It never crossed my mind I'd grow up to work for CIA. First of all, I was a girl. Second, I had a terrible sense of direction. And third, I wasn't into war. But then 9/11 happened, and my world got turned upside down. I spent my twenties working undercover against some of the world's most dangerous terror groups. I got married and had my daughter while deployed overseas. I had a front-row seat to war, peace, and the secret relationships that tip the balance. A decade ago, I left government service to come home and be a mom. Then last year, I wrote a memoir called Life Undercover, about the whole wild ride. So now, AMA.
Thanks for having me, Reddit! Signing off for now xo
First question, were you recruited? Or did you go to them to join?
Second... the CIA is a vast organization with many positions, many of which are not in-field (eg,. cyber, research, etc). How did you decide what area you wanted to go into?
Finally, based on the previous answer - what was the training like (how intensive, what specific skills did you have to learn, how long before you were given your first assignment, etc.)?
I was recruited out of graduate school, but plenty of my classmates applied through good old CIA.gov. I had never wanted to go into the intelligence world but I was in DC for 9/11 -- it brought back the loss of my best friend in third grade on the flight that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland. I felt as though I had to understand the human drivers behind this kind of conflict, and the CIA made a pretty good case that I could do that in their line of work. That turned out to be true. The training is a year or so at HQS, then another year learning field tradecraft at a big base in the boonies, everyone calls the farm. You get all the stuff you'd expect -- surveillance detection, land nav, defensive driving, etc. but the vast majority of the time is spent on how to deal with the relationship building of developing, handling and safeguarding human sources
Does your job history make you suspicious of people in your everyday actions now?
Actually the opposite, honestly. Before I got out there, the media made out so many groups and adversaries to be monsters. Once I was in the field, I found that almost always, they are fiercely human, just coming from a wildly different set of life experiences. If you can find a way to understand the human drivers for their violence, you can understand how to bring about peace. I think that's left me in the habit of seeking common ground, which is something we're sure having a hard time doing in our own country right now.
What would you most like to tell us that no one ever asks about?
That the reality is very different from the movies. On the big screen, it's all about chase sequences and juggling Glocks on rooftops. In reality, it's much more about relationships and emotional intelligence. There are high adrenalin moments, for sure, but the real work is building enough trust with a source that they warn you when an attack is about to take place.
So many questions pop up...
Ha, definitely not. I only had access to information that was relevant to my particular operations and never on US citizens. No secret handshake, but officers will make a note in the operational record of how another officer or source can recognize them in a particular situation. I trained one week on the Glock and one week on the m4 but never carried or used them in the field. Personal life, what personal life? It's a lonely job, for sure. Definitely makes me very grateful for every moment of quiet family life I get to enjoy now. Definitely can't clear out a room full of baddies -- but I did get pretty good at talking with them. We got polygraphed for our security processing pretty regularly so they don't teach you to beat that, lol. Looks wise, thanks for the kind words, but no. That whole honey pot thing is definitely a Hollywood trope. In real life, everyone is a lot more focused on staying safe and getting the work done. There are definitely times I'll still notice a corner that would make a great signal site or whatever, but tradecraft has changed a whole helluva lot since my day, given facial recognition, biometrics, etc, so what I look for isn't all that relevant any more
Does it pay well?
It sure does not -- not in a monetary sense anyway. At times, there's the psychic income of knowing you answered a call to service and are doing your best to contribute to bringing an end to this conflict in some small way. But it's hard to ever truly know when you've succeeded. Failures in the intelligence business are obvious because an attack takes place, but successes are harder to measure. The group involved could have changed their plans for their own reasons, switched targets, had a technology failure, etc, so it's tough to ever know whether it was your work that made the difference.
Do you get a lot of sexism while trying to advance your career in a boy's club or are you valued for your qualities without gender coming into play?
