The first time anyone referred to me as a spy was 1986. I was living in the Middle East and meeting a host government official whom I had been cultivating for several months. “Bilal” had invited me to his house late in the evening, as he liked to do, when the streets were quiet, the household staff gone, and his family busied themselves in their part of the large house. As was our custom, we sat on his veranda, sipping the Johnnie Walker Black I regularly gifted him, eating nuts, and looking at the stars.
Bilal liked to talk. And the first thing you noticed was his ear to ear smile while relating stories, telling jokes, or simply cracking wise at your expense. Playful and impish, Bilal loved to tease. He provoked and relished arguments as a pastime, studying how best to get a rise from someone and hit a nerve. But Bilal was quick to retreat when sensing offense. He was, as are most of the Arabs I have known over the years, a caring and generous host.
Some twenty years my senior, Bilal had slowly, cautiously, taken me into his confidence, testing me often along the way for discretion, all the while working to mask his true self. That’s how Bilal operated. A successful career official despite hailing from a minority ethnic group and tribe, Bilal had early on managed to balance performing his job exceptionally well with playing the fool. He possessed a unique set of linguistic and cultural skills that his government prized, because these abilities allowed him to effectively engage with one of the country’s principal rivals. But he downplayed his own ambitions and subordinated his tribal loyalties as his seniors scrutinized him as a potential threat. And by seniors I refer to those at the upper echelons of authority within his organization. Bilal managed to catch the eye of seniors to whom he proved both useful and loyal, showing them what he knew they wanted to see. My task was to peel back the layers he presented me, one by one.
I developed a pretext to meet Bilal early into my assignment. I was interested in him based on feedback I’d received from colleagues outside the Agency. Bilal was forthcoming, pro-American, and decidedly unpretentious, all rare traits among the local officials we normally encountered. Unlike his ethnically mainstream colleagues, Bilal appeared to seek greater validation from his official American contacts, a desire to be liked and respected. I hoped and suspected there was more to it. Was Bilal testing the waters?
Over the course of months, Bilal and I had gone from meeting at his office, to the occasional lunch at a discreet location, to quiet, weekly evening meetings on his veranda. That’s not the school solution that aims to decreasingly conceal such relationships from public view, but which is at times a byproduct of relationships, local operating considerations, and practicalities. The goal of a case officer is to move relationships that might begin in the open to a genuinely clandestine footing as soon as practicable. Our conversations spanned history, religion, and politics, to families and personal experiences. Bilal was far more intellectual, well read, and complex than he liked to let on. From meeting to meeting, he shared increasingly revealing insights as to how things really worked in his country, and why. But it was several meetings before Bilal uttered even the least critical word about his fellow nationals, weeks before he acknowledged their ill treatment of his minority group, and still more time before he confessed deep resentment for their discrimination and repression.
Case officers have to be efficient with their time. The job is a lifestyle in that one must account for every minute of the day toward an operational purpose. The clandestine work of securely recruiting and handling agents requires expertise in, and manipulation of, the environment, as well as the people in it. It’s a rather time-consuming trade with deliberate attention paid to shaping one’s recognizable pattern of life so that you can disappear when, and as, necessary. There’s little time to waste drilling dry holes. If you’ve invested pursuing a target who will never succumb, you’ve missed those who might. So a case officer’s most prized gift, as a friend once so indelicately put it, was “smelling blood.” That is, the sixth sense to sort through contacts and quickly penetrate veneers to size up who’s willing to spy. I smelled blood with Bilal.
I was on my first overseas assignment and young even relative to typical junior officers. While Bilal was intrigued by my willingness to banter and my blue-collar background that was different from most of my diplomatic colleagues, I nevertheless treated him as a mentor. My professed interest was to learn, particularly what he could teach me about his group, and how his ethnic minority status helped or hindered him within his ministry, and while serving abroad. I teased and provoked as well, which he liked. But I knew when to be serious and, at the right moment, philosophical. There was great intellectual depth to Bilal that he kept bottled up inside, and with it, great loneliness. It’s not easy to be “on” all the time, particularly when playing a role.
Bilal eased his way into more delicate and revealing subjects through stories and metaphors. Over time, he increasingly allowed me to probe and deconstruct those metaphors for the reality in which he lived, identifying the motivations I would manipulate to leverage his cooperation. Peeling back the layers on someone’s soul and most inner space requires shifting gears to identify and in turn seamlessly leverage what you’ve found. The testing and probing confirms or refutes the needs, wants, and fears you have assessed, and an openness to your approach. But unlike a surgeon working off of X-rays, at times it’s a surprise, so you go with your instincts and feel your way. Bilal tested me for discretion at every turn, just as I tested him. Sharing risk, even if feigned and perceived, is a key in moving through the locked doors of someone’s soul. In the process, I foreshadowed who I really was, and my true agenda, but nothing from which I couldn’t mount an expeditious if dubious retreat.
On this particular evening, I planned to pitch Bilal, that is to say, ask him to become a clandestine CIA agent. First comes the setup. I recapitulated all that he had taught me about his country’s magnificent people and potential, as well as the unfortunate consequences of the manner in which it was ruled. Replaying Bilal’s own pronouncements and declarations, I highlighted the personal slights and offenses to which Bilal had been subjected, an effort to increase the emotional temperature of the conversation. Because he was forced to restrain his true sentiments, I articulated Bilal’s frustration in watching inferior men from the right families and cliques advance, and how that at times those promotions were based on the work he himself had done for them. But I praised Bilal for outsmarting them, for playing them to seize opportunities to better serve his country and still advance his career. “It was Allah’s will that we met,” I resolved, “inasmuch as I am sure he crossed our paths not only so that we might become friends, but so we can together accomplish something bigger than ourselves.” An appeal to Bilal’s genuine religious beliefs, and not a material reward.
