Flying 12,000 feet above the jungle-covered Sierra de Chúacus mountain range north of Guatemala City, the Cessna’s single engine faltered and died. The control tower recorded the American pilot’s urgent mayday call, followed by his anguished explanation: “No gasolina.” Seconds later came his final words: “We are going down. We are in the mountains.”
It was April 5, 1995. The next day, a search team recovered the bodies, including that of the pilot, Monte Overacre, 39, a 10-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert operations unit, who had resigned from the CIA six months before.
I knew Overacre during those last months, though it was a uniquely ’90s acquaintance. I first encountered him on a CompuServe military forum shortly after he had resigned from the CIA in disgust. He was a wry participant, slinging sarcastic barbs about the agency and once posting a message to a former colleague in January 1995 that read: “When I piss them off someday (perhaps by providing insight to some journalist), and I plan to, all they will have is their indignation to vent.”
Intrigued, I sent him an e-mail introducing myself as a journalist with experience reporting on the CIA. He wrote back, but at first remained guarded. “Just don’t be surprised if I set some limits that may frustrate you a bit,” he responded. “I don’t want to become famous just yet.” Gradually, a cautious trust developed between us. It didn’t take long before he began to tell provocative stories about the CIA’s changing new role—and to explain the frustration that ended his career as a spy.
“The brave new world CIA is more attractive to sensitive ’90s kinda guys who have never dug a foxhole and boast Outward Bound as being their bona fides,” read one of his e-mails.
In 1992, after nearly a decade of paramilitary adventures in Central America and Southeast Asia, Monte Overacre was pulled back to CIA headquarters in McLean, Virginia, given a quick education in telecommunications, and hustled off to San Diego, where he suddenly found himself in the white-collar world of economic espionage. According to associates, Overacre’s job required him to debrief corporate executives from the area’s biggest technology companies who had returned home from overseas trips. More important, he needed to recruit visiting foreign technology experts to spy for the U.S. back in their home countries—from South America to Europe, Africa to Asia—to keep the agency on top of new technological innovations.
It was a radical transition indicative of the changes occurring at the agency, now marking its first half-century. With the Cold War over, the CIA has focused its attention away from communism and onto terrorist groups, drug traffickers, a handful of so-called rogue nations, and new efforts in economic espionage. But while annual spending on the CIA has remained around $3 billion in the 1990s, critics such as Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.) wonder aloud whether the United States even needs the agency anymore.
Overacre, too, began to lose his enthusiasm for the CIA. He was an adventurer at heart, used to matching wits with the KGB in remote Third World battlegrounds. Moscow, he explained, was a worthy adversary. Bitter and disillusioned, he left the CIA in October 1994.
But did a craving for his former life draw him back? In the months that followed, he started down the path that would take him to Guatemala and to that lonely spot in the jungle. It’s still unclear what exactly took him there.
“WE HAD IT EASY,” SAYS A FORMER COLLEAGUE OF OVERACRE. “For a lot of agency types, whose spouses wanted hot and cold running water and couldn’t stand living in Ouagadougou anymore, San Diego was paradise.”
The coastline harbors a network of military bases, Navy facilities, and, like most of Southern California, a growing number of high-tech electronics, biotechnology, and telecommunications firms. Monte Overacre settled here in January 1994, assigned to the CIA’s National Resources Division (NRD). Part of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, the agency’s clandestine service, the little-known NRD houses the CIA’s domestic operations unit and, by some estimates, has offices in three dozen cities, including San Diego.
“Kinda funny, huh?” he would write later. “NRD, read phonetic—NERD.” The NRD provides the CIA with its primary window into corporate America. Officers assigned to the NRD maintain regular liaison with literally tens of thousands of U.S. business executives, who gather intelligence during their travels. “My primary target was foreign telecommunications,” he wrote, explaining that telecommunications intelligence made up nearly 30 percent of the NRD’s focus, a subset of the growing concentration of CIA resources toward economic espionage.
