Watches for the Modern CIA Case Officer

Watches for the Modern CIA Case Officer

We asked former senior Case Officer, J.R. Seeger to write a piece on advice for a young Case Officer/Intelligence Officer for shopping for a watch.  Spoiler alert: it is not a Rolex.

CIA Case Officer: The Ideal Timepiece

by J.R. Seeger

When I joined the CIA in the 1980s, my supervisors all served in Southeast Asia during the ‘60s and ’70s. Almost all men and they wore what might have been considered a “headquarters uniform:” short sleeved white or blue oxford shirts, ties always loose at the throat, and khaki pants.  On one wrist was a gold chain known as a baht chain because each link was of a certain value in the Thai currency.  On the other wrist was a Rolex watch.  Usually, the watches were Rolex GMT Masters or Rolex Datejust watches. No Rolex or other Mil-Spec watches for them. They did not need to pretend to be commandos. They were commandos. 

Rolex Sign Yemen Vintage
Vintage Rolex sign, Tawila District in Aden, Yemen (Photo Credit: Unknown)

I had just left the Army and had a Bulova watch given to me by my mother when I graduated from high school over a dozen years earlier.  By the early 1980s, a Rolex – any Rolex – was more than a two month’s salary and I wasn’t about to spend that sort of money on a tool when my Bulova still worked well and my backup watch, a Casio digital watch, was under $50. The Swiss tool watch train had left the station and I was still on the platform.

CIA Bulova Espionage

I have previously written about my experience with watches as tools in the Afghan war-zone. Black acrylic watches, accurate quartz watches, were my choice. Twenty years later, when we talk about watches for the field, we are looking at a world where Case Officers (C/Os) are less likely to be in forward operating bases in warzones. They are more likely to work in traditional postings in major cities around the world. It is a different environment and it calls for a different sort of kit.

When we are talking about “watches for the field,” we are not using the term in the same way that most watch companies might. After all, the CIA Case Officer in the field is going to face challenges that are not consistent with a mountain climber, a yacht racer, a member of the armed forces, or a first responder (i.e. police officer, fire fighter, or EMT). That doesn’t mean that a “field watch” used by one of these avocations and professions won’t work with Case Officer tradecraft.  It just means that there are other, different requirements.  

J.R. Seeger CIA Afghanistan Jawbreaker
Seeger and General Dostum on the night of insertion in Afghanistan, 16 October 2001, Casio F-91W on Seeger’s wrist. (Photo Credit: Seeger)

So, what are the basic requirements for a CIA field watch?  

  • The watch must be reliable.  That means it must work all the time, every time;

  • The watch must be easy to read at a glance;

  • The watch must be readable in the dark either through luminous hands or a LED backlight;

  • The watch must be rugged enough to withstand dust, water, and shock.
Arabic Seiko Watches of Espionage
Arabic Seiko (Photo Credit: James Rupley)

Here is where the requirements shift when shopping for a C/O:

  • The watch must be low profile. A C/O walking on the streets with an expensive Swiss or Japanese watch is a target for criminals and, just as important, easy to spot by surveillance. Expensive and/or out of place items – sports cars, watches, shoes, clothes, a bag – make it easy for surveillance to spot their target and keep on their target.  On the street, a C/O must disappear into the crowd.  Just as a fine European sports car is not appropriate for a C/O in the field, a large, polished dive watch on a steel bracelet stands out and gives surveillance another point of reference when they are tracking a C/O;

  • As a corollary to the above point, the watch must be consistent with the C/O’s cover. A C/O must be able to transition quickly from cover duty to clandestine work. While there may be time to go home and change, it isn’t as if the C/O on the street can assume an entirely different persona (an outfit more suited to a Special Operations night raid for example). Therefore, a large PVD or black acrylic watch that can withstand over 20 ATMs underwater and has tritium luminous markers is unlikely to be a good choice unless the C/O’s cover supports that sort of watch;

  • The watch must not be a “connected” watch. If your watch helps you connect to the outside world through Bluetooth or directly through a wireless signal of any sort, it also means your watch can be used by an adversary to track you.  A few years ago, US military force protection studies demonstrated that fitness tracker smart watches could be used by an adversary to determine precisely where an individual serviceman was and, then by extension, where his unit was in the field. Smart watches are off limits to case officers because case officers never want to help adversaries track them.
Strava Smart Watches Intelligence
A map of activity in Djibouti.  “A map of fitness-tracker data may have compromised top-secret US military bases around the world” (Source: Business Insider)

What are the options for a C/O who doesn’t have a large, personal budget but needs a watch that fits in all the parts of his/her life? Among my colleagues, I am a notorious cheapskate, so I’m offering the following choices for under $1000.  Please note:  We have experience with most if not all of these watches, but none of the companies involved have any commercial links to W.O.E. 

