The CIA makes embarrassing headlines, revealing bumbling spies or
globe-spanning ineptitude, people speculate that it's staffed with
idiots. Whenever I hear this, I nod my head in vague agreement,
the way you would when someone points out the futility of the sneeze
guard over a salad bar. But I secretly think, "Well, they did one thing right. They
didn't hire me."
This wasn't a decision America's All-Powerful
Spy Agency arrived at easily. The truth is, I had some initial success
becoming a CIA operative in the Clandestine Service.
A few years ago, I was working in the
satellites department at CNN. This was a tedious job that mostly
involved talking to satellite truck operators and telling them to
"rotate your pole". In all the time I worked in that department,
I never ceased to find this funny. Of course, I also never got a
My job in satellites provided some downtime,
most of it spent on the Internet. In between Googling high school
classmates and reading abysmal forwarded emails I stumbled across
the CIA website. What a goldmine. They have changed it since then,
but at the time it offered up a rotating eye and menacing, siren-like
sound effects that honked out: "WAAAAHNK! WAAAAHNK! WAAAAHNK!"
Now, I had been hatching an escape from
CNN for some time. I disliked being there so much that I spent much
of my free time concocting health-related ruses. Once, I called
in sick for a week with pneumonia and flew to the Bahamas. When
I returned I didn't know if the joke was on me or my co-workers,
who kept wiping the phones down with anti-bacterial spray. Another
time I pretended to sprain my ankle to get out of work. My return
to the workplace after this particular ploy should have cured me
of my scheming. Taking pity on me since I don't drive, my boss kindly
scheduled a car service to pick me up. If I were a better person,
the guilt would have overwhelmed me. But instead I just sat back
in the luxurious black leather seat, haphazardly wrapped my ankle
in the ACE bandage I had just purchased and savored the sweet, sweet
respite from Atlanta's MARTA subway system.
So, as I perused the CIA website, it occurred
to me that becoming a CIA operative offered a one way ticket out
of a life of counterfeit illnesses. Instead of my dull work-a-day
existence, I could be sitting in a dark café in Bogotá,
setting up a sting to catch Marxist-rebel-narco-terrorists. I could
be in Red Square, wearing a fur hat, speaking perfect Russian and
negotiating oil pipelines. I could be in Kazakhstan, fighting off
insurgent caviar bandits. When caught in a bind, I'd kick 'em in
the nuts, disarm 'em of their machetes and sneer one-liners like,
"How do you like me now, jackass?"
And then, before jumping over the wall
into the Caspian Sea, I'd lecture them on Walt Whitman, Johnny Cash
and Western-style big sky freedom.
I sent a resume off to Clandestine Services
Training and was a little surprised to receive a response five months
later, by which time I'd moved across the country to San Diego for
an opportunity at a Mexican run TV station. I didn't actually talk
to a CIA recruiter at first. In what would become a running theme,
I was in the bathroom and missed the call. It was a peculiar brand
of synchronicity, and it happened at least four times. I'd be on
the toilet and then return to the living room to find a message
from the CIA. It was creepy, and prompted a moratorium on my Starbucks
When we finally do make contact, the recruiter
and I have a standard phone interview, similar to any phone interview
(why does this job appeal to you, what wonderful weather you have
in San Diego) except for the quizzing on foreign despots and nuclear
capabilities of various Asian nations.
A few days later I receive a packet of
information and forms in the mail. I am onto the next stage: preparing
for the Clandestine Services Training information session and one
on one interview. This is great, I think. It's as though I'd thrown
a dart at a list of careers and it landed on this one.
Two weeks later, I find myself in Santa
Ana, at the Embassy Suite's lush, Southern-California style atrium,
surrounded by healthy looking people milling about in light cotton
clothing. Well, all except the fifteen or so serious looking people
wearing dark suits. Consequently there is little need for a sign
to direct me to the correct conference room. I simply follow the
people in dark suits with Foreign Affairs Magazine under their arms
instead of US WEEKLY. Still, not wanting to appear over-anxious
by being the first one to take my seat, I wait around until I see
enough of them enter the room with a sign marked "CST" in small
letters. When I finally make my entrance, I find that I am the only
woman in the room. This doesn't bother me, even when a Hobbit-like
man leans in with Frito- perfumed breath and whispers,
"You know, being a woman really improves
your odds of being selected."
