After half a lifetime spent doing things he assumed no one would ever know about, former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez is best known for two things he says he never did. As recently as last spring, during the confirmation hearings of his friend and ambassador-designate Donald Gregg, Rodriguez was accused of briefing then-Vice President George Bush on Oliver North's covert resupply effort for the Nicaraguan Contras--accusations the author and Bush deny.
He also was accused by sources close to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) of soliciting drug money for the Contras--accusations the author denies and Kerry himself eventually repudiated. Of all the deadly battles Rodriguez and his co-author, journalist John Weisman, describe in "Shadow Warrior," it is evident that most disillusioning were the ones fought in the shadowless glare of publicity. "I believed that those elected to the U.S. Congress would put truth and the national good ahead of partisan politics," he writes. "The 11-month ordeal I was about to begin (at the hands of Kerry's leak-prone Senate subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations) would abuse me of my innocence for good."
That he kept his innocence as long as he did, in view of all he has seen and done, seems a miracle. During an era of American history when questions of right and wrong in international affairs seem more complicated and the answers sometimes utterly elusive, Felix Rodriguez has rarely if ever been bothered by second thoughts. He has lived a simple, extraordinary life based on the pursuit of basic principles.
Now 48, he has been an anti-Communist freedom fighter since he was a teen-ager, when Castro came to power and his family fled its homeland. The son of a prosperous merchant from Sancti Spiritus, Rodriguez proudly traces his line back to those who fought for his country's liberation from Spain almost a century ago. "If I am a freedom fighter," he writes, "I come by it honestly." He has fought against communism in Cuba, Bolivia--where he assisted in the capture of Che Guevara in 1967--Vietnam, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Unapologetic about being dedicated even now to Castro's demise, he told the Iran-Contra special prosecutor, who asked if he'd been part of the CIA's Keystone Kops scenario for killing the dictator with an exploding cigar, "No, sir, I (was) not. But I did volunteer to kill that son of a bitch in 1961 with a telescopic rifle." But he spurns the pro-Batista label his critics sometimes have attached to him. He writes, "It seems to me that the press takes on a racist edge when it stereotypes Cuban exiles as right-wing fanatics. We are lawyers and architects, doctors, politicians and, yes, freedom fighters . . . Many of us have achieved the American dream. We cherish American values--and have died defending them."
Rodriguez himself has done without many of the American dream's material blessings. Instead of taking his place as a freshman architecture student at the University of Miami in the fall of 1960, he joined what later became known as the 2506 Brigade--the covert, CIA-backed organization of anti-Castro Cubans that John F. Kennedy claimed (during the 1960 election) did not exist and that his opponent, Richard Nixon, could not dare responsibly discuss.
Later, the CIA's sudden and unpredictable assignments did not permit Rodriguez to pursue a public career. His long-suffering wife Rosa, a childhood friend from Cuba, saw him off to work in the morning mindful that by nightfall he might have been dispatched to some war zone and that she would not hear from him again for weeks, if ever. Now officially retired on an agency pension, he probably will be burdened for the rest of his life by recapitulations in the press of Kerry's unproven drug charges.
If there is anything the reader expects in this memoir but does not find, it is a passage in which the author asks himself whether it was all worth it. But introspection and equivocation do not seem to suit him. The fire lit in the young exile by the enemy who drove his family and friends from Cuba is still bright enough to light his way in middle age. One also comes to suspect that, politics aside, he's been enjoying himself.
The book's best passages are about the capture of Che Guevara, who had left Castro's cabinet in 1965 and gone to Bolivia to try to start a revolution. Rodriguez, still employed by the CIA but attached to the Bolivian military, spearheaded the effort by analyzing intelligence and gently interrogating a reluctant guerrilla the Bolivians had captured and would have preferred just to shoot. (In the most heavily qualified sentence in the book and perhaps of the year, Rodriguez writes, "Often, (Bolivian) troops were ordered not to take prisoners; summary executions, while largely uncommon, were not unknown.")