Chris Costa is the Executive Director of the International Spy Museum and a 34-year veteran intelligence officer, with extensive experience working in counterintelligence, human intelligence and with special operations forces (SOF). Chris has worked in numerous operational positions throughout the globe and was the first civilian squadron Deputy Director at the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, and the Special Assistant to the President & Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council. The one common thread throughout his career is the presence of a Rolex Submariner on his wrist.
A Tale of Two Watches
By Christopher P. Costa
I came from humble roots. My mother raised me and my two siblings alone as a single parent after my dad passed away far too young. I was always into watches, but it was my younger brother who caringly kept my father’s watches and much later in life gave them to my two sons at special milestones in their lives; he continued this tradition by gifting watches to our grandsons. The idea of me or my siblings having a Rolex of our own was far-fetched until much later in our lives.
I spent most of my career as a U.S. Army intelligence officer. After the Panama invasion and then the first Gulf War, I thought maybe I could afford to buy a Rolex Submariner; I wanted something meaningful to leave for one of my boys. Like many soldiers, I saw early on in my army career the untimely service-related deaths of troops, way more often than I like to talk about. In one of my first assignments, I dealt with the tragic aftermath of the Gander, Newfoundland plane crash that killed 248 soldiers. Two of the fallen troops who perished in the crash were from my rifle platoon as part of the 101st Airborne Division. This disaster was an early reminder in my career that life was precious and fleeting.
December 12, 1985, Arrow Air Flight 1285 crashed during take-off in Gander, Newfoundland. The chartered flight was transporting 248 soldiers from the 101st Airborne back to their base at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, ending a six-month peace-keeping mission in Sinai, Egypt. (Photo Credit: DOD)
After returning home from the first Gulf War, my wife ended up getting me the Rolex Submariner that I had always wanted, and I wore it for the rest of my intelligence career, ever-mindful of its deeper meaning. I wore it for decades– during training to be a Case Officer; during hurried meetings in cars with sources; in remote villages, cities, and safehouses. I wore it during surveillance and countersurveillance. I wore it in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa. I even wore that Rolex when I briefed the President on terrorism and hostages at the White House.
I often quipped to my sons that if my Rolex Submariner could talk, many of the stories it could tell would be classified. It was a critical piece of my gear and part of my clandestine work.
Costa (L) serving as Special Assistant to the President & Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council. (Photo Credit: White House)
Case Officers carefully, even obsessively, focus on their operational time windows for meetings with their sources. Precision is important in both clandestine work and in special operations. So is operational adaptation, when necessary. I sheepishly smile when I think of an improvisation featuring that Rolex Submariner during an important meeting that I had with an influential Afghan tribal leader. The ambassador, a general officer, senior intelligence officers – and even the president of that country – were all anxious to hear the results of that particular meeting, which was very much choreographed to achieve our objectives, namely to change the malign behavior of a tribe and its fighters.
I was frustrated and weary of the lengthy, lecturing tone of the tribal chieftain during my excruciating meeting with him, so along with a little unrehearsed drama, I tersely cut the chieftain off in mid-sentence. I told him that I will see him thirty days from that very moment, and, somewhat theatrically, I tapped my Rolex and told him the exact time I expected him back to see me. He protested that al-Qaeda would kill him if he came back. I told him that was not my problem. No one aware of that meeting believed this warlord would be back thirty days from the moment that I registered the time out loud by glancing at my Rolex. Surprisingly, the tribal chief came back thirty days later at the exact time I had directed, then he returned again – and again.
During another combat deployment, I woke up in the middle of the night with pangs of anxiousness, something I suspect is universal among people operating in combat zones. I worried that an improvised roadside explosive and a fiery ambush would destroy my watch and my son would never get it. In the aftermath of a particularly tough night in a combat zone, where a lethal ambush had taken place, I contemplated taking the watch off and leaving it behind at a forward operating base. I was going out again to the same village where the attack had taken place the night before, and I thought it was prudent to leave the watch behind, having a premonition of bad things ahead. In the end, I just decided to wear the watch anyway. I was once again fortunate and incredibly grateful to get through another deployment. After all those years, that Rolex made it, and in good time, it will be passed on to my oldest son with a few tales attached to it.
As it turned out, my younger brother turned his passion for watches into a successful professional career at Tourneau Watch Company and Rolex. He traveled across the United States as well as internationally to Switzerland, at the request of manufacturers looking to expand their market share, and was a brand ambassador for Breitling. My brother loved watches – and people – and his unflinching optimism for life is more a parable of his character perhaps, rather than a tale about a second Rolex.
Coming up on my 60th birthday I really wanted another watch, albeit I was self-conscious that perhaps one Rolex was enough for me. But I really wanted a second watch so that I could leave it to my youngest son someday. My brother – always selfless – engineered a conspiracy with my wife and his watch store colleagues for a 60th birthday surprise. So, my wife bought me a Rolex GMT-Master II, and my whole family chipped in to get me a very nice watch winder. I was serenely at peace knowing that I could someday leave a Rolex for each of my sons.
Still, I was a little regretful that the GMT-Master would not be on my wrist during any clandestine meetings, in combat zones, nor with any tribal leaders. My GMT-Master would never have the history of that first watch.
Or so I thought.
Just about a year to the day that my brother and wife arranged to get me that Rolex GMT-Master, fulfilling my plan of being able to pass the watch on to my second son, my brother died unexpectedly. Through my personal grieving, I realized yet another gift my brother gave me. The GMT-Master does not need to be on my wrist for clandestine work; this second watch is my brother’s legacy, it’s part of our family story now – our lore – that will get told and passed on. My brother never had his own Rolex, or his own children; he was simply a loving brother, son, friend, uncle and a treasured colleague for those loyal co-workers that sold watches alongside him in Boston. He was satisfied with being happy for others.
So, every morning that I put on that watch, it’s a treasured reminder of my brother’s selflessness and the precious time he shared with us.
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Colonel Costa is the Executive Director of the International Spy Museum, and a 34-year veteran of the Department of Defense. Previously, he served 25 years in the United States Army working in counterintelligence, human intelligence and with special operations forces (SOF) in Central America, Europe, and throughout the Middle East. He ran a wide range of intelligence and special operations in Panama, Bosnia, the first and second Iraq wars, and Afghanistan. Costa earned two Bronze stars for sensitive human intelligence work in Afghanistan. Later assigned to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, he served as the first civilian squadron Deputy Director. In 2013, Costa was inducted into the United States Special Operations Commando Hall of Honor for lifetime service to US Special Operations. Most recently, he served as the Special Assistant to the President & Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council.