The Spy Who Can Change Disguises in a Public Bathroom

Photo: Ruediger Hirt/EyeEm/Getty Images

Anonymous, age unknown
New York, NY

If you want to be a spy, then you’re not the right person to be a spy. Those are the kinds of people who want to play James Bond. And they’re dangerous.

The way to describe my job is “case officer.” It’s not the analyst, it’s not the bureaucrat, it’s the guy who’s actually out there using tradecraft, working clandestinely, recruiting and then running spies.

I came from an academic background. I left the United States when I was 16 years old and I lived in the French-speaking world. I did my Ph.D. in Geneva, and I expected to continue with an academic career. I was a bit disappointed. Academic politics are the absolute worst.

When I was waiting to defend my thesis, I worked at the United Nations. They offered me a fantastic job. I said, “If I take this job, I’m gonna be a bureaucrat. I’m going to pass my life here in Geneva, make a lot of money, live a very comfortable life, and I’m gonna look back at my life and say, ‘What did I do? I didn’t do anything.’”

I was married at the time, and I decided to go back to the States for a little while. We’re talking the early ‘80s. By chance, somebody introduced me to a cousin of theirs who had been in the OSS [precursor to the CIA]. He was a German Jew, a refugee working at a think tank who found out I spoke French and am very good at languages. He talked to me about the think tank, and then he said, “But there’s something else you might want to do because people are looking for people like you.”

He introduced me to these people from the Agency. The first meeting with them was at a hotel room in one of those cheap hotels, like a Holiday Inn or something, with two queen-sized beds. I sat on one of the beds, one guy was sitting in a chair, and another person was sitting on the other bed. I was thinking to myself, “This is a very strange way to have an interview for a job.”

We had an interesting discussion and they explained to me what the job is. I was intrigued by it. Who wouldn’t be?

I remember this like it was yesterday. I told my wife about it. In those years, our perception of the agency was overthrowing government in Latin America. It had a very bad connotation. But we discussed it. Both of us had families in Eastern Europe, both came from families of refugees, and we thought that fighting communism was a fantastic thing that our relatives would be proud of. So we decided to pursue it.

Eventually, I had another interview in Frankfurt. I went to another hotel room, and they gave me a lie-detector test. I remember the machine broke at a certain point and the guy fixed it with a match. He used it as a screwdriver. And then I went back to Geneva and waited more.

They eventually called me with a job offer. And after some training in Washington, I returned to Europe and started. The job, essentially, turned out to be recruiting agents. Recruiting foreign diplomats to spy for the United States. Luckily, it was something I was good at. I worked for many years under deep cover as what we call a “NOC” — a nonofficial cover officer. I worked that way overseas for many years. People knew me under different names and different nationalities. I had different passports from different countries. My wife, she could play along. She’d lived around the world growing up. She had no problem with it, I had no problem with it, and we were very adept at it from the beginning.

They gave me two or three agents who were already recruited. So part of my job was to continue running, to debrief them and get information from them, meet them clandestinely. I was there to recruit new agents as well.

It’s a tremendous adrenaline rush to actually recruit somebody. Because the people you’re approaching know that this is a dangerous thing. There was always a question: “What is this guy’s motivation?” Which I always thought was a naïve question because motivation is so complex. I think most people did it for ideological reasons — they thought they would be advancing democracy, helping the United States, which they felt was a good thing. Some people — especially from poorer countries — did it just for the money. It really depended.

When you’re doing this work, you arrive in a country and they just sort of tell you: “Go spy.” You’re on your own. It’s a sink-or-swim kind of environment. And it’s not easy. It’s sort of like being a journalist — you’ve gotta develop your own sources, you’ve gotta do everything.

The rate of success is very, very low. For a variety of reasons. Firstly because very often NOCs forget who they work for. They’ve got a cover job at a big bank or at a big company or something that’s paying them a lot of money. At the end of the year they’ve gotta return that money because they have to actually work for the salary they make from the CIA. You would have the president of the company and one other person, like the CFO or something, who was complicit. You have to have agreements from the top executives because it’s dangerous for the company if the officer is compromised. American law says that you cannot have journalist cover because they don’t want to undermine the entire profession of journalists. The same with clergy.

