Breaking Cover: My Secret Life in the CIA and What It Taught Me about What's Worth Fighting For

Breaking Cover: My Secret Life in the CIA and What It Taught Me about What's Worth Fighting For

by Michele Rigby Assad

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Overview

A real-life, can’t-put-down spy memoir.
The CIA is looking for walking contradictions. Recruiters seek out potential agents who can keep a secret yet pull classified information out of others; who love their country but are willing to leave it behind for dangerous places; who live double lives, but can be trusted with some of the nation’s most highly sensitive tasks.

Michele Rigby Assad was one of those people.

As a CIA agent and a counterterrorism expert, Michele soon found that working undercover was an all-encompassing job. The threats were real; the assignments perilous. Michele spent over a decade in the agency—a woman leading some of the most highly skilled operatives on the planet, secretly serving in some of the most treacherous areas of the Middle East, and at risk as a target for ISIS. But deep inside, Michele wondered: Could she really do this job? Had she misunderstood what she thought was God’s calling on her life? Did she have what it would take to survive?

The answer came when Michele faced her ultimate mission, one with others’ lives on the line—and it turned out to have been the plan for her all along. In Breaking Cover, Michele has at last been cleared to drop cover and tell her story: one of life-or-death stakes; of defeating incredible odds; and most of all, of discovering a faith greater than all her fears.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496419590
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Publication date: 02/06/2018
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,229,523
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Michele Rigby Assad Was One of Those People. Working undercover for the CIA, she served in treacherous areas throughout the Middle East-a woman leading some of the most highly skilled operatives on the planet. The threats were real. The missions were perilous. And deep inside, Michele wondered: Could she really do this job? Was she in the right place at the right time, or had she misunderstood her life's calling? Did she have what it would take to survive? In Breaking Cover, Michele has at last been cleared to drop cover and tell her story, one of incredible struggle; of unexpected challenges and thwarted missions; and most of all, of discovering a faith and a purpose that outweighed her greatest fears.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

THE SPY NEXT DOOR

I never dreamed of becoming a spy. My dreams were for a much more pedestrian future: a comfortable home in the suburbs, a good, solid career, a couple of kids, and a white picket fence.

In fact, if you had told me twenty years ago that my calling would involve traveling to war zones or dealing with insurgents, I would have thought you were crazy. I wasn't exposed to such things growing up.

My dad, a traveling life insurance salesman, was on the road a lot, and my mom stayed home with me and my little sister, Julie. When I was six, my family followed my maternal grandparents from rural Pennsylvania to Mount Plymouth, Florida, a little town in the center of the state. We lived in "the sticks," which meant we were surrounded by cow pastures, orange groves, pine forests, and swampland. Sturdy oak trees dripping with Spanish moss and a tiny lake full of lily pads and reeds — not to mention herons, turtles, frogs, alligators, and water moccasins — added to the wild beauty of that rural setting.

Though I never strayed far from home as a child, I occasionally got glimpses of the wider world. Our neighbor Gladys paid Julie and me to water her plants each summer while she was on vacation. I would skip over to the house and water the dozens of houseplants. Before returning home, I'd sit on the floor in front of Gladys's bookcase and spend hours pulling issues of National Geographic off the shelf and carefully paging through their colorful, glossy spreads. I was transfixed. The cultures were so intriguing to me, and their strangeness made me ache for the rest of the experience: the sights, sounds, and smells that would accompany such forays into the unknown.

Occasionally missionaries would visit our little country church to talk about their work in other cultures. Julie and I still remember a few words in Portuguese thanks to the visiting missionaries who taught us a gospel song in that language. Being able to "learn" a foreign language left a lasting impression on me.

Still, the fact remained: My family was simple and didn't discuss politics, debate international affairs, or opine on world events. We were blissfully ignorant of military conflicts and foreign coups d'état. The only inkling I had that a crazy world existed out there was back in the eighties when I started seeing television broadcasts about hijackings of passenger airplanes.

I remember asking my mom, "Do you think it's possible we could ever get hijacked?"

"Oh, honey," she said, "you have nothing to worry about. It's only flights in the Middle East that get hijacked, and you'll never go there."

For sure, I thought, I'll never go there. (Spoiler alert: Never say never.)

