I never planned to write this. I was watching a TV show I love—”Strike Back”—and it just got under my skin. My wife has learned to either ignore the stuff I mutter under my breath, go in another room and watch something else in peace, or ask, “Is that right?” For some reason, it just irks me when Hollywood (and the media, and many others) get it wrong about the CIA and the world of intelligence in general.
No, not mad enough to start a Facebook page about it, or to start some sort of hashtag campaign (#itsnotthatimportant) but just enough that I want to set the record straight—sort of. I won’t give away any classified stuff, so put the pitchforks and torches away, oh guardians of the non-disclosure agreement. I just wanted to compile a quick list of the top 10 things that Hollywood (and everyone else) seems to always get wrong about the Agency, in no particular order. I am sure this has already been done somewhere out there on the big, scary interwebs, but guess what? It’s my article. So zip it and follow along.
1. Calling CIA personnel “agents.”
This one is pretty common, and it isn’t just Hollywood that gets it wrong. The media does it all the time. I have had personnel from other agencies refer to me or other CIA personnel as agents. That is just not right. We are officers. The people we recruit to spy for us are referred to as agents (or assets). FBI personnel are agents. NCIS personnel are agents. We are officers.
2. We arrest the bad guys.
Nope. The CIA has no arrest or law-enforcement powers. We may provide information to the FBI or another agency that results in the arrest of an individual or individuals based on intelligence that we gather, but we don’t slap the cuffs on anybody.
3. The CIA operates against U.S. citizens.
I can hear the Edward Snowden t-shirt and bumper sticker crowd now. But believe it or not—like it or not—the CIA does not spy on U.S. citizens. Did we at one time? History says yes, and it was a bad time for our nation. But I worked in our domestic division for a while, and I can tell you that not only did we not spy on U.S. citizens, if any intelligence that was gathered overseas even involved a U.S. person peripherally, it was either deleted or, if it involved criminal activity, turned over to the FBI. And we definitely didn’t give a damn about your phone records.
4. Our operations always end in high-speed chases and shootouts.
Nope again. If we do our jobs right, no one will ever know we were there, and if they do know, they only know us under our cover story. There is no (with some exceptions) sneaking into buildings at midnight, slitting guards’ throats, or planting explosive charges. And unless you are in an area designated as a “war zone” or hostile environment (and sometimes not even then, depending on your job), you won’t be carrying a weapon.
5. Everyone is an analyst, and those analysts save the world. And steal submarines.
Okay, so this one I might place in the “protected” bin. There may have been an analyst who has helped steal a Russian nuclear submarine and helped the captain defect (I mean actually gotten aboard the damned thing and shot it out with a rogue sailor, a la Jack Ryan tossed into “The Hunt for Red October“) but I have never met one.
What I have met are analysts who are capable of doing, and do, some of the things that operations officers (the “spies”) do, but on top of that leave me asking, “Can you go over that again, only slower…much slower?” after they are done explaining how the Chinese satellite components are constructed at one facility for launch at a third-party facility. In that sense, making…sense…of the information passed to us and giving the best advice to the policymakers, they do save, and have saved, the world. Some incredible folks, but Hollywood, not everyone is an analyst.
6. Everyone at the CIA is a spy.
See above. Operations officers (case officers) are the ones who recruit agents and assets to steal secrets and commit espionage for the United States government. Surrounding and supporting them are everyone from staff operations officers, analysts, security, administrative and other personnel. Some are operations qualified and dual-hatted, but not everyone is a spy in the literal sense.
7. No one can know that you work for the CIA. No one.
Okay, okay. No, you are not supposed to run around telling everyone that you work at the CIA. But it is simply not true that you are forbidden under penalty of death or imprisonment from telling anyone that info. When you first apply for employment with the Agency, the website and any recruiter that you speak with will advise you that it is best not to tell anyone that you have applied. After you’re onboard, you are then advised that you should only tell those close relatives who need to know and who you trust (but obviously no more than that).
If you are married or have a long-term domestic partner, the Agency requires that you tell your other half from day one. Along with that, there are other reasons why you would be required or are otherwise able to divulge your affiliation with the CIA. Not everyone at the Agency is under cover (covert, as I was); some are overt, and can and do list it on applications, resumes, etc. When you leave employment with the Agency, if you are given permission by the Publication Review Board, you may disclose your former employer.
8. The CIA issues you a spouse and family for undercover assignments.
No joke, people believe that. In fact, my first wife actually asked me (more like stated it as if it were fact) if that was going to happen. (I had not started at the CIA yet.) I told her no, of course not (I didn’t know for sure but doubted it seriously), and in my time there, I have never read any ops reports that even hinted at someone having a “cover family.” Could it happen? I suppose anything is possible, but the logistics and security of that would be a nightmare.
9. We all make insane amounts of money and drive expensive cars.
Absolutely wrong, and I can attest to that one personally. Yes, the money is okay (it pays the bills) and there are the benefits (medical, dental, life insurance) that I was absolutely grateful for, but it is the government for Christmas sake. Nobody (at least at the pay grade I was at) is getting rich doing this. And we have to pay for those benefits just like everyone else. I did see some Porsches and Rolex watches (and some Suuntos—jealous), but the flashy folks were rare.
10. We are always the bad guys, and everyone at the CIA is a callous robot.
This is actually my biggest gripe with how Hollywood portrays us, and frankly how some people choose to view us. This is pure crap. Yes, I acknowledge that at certain points in our history, we have done some pretty unscrupulous and sometimes horrible things in a misguided attempt to “promote democracy.” I cannot and will not excuse that. But I have worked with many incredible and honorable men and women at the CIA, and it bothers me that almost every movie, book, or TV show that includes us portrays us as lawless cowboys who will destroy everyone and everything to further our agenda. Simply not true.
Okay, I will give it to you that I did have bosses who fit the callous and unfeeling description to a T, but overall this is not the case, and I ignored them and carried on with the mission. We are human beings just like you. We are not supermen or women (though I have met some who come close – damned crossfit freaks). We have families and we have feelings. (Run your first surveillance detection route—SDR—or try to make that first bump of a potential asset and tell me you were not scared. Liar.) We lose friends, classmates, and colleagues (I have lost a few) and it hurts. But we do our jobs and deal with the rest later.
So there you have it. Take it or leave it. Like I said, small gripes and nothing that I want to go to war over, but just some things that I want someone who has never been in the business to know. So the next time you are watching that movie and the lady CIA agent is standing over a body after the huge shootout and her husband—who the Agency issued her as part of her cover—walks in and says, “I had no idea you were in the CIA!” you can say with a bit of authority, “Well ain’t that some horse pucky!”
Article written by James Powell.
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