Inside my CIA Career: Variety and the Spice of Life

Inside my CIA Career: Variety and the Spice of Life

What did I do?

Whenever I’m asked, “What did you do in the CIA?” I’m a bit stuck.

There’s no good snappy answer. I did a variety of things, many of which can’t be defined in layman’s terms.

One of the reasons for such a varied career was that I was balancing work and family. The Central Intelligence Agency might not seem like an employer who accommodates such a balance, but by being flexible and honing transferable skills like communication and decisonmaking, I was able to have it all.

Taking a helicopter view, I was an analyst for the first 7 years and an intelligence collector for the next 23.

Thirty years is a long time, but I can honestly say I was rarely bored during my CIA career. Many colleagues became life-long friends. I have good memories and some great souvenirs.

CIA challenge coins

Challenge coins from the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

 

Related post: Inside my CIA Career: The Analysis Puzzle

Mission areas

Unlike most officers who remain in one “mission” area for the entirety of their Central Intelligence Agency CIA career, I was lucky enough to work in all mission areas:

  • analysis,
  • operations,
  • science and technology,
  • digital innovation.

 

Carmen Amato at CIA 2016

Nove 2016, on the CIA seal with my Career Intelligence Medal.

 

I also worked in three collection disciplines.

HUMINT: information provided by human sources,

SIGINT: information gleaned from electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets, such as communications systems, radars, and weapons systems, and,

OSINT: information gleaned from publicly available sources.

Playing Favorites

Looking back, my favorite positions were all in the intelligence collection arena. As a collector, I felt the greatest sense of purpose, accomplishment, excitement, and job satisfaction.

There is nothing like being faced with a key intelligence question, especially during a crisis, and knowing that a major national security decision could hinge on some nugget of information you ferret out.

Yes, lives could be at stake. Outcomes mattered.

What you did made a difference. Sometimes you knew that, other times you didn’t.

It’s all about the People

I had the best bosses in those jobs, too. People who were dedicated to results. They understood the dangerous consequences of doing a job with indifference.

They kept indifference at bay by creating inclusive work environments that kept us motivated.

I had some terrific colleagues, too.

The CIA attracts a very high caliber of employee. Unique skills and talents are required, as well as the willingness to adapt to swiftly changing events and requirements. A unity of purpose quickly develops when you work with someone on matters of critical national security.

It’s natural. The work is unique.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Inside my CIA Career: Encounter with a Spyplane

Inside my CIA Career: Encounter with a Spyplane

FLYING

Several years ago, my husband got his private pilot’s license and we owned a small Piper aircraft. Our son was in kindergarten and promptly fell in love with all things aviation.

This rubbed off on me. Our family was soon immersed in flying stories, books about airplanes, model airplanes, and innumerable trips to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum to see among, other aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird spyplane.

I even wrote an aviation adventure story for my son, entitled THE SECRET BLACKBIRD. It was the start of a Hardy-Boys-meets-Dale-Brown middle grade fiction series. The second book in the series was entitled THE PACIFIC GHOST.

Both books remain on a floppy drive (!) in some desk drawer and were never published.

The real secret Blackbird

Work gave me another reason to be enthralled with the SR-71.

In the 1950’s, as the Cold War ramped up, the CIA wanted a way to peer down at the Soviet Union to determine military capabilities and such. The U-2, built by Lockheed’s “Skunk Works,” was doing the job, but was slow enough to be shot down, as happened to pilot Gary Francis Powers.

Lockheed built a new plane for the CIA. The new aircraft was designed to defeat Soviet air defenses by flying higher and faster than anything else in the world. This meant a whole host of innovations, materials, designs, etc.

The single seat A-12 OXCART emerged after 2 years of development. The overall design and titanium construction was the basis for the more well-known SR-71, the Air Force variant. The two-seat SR-71 was slightly larger and carried a different camera and sensor load.

SR71 and Oxcart spyplanes

Comparing the SR-71 and the A-12, courtesy cia.gov

 

After flying 29 missions in Southeast Asia During the Vietnam War, the OXCART program was shut down. The SR-71 Blackbird continued to fly and became infinitely more famous.

A scale model of the A-12 hangs from the ceiling of the atrium connecting the two main buildings of the CIA Headquarters compound. I have a paper model created for the CIA’s 50th anniversary.

