What makes a perfect spy tick?
By Jeff Stein,
“You are a perfect spy. All you need is a cause.”
— “A Perfect Spy,” John le Carre
On a rainy day in the spring of 1967, I shuffled into a classroom at the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird, Md., in a grimy industrial area of East Baltimore. There were about 30 of us, mostly college graduates, including newly minted lawyers and a few erstwhile hippies who had received draft notices. It was the first day of a seven-month course blandly titled “Area Studies.”
In fact, we were going to learn to be spies.
Truth be told, few of us expected to be turned into James Bonds. Most of us had volunteered for an extra year’s enlistment in intelligence to avoid being shipped off to South Vietnam with a rifle.
Of course, intelligence did sound exciting, and only vaguely dangerous. I doubt that any of us knew exactly what to expect. A cross between “Mission: Impossible” and “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” maybe.
The shades were drawn. A rectangular red sign, “SECRET,” was slid into a bracket on the front wall. An instructor stepped to the podium.
I remember him saying something like: “This is the only thing in the Army that you can volunteer for and then get out of if you change your mind.” That’s because we had signed up for something illegal, even immoral, according to some people, he said.
It was called espionage. We were not going to be turned into spies, he explained, but “case officers” — the people who recruit foreigners to be spies. Put another way, he went on, we were going to persuade foreigners to be traitors, to steal their countries’ secrets. We were going to learn how to lie, steal, cheat to accomplish our mission, he said — and betray people who trusted us, if need be. Anyone who objected, he concluded, could walk out right now.
He looked around. One man got up and left. The rest of us, a little anxious, stayed put.
And then we were off. Espionage training, it turned out, was a gas — a boy’s life, really, what with running around Baltimore planting “dead drops” under park benches, eluding spy catchers, practicing “brush passes” on city streets, writing messages in “invisible ink.” We learned how to send an agent behind the Iron Curtain and get him back out. On my final training exercise, I slipped into Connecticut via submarine, en route to my target in a Midwestern city.
Alas, with the Vietnam War raging, Berlin (where “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” was set) wasn’t in the cards. After a year in language school, I would ship out to Da Nang. I spent a year living undercover and running a spy net. But other than connecting briefly with a secret courier on a deserted beach every few days and slipping into decrepit hotels for meetings with my top spy, it wasn’t anything like the scenario we had been trained for, to dispatch agents into Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe from West Berlin.
But in the end, it was the most interesting, and perhaps meaningful, thing I’ve ever done. The mission, to prevent or disrupt rocket attacks on the city or U.S. troops, was important. The war stunk, but I wasn’t shooting at anybody, and I was good at being a spy. I won a medal and came home relatively unscarred.
If the war hadn’t been so wrong, I might have stayed in, or moved to the CIA. But even after I hung up my badge, the intense indoctrination in the clandestine life — the habit of eliciting scraps of information from unwitting people, the quick instinct to deflect personal questions and even check to see if I was being followed — stayed with me for years. I lived in an alternate universe, seeing spies at work, real or imagined, everywhere in Washington.
I often wondered why I had been such a natural spy, though. Had my recruiters, who put me through reams of tests, somehow known that? It would be 25 years before I had a clue.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, the Roosevelt administration slapped together a wartime spying and sabotage service virtually overnight. The Office of Strategic Services, as it was called, quickly discovered that many of the Ivy-educated men (and a few women) it dispatched to Nazi-occupied Europe were unsuited for the job.
“That many of the early officers came from the Ivy League was a natural progression of events,” Joseph C. Goulden, author of “The Dictionary of Espionage,” recently wrote. They “had traveled (or lived) in Europe, and knew the languages and the cultures.” Nevertheless, the prominence of the well-bred in the OSS prompted sophisticates to snicker that its initials stood for “Oh so social.”
