Part Three | “A self-licking ice-cream cone…”

By Ruby on

Roughly a 5 minute read

In this third excerpt of our four-part series interviewing an ex-CIA operative/spy, we talk more about life inside and out of the CIA [“Langley”] and how the Agent feels about it. If you’ve missed the first two parts, you can catch up here and here - enjoy.

The Agency becomes like an abusive parent…

Ruby: One of the questions I want to ask is whether someone actually ever leaves the CIA. You’ve left. You have your own thing now, but do you ever really get to leave?
Agent: It’s hard because the truth is that, in some ways, you really don’t ever leave, and this is a conversation I’ve had with other peers who have left. To a certain degree, the agency becomes like an abusive parent, where if they call me today…
Ruby: …You still want to impress?
Agent: Not only that, but because I rely on the CIA to keep me and my family safe, I have a different appreciation for the work that they do. If someone were to call me and be like, ‘We really need you to come into Langley because there’s something we think you can do to help,’ what would go through my head is that someone would have to eat so much crow to even suggest calling me and had to be ready for rejection but they still made the phone call, this must be something that I can really help with. In the heart and soul of every intelligence officer in the UK and the US, ego aside, fear aside, we all want to serve and leave a positive legacy. We find a way to do it and sometimes, it means being manipulated. 

It is worth any sacrifice to prevent an innocent person from dying…

Ruby: So what is it that kicks in at that point because you say it’s legacy but what kicks in and drives you to say yes? Is it more complex than that?
Agent: It’s more complex. It’s partially legacy and it’s partially guilt because one thing that I never want to have to happen…an experience that I’ve lived through is seeing friends die because of the decisions that other friends made. Even worse than friends dying for friends would be innocent people dying because of your own decisions, and that’s the kind of work being done at the intelligence level. To think that my ego would block me from going back and hearing an offer, to think that I would be so brazen as to dismiss that a bomb might go off in Portland or something, that is an unacceptable legacy that I don’t want to leave, secretly or overtly. It is worth any sacrifice to prevent an innocent person from dying when I could have helped them.

We don’t manipulate a human asset using guilt.

Ruby: Without being crass, your guilt seems like it’s part of the process.
Agent: Exactly. The fact that guilt exists is proof of the power of the brainwashing that takes place when you go through that system. Your average person is going to be unbothered, but if you’ve gone through any kind of religious brainwashing or military or federal brainwashing process where you believe some collective good supersedes yourself, it’s hard to unwind that. It’s how terrorists are born too. They go through systematic brainwashing that makes them extremists that think it’s better to strap a bomb on their chest and die today than live another 50 years.
Ruby: Guilt is such a complex emotion. I find anger very instructive, and I think a lot of people suffer from sitting in anger without really looking at it. Guilt is quite an arresting emotion that’s very difficult to alleviate. You can move past anger and you can move past sadness, yet guilt though is crushing. It’s kind of an all-pervasive emotion as far as emotions go.
Agent: It’s a dangerous thing to mess with because it’s so nuanced. If I’m two degrees off, if I fail to make you feel guilty and instead you feel defensive and threatened, that’s a problem. We don’t ever try to direct a conversation or manipulate a human asset using guilt because it is rife with landmines.

Not everyone is for sale.

Ruby: I have a question for you, can everyone be bribed?
Agent: That’s an easy answer. Not everyone is for sale. Part of that is less about principles and more because there are plenty of people out there who just can’t get past the fear of what that would look like. Not everyone can be bought.
Ruby: And what are those people called at The Agency?
Agent: We call them “unsuitable” because you can’t reliably have leverage that is consistent over them because they are just too much of a loose cannon to be able to predictably control. Almost everybody has a price unless they have a flaw in their head that prevents them from cashing in on the opportunity.
Ruby: So, what’s your price?
Agent: If someone came to me and was like, ‘We’re going to take care of the next three generations of your family, we’re gonna put you on an island that no one knows about, we will deliver food and water every week, you just have to never talk to anybody ever again.’ I don’t even need a paycheck; if you’re taking care of my family and I get to be with them… So, if you can deliver me a situation where my foundational fear is impossible, I’m sold.

The biggest trick that has ever been played on me was working at the CIA.

Ruby: Have you ever been tricked?
Agent: The biggest trick that has ever been played on me was working at the CIA. All the skills that the CIA teaches you to use on other people, they are institutionally using the same tricks on you. How are you going to get people to sacrifice their families and their health in exchange for a government paycheck? You’re going to play on their foundational fear, you’re going to play on their ego… all day long, that’s how it works. How are you going to get someone to do that for 30 years? You master the art to the point that they would deny that you’re lying to them. No, I’m a loyal American and a dedicated public servant. I’m not just some fool who could be making three times as much in the outside world, I’m something special because my bosses for the last 12 years have been telling me I’m something special.

A self-licking ice cream cone of ego-petting…

Ruby: Do you remember that point when you realised it, or did you realise it pretty early on?
Agent: It was late, and once it happened for me, I just wanted out. I felt dirty when I could see what was happening. It was unsettling because I looked to my left and right and talked to my friends and the people who I had been serving with and was like, ‘Have you ever thought about XYZ and ABC and whether our boss is doing that to us?’ It caused so much cognitive dissonance with them that they totally denied it. They said I was overthinking it, not to be crazy, whatever, whatever.
Ruby: Everyone’s been tricked…
Agent: Now that I’m on the outside, any time I meet with other former intelligence officers, we absolutely bond over that realisation. We’re like, “We’re successful, we’re thriving, we’re doing well, we’re doing good things for good people for good reasons, and we’ve broken free from what was a self-licking ice cream cone of ego-petting and fear-mongering.
Ruby: No more ice cream for you…

Up next: Part Four, where we talk more about The Agency, mental health and breaking free of the system… 

Photo Credit: Sora Shimazaki