What happened to the A-12?

Eight are in museums. One stands guard over the CIA Headquarters compound.

Encounter of a distant kind

I drove onto the compound one sunny day shortly after the A-12 OXCART was installed on a special platform with two stars carved into the marble to remember the CIA crew members who died in the line of duty.

Now, general parking at CIA HQ is a bit like Disneyworld. You have to remember which parking lot and which row.

But that day, there was no need to memorize my parking space. The nose of the A-12 OXCART was pointing right at my car. Perfect line of sight.

When I was ready to leave, I just had to follow the trajectory to my spot.

I was in awe of the enormous sleek black aircraft, a reminder of our intelligence heritage. I crossed the parking lot to the massive titanium plane and read the information display before heading inside.

The day passed. When I was ready to head home I took another walk around the A-12 before following its nose to my car.

Except like a portrait whose eyes follow you, the A-12’s nose pointed at all the cars in the parking lot. Acres of cars.

For the next hour, no matter where I walked in that $%&$# parking lot, every time I turned around there was the A-12 in the distance, pointing straight at me.

I eventually found my car.

But now I know why they call it a spyplane.

See the aircraft on the CIA compound in this short video from the National Air and Space Museum:

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Inside my CIA Career: Media Matters

Inside my CIA Career: Media Matters

What the heck is OSINT

My resume includes this line:  OSINT Analyst/Editor, Foreign Broadcast Information Service. Wrote, edited, and briefed analytical conclusions and OSINT reporting content to all levels of inter-and intra-agency audiences.

OSINT is shorthand for intelligence gleaned from openly available sources.

The Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) was one of the forerunners of the CIA’s Directorate of Digital Innovation. It began its government life (as the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service) as part of the Federal Communications Commission in early 1941 to listen to Japanese and German short-wave broadcasts. The new organization hired linguists and social scientists to listen, translate, and analyze radio broadcasts.

Some basics about FBIS are on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foreign_Broadcast_Information_Service

After swift growth during World War II, FBIS became part of CIA when the latter organization was created in 1947.

Closed media

The FBIS mission quickly outgrew radio to include all forms of publicly available media. Newspapers, journals, and television became staple sources of critical intelligence.

During the Cold War, FBIS focused on monitoring Soviet and Chinese media.

All media in the Soviet Union, the Communist nations of East Europe, and Communist China were centrally controlled. Except for illicit broadcasts from the BBC or Radio Free Europe, citizens only had access to whatever information was released by centrally controlled news sources, such as the Soviet newspaper Pravda, East German’s Neues Deutschland newspaper, or China’s Xinhua news agency.

It seems unreal in this day of online information oversaturation, doesn’t it?

Decoding “fake news”

With this monopoly on information, controlled media can basically say anything. Yes, this was the birth of fake news.

Thank you, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev. Thank you, Mao and Deng. You paved the way.

Critical messages were hidden in plain sight in the news coming out of Beijing and Moscow, both for their citizens and for the overseas audience. There was intelligence to be gleaned, if you knew:

  • the meaning behind certain keywords,
  • editors and influencers in their media organizations,
  • how those media outlets connected to the ruling party and select leaders,
  • the difference between news reports for the domestic and the international audiences.

 

Related post: The Analysis Puzzle

Controlled media during the Cold War put out a mix of real news and propaganda.The history website, HistoryCollection.com described the Soviet approach:

Communist propaganda in the Soviet Union was used to indoctrinate citizens with the Marxist-Leninist ideology in order to promote the Communist Party. In societies where censorship was pervasive, propaganda was a ubiquitous method of controlling people’s thoughts.

The main Soviet censorship body, the General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press under the Council of Ministers of the USSR (Glavlit), was established in 1922 to “ensure that the correct ideological spin was put on every published item.”

During the Stalin Era, deviation from the dictates of official propaganda was punished by execution or deportation to Gulag labor camps. After Stalin, such hash disciplinarian methods were replaced by punitive psychiatry, prison, denial of work placement, and loss of citizenship.

See the full article and a great poster collection: https://historycollection.com/50-communist-propaganda-posters-soviet-union/

To pull back the Iron Curtain, so to speak, we had lists of editors and news commentators and knew their ideological and political affiliations. If they deviated from their usual themes and phrasing, it could be a red flag.