Knowing how to speak French in a tux didn’t necessarily prepare recruits for parachuting into enemy territory or blowing up bridges. There were “dramatic mental crackups” from the stress, according to Louie M. Banks III, an Army major who studied OSS recruitment. One OSS captain who chafed at fighting the Nazis from undercover in Yugoslavia slipped into Germany to personally mail an expletive-laden postcard to Adolf Hitler, according to reports.
There were also Mafia psychopaths recruited in New York, Philadelphia and Detroit to wage mayhem in Italy. And the hilariously incompetent, such as the OSS operative whose cover was so far blown that when he dropped into his favorite restaurant, the band played “Boo! Boo! I’m a Spy.”
In 1943, the OSS went back to the drawing board. It hired a squad of psychologists and plunked them down at a secret training installation in Fairfax, code-named Station S, where it began putting recruits through a barrage of tests to determine who was suited for its missions.
A major problem was that the psychologists didn’t really know much about the skills required for spying and sabotage. So, they started with a grab bag of untested assumptions.
The “generally more athletic” types were considered “potential saboteurs,” according to a 1948 study by the OSS Assessment Staff. Those “generally more educated, less athletic” were grouped as “potential spies.” The “potential propagandists” tended to be “emigres” and “more artistic.”
In the end, the OSS adopted a system that focused less on specific job skills and more on the “man as a whole.” The new focus would be on the recruits’ motivation, energy and initiative, intelligence and problem-solving skills, emotional stability, physical condition, and, not least, a demonstrated ability to keep their mouths shut.
According to its official postwar history, the OSS program “certainly succeeded in screening out the 15 percent to 20 percent who were obviously unfit.” But 30 years later, one of its own designers, Donald MacKinnon, conceded in a study that it was “not very successful in predicting performance overseas.”
I was sitting on a park bench in Da Nang, worrying, trying to calmly eat a roll with my chicory coffee.
That man sitting nearby, ostensibly reading a newspaper. Had he followed me? He looked familiar. Alas, Vietnamese faces were still a blur.
I finished my baguette and moved along, looking as casual as possible. I ambled through the open-air market, stopping to finger vegetables, using the stalls to look around. I saw only a river of conical-hatted peasants. How could I be sure I wasn’t being tailed?
There were other worries: Had my assistant thoroughly cased the street in front of the hotel where I would soon be meeting my main spy? Would my Joe be on time? How long should I wait?
Suddenly, I realized I had left my valise under the bench. It was packed with a .45-caliber pistol and hundreds of dollars’ worth of Vietnamese piastres. Trying to hide the blood draining from my face, I went back. Miraculously, it was still there.
I wasn’t cut out for this part of the business, I eventually decided (even though I would hear later of far, far greater sums “misplaced” on operations). Recruiting and managing agents, yes. Spotting trouble with an operation, yes. Writing novella-like analyses, yes.
But the field work — the careful movements, countersurveillance, unexpected glitches and possible gunplay — no. That called for people with the nerves of a cat burglar; I probably belonged behind a desk.
Intelligence analysis is a huge part of the CIA’s business. But it’s the operations wing (born in 1952 as the Directorate of Plans, now called the National Clandestine Service) that remains the CIA’s cutting edge and defines its character. And it’s the CIA’s medical office that largely decides what that character is.
“A basic strength — or weakness, for those who [have] wanted to change the culture of the operations-officer population — was that the psychometrics have remained constant,” Frank Anderson, a former head of the Near East operations division, says by e-mail. “By that, I mean that the psychological/personality testing, administered by the office of medical services, tested for and selected the same personality traits. So you consistently end up with the same personality types.”
They are the people who like to break china. Operations people don’t just collect intelligence; they blackmail foreign officials, scientists and business people; bribe union leaders; break into embassies; assassinate people; overthrow governments; and sometimes, far worse (or better, depending on your perspective).
All for a good cause, of course.
“The reason people joined up during the Cold War and today in the fight against terrorism is the patriotic sense of mission,” says Jack Devine, a retired top CIA operations official. “It may sound hokey, but at the end of the day, this remains the incentive. The mystique and adventure help, but the bottom line is public service in defense of our country and its values.”
