Not my CIA

Not my CIA

I rarely discuss hot potato topics, but this week it became painfully clear that the CIA I joined in 1985 is not the CIA of today.

the nonpartisan rule

I entered on duty the day after Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration. At that time, it was made crystal clear to me that the CIA was staunchly apolitical and any deviation from that standard was an ethics violation. As far as I knew, this expectation covered all employees and was non-negotiable.

My mother once asked what people were saying at work about an upcoming US presidential election. I replied that no one ever talked about domestic politics. The CIA mission is external to the US and that’s where our attention was. We talked about elections around the world—Russia, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, anywhere voting takes place. But never the US.

It didn’t matter. Our national security mission was unaffected by US politics.

first crack in the dike

I still remember the collective discomfort in 2008 when an officer came into a meeting with a big Hilary Clinton button pinned to her purse. How could this officer be so clueless? It didn’t matter who the officer supported. Overt displays of political support were persona non grata.

The lapse was especially concerning to me because I’d spent so much time in Mexico where the intel services legally sway with the wind. It’s normal for the country’s intel apparatus to be used to target domestic political figures and/or parties.

51 letter-signing rule breakers

So imagine my shock when on the eve of the 2020 US presidential election, 51 former senior intel officers, including some I knew and worked for, signed a public letter suggesting that a laptop reportedly belonging to Hunter Biden, son of the then-candidate for president Joe Biden, was a Russian operation to discredit the Bidens.

Couched in the careful language of an intel report, the letter noted that the laptop “has the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation” and that “We do not know if the emails . . . are genuine or not.”

According to the Politico story below, Former DCIA John Brennan’s aide carried the doubtful letter to the news outlet.

what happened next

Many of you probably know the rest of the story.

Politico used a clickbait headline that went viral: Hunter Biden story is Russian disinfo, dozens of former intel officials say.

The letter became the authoritative view, used to substantiate subsequent reporting of the laptop as a Russian hoax. The experts said so!

The fallout ranged from social media censorship to legal action.

Some time later, it came out that the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board assisted in recruiting at least one signatory.

In 2023, former acting director Mike Morell testified to the House Judiciary Committee that he wanted the letter approved by the board in time to be released before a presidential debate to give Biden a boost.

exhibit no. 16

Almost 4 years later, Hunter Biden is on trial in Delaware for falsifying information on an application to purchase a handgun. His much ballyhooed laptop is Exhibit No. 16.

FBI agent Erika Jensen testified under oath that “the laptop was obtained by the FBI in 2019 with a subpoena from The Mac Shop in Wilmington.”

From the dates, this was obviously known well before the letter was signed by the 51 former intel officers.

Did any of them know? Doesn’t say much for their intel skills if they didn’t and says everything about their intentions if they did.

Going further, Jensen testified that FBI “investigators corroborated content on the laptop with Hunter’s iCloud that they obtained from Apple with a subpoena.”

Verifying the laptop’s content as authored by owner Hunter Biden and not introduced into the machine by Russian spies, is egg on the face of all 51 signatories. But their letter did its job as intended. They have nothing to gain by refuting it now.

my take

Morrell and the other former intel officials who signed that letter crossed a longstanding ethics line. They had not examined the laptop nor had any way to assess its provenance.

What they did know was that their reputations would carry weight. They knew their words and the timing would aid a US presidential candidate facing fallout from the salacious content on his son’s computer.

They also knew they were still influential within the CIA and would embolden those who might use an Agency position for political purposes.

Sure, you can argue that they were “former” officials. But being a CIA officer, especially for those who rise to high position, is a lifetime commitment.

Such retirees are forever associated with the Agency. They often get contracts to do work for the CIA. They have security clearances because of their association with the CIA.

By publicly flouting the CIA’s ethical standards and in such a high profile way, the signers of the October 2020 letter opened a Pandora’s Box in the form of political partisanship and activism within the intelligence community.

That’s not the CIA I knew. I mourn its passing.