Overacre operated in San Diego under a cover conveniently provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce, using his real name. A business card carrying the seal of the U.S. Department of Commerce reads: “Monte Overacre/U.S. Foreign Commercial Service/ 6363 Greenwich Drive/San Diego, California 92122.” However, the phone number on the card doesn’t ring the Commerce Department’s San Diego office but the CIA’s. (While the San Diego office of the CIA refused to comment on Overacre, a Commerce Department official in San Diego helpfully remembered him. “He was detailed out here on a research assignment,” says Mary Delmege, a regional director for the Commerce Department’s commercial service. When asked whether she knew he was actually working for the CIA, Delmege said no.)
Overacre also used a string of aliases—Lincoln J. Barnes, Marshall Sellars, Shaun Dinnen, and, perhaps most memorably, Eden C. Jetson—on visits to high-tech firms (including Loral). When he showed up, Overacre would quietly be escorted into the office of a high-tech executive recently returned from overseas, close the door, and debrief him.
But his most important job was recruiting overseas spies. Under his assignment, code-named MXSCOPE, he worked on the campus of a university in the San Diego area (though he carefully guarded the identity of the university), where he managed a team posing as telecommunications academics.
Under the guise—or “false flag,” as the CIA calls it—of running a series of seminars on telecommunications, Overacre and his MXSCOPE team would invite scientists, engineers, and government and corporate officials from all over the world to come to San Diego. Once there, unwitting attendees would be scoped out by Overacre, evaluated, and targeted for recruitment as potential CIA agents, or “assets,” after they returned to their home countries.
“To me, it was like drinking light or nonalcoholic beer—the appearance is there but the ‘kick’ is missing,” he wrote. “When one is used to chasing the really bad guys, as last defined during pre-Yeltsin times, the [telecommunications] stuff is pretty unsatisfying.” He described his new targets as “the types who are often the shrinking violets of the social circuit.”
“Basically, these boys (and some girls) are nerds who seek attention and respect. They are easy pickings for an average case officer, if he can keep from being bored to death.”
Using classic Cold War techniques, the recruitment efforts were typically unsavory. “The old methods work even with the nerds, sometimes even better,” he wrote. “Trips to massage parlors, strip clubs, wild bars with aggressive white women, etc., make these guys come unglued, just like any truck driver. Once you have gotten a guy laid and paid the bill for him, you have a friend for life. Trust me, it almost always works if the assessment shows a lack of nooky in the target’s profile.”
Eventually, back home in Paris, Mexico City, or Beijing, the recruits would probably be handled by a CIA case officer working out of the U.S. embassy or, more frequently, operating under nonofficial cover, posing as an American businessman. By then, the new agents likely would be on the CIA’s payroll.
Classified MXSCOPE documents marked “Secret” and dated July 1994 indicate the worldwide nature of the operation, targeting officials, scientists, and businessmen from Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Paraguay, Argentina, Germany, India, China, Egypt, and Africa.
“It is essential to maintain the exposure of MXSCOPE in the world telecommunications arena in order to plant the seeds of a sustainable source of validated [foreign intelligence] targets from which to choose scholars and guest speakers,” reads a CIA memo written by Overacre to justify a trip to Latin America. The memo describes how he and his colleagues would often travel to conferences, from Berlin to China, to promote the ersatz academic program and lure the unwitting to San Diego.
The most attractive targets, he wrote in an e-mail, were the experts in such sought-after technologies as “digital switch architectures, placements, telecom network design and hierarchies, digital microwave frequencies, [and] types and manufacture of digital optical fiber being laid to replace old twisted-pair networks.” He explained that this intelligence gathering was designed to help the U.S. intelligence community—in particular, the eavesdropping specialists at the National Security Agency (NSA)—tap telephone conversations, data transmissions, and other overseas electronic communications. Overacre said that telecommunications operations such as MXSCOPE fed their information back to an agency called the Technology Management Office, a secret joint venture of the CIA and the NSA.
“But,” he added with grim humor, “it was much more satisfying chasing commies. They were easy to hate and put up a good fight. I especially liked the ones willing to die for their cause. I found I kinda truly liked the [telecommunications] targets and sometimes even felt guilty exploiting them—nah!”
To many in the CIA, the NRD is only for officers who can’t cut it in the clandestine foreign posts or the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence, the analysis branch. But as the need for overseas spies dropped, career CIA officers took what they could get.
