In The Recruit Colin Farrell plays a top MIT student recruited by spymaster Al Pacino. I, too, was once an MIT student recruited by the CIA, although my application process involved substantially less sex with Bridget Moynahan.
The year was 1985. O.J. Simpson was still a beloved ex-football hero. Ordering coffee did not involve speaking Italian. America was still duking it out with the Soviet Union. And I was a twenty-two year-old grad student, obsessed with becoming a spy. It felt romantic, epic, contrarian.
Priming my fire were the usual cinematic and literary accelerants—James Bond movies, spy thrillers by Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum, the anti-collectivist novels of George Orwell and Ayn Rand. And I’m sure that reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago at age sixteen had a certain formative effect, much the way that reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States at a young age virtually ensures that one will grow up with more than a passing familiarity with the workings of a bong.
But the spark that set my dreams of covert operations ablaze was a PBS miniseries called Reilly: The Ace of Spies. Sidney Reilly, played by a dashing Sam Neill, was quite simply the greatest spy in history and Ian Fleming’s avowed inspiration for Bond himself. When he wasn’t busy securing Persian oil concessions for the British or huge battleship contracts for the Germans, Reilly devoted himself to overthrowing the Bolsheviks. One of Reilly’s most daring capers was his plan to capture Lenin and Trotsky, then parade them through Red Square minus their trousers. The disgrace, Reilly wagered, would be enough to cost them their authority without making martyrs of them the way shooting them might. As a former fraternity denizen, I can attest to the humbling effects of being trot through the street sans trou. Reilly’s was a baroque plan to be sure, but it might have worked had his operation not been blown by an assassination attempt on Lenin. It’s a historical “what-if” of enormous significance. If Reilly had succeeded in toppling Lenin, Communism might not have racked up a death toll estimated at one hundred million lives through its purges, pogroms, show trials, man-made famines, and death camps. Hitler gets worse press, but for sheer body count he was a piker compared to Stalin and Mao. Keep your gridiron gladiators; my hero will forever be a little-known Ukrainian Jew born in 1874 named Sigmund Rosenblum, a.k.a. Sidney Reilly.
One hundred and eleven years later, in the midst of the Cold War, my classmates were far more interested in attending pro-Sandinista rallies than considering careers in espionage. Of course, MIT wasn’t the biggest hotbed of liberalism in the People’s Republic of Cambridge. Up the Charles River I’d watch Harvard’s sons and daughters snap up Marxist-Leninist tracts at Revolution Books, and I’d feel as out of place as G. Gordon Liddy at Woodstock.
So be it. In a land of revolutionaries, the square is the rebel!
I decided to apply for a summer job with the CIA. The world was a dangerous place and I was going to make it safer. Or, at the very least, protect U.S. multinational business interests abroad. Or possibly yank the drawers off some odious head of state.
I sauntered down MIT’s recruiters’ alley, a corridor with interview rooms on one side and students queued up on the other. Go ahead, suckers. Toil away in your veal-fattening pens on tedious tasks for soul-crushing corporations. I’d rather parachute into Afghanistan, infiltrate Uzbekistan by camel, sabotage the guidance package on a Soviet ICBM, and deflower a Bedouin’s daughter. The fact that I was ill-suited for such derring-do was entirely beside the point, so intoxicated was I with the notion of reporting for work at the CIA each morning. In truth, given my physicality, my ideal CIA job would probably be the one Robert Redford had in Three Days of the Condor—sitting around reading spy novels all day looking for leaks and clever ideas.
I passed a few lost souls who were interviewing for jobs with small privately-held software companies—ragtag start-ups whose prospects were so dodgy they had to offer buckets of pre-IPO stock options to new hires. I wonder what ever happened to those poor dumb clucks and those companies with the funny names, like Oracle Corporation and Sun Microsystems and Microsoft? Yep, that’s a real Where are they now?