Could notorious spy and traitor Aldrich Ames defeat AI?

Could notorious spy and traitor Aldrich Ames defeat AI?

I took multiple polygraph tests during my 30-year career as an intelligence officer with the CIA. The theory behind the poly is that basic bodily functions (breathing, heart rate, etc) react if you lie.

Every test followed the same procedure. I sat in a comfortable chair, got hooked up to the machine, and answered all the examiner’s questions with a simple yes or no.

The test makes you dig into your subconscious to determine why you react to certain questions. You never know if you are really reacting or if the examiner is trying to psyche you out for reasons you don’t know.

Inevitably stressful.

Here’s a protip: Never drink coffee before taking a polygraph test. You don’t want to feel any more jittery than you already do or make your heart race for no other reason than a morning latte. No bathroom break, either.

Without so much as a molecule of caffeine, I blearily stumbled into my first polygraph test, the one that would determine if I was honest enough to be offered a job at CIA.

The chair was a giant cushy recliner. The polygraph instrument was a cross between a suitcase and an electrocardiogram machine.

After the first round of questions, the examiner left the room (normal procedure) leaving me hooked up and unable to get out of the recliner. There was a two-way mirror so somebody was watching me.

Meh. I closed my eyes.

The examiner woke me up about 20 minutes later.

I passed.

Years later, I yawned during a test. The examiner barked, “Why did you do that?”

“I’m tired,” I said truthfully. “I haven’t had any coffee today.”

After I passed, he told me that yawning is a technique to defeat the machine.

On to Aldrich Ames

Arrested in February 1994, Aldrich “Rick” Ames was a career CIA officer who spied for Moscow, selling out a raft of important agents helping the US understand the threat from a nuclear-powered Soviet Union. No ideological saint here; Ames sold secrets to support his drinking habit, lavish lifestyle and newish Colombian wife.

Aldrich Ames

Aldrich Ames mugshot, Feb 1994. Source:

He was a “mole,” a spy within his own intelligence service. Currently serving a lifetime sentence for treason and fraud, he is responsible for the deaths of good people. Read the FBI report on him:

I am not impartial. I hope Ames is lonely and dejected and his prison food is noxious.

The years-long hunt for a traitor inside CIA was documented in CIRCLE OF TREASON by CIA officers Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille. I highly recommend it.

The point which I am taking too long to make is that Aldrich Ames was polygraphed as a possible suspect during the hunt. He passed. Twice.

When asked about his inexplicable wealth, he claimed that his money came from his wealthy in-laws, who were giving him a “free ride.” His claim was fact-checked, and yes, his in-laws were rich.

When asked about foreign contacts, “Rick explained that he had been introduced to numerous people in Colombia when he and his wife visited her family. He added that he had no idea whether any of them were employed by Colombian security services, and suggested to the polygrapher that this might explain his reaction to the question. The polygrapher accepted this explanation.”

He never defeated the polygraph machine, he defeated the examiners.

Interestingly, Ames was dumbfounded when he was finally arrested. He was sure he had outsmarted the mole hunters.

AI as lie detector

Artificial Intelligence (AI) seems to be able to do everything from coding a website to drive a car and write a novel. (I’m investing as soon as it can do laundry and clean toilets)

It can spot deception, too.

Lemonade Insurance depends on its “AI Jim” claims bot to spot fraud. The company’s blog tells how AI Jim flagged a fraudster who submitted multiple claims using fake accounts and even disguises. “AI Jim caught him red handed” and information was turned over to law enforcement.

According to researchers in Israel, a new technology that measures “the movement of facial muscles is 73% accurate at detecting when a person is telling a lie.”

The technology assesses the tiny involuntary twitches that LIESPOTTING author and expert Pamela Meyer calls “emotional leakage.” She writes “The problem (for liars, anyway) is that much of the time we can’t anticipate our feelings—our emotions catch us by surprise.”

What about voices assessed by AI? Changes in tone, inflection, speed of speech, etc. All these minute vocal changes can be giveaways, too.