While I'm touched by his observation,
I don't have to respond because just then the two CIA recruiters
walk in. My status as the only woman in the room is revoked. I size
them up and figure the female recruiter seems cool. But the male
recruiter looks like he should be selling novelty license plates
at a mall kiosk. He's sporting a local weatherman mustache, huge
eyeglasses and a dumb grin. Where did they find this guy? Is this
his cover? Good-natured dork? Harrison Ford never played it this
We are all instructed to write just our
first names on the desk cards. Although I am reminded of Mrs. Erickson's
third grade class and the heated fights over the Garfield stickers,
people take this very seriously. One guy writes his last name by
mistake and spends the next five minutes furtively blacking it out.
He wipes his brow afterwards. Apparently, he is already feeling
the pressure of living under an assumed name.
After we all place our desk cards in plain
view, the male recruiter lives up to his mustache and starts yammering
on about the excitement of CIA coed volleyball, and how you can
meet some "really neat guys and gals." Furthermore, he informs us
that all the wives shop at the commissary for beef to make burgers
at the CIA barbeque. I shift in my seat.
Who IS this asshole?
Nobody applies to the CIA so they can
gobble down Rice Krispy treats and drink Miller Highlife in Belarus.
Just then the female recruiter decides
to hone in on me, and explain how wherever we are stationed, the
CIA will helicopter us to medical facilities for any "female troubles"
we may have. Now, although I'm the only other person in the room
with the equipment that might cause "female troubles" I think we
are all a little queasy at the prospect of a CIA sanctioned gynecologist.
When a collective silence ensues, the
male recruiter switches gears to discuss more adrenaline pumping
pursuits, like parachuting and target practice:
"I tell ya, we have a lot of fun out there.
Takes some guts to jump outta that plane, though. And you know,
shootin' on that range, it's just a real neat experience. An' of
course, we also teach you special driving techniques for hazardous
conditions. That's real fun too."
I am suddenly alarmed. Amazingly, I had
never considered driving a car during espionage missions in foreign
lands. I had considered wearing a fat suit as a disguise, hiding
in Eucalyptus trees, and dead dropping classified documents, but
driving did not cross my mind. This is incredibly stupid, I know.
And as I previously mentioned, I cannot drive. I cannot drive to
the post office up the street. I cannot drive to work. I cannot
drive to the 7/11 to get a bag of beef jerky. I cannot drive, period.
So as he rambles on about neat CIA driving techniques, I'm thinking:
How could I overlook this? There was never
a James Bond movie entitled
"On Her Majesties Secret Unicycle" or
"Rickshaws are Forever" or "You Only Hitchhike Twice". Was it even
possible to chase international criminals while taking public transportation?
What if I don't have exact change? What if I do? I'd be hanging
off the side of a double decker bus in London, brandishing my AK-47
"Eat shit motherfucker!"
These thoughts have all but rendered me
deaf to the recruiter's lame discourse, and I don't care. I wonder
if I should even stay for my one on one interview scheduled for
two hours from now. Is there any point? What am I doing here anyway?
The session wraps up, and we all stream out. Directly outside there
is some moron who starts screaming at the CIA recruiters because
the sign marking the room for the information session wasn't marked
clearly enough. Perhaps he wanted something in neon. They are willing
to give him a second chance, but I would have given him the boot.
The man couldn't find a signhow could he find mad bombers
in the bushes of Beirut?
Strangely enough, this incident gives
me renewed hope. If this moron thinks he could be a spy, then I
could too. Millions of people learn to drive every year. I could
My logic is good, but I still need more
confidence than that. Waiting until the recruiters head into the
elevators to begin interviews, I high tail it to the hotel bar and
order a Chivas Regal on the rocks. I peek around, worrying that
someone will report me to the CIA. Not since my 17-year-old beer
bonging days on the beaches of Whidbey Island has the consumption
of alcohol inspired such fear of government authorities.
I tip the bartender exceedingly well in
case he is cahoots with the CIA. I'm still nervous, but by the fourth
gulp the scotch just tastes so smooth and good that I don't care
anymore. I order another one, again tipping so exceedingly well
that when I've finished it, the bartender gives me a third on the
house. Out of obligation, I down this too. I am now ready for my
interview to become a spy in the Clandestine Service.
