WASHINGTON — The way Mr. Thornton tells the story, it was shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, and he suddenly needed to drive the CIA’s No. 3 official to a secret location three hours away in Virginia.
His boss, A.B. ‘‘Buzzy’’ Krongard, was running late, so Mr. Thornton — a fedora-wearing septuagenarian who everyone, even agency directors, called by that honorific — would need to use his lead foot.
‘‘It was at one of these undercover places, and we were doing 80 miles per hour. One time, I hit 100. But I got Buzzy there 15 minutes before the meeting,’’ said Mr. Thornton, 79, who insists he cannot remember much else about the drive and why the meeting was so urgent. ‘‘All I knew about it was that it was a secret place. That’s all I can say.’’
Mr. Thornton never ran spies. (So he says.) He never interrogated a terrorist suspect. But in his nearly 45 years at the CIA — a tenure that ended Dec. 20 when he retired — the Prince George’s County, Md., man worked as an agency driver and became a fixture at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Va.
In his first two-plus decades, he operated agency shuttle buses, picking up CIA employees around Washington and dropping them off at government facilities. And in the last 17 or so, he chauffeured the agency’s executive director and other agency officers.
Until December, Mr. Thornton was an unarmed CIA driver with top security clearance who every day held in his hands the lives of elite spymasters.
What did Mr. Thornton overhear in all those trips with the CIA’s senior executives?
‘‘You learn not to be too curious,’’ he said, with a slight grin.
‘‘I saw history change all the time, directors and executive directors come in and leave. I was there when things happened,’’ he said. ‘‘But you couldn’t go up and down the street saying you were there. I know it. The people I was hauling know it.’’
At Langley, Mr. Thornton walked the agency’s seventh floor of senior executives, popping into offices, clad in Burberry or Joseph Abboud suits, and red or brown bowlers or fedoras.
On his breaks, he routinely could be found in one of the back tables at the agency’s Starbucks, chatting with fellow drivers. (Yes, the CIA has, among other chain eateries, a Starbucks, replete with Aimee Mann music and highly vetted baristas.)
Those who didn’t know him by name simply called him ‘‘The Hat Man.’’
Mr. Thornton said one event, more than others, stayed with him: when a Pakistani immigrant shot and killed two agency employees at a red light outside the headquarters in January of 1993. ‘‘I had stopped at a McDonald’s and was on the way back to headquarters. I was in the fourth car behind the guys that got shot,’’ Mr. Thornton said. ‘‘The shooter came down the line and was shooting at people. And then he jumped in a car, and they didn’t know where he went.’’
Other memories are more comical. Once, Mr. Thornton recalls, he had to pick up Krongard at a government facility in Northern Virginia, and suddenly, George Tenet, then the agency’s director, hopped in the back of his car, ditching his armed security.
‘‘Tenet just said something like, ‘Let’s go! Put the pedal to the metal!’’’ Mr. Thornton said, laughing.
If Mr. Thornton overheard anything juicy from his principals, the talk likely centered on who was getting which job.
‘‘There could be discussion that you were going to promote Joe to John’s job,’’ Krongard said. ‘‘In the agency, that’s worth its weight in gold, rather than whether we’re going to run a coup in some country, because that’s business as usual and won’t affect anyone.’’