How It All Began for Me
I wanted to join the CIA since I was a young boy. I come from a generation where those of us who read, read books about grand adventures. The CIA seemed to offer this. Traveling to different lands, engaging in daring-do, operating at the edge of U.S. power and influence. I was naive, as young children usually are, and this was all before reality set in. I applied as soon as I graduated college and, knowing it would take some time to go through the acceptance process, I settled into a fairly mundane office job waiting for my invitation to adventure.
My first initiation into the world of secrets and clandestinity was when I received a letter from the CIA inviting me to an interview. At the appointed date and time I arrived at the local federal building and made my way to room 601. My first challenge was finding room 601. I walked all over the building looking for it but had no luck. You might think me stupid, but I did all the right things. I went to the 6th floor and went through the halls looking in numerical order—room 600, room 602, but no 601. It was clearly a test that I was about to fail. I was running late. In desperation, I entered another government office, The United States Fish and Wildlife Service. I politely waited in line at the counter that issued some type of fishing license. I asked the very helpful lady if she could direct me to room 601. In a loud voice, she said "Oh son, you want the CIA."
Following her directions I found a side corridor, and wedged between the men's room and a utility closet was room 601: a nondescript metal door with a peephole and no sign. I apologized profusely for being late, but the old guy doing the interview (I can say old guy since I am an old guy) brushed it off and said, "Everyone has a hard time finding the office.” No shit. Thus began a year-long process just to get my foot in the door.
I will be honest, I was totally unprepared for my new career at the CIA. First off, I didn't know what I wanted to do. At the first interview, the man asked me what I wanted to be in the CIA. Not really knowing how the CIA operated I said either security or analysis, figuring that security must be related to some action element. Fortunately for me, the interviewer said, "No you don't. You want to be in operations." Knowing better now, the recruiters were likely instructed to recruit operations officers, there being a shortage after the decimation of the case officer corps under former director Stansfield Turner. Turner had fired or retired large numbers of case officers. Under Reagan, the CIA was expanding and needed more case officers.
I underwent psychological tests, aptitude tests, medical exams, additional interviews, and a polygraph exam. It seemed to go on forever, though it was actually only about one year. I finally received a conditional letter of employment, meaning I would be hired by the CIA on a temporary basis and only become a staff officer if I passed additional training and a probationary period. It was not a ringing endorsement, everyone received such a letter, but at least I was in and I was excited. I have to admit that during the entire process I expected to fail at each step of the way. I could not imagine that I would be accepted. The CIA must be staffed by the best and brightest, individuals of incredible accomplishments. Each time I moved along the process I was surprised, happily so.
When I had my EOD, Entry On Duty, the first day you show up for work, I was herded into the Agency auditorium with all the other new hires. We were handed our individual contracts, the conditional letter of employment that listed our new career category (operations officers), salary, conditions of employment, etc. We were asked to sign the contract and then we would be administered the oath of service, the one all government personnel take, the one that states you will uphold and defend the constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Pretty standard, but then one hand went up, the hand of a big, beefy, lawyer-rancher (yes, they exist), his cowboy boots propped up on the seat in front of him. He said, "I have an issue with the salary." Everyone froze. The CIA is much like the military in many respects. There are rules and regulations that are to be obeyed, one of them being you are given a grade that dictates your salary and positions you can hold. A newly hired, probationary officer does not question their salary, especially on day one of employment. This guy had just marked himself for death. Just kidding, he would NOT be killed, but he was starting his career on shaky grounds. The personnel pulled him aside, had a quiet word with him, then we took the oath.
As we went through the process, I realized that not everyone was the best and the brightest. Some clearly were impressive individuals, but a few were not cut out for the job. One new hire wanted to visit his wife who he had not seen for several weeks. She was a flight attendant and their schedules had not meshed for some time. He had an opportunity to see her in Seattle where she had a two-day layover before heading out again. Here was our first experience of the phrase "needs of the service." Military people will be familiar with this term as well. It is a nice catchall that says when the CIA needs you to be somewhere you will be somewhere. The mission, however small or large, comes first and everyone needs to be aware of that. I missed plenty of holidays, birthdays, funerals, etc. due to the needs of the service. Anyway, the course coordinator said no. He was in the middle of the introduction to the CIA course and could not leave for the next two weeks.