I pop about 12 breath mints and go up
to the female recruiter's hotel room. She is seated at a table,
reviewing my resume. It is a meager resume that was only recently
pruned of a part time position at The Reject Shop, where I worked
while I was attending Richmond College in London. Considering that
The Reject Shop sold everything from wooden spoons to penis-shaped
soap to plastic flowers to boob-shaped chocolates, and I was forced
to wear a hat that read "One of Life's Rejects" and a matching shirt
that read "Born to be a Reject" I felt it prudent.
I take a seat, and am glad I got the female
recruiter instead of Barbeque Bob. Unlike him, she is really personable
and interesting. We talk about current events, she compliments my
suit, and quizzes me on CIA policy information that we were supposed
to memorize. Even though I doubt much of the information is that
sensitive, I have been instructed not to reveal its contents to
anyone outside of The Agency. This feels vaguely thrilling. We get
along really well, and I feel I've nailed the interview. Of course
I could also be drunk.
Turns out she did like me, because a few
days later, as I'm on the toilet, the CIA calls and says I will
be sent tickets to fly out to DC for a three day interview process.
A thick envelope soon arrives, with maps marking the locations of
various CIA buildings, hotel recommendations and a selection of
books to read about The Agency. They have managed to spell my name
wrong on the airline tickets and all the paperwork.
I scan the book selection and choose to
purchase "Inside the CIA" by Ronald Kessler. It's a surprisingly
lively read. My favorite bit is the discussion of a CIA plan to
make Castro's beard fall out by pouring thallium salts into his
shoes. They assumed that if his beard fell out, he'd lose public
confidence. It sounds ludicrous, but then, the man has kept his
beard all these years and managed to outlast nine U.S. presidents.
Maybe Fidel is onto something.
I fly out to DC a couple months later
and wind up staying at a cheap hotel quite far away from any of
the CIA buildings. I choose this particular low-grade jewel in the
"Inns of Virginia" crown because it is in Falls Church. I like the
sound of Falls Church. It's evocative of a Merchant Ivory locale.
I picture a stunning manor house inhabited by beautiful aristocrats
dressed in white linen sipping champagne and making cruelly witty
Instead I get close proximity to the Sizzler
Steak house and a lumpy bed. My disappointment could have been avoided
if I had simply read the hotel description, in which the author
could come up with nothing better than touting its "convenience
to Route 7 (Leesburg Pike.)"
The night before my first day's interview
session, I attempt to get a good night's sleep. It doesn't occur
to me to schedule a taxi the night before. This is a huge mistake.
The next morning I wind up calling the cab company three times and
waiting over an hour.
When the dirty, dilapidated cab finally
arrives, looking as though it came to my hotel by way of Calcutta,
we are severely crunched for time, but the cabbie insists we can
still make it. This may very well have been true, except he can't
find the building. He can't even find the general vicinity. I suppose
this is good news for the CIA, but not so much for the cab company.
We wind up dead ending in a field somewhere. Admittedly, it is very
attractive countryside, and a nice change of pace from my shitty
Now, it's bad enough pulling into the
CIA parking lot in a beaten up cab. It is worse being 45 minutes
late, red faced from calling your cabbie a "fucking useless bastard"
after he'd called me a "fucking cheap bitch" for refusing to tip
him. I run into the building. As I rush up to the reception desk,
breathless and irritated at my predicament, I'm told I'm too late.
"You'll have to reschedule."
My face, still red, now drops. I consider
my options. I could just nod and accept my fate gracefully, or I
could do what I ultimately did. Cause a scene, make my case and
indict my cabbie. This is a good decision, since he makes a phone
call to see if I can make up what I missed. Turns out I can. I scramble
over into the human resources offices, where the other candidates
are all sitting around. Before I can pull myself together, a woman
smelling faintly of stale Juicy Fruit gum walks over, calls my name
and we head into her office. Just like the woman from my first interview,
she compliments my suit. As the suit I am wearing is two sizes too
big, scrounged from the sales rack at Macy's, and recently spit
cleaned of an old mustard stain, I suspect this is just something
they're instructed to tell candidates to put them at ease.
The interview consists of a few standard
questions, and then some role playing. I am pleased that my childhood
drama skills are coming in handy. Who knew my gender bending performance
as Abraham Lincoln in the 5th grade school play would
prove so useful in international espionage?
We get along well and she asks if I'd
like to go to lunch with her. I am immediately riveted by the idea.
This must be how CIA operatives are selected. It is the equivalent
to the midnight tap on the dorm room door in the Skull and Bones
fraternity. She's going to take me to a red velvet lined room patrolled
by radioactive sharks. We will discuss volcanic boots, holographic
gloves and telekinetic underpants.
