Family of Spies

The Spy Museum’s Peter Earnest and Sara Taber, daughter of a covert agent, on the toll secrets can take, life in a CIA family, disagreeing with your government, and more.

When she was 15 during the Vietnam War, Sara Mansfield Taber’s father confided in her and her brother. “I don’t really work for the State Department,” he said. “I work for the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Taber—a writer and teacher in Silver Spring—describes the scene in her 2012 book, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter. At that moment, a childhood in Taiwan, the Netherlands, Japan, and Malaysia, interspersed with postings in Washington, began to make sense—and to raise more questions about her father, a “China watcher” who had entered intelligence work in the 1950s out of patriotism but became conflicted and, in his later years, deeply depressed.

She writes of her childhood: “The whispers were always there: momentary surfacings of my father’s true affinities and convictions; hints of the secret nature of his work; intimations of his doubts about his engagements; and scents of their perilous nature . . . . There were so many levels of secrecy that, now when I put my mind to it, they seem to mushroom until they fill the world.”

We invited Taber to sit down with Peter Earnest—founding executive director of DC’s International Spy Museum and a 35-year veteran of the CIA, the bulk of that time as a case officer in Europe and the Middle East—to talk about living under cover.

“It’s hard when you’re an open person by nature,” Earnest says. “In some cases, people say, ‘You don’t seem like a spy.’ The best spies don’t seem like spies.”

Sara Taber: Peter, when my book came out, lots of people got in touch with me asking what it was like to live under cover. I have my own experience as a kid but never really asked my parents about it. What was it like?

Peter Earnest: I didn’t really have two lives. I did have a cover position, and the Agency work often took me out at night to meet agents or to schmooze and look for new sources. I got involved with defectors.

I had four daughters, three born while I was overseas. They were young enough that I was not conscious of any difficulty for them. It was more like “Daddy goes downtown to work, and interesting people came home sometimes.” They knew I went out and had business meetings in the evenings.

Taber: When you went out, did you use different names?

Earnest: If I was going to agent meetings, they probably didn’t know my true name. It was also easy going to another country and being someone else—a writer, a businessman.

Taber: Did you ever have situations in which you were in a public place and someone accused you of being a spy?

Earnest: Yes. Sometimes folks who aren’t in the CIA will play “spot the spook.” It can create problems for people trying to protect their cover. I’ve been in social settings where I was known by two different names. It usually involved my leaving early to avoid conflict.

Taber: When someone said that to you, what did you say?

Earnest: It was situational. There’s a phrase, “dropping the veil.” There were perhaps relationships where you wanted to do that. It could have a positive effect—open the way for progress in a relationship.

We are in the deception business and acquiring intelligence. On the other hand, if agents working with you can’t trust you to protect them, the relationship may end. The agent may trust you with information he may never have even told to his wife.

Taber: My father recruited agents to spy on and sabotage China. There were times where it would put people at risk—they would die—and that caused him great anguish. Over time, he became more concerned about risks—intelligence being misused or disregarded, people looking for evidence for things that weren’t necessarily true. He thought what the Agency was doing was so important, but he was troubled.

Once he retired, he negotiated with the Agency to be able to say he had worked for the CIA—which normally wasn’t allowed at the time—because he hated lying.

Earnest: I’ve seen the reaction you’re describing in him before. It’s not unusual to feel the Agency’s work is important, and maybe carrying out this action is important, but sending an agent into China at that time, knowing they didn’t have a chance, he may have developed these feelings of moral confusion. Having served in the Marine Corps, where no Marine is ever left behind [in combat], you would like to think that’s true in intelligence work, but it’s not always the case.

Taber: My impression is your career could be affected if you didn’t repress your emotions, because you’d be viewed as prey for the enemy. There was this pressure to be stoic. I feel my father’s range of emotion was restricted to how he trained himself for his job; it was built into the depression he experienced when he retired. He couldn’t express his frustrations. My mother was the one who was upset while he was being strong.

Earnest: Most CIA people work in analysis, which is intellectually challenging. In operations, there was a smaller number of people involved. It can be stressful—communication can be difficult, conflict can be present. It’s not unusual for danger to be part of your lives. You’re not even living in your own country. My wife and I were young and naive—we took what came. If we’d known certain things before we went, maybe we wouldn’t have gone.

There was a great sense of serving the country. That has a certain redeeming quality, thinking, “This is hard, and these are the risks. There is a purpose to this.” If you’re disappointed in that regard, then it could easily lead to depression.

Taber: My father believed that we had to have an intelligence service, but when he saw these ideologically driven operations that didn’t seem right, that was really hard. Like in Vietnam—he was there in the last two years, and he saw the US executive branch convinced we were winning the war. Just the cynicism of that and the intelligence being ignored because of an ideological belief . . . .

Earnest: It’s interesting to put it that way. Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers showed that the Agency had been calling it right—[CIA director] Richard Helms had been telling President Nixon. The fact that it was being ignored caused your father great angst. Intelligence doesn’t set policy—we are in service to the President and policymakers. Sometimes they don’t listen to us.

