Watch Of The Week: The Gift From A King That Spawned A CIA Case Officer’s Love Of Timepieces
This Breitling Aerospace from King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein will never leave my collection.
In Watch of the Week, we invite HODINKEE staffers and friends to explain why they love a certain watch. The author of this story, a former clandestine officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, has asked to remain anonymous.
As the vintage Russian MI-17 helicopter lifts off from Kabul International Airport, I scan the bustling capital of Afghanistan, mentally noting points of interest. It is the late 2000s and I am working as a civilian for the US Department of Defense, prior to joining the CIA. Kabul is relatively safe at the time, but it’s still a war zone. This morning’s Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) attack in downtown Kabul is a reminder of the constant danger.
I take my dominant hand off the German Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun and, out of habit, rotate the bi-directional bezel on my titanium Breitling Aerospace. Pressing the crown, I activate the digital chronograph to time the relatively short flight south to Gardez.
“Bud,” a former Navy SEAL, notices the watch and jokingly asks if the Jordanian crest printed on the dial will help or hurt my chances of survival if I am captured by al-Qaeda. Bud’s gallows humor refers to the common knowledge in our community that the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate (GID) was a competent intelligence service with many successes in the Global War on Terrorism, and was respected – if not feared – by many terrorist groups. I brush it off with a laugh.
Four years earlier, I was a college student studying abroad in the Middle East. Like many others called to serve after September 11th, I devoted much of my younger years to studying the complexity of the Middle East and developed an affinity for the Arab world. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was a strong ally for the United States and a great learning ground for understanding the region. With this in mind, I traveled to Amman to immerse myself in the language, culture, and current events.
While I was fortunate to have met King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein on more than one occasion during his frequent visits to Washington D.C., I was not close with His Majesty. So, I was surprised when a clean-cut Jordanian, who had all the hallmarks of Mukhābarāt (the Arabic word for Security Service – مخابرات), approached me in my hotel lobby, and bluntly stated that the King requested my attendance at a Jordanian Special Operations training exercise. I was scheduled to depart for Dubai that morning, but I was wise enough to know that when a King “requests” your presence, you go.
An hour later I was sitting in the King’s office in the Royal Hashemite Court. The meeting was relatively informal, and we discussed both the ongoing war in neighboring Iraq and Jordan’s commitment to support the United States counterterrorism efforts in the region.
During a break in the conversation, King Abdullah asked about my interest in watches, motioning to the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Hometime on my wrist. I responded that the watch had special meaning as it was a gift from my father, but that I would not consider myself a collector because it was my only one. His Majesty explained that timepieces had deep meaning in the Arab world and that receiving a watch as a gift was one of the highest honors.
In this part of the world, I learned, a watch had deep diplomatic significance. In diplomacy and business, senior government officials provided Swiss watches as gifts to recognize and honor a personal relationship and demonstrate Arab hospitality. As a personal touch, many Middle Eastern governments, particularly Gulf states, would include the royal or military crest on the dial of the watch.
King Abdullah checked his own watch and stood up from his desk. Dressed in starched camouflage fatigues, he conducted a press check on his SIG Sauer to ensure it was loaded and holstered the weapon. We walked out of his office to a waiting motorcade. His Majesty motioned for me to sit in the front seat of a blue Bentley while he took the driver’s seat. I was surprised to observe his insistence on self-sufficiency.
We arrived at a helipad with two idling UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. King Abdullah climbed into the cockpit of one of the helicopters to pilot the aircraft. I noticed how comfortable the cabin was; it was outfitted with leather and high-end amenities reminiscent of a private jet rather than a spartan war machine.
A quick flight later, we landed at a military base outside of Amman. Over the next few hours, we observed a Jordanian Special Operations contingent conduct mock assaults, hostage rescue simulations, and shooting demonstrations. His Majesty was intensely focused on the operators, asking about their current abilities and if there was anything they needed for training, equipment, or resources. I was the only foreigner present. The King would pause to explain to me the tactics employed and offer brief introductions to some of the officers. After the demonstration and customary Bedouin tea, we walked back to the helicopters and His Majesty shook my hand, motioned with a knowing look to a waiting Toyota Land Cruiser, boarded one of the aircraft and took off.
I was surprised to find two boxes on the seat. The first contained a Jordanian combat knife, a blend of the traditional Jambiya dagger (جنۢبية) and a modern weapon, with “The Arab Army” (al-Jaysh al-Arabiالجيش العربي) inscribed on the blade. The second, a box containing a Breitling Aerospace with a gold Royal Crown of Jordan and Arabic writing Abdullah bin Al-Hussein (عبدالله بن الحسين) engraved on the dial. As I opened the box, the two stern Jordanian security officers broke protocol and glanced back, eager to see the model. They simultaneously raised their wrists and showed me that each wore a commissioned Jordanian Breitling Navitimer, a watch I was unfamiliar with at the time, but one that is still memorable years later given the busy dial of the pilot’s watch. They explained that they earned their watches for their service to the Monarch, but went silent when I pressed them on what specific actions led to the timepieces. Not yet experienced in the art of elicitation that would become second nature in my career as a CIA Case Officer, I dropped the topic for the quiet ride to Queen Alia International Airport.