She then tells me to wait in the green
room until she "checks on something."
What could she be checking on? The status
of my ticket on The Orient Express? My newly minted twelve passports
with twelve different names and nationalities? A special collection
of wigs for me, made from the silken hair of Eastern Block prostitutes?
I go out to the green room and stand around. Something is glinting
under a chair and I bend down to pick it up. It is a large green
ring, like a class ring. It seems is far too large not to be planted
there. A person would notice if a ring of this size had slipped
off their finger. This is clearly a test of my observational skills.
I proudly bring it up to the guy in the reception area.
"That's weird," he says distractedly,
and goes back to his crossword. I wonder if he's trained to act
My interviewer comes back ten minutes
later and I am no longer invited to lunch. Not sure if there is
a connection to the green ring or not.
I sigh and purchase a bag of stale Oreos.
After lunch hour we view the training
video. It's pretty entertaining. Everyone on the video is positively
in rapture about the CST experience. They're all in fatigues, swinging
from ropes, rolling in the mud and such. The women all seem a lot
taller than me. As I am barely 5'2, I wonder if they'd have to custom
make my fatigues. I spend the next few minutes mentally making notes
for a children's book entitled "Clandestine Dwarf in Fatigues".
Consequently I have no idea what the gist of the training video
is about, and am pleased there is no pop quiz.
The rest of the day is spent writing some
essays, and general administrative stuff. I have yet to taste any
excitement. This is not what I had pictured at all. It's all so
depressingly normal. There are no slick gadgets or toned bodies.
People chew gum and crack horrible jokes. It is just like CNN, except
the bad jokes have a slightly different tilt. Instead of some overly
hairsprayed anchor asking the floor director for the "personal vanity
plate" when she wants a mirror, here at the CIA they offer up such
geopolitical knee slappers as:
"Oh you know Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan,
and Kazakhstan?" We just simplify things and call them all "The
We finish up some paperwork and I head
back to my dismal hotel, feeling a little depressed. I came here
for mystery and the chance to enter a world of fascinating secrets,
and instead found dull suits, dull jokes and dull architecture.
In an attempt to perk myself up, I walk
to the Sizzler down the street. This is not the most effective way
in which to perk oneself up. I order some type of Sizzlin' Combo,
and dissolutely gnaw on the tough steak and rubbery shrimp. Even
the cheap wine does not lift my spirits. I go back to the hotel
and reserve a cab for the morning. Lying in my lumpy bed, watching
a sit com, I conclude that I have been duped in two ways. One, applying
to the CIA is not the thrill a minute experience I had expected
and two, not Everybody actually Loves Raymond.
The CIA building I arrive at (on time)
the second day is even less interesting than the first one. There
is no scent of intrigue, only bacon. I follow the smell to the cafeteria.
I figure I could use some breakfast. On the way there, I spy an
employee corkboard. People have posted various notices such as:
Running Shoes for sale: Cheap.
CAT W/MISSING TAIL FOUND
It's Girl Scout Cookie Time! Order
your Thin Mints,
Do-Si-Dos and Tagalongs NOW!
Problem with squirrels? We've got the
Half an hour later, we are led into a
room to take our personality tests. They tell you there are no wrong
or right answersbut everyone knows that's not true. One question
that throws me for a loop asks something like,
My people tell me that I'm an excellent
TRUE OR FALSE.
There are also a couple odd questions
along the lines of whether you'd rather work as a flower arranger
or as a racecar driver. The burly football player seated next to
me nudges me and says,
"I guess that's to figure out who the
gays in the group are."
That's it for the afternoon. I wait around
for my cab, and the other candidates ask why I didn't rent a car.
Out of concern of they'd think I was a nutjob, and the knowledge
that they'd be right, I lie and say I thought it would be easier
this way. I'm not sure I have been too convincing on this issue,
but for once my cab has good timing and whisks me back to my hotel
After realizing I have few other options,
I make a second pilgrimage to the Sizzler. This is like signing
up for another helping of humble pie. But even as I am sitting there,
eating wilted iceberg lettuce, looking at fat men in stained Redskins
sweatshirts, listening to Lionel Ritchie warbling about what a feelin'
it is to be dancin' on the ceiling, I can't relinquish the dream
that tomorrow the CIA could catapult me into a world of thrilling
endeavors, hair-trigger decisions, political frisson, and heart
pounding chases through the rain swept streets of Paris.
