Lindsay Moran decided she wasn't cut out to be a spy.
She was drawn to the CIA by the cloak-and-dagger image and a sense of patriotism. She survived grueling training at "the Farm," the agency's famous boot camp, and ended up in Macedonia as a case officer, recruiting foreign agents to spy for the United States. But she quit after five years, unhappy with the CIA's Cold War culture, its sluggish response to terrorism and the heavy demands on her personal life.
Moran, 35, has written about her experiences in a surprisingly funny book called Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy (See review on page 4). She spoke last week with Times Washington Bureau chief Bill Adair. Here is an edited version of that interview:
Your basic cover was that you were an American diplomat. But you also pretended to be a travel writer, right?
Generally you are left to make up your own cover story, which I actually think is good. It enables you to form an alias that is comfortable to you. I had always been a writer of sorts and enjoyed writing, so (being a travel writer) felt comfortable to me.
Was it hard to remember who you were at any given moment?
Yes it was. That was the biggest stress for me. While I was traveling, I would repeat to myself what my name was, what my birthday was.
What could you tell your friends and family about your job?
The agency kind of leaves it up to you to make those decisions. Some people don't tell anyone. They don't even tell anyone in their immediate family. Other people tell everyone _ and that can be a problem. My mother, my father, my brother knew that I was working at the agency . . . and that I was overseas ostensibly as a diplomat.
Your training at the Farm made the job look so sexy. But when you finally got overseas, it didn't seem nearly as exciting. Why?
We were all aware that training didn't have a lot of relevance on what our jobs would be. It was more of a confidence builder or an Outward Bound sort of thing. Actually being a spy is a lot more banal. You are not crashing your car through barriers; you are not jumping out of planes. You are basically preying on people you think have vulnerabilities. That means spending a lot of time with people you might think are losers. I tried to target people that I thought would be interested in working for the U.S. out of ideological inspiration. But the reality of espionage is that most people do it for the money.
Your job reminded me of selling Amway. You were recruiting these people, trying to build your team, paying them and buttering them up.
That's a great analogy. The agency is a little bit cultish. You have to believe in what you're selling.
When I got to the point where I felt like I didn't really have confidence in what I was selling, it made it 10 times more difficult for me to go out and sell. I could see why people at the agency are very nostalgic for the Cold War. That was a time when everything was so clear-cut. We were the good guys, (the Soviets) were the bad guys, and everybody really did believe in what we were selling.
What about the mission didn't you believe in?
I am a very patriotic person and have always believed that, no matter the faults with the American system of government, it's still the absolute best that there is. But on a personal level, it was hard for me to make an argument to people that I was targeting (that they would benefit from spying for the United States).
You said the job left you "desperately lonely." Why?
I cut off most of my friendships outside the agency. A friendship is obviously affected when, on some fundamental level, you are lying all the time. And that's what I was doing in all my relationships. I became increasingly uncommunicative and insular.
The agency does become your family in a way. Those are the only people who know what you're doing and those are the people that you can talk to. But by the same token, it's a paranoid and secretive environment and nobody really trusts anybody else. So it's a big family, but a dysfunctional family because everybody is sort of jockeying for their own position and you all know that the rest of you are all liars.
You describe lots of waste and excess _ handing out $100 bills to informants who give worthless or inaccurate information. Is the CIA spending our money wisely?
I don't think so. One of my personal beefs, both as a former CIA employee but also as a citizen, is that the intelligence budget remains classified, and the agency claims that it's classified because to reveal that information would be some kind threat to national security. My feeling is the threat to national security is having an intelligence agency that is not accountable for the, perhaps, $40-billion that it gets a year.
There is incredible waste at the agency. One friend who worked at the agency told me that, at the end of the year, everybody got a free Palm Pilot. The deal was that they had this money they hadn't used. But they wanted to use it so that the following year, they could still get the same amount of money.
Stuff like that, I'm sure, happens everywhere, but in the wake of Sept. 11, which was such a devastating intelligence failure, you would think there would be a lot more scrutiny on how money was spent.
Is it true that when you paid cash to a foreign agent, you had to get them to sign a receipt?
Yeah. (She laughs.) It's kind of funny that you have to cross your t's and dot your i's in that way. But at the end of the day, it's still government funds and, even if they sign it Mickey Mouse, you've got to get some sort of receipt.
Why did you ultimately leave?
I was in Russian language training, and we started this buildup to go to war. I wasn't an Iraqi expert, I wasn't a WMD expert. But it seemed kind of crazy that we were going to war. (Then) I was taken out of language lessons right as the war was starting and put in Iraqi Operations _ not in Iraq, because we didn't have anyone in Iraq then, but in Headquarters. I thought, this is good, because now I'm going to see why we're going to war.
I was really astounded. The agency tends to be a really hawkish, conservative environment. But I couldn't find anyone there who was gunning for this war. Everybody who was in the agency knew we were already really spread thin by Afghanistan. We were sending every yahoo and his brother to Kabul. And all of a sudden, we were going to start this other initiative in Iraq. The agency didn't have the people.
Even though I'm critical of the agency, I'm really protective of it in terms of being portrayed as having provided the president faulty intelligence. When we were first going into Baghdad and it wasn't a cakewalk, I said to one of the heads of Iraqi Operations, "Did we say this was going to be a cakewalk?" He said, "No, we were very explicit with the administration that this is a clan society, it's going to break down." It's not going to be easy to go in there and set up a democracy, as the administration seemed to be advocating.
Having very conflicted feelings about the war _ my brother was a fighter pilot in the war _ what I saw was that I had joined this organization to serve my country. And over the course of the five years I was there, I realized that you end up serving the organization over your country. And once I realized that I didn't know who the CIA was serving I just decided I didn't want to be a part of it any more.
It seemed like there was a personal side to your departure, too.
When I met the man who became my husband, he was such an example to me of someone who lived by his own terms. It reminded me who I had been before I joined the agency. It was so refreshing and relaxing to actually just be myself. In the agency, I was very reticent to speak my mind _ as almost everybody was _ because people are so distrustful and ready to jump on you. Plus, I was virtually living like a double or triple life.
You were required to submit your manuscript to the CIA before it could be published, to make sure it did not reveal classified information. Tell me about that.
One of the persons on the review board put it to me this way. He said, if you want to write everyone at the CIA is a drunk, you can write that because it might be true or it might not be true. But it's not classified information.
I think there is a misperception that a lot of people have that when you join the agency, you sign away your right to ever say anything. Certainly there is the secrecy agreement, which is a very serious thing. I took it seriously. But ultimately, unless they can prove that what you're writing is classified or is in some way a threat to national security, they can't keep you from expressing your opinion or telling about your experiences.
Would you recommend the CIA as a career?
You know, after all that's been said and done, I probably still would. If you can hack the lying and the leading a double life and all the sacrifices you make, it's not a bad life. You're living overseas, you're probably doing well financially and there's always that reassurance you have that you are doing something that very few people in the world will ever be able to do.