WASHINGTON — Gary Schroen's mission was spelled out succinctly: Put together a small team of CIA operatives, drop into northern Afghanistan, pave the way for the US military to topple the Taliban, and bring Osama bin Laden's head back to the US, packed in dry ice.
It was three days after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, and Mr. Schroen's boss said President Bush wanted evidence of Mr. bin Laden's demise - a testament to the depth of emotions at the time.
It was the first time in Schroen's 35 years as a CIA operative that he had been asked explicitly to kill someone, according to his just- published memoir: "First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan."
It is also the kind of detail about life in the shadowy world of American espionage that used to remain secret.
Once the derring-do of clandestine operatives was revealed only in press leaks, or via hints in the hedged memoirs of senior officials, decades after the fact. Those days, like James Bond's heyday, are now long gone. Today, former and current employees of the Central Intelligence Agency are almost elbowing each other in a rush to book agents.
Some spooks-turned- writers say they do it because the CIA has been the recipient of unwarranted criticism and they want to set the record straight. Others are unhappy with the way their superiors operate and profess to want to make the agency stronger. Still others are clearly part of a younger generation in which they think it appropriate to air their grievances.
"There's definitely a change in culture," says Michael Scheuer, a former CIA official who published two books - in 2002 and 2004 - under "Anonymous," while he still worked at the agency. "[Former director George] Tenet did a tremendous job hiring a younger, more articulate, multilingual workforce. They come to see if they like it. And if they don't, they move on - and sometimes write about their experiences. When people came in my generation, they came because they wanted to be an officer until they retired."
Two newer books written by women dissatisfied with their careers fall in the latter category. Lindsay Moran, a former undercover spy, penned "Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy," and Melissa Boyle Mahle wrote "Denial and Deception: An Insider's View of the CIA from Iran-Contra to 9/11."
Mr. Scheuer, former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, first wrote "Through Our Enemies' Eyes," a look at everything up to 2002 that bin Laden and his top acolytes had said and done. Later, in the summer of 2004, he authored "Imperial Hubris," a personal, critical look at the government's execution of the war on terror, still under "Anonymous." Soon after, though, by mutual agreement, he left the CIA and his identity became known.
Robert Baer is probably the one who kicked off this most recent wave of tell-alls. He wrote "See No Evil," which was published shortly after 9/11 and not long after his retirement (and has been made into a movie starring George Clooney that will be released this summer). In the book, he describes his escapades in dark corners of the globe and at the same time criticizes policymakers for degrading the kind of human intelligence work he performed.
John MacGaffin, former associate deputy director of operations at the CIA, sees a connection in all the books. "I see a common thread among all of them as a failure of leadership, a determination to avoid conflict within administrations, and an unwillingness to take broader risks at a political level," says Mr. MacGaffin.
Schroen, for his part, says he wrote his book because he had been directed to tell most of his story already to two Washington Post reporters who were writing books about the war on terror. First, he and the head of the CIA's public-affairs office were interviewed by Bob Woodward in his Georgetown home for "Bush at War." Later, he and the public-affairs official talked with Steve Coll for his book, "Ghost Wars." "We were told by the 7th floor [director's office] that Woodward was going to do a book, and we were authorized to talk to him," Schroen says. "Coll got the same open-door treatment."
Schroen's book, according to the CIA's Publications Review Board, is the most detailed account of a covert operation ever told by a clandestine officer. Judging by the amount of press attention lavished upon it - his son tells him he's now on TV more than Seinfeld - the new nonfiction spy tales may be replacing John LeCarré.
It does convey an element of James Bond romanticism - missions carried out with $3 million packed in cardboard boxes. But it also depicts unglamorous moments - like how the operatives disposed of human waste in the rugged mountains of northern Afghanistan.
The book also tries to set the record straight on a number of issues surrounding the CIA's Afghan adventure. For example:
• When Schroen put his team together, the US military did not send anyone in with him because they thought the operation was too dangerous.
• US military personnel - Special Operations teams - did not arrive in Afghanistan until some three weeks after Schroen's team set up camp.
• It was a CIA-led operation that captured Mir Amal Kasi - the man who killed two CIA employees and wounded three others outside the agency's entrance in Pakistan in 1993. Previously, many had believed the FBI led the raid. The FBI was involved, Schroen says, but didn't lead it.
In addition to relating the unglamorous, Schroen exposes the infighting and occasional ineptitude of US officials. For example, two members of his team were nearly killed by a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone.
Fortunately, Schroen says, he received a call from the Predator's mission manager in Washington. The man told Schroen they had a Predator loitering above an airstrip and could see two men, obviously not Afghans, walking along it. One, he said, was tall and lean and could be bin Laden himself.
Schroen checked the coordinates with his aide and got back on the line: "I ... told the young man that he was to stand down on the attack, that the two men were CIA officers, part of our team, and they were walking on a CIA-constructed airstrip."
It's clear that Schroen liked his work and those whom he worked with - both those on his team and his Afghan counterparts - and he left the agency at a natural retirement age.
Mr. MacGaffin, for his part, is concerned about the exodus of operatives from the CIA, including the young spies-turned-authors. But he also sees a new opportunity here. He says that all the commissions that studied the 9/11 failures pointed out the same problems with leadership that he has enumerated.
"My hope now is that we got one last chance to fix it - the lack of leadership," MacGaffin says. "[Recently appointed director of national intelligence] John Negroponte is there to fix it - that's the end of the thread or the end of us."