On the final day of my CIA interview sessions,
we take endless math and cognitive skills tests. I imagine this
is to determine our ability to translate ciphers. I am completely
useless. It is a good thing they weren't relying on me to crack
those German military codes in World War II. On one section I just
give up after the third or fourth question and just start filling
in bubbles at random. But at least I am not alone. The burly football
player finishes and says,
"Well, I can kiss that section goodbye."
When we have all turned in our worksheets,
we are instructed to write an essay.
The other essays I have written so far
have been practical, task-related essays. But this one forces you
to examine if your basic personality is right for a career in the
Clandestine Service. I scribble out some clichés of what
I think they'd like to hear, and then erase them. I scribble down
some sarcastic, cynical observations about myself, and erase those
too. I write and erase, write and erase. There is no easy way to
approach this question.
I write about how being raised in a community
of free-thinkers, odd balls, crazy hippies and devoted parents in
the Pacific Northwest gave me license to be whomever I wanted, because
they loved us enough to let us figure things out on our own. I write
about raging political arguments with my father, when we started
throwing food at each other. I write that I read the National Enquirer
alongside The Economist. I write that I am a first generation American.
I write that my mom taught me to respect this country but also respect
our Finnish heritage, which is why she named me SAARA with three
A's instead of SARA. I may have been teased about it, but I was
always proud of that extra A, and it irked me when people dismissed
the pronunciation as pure whimsy. In a sense, that extra A was my
connection to the family my mother left behind when she came to
I erase all of this and start again.
I stop when I realize everything I've
written reveals that I was raised to value my individuality. And
it strikes me, on about the sixth or seventh attempt to write this
essay, that I'm not cut out for this job. Admittedly, there should
have been many red flags before now to tell me this but as I look
at my dingy sheet of paper, it finally sinks in.
It isn't because I think the CIA is an
inherently cruel and cold-blooded institution. It isn't because
I don't think I could do the job, with or without a driver's license.
No, it's just that I finally realized I couldn't surrender my identity.
The very fact that I've been enthusing about my unique Finnish name
when there is a whole wall of fallen CIA operatives with stars instead
of names to mark their deaths just proves it.
Maybe I just needed to see the CIA employee
corkboard, hear about CIA coed volleyball, and smell that crappy
CIA cafeteria bacon to understand this. I thought I could live anonymously
when I assumed the life I'd be leading would be so extraordinary.
But with what I'd seen so far, I got the suspicion it wouldn't be.
Now, I'm not stupid enough to think that
even with the stacks of confidentiality contracts we signed that
the CIA would let the thousands of candidates that pass through
each year in on their fascinating secrets. But it seemed like at
every turn, they were trying to stress the normalcy of clandestine
life, when the abnormality of it is usually why people find it so
fascinating. And if they couldn't show us the secrets, they should
have at least let us believe that there were amazing secrets to
be revealed later on. And if I couldn't have something amazing in
return, then my identity was too high a price.
By the time I hand my essay in, I've written
and erased so many times that the sheet of paper is nubby and thin.
I'm a little worn out by now, coated with
pencil eraser dust, having analyzed myself too much. But I still
have to see the CIA psychologist for further analysis. I am pretty
much resigned to the fact that I'm not going to become a CIA operative
at this point. Still, I find that the psychologist is a nice guy
and I enjoy our conversation. I think does too, until he asks why
I'm here and I mention the hilarious CIA website. I even do an imitation
of the "WAAAAHNK! WAAAAHNK! WAAAAHNK!" sound effects.
He looks at me like I'm a particularly
unfortunate product of incest and says,
"Huh. Yeah. Well, you must have impressed
someone to get this far," and makes a note on my paperwork. I figure
this is not a good sign. I suspect the person who recommended me
to get this far will be reprimanded and I feel a little guilty.
My final stop is at the reimbursement
office where I am paid in cash. Not being a high roller or a very
industrious carnie, I do not think I have ever possessed this much
cash in the palm of my hand.
I walk outside into the sunny parking
lot and run into the burly football player, who gives me a lift
to the airport. Unlike me, he's a competent driver and I suspect
he'd grill very flavorful burgers at the barbeque in Iran, wearing
a "Kiss The Cook" apron translated into Farsi. I also doubt he's
ever faked pneumonia to get out of work. He's probably a very skilled
CIA operative by now.
A month later I get my Xeroxed rejection
letter. I'm proud to see that this time they've spelled my name