WASHINGTON – Exquisitely tailored and coiffed, he looks like he just stepped off the pages of Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine. But in reality, he just stepped out of the dangerous, shadowy world of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service (NCS) and into the bright light of a world he avoided for 26 years.
Starting in the early 1980s, as a standout undergraduate student at Colgate University, Harvard-trained lawyer and master of several languages, Justin Jackson has become an intelligence aficionado.
The NCS is a secret arm of the Central Intelligence Agency that provides a unique capability for the United States government. Secrecy is often paramount in its ability to accomplish its missions.
“My job was to collect foreign intelligence from those human sources who were reporting on the plans and intentions of our adversaries. I also conducted covert action as directed by the administration and I ran counterintelligence operations to detect efforts that foreign countries were making against us,” he says.
Measured and cautious about the information he gives up in his first interview since his cover was lifted, Jackson omits details that would give away classified information. His body of work exposes a clear picture of his significance.
Jackson is now the most senior African-American at the CIA. From 1983 to 2010, he served five presidents and 10 CIA directors during the Cold War; genocides in Eastern Europe and Central Africa; political upheaval in Latin America, Asia, Europe and here at home; the collapse of the Soviet Union; both Iraq wars; the ongoing Afghan conflict and the rise and fall of Osama bin Laden.
“(Jackson) took the CIA through one of its toughest decades, and that was after 9/11. It suffered a catastrophe in Afghanistan, the mission changed, it was under enormous political pressure and the CIA became a different organization. And it survived these two wars. I would say the last decade for him — he was making history in that sense,” says Robert Baer, who spent 21 years in that same mysterious, clandestine, parallel universe as Jackson.
Every day for 26 years, for better or worse, Jackson was someone else.
“My wife was generally aware of what I was doing and when I traveled overseas. She knew where I was going,” he says. “That said, she was not aware of all of the details of my work. I couldn’t share everything with her. When you have a top-secret clearance with the CIA or with any other U.S. government agency, you will frequently deal with work that is not meant for public consumption.”
It’s harder than it seems, says Baer, who was the subject of the spy movie thriller “Syriana” starring George Clooney.
“You have to lead a double-life. If you say you work in a downtown Washington office in another government agency, you have to know the building, you have to pretend you work there and you may actually have never set foot in that building or just know it from the outside,” he says. “But every time someone asks you a question about what you do you have to lie.”
Approaching the end of his career, Jackson now serves as deputy director of the NCS.
“I’ve spent most of my career in Latin America and Europe. I’ve spent 16 years overseas altogether. It wasn’t consecutive. I would have assignments overseas and assignments back here in the field,” he says.
Questions about where he was posted, when and what he did, he politely declines. But the answers to the inquiries he avoids speak loudly on their own as the boundaries of his career are explored. More than a few times, Jackson has found himself in a tight spot.
“I’ve been in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t necessarily because of my job. I’ve been in environments that were not stable. There have been times when I’ve either driven through a situation where there was a crowd forming, or something was happening,” he says.
Fluent in Spanish, French and Portuguese, Jackson can move comfortably on several continents and can extract himself from trouble in numerous cultures, but traversing unstable hotspots for more than a quarter century, he’s seen his share of turmoil, death and destruction.
One particular incident stands out during a political election in a country of vital importance to the U.S.
“I can’t go into specifics about where this happened or when it happened,” says Jackson, mentally flashing back to a time he’ll never forget. “I witnessed some of that violence. I witnessed some of that loss of life.”
But risking his own life during that tense time, he showed why many venerate him to this day.
“What was going through my mind at that time was trying to protect those civilians who were being injured, those foreigners who were being injured. It was the humanitarian issues that were first and foremost on my mind,” Jackson says.
He says as an undercover asset situational awareness is important, but so is compassion.
“The intelligence is always a part of us. We’re always, as trained intelligence officers, aware of our environment, aware of whom we need to talk to, what we need to find out. But at that particular time, as that was happening, the most important thing was to help those people survive,” he says.
The incident turned out to be a significant boon to U.S. policy makers.
“There was no one else capable of reporting this back to United States policymakers at the time. We would have been blind as a government had it not been for our ability — my ability — to get this information back quickly,” he says.
Covert assignments mean a certain degree of anonymity, but not always.
“Much of my work was clandestine. Sometimes when I was doing particular things, it was not known to the host country. Sometimes it was known to the host country, and they were facilitating us,” Jackson says.
But when you’re in the NCS, you’re always looking over your shoulder because someone else is always looking over your shoulder, Baer says.
“You’re faced with a security exam every couple of years, a polygraph and a culture of secrecy and this is what espionage takes,” he says.
As he approaches the end of his career, Jackson says he’s talking about his career now for two reasons.
“We need more diversity — diversity of race, diversity of ethnicity, diversity of gender and diversity of thought at the Central Intelligence Agency. And the reason, there are two reasons for that. One is we need to and we want to look like the nation that we serve. Diversity makes us stronger. We are a service that is working globally. We need to understand how folks think,” he says.
As he walks away from the interview and a 28-year career Jackson says, “We need to be able to develop relationships with them that will lead to our ability to collect intelligence. So to the extent that we are diverse, both in appearance and in thought and in gender, that makes us a stronger service.”
As he exits the portal that leads back to the covert world, he says he’s finished. He says it with a bit of a twinkle in his eye.
Katherine Flynn and Jacenta Price provided research for this report. Follow J.J. and WTOP on Twitter.