Martinis and Masertis—What’s Real and What’s Fiction in the CIA
I get asked all kinds of questions regarding my (former) life in the CIA. Because the cloak of secrecy hides our activities from the general public, there are numerous misconceptions about the life of an intelligence officer. Here are some of my favorites.
We get trained in the martial arts and engage in hand-to-hand combat.
On my own I’ve taken Karate and kickboxing, but these activities have served as a stress release, not operational components of my job. What we do is more of a mental game than a physical one. Aside from special operations officers, there’s no reason for the rest of us to do anything that requires running, jumping, or roundhouse kicks. Regardless, I’d like to let this misconception live on. It’s way to cool to squash.
We all speak multiple languages. A few of my friends and colleagues were amazing language learners. (One colleague knew six languages, but he was a freak of nature.) Most officers didn’t have a second language. I only have basic proficiency in Arabic despite years of study. Was it helpful on the job? Immensely. I drew upon that knowledge every day. Don’t be jealous though. My Arabic is good enough to carry on an extensive conversation with a 5-year-old. At least when I spoke Arabic with intelligence counterparts, agents, or business partners, it indicated, “I know I’m not awesome, but I care enough to try!” Thankfully, Arabs are gracious and appreciate the effort.
We can’t tell our families where we are or what we’re doing. My closest family members knew where my husband and I were serving. They didn’t know about our short-term travels (and related operations) but they knew about each and every posting. They sent us care packages, books to read, and cards from home. I’m sure our travels made them nervous as we spent most of our careers in difficult and dangerous places, but they provided critical emotional and spiritual support for which I was extremely grateful.
Not every officer felt comfortable letting their parents in on the secret. Even though the CIA said we could tell our families the basics of what we were doing, we had to determine whether they could handle this knowledge. Would it be too big of a burden knowing that their child was working undercover for the CIA? Would it freak them out? Would they be able to keep the secret? Or would they want to shout it out from the mountaintops?
I had a colleague who served with me in Baghdad whose parents thought she was working on a master’s degree in Kansas. They had no idea that she was in the middle of the Green Zone managing the flow of top secret information into and out of our CIA station. Like Dorothy, my friend was not in Kansas and was living in a weird version of the Emerald City. But she was dealing with terrorists and rockets, not flying monkeys. I wonder if she ever revealed afterwards to her parents she worked for the world’s pre-eminent intelligence agency and was not, in fact, a student teacher and a university researcher. (This was not the cover the agency gave her, just the cover she concocted for use with family and friends.)
Operational acts require the use of fancy dresses, jewels, martinis and fast cars.
Party dresses. Sure, I might have donned a few nice dresses in my career for diplomatic parties and social soirees, but most of the time I was wearing “normal” clothes. It was less 007 and either business suits or war zone attire.
Fast cars. When not in the office we spent time with colorful characters that in real life, we’d never engage. But these people had the secrets we needed, so we had to become good friends with rather unsavory people. It’s not particularly fun, but that’s the job…cozying up to people with access to the intelligence we needed. Admittedly, it’s hard to impress potential sources when they have a Mercedes and you have a Toyota. This is where it’s at friend, come and work for me!
Martinis. In one part of the world, my hubby and I were known as having the best liquor cabinet in the whole city. I love good wine and my hubby likes a good martini (shaken with a twist), but we’re not party animals (far from it). Our jobs required being socially engaged and this was the kind of thing that drew people in. When we finished that tour, our friends scrambled to get their hands on the stash. I was shocked when even empty bottles were anxiously vied for. After selling a couple bottles of wine, our Lebanese friend walked into the dining room, laid eyes on the 25 bottles of various spirits on the table and said, “I’ll take ‘em all!” (He didn’t know what they were, but he didn’t care. He even bought the peach schnapps!) He became the coolest guy around when he boasted to his buddies, “I bought their whole liquor supply!” So there were martinis, but they weren’t being sipped in Monaco while hanging out with high rollers, plotting our next operational move on the super yacht.
Life is immensely exciting when you work for the CIA. This is true, but probably not in the ways that you imagine. We do travel the world. We meet a lot of interesting people and do a lot of cool things like recruit and handle secret sources. But we spend far less time carrying out operations and far more time planning them. We spend hours reading intelligence reports and coordinating on mountains of cables. The amount of reading and writing is astounding and would certainly blow your mind. If you think that reading is sexy then yassssss, intelligence officers are a ridiculously sexy bunch.
As I sit by the pool this weekend, drinking my mezcal margarita and watching the sunset fall over the river, I remember all those magical times in the desert when I couldn’t leave my desk until midnight, trying to push one more intelligence report out the door. I appreciate that career, but I can’t say that I miss it anymore. Glamour wasn’t a big part of my existence, but long days and nights and perpetual exhaustion sure was.
- This article was reviewed by the CIA’s Publication Review Board (PRB).