WASHINGTON, D.C. — The way Mr. Thornton tells the story, it was shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, and he suddenly needed to drive the CIA’s No. 3 official to a secret location three hours away in Virginia. His boss, A.B. “Buzzy” Krongard, was running late, so Mr. Thornton — a fedora-wearing septuagenarian who everyone, even agency directors, called by that honorific — would need to use his lead foot.
“It was at one of these undercover places, and we were doing 80 miles per hour. One time, I hit 100. But I got Buzzy there 15 minutes before the meeting,” said Mr. Thornton, 79, who insists he cannot remember much else about the drive and why the meeting was so urgent. “All I knew about it was that it was a secret place,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”
Mr. Thornton never ran spies. (So he says.) He never interrogated a terrorist suspect. But in his nearly 45 years at the CIA — a tenure that ended Dec. 20 when he retired — the Prince George’s County, Md. man worked as an agency driver and became a fixture at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Va. In his first two-plus decades, he operated agency shuttle buses, picking up CIA employees around Washington and dropping them off at government facilities. And in the last 17 or so, he chauffeured the agency’s executive director — “ExDir,” in agency parlance — as well as other agency officers.
Up until late December, Mr. Thornton occupied an unsung role in the national security establishment. Mr. Thornton was an unarmed CIA driver with top-secret security clearance who every day happened to hold in his hands the lives of elite spymasters — his “principals,” as he dutifully calls them.
What did Mr. Thornton overhear in all those trips with the CIA’s senior executives?
“You learn not to be too curious,” he said, with a slight grin.
“I saw history change all the time, directors and executive directors come in and leave. I was there when things happened,” he said. “But you couldn’t go up and down the street saying you were there. I know it. The people I was hauling know it.”
At Langley, Mr. Thornton walked the agency’s seventh floor of senior executives, popping into offices, clad in Burberry or Joseph Abboud suits and red or brown bowlers or fedoras. On his breaks, he routinely could be found in one of the back tables at the agency’s Starbucks, chatting with fellow drivers. (Yes, the CIA has, among other chain eateries, a Starbucks, replete with Aimee Mann music and highly vetted baristas.) Those who didn’t know him by name simply called him “The Hat Man.”
In his nearly half-century at the CIA, Mr. Thornton witnessed his employer generate headlines frequently. Some of the people responsible for those headlines were the very people he was driving around.
Some of the stories hit close: One of his former principals, Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, pleaded guilty in 2008 in a federal corruption case for steering agency contracts to a friend. “Some people have said to me, ‘Well, you were hauling Dusty around, and he was wheeling and dealing,’ Mr. Thornton said. “I just said I was the driver. I didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on.”
Foggo, who declined to be interviewed, said in an email: “Mr Thornton, besides being the best dressed person in the agency, was a man whose kindness, humility, and humanity for others often made me wish I was working for him.”
Mr. Thornton said one event, more than others, stayed with him: in January 1993, when a Pakistani immigrant shot and killed two agency employees at a red light outside the headquarters. “I had stopped at a McDonald’s and was on the way back to headquarters. I was in the fourth car behind the guys that got shot,” Mr. Thornton said. “The shooter came down the line and was shooting at people. And then he jumped in a car, and they didn’t know where he went. I was scared.”
Other memories are more comical. Once, Mr. Thornton recalls, he had to pick up Krongard at a government facility somewhere in Northern Virginia, and suddenly, George Tenet, then the agency’s director, hopped in the back of his car, ditching his armed security.
“Tenet just said something like, ‘Let’s go! Put the pedal to the metal!'” Mr. Thornton said, laughing.
If Mr. Thornton overheard anything juicy from his principals, the talk likely centered on who was getting which job. “There could be discussion that you were going to promote Joe to John’s job,” Krongard said. “In the agency, that’s worth its weight in gold, rather than whether we’re going to run a coup in some country because that’s business as usual and won’t affect anyone.”
One morning this month, Mr. Thornton sat down for his Starbucks routine and was joined by his pony-tailed colleague Bruce, who drives the agency’s general counsel. (The agency asked The Washington Post not to reveal Bruce’s last name because he still works there.)
