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Superstitions at CIA

October 30, 2020

Updated October 13, 2023

People and Culture

We’ve all got ‘em: From the soccer player who always puts on her right shoe before her left to the student who can’t bear to take a test with anything other than his lucky, neon green #2 pencil, superstitions are a part of daily life. Be honest, who among us doesn’t think twice when they see a black cat or adjust their stride to avoid cracks in the pavement?

And while we pride ourselves on sound analytic reasoning based on thoroughly vetted and reliable sources, we’re not immune to superstitious behavior. After all, so much time and effort goes into our work, so why risk it? In honor of the witching season and with hopes to ward-off all things ghoul-y, we’re going to chat about a few of the more interesting superstitions at CIA.

The Mr. Hale Tax

Standing between the Auditorium and the main entrance to CIA's Original Headquarters Building is a statue of Connecticut native Nathan Hale, who was the first American to be executed for spying for his country. On the morning of September 22, 1776, at just 21 years of age, Mr. Hale was hanged by the British after they caught him spying for the United States Continental Army behind enemy lines. His final words, which are inscribed at the base of this statue, were: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” His statue stands as a continuing reminder to all employees of the duties and sacrifices of an intelligence officer.

Nathan Hale statue

This superstition originates in the Directorate of Operations, but has since gained some momentum among the broader Agency workforce. The idea is that, when an officer is about to leave for an assignment, they should place either 76 cents or a quarter at the feet of the Nathan Hale statue. Doing so will grant the officer and their family good luck and safe passage through their assignment. Seventy-six cents commemorates the year of Hale’s execution. The quarter is a nod to the fact that Hale served under General George Washington, whose head is pictured on the U.S. quarter.

CIA officers will periodically collect any money left at the statue and donate it to the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation.

Keep Off the Seal

As you enter the lobby of CIA headquarters building, your eyes might be drawn to – of all places – the ground. Built into the massive granite floor, front-and-center, is a large black-and-white CIA seal. Measuring 16 feet in diameter, the seal is inextricably linked to CIA. You may recognize it featured prominently in Hollywood films and TV shows (and yes, some of those were actually filmed at CIA). The famous seal features a few important pieces that are at the heart of our mission: the eagle, a shield, and a 16-point compass star. The eagle is our national bird and stands for strength and alertness. The compass star represents the convergence of intelligence from around the world to a central point. And the shield represents defense.

A large black, white, and gray granite version of the CIA seal.

If you follow us on social media, you may have heard all of that before. What you may not know, however, is that the seal itself is the subject of deep superstition among CIA officers. Some at CIA believe that to walk on the seal is a sign of disrespect and may result in some avoidable bad luck. It’s not uncommon, if you stop in the front lobby and watch for a few minutes, to see officers go out of their way to walk around the very large seal.

While these superstitions are shared among members of the CIA community, there are many more that exist only at the individual level; the analyst who wears a specific tie when briefing at the White House or the operations officer who brings along a lucky token on any operational outing. Sometimes that extra dash of good luck is all you need. So, as you celebrate this spooky season, remember that you’re not alone in your quirky superstitions. In fact, you’re in great company with some of our nation’s brightest minds and bravest officers. Remember that the next time you feel silly for skipping over a crack in the pavement or knocking on wood to ward off bad luck.

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