ST. AUGUSTINE BEACH, Fla. – One of the Central Intelligence Agency’s fiercest operatives is now sharing his story with News4JAX, providing details of previously top-secret missions about fighting terrorism around the world.
Ric Prado, 70, now lives in St. Augustine Beach, and he teaches security tactics. His career, spanning three decades, put him in some of the most dangerous areas of the world to track terrorists – including Osama Bin Laden.
“I’m one of those blessed individuals that can say I never woke up in the morning and said, I gotta go to work today,’” Prado told us.
Work for Prado was a little different than your typical 9 to 5, and his wall of accolades and medals in his home proves it. “I think the big question here is, how did you get into the CIA?” we asked the former operative.
“Well, like most things in my life, it was it was backdoor,” Prado answered. The Cuban-born former street gang member became one of the US government’s top operatives with the Central Intelligence Agency.
VIEW SLIDESHOW: Ric Prado’s Career in the CIA
“I think that when God puts a path in front of you, he also forges your mettle along the way,” he said. Prado grew up living comfortably until Fidel Castro took over -- bringing communism and violence to the island. “The second time that they took over my town, and I saw people get shot right in front of me. There was literally a firefight right in front of my house,” he said.
A few years later, his mother and father made the difficult decision to put him on a plane to escape to the United States. “I was 10, turned 11, in an orphanage in Pueblo, Colorado,” he said. “The biggest lesson that I can say (my dad) ever gave me is his conviction for freedom. Because my dad, imagine taking your only child who’s 10 years old, and put him on an airplane to a country that you’ve never been, may never even be able to visit. And I don’t know that I would have the courage to do that.” His parents eventually did make it to the U.S., and he grew up near Miami in Hialeah. Prado admits he got into trouble before learning about the military. He joined the U.S. Air Force Special Operations and later the Guard. But, when he applied for the CIA, the agency denied him – until the CIA need a Spanish speaker to go undercover in Nicaragua to fight the Sandinistas.
The former CIA operative shared how he lived in the jungle, blending in with the resistance fighters for more than a year – and narrowly avoiding assassination – all in his first counterterrorism job. “So, there was a lot of satisfaction in that and the people that I was working with because all those persons that were there fighting there, they had, they didn’t know about Marx or Lenin, they just knew that their churches were being burned and their priests were being beat up and that their wives were being molested,” he explained. From there, Prado moved around the world – like a warrior working in the shadows – from Latin America to the Middle East to Asia and Africa. Some of his assignments are still classified, as his job was to document the most dangerous organizations in the world. In between assignments, he raised a family with his wife.
“What was the closest you ever came to being captured or killed?” we asked Prado. “There’s four times. There’s four times where I was really in bad harm’s way,” he answered.
Prado wrote a book about his brushes with death calling it Black Ops: The Life of CIA Shadow Warrior. It chronicles his rise to becoming the chief of counterterrorist operations, where he and other operatives tracked Osama Bin Laden – long before the September 11th attacks in 2001. “Most people in the agency, most people in the United States had never heard of him,” he said. Beginning in 1995, the team tracked Bin Laden from Africa to the Middle East. The plan was to “neutralize” him -- which Prado says went all the way to the White House before they were denied.
“And it was my quote very early on that he was like ‘The Godfather of Terrorism,’” Prado told us. “With the benefit of 2020 hindsight, if we would have been allowed to take him out of business in whichever way was legal, perhaps the (USS) Cole would not have happened. Chances are the bombing of our embassies in Africa simultaneously wouldn’t have happened. And probably 911 would have not happened because he was the mastermind but the guy that built the connectivity. Al Qaeda means the base.”
Prado says while his task force ultimately led Seal Team Six to Bin Laden, not getting him sooner is one of his biggest frustrations to this day. Ultimately, he says it was a major factor in his decision to retire from the agency after 25 years.
“So throughout your time in the agency, do you have any regrets? Would you’ve done anything differently?” we asked. “Well, I’m a man of faith, and I believe that certain things happen for certain reasons,” he answered. “I think that I would have pushed a little harder or some things. But, you know, I always did what I was asked to do or volunteer for things that other people wouldn’t volunteer for.”
He says he is proud of what he’s done – being a fierce fighter for freedom. “The biggest problem we have in the United States is that we don’t know how good we have it,” Prado said. “It is made of humans, and there’s corruption, and there’s all kinds of problems. But it is still the best country in the world. You don’t see people here building rafts to try to get to Cuba, right? People try to come to this country because it’s that one glimmer of hope for them to have a better life.”
Prado’s book had to be cleared by the CIA and yes, there are parts of his life and his work that he’s still not allowed to talk about. But he says he wants to make it clear: the CIA is filled with people with great integrity and an even greater love for their country.