If the counterintelligence team hunting for a mole inside CIA had had AI lie detection tools back then, they almost certainly would have identified Ames as the mole long before his arrest in 1994. Ames wouldn’t be able to control his “emotional leakage.” That would be enough to intensify interest in him and reassess his polygraph tests.

Moreover, the team could have narrowed the scope of the hunt sooner, too, as other suspects were crossed off the list more swiftly.

Last words

In the future, will AI lie detection be so reliable that it has the final say, instead of a human as was the case when Ames passed his polygraphs?

That could be a slippery slope.

As AI deception detection tools go mainstream, I hope we treat them just as that—tools. We can’t become wholly dependent on them. Let’s not surrender the human critical thinking skills that ultimately caught traitor and spy Aldrich Ames.

Don’t be Fooled! Decode the News with these Cold War Tips and Tricks

Don’t be Fooled! Decode the News with these Cold War Tips and Tricks

As fallout over the firing of Fox New anchor Tucker Carlson and CNN’s Don Lemon continues to percolate, I recall the Cold War techniques to decode the news used by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA was never solely about spies meeting in dark alleys. Consider the technical side—from spy planes to listening devices—where I spent the majority of my 30-year career.

But to learn how to decode the news, you have to look at OSINT. That’s shorthand for intelligence gleaned from openly available sources.

First, some background

Open source intelligence collection and analysis got its start in 1941 before Pearl Harbor when the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service was created to monitor Axis short-wave radio transmissions and analyze implications.

The new organization, known unofficially as “the Screwball Division,” recruited top linguists, engineers and social scientists. An early headquarters was TEMPO Y, one of the war-time temporary buildings erected on the Mall in Washington DC.

After the war, the renamed Foreign Broadcast Information Service–later the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service (FBIS)–was folded into the newly-formed CIA in 1947.

During the Cold War, FBIS primarily focused on state-controlled media in the Soviet Union, East Europe, China, North Korea, Cuba, and other “closed” countries. Its flagship product was the Daily Report, a daily collection of critical translations for each country or region. A news magazine called Trends, came out weekly.

A media analyst for FBIS

Early in my CIA career, I got the chance to write for Trends about messages hidden in state-controlled Chinese media.

During the Cold War, critical messages were hidden in plain sight in the news coming out of communist countries. News for the domestic audience could be different (remember, there was little other information getting to folks inside the country) than what was broadcast to the foreign audience.

If you dug into the content, and knew who mattered in their media organizations—the state-controlled media equivalents of Don and Tucker–you could essentially decode the message.

If certain buzzwords appeared in an official briefing or news outlet known to be a leadership mouthpiece, it carried certain significance. On the other hand, it they were published in something further from the seat of power, say in a Chinese-owned Hong Kong newspaper prior to the takeover, it was more likely to be testing the waters.

Some of those buzzwords are still around. If a Chinese media outlet refers to “sovereignty,” they’re talking about Taiwan with an implicit warning that no one declare it independent or try to defend it.

Carmen Amato at FBIS event, late 1980s

Talking OSINT at a DoD event in the late 1980s, a time also known as the Era of Big Glasses.

Beijing’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, recently told US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns that US-China relations needed to “stabilize” after a series of Washington’s “erroneous words and deeds.”

“The agenda of dialogue and cooperation agreed by the two sides has been disrupted, and the relationship between the two countries has once again encountered cold ice.”

If I was an FBIS media analyst now, I’d be frantically combing the archives to find the last time a senior Chinese official referred to “cold ice.” What actions did the Chinese take in the wake of those words? An economic move? Military?

US policymakers should anticipate a similar action now.

Related: My CIA “Coup Kit”

Cold War remake

OSINT methodology is more than code words, but also about intentional or selective media behavior.

In the past few years, Western media outlets have adopted characteristics of closed media that we studied so rigorously. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, Breitbart, the New York Times, Epoch Times etc, etc, cater to certain agendas, repeat specific terminology, self-define “newsworthy” to refrain from reporting certain stories, and so on.