Truthfully, he probably could have left. The course was a very basic introduction to the CIA, its organization, mission, etc. He would not have had any problem catching up after coming back from seeing his wife. But at this stage, the CIA officers running the program wanted to inculcate basic principles into us. We did need to become accustomed to the needs of the service, upon which the idea of “mission first” is built. We needed to develop a degree of military discipline. Not the salute, “yes sir, no sir,” discipline, but the idea that you were given orders and you had to follow those orders. This fellow, however, knew better and decided to go see his wife anyway. We never saw him again. The CIA did not appreciate its officers going AWOL.
After the introductory course, we went off to work at CIA Headquarters (HQS) where we would learn the writing style of the Directorate of Operations (DO), which is far removed from normal English grammar, and how the DO worked in general. It was at the height of the Central American wars, and America's heavy involvement in those wars. So, I was sent to the Special Activities Division (SAD) which handled paramilitary and media operations for the CIA. It was an eye-opener for me. I presented myself to the personnel chief of SAD and received my assignment. He had only one question for me, asking about my name he said, "What kind of name is that?" I responded that I was born in Cuba. His comeback was, "Well, we all can't be perfect. There are always some less than perfect apples in the barrel."
Now, some of you might be offended, others might just laugh. Nowadays, that would not stand, and it isn't likely he would have said it even if he was thinking it. Back then I did not have any options. Complaining about it would have landed me in the same category as the lawyer-rancher, someone to keep an eye on because he was a complainer. At worst, I would be with that guy searching for his wife in Seattle. I just thought to myself, “fuck it, he is an ignorant asshole,” and showed up at my assigned office.
I won't go into too many details because the CIA hates it when you go into detail, so I will keep it generic. I learned a shitload. I learned about media operations, propaganda, and how all this dovetailed with U.S. strategy in the region. I learned how different components of the CIA contributed to a very large and complex covert action program that spanned multiple nations with different objectives in each nation. We waged counterinsurgency at the same time we waged an insurgency, while still conducting HUMINT operations. I observed who wielded power in the hierarchy, and how power was wielded.
When I finished these assignments I went off to the real training, the training course that taught one to be a spy. Again, I won't go into detail, but there are plenty of books written by more recent graduates of the CIA's training program— post 9/11—that you can find. What I will say is that the training course operated at a secret, undisclosed location that everyone knows about was challenging. It lasted more than four months and officially ran from Monday through Friday for 12 to 16 hours a day. In reality, if you wanted to keep up you had to pretty much work 6 to 7 days a week for the four-plus months.
The instructor staff was a mixed bag. During the training course, I met some amazing DO officers, including my mentor who went on to accomplish great things. I also met some total wrecks. At the time, the training location served several purposes as far as instructor staff was concerned. Some were there for personal reasons. Usually, they had served in some difficult places and wanted a more relaxed posting with the family. Remember, at this time the CIA was running multiple, large covert action programs around the globe in dangerous places where families were normally not allowed. After one to two years without the family, officers wanted to reconnect, so there they were.
Others were cooling off. There were some officers who had been declared persona non grata (PNG) — meaning the person is not welcome. That is where a government throws you out of their country and you can never return. This usually happens when you are caught spying. Being PNG'd is abrupt. You usually get 2 weeks to pack up and leave so there isn't a job waiting for you. Instead, you head off to be an instructor.
Other staff had more serious problems, usually involving alcohol. One instructor was notorious for his drinking. Students quickly learned that if you brought a bottle of whisky to a meeting with this instructor you would pass that particular test because the instructor would end up drinking most of the bottle and not remember a thing. Fortunately, that has changed over time, and the instructor staff nowadays is selected for their quality. If you have a drinking problem, you end up at an alcoholics program, not training. In any case, I learned a lot.
