Note: This is part of a series. You can read part one here.
I walk around this town feeling like I am in a dream, and the only one who knows it is a dream.
Everyone else around me is oblivious. It is like walking around knowing a secret, and feeling hyper-aware that there is so much more going on behind the scenes. I have taken the proverbial pill, and seen the Matrix. My eyes have been opened.
I’ve started the first phase of field tradecraft training, and the city is my training ground. I drive around, trying to determine whether or not I have surveillance on me. I try to locate spots suitable for clandestine operational acts, as well as for developmental meetings at restaurants, cafes, and local tourist sites. My head is a blur half the time, trying to learn these new skills. I ride buses, subways, take taxis, drive, and walk. I see parts of the city I would never have seen otherwise.
All the while, the ‘regular people’ around me have no idea what I am doing. If I am doing it right, they do not know that I am in espionage training, setting up fake meetings, leaving chalk marks, making dead drops, and signaling simulated ’emergency’ meetings. All the while, they go about their normal business. Unaware. Oblivious.
Entering CIA headquarters is also a surreal experience. It is like walking onto a movie set, or into the inner sanctum of the Vatican. At any time, you feel like you might walk past an aging JFK (“Hey, you’ve been here the whole time?!”) or see a TV screen with a live feed of Muammar Qaddafi’s bedroom (now that would be terrifying, indeed).
The relatively low salary at which they start us (fully half of what I was making when as a SEAL officer) is made up for with the sheer wonderment at the job. It is almost hard to believe that they pay us at all to do this work. I would probably do it for free.
In the training, I write—constantly—for hours at a time, until my eyes hurt and go blurry. I wear a suit most of the time, which is as far as it gets from my uniform of the day at the SEAL team (PT shorts and a t-shirt). I labor through learning how to build rapport with a potential agent, while trying not to look like a jackass in the process. You like books? I love books, too! Smooth.
There is a distinct age and generational split within my class of trainees. We fall into roughly two categories: those under 25, straight out of college, or with maybe one previous, short-lived job; and those over about 28, straight from the military or from a longer, more sustained previous career.
The handful of us older guys and ladies that came out of the military share knowing glances and sympathetic looks. We have been through these types of training/selection programs before. They might all be different in terms of content and curricula, but they are all the same in terms of how one is judged, measured, assessed, and tested. It is a microscope, and we are the microscopic organisms, waiting to be dissected for our weaknesses, strengths, foibles, and tendencies.
We know it is a matter of simply getting through it, learning the school-house method of doing business, and graduating, so that we can get out there and do the real work, in the real-world way that it is done. It is similar to BUD/S in that way, though it could not be more different in that it is in no way physical. It is all a mental game here.
The younger trainees tend to stress a bit more, worried that they are not doing well enough, and whether the job is for them. My office mate is one who worries. She is young, frighteningly smart, completely ‘with it,’ and so far, in training, an expert at rapport building. She is definitely outperforming me. I struggle to make the interpersonal connections as smoothly as she, though I muddle my way through. She glides with ease.
And yet, she doubts. She doubts she will make it. She doubts she is good at the job. She doubts the morality of what we do—offering favors and money to foreigners to provide information in return. She considers herself an idealist, and struggles with the moral ambiguity of what we do. We capitalize on people’s needs, fears, egos, and desires to convince them to help us. I do not have a problem with it. She does. She is considering quitting.
I tell her the job is not for everyone, and if she does not feel like it fits her, she should not force herself to do it. There is plenty out there that she would be great at. She reacts somewhat defensively, but I can tell a light bulb has gone off. She knows I am right. She told herself she liked the idea of being in the CIA, but she does not like the job itself. She ultimately leaves.
We lose a couple more along the way. Some cannot handle the writing. Some cannot handle the driving and surveillance detection. Some cannot handle the rapport-building, and lack the interpersonal skills required. Some cannot handle the pressure that comes with the job. Some we are happy to see go, while others, like my office mate, we hate to lose.
Some, like me, are just barely good enough at all the required skills to skate on through. It pays to be a gray man, with head kept down, not drawing attention as a ‘problem child.’ Plus, I can write. Even when I might screw up the meeting part of an exercise—offend a potential agent, or forget to ask a certain important question—I make up for it with my cable writing, smoothing over the rough edges, and laying out plans for future meetings. My writing helps overcome any shortfalls in my meetings.
My keyboard is my weapon. I am a keyboard ninja spy.
I look forward to finishing the first stage of the training so I can head to the Farm. That is the gold standard of our training, and where the real learning is done. I successfully finish the first phase, and make it to the Farm phase.
I am not quite halfway done with the training program, but I am working my way up the hill, soon to crest it, and in a few months, I should be on the downhill slope.
Assuming nothing goes wrong.