29 | Higens

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And it wasn't one or two. It was thin tire. Village was coming out onto this street. And I'm running down the middle of it. They were closing in around me when Davin Higgins got into counter intelligence, the twin towers still were standing and the job mostly involved running assets and hotspots as a way of keeping tabs on potential threats. But when he found himself in Iraq in the early days of the war on terror running assets took on gency, he couldn't have imagined before because in Iraq. There always was a ticking bomb somewhere, I hear this loud explosion. I automatically knew what had happened. I knew his abomb. What is true bravery? What makes a hero a hero tested by the worries of what's happening at home, thousands of miles away and the reality of what you're facing here. And now when your life is in danger every second and it's either kill or be killed and original podcast from incongruity media. This is Anthony Russo. And this. Is war? Devin Higgins, left college to join the army in the late nineteen ninety s he already was married, but the demands of work and school meant he didn't see his wife Rebecca that often. So he balked when an army recruiter approached him at first he didn't wanna trade not seeing her much for not seeing her for a year at a time during deployments, but the recruiter short him that the worst case scenario would be a six month stint in the Balkans. So he signed up to be a counterintelligence agent or CI and upon finishing his training moved with his wife to Germany at first. It was just like the recruiter said and in September two thousand one Higgins found himself deployed on a mission in the Balkans would nine eleven happened. I was part of an ad von for K for Wieder at a dock because that's where we were actually going to bring equipment in and out of coastal phone started ringing, and we're like what's going on. There's probably fifteen twenty of us in a bunch of phone started ringing about the same time. And they said there's been a terrorist attack. So my colleague either team. You see I guys there at this time we jump in our car and we'd run back to the hotel. And we watch CNN. We watched the towers fall. We watched the second plane run into the tower. Well, were twenty people we don't have any guns. We don't have anything at all. We don't have any way of protecting ourselves. The Bulgarian military actually come over takeover, the hotel and secure it for us at that time. We get orders. There's a lot of US contractors out there. They come down and say, hey, you guys need to go out and find all that Americans there and tell them where they can go to get if they feel threatened to come to safety where we're at. So we're in the middle of this town wandering around finding all Americans throat telling them where we're at in case, they need some safety. It was kinda crazy to know that we were the people out there trying to gather everyone out we were twenty four twenty five year old kids. I remember driving back to the hotel. And I was thinking his Malaya's has got a reputation. And history of taken over airplanes. This has got to be his blah. And by the time, we got back there things have been kind of clarified and came out that it was out Qaeda. I'm a white guy, and my colleague was Hispanic. So he kind of blended in with the Bulgarian people. But they knew I was American. So whenever I stepped into a hotel or things like that all eyes turn to us Higgins had a knack for developing local sources, he was good at working with translators and making connections and introductions as a way of creating kind of information stream or information infrastructure that he could put to good news. As Afghantistan was about to kick off Higgins was helping the air force coordinate logistics, putting them in touch with people who could get their bombers refuelled as the war on terror prepared to get underway. But by the end of two thousand and three he and his family were back and forth. Collins they were going to start their new lives there when he got the call after only thirty days back in the US Higgins was bound for Iraq and his duty stace. Was stands out for me. The most is the way I viewed people in Iraq. I went into Iraq with the mindset that if you're not helping me your hindering me, you're going in with pure authority. There wasn't any local police. There wasn't a local city government or anything like that. We were everything. And so I go into if a raid, and if the guidance or my question has came up we're taking him back to my detention center, and I'll have more time within there. I didn't have to ask any permission. It was my option and that kinda sorta power can become intoxicating you have complete control of this guy. He doesn't do anything without your, okay? If you do not check yourself, then you can get out of control. If you wanna get intelligence you have to give him the right motivation to talk to you torturing someone. Isn't getting intelligence. They will tell you whatever you wanna hear to stop that pain. It doesn't increase our mission. At all you've got to go in there with a specific goal and go towards that information the process, generally would go like this Higgins would accompany guys out on patrols when they cleared houses. He would interrogate the people they've found sort of any paperwork and see if there was anything promising. His approach was simple, given the patrols were happening. Anyway, they may as well be pointed. So we often tried to provide command with an actionable lead to start today, and from there, sometimes they would get more Intel to use his hope was as simple as plan catch bombmakers and discover weapons caches, but in the early days of the war knowing whom to trust could be a real problem. I'm always suspicious of someone that is kind of working with us. I always hung out within terp enters when we hired local nationals at the bazaars and stuff I hung out there because I knew those way our insider threats