Look for these indicators

  • Media reports are slanted or shaded a certain way,
  • Context or pivotal details are left out (how much and for how long),
  • Headlines are vaguely misleading (i.e. clickbait),
  • Facts that do not align with the article’s intended slant are buried at the bottom or in 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 piled on to obscure/deflect attention from potentially troublesome reporting,
  • Multiple news outlets use the same exact terminology to report/downplay/heighten an event.
  • Absence of reporting—if certain media outlets completely fail to report on a story or offer only a partial report.
  • Imagery is selected to shape opinions—for example, certain politicians are consistently shown as grim by one news outlet and smiling by another.


Your decoder ring

You can effectively “decode” the news by using 5 critical thinking techniques:

  • Go beyond information silos.

Search for a breadth of perspectives on a single topic. Read across party and political lines. Seek out sources you normally would not.

  • Find what’s hidden.

Hunt for contradictions. Compare past and present. Look for repetition of specific words and phrases. Probably not coincidental.

  • Beware of shiny objects.

Is important real news hidden behind distracting entertainment? Released at midnight on Friday after the weekly news cycle is over? Buried at the bottom?

  • Question vague language & statistics.

Don’t be suckered by vague claims like 35% better! Better than what? How was that number achieved?

  • Recognize Problem, Agitate, Solve.

This blog/marketing formula is everywhere. As media slides into infotainment and is ad revenue-dependent, look for news reports to use this formula, too.

Last thoughts

No Cold War methodology can beat the best technique of all.

Slow down. Be open-minded. Ask hard questions.

Is this true? How do I absolutely know that? What if I’m wrong? Whose agenda benefits from this piece of information and the way it is presented?

The first day that I walked into CIA Headquarters, I was greeted by a quote etched into the lobby wall: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

Still relevant today.

Note: Yes, that’s my old FBIS mug sitting on my desk.

Spying on Elon Musk?

Spying on Elon Musk?

Elon Musk hardly needs an introduction these days, but here goes. He’s the richest man in the world, has a droll sense of humor, is a naturalized US citizen (born in South Africa) and has 7 children.

Founder of blazing-into-the-future companies Tesla and SpaceX, on 30 May Musk tweeted he felt as if he was being watched, and cleverly implied that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible.


Elon Musk tweet 30 May

Twitter Related?

Musk’s plans to buy Twitter have sparked a huge online controversy. To quote CNN, Musk believes Twitter should be a “digital town square that abides by free-speech principles. Musk’s main critique about Twitter today is that it is too restrictive. Under his ownership, Musk has suggested, Twitter would treat content more permissively, pivoting away from content removals and account bans. He has also proposed opening up Twitter’s algorithm to public review so that, in theory, users could understand how it makes decisions . . . a kind of referendum on the future of online speech.”

Elon Musk freeing Twitter bird

The possible purchase has become highly politicized, fueled in part by the Biden administration’s announcement of a Disinformation Governance Board mere days after Musk’s bid to buy Twitter. Hardly a coincidence and gasoline on the already raging online fire, the Board was shuttered after only 3 weeks amid discussion of its legality. 

FYI: Personally I think Twitter has become a toxic stew. I maintain an account but am rarely on the platform.

The CIA angle

As a 30-year veteran of the CIA, and occasional talking head about the Agency, I’m concerned about the notion of the CIA “watching” a US citizen, especially if this has anything to do with the current presidential administration’s obvious opposition to Musk’s Twitter purchase.

The Agency’s legal mandate expressly forbids it from participation in US policy or targeting Americans. The latter responsibility belongs to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Codified in the National Security Act of 1947, the Agency’s mission is no secret.

“To stop threats before they happen and further U.S. national security objectives, we:

  • Collect foreign intelligence;
  • Produce objective analysis; and
  • Conduct covert action, as directed by the president.

We do not make policy or policy recommendations. Instead, our Agency serves as an independent source of information for people who do. We are not a law enforcement organization.”