It was about 9 a.m., and Mr. Thornton had just returned from ferrying an agency employee back and forth to the Pentagon.
Suddenly, they saw a person sit down next to them carrying a bag with a lock on it.
“Sometimes, you see a guy. He looks like a real nerd! Then you see a lock bag and you wonder, what’s in there?” Bruce said, laughing.
“That’s small fry. I do the big guys. But if that bag gets out from you, then you are done,” Mr. Thornton said very seriously. “Let me tell you. You are done.”
Like other drivers, Bruce views Mr. Thornton as a father figure. At some point after Bruce was hired several years ago, Mr. Thornton pulled him aside. “He shut the office door. He laid down rules. He said, ‘Come to work on time. Wear a tie. Get your shoes shined. Mind your business,’ ” Bruce said. “Some of those things I tell my kids.”
The drivers, after all, undergo polygraphs, which Mr. Thornton rarely minded. “They strap you in and put all this junk on you,” he said, with a chuckle. “They ride on you, like ‘What’d you hear in the car?’ and ‘Have you been overseas?’ But I really can’t discuss what they ask you.”
Mr. Thornton grew up in Leesburg, Va. as one of 16 children, the son of a domestic worker and farmer. He and his twin sister were the first in their family to earn a high school diploma, graduating in the early 1950s from the all-black Douglass High School in Leesburg. His first job: working as a janitor at Melpar, an engineering government contractor.
Then, he got hired as a messenger at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a nonprofit corporation that operates federally funded research centers for the government. In that job, he often traveled to the CIA to pick up library books, he said. On one of his CIA trips, he learned the agency was hiring drivers, for better pay. He applied and got the job.
On June 8, 1969, back when Richard Helms was director, Mr. Thornton began his CIA marathon and became one of the longest-serving employees at the agency.
He was one of a small number of black employees at the agency during his first several years on the job. Sometimes, he said, it felt as though “you drove a car, you moved furniture, or worked in the mail room, those were the only jobs you could get as a black person there.” Still, Mr. Thornton said he always felt embraced his supervisors and colleagues.
The first No. 3 official whom Mr. Thornton drove around was Nora Slatkin, the first woman in the agency’s history to hold that position. When she interviewed him to be her driver, Mr. Thornton said she specifically told him she didn’t like how her last driver got out of the car on the side of the road to give her privacy when she spoke on the phone.
“She said she needed to trust me,” he said. “She was busy and she had to be where she needed to be.”
Other top agency bosses say Mr. Thornton knew exactly the tone to set, especially on solemn occasions. Michael Morell, the former acting director, remembers that Mr. Thornton drove him and his wife to a funeral wake for Rachel Dean, a CIA support officer from Virginia killed in 2006 in a traffic accident in Kazakhstan. “The wake was a couple hours outside Washington, it was raining very hard, the highway was filled with cars,” Morell recalled. “Not easy driving. But he got us there on time. He knew the significance of where he was taking us.”
V. Sue Bromley, the agency’s No. 3 official until earlier this year, said she most remembers Mr. Thornton driving her to Dover Air Base in Delaware to watch the remains of fallen officers come home. “He knew it was hard. He knew when or if you wanted to talk. And if you wanted to say how it had gone, he’d listen,” Bromley said. “He was my safe harbor.”
Mr. Thornton said he’ll never forget the time in 2012 when Bromley brought him into her office. His son had just died from a heart attack — the third of his four children to pass away. “She closed her office down and all the secretaries left,” Mr. Thornton said, his eyes watering. “She said how bad she felt. It was good for me to talk to her, and good for her.”
Now, Mr. Thornton is spending more time with his second wife, Dianne Thornton, a retired Montgomery County, Md. school principal. No more 3:30 a.m. wake-up times. No more 5 a.m. arrival times. No more 12- or 13-hour days. No more being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Now it’s time for vacations in Florida or overseas. To this day, Dianne doesn’t question what her husband did exactly for CIA. Was he more than a just driver — perhaps a covert operative? At that question, his wife uttered a word not even people at the agency use.
“That,” she said, “is not my Bernard.”
© 2013, The Washington Post