In the early 1980s, I had lunch at the faculty house of Columbia University, where I was a young instructor. Although my companion signed in as a representative of some innocuous sounding company, he was, in fact, a spy. The purpose of the lunch? To explore my interest in becoming one as well. He was employed by the Central Intelligence Agency.
I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was the first person in my family to graduate high school, and then college, and then to teach in a college. To say that I was lost and confused is an understatement.
The exact title of the job was “operations officer.” I would be trained for a life of intrigue, taught a foreign language, and sent to a location where defense of American interests required someone skilled in the arts of deception and deceit. I was interested, I said.Thus began the most interesting job interview of my life.
I was summoned by mail — stationary without letterhead, a plain envelop — to go to the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan at a given date and hour. I called a number from the lobby.
A man answered the door of the assigned room. He took a Polaroid of me, inked a set of fingerprints, and had me sign my photograph. He was an agent from the then Soviet Union. We talked about a life of deception and its costs.
I was then sent to a second room. Another agent answered the door, this one serving in Korea, I can’t recall whether it was South or North Korea. Once again, a Polaroid photograph, a signature, and fingerprints – and questions and answers.
As I walked out of the Algonquin that day, I felt like a cross between James Bond and Maxwell Smart.
Soon enough, I was in suburban Washington, in a non-descript municipal building taking a series of tests, and writing essays about my family members, the causes of the Third World War, and other obscure topics.
A long time passed before I was summoned for a polygraph exam, this time in CIA headquarters in Langley. It surprised me that we’d be brought in from the cold right into the headquarters.
I learned then and there that polygraphs are really just interrogation tools. I was placed in a small room with a mirror in one wall. A man with the charm of a used car salesman hooked me up and explained the machine. Each time he left the room to interpret results, I heard two doors open, and two sets of footsteps head down the hall.
Soon enough, I was making impolite finger gestures at the mirror, assuming there was someone on the other side watching me.
My interrogator insisted I had not been candid about drug use.
“You can’t tell me you’ve spent all those years at Columbia University” – he sneered the name of the school – “and have not snorted cocaine at a party at your advisor’s home.”
He didn’t seem persuaded when I told him my advisor was an authority on St. Augustine, and not the sort of fellow to snort coke with kids.
Then on to questions about whether I was gay. I told him I was not. He was not persuaded.
“Well,” I replied after a tedious afternoon, “if I am, you and a freaking army of Sigmund Freud’s aren’t about to pry it out of me.”
The interrogation ended.
The next day, I had my final interview. It was the agent I first met at the Algonquin Hotel a year or so earlier, the spy who had served in the Soviet Union.
I was told what to tell others. I was to say I was becoming an employee of another, vanilla, government agency. Those looking for me would be given a telephone number where someone managing my cover would answer. He told me I was being screened for the counter-terrorism unit. I’d be sent for training at Camp Perry, where I’d learn such things as how to do a 180-degree turn in a fast car at high speed. Thereafter, I’d be sent to language school.
It sounded intriguing.
Then came the salary discussion. I was offered less than the top salary offered to spies in training.
“Why not the top rate?” I asked.
He smiled, and leaned back in his chair.
“That rate is for former Green Berets – professional killers,” he said, knocking on his desk. “You’re not one of them,” he paused. “Yet.” He was smiling a wide hypocrites smile.
This was the same man who had told me on our first meeting that the CIA doesn’t kill people. No. An agent’s life is studying human weakness. I might be called upon to provide a man a sports car, a Mediterranean villa and time to play with his mistress in exchange for his betrayal of his country. We could lie, cheat and steal. We just couldn’t kill.
A few weeks later, another non-descript letter arrived in the mail. Thanks, but no thanks, the letter said. I was not hired. There was no explanation, and nothing to prove that I had ever even been a candidate.
I am surprised I made it as far as I did in the interview process. I suspect I was screened as a young man who had issues with authority. The CIA got it right with me. I could not serve as a spy. I could not blindly follow orders.
I thought about my brush with the secret world of spies this week while reading the 500-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s use of torture as a tool. I could well have been one of the heavy hands hurting others in the name of patriotism.
Would I have taken the job if it were offered? Probably. It’s harrowing to know just how close I came to embracing a secret life where ends justify the means. It makes me hesitate just a moment before condemning things I was, perhaps, willing to do when I was young and life seemed like a grand adventure.