Secret Agent Man: Law professor David Crane contrasts time in the classroom with years of intelligence work

David Crane leaned over his desk on the fourth floor of Syracuse University’s College of Law. Crane, a middle-aged law professor with flat, white hair and clear, oval spectacles, sat quiet and reserved as he talked about his work. His office boasts the usual items: family portraits, law books, a stack of pens sitting on the desk.

Yet six years ago, with a stroke of his pen, Crane took down President Charles Taylor of Liberia – the most powerful warlord in West Africa. That’s when he realized ‘the rule of the law clearly is more powerful than the rule of the gun.’

Before Crane came to SU in 2005, he served as the chief prosecutor for the International War Crimes Tribunal in Sierra Leone. From 2002 to 2005, he oversaw the United Nations’ criminal court, which sought justice for the 1 million West Africans killed during the country’s 10-year civil war and the 2.5 million displaced when the war ended in 2002.

The tribunal – an international team of political leaders and lawyers recruited by Crane – brought peace to a country torn apart by bloodthirsty warlords. Crane and his staff broke up a multimillion-dollar blood diamond ring, restored power to the people and indicted then-President Taylor on 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

With one fell swoop of his hand, Crane’s signature found Taylor individually responsible for the murder, rape, maiming and mutilation of more than 1.2 million West Africans.

‘This is the true ‘Blood Diamond’ story,’ Crane said. The average life expectancy for a Sierra Leone local was 34 years old, Crane recalled. It ranked 192 out of 192 on the UN index of the world’s worst places to live.

Crane said the daily horror of the stench of death still lingers with him.

‘In Sierra Leone, the air is like a living entity. It actually wraps itself around you,’ he said. ‘The smell of death, the smell of burning fuel, the smell of rotting garbage, the humidity, it just all encompasses you.’

Before assuming his position in Sierra Leone, Crane worked in the federal government. He served as an officer in the U.S. army for 20 years, including serving as a paratrooper and a special operations officer. After retiring from the military, he spent 10 years as a senior intelligence officer in the U.S. Department of Defense. And if you knew what Crane did for the department, he’d have to kill you.

No, really. It’s classified.

Alan White, chief of investigations for the U.N. tribunal in Sierra Leone, worked closely with Crane during the three years they spent together in Africa. They related to each other, having both left behind their families for three years. They also shared a desire to help the people of West Africa after seeing young boys and girls with amputated legs, and kids dying from diseases, like malaria and typhoid fever.

White and Crane are both married. Crane met his wife, Judi, while studying at Ohio University. They became college sweethearts and got engaged six months later. Crane and Judi, a U.S. intelligence officer, have two children, Katherine and David.

White had intended to only stay for a year, but he stayed on longer. His two daughters came to Sierra Leone eventually to visit, but his wife stayed home. ‘Leaving them for three years was undoubtedly the hardest thing that I’ve done,’ White said.

Crane agreed with White that the distance and time spent apart put a strain on his family. ‘We managed to do OK,’ he said. ‘Life is a challenge, and you have to deal with it as it comes.’

White couldn’t elaborate on Crane’s intelligence work, so he shared a story of the day he and Crane went deep-sea fishing. Little did they know when they left the shore aboard the 18-foot boat that their day at sea would bring them close to death.

The ship, owned by White’s Lebanese friend, sailed about 12 miles offshore against rough 3-foot waves crashing against the sides. Shortly after they dropped anchor and started fishing, White felt something brush up against his ankle. It was Crane’s backpack, floating across the floor of the boat – the ship was sinking.

After all they’d been through, having faced dangerous rebels and brutal crime lords, White and Crane couldn’t believe they were going to meet their end aboard a skimpy boat deep-sea fishing. But an hour’s worth of hard paddling and water scooping later, the sinking ship made it safely back to shore.

Once they got back to shore, they found out the boat had just been refurbished and the plug wasn’t put back in.

The boat owner apologized and offered to take them out another day. ‘Dave looked at me and said not no, but ‘Hell no,” White said.

A few days later, they decided to go back out and conquer the seas: ‘I guess our manhood got the better of us.’

William Banks, an SU law professor, met Crane by chance one day in the Pentagon. At the time, Crane worked in the inspector general’s office and Banks oversaw SU’s Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, which brought the two together for conferences over the years.

The institute, aimed at the study of national and international terrorism, ran a program in which law students conducted research for Crane’s office. Their work helped Crane’s team develop its legal cases against longstanding perpetrators, like President Taylor.

Banks said he developed respect for Crane after seeing the work he did as the U.N.’s chief prosecutor in Sierra Leone. ‘That’s not a job that most of us would line up to take,’ he said. ‘And he faced the challenge of trying to organize a system for providing justice after carnage that few of us could even imagine, much less experience.’

At SU, Crane now leads courses drawn from his life’s work. And Banks said despite the stark contrast between Crane’s years of secret intelligence work for the government and his work as a professor, he dodged expected growing pains.

‘He fits in very well, and that’s a compliment,’ Banks said. ‘He came to an academic environment in which he’s never worked before, and after a long career in the military. He adapted and became one of the faculty almost without missing a step.’

Having attended SU’s College of Law, Crane returned to his alma mater to teach law students what he’s learned. He wants them to understand how the rule of the law trumps the power of the gun, so that another Sierra Leone doesn’t happen.

During his time in Sierra Leone, Crane saw a stark disparity between life in West Africa and life in the United States. ‘It’s night and day,’ he explained. In America, it’s peaceful, clean, quiet. Contrast that to the raucous hell of Sierra Leone and, Crane said, an American learns to appreciate the small things often taken for granted.

Crane’s living quarters were cramped, almost Spartan. Power ran on electricity from generators. The sink had running water, but Crane drank bottled water because the tap was fatal. ‘When you took a shower, you had to keep your mouth closed,’ he said.

He has tried hard to forget that way of life, but the memories still haunt him. Crane said he and his former colleagues in Sierra Leone all suffer from post-traumatic stress.

Crane frequently attempted to maintain a sense of American life for his coworkers while in Sierra Leone. He started the weekly tradition of ‘Chocolate Monday.’ Every Monday, Crane walked around the office and gave staff members a piece of chocolate candy and wished them a good week. He said those small Snickers bars and miniature Almond Joys helped keep their minds off the horror that surrounded them.

He also held a Thanksgiving dinner for his staff every year. ‘Some of them had never heard of or eaten turkey,’ he said. ‘Here we were, in middle of hell on earth, and we were able to get turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, all of the traditional Thanksgiving foods.’

They even ate apple pie. Crane had it flown in.


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