There was sexism and harassment at time, for sure, but probably not all that much more than in any other male-dominated profession. I will say that there was a growing sense at CIA of the fact that women are uniquely well suited to this kind of work. Unlike the military, where problem solving often involves removing or destroying the target, human intelligence is more about building a relationship with the target to prevent an attack from taking place. It makes great use of skillsets we often associate with the feminine -- emotional intelligence, multitasking, trust building. I've been really happy to see women take on so many leadership roles at the Agency -- it makes me very hopeful for the future of human intelligence as a path to diffusing and resolving conflict with less default reliance on military force.
What are your thoughts on Snowden?
I think the information he brought to light has been acknowledged by congress to have been an illegal abuse of power and he should be protected as a whistleblower.
What countries did you operate in? Did being a white woman make you stand out? And if so, how did you handle that?
I focused on groups in the Middle East. Being a white woman -- a girl really -- we were all so young -- definitely made me stand out. You just have to learn to lean into that. I'd grown up overseas, moving between countries frequently, so that wasn't a new experience for me. I felt pretty at home in the world.
How do you know information you gather will be used for what you think is good?
The interests at play can be varied between personal gain and poliical influence. Who decides what to do with information and why did you choose to trust them?
I'm a little late to the party but it's a question I've been thinking about for a few years now... I'd be thrilled to have an answer!
This is a smart and important question. Maybe the most important question here. It’s definitely one that I didn’t know or think enough about when I joined. I understood the information went to our elected leaders and that while in the days of allen dulles, that had included a bunch of wall st tycoons deploying it for financial gain, that seemed firmly in the past to me as a young person coming out of the relative peace of the 90s. What I came to realize is that even though the most egregious public manipulation of cia for private profit was in the past, the US reliance on the standard of “protecting american people or interests” as a threshold for foreign intervention is a very vague and slippery slope. People, yes. Interests? In my opinion, when you realize interests means business interests, no. I think the great work we all have yet to do as a country is to disentangle government and profit. We’re young yet and I have faith in our ability to do that. But transparency will be key.
Hi, Thank you for this IAmA,
my questions are :
Do you think that the USA will continue supporting the soon-to-be king of Saudi Arabia Muhamad Ibn Salman and his family ?
Do you believe that there is a chance to make a real Peace deal (not imposed by leaders ) between the Arab people and Israelis ?How ?
Man, I wish that I could answer how to solve Middle East peace -- or that anyone could, for that matter. Certainly respect, diplomacy and keeping our word is critical. Beyond that, making way for and supporting regional leadership and balance of power, while pursuing energy independence seem like Washington's best bet
Is a lot of what you did morally questionable if not borderline immoral? How high were the stakes? How long were you in the field vs. how long were you in an office doing mundane tasks
The work I did was working with sources who had information about how or when a terror attack was going to take place. The alternative was often a military strike. At its best, I found human intelligence to be a more humane and efficient approach to preventing those attacks from taking place. There's a lot of bureaucracy for sure, even when in the field.
What film gives the most accurate portrayal of what working at the CIA is really like?
I think Syriana is a great one.
Why isn’t your identity as a CIA employee a secret?
I left in 2010, my cover was rolled back in 2016
Is there any recently declassified stuff you can talk about?
What was the rough pay?
Do you regret anything?
I wrote a book about the declassified stuff I could talk about, with names and locations and ops details changed where necessary. It's called Life Undercover, if you want to find a copy in the local library! Pay is comparable to military. Regret-wise, it was definitely a learning curve and one helluva journey -- especially in my twenties, when I was still figuring the world and myself out anyway. But my sources all stayed safe and I did my best to safeguard as many lives as I could.
did you have experiences that didn't let you sleep quietly during your job at the CIA? which one(s)? (i mean, if you can tell openly)
Also considering the philosophy of life you acquired there, what would you advice to people who are the same age you had when joining the CIA?
I would say that every organization is only as good as the people that make it up, and if you're someone who would feel the weight of this kind of work, the responsibility of it, heavy on your shoulders, then you might not find personal happiness doing this job, but in my opinion, you're exactly the kind of person we need doing it
What's your take on mk ultra?
