The American Word :: Working Behind the Scenes in D.C.

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Working Behind the Scenes in D.C.

A conversation with John Cassara


John Cassara

Throughout his 26 year career in the government, John Cassara has been a spy in Europe, stood guard at the White House, convicted South African arms dealers in Georgetown and investigated terrorism financing in the Middle East. According to him, though, he was just doing what he loves: working for the government.

Retired since 2005, Cassara came to AU this fall to speak about his work experience and his most recent book, a novel about a US Customs agent in Rome, which is based on Cassara’s own experiences there.

John Cassara, CIA agent

“I always wanted to work for the government,” Cassara said. “I thought I would be the next James Bond.”

However, on Cassara’s first day at the CIA, he found himself in an analysis lab and he wasn’t too thrilled. He waited for an opportunity to transfer and was able to move to the CIA’s clandestine operations division. There, he loved his job, but he also fell in love with something else: his interpreter.

In those days, CIA agents overseas were not allowed to marry non-US citizens; so Cassara made a crucial decision.

“I had to resign the job I loved for the woman I loved,” he said.

John Cassara, Secret Service agent

Cassara still wanted to work for the government, however. Coincidentally Cassara and his wife both took jobs in the White House: she as a government translator, and he as a member of the Secret Service.

“The Secret Service is great,” Cassara said. “But working in the Secret Service involves many hours of guard duty.”

“Investigation is much more fun,” Cassara added. “But what I saw of the Secret Service did not fit my personality and my aims.”

For the second time, Cassara transferred again; this time to the US Customs Service.

John Cassara, US Customs Service agent

Cassara’s first assignment with the Customs Service was running an operation targeting South African arms dealers. Behind a storefront in Georgetown, Cassara and his colleague pretended to be criminals to lure the dealers.

“The worst part was not the operation – that was fun – but the bureaucratic part,” Cassara commented. “I laugh about books and TV shows that picture underground investigations as a glamorous adventure. There is also all this bureaucracy.”

While risking his life in this operation, Cassara and his colleague also had to record meetings, file reports and manage a lot of paperwork. The job did not pay well, supervisors often interfered and lawyers were always looking over Cassara’s shoulders. Cassara described the two-year mission as “fairly successful.”

John Cassara, world traveler

After his arms deals adventure, Cassara was assigned to the Office of the Customs Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, where his most recent novel is set, investigating Italian-American organized crime – the Mafia. He also traveled to Asia, North Africa and the Middle East and spent several years in the Office of the Customs Attaché in Rome. Cassara was not able to escape the bureaucracy, though.

“All agencies and all departments are bureaucracy-heavy,” Cassara said.

After 9/11, Cassara said the nation’s security infrastructure was reshaped and expanded so quickly that it was sometimes unclear which agency or department was responsible for which task.

“You have to be motivated and you have to accept the status quo,” Cassara says of dealing with red tape. “I have tried to change it, but it wears you down.”

In 2005, he resigned his beloved job, but he still works for the government as a contractor for the state and in the private sector. He also trains State Department personnel with his expertise.

“I almost never left”, he says.

John Cassara, author

Cassara’s first book, Hide and Seek: Intelligence, Law Enforcement and the Stalled War on Terrorism Finance, was published in 2006 and gives recommendations for restructuring the agencies for which he has worked.

His latest book, Demons of Gadara, is a novel in which his protagonist, Joe Castro, has to follow trail of money to prevent a nuclear attack on the G-20 Summit in Rome.

Cassara’s message in both books is the same: terrorism is highly financed through informal networks; so, following the money trail is more and more important to prevent asymmetrical warfare. He wants to stress the increasing importance of money laundering investigations which he feels are not given enough attention.

Even in retirement, Cassara is still trying to improve the government he loves.