A conversation between contributor Kevin Goodman and former CIA clandestine service operative Lindsay Moran
In Part 1 of our series, Moran reveals her childhood fascination with spies, her family’s secret history, and the difficulty of reconciling the need for trust in personal relationships with a job that demands constant lies.
Lindsay Moran is a correspondent for Al-Jazeera America’s TechKnow, a show about the technology and innovation that is changing the world. From 1998 to 2003, Lindsay worked as a case officer for the CIA’s clandestine service. It’s the job most people think of when they hear the word “spy.”
Working, often under an alias, posing as a diplomat, Lindsay’s real job was to befriend foreigners with access to secret information and then convince them to commit espionage on behalf of the United States government. After leaving the CIA, Lindsay wrote a memoir of her experience with “the Agency,” titled Blowing My Cover: My Life As A Spy.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Lindsay, and we discussed broadly what being a spy—a CIA case officer—entails and what skills it requires. This is the first in a series of three articles that touch on the high points of that conversation.
Becoming a Spy: Background and Motivations
KEVIN: Is it true that you were actually motivated to go into the CIA because of fictionalized characters like James Bond?
LINDSAY: Yeah, I really was, and I think that kind of shows my naivete at the time. I loved the James Bond movies as a kid. As a very young child, I was obsessed with this character, Harriet the Spy. I related to her as an aspiring spy, a little bit of a miscreant and also a writer.
Of course, I wasn’t a complete ding-dong, thinking the CIA would be like a James Bond movie, but the intrigue and glamour of Bond, and the subversive nature of Harriet the Spy, both definitely attracted me to the world of espionage.
LINDSAY: I was also attracted (to espionage) because I grew up in a family that had a lot of secrets. My dad did top-secret work that he could never talk about with us.
KEVIN: Was that for the military?
LINDSAY: He was a naval architect and he designed ships for the Navy. All of the work he did was secret. I remember calling my dad at work and they would answer, “This is a non-secure line.” He couldn’t travel to Eastern Bloc countries and was very paranoid when I would go on business trips with him.
I actually went to the Soviet Union when I was seventeen—in 1987. It was the first student exchange of its kind during the Cold War. This was when Reagan and Gorbachev were in power.
KEVIN: So you actually lived there?
LINDSAY: No, it was for a summer.
KEVIN: That’s kind of living there—briefly.
LINDSAY: Yeah, and I am sure my father had to report that at work. It certainly would have been a big deal—having a daughter traveling to the Soviet Union or any Eastern Bloc country at the time, because he wasn’t allowed to. From a very early age I had an interest in the Soviet Union, Russia, Eastern Europe and a real attraction to the intrigue of espionage.
And my grandfather—both my brother and I are pretty convinced that he probably did work for the CIA because he had a very secretive history and lived all over the world. Wherever he went, it seemed like he showed up, and six months later there was a coup and the government was overthrown.
KEVIN: REALLY? Wow, so you kind of felt like you were following his footsteps?
LINDSAY: I felt like it was a family birthright to go into intelligence. I realize, now that I’m a mother and have a family of my own, that we were kind of an unusual family. Everybody seemed to have secrets. So that kind of super-secretive culture at the CIA culture was something that wasn’t bizarre to me.
KEVIN: Was your family outgoing or private?
LINDSAY: In fact, we were outgoing people. My mom was a very social person. I think me joining the CIA was harder for her than anyone else. My mom is Russian Jewish by background and my father is Irish Catholic, and all of a sudden both my brother and I did things that were so far removed from the Jewish mother’s idea of what’s acceptable to do. My brother became a Navy pilot and I joined the CIA; she couldn’t tell anybody what I was doing or where my brother was.
The hardest thing for me was that I was always an outgoing person. I loved to tell stories, and when you join the Agency you might have some really interesting stories to tell, but your audience is severely limited—to other CIA colleagues.
CIA: A Culture to Itself
KEVIN: You get a sense from reading your book that you had a little bit of paranoia, at least when you did your training, when you were meeting with your friends, because you couldn’t be open with them. That seemed to bother you.
LINDSAY: It did bother me. I mean, on the one hand, I’ve always felt that I’ve been adept at lying. But it became different when it was required, and I was mandated to lie. I found that a lot of my relationships outside the Agency suffered. It becomes a chore to get together with people and have to lie to them because you feel guilty, and the result is that you kind of shut down, which is just not my nature.
I like to regale people with funny stories. Not being able to do that, I found that I just didn’t want to socialize with people who weren’t in the Agency. Then everybody in the Agency is so weird and distrustful. (laughs) So that’s something I didn’t anticipate would be so difficult for me.
KEVIN: I haven’t actually read much literature on the CIA or what it’s like. Your book is really the only book I’ve read that deals directly with the CIA. I kind of get the impression that you have this closed-in culture that’s to itself.
LINDSAY: It’s a weird culture. One of my friends, a veteran CIA guy, asked me what I do with my kids when I travel, and I told him we live in this great neighborhood—everybody knows everybody—and I can call up anybody to watch my kids for a few hours or even overnight, that it’s very much like a family. He said, “Oh I would hate that. I tell my wife whenever we move anywhere not to talk to any of the neighbors.”
Hearing him say that made me so glad I left the CIA because that really is the culture of the place. You tend to forget when you’re inside the CIA that there’s a whole other world out there. It’s—to fall back on a cliché, a bubble.
KEVIN: Did they try to cultivate a sense of paranoia?
LINDSAY: I don’t even know if they have to try to cultivate that sense of paranoia, it’s just that it’s so ingrained in the culture of the Agency. You’re distrustful of people who are not in the Agency; to a certain extent you’re even distrustful of people in the Agency. There’s a lot of careerism at the CIA, a lot of big egos. For sure there is a natural distrust of outsiders such that when and if anybody does become romantically involved with someone outside the CIA that’s an American citizen, the immediate inclination of the agency is: “Let’s get the spouse a job within the CIA.”
KEVIN: Wow, really?
Lindsay: Yeah, CIA people tend to marry other CIA people.
KEVIN: So that’s the easiest way to join the CIA–probably (laughing).
LINDSAY: (laughing) To marry into it.
Coming soon: Part 2 of our Q&A with Lindsay Moran, in which she describes CIA training, lifestyle, and tradecraft.
About the author:
Kevin Goodman is a freelance researcher and writer. He has a master’s degree from Skidmore College with a focus in cognition, culture, and communication. He also has a graduate certificate in criminology from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
His primary academic interest is the psychology of belief and its interrelationship with deception. Kevin enjoys making wine, being outdoors and exploring whatever he finds curious. He lives near Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife and two daughters.