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St. Petersburg couple drive a minivan, volunteer at church and were CIA spies

Andrew Bustamante, Jihi Bustamante and their son, Sina, at home in St. Petersburg. [Courtesy of Andrew Bustamante]
Published Jun. 22, 2018

Leaving the Air Force as a nuclear missile officer meant he already had the highest security clearance available. But he was "still a hippie at heart," so he applied to the Peace Corps, thought he'd feed hungry children, maybe learn to play guitar.

The caller ID read "703." The voice asked: Would you consider serving your government in some other way?

Much of what happened next is classified, but Andrew Bustamante, 38, will say what he can about being an officer in the National Clandestine Service, the undercover arm of the CIA. He's bringing his particular set of skills to a public audience with Everyday Espionage: The Knowledge, Art and Impact of Spying, a series of lectures starting Monday at Studio@620 in St. Petersburg.

The talks are meant to help people think in new ways to boost businesses, careers and relationships. Proceeds support Big Brothers Big Sisters LGBTQ programs.

Though there's no way to verify exactly what Bustamante did between 2007 and 2014, timelines, tax records and employment documents suggest his story is true. According to him, it goes like this:

At "the farm," the CIA taught him helicopter operations, fast rope rappelling, how to fight, how to drive, how to navigate. Disguises. Changing his body language to appear decades older. How to be ignored.

Most importantly, they taught him to manipulate. Espionage is about carefully crafted relationships that uncover hidden truths. Using a scientific, cognitive base, people can be programmed to do things that make no sense, Bustamante said, things not in their best interests. They taught him to steal without getting caught.

"You feel torn, like a good guy and a bad guy at the same time. You understand how narrow that line is," Bustamante said. "We all rationalize it as something a hero does in service to their country, but you do realize it's the same set of skills criminals use to smuggle drugs and steal identities. The difference is that we're trained exactly how to do it. Criminals have to do trial and error."

He met a fellow officer named Jihi at an orientation. Don't get to know the other people in this auditorium too well, they were told. They did not listen, but at the start of their relationship, they didn't even know each other's full names and communicated through a secure system. Years later, she would redact their early conversations so there would be a non-classified record of their getting-to-know-you courtship chit-chat.

Once married, they worked cases together. Her specialty was targeting. His was operations.

"We were kind of the right and left hand for our government wherever we needed to go," he said.

He was an Asia expert, but "the target" took him to every continent but Antarctica, knowing a wrong move could imprison them in a foreign country. Plausible deniability meant the United States wouldn't have to acknowledge their existence.

Once, they visited his wife's family in St. Petersburg. He saw palm trees with Christmas lights. He thought, "Wow, you can drink the water here without fear of getting sick."

They were in Thailand when they found out about the baby. In her second trimester, they were on assignment somewhere. There wasa terrorist attack. That was a close call.

When the time came, the doctor had to induce labor. Also expected around that time: a coup in sub-Saharan Africa. He was worried he might have to leave.

In his son's first year, he got a call. He couldn't tell his wife what country he was going to, and she wouldn't be able to reach him. Sometimes it was she who might have to fly off.

Many spies have nobody to talk to, but when Bustamante decided his priorities as a husband and father had changed what he was willing to risk, she could understand. When he realized that even as a master manipulators, their masters at the CIA would always, in a way, be manipulating them, she heard him. When he said, lets get out and go to St. Petersburg, she eventually agreed.

But a clandestine officer's cover can't be lifted overnight. When he got to St. Petersburg in 2014, Bustamante's past was fake. His resume, written by the CIA, was a fabrication.

He networked his way to a job with CVS Health. He didn't want to lie anymore, but took comfort knowing he really did have the skills to be a great project manager. A year and a promotion later, he received word from the CIA that his cover was lifted. He set up an unusual meeting with his boss, who already thought it odd that Bustamante had traveled the world and was fluent in Mandarin.

"Everything on my resume is stuff I can do, but it's not really accurate, because I actually used to work for the CIA," Tony DiPerillo, a senior manager for CVS Health, recalled Bustamante telling him. "I kind of chuckled and shook my head and said, 'OK, thank you for your service.' How often do you hear that? But it wasn't shocking. You could tell he was used to writing reports, because his assessments for us were always top notch."

He still works at CVS Health as a senior advisor. Jihi Bustamante, 37, works from home as a partner in their consulting business, SKB Communications, "specializing in strategic research and investigation." Their son Sina is 5, and they have an 11-month-old daughter, Alai.

They're a normal family, but do some things differently, Jihi Bustamante said. Trips to the mall come with an operation plan. They keep "go bags" packed. They drive a burgundy Honda Odyssey minivan.

She misses the CIA life more than he does. He feels 80/20 about being out of the game. Eighty percent of him is relieved — no more lying to about his job, no possibility of 13-hour days in a secret SCIF. The other 20 percent misses the knowing — the truth about what's really going on in North Korea, in the upper echelons of the Chinese government, at the G7 Summit.

"Secrets I was once privy to," he said, "now I have to trust the news, and trust my own background and knowledge of how things work to navigate toward a truth. ... I used to be able to confirm. Now I hope I'm right."

He tries to fish, and volunteers with kids at church.

"To me, he's just Andy, a really nice guy who's very strategic in helping us identify gaps in our ministry," said Janessa Moore, community director at Restoration Church in Trinity. "But I'm pretty sure our middle and high schoolers think it's the coolest thing ever."

He'd like to live overseas again so his children can feel his deep appreciation for the United States, but there are some countries they can't go back to, at least not yet.

His mission is to help people to "build, collaborate and succeed," rather than the intelligence community mandate of "deny, disrupt and destroy." He'd like to apply his skills for predicting behavior to the school shooting problem.

While she lies a bit lower, he's getting more public speaking gigs, and recently wrote Everyday Espionage: Winning the Workplace. He had to send the book to CIA headquarters to have it reviewed, redacted and approved, just like anything else he writes for the rest of his life.

Contact Christopher Spata at cspata@tampabay.com. Follow @spatatimes.

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