we hired. A bunch of interpreters right off the street. We didn't have any those are the only ones we could find we weren't prepared to go entire hack. So anyone that spoke English and Arabic. We hired. I did the screening on them. And eventually I caught one for giving information to the insurgency. And then I got another one I sent him to add a grave after a while. I started name I'm like, you're going to be three four five and six and eventually sooner or later, I think I ended up catching six out of the eight that we hired right there. This one interpreter he was screening people that were supposed to come directly to us. He was taken pitchers of all of us. I've been building this case for a long time. But because this interpreter was such a good friend of the command element. He was there interpreter I had a really walked lightly on how I was going to approach this. If I make his life miserable. He's gonna make my life miserable. So how do I tell him that his interpreters handing information off to the? Bad people, and we need to take him in for interrogation. The best political solution was to highlight the threat in his reports and have that threat removed from above commander to commander before anything bad happened. So that's what he did navigating rock in those early days was a real problem because it was money to be had it wasn't unusual for interpreters to play both sides against the middle. And there was little choice. Americans had Higgins needed interpreters. Everyone was conducting vetting process at breakneck speed for him. The easiest thing to do was to watch them closely and to make it clear that the benefit of working with the Americans had a million more upsides than taking their money and then spying on them. I was at the city hall, and I was talking to this real douchebag. I mean, I hated him. And if I would have stuck around a little bit longer than I probably would have had him back in my held in facility. But he was like the city planner, and we were just setting there talking NASA. Now, there's no problems here. This. Is a good city. There's no insurgency by took my body armor off and my helmet off. And just kind relaxing their listened to be s this guy went on for about five minutes. How great this city is and an RPG hit right behind as it broke the class and stuff so spread all over us. And I I lost it. I grabbed my helmet, and I swung. It hit middle of his desk. I broke whatever was on there. And then we walked out at that point Siab's had a an e seven that was an arranger as I just differed everything to him. I go running out there with my team. He's like, hey, I need to take that corner. You take the specialists in he had a saw. So we went over there and secure that corner the compound, and I'm looking up, and I see all these buildings that over there over us. And I was like man if there's anything up there were dead, and they go chasing the people at the PG, and that was kind of the problem with being account intelligence officer. After the invasion Higgins, sometimes was attached to armed elements. And sometimes he wasn't when he wasn't there always was a looming danger of being out there and small parties. Like the wondering this attack striking that balance though between the big or small group was mission specific sure, but also it was opportunity specific, and when you guessed wrong, you could be caught out all on your own with only interpreter you hoped that you could trust. In addition to coming along on raids and patrols Higgins would go out with the command element when they were visiting local officials, he would cut a deal with whichever commander was going out saying that he would take care of whichever reports needed writing and provided an extra interpreter and exchange for being allowed to tag along the commanders mostly were checking in on government officials to see what 'rational or logistical support the US could provide but Higgins already knew that the officials were way more interested in the support. They could get than any information. They could give the local police chief is going to give you the party line. But it's not him that I really wanna talk to because I don't want the party line. I want the truth. And so while they're in they're talking with the local police, I'll kind of just step out. And I talked to the secretary he's on the here's all conversation. He's the one that knows everything. And that's the person I wanna run when in there and talked to and I kind of said, hey. I'm looking for information on this. And he says I work for you now. And I was like, that's right. His village, by the way, every time we went in there. We knew something bad was going to happen that these guys hate us. And so he's like, hey this house right here. This guy is a bad guy. Next time we came back. We ended up cord on inserting the entire village Higgins, eventually caught a ride with an element that was heading out to the police secretaries home village MS some special forces guys on the way who are on a ten gentle mission. He got the heads up from them that they'd been looking into a house in that neighborhood as well. It wouldn't take him long to confirm everyone suspicions. But by that time, there wouldn't be much could do about it. And it was just my translator. I at this time. So we ended up going talked into this house and the security was right next to this house. So I tell the the soldier there say I'm going in this house if you guys pull out just yell at me, and I'll move with you go in there. And I. Star talking to these guys and they point out the same house. And I'm there for fifteen minutes. I'm like man, this is Ben kind of long time what's was going on. So I look out the window, and there's no security the soldiers gun shit. I'm here by myself with my translator. And my translator is old and fat. I get around the corner and they're God. I can't see any of them. And I'm in this town in this town that would probably rather chew me than talk to me. They were just coming out of the houses