To enter the CIA’s designated interview room I had to sidestep a clump of protesters giving me the evil eye and holding signs that said “Culpable In Assassinations” and “Capitalism’s Invisible Army.” This rattled me, but the Agency recruiter quickly broke the ice with, “Forget about them. Hey, do you know how you become Communist? Go to Harvard and turn left.” I liked him already. Then he introduced himself as John Littlejohn and all I could think about was how the evil red lectroids in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension disguised themselves as humans and used questionable cover names like John Smallberries, John Yaya, and John Parrot. At the end of our meeting, the lectroid stressed absolute secrecy. No one could know I was applying—friends, family, no one.
Unfortunately the Agency used plain brown envelopes to correspond with me—envelopes my roommate immediately tore open believing I was hording a secret porno subscription. Hopefully this ruse was more effective in foiling any Soviet spies monitoring my mailbox.
In January I flew to Washington, D.C. to undergo a day-long screening gauntlet at the CIA’s nondescript personnel offices in Roslyn, Virginia. On the agenda were multiple interviews, aptitude tests, psych profiles, and medical exams. One CIA psychologist asked me to describe every possible way I could think of to get secret information from a foreign scientist. I let my imagination run wild: bribe him, blackmail him, seduce him, cajole him, torture him, bug his briefcase, tap his phones, slip truth serum in his coffee, hold his dog hostage, convince him to defect, appeal to his love of America (hey, it might work). I even dredged up gimmicks from Mission: Impossible, like drug him, bring him to a replica of his lab, and impersonate his boss. The shrink nodded approvingly and seemed impressed by my ethical elasticity. I felt so theoretically ruthless. I would stop at nothing to get hypothetical information from imaginary scientists!
Another test consisted of a single essay question: “Does the end justify the means?” I figured I had to answer “yes” if I was ever going to see that shoe-phone. Of course, the CIA wanted more than one-word answers and gave us thirty minutes to compose our responses. Luckily, I had an edge over the other applicants. I knew this question was coming; it was mentioned in an obscure book I’d read about the CIA. So I prepared a thousand-word answer in advance.
Oh yeah… I had another edge, too. I printed my essay in gnat-sized font on an index card, snuck it into the exam, and copied it verbatim while sitting in the back row, totally unbeknownst to the CIA proctors.
I realize that cheating on a CIA entrance exam—specifically, using a cheat sheet to score higher on that particular question—is a logical and ethical paradox of the highest order. Somewhere Arthur Schopenhauer’s head exploded. I mean what could they say if they caught me? How dare you? Using underhanded methods to achieve your goal of proving that the end justifies the means! I’m shocked! Shocked! The CIA is no place for unscrupulous rule-breakers.
Here then is my “off the cuff” essay:
Does the end justify the means?
If you lived in Rome in the 1st century, B.C. and were a writer of moral maxims named Publilius Syrus, you certainly thought so. In his Sententiae (Sentences) Syrus wrote, “Honesta turpitudo est pro causa bona,” literally “Crime is honest for a good cause,” or more commonly, “The end justifies the means.”
Syrus would get no argument from Plato. Several hundred years earlier the Greek philosopher wrote, “To the rulers of the state then, if to any, it belongs of right to use falsehood, to deceive either enemies or their own citizens, for the good of the state.”
But is the doctrine valid in modern times? Considering the context and who is doing the asking, perhaps it might be better to reframe the question as: “To what extent is the use of undemocratic methods justified in the protection of democratic values?” Among these methods, one might list electronic surveillance (Keyhole satellites), medical experimentation (MK-ULTRA), propaganda (Allende, Whitlam), sabotage (Laos, North Vietnam), even assassination support (ZR/RIFLE, Operation Mongoose, the Phoenix Program, Diem, Lumumba).
I have no doubt that occasional lapses in judgment and poor policy-making at high levels result in misguided CIA covert operations. I am, however, convinced that covert action must remain the third option, a middle course of action between lodging a diplomatic protest and sending in the Marines.
Certainly, we can’t go around toppling governments indiscriminately and assassinating leaders merely because their personalities or regimes are distasteful to us; we would create martyrs and drive the country to further extremism by our intervention. Better results might be obtained by skillful diplomacy and a combination of economic incentives and sanctions.
