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Confessions of a Hero
  Mike Shanklin's Bond-like ability to keep cool in the face of danger made
him a great spy. His Bond-like ability to bend the rules made him a former
  Even the people who gave Mike Shanklin his walking papers at the CIA will
tell you that he was a top agent, the man you wanted beside you when people
pointed guns in your direction. (Frank Johnston - The Washington Post)

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By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2001; Page F01
APPLAUSE FILLED THE AUDITORIUM at CIA headquarters as Mike Shanklin strode
across the stage, shook hands with the agency's director and received its
second-highest honor, the Intelligence Star, for bravery in Somalia.
It was a moment Hollywood might have scripted for a spy who made his name
working the back streets in Africa and the Middle East, and learned to talk
his way out of trouble as he looked down the barrel of a gun.
Now cut to seven years later. Shanklin, applause turned to silence, is
walking away from the CIA, dejected and bitter. He'd always been cool under
fire. But the agency's unyielding polygraph examiners shook him in a way no
rebel with an AK-47 ever could.
He tried to come clean about rules he broke along the way. He hoped his
candor -- and his heroics -- would be enough to compensate for what at
bottom were breaches of proper procedure, not betrayals. But in the end, the
CIA showed him the door for "personal conduct, security violations, and
outside activities."
His is an espionage story of our time, written by security bureaucrats on
the gray side of the spy business that Hollywood has no interest in. Far
from the movie hero he seemed to be at the height of his career, Shanklin
today is like a character straight out of a novel by John LeCarre, loyal to
the service but deeply ambivalent about what it has become.
Ever since Aldrich H. Ames was unmasked as a Soviet mole who'd operated for
years inside the CIA despite all sorts of missed warning signals, the agency
has been taking potential security infractions, typically turned up during
routine polygraph examinations, much more seriously.
Indeed, no sooner had Ames been packed off to jail than CIA security began
working its way through a list of 350 officers who had registered
"indications of deception" on the polygraph -- glitches that in the past had
been possible to explain away, without further investigation.
But there would be no more leniency. The agency found one mole in that
group -- former CIA officer Harold J. Nicholson, now serving a 23-year
sentence -- and upended dozens of careers. And with accused spy Robert P.
Hanssen in prison and awaiting indictment sometime next month for alleged
crimes at least as spectacular as those of Ames, the same process has
already begun inside the FBI.
Many veterans of the CIA and the FBI believe that the pendulum may have
swung too far, and the agencies' obsessive focus on security and
counterintelligence will end up muting their own effectiveness, driving some
of the most capable people -- people like Mike Shanklin -- out of the
"Whatever got Mike Shanklin crosswise with 'the process' simply cannot
obscure the role Shanklin and those just like him played when times were
tough," said Milt Bearden, a retired CIA station chief for whom Shanklin
worked in Sudan in the mid-1980s.
"When I'm in the midst of an East African revolution and need someone to
blend into a howling mob with a radio under his robe," Bearden said, "I need
a Mike Shanklin and not some slightly more 'perfected' officer that the
process may seem to seek today."
CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said he could not comment on the specifics of
Shanklin's case. But he did acknowledge Shanklin was a "highly regarded"
operative who did a "terrific job not just in Somalia, but throughout his
"There's nothing we would like better than a highly regarded, heroic case
officer being part of the organization," Harlow said. "We've got to try to
maintain some consistency -- and it is painful when you see good people run
afoul of rules and regulations. But the regulations are not arbitrary and
Shanklin, a former Marine major and Vietnam veteran who grew up poor in the
Watts section of Los Angeles, isn't asking anybody to feel sorry for him. He
prides himself for earning everything he achieved during 13 years at the
CIA. And he remains unwavering in his loyalty to the agency.
Indeed, as one of the few African American case officers there, Shanklin
said he was "never inhibited because of my race -- if anything, I was given
a lot of opportunities to do a lot of unique things" because being black
enabled him to operate in areas his white colleagues could not.
He also recognizes that he brought his problems on himself -- and feels more
than a little guilty about possibly dishonoring the agency. "I have to take
responsibility for breaking the rules -- and I broke the rules," said
Shanklin, whose major transgression seems to have been an unreported affair
with a foreigner -- a woman he ended up marrying.
