Frank Archibald is a nice guy in a killer job – literally. Last May the affable, hulking former Clemson University rugby player, 57, was named head of the CIA's National Clandestine Service, which is home to the agency's spies and hunter-killer teams, like the ones dispatched to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and elsewhere in search of al Qaeda and other terrorist spore.
Not that you've seen his name all over the news. Breaking with its decades-long practice, the CIA declined to identify Archibald when he was appointed head of the NCS, even though the 30-year veteran's name was well-known among congressional oversight committees, Pentagon counterparts and journalists who cover the CIA, not to mention scores of friendly and not-so-friendly foreign spy services, including Pakistan's, where Archibald served as station chief a few years ago.
Indeed, only hours after the CIA made known Archibald's anonymous appointment, media organizations turned up a few details. The Washington Post described him as "a longtime officer who served tours in Pakistan and Africa and was recently in charge of the agency's Latin America division, according to public records and former officials." The Associated Press confirmed Archibald's previous job as head of the agency's Western Hemisphere division and added that he "once ran the covert action that helped remove Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic from power."
From there it was an easy leap for Columbia University journalism professor John Dinges, a Latin American specialist and former NPR News managing editor who has written highly regarded books about the CIA's relations with South American intelligence services, to ferret out Archibald’s name. "It was pretty obvious who he was," Dinges told the website Mashable. "It took me about five minutes to find out. It wasn't secret, nobody leaked it.… " Within minutes, Archibald’s name circled the globe. And one downside was immediate: One website used Google Earth to post a photo of Archibald’s house. So go the hazards of the Internet Age.
But no one suggested harm would come to Archibald from that "outing," and several CIA veterans remain puzzled by the agency's militant silence. Is it the Obama administration's penchant for secrecy? Going back 50 years, the agency's practice was to publicly identify and praise most of Archibald's predecessors. Why? Paradoxically, it's a job that requires a certain degree of public exposure. The spy chief's duties require him to visit regularly with the FBI, NSA and the dozen other branches of the U.S. intelligence community, to testify to congressional oversight committees and to meet with his foreign counterparts, either here or in some of the world's most dangerous neighborhoods. Nearly two dozen of his predecessors have been known to the public.
It's too bad they're going all black-cloak with Archibald, because after the bumpy tenures of the past few people in that job, the agency could benefit from letting people know that it has a "quiet professional" at the helm, as one former colleague put it, a figure of continuity at an agency that has changed CIA directors six times since 2003.
"Frank's an excellent officer and should do well – assuming his health problems don't catch up to him first," said a former senior CIA official, who recalled that many headquarters officials were worried the heavyset Archibald would have a heart attack when he was station chief in Pakistan. "I always liked Frank," added another source, who like all the others quoted here demanded anonymity while discussing someone who, officially, remains undercover. "He's had other significant responsibilities in the past, and done them well."
"He has a good reputation for being a decent, not-screwed-up senior manager, a person with some equilibrium," another former CIA officer added. "All I ever heard was that he was conscientious, intelligent, and, above all, not screwy. I know that sounds funny, but sometimes when people get up [to that position], people say he's a nice guy, but he’s crazier than a loon hen. It happens all the time."
Archibald's understated management of the agency's covert operation to undermine Milosevic during the Clinton administration – a blueprint for running a successful peaceful covert action, agency sources told the AP – drew praise on Capitol Hill, where members of the intelligence committees were used to razzle-dazzle "bullshit" from "CIA cowboys."
Archibald's style is, apparently, disarming. The lumbering small-town South Carolinian (listed at 6 feet, 2 inches and 250 pounds when he tried out and failed to make the Clemson football team in 1978), usually showed up with his tie askew and "his jacket was never on for long," one admiring observer told Newsweek.
Archibald probably learned something about persistence at Clemson, where he never got into a football game, the team's media rep told Newsweek by way of explaining why the offensive lineman's name isn’t on any of the 1978 to 1983 rosters. He just kept showing up for practice. A CIA colleague said he gave it up for club rugby.
After a stint in the Marines, Archibald began his CIA career as a weapons man in the agency's special activities division – the "knuckle-draggers," as they're known around headquarters – during the Bosnian civil war. From there, he made it into the agency’s elite spy corps, rising to the rank equivalent of general in Pakistan.
How Archibald got his new job remains a mystery to everyone Newsweektalked to. One source thought he'd caught the eye of David Petraeus, whose brief tenure as CIA chief was short-circuited in 2012 by an extramarital affair. Other agency veterans think current CIA director John Brennan liked the former Marine's non-confrontational style. Bonus points: There was not a whiff of scandal in his background, unlike that of the acting chief, who was closely identified with harsh interrogations and passed over in favor of Archibald. She stayed on as his deputy.
One agency veteran has a more nuanced take on the appointment: "Brennan is his own clandestine ops chief." Another added, "[Brennan] doesn’t like anyone to argue with him much."
But there are plenty of things to argue over, insiders say, starting with the layers upon layers of assistants to deputy assistants that clog the agency's chains of command. Many agency old-timers are also dismayed that the CIA’s core mission of spying on major adversaries seems to have been eclipsed by constant commando raids and drone strikes against terrorist targets. All that, they contend, diverts the agency’s finite resources, time and attention from finding out what's really going on inside Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, China’s weapons labs or Iran's nuclear program.
What does Frank Archibald think? Sorry. We can’t ask him.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Frank Archibald played club rugby at Clemson, and tried out for but failed to make the school's football team.