On the other hand, arguments against all forms of covert action are naïve. Maybe it is a reflection of the peculiarly American propensity for introspection that such notions are even considered. Or perhaps it is because America is a young nation without the centuries old tradition of espionage that countries like Russia and China have. The CIA is only 38 years old, while the KGB and its predecessors stretch back to sixteenth century czarist Russia. As far back as 500 B.C., the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu said, “The acme of excellence is not the winning of a hundred victories in a hundred battles, but rather to subdue the armies of the enemy without fighting.” Even the Bible talks of spies sent by Moses to the land of Canaan. Clandestine operations are deeply rooted in world history.
Yet just sixty years ago Henry Stimson, Hoover’s Secretary of State, shut down America’s nascent code-cracking bureau, declaring, “Gentlemen do not read other people’s mail.” This let’s-all-be-gentlemen philosophy may be appropriate for cricket matches between Oxford and Cambridge, but not when dealing with brutal military dictators and fanatical religious tyrants. The notion of “fair play” has cost America and the British dearly in actual war, and has had equally disastrous consequences in the secret war against our police-state adversaries. The Комитет государственной безопасности (KGB) has no qualms about being ruthless and neither should we when genuine national security interests are at stake. How long can any game last when only one side plays by the rules?
To those who would argue that covert action is wrong because it constitutes meddling in another country’s affairs, I would point out that many aspects of our foreign policy have impacts on other nations’ affairs. Embargoes, tariff policies, the Voice of America, and even foreign aid programs are all intended to have significant effects on the internal affairs of other nations.
Arguments against covert action based on their illegality are especially fatuous. All acts of espionage, be they intelligence gathering or covert action, are illegal in every nation of the world, yet they go on. The truth is that there are few generally recognized rules of international conduct, and even fewer enforceable ones.
And let’s not obstruct the CIA due to concerns about domestic skullduggery. These fears are vastly overblown, fed by conspiracy theorists and Hollywood. The undisputed findings of the 1975 Rockefeller Commission established only eleven instances of illegal CIA domestic activity. Concerns that the CIA will become the Church Committee’s proverbial “rogue elephant rampaging out of control” are especially unfounded today considering that covert activities must be approved by the National Security Council, the President, and seven committees of Congress. Compared to the intelligence agencies of other countries, the U.S. conducts its secret operations in Macy’s window.
Let the Birkenstock and granola crowd brood in their coffee houses, pondering philosophical generalizations like Syrus’s. Let them chide the CIA with Friedrich Nietzsche’s warning, “Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird.” Translation: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” It’s a fine thing to know philosophy, but the measure of a man isn’t what he knows; it’s what he does.
That’s why I want to work for the CIA. I’m inclined to act, not navel-gaze. For me, life in the real world has a way of cutting through the bullshit and clarifying issues. I believe in pragmatic realities, not utopian ideals. The secret operations of the CIA are more than just an expensive game of spy vs. spy with the Russians. The United States of America is a noble experiment in political history. Never before has there been a society so free, so democratic, so open, and so charitable. Perhaps someday international understanding and cooperation will reach a point where the CIA’s clandestine operations are no longer necessary, but until that day, no weapon vital in the defense of freedom should be discarded.
Yes, (Langley) Virginia, the end does justify the means.
And cue “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Clearly I drank the Kool-Aid. Ah, to be young again and know everything.
Casually including Cyrillic language and quotations in their original Latin and German in a supposedly spontaneous essay was probably excessive, but I figured your typical secret agent had to speak six different languages before breakfast. I think I showed some restraint by not quoting Sun Tzu in Chinese pictographs. And at least I didn’t attach appendices or audio-visual aids. That might have been a giveaway.
Amid the highfalutin pontificating I deliberately slipped in a profanity to hint to the Agency that I was a salty no-nonsense type, apt to pound a conference table and yell, “Damn you Ivy Leaguers and your namby-pamby philosophizin’! The President needs answers! Can the bullshit and give me some straight talk! Do we terminate the junta? Yes or no?”