But he still thinks he deserves a break -- because he still thinks he has
something to offer.
"Are they treating me any differently than they would treat anybody else?
Probably not," Shanklin said. "But I don't think I am anybody else. I'm the
guy who went anywhere they wanted me to go anytime they wanted me to go. But
when I needed them to cut me some slack, they said, 'No, you broke the
rules.' "
In Harm's Way

Michael Louis Shanklin, 58, still can't say much about his career at the
CIA, which put him in some very tight spots in some very inhospitable
countries -- Sudan, Chad, Algeria, Jordan, Liberia. But he gained the most
notoriety in a country that was probably the most inhospitable of them all,
Shanklin became deputy chief of station in Mogadishu in 1990, when
guerrillas under the leadership of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed began closing
in on the brutal 20-year dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre.
For months, Shanklin worked night and day cultivating a relationship with a
wealthy businessman in North Mogadishu. Thepowerful and well-connected young
man with his own private army -- whose name Shanklin cannot reveal --
ultimately became a prized CIA "asset," providing valuable information and
insights as civil war engulfed Somalia. The U.S. government didn't pick
sides in the fight, but wanted to avoid any nasty surprises.
Shanklin said he forged an extremely close bond of loyalty with his prized
recruit. As chaos descended on Mogadishu, Shanklin also became acquainted
with the man's close friend and companion, Stefania Pace, an Italian
physician working for a humanitarian organization. Tragedy would ultimately
befall all of them in Somalia. And Pace would come to rely on Shanklin for
solace -- and then, far more.
Shanklin left Somalia the first time in January 1991 as guerrilla factions
finally drove Barre from power and took over Mogadishu before turning their
guns on one another. The U.S. government ordered its embassy evacuated.
With every American in Somalia huddled at the embassy, Shanklin's boss told
him he had left some critical intelligence -- Shanklin can't say exactly
what -- back at his residence. Shanklin bailed him out, driving into the
battle, through small arms fire, to retrieve it. A short time later he was
gone, one of the last Americans out of the country, lifting off in a chopper
carrying the U.S. ambassador.
Shanklin spent all of five days at CIA headquarters before the agency sent
him off to the Persian Gulf War as an intelligence liaison to the U.S.
military, where Scud missile attacks punctuated his days. From there, he
went to Liberia as chief of the CIA's operation there.
When he returned in the fall of 1992, Shanklin told his superiors he just
wanted an assignment where the lights go on when you flick the switch, and
the water runs when you turn the tap.
Nobody could say he hadn't earned some ease. He'd held down company
interests in an African country flooded with assassins hunting CIA officers.
He'd slipped into the Middle East on a tourist visa and driven a fellow
officer to safety through a series of security checkpoints where guards
would have loved nothing more than to execute a couple of American spies.
Shanklin got the milk run he was after, assigned to London as a CIA liaison
with the British intelligence service. It didn't last long.
At Thanksgiving, when then-President George Bush approved sending a division
of Marines to Somalia to assure that relief supplies got to hundreds of
thousands of starving people, the CIA tapped Shanklin to secretly enter the
country with an intelligence force responsible for making sure the troops
could land without casualties. With his top Somali asset providing
logistical support, the Americans flew in on small aircraft and landed at a
remote airstrip far to the north of Mogadishu. Just being in Mogadishu put
them all in danger. It was a crazed, lawless environment where enforcers
prowled the streets in "technicals" -- jeeps with mounted machine guns --
and virtually everyone carried weapons they weren't the least bit shy about
When the Marines waded ashore in South Mogadishu on Dec. 9, 1992, Shanklin's
men and their Somali agents had the beach under surveillance and felt
confident Aideed's gunners would not attack. Shanklin wasn't nearly so
confident when a band of armed thugs held up his vehicle in North Mogadishu
a short while later as he drove his boss, the CIA station chief, through
contested terrain to meet an asset.
The marauders stole an automatic weapon from a CIA security guard seated
next to Shanklin. Shanklin got out of the car, looked down the barrel of a
rifle pointing in his face and told the chief bandit to calm down. He was
sure he and his two colleagues were about to be executed. But when the
gun-filcher caused a moment of distraction by running off to admire his
high-tech contraband, Shanklin jumped back in his four-wheel drive and
floored it.