I find it immensely disturbing, as should every American. I’ve spent a fiat bit of time since leaving the agency looking into project stargate and the government’s exploration of psychic powers. The fight to control the human mind — be it through chemicals, psychic powers, or media manipulation — is one that can be deployed for ill far too easily. I vastly prefer to see each human explore these areas independently, be that through spirituality, philosophy, or personal contemplation. The challenge is that the same areas are being richly and actively exploited by other governments and more importantly, by profit-making corporations who regularly hijack our brain chemistry, be it via 24/7 news, social media, or groupthink events. I am thinking a lot at the moment about how to guard against that influence in my own life — i believe it’s one of the great threats of our day.
Is John Krasinski as charming in person?
I wish I knew the answer to that question :)
Do you think most people would be shocked if they knew how many terror attacks on US soil we’ve prevented in the last 20 or so years? Have we prevented large scale 9/11 caliber attacks on soil that were more than just a pipe dream of some terrorist?
No doubt the number of attacks prevented that ever hit the news is tip of the iceberg the intel community faces and diffuses without making public. But that number does diminish as US foreign policy in relevant countries shifts. I think it’s important not to use the notion of ongoing threats to justify a permanent war on terror. As we’ve seen with the war on drugs and even the war on communism, wars on nouns are very susceptible to exploitation for power/profit
do you find it odd that you refer to yourself as a girl? even when you were 22?
Even though I felt fully grown at 22, I look back now and see how incredibly young I was. Age and growth is a subtle thing so using the binary of girl and woman isn’t all that helpful, but I think it’s important to recognize that the young people we send to war, in the military and the intelligence world, are closer to children than they are adults. Most people in their twenties still struggle with knowing who they are. A quick glance through social media speaks to that. In some ways, I learned faster than most. Because I was exposed to the greatest flash points and supposed “monsters” of our age. In other ways, I learned slower. Because I spent my twenties sequestered away from many of the recreational rites of passage where young people learn from one another and exchange ideas. I think growing up is a beautiful human and intimate thing — it involves a constant questioning and recreating of ones idea of self and mental model of the world. It involves learning to love and learning to lose and getting your heart broken and experiencing grace. Everyone’s progress down that path is different. For me, the older I get, the less I know and the more open and curious I am. Life would be pretty boring if we were fully grown and knew everything there was to know at 22. I sure didn’t. And for that reason, and with love, I call my past self at that time a girl.
How many south American government have you overthrown?
I was focused on al qa'ida related groups in the Middle East, so none. We definitely got a segment of training on how those kinds of operations happened before the church commission and were illegal abuses of power.
What's your favorite government the CIA destroyed?
I get this is a sarcastic question but i think it’s an important one. I think that the last fifty years of history has demonstrated that external regime change — be it through a covertly funded coup or a public military invasion — doesn’t end well. Certainly doesn’t end as well as allowing countries to go through their own internal evolutions. I think Rwanda is an example of a country where many people criticized the US for not intervening. But if we had, there’s a good chance we would have flooded one side with arms and the war would still be ongoing. Instead, Rwanda is making enormous strides — there are still massive challenges there to be sure, but they have gone through a reconciliation program, subsidizing childcare that places the kids of one tribe in the care of another, and enabling local councils to guide their communities through restorative justice. The leadership there sure isn’t perfect, but neither is ours, and I believe they are doing far better than they would have been if America had intervened. Of course the fact that there wasn’t vast oil wealth there to be controlled almost certainly played a role in US restraint. Thought that was before my time..
I haven't seen the last narco on netflix yet :) But I never coordinated with the DEA, given my area of operations.
From what you can tell is the assumption that the CIA is the US’s secret police true? Or are you not at liberty to disclose that type of info?
All the operations I ever worked on or heard about were targeted against foreign terror groups or hostile militaries overseas
thanks for your service and all that, but as someone who married a kennedy, dont you ever wonder if the cia was involved in the assassinations?
If that were true, it would really break my heart, but it sounds far fetched if not utterly impossible based on my experience with the Agency. I did just ask my husband and says there might be a there there, so I guess we'll have to get back to you..