I slid the Aerospace on my wrist and immediately noticed the lightness of the titanium and quartz movement. I would need to remove several of the links from the watch for a comfortable fit, but that would come later, at the duty-free shop in Dubai.
An hour later, the Land Cruiser drove on the tarmac up to a Royal Jordanian Airlines Boeing 737 bound for Dubai. Impatient travelers eyed me skeptically as I was escorted to the front row of the plane, and handed my already-stamped passport. The aircraft was delayed five hours so that I would not miss my flight – such are the benefits of a state-owned commercial airline in a monarchy. I was embarrassed but preoccupied with the high of the unbelievable experience.
Just as that trip would spur my continued interest in the Middle East, intelligence operations, and national security, the watch would have a significant influence on my love of timepieces.
At its core, the Breitling Aerospace is a functional tool watch. The dual digital screens of the chronometer-certified “SuperQuartz” have practical features including a digital chronograph, second time zone, day and date, alarm, and countdown timer. In the intelligence business, these would be useful features for conducting clandestine operations where time matters. While serving overseas with the CIA, the second time feature would be set to Washington D.C. in order to quickly confirm when my headquarters-based counterparts would arrive in the office to check secure communications. The digital timer was particularly useful and was used to log activities during surveillance operations in African capitals, time custodial debriefings of ISIS members, and to record legs of Surveillance Detection Runs.
In the uncertain and unpredictable life as a CIA Case Officer, the Breitling Aerospace would serve as a reliable and predictable constant. It was with me as I shook hands with “princes and thieves” — a euphemism to describe the contacts and friendships I would develop over a career at the CIA. When I met Middle Eastern intelligence officers and diplomats, I would eagerly show them the watch, in hopes that it would establish credibility as an intelligence officer.
The watch bears the scars of nearly two decades of adventure. It has traveled to multiple war zones, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and has been with me while on safari in the tri-border area of Zambia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The watch was also present during the more mundane, but no less important, points in my life such as bathing children, grocery store runs, and taking out the trash. (Despite what the movies may lead you to believe, CIA Case Officers are normal people, too.)
Breitling has developed an almost cult-like following in the national security community. The brand is fit for a life of adventure, and Breitling has cultivated this perception, most notably with the Breitling Emergency, which contains a beacon that transmits a signal on the international distress frequency of 121.5 MHz. With strong roots in aviation, Breitling is a signal that the wearer is adventurous but also appreciates fine craftsmanship in utilitarian tools.
Breitling Professional watches are beater watches, accurately defined by James Stacey as “Not a watch that I don’t care about, but rather one that doesn’t need to be cared for.” It is a multipurpose tool and, like a good intelligence officer, at first glance is unremarkable.
During my background investigation required to obtain a Top Secret clearance, the watch would draw some scrutiny. Had the acceptance of the watch resulted in a potential conflict of interest, a loyalty to a foreign power? Fortunately, the Agency determined it was not. After I joined the CIA, I befriended a technical officer and asked them to take the watch apart and inspect it for tracking or listening devices. In this business you cannot be too careful and it is important to be skeptical almost to the point of paranoia. “Trust but verify.”
This watch jump-started my lifelong obsession with timepieces and a deeply-held belief that a watch should be used for its intended purpose, not kept in a safe. It would be another eight years until I purchased my next timepiece, an IWC XVII, and until then my collection consisted of two watches: the Breitling and the JLC Master Hometime. Years later I purchased my second Breitling – an Arabic Aviator 8 Etihad Limited “Middle East” Edition in black steel with stylized Arabic numerals on the dial – as an homage to the watch that started it all.
Today, my watch collection has expanded to include many watches that are objectively more “valuable” than the Breitling Aerospace. I find myself wearing this watch less than I did in my operational days. But when I do wear it, I am reminded of my past – service to this country and a few stories I will never be able to tell. It is the one watch that will never leave my collection and I hope that one of my great-grandchildren will have it on their wrist as a companion for their journey.
This article has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.
In lieu of payment for this article, @watchesofespionage has elected to donate to the Third Option Foundation. The name refers to the motto of CIA’s Special Activities Center: Tertia Optio, the United States President’s third option when military force is inappropriate and diplomacy is inadequate. Third Option Foundation is dedicated to providing comprehensive family resiliency programs, working behind the scenes to quietly help those who quietly serve.