One of the most intense, ambivalent, addictive, and weird relationships of my life has been with an agency of government. The Central Intelligence Agency is an overbearing and jealous partner, the type who doesn’t respect your privacy and tries to take over your life in an unhealthy way. It interferes with other relationships by limiting what you can talk about with outsiders. It asks you invasive personal questions. It wants to know where you got your money and how responsibly you spend it. It wants more of your time than it’s willing to pay for—a lot more. It stimulates you with an addictive stream of information from sources ranging from the mundane to the bizarre. It wants you to be creative while not breaking any unwritten rules. It wants you to take risks but not make any mistakes. It demands primacy over everything else in your life. It’s into kinky accessories like tire slashers, razor wire, radiation detectors, Humvees, and pop-up terrorist barriers.
The CIA was a place to swim in ideas and intellectual debate and to drown in frustration. There I met my husband, some wonderful friends, creative minds, and impressive intellects. I also ran up against glib careerists, pants-wetting bureaucrats, and the occasional borderline sociopath. The CIA gave me a stunning window into two of the great global paradigm shifts of our time: the breakup of the Soviet Union and the rise of international terror networks. The CIA gave me acute acid reflux.
You come to terms with CIA, wish it the best for the sake of your country, but you don’t get over it even years after you’ve left. Despite the Agency’s faults, I can’t condemn it without denying the part of my self that was shaped to fit its needs. I often find myself defending CIA. In a world where so many indulge in non-thinking, name calling, and meme-level “debate,” it’s still a place that tries its best to practice intellectual rigor. It’s better than people think. It has been the scapegoat of choice for politicians for generations, allowing them to say “intelligence failure” rather than admit policy failure. If you have a passion for your subject matter, the CIA is a good place to be.
Now that I’ve left, I am grateful for the training I got there, for all the people who questioned my thinking and forced me to admit my intellectual biases and fight against them. I still marvel at the range of expertise in the Agency. I still admire the analysts’ strong sense of professional ethics.