Operation Restore Hope had begun.
'That Blood Is My Blood'

Not long after Shanklin returned to his cushy assignment in London, he
realized he hated being someplace where the lights worked and the water ran.
He didn't have long to fret. By the summer of 1993, Mogadishu was again in
turmoil. As the United Nations tried to return a semblance of order to
Somalia, Aideed began increasing his armed presence in Mogadishu and filling
the airwaves with anti-U.N. rhetoric from a radio station he controlled.
When Pakistani peacekeepers went to make an inventory in early June of
weapons Aideed had been allowed to store at the broadcast center, 24 were
killed in an ambush thought to have been carried out by Aideed's men.
The U.N. responded by ordering Aideed's arrest, turning the peacekeeping
operation into a posse. Shanklin's young businessman friend in North
Mogadishu became a key to the manhunt, possessed of the connections
necessary to locate Aideed. It only made sense to summon Shanklin from
London to run his prized recruit.
The destruction in Mogadishu looked like Berlin in 1945. Everything --
houses, buildings, hospitals, schools -- was demolished, as if it had been
carpet bombed. Roads were littered with wreckage. The smell of burning
garbage permeated the city.
While he and his contact had both left at the height of the civil war,
Shanklin was amazed to find out that Stefania Pace, the Italian doctor, had
stayed behind and continued to run her aid organization through the worst of
the fighting.
Shanklin didn't frighten easily, but Somalia scared him -- the chaos, the
destruction and the constant eruption of gunfire, now aimed by Aideed's men
at the Americans hunting their chief.
After four American soldiers were killed by a command-detonated mine in
early August, President Clinton ordered 130 Delta Force commandos, 160 Army
Rangers and 16 helicopters to Somalia to capture Aideed.
Shanklin knew capture was unlikely: Aideed was moving every couple of hours
to avoid capture and his men were heavily armed. But he thought that the
CIA's network of spies would be able to at least locate the rogue warlord,
thanks largely to the services of his star asset -- a man so well connected
that after Shanklin told him about the bandits' theft of the CIA rifle, he
went right out and got it back.
But the asset wouldn't be able to help this time. One evening a few weeks
after Shanklin's return, the young businessman stood with a handful of
trusted lieutenants on the front lawn of his villa, playing the ultimate
high-stakes game: Russian roulette. Shanklin had heard rumors that his
friend had done this before -- a crazy test of machismo against the
background of deadly chaos -- but had never been able to confirm it. Until
The man pointed a revolver at the head of one aide and pulled the trigger.
The gun didn't fire. He pointed it at the head of another and pulled the
trigger. Another empty chamber. He pointed it at a third man and pulled.
Empty again. Then he put the gun to his own head -- and fired a bullet into
his brain.
Pace, always terrified by what she called her companion's "passion for
guns," heard the shot and peered down from a balcony to see him lying in a
pool of blood.
Shanklin received a frantic radio call and rushed to the hospital where he
found one of the man's closest confidants wandering the halls in a shirt
soaked with his friend's blood.
"That blood is my blood," Shanklin told the Somali, handing him a new shirt
and taking the stained garment.
By morning, his friend had died.
Shanklin told Pace, who wept in his arms.
Down and Dirty

As the huge Delta contingent settled in over the next several days, the CIA
took stock of its intelligence assets on the ground and despaired.
"We thought we were screwed, we really did," Shanklin recalled. He and his
agency colleagues believed that with the death of his friend, Shanklin's
ability to organize Somali surveillance teams capable of penetrating South
Mogadishu and finding Aideed had been destroyed.
But Shanklin soon realized the Somali he'd taken the bloody shirt from at
the hospital was nearly as well positioned as his friend had been. So he
pitched a plan to Garrett Jones, the CIA's station chief: He would get down
and dirty, mingling with his dead asset's associates on their turf. At a
time when Americans were being actively hunted by Aideed, Shanklin proposed
taking an agency team 15 miles from the relatively safe CIA station in the
embassy compound into the teeth of the conflict to operate out of a safe
house in North Mogadishu.