and on the sidewalk, and it wasn't one or two. It was thin tire. Village was coming out onto the street. And I'm running down the middle of it. They were closing in around me. And as time progressed they were slowly getting closer and closer to me. And I was like man if they bum rush me, I'm done. There's no way I can stop them all out get one or two of them. But then I'm I'm captured. I I don't know what I do. And I read enough stuff and seen enough. Videos that I knew I didn't wanna be captured. I can't let them get too close. So I'm shoulder my web and waving around making sure these guys get outta my way they keep on getting closer. I see a home v and his probably about two three hundred meters away. And I was like men. All right. Let's do a three round bursts. If I can get their attention as like man, if I do it three round burst. They may think I'm engaging and turn around and unload on me. That's not a good idea. I don't want to be killed by fratricide either. So they pull off and all right. Second plan. I'm going to get up to the main road. I'm going to stop whatever we Hickel. I see. And I'm going to have him drive me to the police station. I'm gonna grab my source and at this point Burnham, it's my life or there's so I and I'd get him and have him take me back to the fob. And then we get up to the main road, and I see the convoy it's all lined up. And so I'm running I'm like just because I see him doesn't mean they're not gonna take off. I'm running to catch up with it. They finally see me. They don't take off. And I step. Into the home V, and they take off that was one of the scariest moments over there. I thought for sure I was going to be that guy burning sources and something Higgins took lightly, especially since it was tantamount to taking out a contract on a person. But sources often were in at least as much for the money for the cost. Oftentimes a lot more. He was perfectly happy to have gotten a GPS reading on the house and Senate up the ladder for future raid consideration, but he was much more. Happy to have been spared. The tough decision of revealing one of his sources sometimes though sources reveal themselves out of greed or stupidity or bit of both. And there's just nothing for it. But to step away and try not to get caught up in the blowback. So there's a lot of different people out there that are trying to find information and run sources and things like this. And this one guy I turned him over to a different agency and the kept on coming back east started going all over the place asking for money. And this is like man, you're gonna get yourself kill. He was seeing some other places just being loud and wants money. I told him not to come see me ever again. It was probably about a oh two weeks later. He ended up calling us and saying, hey, they're here. They're gonna kill us coming protect us. So I go down to the talk. And I was like, hey, can you run a patrol through here, and we didn't have a patrol anywhere in the area from what I heard they ended up throwing grenades through the house and stuff like that. He was injured. You gotta understand. I can't go out by myself. There's no way one humvee is going to be let out of the fab once you start playing multiple fiddles end up making a lot of noise, and sooner or later, you're gonna get caught. And that's what happened to him. You do your best to protect them. But he was his own worst enemy. That's what we don't want in a source. We don't want someone that's loud and invincible and willing to do their own thing. And that's why I kinda cut ties with him over the course of his tours as army counterintelligence Higgins saw. Both the long game and the short game when it came to fighting the insurgency at an operational level. Of course, there's nothing better than killing capturing insurgency, Taliban, or Al Qaeda leaders, but continued harassment was a close second disruption was among the most effective weapons in his arsenal. I've been chasing this guy for probably about six months leaves a bomb maker. I had a source that came out and said, I know where he's at he's at this house. I when talked to the commander, and I said, hey, if we want this guy, we gotta go. Now, we go hauling ass out there. We get to his house, then they stack they go in there and they start clearing the house while they're clear in the house. I'm stepping out in the courtyard, and they've got this big concrete wall around and there's the gate that we went in there. That's open. So while they're cleaning the house that my interpreters with them looking for documents. And and getting people out of the house. There's little kids and female size. Like men we missed him. And then some guys stuck his head through the gate. I was like what the hell. No one's. Going to stick their head through my gate. So I grabbed him and I slammed him up against the wall. And I have him send their and I only know a little bit of Arabic while I'm doing this. Another guy sticks his head through the gate. And by the time, I was done. I had four these people up against the wall and a have all their documents. My interpret comes out we ask a little bit more. It was one of those things do I keep them for just look into the gate or not. So I take pictures of them. I'll go and talk to another source and see what who they are. And things like that. We missed our target. We're like, oh, man. We missed our target. So he ended up going back. I call it my source, and and my se wasn't there and my source met me, and I showed him. Hey, I was like, hey, I just took pictures of these guys looking in the house is like that third guy that's solely on. I was like son of a bitch. I had him in my hands. He's there now. So we raised down there again to get him. And this is we're talking about fifteen minutes from time we left and by the time, we got down there. They're only kid. There we missed in completely. I'll I'll regret that. I'll never forget that guys named owed Suliman, and I chased him the rest of my tour their found out. He was up in