For example, every Thursday, China’s Foreign Ministry made a statement to the press. As negotiations for the end of the 99-year British lease of Hong Kong began, everyone was worried. Could another lease be negotiated? If not, how would Communist China handle raucous and democracy-loving Hong Kong? (FYI, those fears are apparently playing out today.)

Certain buzzwords were known to be messages to the West. If they appeared in the briefing it meant the Chinese wanted to officially emphasize that point. That would surface in the public negotiations.

But if the words appeared in in a minor news outlet, it might be just a trial balloon. Testing a harder line, perhaps. Or seeing how the people in Hong Kong reacted before the government espoused the policy.

For more on the Hong Kong handover, check out this article from CNN: https://edition.cnn.com/2017/06/18/asia/hong-kong-handover-china-uk-thatcher/index.html

Fake news techniques

Media analysis was quite a fascinating discipline. It was an insider’s view of how an audience could be groomed/indoctrinated.

Here are a few techniques used by both official Chinese and Soviet media:

  • Media reports are slanted or shaded a certain way,
  • Context or pivotal details are left out (how much and for how long),
  • Headlines mislead, exaggerate, or dismiss  (i.e. clickbait),
  • Facts that do not align with the article’s intended slant are buried at the bottom or massaged into long and dull paragraphs,
  • Phrasing of the intended message is lively, impactful and emotional; rival concepts are portrayed as dull, dangerous or otherwise unappealing,
  • Minor news stories are used to obscure/deflect attention from more important but potentially troublesome stories,
  • Multiple news outlets use the same exact terminology to create repetition and uniform coverage in order to emphasize/downplay/heighten an event.
  • Absence of reporting diminishes a story when “authoritative” media outlets fail to report on a story or offer only a partial report.
  • Gaslighting to confuse or deny events, enabling media to claim that an earlier political promise or position “never happened.”
  • If editors disappeared or got demoted after a controversial story–early versions of cancel culture.

Imagery can also follow these patterns. For example, certain politicians are shown as grim by one news outlet and smiling by another. Who was on the grandstand at Soviet parades was always an indicator, especially if they were in one picture but not in others, etc.

To reiterate, as an OSINT analyst for a few years during the Cold War, I looked at “closed” media, which meant all the media was controlled by the central government. The population did not have access to news reports from other outlets. This suppression of information made it relatively easy for the government to shape opinions.

Remember, this was before the internet, smartphones, and Google.

It was a fascinating job. Now and then I include a bit of media wonk in the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series.

But lately, every time I turn on the news, I get a feeling of déjà-vu.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Inside my CIA Career: Secrets of Great Dialogue

Inside my CIA Career: Secrets of Great Dialogue

Competing Motivations

As happened so many times over the course of a 30-year CIA career, I was either a participant or an observer in a dialogue.

Not the conversation that happens when you are both talking about the same thing or want the same thing, but a conversation in which what you want is light years away from what the other person wants.

There’s more than one goal at risk or agenda being carried out.  I’m not talking about arguments, but carefully nuanced conversations. Goals and agendas are hidden.

In these situations, revealing a personal agenda, or “laying it all on the line” could become a vulnerability the other person could exploit.

As an intelligence collector, I became closely acquainted with those types of conversations. Over and over, without really knowing it, I got a lesson in crafting great dialogue by picking apart a transcript or recording to discover those hidden agendas.

Mystery author's CIA challenge coins

Part of my collection of CIA challenge coins. These keepsakes are from internal components and/or Director of National Intelligence agencies.

 

Related post: Inside my CIA Career: The Analysis Puzzle

Dialogue Techniques

Based on what I learned during my CIA career, here are the techniques I use to create tension-filled dialogue, especially in the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series:

Deceptive behaviors: Deception, obfuscation, bluffs, rabbit holes, misdirection, failure to answer questions or rebutting a question with another question—all of that can happen during the course of a dramatic piece of dialogue.

A deeply desired objective: If at least one character has a focal point or a desired end state, dialogue can twist and turn around that objective. The scene becomes even more emotionally charged if the probability of achieving a desired outcome waxes and wanes.