The whole operation was predicated on Shanklin's ability to get a large team
of 15 Americans in and out -- fast, if need be -- and manage their own
security in a terrifyingly insecure environment. The team included four
heavily armed Navy SEALs. But those commandos could not have held off a
full-scale assault by Aideed's forces -- and Shanklin never could rule out
the possibility that Aideed had a mole among the asset's men. The risks were
great and Shanklin's cover thin: There were so many antennas sprouting from
the villa's roof that people in the neighborhood started calling it the CNN
After almost three weeks, Shanklin was told by one of his Somali spies that
Aideed knew where he was.
"I called Garrett and said, 'Look, this thing has been compromised, let's
get the [blank] out of here,' " Shanklin said.
That night, U.S. helicopters landed at an abandoned soccer stadium half a
mile from the safe house and evacuated Shanklin and his spy team. But he
maintained contact with Somali lookouts, who would soon prove their value.
When Aideed proved unfindable, the lookouts developed a contact who met
regularly with Osman Ato, a wealthy businessman, arms importer and Aideed
money man whose name was right below Aideed's on the CIA wanted list.
Shanklin remembered a plan, never executed, to give Aideed an ivory-handled
cane with an electronic locator hidden inside. The magic cane was still
around. He had his lookouts give it to their contact to present to Ato. With
a surveillance helicopter monitoring the cane's beacon from above, the
contact climbed into a car in North Mogadishu that was supposed to take him
to meet Ato. But when the car stopped for gas, one of Shanklin's lookouts
radioed him and said Ato was already in the car.
Shanklin immediately called Delta, which launched within minutes.
A Little Bird helicopter found the car and swooped so low that a sniper was
able to lean out of the chopper and fire three clean shots into the
vehicle's engine. The car ground to a halt as Delta Force commandos roped
down from a hovering Blackhawk helicopter and handcuffed Ato -- the first
known helicopter take-down of people in a moving car.
But success in Mogadishu was fleeting. A little less than two weeks later,
on Oct. 3, 1993, a Sunday afternoon, Shanklin was relaxing at his hilltop
base near the airstrip when he heard over his radio that an American
helicopter had been shot down during a large operation aimed at arresting a
cadre of top Aideed lieutenants.
Soon, Mogadishu exploded with the most intense combat engaged in by U.S.
forces since Vietnam. The battle continued throughout the night after a
second Blackhawk was downed and two truck convoys tried and failed to reach
90 American soldiers pinned down deep in Aideed territory. In the end, 18
American soldiers were killed and 84 were wounded. That was the end of this
country's manhunt for Aideed -- and, for all intents and purposes, its
interest in Somalia. Shanklin left a few days later.
"Whatever our policy was, it ended October 3," Shanklin said. "From an
agency standpoint, this thing was over. I wanted to get out of there."
The following July, Shanklin was back in London, bored out of his mind, when
he got a call from a Somali contact who told him that Pace, the Italian
doctor, had returned to Rome but was still depressed and traumatized by her
friend's death. On her motorbike rides to and from work, she found herself
hoping for an accident that would put her out of her misery.
Shanklin got permission from CIA headquarters to visit her.
Pace had carried on in Mogadishu for months, living on emotional autopilot,
working long hours distributing relief supplies and arranging flights of
food and medicine into the country.
"I was trying to cope with it by not coping with it, trying to keep myself
busy, busy, busy," she said. "But I felt the need to leave, because I knew
that I had to mourn, and I hadn't yet."
She found little relief in Rome. "I felt like I was totally isolated. I
didn't want to live, but I knew I had to. My parents had only me. I needed
to talk to somebody who knew Somalia. Nobody, not even my dearest friends,
could relate to what I had done. So Mike came and he really did me a lot of
Purely by coincidence, Pace and Shanklin say, they met again the following
month in Nairobi. By the end of the year, they both realized they were
beginning to fall in love, even though she wasn't sure she was ready for
another serious relationship and Shanklin, while separated, was still
entangled in a failed marriage.
The romance posed a serious career problem. From the start, Shanklin decided
not to tell the CIA about the affair, even though he knew that "close and
continuing" relationships with foreign nationals had to be immediately
reported to security officials empowered to decide whether a particular
relationship was appropriate.
He knew he would be yanked back to headquarters and investigated. With Pace
planning to take a full-time job running a Somalia relief operation out of
Kenya, he wasn't prepared to leave her behind.