Duane Clarridge, a former senior CIA official who once oversaw the agency’s operations in Central America, says of Cold War CIA officers, “We got more of them than we need. We try to retread them.” When told about Overacre, and how he left the agency after he was reassigned, Clarridge replies, “He clearly wasn’t retreadable.”
GROWINGUP IN SOUTHERN IDAHO, WHERE THE SKY STRETCHES to infinity, Monte Overacre decided he wanted to fly. Born July 30, 1955, to Sam and Flora Overacre in Gooding, Idaho, he was the first of six children, with three brothers and two sisters in a close-knit family.
The Overacres struggled early on, as Sam kept a series of odd jobs in order to make ends meet. But no time was tougher than on March 19, 1963, when Monte Overacre’s younger brother Mitchell, 5 years old, tumbled from a tree house, entangled in a rope that choked the life out of him. Mitchell and Monte, who was 7 years old at the time, had been inseparable. “When Mitchie died,” Flora says, “Monte’s imagination went down within himself. He had no one to share it with.” Says Sam, “He’d go down in the basement and play little war games, using a bag of soldiers that he had. He liked that.”
With an IQ of 135 and an insatiable curiosity, Overacre earned straight As through the ninth grade; he’d spent hours systematically taking apart every clock in the house and putting them back together. His family and friends tell the story of the time that he disassembled a motorcycle, then put it back together and promptly wrecked it, almost killing himself.
His curiosity, however, developed into a rebelliousness that by the early 1970s prompted him to wear long hair and smoke pot. At 17, he dropped out of high school. But then, following a heart-to-heart talk with his father, he joined the U.S. Army. Over the next 10 years, he became proficient as an Army aviator and picked up a pair of college degrees in economics and education before leaving for the Army reserves in 1982, heading back home to Idaho.
Two years later, he saw an employment ad placed in the Twin Falls, Idaho, paper by the CIA. Before he knew it, he was traveling down to meet a CIA recruiter in Salt Lake City. He passed the test with flying colors, and in August 1984 headed off to the agency’s yearlong career trainee program in Virginia. By 1986, Monte Overacre was in El Salvador, a country which was then in the midst of a bitter civil war, one that pitted a military-dominated government against leftist guerrillas allied with Cuba and Nicaragua.
He believed in his cause and, according to those who worked with him, repeatedly risked his life to save others, flying in and out of combat zones in helicopters, under fire, to rescue stranded American CIA officers and wounded Salvadoran soldiers. “I was with him, in the left seat, in many helicopters, in situations that were extraordinarily heroic,” says Chase Brandon, a CIA colleague of Overacre’s in El Salvador. “He was a great pilot.”
But one particular event has haunted his family. In March 1987, a CIA colleague and friend of Overacre named Rick Krobock died in the crash of a Salvadoran military helicopter. “I was one of the last to see him alive,” Overacre wrote.
Realizing that journalists might report the death of an unnamed CIA officer in El Salvador, which would alarm his own parents, Overacre called to reassure his mother. “The phone rang,” says Flora, “and it was Monte. He said, ‘Mom, I want you to look at the clock and remember what the date is. And remember that you talked to me, and I’m OK.'” That way, should reports later surface of an unidentified CIA pilot’s death in El Salvador, they would know it wasn’t him. But Krobock’s death augurs another crash that would take place almost exactly eight years later in Guatemala.
OVERACRE’S DECISION TO LEAVE THE CIA was accelerated by a clash in his personal life, which included two failed marriages.
His second, in 1989, to a fellow CIA officer, ended in 1993 after one incident in which Overacre was charged with physically assaulting his wife, Kathi. The charges were later dismissed, and he underwent counseling and anger management training at the CIA. In mid-1994, following their separation, Kathi—posted to the agency’s station in São Paulo, Brazil, posing as a U.S. consulate official—got into a dispute with Monte over whether Overacre could see their 3-year-old daughter during a trip to Brazil. (Kathi Overacre declined to comment for this story.) When Kathi protested to her boss that Overacre’s trip might violate CIA security and blow both of their covers, the agency got involved, and Overacre was not allowed to make the trip. Though the facts are murky, Overacre demanded an apology from the agency. (In a letter sent to Sam and Flora after their son’s death, Hugh E. Price, the CIA’s deputy director for operations at the time, wrote, “The organization and parties involved sincerely regret any discomfort or concern Monte may have felt about this matter.… His reputation remains intact.”)
