What you’ll need: passports from several countries, dashing good looks
Songlist: Secret Agent Man by Johnny Rivers, James Bond Theme
Further reading: The Real Spy’s Guide to Becoming a Spy by Peter Earnest
Last week, the big news was of a common girl marrying her Prince Charming; this week it is the death of an evil villain. Look for news of a dragon slaying next week.
The seal of the Navy SEALs
Yes, Osama bin Laden has been killed and President Obama made it clear last night in his address that the successful operation hinged on intelligence–tips supplied by Pakistanis combined with the careful and highly secretive planning of American special forces.
For the “small team of Americans”–Navy SEALs–who carried it out, this operation was undoubtedly one of the most exhilarating and terrifying experiences of their lives: precisely the type of operation that one becomes a Navy SEAL to take on. When I was younger I knew I would never be badass enough to train for something like the Navy SEALs, but I was always interested in the intelligence aspect of these missions. For a long time I was quite serious in wanting to become a spy.
MAD magazine on how not to be a spy
One of my favorite books as a child was an illustrated guide on how to be a good spy. The book included information about how to pick a secure drop site and leave secret messages for fellow spies. I made my own matchbox spy kit complete with chalk and lemon juice and burnt matches to leave messages and string just in case (I wasn’t sure what case would necessitate string, but as a spy you have to be ready for anything).
I made my mom leave messages for me around the house and created a drop site in the tree in our front yard. I had plans to widen the berth of my intelligence operations all the way to a nearby park, but one problem always remained: I had nothing to spy about and no one to spy on. But no matter, spying seemed like a slightly more advanced game of hide-and-seek.
My espionage interest lingered long enough for me to put “international affairs” as my intended major when, as a precocious high school freshman, I filled out college information requests. I had looked at the CIA’s website by then and was intrigued by the sound of “Clandestine Service Positions.” All I needed was to study some Language of National Interest like Farsi or Pashto or Arabic and my road to the CIA would be assured.
Robert Hanssen who lived an anything-but-glamorous spy's life
My desire to become a spy ceased immediately and permanently on February 20, 2001. That was the day that the FBI announced the arrest of Robert Hanssen, American citizen and Soviet spy. I read a profile of Hanssen and his more than two decades of spying for the Soviets–later the Russians–and was shocked by the cripplingly lonely conditions of his life. He could tell no one in his “regular” life about his work, but he never had any face-to-face contact with Soviet or Russian handlers either. He existed in a private world unto himself, yet the information he passed along was potent: it directly led to the deaths of several Russian double agents.
I hate being lonely, and I don’t keep secrets well. All I had imagined when envisioning myself as a spy was excitement, travel, out-maneuvering the enemy (either in high speed car chases, or perhaps in tense intellectual stand-offs). The world of James Bond and Jason Bourne is fabulous and exciting and completely at odds with Robert Hanssen’s world. Knowing that Hanssen’s world was the reality of a spy’s life, I lost all interest. Later, in college, a friend confirmed this harsh reality: she had made it to an advanced stage in CIA interviews but had been turned off when she realized she would never again be able to tell her family where she was or what she was doing. (The CIA makes it clear on their job application that you are not to tell anyone that you are applying or interviewing, lest you damage your future potential with the agency).
Robert Hanssen escaped the death penalty for treason, but is imprisoned without possibility of parole at a Colorado Supermax federal penitentiary. He spends 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, a fitting punishment for the solitary life he lived. Somewhere in my childhood bedroom my old spy kit sits, like Hanssen, collecting dust.