Legendary Spy Charlie Allen Knows the CIA's Secrets

In half a century at the CIA, Charlie Allen saw it all, from the Cold War to the war on al Qaeda.

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For a young CIA analyst in the fall of 1962, it was a heady assignment. With President John F. Kennedy contemplating an invasion of Cuba to neutralize the threat of Soviet nuclear weapons on the island, the CIA began planning. At age 27, Charles Allen was a junior intelligence analyst tracking the names of Soviet missile technicians. "I was put on a team assigned to plan a new Cuban government, which would be put in power after the U.S. invasion," says Allen. He quickly began sorting through dossiers to determine which Cubans would be suitable to place in power.

Those plans remained on the shelf, but for Allen, it was the first of many times that he would find himself at the center of historic national security crises. From the height of the Cold War and the Yom Kippur War to Iran-contra and the aftermath of 9/11, Allen has had an extraordinary 51-year career in intelligence. Now 74 and privy to perhaps a broader array of the CIA's secrets than anybody else in history, the tireless Allen officially retired on Tuesday. For those on the inside, it's hard to believe that the man famous for holding 6:30 a.m. meetings, working 80-hour weeks, and rarely taking vacations is leaving the spy world.

In his final weeks of government service, he's been compiling a résumé for the first time. Unsurprisingly, there are some pretty large gaps, like the period from 1980 to November 1982, when he was the "program manager of a major classified project." That was a top-secret effort to ensure the continuity of the U.S. government in an emergency, colleagues say, but he can't talk about it. Intelligence, he says, "is not given a lot of credit in public, and many people talk about the intelligence community without really understanding it. There are many successes that I know about that are highly clandestine, but they will never be public. That's the way it should be."

The chapters of his career that he can talk about span from the secret CIA tunnel under East Berlin to using Twitter to monitor last year's Mumbai terrorist attacks. His name first made the newspapers during the Iran-contra affair as the CIA analyst who blew the whistle on the Reagan administration's illegal efforts to fund antileftist rebels in Nicaragua. Allen had been working on the Iran portion of the operation—the clandestine sale of missiles to Tehran in exchange for the release of American hostages—when he learned that something wasn't right in the accounting. Allen was praised for blowing the whistle, but the CIA reprimanded him for not having disclosed more information sooner. He later fought successfully to have the sanction removed from his record.

Allen joined the CIA in 1958 fresh out of college. "I was about to graduate and realized I needed a job," says Allen, who wears a gold class ring from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "I went to the university employment office, and someone said, 'You should consider working for the Central Intelligence Agency.' And I said, 'That sounds like an interesting profession.' " The Cold War was in full swing. Less than a week into his job, Allen was poring over intelligence from the Berlin tunnel, a clandestine operation in which the CIA dug under East Berlin and tapped into Soviet communications cables. Neither he nor the CIA knew at the time that the Soviets were aware analysts like Allen were monitoring their every word.

These days, Allen is known throughout the intelligence community for his clarity of purpose as much as his epic work habits. His friends describe him as one of the most driven men they have ever met, neither particularly religious nor partisan but intensely patriotic and committed to "the mission." After the 9/11 attacks, Allen stayed at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., for days, sleeping on an inflatable mattress in his office. In the past three years, he took only two weeks of vacation to be with his wife, four children, and a clutch of grandchildren. The rest of that time, he worked from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, with a half-day on Saturday and six more hours on Sunday. So how does his family feel about that? "They do understand," Allen insists.