When it comes to selecting who should die by a drone-fired missile, the President of the United States has no business making the call, says Richard Holm.
“I just find it basically inappropriate that the president of the United States is concerning himself with a hit list,” says Holm, sitting Tuesday at a white linen-covered table at the Surf’s Edge Club on MacDill Air Force Base. “But who cares what I care?”
After 35 years in the CIA as an operations officer and station chief in a career that nearly killed him and earned him the agency’s highest accolades, the answer to his question is plenty of people.
The decision to kill via drone should instead be made “at the level of a colonel or brigadier general,” says Holm, talking to the Tribune after delivering a speech to the local chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, a group of men and women who served their country as members of the intelligence community.
“Not everyone is happy with the dramatic increase in the number of strikes,” ` Holm says. “There is an argument that we are just making enemies.” Under President Barack Obama, there have been far more strikes, about 370, in four years than there were under the eight years of President George W. Bush, Holm says.
“It raises questions we ought to address publicly,” says Holm, now 77 and living in McLean, Va. “There ought to be a debate.”
“I went into the Army and managed the system enough to get into Army intelligence,” says Holm, standing in front of a room full of retired spooks and their guests. “I was posted in Bordeaux, France, and learned a lot about red wine and other things. I liked intelligence and I liked living abroad and I was very anti-communist.”
Holm wrote a letter to the CIA seeking a job, but was told the agency could not talk to him while he was out of the country. So when he got back home, he walked into CIA headquarters and said he wanted a job.
That was in the early 1960s. He wouldn’t leave the agency until the mid-90s.
One of his first stops took him to the mountains of Laos, where he was charged with training Hmong villagers to fight the North Vietnamese. His next stop was the Congo, where his job was to re-establish a network of agents winnowed by rebellion and disorder.
It was a mission that nearly killed him and left him permanently disfigured.
During an aerial reconnaissance mission, the T-28 Trojan plane he was flying in crashed into the jungle.
“A splash of ignited fuel hit me across the front,” Holm recalls. Taken in by a local tribe, Holm was treated with a salve made of “snake fat, herbs, grease and tree bark.”
Holm eventually recovered enough to continue his career, which took him to Libya, to the hunt for Carlos the Jackal and, eventually, to Paris. Along the way he earned a special achievement award for his work in Southeast Asia, the Donovan Award for his work at CIA headquarters and the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the agency’s highest honor.
On Sept. 12, 2001, a few years after retiring, he got a call from CIA headquarters.
“We need guys with experience to come in and help,” was the message, says Holm, who became the head of the agency’s counterterrorism group, which eventually became the Counter Terrorism Center.
“We do not kill people,” he tells the audience. “That is not our job. The resources we spend on doing that are resources we aren’t spending on our ‘regular’ mission: collecting intelligence globally for policymakers.”
Holm says he is not worried about China, despite attention being paid to the Pacific in reaction to perceived Chinese threats. “Frankly, China has so much at stake with their economic ties to us,” he says. “We represent their biggest market.”
As for Iran, Holm says the U.S. shouldn’t attack, but increase sanctions and even consider closing the Straight of Hormuz to Iranian oil.