Those who grew up with me and knew me as a sweet, southern girl are probably still shocked that I would even apply to the CIA. After all, how could the little ballerina voted homecoming queen — the girl who openly and frequently talked about her faith — get involved in clandestine activities that required such manipulation and deceit?

Michele Rigby, international spy.

It was — to say the least — a wild contradiction.

But as it turns out, that is exactly what the CIA was looking for.

Like most people, my only context for the CIA and its work was what I knew from TV and movies, so I had no idea what was real and what was fiction. All I knew was that it seemed like a place where only the world's most sophisticated and smartest human beings applied — not normal people like me.

Regardless, when the career center at Georgetown University announced that CIA representatives were coming to discuss job opportunities at the secretive organization, my curiosity got the better of me — even though I knew I wasn't the type of person they were looking for. So ... like a meek little nun, I entered the library with my head bowed low and quickly took a seat in the back corner of the room.

After all, I reasoned, it can't hurt just to listen, right? What do I have to lose?

I was finishing up my final year of graduate school at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, and as much as I would love to say I had a clear career path in mind, the truth is, I had no idea what I wanted to do. And don't let the Arab studies focus fool you. My interest in the Middle East was more personal than professional.

In addition to being a floundering grad student, I was a newlywed.

I had met my husband, Joseph, during my senior year of high school. As a cheerleader, I often held get-togethers at my house after football games, and one night, one of my classmates brought along a young man from Egypt whom his church had been helping. His name was Joseph Assad, and he was unlike anyone I had ever met before.

We all sat with rapt attention as he told us what it was like to grow up in a part of Egypt that had given birth to a virulent form of Islamic extremism. He described the experience of being threatened by classmates whose parents were members of secret terrorist cells in the city and of being deliberately blocked from entering the university (or any college) in Egypt because he was Christian.

Though it's embarrassing to admit, prior to meeting Joseph, I didn't even know that Egypt was a country. To me, it was just an ancient civilization, a historic land that I saw on the History Channel and read about in the Bible. Nor did I know that there were Christians in the Middle East, or that they had been so brutally persecuted for centuries.

Joseph's story amazed me. Having lived a remarkably sheltered life, I was astonished to meet someone who, at the age of nineteen, already knew what it meant to stand strong in the face of such intense intimidation. This wasn't just being picked on by the mean girls at lunch. This was life and death, and I was utterly and completely stricken. As I sat listening to Joseph share his testimony, I thought, I want to marry someone just like that.

Five years later, I did.

Joseph opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed. Shortly after we met, we traveled to Egypt as part of a mission team sponsored by Campus Ministries at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Despite all the drama in the region, my parents agreed to let me go. They trusted God, and they knew that he would take care of me. Looking back, it was incredibly brave to let their eldest daughter travel to the far side of the world, where the only thing dicier than being a woman was being a Christian. But they had the courage and the spiritual discernment to let go.

I, on the other hand, was the picture of naiveté. With no idea of the challenges before me, I jumped into this new adventure with the enthusiasm that only the young and inexperienced can muster. No one warned me of the intense heat, the swarming flies, the blood-hungry mosquitoes, or how hard it is to communicate with people who speak a different language. Almost immediately, the romantic notions I had created in my mind of how amazing this trip would be were replaced by the harsh reality of puking my guts out and nearly passing out from the heat and stress of physical labor.

During that trip, I saw things that I'd never seen before: gun-wielding soldiers on every other street corner, women shrouded in hijabs and suffocating black abayas, villagers washing their pots and pans in the Nile, donkey carts hauling their wares to market, and mud-brick homes situated along dusty, pockmarked roads.

We were enveloped by a world starkly different from our own. Had we known what we were getting into, some of us probably would not have signed up for the trip. Thank God I set off unaware, or I would never have received the blessings of being a member of that team. Not only did I learn a lot about myself and my faith, the trip made me realize how little I knew and how much there was to discover in this great big, beautiful world.