Some CIA veterans put their motivation more baldly.
George White was a CIA operative through the darkest days of the Cold War, including when the agency was testing hallucinogenic drugs on unwitting targets. One of his assignments was to slip LSD into the drinks of unwitting people in a San Francisco bar and see how they reacted.
“I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun,” he wrote in a letter to his boss made public after his death. “Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?”
A more typical answer comes from Robert Baer, the former CIA operative whose Beirut exploits inspired the 2005 George Clooney thriller “Syriana.” Baer signed up in the middle of mass disenchantment over Vietnam, Watergate and CIA assassination plots.
“The CIA held out the promise that I didn’t have to sell shoes,” he says.
In the early 1980s, Charles “Sam” Faddis left a promising career as a prosecutor in the Washington state attorney general’s office. “Part of it was wanderlust,” he says. “I couldn’t see sitting in a car and commuting 12 miles to work every day. There was also a lot of stuff happening in the world that I wanted to be part of, not just read about.”
He saw a job description of a CIA ops officer in a magazine: foreign travel, languages, danger, be smart, serve your country. “I thought, that’s what I want to do,” he says. “Of course, then I had to explain it to my wife.” (She eventually signed up, too.)
Likewise, Gene Smith was working as a deputy prosecutor in Indiana in 1981 when she “jumped at” a CIA employment ad. “It was too small a world,” she says of her previous job. “You do a tangible good, you remove bad guys from the street, and you assist crime victims. But I felt like I was saving the world one by one. … I wanted a bigger world.”
After the quick, and mostly unexpected, collapse of the Soviet Union about 20 years ago, the agency languished. There were big cutbacks. The agency lacked a big mission.
On Sept. 11, 2001, it got one.
In many ways, the CIA’s new generation mirrored its grandfathers’. They were smart, imaginative, patriotic risk-takers, eager to deal death and dirty tricks against the new enemy.
But that’s where the similarities ended. The upper classes were gone, people such as CIA Director George Tenet, a son of Greek and Albanian immigrants, now ran the agency, and women and minorities were a common sight at headquarters.
“Nine-eleven really pissed me off,” says one woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for speaking freely about her experiences. She was working as a flight attendant when hijacked airliners flew into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. “I wanted to serve my country, to be part of the solution.” She ended up in Iraq in 2005, running spies against the insurgency.
And there was another change in the workforce, which CIA veterans say they began to notice in the 1990s. A conspicuous number of the newer hires weren’t in it for the long haul. They seemed bored with the routine slogging of spy work, often in the world’s backwaters, whether it was courting a junior Chinese engineer in Mozambique or following an Iranian trade official around Karachi.
The new generation wanted action. They wanted the movie. Being cooped up in the Baghdad Green Zone with 400 other case officers, moving around in armored trucks with escorts didn’t cut it.
“When I first came in, you had a lot of people who were there in response to what I would call a calling,” says Faddis, who retired in 2008 as chief of a unit tracking nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. “They had really been drawn to this place that they thought was very special, a special thing that meant a lifetime commitment.
“Increasingly, as years go by, we’ve seen people come in who just see it as another career, and for whatever reason chose this one. They’re more impatient for rewards.”
“I would be hesitant to call it [a sense of] entitlement, as I think that is too damning, ” says Jack Platt, who spent a quarter-century matching wits with the Soviet KGB. “But it comes close, though.”
A crusty, lanky man in his late 70s, Platt still teaches courses on dodging tails and terrorists “to several U.S. government organizations,” as he puts it.
“They are faster gamers, faster readers [and] see far more of the world at a young age than I did, even as an Army brat,” he says of the latest CIA generation. “And technically very smart.” But something’s lacking.