In May the CIA summoned me again—this time to Headquarters to face the final hurdle: the polygraph. It was drizzling at National Airport so I donned my London Fog trench coat (very spy-like, I thought), hailed a cab and asked him to take me to “Langley, Virginia.” That’s how they always referred to the CIA in spy movies, so until I learned any authentic tradecraft, spy movies would be my teacher. I was really taking this secrecy thing to heart and didn’t want a cabdriver of swarthy—and potentially suspect—ethnic origin to know I had anything to do with the CIA until the last possible moment. He drove me to Langley High School and asked where I wanted to go from there. I don’t know what I was thinking. Like CIA Headquarters would be next to a 7-Eleven and I’d just say, “Oh, let me off at that 7-Eleven,” and I’d walk across the street once he was gone.
I confessed my true destination and the cabbie grumbled and asked why I didn’t say so in the first place. I sat quietly for the rest of the trip, trying to quell the voice in my head that said, If you can’t handle this cabbie, what makes you think you can match wits with a polygraph examiner, or the Kremlin for that matter?
I exited the cab at the visitor’s gate, walked past a CIA parking lot, and noticed a car with a vanity plate that said “BJB 007,” which—considering the location—I figured had to stand for “Bond, James Bond 007.” It made me wonder whether all Agency employees got the same stern warning about secrecy that I did.
Frank the polygraph examiner led me into a claustrophobic soundproof room furnished with a table, two chairs, a one-way mirror, and the dreaded polygraph, which looked like some mad scientist decided to mate a seismograph and a sphygmomanometer. He hooked me up to the machine: electrodes clamped on my index and middle fingers to measure sweating, two plastic tubes around my torso to measure breathing, and a way too-tight arm cuff to measure pulse and blood pressure.
To break the awkward silence, I started babbling. “Do you call them one-way mirrors or two-way mirrors? I’ve heard both terms used. I guess they’re one-way mirrors since they only reflect in one direction. But a regular mirror only reflects in one direction, too. Maybe they should be called one-way windows, since they’re only see-through in one direction.”
“I’ll ask the questions here.”
After a lengthy sermon/psych job about his credentials and the box’s infallibility, he told me to sit still, face forward, take relaxed even breaths, and not to cough, sneeze, or move. As one of the world’s top five most fidgety people, this was akin to torture. All I could think about was coughing and itching.
Out of the blue, he said, “Transparent mirrors.”
“I call them transparent mirrors.”
“Now that makes sense. You are one smart man. And did I mention handsome and impeccably dressed?”
“Do not try to befriend me. You will not succeed.”
Frank hastily wrote something on his clipboard and circled it emphatically. Probably, “HOMO???”
Then he began the interrogation. The questions covered three areas: professional background, criminal background, and personal background—the latter being mostly an excuse to traipse through my sexual history. Sadly there wasn’t much traipsing to do. I could count my sexual conquests on a single hand. And that was counting my hand.
Still, he insisted on knowing every form of “deviant sexual activity” I had ever engaged in. Frank looked like the sort of guy who might consider anything other than the missionary position deviant, so I asked him to clarify.
“Anything besides the missionary position,” he said.
I asked if he was kidding. He wasn’t.
How many partners? Which positions? Had I paid for sex? Did I masturbate? What did I think about while masturbating? Had I practiced S&M, bondage, or bestiality? Had I experienced a threesome? Note: “I wish!” is not deemed an acceptable response. Basically he wanted a full itemization of everything that had touched my penis since the circumcision knife.
He covered several questions repeatedly. At one point he stopped, gazed at the charts, and intoned gravely, “You’re showing signs of deception in response to some of the questions.”
“Which ones,” I asked.
“The machine is lying.”
“The machine never lies.”
“Well I don’t know where it’s getting that from,” I said, my voice unhelpfully cracking and rising an octave.
“Are you sure? Because earlier you told me I was handsome. Let’s start all over.”
And so it went for hours. I indulged Frank in his sexual inquisition, but suddenly felt sorry for all the female applicants who had to give this creepy man the intimate details on how often they indulged in anal sex and with whom. Two seconds later my lizard brain wondered how I could get a job as a CIA polygraph examiner.
The whole sexual screening seemed weirdly puritanical and prurient at the same time, and possibly counterproductive. I mean, didn’t the CIA want its spies to be rakes and seducers? If an actual James Bond ever applied to the CIA, he’d never make it out of the polygraph. Now then, Mr. Bond, approximately how many times would you say you had coitus with Pussy Galore?
