book reviews

Repost: A career with the CIA is not what it’s cracked up to be…

Here’s a reposted Epinions review from March 2006. It appears here mostly as/is.

Lindsay Moran, author of Blowing My Cover: My Life As A CIA Spy, and I have some things in common. We’re about the same age. We both work as writers in the Washington, DC area. We’ve both been to Bulgaria and worked as teachers abroad. We both spent time near Williamsburg, Virginia. And we both approached the Central Intelligence Agency for a job. Of course, Moran was successful where I was not. After reading her story, I wonder if I was the luckier candidate.

Three years ago, I was seriously engaged in a job search. My husband Bill, citing my writing and research abilities, suggested that I submit an application to the Central Intelligence Agency (aka the CIA), thinking that maybe I could work in their Langley, Virginia headquarters gathering information. I submitted an application, but I never thought I’d actually hear from them. There are people who spend their whole lives grooming themselves to work for the CIA. Apparently, just getting an initial interview is something to behold. Needless to say, I was shocked when, on April Fool’s Day 2003, I got an early evening phone call from a recruiter. Much to my surprise, she wasn’t calling to recruit me for a desk job, either. Apparently, I was being looked at for a position recruiting spies– something I never envisioned myself doing!

The recruiter interviewed me for forty-five minutes over the phone. She asked tough questions, taking me completely off guard, and when it was over, I knew I had bombed the interview. My suspicions were confirmed when I got a rejection letter in the mail a month later. To add insult to injury, whoever plugged my name into the database had me down as a “Mr.” instead of a “Ms.” So much for central intelligence, huh? Anyway, I was intrigued when I stumbled across Lindsay Moran’s 2005 book Blowing My Cover: My Life As A CIA Spy. I decided to find out what I was missing when the CIA rejected me.

For five years, Lindsay Moran worked as a case officer for the CIA. Unlike me, she had always wanted to be a spy and promptly presented her resume to the Agency right after her college graduation. She was invited to attend an informational meeting at a dingy Holiday Inn and was left unimpressed by the dowdy looking man and woman who led the session. She ended up leaving the meeting with doubts about whether or not she was ready to embark on such a serious career; consequently, she never sent in the first application she received. Then, in 1997, Moran found herself thinking about the CIA again. She asked for another application, filled it out and sent it in, and within a month, found herself invited to another Holiday Inn, this time for an initial interview with a man named Dave. Obviously, the interview was successful.

I really enjoyed reading Lindsay Moran’s story about how she became a CIA officer. Using vivid prose and humor, she describes the many hoops she had to jump through in order to take the job recruiting spies for the United States. She submitted to multiple drug tests, psychological reviews, and polygraph exams. Then, once she started training, she learned how to crash cars into barriers, jump out of airplanes with cargo strapped to her body, survive being interrogated, travel in alias and disguise, and lose people who were tailing her. Just reading about the survival training at The Farm near Williamsburg, Virginia was enough to make my blood run cold, although some of the training did sound like fun. I used to work in the Colonial Williamsburg area. I’m sure there were plenty of CIA trainees milling around during the days I spent waiting tables in Merchant Square.

Moran ultimately drove home the idea that I got when I briefly looked into working for the CIA myself. There are many things about the job that really really suck big time. For one thing, much of what CIA officers do is secret. Moran couldn’t talk about her job with friends or family. They weren’t even allowed to help her celebrate her graduation from The Farm. She would never be publicly recognized for her good work. The job is lonely, stressful, confining, and dangerous. She had to vet all of her friends and love interests with the Agency and she had to ask their permission before she traveled. Moran had a steady boyfriend from Bulgaria that she ended up having to break up with because of her job with the CIA.

I also appreciated Moran’s ambivalence about what she was ultimately being asked to do for her country. As Moran recruited foreign nationals to supply intelligence about their homelands, it wasn’t lost on her that what she was actually doing was pressuring her contacts into committing treason. If they were caught betraying their country for money, they could be killed. Committing treason was something that Moran would never consider doing herself, yet she had to get over feeling guilty by rationalizing that what she was doing was for the good of her country. She couldn’t allow herself to consider that what she was doing wasn’t good for her host country. Moran’s memoir also spotlights the tremendous amount of taxpayer revenue that goes to pay for CIA activities, including wining and dining potential agents (host nationals who are recruited as spies), bribes and gifts, transportation, and swanky housing.

Just before she graduated from The Farm, Lindsay Moran had a very enlightening conversation with one of her instructors, a man named Bill who had earned Moran’s respect by always speaking candidly. He was just getting ready to retire and, after Moran spoke openly to him about her ambivalence about what she would be doing as a CIA officer, Bill offered her some very good advice. He said:

Don’t lose yourself to this place, Lindsay… it’s not worth it. Even within the walls of Headquarters, the best among us will quickly be forgotten… reminding her “that the Agency’s only famous spies were the failures and the traitors” (p. 149).

All in all, I found Blowing My Cover to be a fascinating and very readable book. I managed to finish Moran’s tale in just a few days and I enjoyed every minute of the experience. The book’s mood is more lighthearted than I would have expected it to be, and I found it very refreshing. I got the idea that Lindsay Moran is a person I’d want to know and I felt sorry for her as she described the hardships she faced as a CIA officer. So many people see the CIA as a glamorous, exciting career choice, and indeed, the job does offer many perks. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that even if the job is exciting, it’s impossible to share that excitement with anyone who isn’t also shrouded in the CIA’s stifling secrecy.

I would definitely recommend¬†Blowing My Cover: My Life As A CIA Spy¬†to anyone who has ever considered working for the Central Intelligence Agency. I’d also recommend it to anyone who just likes an uncommonly interesting read. Because of the nature of Moran’s story, I suspect that this is not the kind of book that will show up on bookstore shelves very often.

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