“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.