Just for kicks, I wish I’d had the guts to “confess” to a bunch of bizarre urges just to see the look on Frank’s face. I could have copped to agalmatophilia (sexual attraction to nude statues) or amelotasis (attraction to amputees) or klismaphilia (deriving sexual pleasure from enemas). I could have combined all three fetishes. Honest, dude, the only way I can get off is by thinking about giving an enema to the Venus de Milo.
After dissecting my lackluster sex life, Frank moved on to my unimpressive drug use. My history with drugs was very simple. I avoided them entirely until my sophomore year in college, then one week I decided to see what all the fuss was about. In five days I tried wuss-sized quantities of five drugs: amyl nitrite, nitrous oxide, marijuana, speed, and cocaine. I didn’t like any of them and never touched them again.
Of course, in Frank’s eyes this was a wild drug binge, a bender of Hunter S. Thompson proportions. What could make someone shift so radically from clean living to reefer madness?
“Curiosity,” I told him.
What was to stop me from doing this again he demanded to know.
“I’m not curious about them any more. All they did was make me sleepy.”
Frank wasn’t buying it. He was sure I was hiding something. Nobody tries five drugs in five days then never touches them again. We tilled the same soil for hours. Drugs, drugs, drugs. Had I bought them? Sold them? Manufactured them? Transported them? Stared at them? Gone camping with them? Made Christmas ornaments out of them? Fed them to small children? Periodically he would stop and say things like, “You’re not doing very well with this. It’s obvious you’re withholding information on your past use of illegal narcotics. Is there anything you’d like to add?”
Frank was so far off base on this line of questioning that at this point I began to suspect the polygraph was totally bogus, no more valid than tea-leaf reading, its primary purpose being intimidation.
I’d heard of a case where police officers in the Deep South asked a suspect if he’d be willing to take a polygraph. He reluctantly agreed. The cops made their “polygraph” out of a metal colander wired to a Xerox machine, which had a card on the glass reading “He’s lying.” Every time the suspect gave an answer the cops didn’t like, they pushed the copy button and the machine spit out a sheet saying, “He’s lying.” Faced with such incontrovertible evidence the man confessed.
Frank’s insistence that I was hiding something felt like bad theater, his polygraph no better than a colander wired to a copier. So I called him on it.
“I think you’re bluffing, Frank. I think I passed that round of questions with flying colors.”
“Really? Then what do you call this?” he said, waving a printout that showed, well, deception. Either that or a giant earthquake.
“How do I know that’s mine? How do I know you don’t have a stack of squiggly charts over there? Turn my chair around so I can see the printout actually come from the machine.”
Frank’s mouth twitched into a hint of a smile before he caught himself. “You’re just digging your own grave with that attitude, but let’s move on.”
Leaving drugs behind we proceeded to the catch-all round of the interrogation. Frank wanted to know if I had ever, in my entire life, committed a crime. Uh-oh. Klaxons blared in my head and mini-submariners manned their battle stations. This seemed more a test of my memory than my character.
I had doubts about the polygraph’s accuracy, but didn’t want to take any chances. I began by clearing my conscience of adolescent Bubble Yum pilferage, underage drinking, Halloween vandalism and other youthful indiscretions. Next I itemized the laws I’d broken as an adult—the copyright laws I’d violated by Xeroxing articles without permission, the mattress tags I’d recklessly torn off, illegal U-turns, open containers, hell—fireworks. Not being Catholic, I was new to the confessional experience and was on a roll. I even copped to jay-walking that very morning.
Then I remembered that according to archaic sodomy laws, heterosexual oral sex was still considered a crime in many states. After working through that issue, I conceded that given all the loony laws still on the books, I was surely guilty of a whole slew of offenses: juggling without a license, crossing the street while eating an ice-cream cone, cursing while playing mini-golf. Apparently, I’d been on a crime spree since birth.
I wasn’t trying to be cute, just precise. I didn’t want be my dreams dashed over semantics and vaguely-worded questions. Finally Frank boiled it down to one simple, catchall question: had I ever done anything that made me susceptible to blackmail by hostile intelligence services? No? End of exam. A good thing, too. By that point I would have confessed to the Kennedy assassination just to get out of there.
