Space & Innovation

What's It Really Like to Be a Spy?

Two CIA veterans explain what it takes to work for the Agency.

When news broke this week that Russia claimed to have apprehended an American spy in Moscow, it seemed like a throwback to the days of Cold War espionage. The alleged spy, U.S. diplomatic worker Ryan Fogle, was photographed with a bag of tricks that seemed bizarrely old-school: Bad wigs, a compass, a map of Moscow and a pile of cash.

While it's true that the Cold War has ended, it's also true that Russia and the United States have never stopped spying on each other. In fact, it's likely that the United States has more agents in Russia now -- and vice versa -- than during the Cold War, says Peter Earnest, a 36-year CIA veteran and executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "Spying between states still goes on, always has, and will continue," Earnest said.

If Fogle was indeed a spy caught in the act -- and not everyone believes that he was; more on that later -- it's less a security issue than a public relations headache. That's because the life of an active U.S. spy -- or CIA operations officer, to use the official parlance -- isn't anything like what we see in the movies.

So what's it really like to be a spy?

In a situation like that of alleged spy Fogle, a CIA operative would be essentially working two jobs, says Lindsay Moran, former case officer and author of the book "Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy."

"You're pretty much working all the time," Moran says. "You have what's called your 'cover job' where you're actually posing as a diplomat. The difference when you're a CIA person is you're always looking for that person who will give you information that the U.S. government would want, and that's not conveyed through diplomatic channels."

Moran says that 99 percent of the work of an undercover CIA operative is gathering "human intelligence." That means spotting, assessing and developing potential sources of information. "That's one of the things about being a spy -- you have to feign interest in whatever your target is interested in," Moran says. "'Oh, you're into duck hunting? I'm into duck hunting, too!'"

After the initial stages of spotting, assessing and developing a source, the operative then enters the recruiting or pitching stage. "You're basically looking for vulnerabilities that you can exploit. Contrary to Hollywood depictions, you're not assassinating people or blowing up safes. It's almost like you're a salesman, and you're selling espionage. You've got to find that person who is willing to buy it."

In the photos that have made the rounds since Fogle's arrest and detention, the most dramatically weird (or weirdly dramatic) part may be the goofy blond surfer wig that Russian authorities allegedly found on his person. Several observers have expressed skepticism that a trained operative would employ such a clumsy disguise, but Peter Earnest of the International Spy Museum said he finds it plausible.

"Some people are saying there's a Keystone Kops aspect to it, but I don't think so," says Earnest, who worked undercover several times in his CIA career. "When we ran operations in Moscow, we did use something called 'light disguise.' If you were going to meet someone at night or in a car, you just want to avoid someone casually spotting you and the other person. In my case, I didn't have a mustache so I would put on a mustache, or a wig or glasses."

After assessing and recruiting a source, CIA case officers enter the phase known as handling. Their job is to keep the information coming, make the payments to the source, and otherwise protect the person they've developed into an intelligence asset.

"It's a formal relationship in that they're providing information and you're paying them a salary," Moran says. "But a lot of case officers, for lack of a better term, fall in love with their agents. Not literally, but you want to protect them."

If the person is not providing good information, Moran says, you terminate them. "And by terminate, I don't mean you kill the guy. You just stop the relationship."

Moran says that at every phase of a given operation, you're working closely with CIA officials back in the United States. "Everything goes through headquarters, and everything has to be approved by headquarters," she says. "You've got to consider and discuss the possibilities for blowback."

And how, exactly, does a spy in Moscow communicate with the bosses back in Langley? "Well, that I can't you," Moran says. "But there are a few ways."

Both Earnest and Moran confirm that all operations officers receive training at the secret CIA facility known as "The Farm." The curriculum is mostly about gathering human intelligence, but it does include tradecraft and paramilitary training.

"We did land navigation, maritime operations, infiltrations, weapons training, hand-to-hard combat," Moran said. "We jumped out of airplanes and did defensive driving, where you drive around a race track and crash through barriers or two parked cars. Yeah, so pretty cool stuff.

"It's interesting, that's the funnest part about training and probably even the funnest part of anyone's career. But it really has no bearing on what you're going to be doing in your day-to-day life."

Maybe the most important aspect of being a spy is that, ostensibly, no one knows you're a spy. CIA officers working overseas must do everything they can to protect their cover. In an embassy setting, co-workers and bosses wouldn't know about an undercover CIA agent. "Of course, the president's representative is the ambassador, so the ambassador is going to know what's going on," Earnest says.

Immediate family may not even know about CIA operative's real job. "There's a legend about a woman, in her 60s or something, who got a job at the Agency," Moran says. "She went in the first day and saw her husband in the office. That was the first time she realized her husband worked for the CIA."

In the days since the story broke about the arrest of alleged spy Ryan Fogle, there has been much conjecture and skepticism about the incident. Both Earnest and Moran, veterans of the intelligence community, say there is almost certainly more to the situation than meets the eye.

"That episode was clearly pre-arranged," Earnest says. "It was set up. They had their photographers at the ready, they took him back and photographed on the paraphernalia. It was clearly some kind of a sting operation."

Moran says that, to her, the sloppy spycraft suggests either an elaborate set-up by the FSB -- the Russian internal security agency -- and/or a remarkably incompetent CIA operations officer. "The alleged spycraft involved, the preposterous wig -- it just doesn't ring true to me in terms of how we're trained."

Or it may be possible that Fogle isn't a spy at all, Moran says. "Maybe he's like a diplomat who's a spy wannabe and he's off doing his own little rogue operation."

"The truth is we may never know. The Agency is always very mum in cases like this. Whether the guy works for the CIA or not, they're not going to confirm anything."