“I was protecting you . . . I couldn’t tell you earlier . . . I wasn’t ready to burden you with maintaining my security,” I told Bilal, “but I am in fact a CIA officer. My job is to collect information beyond the surface that the US can use to more effectively support your country’s stability, prosperity, and protection. Information that your country deems secret out of concern for embarrassment.” Bilal would undoubtly feel I had lied to him about my CIA identity, so I wanted to appeal to his interests, not my own.
“US aims here are benevolent,” I continued, “but even friends need to see the realities, good and bad, to help one another. That’s where you can help.”
Bilal listened attentively, and despite his usually animated comportment, watched my eyes without expression, taking in and measuring my each and every word and corresponding emotion. I continued, “Your inside knowledge of the country’s plans and capabilities with this particular rival, and broadly across the region and with the US, is underappreciated here, as you have said. But it would make an immense difference in America’s understanding and capacity to act more effectively to support stability and mitigate the risks of miscalculations from which everyone suffers.” I leaned closer to Bilal. “This is what you’re doing already, and why. To make a difference. To contribute. You subject yourself to degradation and risks, keeping true feelings tightly locked away, playing your superiors so that you can make a difference.”
He exhaled. I’d hit a nerve. “You attend meetings and read reports of a daily nature on subjects with which you are expert. That expertise could do more for your country if shared with us, given how your superiors neglect it. Partner with us, Bilal, and together we can achieve what you’re working so hard, by yourself, to accomplish.” The specificity of our expectations and the agent’s risk is key.
My pace was steady, but not rapid. Not easy for a New Yorker like me. I wanted Bilal to hear precisely what it was he was being asked to do, and why, and to help him process the reality as opposed to what he might imagine. You’d be surprised, or perhaps you wouldn’t be, at the crazy things people expect the CIA to ask them to do. Kill people, break into locked safes, sabotage equipment. In reality, the last thing we want agents to do is put themselves at risk by acting in any way out of pattern. “An added benefit for me,” I explained, “would be the ability to contribute modestly to your family’s well-being.” I wanted to tie the money to a specific family need, not the cash itself; to help him rationalize his espionage toward a more noble purpose, as for his family, and to provide him the fig leaf that taking the money was doing me a favor. “It will make me feel like a better friend knowing you’ll be able to use your monthly CIA consulting retainer [citing the precise figure the CIA censors will not allow me to reveal], to help pay for the kids’ tuition . . . helping your country, and your family.”
When I finished my pitch, I had laid out why I was making this request, the reason I had not told him earlier about my CIA affiliation, precisely what he was being asked to do, his compensation, and how we would do it. I paused for his response. You prepare for the questions, concerns, emotional reactions, or arguments that might be put forward. In the business, we call this sparring. At times the reactions are predictable, but on occasion they’re unexpected. And for me, this was the first time.
“So, Douglas, you are a spy?” Bilal replied more rhetorically than inquisitively. “And your job is to steal my country’s secrets. So how do I know you can be counted on? To protect me? My family? Have you any idea what they will do to me, my family, if I am caught? What would my father think of me?”
There it was. A spy. For the first time. And I rather liked it. To answer his question about how I could be counted on, I replied, “Because I’m not alone. It’s not just me, but the CIA, an organization that prizes your security more than any information you might possibly provide. When you work with us, you’re part of a team.”
“What other spies do you have in my country?” Bilal asked. “How can I trust you if I do not know you are capable?”
“How could you trust me if I ever revealed their identities?” I responded. “I would sooner give up my life than reveal your identity, or that of any other who took such risks for their country, and mine.”
Bilal smiled and said nothing for a moment.
Thankfully, Bilal said yes. Not immediately, mind you. Bilal walked me through all manner of scenarios he might experience, but principally, it seemed to me, he wanted to know whether or not it had been a setup from the start. Though it had been, and Bilal would always suspect as much, I told him it was serendipity. This offered him the face-saving pretext he so dearly hoped I would provide. You might say it was to ease my own guilty conscience, but I believed Bilal had been looking for this, for me, for someone. Bilal, like most agents, didn’t want to see himself as a traitor, but rather, a victim. More philosophically for him, a victim of destiny, and a quiet hero. And that’s what case officers do to help their agents live in the very complex world of espionage.
Corny? The emotion, the flowery words, the animation? The theater? Of course it is. But that doesn’t render it untrue. Being dramatic doesn’t make it insincere. I’m selling something, a product in which I believe, and to someone who secretly yearns for it. What I am asking, and the possible consequences, warrants drama and emotion. Yes, culturally, one could say that Arabs are often rather emotional, so my pitch was aligned as such. But who wouldn’t be emotional if asked to commit their all? To risk not only their lives, but to subject their family to whatever local consequences might result. Everyone needs validation, but even those at the end of their ropes can smell insincerity. Bilal knew I meant every word I said, because I did. When he agreed, I knew he was committed, body and soul. And that’s why we owe our agents more than seeing them as mere employees, or worse, expendable.