The training program was also another place where less than satisfactory trainees were weeded out. The lawyer-rancher? He failed due to poor judgment. I saw his poor judgment exhibited in sharp detail. There was another student, we will call him Mike, who was really gung ho about the training. He would give advice to the other students, explain espionage tradecraft techniques, you know the type—know-it-all. He claimed he knew a lot of what we were being taught, having lots of experience in private security. Now, being among a bunch of would-be spies, it did not take long for everyone to find out that his security experience was as a guard at Disneyland in California. At that point life became hell for Mike, starting with his new name, Mickey Mike. The fact that he was shaped like a large egg did not help his cause.
The basic tradecraft course was followed by two weeks of something. I don't remember a lot of it since I, and all my fellow trainees were pretty much exhausted. I do remember we were exposed to a bunch of informational courses, and the one I remember was Soviet wheat production. It dealt with the analytical methodology used to calculate Soviet wheat production, the history of soviet wheat production, etc. Soviet wheat production was important back then. If the Soviets missed their targets for wheat production, which they usually did, they had to buy wheat from the west or go hungry. That meant buying wheat from that monster of wheat production: the United States. A lot of senior U.S. officials were very interested in the topic. I slept.
After two weeks of normally 9-5, we were sent back to the training facility for another four months of paramilitary (PM) training. They don't do that anymore. It is too expensive and time-consuming, but back then, as I noted above, the CIA was involved in multiple CA programs around the globe, most of a paramilitary nature. It was believed that since some of us would go off to work in these programs it would be helpful if we understood paramilitary operations. A great idea except for the fact that we had been at the very same training facility for four months, six and a half days a week, and we were not happy about having to go back for another four months. The class was mutinous.
Mickey Mike was his usual self. He had survived the operations course, barely, but continued to be a total tool during the PM course. We were sitting in a training room with two students per table with two assault rifles placed on each table. The instructor stood in front of the classroom and between the words "Don't" and "Pickup" Mickey Mike had grabbed his rifle, shoved an empty magazine into the rifle, and pulled back the bolt. We all sat still as we heard the very loud clack, hoping the idiot had not found live rounds. That was pretty much indicative of Mike's performance.
In retrospect, the course was a learning experience and fun. I got to shoot just about every infantry weapon you can imagine, from WWII to modern. Things exploded, we jumped out of helicopters and planes, maritime operations, it was like a toy store. You also learned about yourself; you were placed in leadership roles and planned and executed paramilitary operations. The instructor staff was extremely experienced. Most had served in Vietnam either in the military or the CIA. Most were cycling through the various CA programs the Agency was running. It was great. The staff was great. I developed an appreciation of what was involved in paramilitary operations and what people went through.
I also learned that I didn't like sleeping in a hole in the ground or shitting in the woods. I had made the right choice being a case officer. Yes, it does sound wimpy, but who prefers sleeping on the ground instead of a bed?
We finished the training, with Mickey Mike being provisionally passed, and headed back to HQS to receive our assignments. Mike, fortunately, did not make it. He was placed in the DO on a provisional basis but without an assignment. During that time he was asked to act as a courier for something or other. In typical Mickey Mike style, he asked for a stainless steel briefcase that could withstand all sorts of attacks, including high explosives. The technical people questioned it, but delivered it anyway. He lost the case with the documents in transit, then proceeded to obfuscate what happened. I am being kind here because I was not involved, but as a result, he was sent back to Disneyland.
With assignment in hand, I was ready to head off overseas. There was one final act before departing. Ronald Reagan came to CIA HQS to dedicate the new building being constructed behind the original HQS building. Before heading out to the dedication ceremony, which was full of press, he addressed the DO in the main lobby of HQS, the same place where you see the seal above. He did it because the DO people were undercover and could not be exposed to the press. Like him or not, Reagan knew how to talk to people. He began with his usual, tired spy joke, and everyone politely laughed, then went on about the men and women of the CIA, how important their jobs were, how they were part of his national security strategy. Frankly, I don't remember most of the speech, except for one line: "You are the tripwire of democracy over which the forces of totalitarianism must stumble." There wasn't a dry eye in the lobby. He had everyone in the palm of his hand. The thing is, he meant it.
With that speech in mind, I was pumped. It would carry me through several overseas tours. I was ready to head out into the world.