Related: My CIA Career: Glutinous but not Unflavorful

Two Rules

When I joined the CIA as an all-source foreign intelligence analyst during the second Reagan administration, it was drummed into our heads that analysis was independent of policy. Over and over, we were warned about “clientelitis:” massaging intelligence analysis conclusions to align with the views of the client, i.e. the policymaker it was intended for. Just like the CIA website says: an independent source of information for people who do.

Related: Inside my CIA Career: The Analytic Puzzle

Carmen receiving CIM, 2016

With my Career Intelligence Medal on the Great Seal, shortly before Christmas 2016

Later, as an intelligence collector, the legal structure ensuing that collection stayed true to the CIA’s foreign intelligence mission was inviolable. Specifically targeting an American citizen was unthinkable and there were multiple layers of oversight to ensure it did not happen. Were there lapses? Not on my watch, not in offices I managed.

If either of these two guiding rules at the CIA are no longer enforced, there is trouble ahead.

Carmen Amato is the author of the Detective Emilia Cruz police series set in Acapulco and the upcoming Galliano Club historical thrillers. A 30-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, her personal experiences occasionally make their way into her fiction.

Want to know more? Follow me on Facebook or get Mystery Ahead updates in your email inbox every other Sunday.

Inside my CIA Career: The Point of It All

Inside my CIA Career: The Point of It All

Before retiring, I took a seminar about transitioning to the private sector. All the students were fellow CIA intelligence officers.

At one point, somebody raised a hand and said what everybody was thinking: “I’ve been an intelligence officer my entire professional career. It’s a very unique job. Who would want to hire someone with my skills?”

Related post: Glutinous but not Unflavorful

We all made sympathetic noises.

The instructor gave a laugh. “How many problems did you solve as an intelligence officer? Really, hard problems?”

“More than I can count,” the student replied.

“Every employer wants a problem solver,” the instructor said. “CIA officers know how to solve problems. In the private sector, that can be a rare commodity.”

The instructor’s words really resonated. Intelligence work is about answering the hard questions in support of US national security, like “Where is Osama Bin Laden?” or “What will the Soviet Union do if Germany reunifies?” or “What will motivate Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear ambitions?”

The answers are not found in the New York Times or the Washington Post.

A CIA career means solving the problem of how to get those answers.

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


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.

The work is unique.

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


Inside my CIA Career: Encounter with a Spyplane

Inside my CIA Career: Encounter with a Spyplane


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


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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CIA career


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


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:

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, 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:

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:

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


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.


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


Inside my CIA Career: Make it “Actionable”

Inside my CIA Career: Make it “Actionable”

CIA career

During my 30-year CIA career, it was always impressed upon me that we were stewards of the taxpayer’s money. With that in mind, there was effort to make sure the CIA and sister agencies got value for the money when it came to intelligence collection.

Several times during my Agency career, I spearheaded assessments to evaluate intelligence. Basically, this involved surveying customers in a systematic way to see if the information was useful.

Users of classified intelligence are found across the US government.The customer could be another CIA component, a US military command, the intelligence section of the US Treasury, the Department of Energy’s scientific laboratories, etc.

Related post: What I did in the CIA: Wordsmithing

User needs

One word that often comes up in these situations is “actionable.” In short, did the intelligence enable the customer to take action? We also asked what the customer would do if the information stream was reduced or even ended.

Every evaluation effort meant connecting with many conflicting agendas. The intel collector wants feedback to do a better job, the analyst wants more specific ways to answer intelligence questions from above, and the customer wants a crystal ball.

Bin Laden compound

An example of “actionable” intelligence: overhead imagery of the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan, courtesy

Transferable skill

Dealing with this mixing bowl of agendas created a transferable skill which I’ve adapted to being a mystery author. This means trying to make every character want something, which is key to building conflict between characters.

Do I draw on real-life experiences to write this type of conflict? You betcha.