Despite the incident, when he bailed out of the agency in October 1994, Overacre had no trouble finding a golden parachute. For many CIA officers in the National Resources Division, leaving the agency for the business world—at a much higher salary—is a piece of cake. Most NRD officers have extensive contacts with senior industry executives, often at a very high level within their companies, and the intelligence that they’ve gathered certainly makes them attractive job candidates. Before Overacre jumped ship, Jenny Fisher, his former boss, had left for Motorola.
Overacre was offered a job as sales manager for Loral in South America. For him, it was an ideal position, paying $70,000 a year. Concerned about his CIA years, Loral designed the position specifically to keep him out of Central America, a safety precaution meant to prevent him from running into old friends—or enemies.
Yet just three months later, in February 1995, to the shock of his family and friends, Overacre abruptly quit—taking a job with roughly the same salary managing a struggling oil operation in Guatemala.
THE COMPANY THAT SENT OVERACRE TO Guatemala, Glickenhaus Energy Corporation (chaired by Seth Glickenhaus, an octogenarian Wall Street money manager), funded Crescent Petroleum, a tangle of entities based in Houston. Crescent operated the Chocop oil field in Guatemala’s northern Petén panhandle.
Chocop itself was a small, unproductive oil exploration area near the village of El Naranjo in Petén. Remote and inaccessible, the field never made money while Crescent Petroleum ran it. Beside it was a small, rutted dirt landing strip that could handle small planes. Nearby was a Guatemalan army base, and for years anti-government guerrillas associated with the leftist National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity movement—the bitter enemies of the CIA-supported Guatemalan military— operated in the area, along with bandit groups prone to violence.
After investing several million dollars in Chocop, Crescent Petroleum had nothing to show for it. According to three different people familiar with the firm, Crescent was in serious financial straits. Thomas Stroock, the former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala and a Wyoming oilman, briefly considered investing in Chocop, but says he abandoned the idea because “the financial end was such a mess.” Stroock also says that one of the principals in Crescent, an independent Texas oilman named Gary Lewis, diminished his interest in the company, saying only, “We made an effort not to become involved with Mr. Lewis.”
Why would Overacre abandon a job that apparently required little from him and paid him a healthy salary? The friends, family, and colleagues with whom I spoke believe that what attracted him back to Central America may have been a chance for one last freelance assignment for the agency. “To this day, I’m convinced that Monte had gone back to work for the CIA when he was killed,” says his father.
While we may never know whether that’s true, one fact is clear: The CIA played a role in introducing Overacre to his final employer.
In late January 1995, Overacre received a phone call from then-CIA Houston station chief Chase Brandon, with whom Overacre had flown helicopter rescue missions in El Salvador a decade earlier. Brandon introduced Overacre to Jim Rieker, the president of Crescent, who wined and dined Overacre over a long weekend at his ranch near Houston. Then Brandon, Overacre, and Rieker flew up to New York City with Gary Lewis to introduce Overacre to Seth Glickenhaus over dinner at the Harvard Club. At that time, Glickenhaus offered Overacre a job managing Crescent’s operation in Guatemala.
Brandon’s connection with Crescent is unclear; asked how he knew Rieker, he replies airily, “I just know a lot of people.” As head of the Houston office of the CIA, Brandon had wide contacts with oil industry executives in Texas.
Brandon says Overacre took the job with Crescent for the sheer adventure of it, and that the CIA had nothing to do with it. “When I called him, I said, ‘Look, this is a little oil company and they’re out in the middle of the damn jungle in Guatemala and they’re looking for someone who can fly airplanes and meet with government officials…get security around the oil derricks at night to keep the guerrillas out.’ And I think that sounded to Monte like the closest thing to CIA heaven that he was likely to find.”
He ridicules the notion that Overacre was performing any work for the agency. “He walked out of here neat, clean, and irrevocably,” Brandon says.