The World War II generation and the first wave of baby boomers “learned early on that struggle is our brother. … We learned endurance and roughing it from sandlot baseball, a fistfight, pumping gas or mowing lawns,” Platt says. Even more important, the military draft forced millions of young men into close quarters with men they might never have otherwise met. It leveled American society, and the CIA benefited greatly from that.
“Some of these younger men and women are exceptional,” he quickly adds, “and … tough enough. I would work for and follow them in a heartbeat. But too many men and women from this generation simply give up early, seemingly exhausted by an assignment that lasts longer than 42 minutes.”
Alexandria psychiatrist David L. Charney, 68, has spent decades treating the emotional problems of CIA personnel. The operations people are “excitement junkies,” he says. They quickly tire of one task and take on another, like plate-spinners who keep adding items until the whole enterprise crashes.
“They seem to be highly functional ADDs,” people with attention deficit disorder, he says. “You might think a person with ADD can’t tie their shoelaces, but quite the opposite is true. They’re energetic, restless, people who have to physically keep moving. Lock them to a desk, and they can’t deal with it. They can’t stand to be bored.”
But all these things — ADD, a thirst for adventure, bravery, curiosity, patriotism, whatever — were shiny surfaces, it seemed to me. Superficial, even obvious, reasons some people are drawn to the spy game.
I wanted to know what really made spies tick, what made me tick.
David Cornwell worked in British intelligence in the 1950s and 1960s, when some of its most trusted personnel were exposed as Soviet moles.
Taking up the pen name John le Carré, he began writing psychological espionage thrillers that explored the dual, even triple, lives of spies.
As it turned out, le Carré’s father was a pathological liar, whom the author limned in his semi-autobiographical thriller “A Perfect Spy.” Its central character is Magnus Pym, a British intelligence agent whose father, like le Carré’s, was a colossal con man. Pym had spent his youth spying on his father, peeling away the lies one by one, like old wallpaper.
In le Carré’s book, a Czech man named Axel, who had been close to Pym when they were students years earlier in Switzerland, makes contact out of the blue. Now a communist agent, he plays on Pym’s neuroses, inveigling him into betraying his country. Pym balks, but Axel knows his mark well.
“For once,” he beseeches Pym, “nature has produced a perfect match. You are a perfect spy. All you need is a cause. I have it.”
I had watched the TV adaptation shortly before I visited Charney. I asked him if he had seen it.
He nodded. I decided to share a personal story.
For most of my life, I told him, I’d had a puzzling dream: I’d be sitting in a church with my father, an ardent Episcopalian. He’d be counting out cash to me, bill by bill. Behind him, the cross glittered. But the bills, I’d discover, were all counterfeit, like Monopoly money.
That was it. I’d wake up, I told Charney. The dream followed me through intelligence school, through Vietnam and back again, I said. I had turned against the war and resigned, but I never regretted my time as a spy. Indeed, I said, I was glad to have been on the inside, if only for a short time, learning how people in that business thought. For the past 30 or so years, I’d put to use some of those tools as an investigative reporter.
Charney was listening closely, quietly.
The dream continued, year after year, I went on. My father and I had never been close, so I never discussed it with him. Then, one day in 1992, I learned that he wasn’t my birth father after all: I had been born of an affair between my mother and another man while he was away during the war. The family secret had been kept from me all those years.
I was shocked, of course, I told Charney. But suddenly the fake money in the dream I’d had all those years made sense: My father’s love for me, however heroic, had been fundamentally manufactured.
The dream had immediately evaporated, never to return.
That was my story. Charney had listened intently. He nodded.
“A lot of people who go into law enforcement, or intelligence, grow up with a need to protect, to get at the truth, to set things straight, based on their childhood,” he said slowly.
“They’re seeking the real truth. They know things aren’t right, based on their childhood, and vow to never let that happen again.”
And that was me, I guessed. I, too, had been a perfect spy. All I’d needed was a cause.
Jeff Stein, the Post’s former SpyTalk blogger, is a longtime Washington writer and editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.