"I knew I was screwing up," he said. "But we had become committed to each
Faced with a choice between Pace and the CIA, Shanklin picked Pace, came
back to the United States and retired -- his bosses none the wiser -- even
though he really didn't want to leave the agency.
Because he would be joining Pace in Kenya, the CIA told Shanklin he had to
retire "covert," meaning he was not allowed to tell anyone he had spent 13
years working for the CIA. But Shanklin violated this "covert" arrangement,
telling several large American companies that he approached for employment
as a security consultant about his CIA background.
He finally landed a job in 1997 as a representative for an American armored
car company in Kenya, but that was far from the kind of security consulting
work he had in mind.
Watching Shanklin's frustrations grow, Pace quit her job. "We both have
given up a lot for each other," she said. "This is what happens when two
adult people -- not 20-year-olds -- meet across the oceans."
They moved to Fairfax three years ago; she recently received a master's
degree in public health from George Washington University. And he went back
to the place he knew best, the CIA, hoping to be cleared for work as a
contractor in security or training.
Thousands of former CIA employees go the contractor route and get their
"green badges" -- security passes that give them access to CIA
installations -- as a way to maintain a relationship with the agency.
But to get his badge, Shanklin had to pass a routine polygraph examination.
Before the test began, Shanklin admitted he had failed to divulge his "close
and continuing" relationship with Pace. But that admission, he said, only
seemed to raise suspicions and whet the polygraph operator's appetite for
more. The test went badly. Another was scheduled.
It went even worse, despite Shanklin's decision to be honest. He admitted
talking with a ghostwriter who was helping a colleague write a novel (so far
unpublished). He admitted telling prospective American employers in Kenya
about his CIA employment. He admitted helping a Somali youth whose feet had
been blown off by a land mine get medical attention by stating he was
related to a CIA asset, when he was not.
The more he told, Shanklin said, the more the polygraphers wanted to hear.
At one point, with no evidence, they insinuated he might have been involved
in his asset's gunshot death. That, said Shanklin, pushed him over the edge.
He got into a screaming match with the polygrapher. The test was a disaster.
Another was scheduled a month later. There were more questions about
relationships with foreign nationals and compromises of classified
information. Shanklin says he had nothing left to admit but still felt his
emotions surge, sending the needle on the polygraph jumping.
"They think that I'm holding something back -- and I'm not," Shanklin said.
"And because they can't prove that, the best course of action is, we don't
care what he did in the past or how great he was, we have grounds to get rid
of him. He broke our rules."
With Shanklin's security review still unresolved, he and Pace went to
Fairfax City Hall one day in June 1998 and tied the knot, hoping the CIA
would stop bugging him about their relationship.
One final polygraph test was scheduled. Shanklin said he still felt quite
nervous, but thought he had done okay. The result was inconclusive.
Months passed. He was working as an international security consultant but
had nowhere near the options a green badge would have offered. He started
calling senior CIA officials. They were polite but couldn't help.
Finally in December -- almost three years after that first failed
polygraph -- a two-page letter arrived from the CIA: Green badge denied. His
wife hid it so as not to spoil an upcoming trip to Italy. Just after
Christmas, at her parents' home in Tolfa outside Rome, she finally broke the
bad news.
"I was hurt, disappointed," Shanklin recalled. "I was hoping they would have
said, 'You shouldn't have done these stupid things, and we're going to watch
you, don't do it again.' "
He arrived home in a fighting mood and called a lawyer, who filed a notice
of appeal, but ultimately convinced Shanklin that the process would be long,
expensive and probably fruitless. "He told me, 'Mike, we can do this, but
they'll spin you around for eternity,' " Shanklin said.
On Feb. 21, he withdrew his appeal.
"I am proud of my Agency career and always will be," he wrote. "That said,
there is no longer any requirement on my part to appeal this case or request
a copy of my file."
This weekend, the Shanklins are holding a garage sale at their Northern
Virginia town house. On Thursday they get on a plane bound for Italy, eager
to start anew, away from the long shadow of CIA headquarters.
Shanklin figures he's already lost three years of his life fighting the CIA
and doesn't want to lose any more. "At some point," the ex-spy said, "you've
got to turn the page."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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