Be the obstacle: Start dialogue by giving each character an emotionally-driven agenda AND make sure one of them actively tries to prevent the other from achieving something vital. Stick with one character’s inner voice to drive the tension.

Resources

I’m often asked what is the biggest mistakes authors make when writing spy thrillers and my answer is always the same. Not enough deception. (Hmmm. Maybe someday I’ll write the fiction author’s guide to lying.)

Books by John LeCarre and Jason Matthews layer on the deception and are very authentic as a result.

Related post: Book Review: RED SPARROW

Here are a few resources to help you understand the power of deception in writing:

In SPY THE LIE, by former CIA officers Philip Houston, Michael Floyd, and Susan Carnicero, there is a great vignette in which CIA officer Phil is speaking to Omar, who has been an asset for 20 years. Phil suspects Omar of also working for an enemy intelligence service.

Phil’s agenda: find out the truth and be sure Omar isn’t concocting the story he thinks Phil wants to hear.

Omar’s agenda: conceal the truth and convince Phil he’s honest.

While the book doesn’t include a transcript of the conversation, it’s a great example of competing agendas.

Another great resource is THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO VERBAL MANIPULATION by James K. Van Fleet. Yes, such a book really exists. I think it is out of print. Hunt a copy in used bookstores.

Beyond the words, there’s the body language. I dislike scenes in which there’s paragraphs of dialogue without any idea how the characters are behaving physically. THE EMOTION THESAURUS by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is a great resource for suggesting behaviors that indicate stress, lying, or deliberate obfuscation.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

What I did in the CIA: Glutinous but not Unflavorful

What I did in the CIA: Glutinous but not Unflavorful

Blame it on the Swedish meatballs

Early in my CIA career, I was having lunch in the cafeteria of the Original Headquarters Building (back when it was the only Headquarters building.) My friend Willa was apparently feeling daring that day. She ordered the Swedish meatballs.

After a few minutes at the table, I asked Willa how were her Swedish meatballs.

“Glutinous but not unflavorful,” she replied.

FYI, Willa went to Yale.

I did not.

Wordsmiths

“Glutinous but not unflavorful.”

Translation: My lunch looks like crap but tastes okay.

But “crap” and “okay” aren’t as precise as the words Willa used.

At the CIA, we were all wordsmiths in addition to whatever other skills and jobs we had. There is a certain discipline, flow, and format required by intelligence work. Mastering it was not easy, but it helped to be surrounded by people like Willa who were very cogent and precise in their thinking and expression.

When it comes to intelligence writing, descriptive precision is imperative. Conclusions and key judgements always come first, followed by the evidence to back them up. Modifiers are often used (“almost certainly,” “probably,” etc.) so that the prose does not mislead or assume a context not supported by the evidence.

Transferable skills

I spent my first 7 out of 30 years at the CIA as an analyst. Every subsequent position I held, as intelligence collector or other role, required the same understanding of how to use words to present information, clarify complex issues, and support conclusions.  Accuracy and objectivity were paramount.

Now retired, I’m comfortable reading non-fiction that delivers the same pace and detail as intelligence reporting. I love a crisp descriptive detail, a context that allows me to see the issue or event more clearly, and things in chronological order.

This is great for research, especially as I curate background details for the GALLIANO CLUB historical thriller series.

But transferring my CIA writing skills to the world of fiction takes effort.

The prose can’t be glutinous. It has to be flavorful.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Things in the Mirror are Closer than they Appear

Things in the Mirror are Closer than they Appear

It was a first and I’m still recovering.

I live in a fairly friendly town. So when there was a shoutout for women who work from home to meet for coffee, I went. About 20 gals showed up, none of whom I knew. As we were introducing ourselves, one of them said. “I’ve read your books. I had no idea you lived here.”

Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather, as the saying goes. Some time ago, she discovered the Detective Emilia Cruz books through a BookBub deal for a free book. Read the free book and bought two more.

It was a vote of much-needed confidence.

Far and near

I worried when we moved to the US heartland that I was far from my sources of inspiration. Would I lose touch with Mexico and the culture that so inspired me to write the Detective Emilia Cruz series and thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY? I had been immersed in the colors, food, the language, the religious traditions that formed the calendar of life in Mexico City. I’m far from Acapulco, palm trees, and cliff divers.

