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Female Bonding

Reviewed by Alexis K. Albion
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page BW09


My Life as a CIA Spy

By Lindsay Moran. Putnam. 295 pp. $22.95

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Like many of us, Lindsay Moran harbored espionage fantasies from a young age, nourished by James Bond films depicting dangerous assignments in exotic lands, slinky black catsuits and intriguing foreign liaisons. Unlike most of us, she chose to realize her spy-girl daydreams by joining the CIA. In Blowing My Cover, she lifts the lid on her cloak-and-dagger adventures from 1998 to 2003, when she underwent an education in espionage and then put her new skills to work in Macedonia. She discovered just how disenchanting the realities of the spying life are for the aspiring modern Bond girl. Forget about catsuits and karate chops; think business suits and report-writing. Above all, have no illusions that the CIA offers a smart young woman, ready to serve her country, anything but distinctly bad dating options. Indeed, if Moran's example is anything to go by, the life of a spy girl is far less Pussy Galore and much more Bridget Jones.

Certainly now is the time for a smart exposé about "real" life inside the CIA. Since Sept. 11, revelations about the agency's inability to connect al Qaeda-related dots that were there, or counter its leadership's slam-dunk certainty about an Iraqi doomsday arsenal that wasn't, have shone a spotlight on the CIA and the impact of its work on policymaking. Yet we have gained little sense of the CIA's human face -- of what intelligence officers actually do, who they are and what makes them tick.

Blowing My Cover only partly fulfills this need. Moran provides an unusually candid glimpse into the operational training and culture of America's clandestine services -- rare in itself, and even more so from a female perspective. But this glimpse is intensely personal and takes place within the familiar story of a young woman's journey toward emotional fulfillment. We learn a good deal about the ins and outs of spy work, but we learn more about Moran herself, her own misgivings about the spying profession and, above all, her unhappy love life.

Take, for example, Moran's schooling at "The Farm," the CIA's super-secret training facility for new recruits. She endured courses in defensive driving ("Crash and Burn"), assembling explosives, handling weapons, hand-to-hand combat, parachuting, maritime skills and a final, grueling exercise in which the trainees were captured, held prisoner and interrogated for days. Her experiences offer a revealing account of the most extreme physical, mental and emotional demands that might be required of a CIA case officer.

But while Moran sometimes found real satisfaction in meeting these challenges, she spent more time worrying about her crumbling relationships and seemingly impending spinsterhood. On a training exercise, driving blindfolded through the woods, she asked herself, "What the hell am I doing with my life? At some point, didn't I just want to find a nice guy and settle down?" But things did not go well with Sasho, the Bulgarian rock-climber, and her liaisons with Chris, the tapas chef, and Venci, the bingo hall security guard, also floundered. Being required by her employers to lie to friends and family about her espionage activities took an emotional toll on her, and she felt increasingly insular and alone. Moran's mother, unable to deny or confirm a neighbor's speculation that her daughter was a high-end hooker, was forced to comment, "How would I know? I'm only her mother."

Regrettably, the workplace offered slim pickings. She was distinctly unimpressed with CIA men, who, by contrast, seemed to be having a good deal of fun. She recounts how the head of the clandestine service, for example, was once discovered in flagrante delicto in a steamed-up car in the CIA's parking garage. (She writes that officers noticed unusual activity on the security cameras, thought he was having a seizure and rushed to his aid.) That the CIA turned a blind eye to such behavior did not appear to concern Moran as much as the fact that "personally, I could not have been less romantically intrigued by anyone even associated with work."

Readers will be relieved to hear that there is a happy ending to Moran's story. Yet her disillusionment with the spying life is so self-evident throughout Blowing My Cover that one can't help but wonder why she wanted to stick it out in the first place. "I wasn't naive enough to think that the life of a CIA agent was all Hollywood glamour," she writes, "but I was pretty sure I'd be good at it." What she seems to have neglected to think about, however, was whether the CIA would be good for her. Even for spy girls, it seems, a good man is hard to find. •

Alexis K. Albion, an intelligence historian, is the former historian of the International Spy Museum and a former professional staff member for the 9/11 Commission.

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