William “Will” Rogers ’59 has sent along a token of thanks for being interviewed about his 51-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency. With it he’s enclosed a note: “Thought you might like a CIA pen. Don’t worry, it doesn’t do anything but write.”
It’s the sort of quip he’s accustomed to delivering when the subject turns to his career. Rogers is well-practiced in the art of disabusing folks of the perception that his working life involved Bond-like intrigue in far-flung locales. He was an analyst, not a spy, conducting intense, voluminous research that helped inform U.S. decision-making in foreign affairs.
Rogers recounts his experiences in the newly published book “Stories from Langley: A Glimpse Inside the CIA,” to which he contributed a chapter. In it, he credits Clark’s Graduate School of Geography for shaping his knowledge base and giving him the research tools needed to gain entrée into the CIA in 1960, at a time when the still-young agency—the CIA had only been in existence for 13 years—was a mystery to him.
Rogers spent two years in the records division before applying for an analyst’s job with the Office of Research and Reports, where he could put his geography training to best use. To land the position, he had to impress the three division chiefs, two of whom held Ph.D.s in geography from Clark. “That was definitely one of the reasons I got the job,” he says.
Rogers discovered first-hand that Clark’s reputation for a rigorous geography program was well-founded when, as a stipulation of his job, he earned a master’s degree at George Washington University.
“The master’s level courses at GW could not hold a candle to my undergraduate work at Clark,” he recalls. One of his most influential Clark professors was Samuel Van Valkenburg, who once had worked at the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. Van Valkenburg met up with Rogers at George Washington and was delighted to learn of his former student’s career path.
With the Cold War at full throttle, Rogers was immersed in all things Soviet Union, undergoing Russian-language training and monitoring cables as they came in from overseas (he estimates 80 percent of the agency was assigned to the Soviet Union when he began his career). He came to specialize in Soviet Central Asia, compiling reports on the region’s agricultural health, for instance. In the early 1970s he organized a task force of geographers, satellite photographers and Soviet specialists in response to the drop in Soviet wheat production, which consequently had driven up the prices of bread and other grain-based products in the United States. “The U.S. was blindsided, so we wanted to be ready in case something like it ever happened again,” he says.
Rogers spent his first 32 years at the agency as a staff employee working out of the CIA’s Langley headquarters. He gathered and analyzed data from every source imaginable, from satellite photographs to daily newspapers to reports from operatives in the field. In the pre-Internet days, with the clacking of manual typewriters as the office soundtrack, Rogers stalked information with diligence and imagination. “I once did a study about the insurgency in Angola, and the best information I could find on it was in old Portuguese magazines that I had translated. It was the only way I could write the report.”
Sitting at a desk was not his style, and first-hand intelligence was critical, so Rogers hit the road, traveling to about 60 countries during his career. “You can’t accurately write about a country until you smell it,” he insists.
When he was barred from traveling to the Soviet Union, he visited Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan, countries with similar topography and climate. He finally visited the Soviet Union by posing as a University of Maryland geography professor, a ruse that worked so effectively the agency repeated it with another staffer.
Rogers officially retired from the CIA in 1992, then spent another 19 years working for the agency as an independent contractor. The second part of his career was largely devoted to giving instruction on counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency in countries like Armenia, Colombia, Burundi and the Philippines.
None of this, he notes, dealt with weapons or combat training. In the Philippines, for instance, he counseled fair and humane treatment of insurgents, suggested money-for-guns swaps, and aided the government in addressing the root causes of unrest.
In 2011 while working in Burundi, Rogers decided, at age 74, he’d had enough, and brought his career to a close.
Rogers enjoys telling the story of being asked to speak at his 50th Clark reunion. He acknowledges that his classmates likely expected tales of derring-do (and exploding pens, perhaps?).
“But I spoke about what Clark meant to me, and about how Professor Van Valkenburg had drilled me with the basics, which set me up for my career,” he says. “That made all the difference.”