But on the other hand, there’s no escaping drug cartel crime. Mexico’s homicide rates are going up in lockstep (see https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/death-toll-put-at-20-for-mexico-cartel-attack-near-us-border/2019/12/01/edd68fd2-149c-11ea-80d6-d0ca7007273f_story.html) with the US death rate from drug use. (see https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates). In my own corner of the world, the opioid crisis is painfully in evidence.

Related: Welcome to the Opioid Crisis

The Mexican cartels are inside the US. The biggest jefe is known as El Mencho. He’s got a 10 million dollar price on his head. CBS news has a great video report on his organization’s presence: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/el-mencho-mexican-cartel-boss-behind-one-third-of-drugs-in-the-us-2019-09-26/, even mentioning that he was behind the shooting down of a Mexican government helicopter, which I referenced in 43 MISSING, Detective Emilia Cruz Book 6. (FYI: Free for Kindle Unlimited right now)

Rolling Stone warned us about El Mencho two years ago, calling him “Mexico’s next generation narco.” https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/the-brutal-rise-of-el-mencho-196980/

Mirror, mirror

Facebook keeps me in touch with friends in Mexico but there are surprising sources of inspiration here at home.

Bittersweet

This vine called bittersweet wraps around trees here. A strangling parasite or a plant that sustains and supports the tree? It seems to me to be the essential question as I write the relationship between Emilia Cruz and her mother, the ever child-like Sophia.

Virgin

My small Catholic church has a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe in a niche to the left of the main altar. When I saw that, my Mexico memories felt tangible again. Not as far away as they were a moment ago.

Validation via work boot

We don’t hear Spanish spoken here very often, but my husband fell into conversation with two native speakers while buying work boots. The men were surprised to hear a tall gringo speak fluent Spanish.

Both were from the Mexican state of Guerrero. Near Acapulco, one added, assuming my husband wouldn’t know where that was.

My husband said that he was very familiar with Mexico. In fact, his wife wrote books about a female police detective in Acapulco.

He got some hard stares. “There are no female police detectives in Acapulco,” the other man said.

Some things never change.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Living With a Thief

Living With a Thief

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” — Teddy Roosevelt

I mentioned to someone recently that my goal for the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series is to eventually be as well known as the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny.

And got a not-so-subtle eye roll in response.

Thief in the night

Before I knew it, the comparison and the self-doubt train was rolling. I mentally cataloged all the reasons why Emilia Cruz was never going to rub bookshelf shoulders with Armand Gamache.

Related: The free Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library

Yep, I sat there like I’d been hit by a sock full of wet sand and turned on the stupid comparison machine. My joy was gone, stolen by an involuntary expression of someone who’d never read any of my books.

Stopping the locomotive

But why shouldn’t that be a worthy goal?

After all, the books enjoy the same mystery loving audience. Readers who imagine themselves at Olivier’s Bistro sipping hot choolate will also enjoy a starry night in the Pasodoble Bar with a mojito.

Related: Why Acapulco is an unforgettable setting

Usually, I’m excited that I’m on the right track with the Detective Emilia Cruz series. I love the Gamache books and see that series, as well as the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo and the Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith, as my role models.

Role models are great.

But comparison is a waste of time.

The case of Agnes and Martha

James Clear recently wrote about a famous case of self doubt. Agnes de Mille, the dancer and choreographer, told mentor Martha Graham: “I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.” Martha’s response was: “It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.”

Mr. Clear’s article has a really valuable message: “It is not your place to compare it to others . . . Instead, your responsibility is to create. Your job is to share what you have to offer from where you are right now.”

Where the joy is

For me, the joy has always been in the creative process. I love making up intricate plots peppered with my own experiences. I love wordsmithing and tracking down that elusive perfect word in the thesaurus. I love the process of dialogue, acting out both parts to the dog as Emilia and Silvio have another knock-down-drag-out argument. Dutch has no idea what’s going on, but it’s attention so all good.

Teddy was right. Comparison is the thief of joy.

The thief is always lurking around the corner, waiting to be invited in by a random eye roll or thoughtless remark.

But if the joy is in the creative process, the thief has nothing to steal.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

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