Mosul working at the factory up there as a taxi driver. So I passed that information up to the guys up there. I hope the they got the guy sometimes a loss as a loss, but sometimes it can be salvaged. Remember counterintelligence relies as much on the long game. As it does the immediate reaction to fresh Intel more than anything else. It's putting together scraps into a larger picture that allows you to act Higgins said his main concern, always was to do whatever he was able to make US forces a little bit safer, but that also required patients the willingness to cultivate, sources absorb the little defeats and learn from them and then do your best going forward. Even when learning from your mistakes doesn't feel sufficient you take your wins where you can get them that way, you can keep the pressure on my source came out said, hey, I can positively. Identify these these people. So I go and talk to ten Colonel. Like, hey, we've got a plan. We've gotta get out to this village. But if we go rolling out in tanks, we shake the earth. They'll know we're coming, you know, from twenty miles away. We can't do this. I was like we got some eighty second guys here. Less fast rope them in cut off the city. So that we can get in there and get these guys, and they shot my ided down the they didn't wanna do that. So we jumped in tanks and tanks and Bradley's and everything else that rumbles as we go along, and we're driving out there. And I look out there and the burning tires size like son of a bitch. They know we're coming. We get out there. We cord on the the little village, and we move in our targets gone, but we end up they're finding rockets sniper rifles. We find the little yellow in LAN pamphlets. I mean, we didn't catch him. But we took out his entire. Armory? We had minds we had all sorts of different ide- materials from an operational perspective Higgins was on a two part mission. The first was to run sources with name and undermining the insurgency leadership and discovering weapons caches and bomb-making facilities. The other part was trying to reduce the number of insurgents who could infiltrate the nascent Iraqi police force and building police force from the ground up in hostile territory already is a very difficult task logistical issues aside, it was kind of like hiring interpreters at the beginning of the war. Experience told him it was easier to ferret out turncoats afterwards than it was to prevent them from getting in the first place, but the insurgency didn't want to just undermine the rule of law. It wanted to prevent localities from even having police departments which was a problem beyond the counterintelligence scope, we're Intel afar, and we were over at the police station and we're doing our screening. We're there for the week. So we're in our second date or so there's a big gaggle of them out there waiting to come in to be screened, and we don't let them set by our Frank gate. They were out, you know, forty fifty yards from our front gate, and I hear this loud explosion. I automatically knew what had happened. I knew as bomb within seconds Higgins through on his body armor and grabbed up to end fighting interpreters still not dressed headed out to the gate prepared to deal with whatever attack was coming. But when he got there it was way worse than he had worried. Was a two thousand five Iraqi elections looming. It already had been a really violent week in the region. This was the second suicide bombing in as many days and would be the beginning of an escalation of violence in Iraq. That would continue to feature attacks on police police recruits as he made his way out into the courtyard Higgins's primary concern was to make sure the rest of the compounds secure. I'm looking around and there were no guards at the gate. We take fighting position right there and men the gate, and then the medics run out and a couple other people run out there to help with the wounded, quite frankly at that point. I was more concerned about a secondary attack coming through the gate and killing everyone inside we're probably there for a minute two minutes at the most until more people arrived. And then we ran out there is it's weird. What your mind remembers when we were running out there? It's not like in the movies where you'd have people just screaming. And and crying and things like that. That's not how it was. They were moaning you. Just see these little movements of moaning and stuff. It was. It was weird. I remember thinking why am I not getting any traction? Why am I slipped and all over the place? I know I'm in San, but why am I slipping and I looked down and I'm stepping on flesh slip on human body parts as I'm trying to get out to that's one of the one of the things that you just try to forget Higgins kept moving toward the epicenter of the carnage. The chaos continued swirling around him though with evacuations. It was starting to back down a bit. His job wasn't security though, nor was it medical evacuation. His job was to see what he could find out about the explosion and see whether it could be traced back to any of the bombmakers. He was already hunting. So we get out there and the medics have these people on stretchers already taken in as body. Parts or just all over the place. And this one guy starts walking towards me. And all you know, we're amped and everything like that. So I showed her my eighty two and I'm like, I'm yelling at him to stop. Of course, it's an English. So he doesn't understand. So I'm start using my air bacon. I tell him to stop and get down and stuff like that. It was probably, you know, within a second or two that I was going to start unloaded on this guy. And he's he stops. He gets down. And by that time. I my interpreter gets out there. And I start asking was going on. And he tells me that his family was in that group has brothers his father and his uncle's, and he pointed to mall, and they're like, they're all dead. He's like the only reason I am alive is because I was tired and I sat down we ended up finding the