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I will never know the truth. My friends thought I was a budget analyst who worked for the Department of Agriculture. It wasn’t my choice for a cover. In fact, it would have been just about my last choice, but it was what the Agency told me to tell them. I had business cards that said selena keller, planning and accountability division, usda, and if someone called the number on the card, he would reach a bank of sterile phones at the Central Intelligence Agency. In principle, a CIA flack would deftly look up who I was and who I was supposed to be on an electronic Rolodex. In practice, callers were likely to receive a “Selena? Selena who? You said Keller? Does she work here? Are you sure you have the right number? Selena . . . hold on . . . Department of Agriculture, right? Um . . . oh, okay . . . yeah, she’s still in a meeting. Yeah, still there. No, no idea when she’ll be done. Can I take a message?”
I wonder if any of my friends ever thought it odd, my abrupt change of careers. I’d spent most of my adult life in India, studying Sanskrit literature. When I joined the Agency, I’d just received my doctorate from Columbia University, and what I knew about budget analysis, or agriculture for that matter, could have been inscribed inside a matchbook. After I’d been in Washington for six months, the head of my thesis committee called to invite me to the annual Ramayana Conference in DeKalb. I declined, telling him that I was up to my elbows writing a report on the industrial pet feed sector. If he suspected anything, he never let on.
I got the job at the CIA the way you get a job anywhere: I answered an ad on the Internet. That spring I was living in Manhattan, and nine major university presses had recently declined to publish my dissertation, The Dialectic of Manjusri: Monasteries and Social Welfare in Northeastern India, a.d. 600–800. To support myself, I was teaching an undergraduate section in multicultural studies at NYU as I sent out applications for postdoctoral fellowships and tenure-track positions. It was beginning to dawn on me that I might spend the rest of my life teaching at some godforsaken Midwestern university—a place with a name like Mongeheela State—writing articles that would be perused by no more than six geriatric scholars.
I found the ad while surfing the Drudge Report. Bernard Lewinsky was denouncing the treatment of his daughter, issuing an appeal for assistance with her legal bills. An article beneath this linked to the CIA’s website, which in turn connected me to a section called “Employment.” The text read:
For the extraordinary individual who wants more than just a job, we offer a unique career—a way of life that will challenge the deepest resources of your intelligence, self-reliance, and responsibility. It demands an adventurous spirit, a forceful personality, superior intellectual ability, toughness of mind, and a high degree of personal integrity, courage, and love of country. You will need to deal with fast-moving, ambiguous, and unstructured situations that will test your resourcefulness to the utmost.
The accompanying photo displayed a black man, a black woman, and an Asian woman, all in their late twenties. The women conveyed rangy athleticism underneath their sensible professional clothes; the man wore no tie, and his collar was open beneath his blazer. Their expressions were alert and serious. All three were staring intently at a piece of paper I imagined as the order of battle for the Russian Mechanized Infantry Brigade.
I had a stack of copies of my résumé in front of me on my desk. On an impulse, I folded one into thirds and sent it to the CIA’s Department of Human Resources. I never really expected that I would hear from them.
A few months later I was still only barely employed. I had all but forgotten the CIA when a woman who identified herself as “Martha from the federal government” began leaving messages for me on my machine. I had deducted all of my income on my last tax return on the grounds that I had been living in India for most of the fiscal year. I feared that I was about to be audited. Finally, Martha caught me at home. When she announced that she was from the CIA and not the IRS, I was relieved.
“Your résumé is a bit unusual for us,” she said on the phone, “but you have overseas experience and a great education, and that’s something we like to see. And we’re always looking for people with foreign languages. I see you speak Sanskrit and Pali?”
“Well . . .” I coughed. “Well . . . yes.”
She described the position she had in mind for me: “You would work overseas, probably under diplomatic cover. Your job would be to spot, assess, develop, and recruit human sources of intelligence for the United States. It’s a job that requires good judgment and a lot of people skills. Is this something that would interest you?”
“Yes, I think it is . . .” I thought about Mongeheela State University. Go, Heela Monsters! “Yes, it definitely is.”