There were strong feelings about Vietnam, and of course American teenagers overseas often reacted very strongly. It wasn’t just that they felt deceived but that their parent, usually their father, was involved in something believed evil.

Taber as a baby with her father, an agent who was troubled by the lying his job required. Photograph courtesy of Sara Mansfield Taber.


Taber: The whole country was torn up. It wasn’t just these particular families. Some kids with Agency fathers felt they’d been lied to, some didn’t question it at all, and others felt like, well, I’ve been lied to my whole life.

When I was told at 15 [that my father was in the CIA], I had been raised to be an ambassador abroad. I had to keep my father’s cover—it added to everything. My brother and I loved spy films. Maybe I was like you—I was in the habit of not wearing my feelings on my skin. Later, after my father retired, everything became more troubling.

Earnest: When you were told, was it exciting or a downer?

Taber: It was exciting, and in a way it let me know I belonged to a certain club and had a bit of a bond with kids who I suspected were in the same boat. At the time, my father wasn’t in his full-on depression.

Another thing I wonder is what is the background of spies? My father, for various reasons, was completely comfortable leaving his family of origin behind. He visited them very occasionally and kept the secret from them his whole life. I’m wondering if there’s often a history of spies being comfortable, perhaps for reasons having to do with the nature of the family, going off across the world and becoming someone else.

Earnest: No one gets out of high school with “spy” written on their forehead. For many, it’s almost accidental. I’m speaking of my own past and my generation. Today, with a CIA website and a booth at job fairs, people can apply openly for intelligence work. But for your father’s generation and for me, a lot of people just wound up there. [Former CIA director] William Colby was a labor lawyer, for heaven’s sake. Many of the brightest, most active people came in because someone recruited them to join the Agency.

It was the same with me. I’d graduated from Georgetown. I was in the Marine Corps Platoon-Leaders Class program, so when I graduated I was commissioned, went to Basic School, and then was sent to the Iwakuni, the naval air station in Japan. When I was getting out of the service, my then fiancée worked for a CIA field office in Washington. She told her colleagues that I was getting out of the service. That caught somebody’s attention because the Agency considered military service a maturing and useful experience. I was approached about joining the Agency, and I was looking for a job. I was drawn to foreign affairs, and CIA work sounded intriguing.

Taber: Do you feel your intelligence work affected your wife?

Earnest: My wife was in the Agency before I was, but she was working for a security field office, so she was never in operations. I had been abroad—I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland; I had traveled as an adult. I don’t think she had ever been out of the country, so it was a real shock for her. I had some of the language because I had had instruction, and I had a job that took up all of my time.

I think she was just one of those hardy American souls who sort of get on with things. I don’t know that it affected her in a negative way.

Taber: Did you ever fear for your family’s safety?

Earnest: One time I was in Greece, assigned to Cyprus, and the family couldn’t accompany me because there was, in effect, a civil war between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots and there were bombs going off daily as well as frequent killings. I think there was some question about the family being on its own, but there was a support structure in Athens.

I did have occasion to deal with a ranking terrorist at one point—tricky because you’re dealing with someone who’s deceptive. It brought to mind that Francis Bacon quote: “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune.” It was one thing for me to be exposed—I’d accepted that when I joined the Agency, but on this occasion I was concerned about my life for my family’s sake.

Taber: My parents had a situation where my father was hiding someone in the house. My mother was upset because that guy was being sought by Chiang Kai-shek’s security police. My mother worried all the time about us being kidnapped, and she worried about my father’s safety. One time there was a threat that an American spy was going to have acid thrown in his face. When they were in Borneo, they often went places where there were Communist insurgents hidden in the jungle.

Earnest:Working overseas in a cover situation, it didn’t occur to me to think about the effect on the children. They were happy, they had friends. I would tell them eventually [about my job], but I didn’t have the slightest concern about that. Clearly I should have, from what you’re saying.

Taber: It’s just a psychological issue if your father is deceiving you or the world. It’s something a thinking kid is going to think about a little bit, if not be troubled by.

Earnest: But there is so much in professional life today that ends up being compartmented. There are so many people who come home and don’t talk to their children about their work. There is much in their work that is very private or risky and so forth. I don’t know if my work was any different.

Taber: It is more dangerous than some of those jobs. A lot of foreigners are understandably suspicious of spies. And spies are a potential target, right?

Earnest: Well, that certainly has been true. And these days with terrorism, running around with a CIA lapel pin is probably not the best way to travel abroad.

Taber: Exactly. You and I have talked about this before: What is the difference between the normal strong, silent ’50s father verses a CIA strong, silent ’50s father? It’s just another level. I think it can have a real effect on the father’s psychological makeup, not being able to be open in certain ways.

Earnest: I think you’re right. When I hear about your father, there are aspects of the traits that you described in him that I can recall in myself. I think I was more a reflection of the strong, silent type, even though I am a communicator. I certainly didn’t communicate about my work at home—very little.

But all of our lives are compartmented—there are certain ways we are with some people and certain ways we are with our family or someone else. When I was a CIA branch chief, there were operations I was involved in that my own deputy did not know about. Compartmented activities are common in intelligence work, so your day-to-day activity, your work life, is like one big compartment. People had this compartment that was their clandestine operational work. You could have a whole evening with someone socially and never touch on what you did clandestinely.

