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Working at the CIA: Fact or Fiction

Despite its portrayal in the movies, working at the Central Intelligence Agency isn’t glamour and danger all the time. In fact, for most officers, it’s more like a normal 9-to-5 job. This story is the first in a series that will debunk certain myths and misperceptions about working at the CIA.

Meet Brad, Chris, Larry, and Eleanor — all experienced CIA officers with time spent overseas. In this article, they’ll share their insights and do their best to debunk myths about being an Agency employee.


Fact or Fiction: All CIA Officers Drive Sports Cars

The mere mention of the CIA brings to mind fancy sports cars like Maxwell Smart’s shiny red Sunbeam Tiger roadster armed with weapons and fancy gadgets. However, the average CIA officer drives a much less exciting vehicle to work — if they are even allowed a vehicle overseas at all — and it certainly isn’t armed.

Brad: “Agency-assigned cars help us blend in wherever we are assigned. They are to help us get our work done. We don’t want to be flashy because we need to blend into the background unnoticed. One of my favorite cars was a compact that would sound the horn if the battery got wet. This required some quick repairs so I wouldn’t announce my path on my way to meet a contact during a heavy rainstorm.”

Chris: “On one assignment, I had to share my car, so I ended up taking public transportation a lot.”

Larry: “During one nine-year tour, I never had a car. Public transportation and walking were the norm in the country.”

Eleanor: “A lot of places in which we operate do not have HOV lanes, valet parking or very reliable traffic regulations. You won’t get very far on pock-marked roads if you’re driving a Lamborghini, never mind finding a garage that will be able to make repairs to it. We’re more likely to drive cars that are practical for the rough environments in which we operate, and one that will not draw the attention of the locals.”


Fact or Fiction: CIA Officers Regularly Jet Set Around the World

In addition to flashy transportation, a good spy story features cities and countries around the globe. Sydney Bristow of “Alias” fame often traveled from France to Moscow and back to the United States all in one episode. The majority of our officers work in the United States. For officers who have the opportunity to travel a lot, it can be exciting, but the novelty soon wears off.

Eleanor: “The CIA has some fantastic opportunities to see the world from a unique perspective. Despite all the conflict that fuels the reason for this job, I am constantly reminded that the world is a beautiful place. If you’re the kind of person who finds yourself homesick for some distant corner of the world, this is the job for you. I’ve learned that a challenge is much more fulfilling than glamour. During my travels, I often find that a meal at the local market is much more memorable and fulfilling than a meal at the fanciest restaurant in town.”

Chris: “At one point, I had 2.5 million frequent flier miles from traveling around the world over a period of about 10 years. Of all that flying, I flew in first-class one time on an upgrade.”

Larry: “Yes, the travel seems a bit glamorous at the beginning, but after a while, you begin dreading airport rituals. That said, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to some pretty exotic locations.”


Fact or Ficition: Work Entails Frequenting Glamorous Cocktail Parties

And who can forget James Bond’s famous request for a “martini: shaken, not stirred” as he makes his way through a glamorous cocktail party while scoping out the bad guy? While socializing is necessary to complete the mission, most of a CIA officer’s time is spent building relationships, not at cocktail parties.

Brad: “Our work takes us to all types of places overseas. I’ve been to high-class events with the country’s elite. I’ve also interacted with the more humble parts. Some of my best and most memorable experiences were with foreign citizens who did not come from a privileged background. They were good, honest people that cared about others and the future of their countries. We didn’t sip champagne, but had heartfelt discussions over stale coffee.”

Chris: “I went to a lot of cocktail parties, and some of those might be described as glamorous if you squinted while looking around the room, but most of the individuals I was trying to meet had mustaches and pot bellies. Not a Bond girl in the bunch.”

Eleanor: “I used to think that case officers were supposed to be ‘things that go bump in the night’: stealthy, aloof, able to work a crowd but not get too close. In reality, you’ll never recruit anyone during a cocktail party because this job is all about personal connection.”


Agency Officers Are Ordinary People

Agency officers may be portrayed as glamorous, adventure-seeking spies in the movies, but they’re really just ordinary people.

Brad: “I’m really just a regular guy with a family with a fairly typical life. My neighbors, high school buddies, and extended family would probably be shocked to know that my job is to recruit spies and to collect information that is crucial to protecting lives and to formulating national security policies. I don’t mind if they think I’m just a ‘paper shuffler.’ At the end of the day, I have the personal satisfaction of knowing that I am doing something to protect our nation.”


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Posted: Sep 02, 2010 10:29 AM
Last Updated: Sep 07, 2010 06:46 AM