The following fall, I enrolled at Palm Beach Atlantic, where Joseph was beginning his sophomore year. Eventually I chose to major in political science. That gave me the opportunity, three years later, to return to Egypt as part of a study abroad program. In addition to studying politics, culture, religion, history, and the Arabic language, I had the chance to climb Mount Sinai, go scuba diving in the Red Sea, explore the great pyramids of Giza, meander through the busy stalls of the historic Khan alKhalili market, watch the whirling dervishes in Old Cairo, tour the world's oldest Christian monasteries, and even star in an Egyptian television advertisement for Eva skin care products. (I was "discovered" by a television producer in an ice cream shop.)

We also spent three weeks in Israel and Palestine studying one of the hottest and most contested topics of the early nineties. The Oslo Accords had just been signed, and intense negotiations were continuing in an effort to keep both sides engaged and the process moving forward in a constructive manner. We met with political leaders, community organizers, and educators on every side of the issue. The briefings we received were sobering and insightful, taking on even more meaning as we made our way across Israel and the West Bank. The issues weren't theoretical but flashed regularly in front of our eyes. We could see the problems, and we could feel the tension as we explored the contentious Temple Mount and the Jewish, Arab, and Armenian Quarters of Jerusalem's Old City.

We also sailed across the Sea of Galilee, peered over the mountains of the Golan Heights into Lebanon and Syria, and followed the footsteps of Jesus in Bethlehem, Galilee, and Jerusalem. It was the education of a lifetime.

There is no question that traveling to the Middle East irrevocably changed the course of my life. The differences between my value system and the worldviews of the various Egyptians, Palestinians, and Israelis I interacted with made me hungry to understand them. What influenced their thinking, and what factors shaped their outlooks on life? I wanted to unlock the mysteries of human behavior and understand other people's frames of reference.

The summer after I graduated from Palm Beach Atlantic, we married and moved to Washington, DC, where Joseph began working as a Middle East research director at a think tank focused on human rights and democracy. At the same time, he worked on acquiring a master's degree at George Mason University in conflict analysis and resolution. Joseph's experience testifying before the US Congress and the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva and focus on conflict and diplomacy in the graduate program prompted him to consider a career working for the government. To this end, he took the foreign service exam that is required to become a diplomat at the State Department. While awaiting the results of the exam, he began applying for similar jobs that could take advantage of his unique background, experience, and education.

Three months after moving to Washington, DC, I obtained a job working as an administrative assistant in the government relations department of a humanitarian organization before enrolling in Georgetown's Arab studies program. Naturally, my family and friends wanted to understand my plans for the future. "What will you do with an Arab studies degree?" they asked.

My answer didn't exactly induce confidence. "I'm not sure."

I knew that the degree was a steppingstone to a variety of careers in journalism or with a think tank, the government, or an international organization. But what I would do with it? I had no idea. I just felt this insanely strong pull to study the Middle East. Travels to the region had whetted my appetite, and I had a burning desire to dig deeper, to learn more.

And so I did what I had always done: I heeded the urge deep within my soul, the feeling that I just had to take a particular course of action. I had made a decision very early on in my life that I would follow God's lead no matter where it took me. That visceral sense of direction had never led me astray, so I listened to it. Two years later, that same urging led me to the back of a crowded library to listen to a CIA representative describe a career path I would never have imagined for myself.

I don't remember much about what the recruiter said that day, but I definitely did not leave that room thinking I was the type of person the CIA was looking for.

Later that afternoon, while inserting my résumé in various recruitment files, I saw a box in the career center with a sign on it that read, "CIA: Place Résumés Here." Hundreds of hopeful applicants had flooded the box with their résumés. I threw mine on top. I don't know why I did that, other than the fact that I desperately needed a job. I was applying for any and all job opportunities.

A couple of weeks later I received a telephone call from a woman saying she was a hiring coordinator at the CIA. The agency had reviewed my résumé and liked what they saw. Now they were inviting me to a personal interview.

I was floored. Out of all of those résumés, they picked mine? How is that possible? I spent days preparing for that interview, but what I could not prepare for was the strange sensation of driving up to the gates of the massive, intimidating compound located in Langley, Virginia.