One of the most difficult things to know is when you’re under surveillance. It’s difficult to do and difficult to detect. Surveillance is not like in the films where you turn around and you see a car behind you. It’s done with a lot of people. They’re not just following you from behind, they’ll be a mixture of people on the street. It could be with cameras, it could be completely remote with people just standing there. If you’re in a country like India, for example, where there are so many people standing in the streets, watching, they might actually have an earphone you can’t see, and you just think he’s another beggar on the street. So you’re always looking for surveillance.

You really had to do the old tradecraft, a lot of which is gone now. I used to have to encrypt my own things. My inside officer, for example, would give me lots of documents that looked like they were something else. They looked like either blank pieces of paper or papers with other things written on them and I would develop each one of them into something else.

You do find yourself in dangerous situations. It happened to me a few times. I was in a small town in Latin America. The town had been completely militarized. I think I was the only person in the town who didn’t have a reason to be there. And I had to meet this guy and the guy didn’t show up. When you make a meeting with an agent, you usually have a meeting and a backup to the meeting. You say, “Okay, we’ll meet you here at ten at night and if one of us can’t make it, same place twelve at night,” and if we still can’t make it then we have another fallback.

So I went back two hours later — he’s still not there. I think we had a third meeting, probably the same night, but it was like two in the morning. I’m waiting, waiting — and all of a sudden I hear people behind me and it’s a small group of military, and they have their rifles trained at me. They wanna know what I’m doing here, you know? That was a difficult situation.

I talked my way out of it. It’s a question of obviously staying completely calm so you look you belong there. I ended up inviting the corporal or whoever was in charge for a beer. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but we were okay and he let me go and there was no problem after that.

At times it could be extraordinarily difficult living with all the different names and aliases and so on. Sometimes I had to be a different person within the same city. With a briefcase, I’d go into a public toilet, and I’d sit in the stall, I’d put the mirror on the place where you have the hook to hang your coat and I would put a wig on and I would put a mustache. I’d wait a little while to make sure everyone had come in and out of the bathroom, and go out and I’d be another person. Different passport, different person, all of that. Whereas now — with sophisticated technology and biometrics — it’s very easy to know exactly who you are.

I came on the inside in the early ‘90s. I was lucky because I was one of the few former NOCs who was able to make that adjustment from a life on the outside to a very bureaucratic life on the inside. I was a mid-level officer in Washington, D.C., I worked on European things. This was at the time of the fall of the wall and all of that, it was a very exciting time. I was supposed to go to the West Indies, but they really wanted me in Europe, so they sent me to Europe again. After not that much time, we left for Latin America. It was a very senior assignment in those years. One of the countries I worked in was big producer of coca. Then they called me to come back to Washington to a very senior job. I did that for three years and from that kind of job you usually choose what you want to do.

A lot of people want to stay in Washington. I didn’t. I ended up somewhere in Europe as chief of station, running all American intelligence in that particular country. Which means military intelligence and civilian intelligence. And working very closely with the intelligence community of that country, focusing on threats within the country but also of course dealing with a lot of terrorism threats. This is in the mid-2000s.

And it’s funny because I thought I would do this all my life. But I think what happens very often is just an epiphany comes. It happened to me a few years later. I was back in Washington on a trip, I was talking to the deputy director of intelligence. As I walked out of the office I said, “What the fuck am I doing here?” I went home, I spoke to my wife, and then I called the DDO and I said, “I’m retiring.” I never looked back.

I wasn’t leaving because of the stress of the job — no, no, I loved all of that. I think that I was upset with the bureaucratization of the place, with a lot of changes that had taken place that I just didn’t agree with. You know, after rising to a certain level, you’re not going to do the kinds of things you enjoyed as a NOC. You become more an intel-crat, a senior bureaucrat of intelligence. That’s what you are. I saw the frustration of my younger officers, who were not having the kind of fun I was having when I was a case officer.

I think originally the job, which required a lot of creativity and imagination became much more a job of bureaucracy. Obviously, you need some sort of balance because you can’t have people just going off and doing crazy things, but it came to the point I think where people in Washington, who had never even been in the field, were making so many decisions that in the past had been made in the field. I think we become risk-averse because of that bureaucratization.

It’s a reflection of our society. American society used to be based on taking risks, going out and doing things, whereas now it’s become a society that’s based on reducing risk, being insured for absolutely everything you do. And intelligence reflects that, like everything. Heavy reliance on rules and bureaucracy. It never used to be that way.

The Spy Who Can Change Disguises in a Public Bathroom