  • At the lowest end of the spectrum are Casio, Timex and Seiko watches. These companies all make inexpensive, rugged watches. Some of the higher end Casio G-shocks and Timex Ironman watches are monsters on the wrist and probably not ideal for a C/O.  That said, a 5610 Solar G-shock, a Timex Expedition or even the smaller Ironman watches, or any selection from the Seiko 5 collection are all good choices for well under $200.  There may have been a time when a black acrylic watch was not acceptable for daily business wear.  That time is long passed;
CIA Espionage Seiko
(Photo Credit: James Rupley)
  • At the mid-range ($200-600), the choices expand exponentially. There are American Assembled watches, European and Japanese models that all work in this category.  Most are “dress tool” watches that have over 10ATM or more of water resistance, sapphire crystals and reliable movements.  At this price point, it is possible to find US firms such as Vaer, Shinola, Sangin or Cincinnati Watch company, Japanese firms Seiko, Orient, Citizen or Bulova, and Swiss firms like Davosa and Tissot.  Other European watch companies including the French firm Wolbrook and the German firm LACO also make watches that fit the requirements. All pass the C/O test of looking like a watch a “normal” person might wear but still provide reliability, ruggedness and good visibility during night work;
Sangin Overlord CIA Espionage
Sangin Overlord and W.O.E. numbered coin (J.R. Seeger)
  • When you approach $1000, the c/o crosses the threshold from tool to luxury tool watch. Formerly a US company and now part of the Swatch Group, Hamilton Khaki line– especially when paired with a leather strap or steel bracelet are hard to beat for the blend of day work wear and night street operations.  Seiko has their own options with the Seiko Alpinist and other sport watches in the Prospex line.  And, once again Tissot watches at this price range answer all of the requirements.
Seiko Alpinist Tool Watch
Seiko Alpinist (Seiko)

Conclusion:  There are dozens of other watches out there that a C/O can use in the field. Most Case Officers answer direct questions with two words: It depends. That is because every human is different and what is ideal for one person is useless for another. Some will want quartz watches for the “set it and forget it” nature of the watch.  Others will want a mechanical watch that requires slightly more care in setting the time but does not rely on a battery. C/O work is not about gunfights, explosions, or car chases (leave that image for our favorite thrillers), but that doesn’t mean a case officer’s watch isn’t an essential piece of kit. Time is everything for a Case Officer and a watch is what keeps a C/O on time.

Read Next: Ask Watches Of Espionage Anything 

CIA Watch Timepiece
J.R. Seeger's personal watch collection and memorabilia.

J.R. Seeger served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne and as a CIA officer for a total of 27 years of federal service. He served 17 years in multiple field assignments focused on counterterrorism, counterintelligence and irregular warfare.  During his final, 3-year assignment in CIA Headquarters, he first served as a chief of operations for a geographic division in the Directorate of Operations and then served as a deputy director and deputy chief of the CIA Counterterrorism Center.  Seeger led multiple, small unit teams during his service, including leading one of the CIA teams that infiltrated into Afghanistan after 9/11.

Since his retirement, J.R. has written articles and book reviews in the CIA professional journal “Studies in Intelligence” and the T.E. Lawrence Society newsletter. His seven-part MIKE4 series is about a family who have served in the special operations and intelligence community from World War II to the present.

This newsletter has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.

14 comments

Very knowledgeable insight. I’m sure this will answer a lot of questions.

andrew chestnut

“They did not need to pretend to be commandos. They were commandos.” – classic

Scott

Nice to see some great, budget-friendly recommendations here – including Cincinnati Watch Co, Sangin, and Vaer!

Alex

Fantastic read, thank you to you and Mr. Seeger for providing insight into your world. Fascinating! I just ordered Mr. Seeger’s book also.

Marcus

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