GLEN ALLEN, Va. — Once Rep. Abigail Spanberger embraced the secret life of a CIA operative, she never imagined breaking cover.
She handled and recruited spies in Europe, where she specialized in counterterrorism and nuclear proliferation issues. She aspired to an appointment somewhere as chief of station, the Langley equivalent of ambassador. Instead she wound up leaving the agency in 2014 in search of a less nomadic life after having three children.
Then came the Trump presidency and an overheated climate in which partisanship often triumphed over facts. So Spanberger (D-Va.), a proudly apolitical collector of evidence, decided to do something profoundly radical for an ex-spy. She ran for the House of Representatives — and won, upsetting Rep. Dave Brat (R) in Virginia’s 7th District. On Thursday, as the 116th Congress convened, she joined a small vanguard of ex-intelligence officers becoming Instagram-friendly lawmakers.
“Leaving the CIA was the biggest loss of my life. I mourned the agency. I miss it every day,” said Spanberger, 39, one of three former CIA officers serving in the new Congress.
The idea of CIA officers running for national political office would have struck previous generations of agency spies as sacrilegious, said former CIA director Leon E. Panetta, who headed the agency after more than 15 years as a California congressman. For one thing, agency officers, more than others in the intelligence community, usually maintain low profiles, even after they leave Langley. And even if CIA people do take on a modicum of celebrity — television punditry or Hollywood are popular career paths — they typically have avoided Congress, whose oversight of the agency has generated lingering ill will.
“The old Yale guys would say, ‘What the hell is going on? You gotta be secret and anonymous and let the other guys who don’t know what they’re doing play the political game,’ ” Panetta said. “But young people at the CIA now are not particularly tied to the long legacies of the intelligence business and recognize that it’s important to get involved in politics because if they do not, others will distort the work of intelligence agencies.”
Spanberger, who worked for the CIA for eight years, is serving alongside two other former agency officers: Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), 42, an analyst who deployed to Iraq three times and won a seat representing Michigan’s 8th District by beating a Republican incumbent; and Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), 41, who worked undercover in the Middle East and South Asia, and has served Texas’s 23rd District since 2015.
“For so many of us with national security backgrounds, bringing our history of public service without a partisan lens is important — and it’s a skill set,” Spanberger said. “We served the mission under Republican and Democratic presidents.”
While Spanberger and Slotkin have earned attention for being spies turned lawmakers, their paths are not without precedent.
Porter Goss began his CIA career as a clandestine officer in the 1960s, then served in Congress from 1989 to 2004, representing the 14th District in Florida, before returning to Langley as its director. Bob Barr, a former Latin American analyst, represented Georgia in Congress from 1995 to 2003. (Barr ran in 2008 for president as a libertarian; former CIA operations officer Evan McMullin vied for the White House in 2016 as an independent.)
This year’s Congress includes at least 10 others besides Spanberger, Slotkin and Hurd who have worked with classified material in the military or at the National Security Council, according to the public affairs analytics firm Quorum.
Panetta, who served as CIA director from 2009 to 2011 under President Barack Obama, considers President Trump’s attacks against the intelligence community to have emboldened its recent former members to enter the political fray.
Nine days before his inauguration, Trump likened U.S. intelligence agencies to Nazis, after news reports surfaced about his links to Russia. “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” he tweeted.
Trump also has constantly disputed key findings by American spy agencies, including those about North Korea’s nuclear threats, Iran’s adherence to a 2015 nuclear agreement with the United States and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident who was a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.
Spanberger said she was shocked when Trump, on his first full day in office, visited the CIA’s headquarters and gave a self-aggrandizing and error-filled speech in front of its Memorial Wall honoring operatives killed in the line of duty. Trump boasted how youthful he felt, attacked reporters as “the most dishonest human beings on Earth” and falsely claimed he’d been on the cover of Time magazine more than anyone else.
“It was a sad moment to witness that. This is hallowed ground,” said Spanberger, who had been at the Women’s March on Washington that day and caught footage of the speech on television.
But more than anything, she is disturbed by Trump’s rejection of the intelligence community’s assessments on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “I know what goes into collecting intelligence reports,” Spanberger said. “And, for him to take the side of a foreign adversary over our country is appalling to me.”
In Congress, she expects that her time handling assets will help her bridge the divide with Republicans. At the CIA, when she tended to informants, she said: “I was responsible for their safety and security, so working with others is about building trust and relationships with people across the aisle who may not otherwise want to work with Democrats. Whatever bit of commonality I can find with them is the skill.”
She also said the CIA prepared her to become a quick expert in complicated subjects.
“One day, I was working nuclear cases, the next day drug cases, or another it was about political leadership,” said Spanberger, who worked for an educational consulting firm before running for Congress. “I had to go into debriefings with scientists and be able to ask really specific, informed questions. I am more practiced at this than the average Congress member.”
She would like to serve on the House Agriculture Committee, but, of course, also hopes for a spot on the Intelligence Committee. “When I was putting my requests for committee, I said, ‘Where can I be the greatest use?’ ” she said. “They typically don’t put first-term members on the Intelligence Committee. I would be surprised, frankly, if I get it. But there are compelling reasons why it would make sense.”
Along with Spanberger, Slotkin hopes she can apply her expertise to subjects such as cybersecurity and election interference by Russia. She likened her role in Congress to her position as an analyst in the agency’s intelligence directorate.
“My job was to separate the wheat from the chaff, reduce it down, and present it to senior folks,” Slotkin said.
What most infuriates her about politics is that Congress allows conflicts over key issues to fester, she said. “When there’s disagreement over gun safety, they just kick the can down the road,” Slotkin said. “But if you’re in the intelligence community, and a big threat is revealed, we all get in a room, have a vigorous debate, and you leave with a plan.”
During her campaign, Spanberger was not shy about using the CIA as an asset, an effective move as a woman running in a swing district. In a biographical video on her website, she includes a photo of herself with former CIA director Michael V. Hayden and former deputy director Stephen Kappes — an image that required CIA permission to use.
And on Twitter, she referenced her CIA background in more than 40 tweets, according to Quorum.
But even though Spanberger is reveling in her new public role — one of her latest Instagram photos shows her and her husband and three daughters clad in striped Christmas pajamas — she still keeps secrets. She can’t say where exactly in Western Europe she served. She can’t reveal her cover story when she served abroad, nor can she say what she did on “the West Coast” for the agency. She can’t even explain the symbols on a gold challenge coin she earned after completing her CIA training in 2007.
The tiny memento, which she keeps in a dresser drawer with her engagement ring, shows an eagle and a torch, with the numbers 20-339 on the back.
What do the numbers signify?
She won’t say.