Amazingly, the one question the CIA never thought to ask was, “Did you, by any chance, cheat on your CIA entrance exam?”
Total time spent on the lie detector: seven hours, with no break for lunch. I was drained, emotionally and physically. I felt like the hollowed-out shell of a bug caught in a spider web, my insides dissolved and slowly slurped out by this arachnid interrogator.
A month later on a Thursday in early June, a woman from the CIA’s personnel department called to congratulate me. I passed the polygraph and was to start at CIA headquarters on Monday. I was ecstatic. My first wife had just been hired as a Russian linguist by the CIA’s sister agency, the National Security Agency, so we were in spy heaven. That evening I took her out to see the latest James Bond movie, A View to a Kill. Even though it’s easily the worst of the franchise, I reveled in it. Later I fixed us a couple vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred) and we enjoyed a frisky coupling befitting two eager young spies, our pillow talk conducted entirely in Russian.
The next day the CIA woman called again—to unhire me. My career as a spy lasted exactly 19 hours and 13 minutes.
“What happened?” I asked.
“It’s a secret,” she said.
“What do you mean it’s a secret? What changed since yesterday?”
Long pause. “Well, it could be that yesterday Congress canceled the program we wanted you for. It could be we decided not to proceed with that project. It could be that the world situation changed overnight. It could be that we changed our assessment of your polygraph exam. It could be that we discovered some new information relevant to your security clearance. It could be…”
A friend of mine once blew a job interview with a top-tier consulting company. His gaffe? When lunch arrived, he salted his dish before tasting it, demonstrating “rash decision-making,” according to the debriefing from the interviewer. Reckless salting must top the list of dumb reasons to be denied a job, but at least it’s a reason. I was totally in the dark.
After I hung up it dawned on me that I had no back-up plan. It was June and I was just starting to look for a summer job. Personnel managers at dozens of companies howled when I asked if they had any summer jobs still available. They treated me like a guy who waits until age 64 to open a 401(k). Desperate for a job, I applied to be a taxi driver. They didn’t want me either.
Eventually I found work with a consulting company helping design the Space Station’s computer system—an odd assignment considering I know nothing about computers. If the Space Station ever turns into a sentient HAL-9000 killing machine, you’ll know who to blame.
Looking back, it’s just as well I never made it into the CIA. Without any prodding from me, the Soviet Empire folded faster than an origami master holding a junk hand in a game of five-card stud. And with all the spy scandals, who knows—an Agency mole might have sold me out for cheap thrills and a down payment on a condo in Georgetown. Several years later I learned I had a cousin in the B.V.D. (the Dutch intelligence service, not the underwear). Did that derail my career as a spook? I never found out. I bet it was that damn polygraph. Sidney Reilly would never have confessed to swiping a pack of Bubble Yum.
Potentially foreseeable, but nonetheless freaky epilogue: Three years later I was taking a cab to the airport and found myself at the mercy of a chatty driver. Where did I work? Where had I gone to college?
“MIT,” I said.
He laughed and said he had a story for me. A few years earlier his company received a resume from an MIT student inquiring if there were any openings for taxi drivers. The resume was still posted in their break room, and now featured numerous comments in the margins. Mostly theories about the intellectual caliber of the individual who sent it.
How much of an underachiever do you have to be to slog through all those engineering courses and then pursue a job as a cabbie, he wanted to know. “What did this fool do, blow up the chem lab? Knock up the dean’s daughter?”
I then performed an amazing feat of mind-reading for the driver and told him the name that appeared at the top of that resume.
“Yeah, holy fuck, yeah, I think that’s it! How’d you know?”
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am that fool.”
A fiction writer wouldn’t dare make this up epilogue: In March of 2002, I worked as an extra in the Alexandria, Virginia location shoot of the aforesaid movie, The Recruit. In one scene Pacino and Farrell were talking on a park bench, while in deep background, I and others walked by some tony row houses. In the middle of filming, a dapper old man and his wife emerged from one of the houses and walked down their front steps landing right next to me. I recognized him immediately and told him what sort of movie we were filming. He was as flabbergasted as I was. The silver-haired gentleman was Stansfield Turner, former Director of the CIA.
This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Phoenix.