News & Politics

First Person: So You Want to Be a Spy

I applied to the CIA and got a job offer. That was the easy part. Then I was accused of being a thief, a drug dealer, and a foreign agent.

The CIA tells you it’s looking only for people with graduate degrees, so don’t be disappointed if nobody calls. The truth is more complicated.

The agency is hiring in big numbers for the first time since the Cold War. If you’re a bright, Arabic-speaking college grad, even without a master’s degree, the CIA will call you back. I was one of those Arabic-speaking grads who got the call. I’d soon learn that getting a job offer is a long way from getting hired.

My story begins after the online application and months of waiting, when a CIA recruiter called me at home in Utah. He mailed me some writing tests to see if I could piece together the real story from sometimes conflicting reports. He then came out to interview me. It was much like other job interviews except for the questions on why I had been in Syria and what I was doing there. After more waiting, the job offer arrived.

Hasn’t every American boy dreamed of a moment like this? A package arrives in the mail from the “recruitment center.” Inside is a letter requesting that he begin the processing to become a CIA officer.

There I was, on my way to Washington and a real-life Tom Clancy novel. But my dreams of counterterrorist operations alongside Jack Ryan began to fade not long after my plane touched down.

I didn’t know what to expect. But if anyone had warned me, it still wouldn’t have made the experience easier.

To any prospective CIA officers reading this: You will not have a good time in processing. If you’ve been on a sports team, this is nothing like tryouts. If you’ve been in the military, this is nothing like MEPS, the Military Entrance Processing Station.

The most painful experience is the polygraph. It starts with a waiting room—magazines on the tables, CNN on TV. Your polygrapher enters, calls your name, shakes your hand, and leads you down the hallway to a room the size of a prison cell.

For three hours, the polygrapher asks the same few questions—maybe reworded but always the same: Are you hiding any contact with a foreign intelligence agency? Have you used illegal drugs? Have you stolen from an employer? Did you intentionally omit anyone from your foreign-contacts list?

When I thought my session was over, he disconnected me from the machine, tore out the printout, and left the room. When he returned, he was certain he had just caught America’s biggest drug dealer.

If I tried defending myself, he responded, “I know you’re a drug dealer; you know you’re a drug dealer. Admit it. . . . I have never seen a more obvious example. . . . Now you’re just insulting my intelligence.”

When he decided I wasn’t going to admit it, he told me to go home and think about what I hadn’t told him, then come back and confess. The next day, a different polygrapher accused me of being a spy.

Between sessions, I took other tests: No, I don’t have to hide from assassins. Yes, I do think about things too terrible to talk about. No, my spirit doesn’t sometimes leave my body. Yes, I do get angry sometimes. No, I don’t test my food for poison.

I took another test to prove I can speak Arabic.

No one said whether I had passed. I flew home and waited. It’s been ten months since that package arrived. Once in a while, my recruiter writes to tell me I’m still in processing, waiting for a security clearance. That takes a year on average.

I asked him when I might be able to start at the CIA. He said everything would be all right. I’m afraid the truth is more complicated.


The author wishes to be anonymous.