The person closest to Overacre at the time of his startling decision to leave Loral and rush off into the jungle was Lora Dillon, a fellow ex-CIA employee who was Overacre’s girlfriend in San Diego. Dillon at first cooperated with this article, though she admitted, “Being sworn to secrecy, I don’t know how much I can tell you.” In an interview, she described Overacre’s state of mind after returning home from the interview with Glickenhaus. “His eyes were so bright,” she said. “I told him, ‘I thought I’d got you after you’d sowed your oats,’ and he turned to me and said, ‘No. Not yet, babe.'” She added, “You can’t say anything to a man whose eyes are so bright. I’d never seen it before. They shone.”
But when asked about the details of his death, Dillon tersely said, “Talk to Chase.” When told Brandon said Overacre did not go back to work for the CIA in Guatemala, she laughed bitterly.
One person who might know some of the answers is Gary Lewis, who would not return repeated calls for this story. Described by former associates as flamboyant and hot-tempered, Lewis—the man former Ambassador Stroock considered disreputable—is also, say several sources, the proud owner of a Russian MiG fighter plane, housed at Houston Hobby airport. Lewis had a close working relationship with Brandon, including during the period when Brandon was CIA chief in Houston. Brandon calls Lewis a friend, and says his involvement with Crescent was simply an attempt to help his friend salvage a troubled oil investment. But their friendship raises the question of whether or not Brandon and Lewis were more than friends, cooperating on agency business as well.
At Overacre’s funeral, Brandon and Lewis showed up together and handed out business cards that described them as representatives of a company called Patriot Petroleum of Baytown, Texas. Brandon’s card identified him as Patriot’s vice president and chief of operations. Brandon now acknowledges that Patriot was a fictional entity designed to provide cover for his CIA role in Houston.
His close relationship with Lewis, therefore, begs the question: Was Crescent part of a CIA covert operation, too?
Even the man holding the purse strings, Seth Glickenhaus, admits to having his doubts. “Underneath it all,” Glickenhaus says, “I had some suspicions that [Overacre] may have taken the job as a representative of the CIA,” though he hedges, calling his skepticism a “fanciful, wild suspicion.”
But after Overacre’s crash, Crescent’s Guatemalan oil operation ceased to exist. It vanished. Drilling halted, and, according to a company insider, within days all of the computer records at the Guatemala office were gone. “We lost millions [in investments],” says Glickenhaus.
THE GUATEMALAN GOVERNMENT DID little investigating into the crash. Nor has the U.S. government pursued its own investigation: The embassy in Guatemala City did not look into the crash—Marilyn McAfee, the ambassador at that time, says the issue never came to her desk.
Overacre had two passengers who died with him that day: an American businessman named Wayne Eggleston and a Mexican field hand from the oil field named Rigoberto Castro Ramirez. According to the transcript of Overacre’s conversation with the flight control tower, there was no indication of any trouble—no engine breakdowns, no weather disturbances, no fuel problems—until the sudden announcement that they were out of fuel.
All that is known is that in the last month of Overacre’s life, he was scared. “He started running into people he knew from the old days, people in the Guatemalan army, from the air force, people who knew him from his days with the CIA,” says his brother Dave, to whom Monte sent a copy of his last will and testament. And, says Lora Dillon, Overacre “started doing some countersurveillance” to try to make it harder for anyone to tail him.
Like many who knew him, Overacre’s family simply cannot believe that his death was an accident. How, they ask, could a veteran Army flier and 10-year air operations specialist for the CIA, with 4,500 hours at the controls of a wide variety of aircraft, simply run out of gas?
Sam Overacre, who once visited his son in El Salvador, laughingly remembers that Monte would often sit on a flak jacket while piloting the helicopter, saying, “I don’t want a lead enema!” Today, proudly displayed in a cabinet in Sam and Flora’s home in Kimberly, Idaho, is a jaunty photo of Overacre, armed and standing in front of a helicopter, in battle fatigues, with the scrawled message: “Dear Mom and Dad, Getting older but still playing little boys’ games. Love you both, Monte.”
They can’t help but think that what lured him down to Guatemala was one last assignment. They just don’t know if they’ll ever discover the truth.
Robert Dreyfuss is a Mother Jones contributing writer. He received funding for his research in part from the Fund for Constitutional Government.