Scenes in which competing desires rise to the surface are some of the more impactful things I have written. One of my favorite scenes is the conversation in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY between anti-corruption crusader Eduardo “Eddo” Cortez Castillo and a drug kingpin calling himself El Toro:

Gomez Mazzo laughed, a shouted bark that rang in the cabin. “El Toro likes this man!” he exclaimed to his bodyguards. He leaned forward. “A mutual blackmail, no? We have each other by the short hairs, eh?”

Eddo grinned and it felt like death.

“El Toro keeps the CD and Hugo’s, ah, operation, as you say, goes away.” Gomez Mazzo waved the rum cooler bottle in the air, his battered hand dwarfing it. “But you have a copy of the information and can take it to the media or the army or whoever you think will help if I don’t keep my part of the bargain. But if you make it public, we leak that you made a deal with the El Toro cartel.” He took a pull from the bottle, still smiling in triumph. “Romero’s pretty boy the dirtiest of them all. You would not survive prison.”

“That would appear to be the deal on the table,” Eddo said evenly.

Gomez Mazzo gestured at another bodyguard who took out a small laptop. Eddo handed over the CD. He could feel Tomás rigid next to him. Gomez Mazzo watched the screen intently. His jowly face hardened as he toggled through various files.

Eddo lost track of how long they sat in the cabin, the boat rocking gently as Gomez Mazzo combed through the data on the CD. Tomás was seasick for sure. His breathing was hoarse and his fingers dug into his thighs.

“We can come to an agreement, Señor Cortez,” Gomez Mazzo said at length. “El Toro may have lost a president but won an Attorney General.”

Eddo swallowed back a retort and took out copies of Luz’s sketches and a picture of Miguel. “These men aren’t part of the agreement,” he said. “If I find them, I will kill them.”

Gomez Mazzo looked at the Asian, whose only reaction was a barely perceptible lift of one shoulder.

“These are not El Toro’s men,” Gomez Mazzo said.

“So you won’t miss them.”

A smile flickered at the corner of Gomez Mazzo’s mouth. “She was a maid.”

Eddo met the other man’s eyes. “Nobody touches her.”

“Some maids are very good with . . . starch.”

“Just so we understand each other,” Eddo said.

CIA career

Find HIDDEN LIGHT on Amazon. #Free for Kindle Unlimited readers.

Did it make a difference?

But enough about me. Did these intel evaluations make a difference to national intelligence?

In a word, yes.

In one case, the evaluation was sponsored by the Director of National Intelligence and directly led to the creation of a new channel of actionable intelligence.

DNI logo

DNI logo and agencies that make up the US Intelligence Community

In another, CIA and NSA joined forces to shift resources and collect critical intelligence in the most cost effective manner.  My official resume says:

  • “Led CIA team, negotiated unprecedented partnership with National Security Agency” and,
  • “Findings served critical US Intelligence Community resource allocation debate and decisions.”

Although we didn’t know it at the time, the joint evaluation effort, coming shortly before the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, meant that a significant stream of intelligence helped inform US military forces in the war zone.

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


Inside my CIA Career: The Moving Picture Show

Inside my CIA Career: The Moving Picture Show

Thanks to my CIA Career

If you’ve read the last few books in the Detective Emilia Cruz police series set in Acapulco, you may have noticed that video plays an important role in providing clues and solving the mystery.

In 43 MISSING, the footage from police interviews and metadata information embedded in video, as well as speech-to-text video searching, are all vital plot elements. Emilia creates a database, using metadata, in order to do keyword searches against raw video.

43 MIssing

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In RUSSIAN MOJITO, the killer is spotted on surveillance video inside the luxurious hotel where Emilia lives.

Russian Mojito cover

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In NARCO NOIR, a hidden camera jumpstarts the action while a bit of movie making leads Emilia to a game-changing decision.

Narco Noir by Carmen Amato

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All of these ideas for how video helps to create or solve a plot element comes from my CIA career and my experience using video as an analyst, collector, or teacher.

Video for Intel Purposes

Video is an unparalleled tool for understanding environment, culture, industrial capability, personalities. The sources of useful video are legion.

