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I, spy


By Lindsay Moran

Putnam, $22.95, 295 pp

Reviewed by BILL ADAIR

The biggest challenge in espionage is to get what spies call "HUMINT" _ human intelligence. The United States has terrific satellites and other gadgets that allow us to eavesdrop on our enemies (and our friends). But we've had difficulty finding foreign agents who can tell us what the satellites can't.

In this fascinating and often funny book, Lindsay Moran shows us why.

Moran seemed like an ideal spy. She was smart (Harvard class of '91), street-savvy and ambitious. She was attracted to the CIA because the job looked glamorous, patriotic and would give her an opportunity to see the world.

She changed her identity, learned how to build bombs and honed her skills at recruiting foreigners to work as secret agents for the United States.

But after five years as a case officer, Moran got disgruntled and quit. She was frustrated with the CIA's Cold War mentality and weary of the strict rules that governed her personal life. She needed CIA permission just to take a trip with her boyfriend.

In Blowing My Cover, she provides a rare peek inside the agency and a candid account about the challenge of gathering intelligence.

She recounts her training at "the Farm," the legendary camp near Williamsburg, Va., where CIA recruits learn how to shoot guns, crash cars and wear disguises. She describes an odd assortment of fellow trainees that included former cops and soldiers, a woman known as Tornado Sally and a loose-lipped lawyer who, when he mistakenly revealed the names of CIA employees, would "smack his hand to his forehead and emit a Homer Simpson "Doh!' "

Her training included lots of role-playing with CIA instructors who pretended to be officials of an imaginary nation named Vaingloria. Moran dined with them at suburban fern bars and tried to recruit them to be spies.

In her training, and later when she served as a case officer in Macedonia, we see that the job is terribly mundane. Yes, there's some excitement. She met shady characters and sometimes had to wear disguises.

But the wigs itched and she found the job could be as boring as selling soap. She encountered an eclectic group of foreign agents such as Ahmet, a Muslim who ate sausage pizza and drank vodka. As with many other agents she recruited, she had to rebuff Ahmet's sexual advances. She also discovered that many agents offered little information that was valuable to the United States.

Moran is candid about the CIA's shortcomings. She describes men at the agency as "self-consciously slick and preternaturally shallow." She says the agency wastes thousands of dollars by paying lavishly for expenses and freely dispensing cash to informants. She calls it a "vast sea of agency excess and incalculable waste."

Moran is also honest about the personal toll of the job. Although she appears to have been a good spy, she got frustrated by the constant need to switch identities. One day she was an American diplomat, the next day a travel writer. She spent hours trying to memorize her bogus Social Security number and the names and birthdays of her fake family.

This took a toll because she was constantly living a lie, unable to tell her friends what she was doing. She grew lonely and frustrated.

"It seemed as if my only true companion was the secret knowledge I am a spy," she writes.

It is remarkable that the CIA allowed her book to be published. The agency _ which must approve all writing by former employees that might reveal classified information _ requested relatively few deletions, Moran says.

My only disappointment with Blowing My Cover is her explanation of why she quit. She blames it largely on the Cold War mentality and the agency's sluggishness in responding to terrorism. But it's clear from the rest of the book that her frustration was also very personal. Lindsay wanted to be Lindsay again.

Overall, though, this is a terrific book. It's lively, well-written and enlightening.

Bill Adair is the Times Washington bureau chief.