Our young correspondent Margot V. S. “Meg” Burns of Manhattan writes: “This is one of a handful of articles rejected by a little online rag called SpliceToday, which I contributed to briefly, 2018-2019. Writing on spec, I had about a 75% acceptance rate. The unaccepted pieces were insufficiently frothy, too factual, or anyway of no interest whatsoever to the editors. I do hope they will be embarrassing enough for Was My Face Red!“
For a little while there, early in the Reagan Administration, the CIA was hiring just about anybody. I was lousy with languages, my Yale transcript was crap, I had no graduate degree, and I’d hardly ever been out of the country. But the Agency was interested. This was mainly because I’d aced their day-long battery of Spy Aptitude Tests, although I liked to think it was because I looked good: “lanky” (in the interviewer’s description), physically fit, someone who could handle herself in a tight corner. Because, you know, intelligence work can be dangerous.
I was interviewed by someone from Clandestine Services. He, not I, gave the sales pitch. The Agency is a great place to work these days, you bet! High morale, now we’ve got Bill Casey in charge! We got rid of The Admiral!
“The Admiral” was the despised former Director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner. He got the job by accident. Jimmy Carter’s first few choices for DCI said no or had blots on their record. So Jimmy went down the list and came up with Turner, a black-shoe admiral with no background in intelligence. Turner slashed operations and fired hundreds of seasoned officers. But then Ronald Reagan came in, and installed elderly, mumbly, able William Casey. As DCI, Old Bill brought back the big budgets and expensive toys, and he let the spooks get on with their job.
And what a job, what an era! We didn’t know it, but we were seeing the last shimmering Aurora Borealis of the Cold War. The new Soviet premier was Yuri Andropov, an old KGB hood who sent the tanks to Budapest in ’56 and to Prague in ’68. Andropov heard the fresh buzz coming out of the CIA, counted our new Pershing II missiles in West Germany, and got his country revved up for war. Anytime there was a NATO war game or nuclear exercise, Andropov said America was getting ready to launch a “first strike,” with warheads that could wipe out Moscow in four minutes.
This 1983 war scare was sudden and startling. For years the USSR had been soft-selling disarmament propaganda to the West. Memorably there was a “No Nukes” campaign that dovetailed neatly with anti-nuclear-power protests. You saw happy-sun pinback buttons (“Atomkraft? Nein Danke!”), stickers, pop songs, films; and then astroturfed Nuclear Freeze groups, with fatuous “women’s peace encampments” outside missile bases.
After Reagan’s election the propaganda got intense, with endless newspaper and magazine articles about the horrors of “nuclear winter,” and warning that our new President was a trigger-happy cowboy who was going to start World War III.
And now the wheels were coming off the peace wagon. The Soviets got so jumpy they shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 (with a congressman aboard) and then denied it. Later on they offered the incredible excuse that they mistook the widebody 747 commercial airliner for a spy plane. Meantime, Cowboy Reagan had turned out to be an unexpectedly effective and popular President. His Teddy Roosevelt-style interventions were a total delight: invading the pipsqeak island of Grenada in October to protect American students at a crummy offshore medical school!
Americans followed these stories round-the-clock now on Ted Turner’s CNN, a habit we got into back in May 1982, when Margaret Thatcher had her glorious little Falklands War. War and militarism were sexy again!
So there I was, in early October 1983—halfway between the KAL 007 shootdown and the Grenada invasion—sitting with my spy-guy interviewer in an East 52nd St. hotel suite, and we were talking about world events. He was an old operative, maybe 58, beefy with a florid face that looked to have been lifted recently. He was also very twitchy, like someone with high-blood pressure from too much boozing. Or maybe he was just eager to tell me about the thrilling operations he’d been in on over the past thirty years. Only of course he couldn’t tell me, because!
That must get frustrating. I on the other hand can tell you all I know, because I bailed out of the intake process a couple months later.
Through the recruitment period I kept receiving packets postmarked McLean, Virginia. One was the full application and background-check dossier, about three-quarters of an inch thick. I put that aside. Other mailers had bumpf thanking me for making myself available to Clandestine Services. No discussion of what the hell Clandestine Services did, however. (“We buy hats for the poor and make the world a happier place!”)
It was all very murky. The Agency wanted me to be something called a desk officer, but I saw myself running spies into Czecho. My whole picture of intelligence work came out of John LeCarré.
There was a reading list for new recruits. Some books were pop histories of the KGB and the Communist Menace. Shallow stuff, airport reading. And then Cord Meyer’s Facing Reality: From World Federalism to the CIA. This is a dreary memoir where the author apologizes for having been a pinko peacenik in his 20s, during a brief hiatus between Yale and the Agency. At Clandestine Services he ran the notorious “Operation Mockingbird” project, overseeing the same sort of media manipulation that the KGB was now doing with its Nuclear Freeze antics. That’s not in the book though.
Cord’s onetime wife, Mary Pinchot Meyer, was the JFK girlfriend who got mysteriously murdered in Rock Creek Park; but that’s not in the book either. Like my interviewer, Cord had lots of juicy stories, but he couldn’t tell ’em.
In the end I never got around to filling out my application, and here’s why. It had to do with my orthodontist. I was going through a protracted ordeal of adult orthodontia. We would chat about my CIA business, and one day the orthodontist remarked that the FBI would probably be coming by to ask questions about me. This had happened before, whenever one of his old patients was up for a security clearance.
Well this was unnerving. Somehow it hadn’t really registered with me that the background check would go that deep. But apparently so; on my fat application I had to account for the past 17 years. Schools, family, medical professionals . . . anyone you ever worked or lived with.
That killed it for me. I didn’t mind the Bureau boys dropping in on my employer or orthodontist, but I couldn’t have them bothering my relatives. The idea of G-men visiting my parents, when I hadn’t seen them in years, was too awful to contemplate. My parents were mad as hatters, and would themselves try to debrief the Fed boys about my doings of the past 10 years.
A perfectly reasonable excuse for dropping out of my CIA recruitment, I think. The only trouble was, for years and years I couldn’t explain it to anyone. The story was just too embarrassing.