I swerved off Route 123 toward the main entrance and carefully followed the signs that separated the visitor line from the employee entrance. With great caution, I pulled up next to the guard gate to check in as I had been instructed. As I handed over my identification to the security officers, my heart felt as if it were beating out of my chest. I thought of Charlie, standing at the iron gates of the great chocolate factory preparing to enter the impenetrable fortress. Like him, I had gotten the Golden Ticket, and I was gaining admission to a place that I had only seen in the movies. The security officers were curt, further adding to the distinct sensation that I was utterly out of place, infringing on a top-secret facility that I really shouldn't have access to.

Despite my nervousness, the interview inside the great building went extremely well. The woman who interviewed me was intelligent and friendly. Soon thereafter, I received a conditional offer of employment to become a leadership analyst at the CIA.

The position is described online in this way:

Leadership analysts ... are responsible for providing U.S. policymakers and other relevant decision makers with assessments and analyses of foreign leaders and legislators/ representatives, as well as other key members in the science and technology, social, cultural, economic, and military fields. ... Leadership analysis is best defined as studying all facets of leaders, including their psychological components. This field of study, which is often seen as an offshoot of political psychology, utilizes the tools of psychology by exploiting the psychological traits of the individual in questions [sic]. Leadership analysts use this study of the psyche to analyze the leader's character traits within the context of society and culture.

How they looked at my résumé and decided I was the perfect fit for this job, I have no idea. But then, who was I to question the CIA?

The offer was contingent on my ability to pass the polygraph test, medical examinations, psychological examinations, and a background investigation, all of which I was somehow able to schedule and complete while finishing up my degree.

In May 2000, I graduated from Georgetown with a master's degree from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. This had not come easily. The Arab studies program did not confer the degree until students passed the dreaded Arabic proficiency test, which included a written and verbal examination. But all the effort (including the Arabic-induced headaches) was worth it because I was going to work for the CIA!

Or so I thought. A week before my start date, I received an odd letter in the mail. It was from the agency, but it wasn't thick like all the other correspondence I'd received from them. The envelope contained one sheet of paper, a short message on CIA letterhead that said, "You no longer meet the requirements for this position at the CIA." The job offer had been rescinded. Bam. No explanation. Just like that. Gone.

My head was swimming. What did I do wrong? Why do I no longer meet their requirements? What requirements are they referring to? What does this mean? What could I possibly have done to have jeopardized this job?

After all the time and effort I'd spent to get a degree from Georgetown and secure the job, all I was left holding was a cold, impersonal rejection letter. I was devastated.

Maybe they are right, I thought. Maybe I'm not a fit for the CIA after all, because I sure didn't see this coming.

The next day, even though I was still in shock, I started my job search from scratch. I applied to every foreign affairs, think tank, advocacy, and intelligence-related job in the Washington, DC, area. Rejection after rejection piled into my in-box. Everyone seemed to have plenty of experts on the Middle East. The organizations and agencies that did have openings wanted people with years of experience. It's the conundrum every new graduate faces: How are you supposed to get experience if nobody is willing to give you a chance?

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Breaking Cover"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Michele Rigby Assad.
Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note, xi,
Prologue, xiii,
CHAPTER 1 The Spy Next Door, 1,
CHAPTER 2 The Right Stuff, 11,
CHAPTER 3 Don't Judge a Spy by Her Cover, 29,
CHAPTER 4 A Model Spy, 39,
CHAPTER 5 Keep Calm — and Carry a Working Compass, 45,
CHAPTER 6 Into the Desert, 57,
CHAPTER 7 Mr. & Mrs. Smith, 69,
CHAPTER 8 Get Off the "X", 79,
CHAPTER 9 Caught between Iraq and a Hard Place, 89,
CHAPTER 10 Welcome to Hell on Earth, 99,
CHAPTER 11 Face-to-Face with the Enemy, 107,
CHAPTER 12 Truth or Consequences — A Tale of Three Sources, 123,
CHAPTER 13 Never Say Never, 143,
CHAPTER 14 An Unexpected Mission, 151,
CHAPTER 15 Now What?, 161,
CHAPTER 16 You Can't Go Home Again, 173,
CHAPTER 17 Back to Iraq, 187,
CHAPTER 18 Decision Time, 197,
CHAPTER 19 Escape, 209,
CHAPTER 20 The Final Push, 223,
Epilogue, 237,
Special Dedication, 242,
Acknowledgments, 243,
Endnotes, 247,
About the Author, 249,

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