To use another example, you can have a wonderful dinner party with a surgeon and no one sits around talking about surgical operations—even though that’s something this individual does every day. It’s just not part of the conversation.

Taber: It does raise the question of what makes a genuine person. When you can talk about your work, you can talk about other things. I guess I think it can become a habit of not being forthcoming. For some of the kids of spies I have talked to, it seems their fathers kind of inhabited this unopen way.

Earnest: Is it withholding or choosing not to share? Take a hedge-fund manager—he’s probably not going to talk to his kids about hedge funds. There are so many activities one is involved in that in a family setting it’s not a question of concealing—you’re happy to get away from it. I talked about operations all day. I was ready to deal with other things at home. It became second nature, what you talked about and what you didn’t. Even now in my Spy Museum job—I’m interviewed regularly by the media and am very clear in my mind about where the line is between what I can talk about and what I shouldn’t.

People have secrets. Maybe they don’t call them secrets, but they don’t talk to you about their crazy brother who’s having a drug problem or whatever.

Taber: Yeah, we always choose what we divulge.

Peter Earnest as a young CIA agent. “I never had the sense I needed to walk in lockstep,” he says. Photograph courtesy of Earnest.

Earnest: Of course, the closer you come to people, the more likely you are to open that door, to divulge something that you and I are now calling secret.

Taber: Looking back, do you feel the CIA shaped you?

Earnest: Doing that work certainly had an effect on my relationships and how I view people. You tended to be very purposeful in relationships, more than you might be in other work—more guarded in ways that might not be discernible to the outsider. Intelligence people develop sort of an enhanced awareness of what’s going on around them.

Taber: Are you looking for people’s motives? Are you kind of psychologically attuned to what this person is about?

Earnest: For me it was my natural bent. What my job did was accentuate it, so it’s hard for me to answer “Did your work affect you?” It did and it didn’t. I brought my own interests into it as well. There were situations in agent relationships where you had to keep your emotions and reactions in check. But that has got to be true of people in legal and medical work, too.

Taber: When I look at my childhood—this isn’t particularly the covert part, but living overseas—one thing that happened to me when I was 16 was I saw the effects of Vietnam both on the Vietnamese and on our soldiers. I became aware of the effects of American policies on individual human beings, just from living in Vietnam. I was actually hospitalized with soldiers who had been in Vietnam. Seeing how the war affected them gave me a really high concern about how our policies could play out in people’s lives.

Earnest: But if you were to visit Walter Reed [medical center] today, I think your experience would take you back to when you were a 16-year-old.

Taber: Sure. But it wasn’t that usual for a kid living in America—they wouldn’t come up against that. To see firsthand what our policies wrought shaped my life.

And then the other long-term effect of living under cover and seeing what my father went through was this strong belief in emotional honesty—feeling that it’s healthier for people if they are able to admit their emotions and tackle difficulties rather than hiding them because they’ve got to keep the job.

Earnest: We have talked about this a bit. The Agency is not a military organization. It has a wide range of political views. You’re going to find both liberals and conservatives there at any given time because it draws from the American population.

I’ve been privy to heated conversations as far as policy and operations and what we are going to be doing and not doing to serve the White House. I think Agency people are very outspoken when I contrast them to the military, or even the FBI—because Agency people are generally working abroad with people who are foreign, in many cases communists or rebels or insurgents. We’re exposed to an extraordinarily broad range of the human condition, and my experience was that, for example, you might have a boss who was very hard-nosed but you could pretty much speak your mind in meetings. I never had the sense that I needed to walk in lockstep.

Intelligence work takes pride in the truth. In other words, it’s about what is right. People arguing is not unusual in the Agency. These are not a bunch of jackbooted right-wingers or whatever people think. I mean, Nixon thought we were a bunch of Georgetown liberals.

Taber: It depends so much on the era and the particular segment of the Agency you’re in. I know that some of the people with whom my father interacted were rabidly anti-communist and were willing to do things out of that passion that he didn’t feel were wise, and if you didn’t buy into that, your career could be affected.

And, of course, the more recent weapons of mass destruction. It sounds like the Agency was very divided—some people wanted [the presence of] WMDs [in Iraq] to be true, and others knew they weren’t there. So there are certainly regimes and eras in the Agency when certain ideas are more accepted. And if you don’t have those ideas, your career can be affected. You don’t think that’s true?

Earnest: The only time I dealt with that was the case of the head of counterintelligence James Jesus Angleton. He had a sense that there was a Soviet penetration in the CIA. People were intimidated, and some careers were cut short because of the suspicion he cast. Colby fired Angleton, and one of the whistleblowers, if you will, a friend of mine, got a medal for helping end this period. Even on the Hill, they voted to recompense these people for their damaged careers. That’s the most egregious example of what you’re talking about. But the sense that we all were supposed to feel one way—that is a hard one for me to get my arms around because I think of almost all the agencies in town, people in the CIA are pretty free-thinking.


This article appears in the August 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.