Remembering CIA’s Heroes: James Michael Lewek
This is part of our series about CIA employees who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Here we will look at the lives of the men and women who have died while serving their country.
Currently, there are 113 stars carved into the marble of the CIA Memorial Wall. The wall stands as a silent, simple memorial to those employees “who gave their lives in the service of their country.” The CIA has released the names of 80 employees; the names of the remaining 33 officers must remain secret, even in death.
A year after the Bosnian war ended, James M. Lewek accompanied Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, other Commerce Department officials, and public and private sector executives on a trade mission to the former Yugoslavia. Jim—a senior economist in the Directorate of Intelligence (now the Directorate of Analysis) and a 20-year veteran of CIA—was an expert in economic reconstruction, which US officials saw as a prerequisite for establishing a lasting peace in Bosnia. His role on the trip was to brief Secretary Brown on the post-war Bosnian economy.
On April 3, 1996, the US Air Force jet upon which Jim and the trade mission team were traveling crashed into a steep, rocky slope near Dubrovnik, Croatia, killing all 35 people onboard. This is Jim’s story.
Jim was a native of Cheektowaga, New York, near Buffalo. In high school, Jim was a skilled debater and National Merit Scholar. He held a B.A. in Economics from Cornell and had completed the course work necessary for a doctorate in Economics from Vanderbilt University. As a Cornell undergraduate, Jim managed to squeeze in a year as an exchange student in Brazil.
Jim’s father has described what a good musician his son had become, but not because of any transcendental interest in the arts. Rather, Jim discovered musical instruments at a young age and wanted to know how they worked. The main musical challenge for Jim seemed to be: what do you have to do to transfer noise into music—on a flute, keyboard, dulcimer, or guitar? Jim loved music and developed into a skilled musician and composer.
Life at CIA:
Jim joined CIA in 1975 and was assigned to the Office of Economic Research, where he learned the craft of economic intelligence analysis working on some of the most formidable hard-target countries. He supplemented his graduate studies in economics with a rigorous schedule of Chinese language study—on one occasion surprising all in attendance by sustaining a lengthy dialogue with a visiting Asian official who spoke no English.
In 1980, Jim joined the Office of European Analysis to work on Central Europe as that region’s historic transition from communism to a free-market economy got underway. Jim was a leader in establishing an analytic framework for evaluating the proper sequencing of reform measures—an important “first” for analyzing economies in transition and how US assistance could best promote the reform process. The template he created was subsequently used in analyzing reform progress globally.
Jim was the CIA expert on Central and Eastern European economies. Few Agency analysts, other than Jim, could point to their work as having a direct and extensive impact on international policy. A major paper he wrote on economic reforms in a Central European country not only formed most of the basis for US policy toward that country, but also was used by that country’s government to develop its ambitious economic reform program.
Life Outside CIA:
Fifteen years into his CIA career, Jim, his wife, and their young children moved from their Northern Virginia home, when he was recruited to take a leave of absence from the CIA and work in then-Governor Gerald Baliles’ Virginia Department of World Trade, located at the World Trade Center in Norfolk. Jim was excited about this high-profile job and opportunity to broaden his horizons.
He got rave reviews for his talent and for the energy he invested in that position, but nine months later Governor L. Douglas Wilder shut the project down, and Jim returned to CIA. His family continued to live in Chesapeake, Virginia, and he made the long trip back and forth between Langley and home each weekend.
His Second Calling:
Jim returned to CIA in September 1990, and was assigned to the Office of Current Production and Analytical Support. For five years he headed the overnight production team that made final repairs and late updates on the President’s Daily Brief (PDB)—in those days it was known as “The Book.”
Jim and his team had similar overnight responsibilities for the National Intelligence Daily and the Daily Economic Intelligence Brief, various cable and electronic versions of these documents, and special handouts for PDB recipients.
Jim and the team reviewed these publications through several iterations to assure substantive accuracy; correct style, format, and grammar; and accuracy of graphics. Jim was the “go-to guy” and troubleshooter for these key publications.
Jim was a central figure in developing many of the processes for completing the DI’s current intelligence publications and related documents each night. As “night team chief,” Jim impressively oversaw the introduction of new technology and related practices that helped smooth production processes, while maintaining a high level of quality.
Long hours under tight production deadlines in a virtually empty building, with little direct interaction with daytime workers and managers, gave rise to morale-sapping personnel problems, but Jim managed in that climate extraordinarily well, making changes and adjustments that helped mitigate these difficulties.
Senior Agency managers often reviewed the draft President’s Daily Brief late in the evening. On very short notice, the office could become a high-stress area with frequent changes to the (almost) finished publications. Some changes were quite significant and came at the proverbial eleventh hour.
But Jim was accustomed to last-minute change, and he was good at dealing with people, late at night, when they didn’t necessarily want to deal with him. He was always able to usher out even his late, late night customers with a sense that everything would be fine in the morning—and it usually was.
Jim was smart, honest, and witty. Former DDI John Gannon remarked that, “Jim was different from most of us in CIA’s fabled think tank. Jim had social skills.”
His associates have fondly told stories about the delicious snacks he would cook up for his team as it decompressed after finally “putting the books to bed” early each morning. And each weekend Jim made his 200-mile trip home to Chesapeake, Virginia to be with his wife and family.
His Final Mission:
In the fall of 1995, Jim asked to be moved back to a traditional analytic position in the DI. His wish was granted; he was assigned to the Interagency Balkan Task Force as the DI’s expert on Balkan reconstruction. Just a week before his death, Jim had briefed Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and received rave reviews. Secretary Brown told CIA Director John Deutch that the briefings were going well.
Jim, in short, was on a roll. His excellent work had earned him a place on the ill-fated Brown delegation to Croatia that ended with the tragic plane crash. Jim’s last written analysis on economic reconstruction in Bosnia was delivered to policymakers just a few weeks after his death.
Jim Lewek was killed along with 34 others in the plane crash near Dubrovnik, Croatia. The T-43A Air Force passenger jet missed the runway at a seaside airport in Cilipi, an Adriatic port. Radar later showed that the plane had been 1.8 miles off course when it slammed into a mountain peak. Previous fierce fighting in the region had disabled the airport’s radar making any landing attempt extremely hazardous.
Jim was survived by his wife of 19 years, their five-year old son and seven-year old daughter, his father, mother, stepmother, and sister. Jim was 44 years old when he died.
Honoring His Service:
Jim had a distinguished professional career spanning more than 20 years, in which his responsibilities included high-profile Asian and European economic accounts. He earned special recognition at the highest levels of government, including the President and Vice President of the United States, whom he helped familiarize with DI products and services after the election of President Clinton in 1992. He even did some of the daily briefings, especially of the then Vice President-elect Al Gore, in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Former CIA Director John M. Deutch said in a statement to the Washington Post upon Jim’s death, “Jim was a superb analyst who spent years developing his craft. Everyone who knew Jim was struck by his concern for others, his willingness to be a team player, and his strong commitment to family.”
Jim was the recipient of numerous cash awards and Meritorious Unit Citations for his consistently excellent work managing the DDI’s overnight production.
Jim was posthumously awarded the Agency’s Intelligence Medal of Merit and the Exceptional Service Medallion. Following his death, and as part of the Agency’s celebration of Public Service Recognition Week, Jim was awarded the CIA Vision, Mission, and Values Award for his extraordinary contributions to public service.