face of the guy. That was a suicide bomber it's weird because his head popped off and his job was gone. But his. Face was still there. The top of his skull was all there, and we were able to take pictures of him and send it forward of who. The suicide bomber was the bomb killed thirty applicants and injured. Another forty mostly men just standing in the sun hoping for the opportunity to become cops in an increasingly lawless area. The face gave them something to go on too often in the intelligence game. It can be a futile chase. When a big part of your job is trying to prevent these things from happening to try and follow. These threads of information to a place that keeps suicide vests off the backs of people learning to use them. It can be especially frustrating Higgins, seriously had considered making the army as career he loved doing counter intelligence, but the grave scandal broke about halfway through his first deployment. And that kind of changed things. One of the toughest parts of it for him. Right. From the beginning was knowing that people he sent there because he suspected they had vital information. Never really got a good chance to give up the Intel. What can you do? I'm name quite sure how to describe this. You work so hard to get the Intel and because you wanna give the lion Eunice the best intelligence possible. But they they work against you almost it wasn't like the army was working for the army if they weren't there. Helping me out they were just hindering us grave was a horrible thing. I will never say that grave was great. It didn't enhance anything for us. It hindered us it made people hate us even more if they would have done it correctly. They'd be looking for intelligence and not being seduced bastards. After a while. They came down on interogations quite hard hit everyone of us that did any kind of tactical questions or interogations were like, well, what can we do? Do now for us to do a proper interrogation sometimes that takes time. But we don't have that time we have fourteen days with them or sometimes even less, but it may take fourteen days to actually build a report with a guy. And then you just have so many of them if you use fourteen days on one that means you're not talk into fifty others. So when we sent it to the next level, that's where they have more time and then grave if someone goes Daba grave, and they're doing this and not actually looking for intelligence almost throw your hands up in the air and say, what can you do the response from inside the army was ham handed and missed the point they were looking at their house in order shore. But just as with the plan to invade but not secure translators in advance the way they approached it was scattershot and with predictable results after Abu Ghraib. Basically what happened is that anyone that had any kind of connections with Intel? Negations or detention operations, see ID came and talk to you. They treated you like a common criminal. And that was another thing that just kinda spurred me to get out of the military. Is you want me to do a job? But then you treat me like a common criminal for doing. You asked me to do job. You set my parameters I follow guidelines. I do you ask of me. And then you treat me like this. I love my country. I still wanted serve my country. And so I ended up going down to four watch hookah. I was an instructor down there at the school house, hopefully trying to give the next generation of C. I and humid collectors enough information that they can come out and be successful in the filled. I ended up getting a job in law enforcement. And so I I'm serving my country in a. Different capacity, dealing with sources turncoats and crooked. Politicians can take a real bite out of your humanity. Not just your ability to trust. But your ability to believe that there's even such a thing as altruism that nobody does anything unless there's a reward or a punishment attached. But Higgins carries with him. One of the great kindnesses soldier can receive a reminder that for the people at home. What he does really mean something we walked off the plane, and they just had a line of people share us on end tell you Steffan into Stephan on US soil is the best feeling in the world. That was back when cell phones weren't as prevalent, and when you did get a cell phone you paid by the minute. This one guy picked me out of everyone said, hey, here's my cell phone. Call her family. And I'm like, I sure I mean, I don't wanna use up your minutes or anything like Kali family. Able comma wife tell him. And here nervous peon, Mike country. It was it was quite special. And then I found it was like, here's here's your MAC. I didn't wanna use your minutes is like take all the time. You want? So it caused by. Told her safe. It's home. And. That guy. I don't know his name. I can pick him out of him from Adam. But he's my hero everyone joins and serves for their own reasons. But what they have in common is the knowledge that there are those of us who respect the ideal the sacrifice that begins with putting up your hand and swearing to protect your country because we all know how many different endings that beginning can have. And we know that they know and that they do it. Anyway. Next time on this is war running out there we fill the machine gun around skipping through like the side of our legs. Like over our heads. Like, it's nuts. Are you a combat veteran or do, you know one with a story to tell reach out to us at stories at this is war dot com with your dates and branch of service, and a brief description of the experience that you'd like to share. This is war was written by me, Anthony Russo and produced by incongruity media, if you like to show you can help support us by visiting our sponsors or by leaving a five star review wherever you're listening right now, you can also follow us on social media at this is war. You also can find show notes photos and more background on each episode at this is war dot com.

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