations branch, follows a long history of CIA officers — some unsung, some senior managers — who have won the Trailblazer, the agency's equivalent of a Hall of Fame award. The medal honors officers and teams of officers who "by their actions, example, innovation, or initiative have taken the CIA in important new directions and helped shape the agency's history," according to the agency's announcement.

Launched in 1997, the award has been given to current, former and deceased operatives. Recently, the agency's museum unveiled a small exhibit that provides a history of the Trailblazer award. Some of the previous winners include some of the CIA's most admired directors:

—Gen. Walter Bedell "Beetle" Smith, who in the 1950s instituted Langley's directorate system, dividing the work between analysts and operatives.

—Allen W. Dulles, director from 1953-61, who spearheaded the building of the CIA's sprawling headquarters in Northern Virginia, and established the standards for clandestine tradecraft and handling human asset handling.

—Richard Helms, the first career intelligence professional to become director, who recruited and supervised some of the CIA's most important spies during the Cold War. Helms might be the only Trailblazer to have been convicted of a federal crime: In 1977, he pleaded no contest for failing to testify fully before Congress about the agency's role to push out Chile's leftist regime. But the plea was viewed like a badge of honor among CIA veterans who believe agency personnel shouldn't be spilling agency secrets to anyone, including Congress. Happily, a group of CIA retirees paid his paid Helms' $2,000 fine.

Other Trailblazers never became director, but achieved their own renown, such as: Tony Mendez, an expert forger and disguiser, who concocted a fake movie to help spirit six U.S. diplomats out of Iran in 1980 — a ruse dramatized in the 2012 Ben Affleck film "Argo." Or Robert Ames, a leading Arabist who cultivated as a source a top Palestinian intelligence officer. In 1983, Ames was killed in a truck bombing in Beirut, and was given the agency's ultimate honor: a star on the agency's white marble Memorial Wall.

But there are other, less well-known recipients who made their mark in equally important ways:

—Omego J.C. Ware, Jr., an African-American officer who grew up in Washington, and was picked in the 1970s to become the first director of the agency's office of equal employment opportunity. Known as the "Jackie Robinson of Intelligence," Ware pushed the mostly-white CIA at the time to increase the hiring of minorities and women.

—Elizabeth Sudmeier, who joined the agency at its 1947 founding, and four years later entered the clandestine service as one of the branch's few women members. She specialized in the Middle East, and even recruited an agent with knowledge about Soviet fighter aircraft and other hardware. Sudmeier always planned to rendezvous at local coffeehouses, where the agency would supply her with volumes of technical equipment that she would get copied and return. In the 1960s, she was given an Intelligence Medal of Merit, but only after her colleagues protested over "whether it was appropriate for a female who was not listed as an operations officer" to win the award, according to the CIA. After she retired, she remained loyal to the CIA, frequently cancelling her subscription to the Washington Post whenever her former employer came under scrutiny she deemed unfair.

—Eloise R. Page, a Richmond, Va. native, who began as a secretary to the OSS, the CIA's precursor, and later transferred to the CIA, eventually becoming the agency's first female station chief in 1978, assigned in Athens. She also became the third-highest ranking officer in the vaunted directorate of operations.

Vogle's contributions have been written about extensively in CIA memoirs. In Tenet's book, "Greg V." was the CIA contact in late 2001 for Hamid Karzai, then a tribal leader opposing the Taliban. On Nov. 3, 2001 as Karzai's tribe came under increasing attack, he called Vogle, asking for a helicopter extraction.

"Greg quickly contacted CIA headquarters and made the case that Karzai represented the only credible opposition leader identified in the south. His survival, Greg said, was critical to maintaining the momentum for the southern uprising," Tenet recalled.

Soon, Tenet said, the airlift got the greenlight.

Two weeks later, with Karzai in a new location, the Taliban found him again. This time, Karzai's forces got skittish and ran away.

"Greg V. took command of the situation, sprinting from one defensive position to another, telling the Afghans that this was their chance to prove their worth and make history," Tenet wrote. "'If necessary, die like men!' he shouted. Backbones stiffened; Karzai's forces repulsed the Taliban attack."

On Dec. 5, Vogle, a former Marine, may have saved Karzai's life. The Afghan leader was commanding his troops into Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold. As U.S. military airstrikes were being ordered, one soldier apparently swapped out the batteries for his GPS device, forgetting that his machine would reset itself at its own location. It was a disastrous move: A circling B-52 dropped a 2,000-pound bomb on the soldier's own position, killing three Americans and five Afghans.

"Karzai might have [died], too, if Greg V. hadn't thrown himself on him, knocking him to the ground just as the bombs struck," Tenet wrote. "It turned out to be an eventful Wednesday. That same day, he was selected to be the interim prime minister of Afghanistan."

But the story might have been inflated. Gary Schroen, a CIA officer sent into Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks to pursue al-Qaida, wrote in his own 2005 memoir, "First In" that "Craig" was actually launched into Karzai from the bomb's blast. The men were in a meeting, surrounded by a map and teacups, when "a tremendous wall of air and heat traveling at incredible speed smashed into and through the building, crumbling the walls and slamming [Vogle] into Karzai, tumbling the two like rag dolls across the room," Schroen wrote.

After it was over, Vogle, a career paramilitary officer, crawled to Karzai, lying twisted on the floor, and pulled him onto his back. He felt for Karzai's body for any major wounds or broken bones, but only found small cuts and quickly forming bruises. Schroen wrote that Vogle "felt as though he had been hit by a truck; his entire body ached and tingled. ... He did not know what happened except that something big had exploded close by."

Vogle continued playing a major role as an envoy between Karzai and the American government, all under the cloak of anonymity. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal profiled Vogle, without using his name, calling him a "pivotal behind-the-scenes power broker in Kabul." Recently, the agency rolled back his cover, freeing itself to name Vogle. Now, the former undercover operative has his own bio on the website of The Third Option Foundation, a nonprofit that provides financial assistance to the families of fallen agency special operations officers.

In its announcement Monday of Vogle's Trailblazer award, the CIA was deliberately vague and understated about the man's accomplishments. It listed his numerous agency awards and included a statement from CIA Director Mike Pompeo calling him a "true agency hero." But there was no photograph released and no mention, for instance, of his attempt to save the life of Karzai. Or other acts of derring-do the former spy might have pulled off.

"Details of his many accomplishments," the press release said, "remain classified."

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
28°