She scheduled me for an interview in the Jacob Javits Federal Building in Manhattan. She told me I would be asked some tough questions about current events, and if the interview went well, I would be invited to Washington for further evaluation. Before placing the phone in the cradle, I stared at the receiver for a few moments in astonishment. It seemed to me that her call was nothing less than an act of divine intervention.
I prepared for the interview as if it were a set of grueling graduate boards. I read the major texts on the theory of es- pionage, memorized the names of all the Directors of Central Intelligence since the passage of the 1947 National Security Act, and pored over decades of testimony before the House and Senate intelligence-oversight committees. I studied the language of tradecraft: Only amateurs referred to CIA operatives as secret agents, evidently. They weren’t agents; they were case officers; the foreigners they handled were the agents. An agent was also called an asset, like a country house or a fiduciary instrument. Promising targets for recruitment—assets in cultivation—were called developmentals. I committed the terms to memory and practiced using them, speaking aloud into the air.
I read about the Intelligence Cycle and about the Church and Pike committees. I found a tattered copy of Philip Agee’s Inside the Company at a bookstore in the Village called La Lutte Finale. The passages on Guatemala were underlined in indignant red ink; someone had written state-sponsored terrorism! in the margins. When the day for the interview came, I could have delivered a nuanced discourse on the history of espionage from the Babylonians to the present.
I arrived at the federal building early, smoked a cigarette outdoors, scrubbed my hands in the ladies’ room, shpritzed breath spray in my mouth, and took the elevator to the unmarked conference room to which I’d been directed. I knocked firmly. A man who introduced himself as Carl opened the door and shook my hand. He was about my age, and he wore a dark, baggy suit and sunglasses. I had brought my sunglasses, just in case, and when I saw that he was wearing his although we were indoors, I put mine on too. We sat down at the conference table, straining to see each other.
Carl warned me again that he was about to ask me some tough questions. “Ready?” he asked.
He began by asking me if I knew the name of the prime minister of Canada. By luck, I had read an article about Canada just that morning on the subway.
“Jean Chrétien,” I replied, relieved that I knew.
“Good. Amazing how few people know that.”
“Really? That’s too bad. You know, Canada is the United States’ number one trade partner, too.”
He peered at me curiously, and I worried that I might have sounded overly eager to impress, too academic. I tried to look serious and alert, like the case officers in the photo on the website.
He asked me a few more questions about world leaders and geography. Who were the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council? Which former Soviet republics had nuclear weapons? I knew the answers and felt pleased with myself for knowing. He made notes that he shielded from my view, but when he set the pad down, I could see that he was filling out a form. He had placed all his check marks on one side of a ledger.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m going to tell you about a hypothetical situation. There are no right or wrong answers—I’m just trying to get a sense of how you think. Okay?”
“Let’s imagine you’re working for us in Nigeria. You’ve just arrived, it’s your first assignment, and you’re undercover as the agriculture guy from the USDA. That’s someone really low on the diplomatic totem pole, by the way. And the first thing the Chief of Station tells you is that he’s really glad you’re there, because they have no one in the station who’s deep enough below the local radar to meet a really sensitive asset—the Nigerian foreign secretary. So you’re going to be the one who meets him. Okay?”
“I get it.”
“So you drive out to pick up this guy, out on the edge of town, right?”
“And everything goes fine—he gives you the intel and you give him the money, and you’re driving him back, right?”
“And then, you’re out on the edge of town, and all of a sudden a dog runs in front of your car. And—splat!—you hit the dog.” He smacked his right fist into his left palm.
“Splat.” I nodded.
“Yeah, you hit the dog—splat! And an angry mob of villagers runs up and starts pounding on the window of your car. Kids, teenagers. And they’re screaming and pounding and the foreign secretary is terrified. He’s all pale.”
“He’s Nigerian?” I was suddenly worried I’d misunderstood something.
“Well, it’s all relative. He’s not looking so good.”
“So what do you do?”
“What do I do?”
“Yes. What do you do?”
I thought for a few seconds. What the hell would I do? Cry? I asked: “Is there any plausible reason for me to be out with this guy?”
“Not at all. The Nigerian foreign secretary, some junior American agriculture officer—there couldn’t be any plausible reason.”