Traditionally, news footage was the primary source of video content. From North Korea to Latin America, video has provided key insights. For example, we tracked the failing health of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. We tracked failing economies and crumbling infrastructure.

Related post: Inside my CIA Career: Analysis

Here’s a particularly affecting piece of video from BBC on Venezuela.


Recently, The New York Times, PBS, and other media outlets have published powerful video of China imprisoning its Uighur population even as Beijing denies it.


Social media has exploded video content. People enthusiastically reveal much about themselves, their environment and their vulnerabilities.

From dashcams to screen captures, there are so many new sources of video that can potentially be exploited for intelligence (and mystery novels!).

Video is also a learning tool. As the head of one of the US intelligence tradecraft schools, I incorporated video in training courses to illustrate intelligence challenges and formulate role-playing exercises.

Technical collection

I really learned the power of video as a technical intelligence collector. I spent hours monitoring surveillance video, tweaking camera angles, and identifying patterns of behavior.

The job was both tedious and exhilarating. Some footage was trash, other minutes were treasure.

But just like in the Detective Emilia Cruz books, grainy surveillance footage yielded actionable intelligence.

You can learn a lot from people when they don’t know they are on camera.

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


Inside my CIA Career: the Coup Kit

Inside my CIA Career: the Coup Kit


My official resume says this about the 5 years during my CIA career when I was an all-source analyst:

Performed all source analysis of geographic topics of intelligence interest in support of US national security, including National Intelligence Estimates

Action officer during 24/7 analytic coverage of coup d’état events in Africa, the South Pacific, and East Asia.

Let me direct you to the phrase “coup d’état.” When you are an intelligence analyst assigned to cover a country, and that country becomes engulfed in civil unrest, a military takeover, etc., you are the person expected to pull all the information together, provide analysis of fast-breaking events, and brief stakeholders, i.e. key decision makers like the President.

Related post: Inside my CIA Career: Analysis

Carmen Amato in the South Pacific

In the South Pacific, circa 1988

Step 1: Ask

The first question to be answered in a coup event was always “Are any Americans in danger?”

If the country is a major US partner or ally, if the US has a national security or geographical interest there, or if someone in the current administration has ties to that country, then there’s even more pressure to swiftly assess the situation, distill facts, and provide judgments in written reports and verbal briefings.

Step 2: Get a list

When I was an analyst, there were so many coups in Africa, the South Pacific, and East Asia that we developed a checklist of what to do if there was a coup in your country. My boss Jerry, who favored plaid sport coats and ran around in his socks, was an experienced officer who kept a “coup kit” in the office.

It was an actual box with checklists, phone numbers, and exemplar reports from previous coup events so when things fell apart in your country and you were called into the office at 2:00 am, you weren’t starting from scratch as the phone rang off the hook.

Related post: A taxi ride in Fiji and other tales

The coup kit also included a blanket and snacks.

Coup d’états aren’t always fast. A prolonged coup event could be a grueling marathon of reporting, briefings, targeting planning, and meetings scheduled to coincide when people across the world are awake.

Few meetings take place at your desk, but could be held at the State Department, the Pentagon, etc. I recall a particular week-long coup attempt in a country that was an important strategic ally for the US. We worked in three shifts to ensure 24/7 coverage, constantly trying to make sense of fragmentary and conflicting information.

Teams had to prep for twice daily video conferences, a stream of ad hoc special reports, and the regular intelligence publications.

Jerry’s coup kit was a great lesson in giving yourself the best possible advantage when you know hard things loom ahead.

Step 3: Apply the lessons

I’ve tried to adapt that lesson to being a mystery author by developing systems to streamline my publishing efforts and create repeatable processes. Every so often, I update my writing coup kit with checklists and resources to help me navigate the publishing world. A system of clipboards keeps everything organized.

Red cabinet in my office

Red cabinet in my office

And snacks.

What’s in your coup kit?

Backpack photo by Zephan Ayoob on Unsplash

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


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