Everyone wants to know, “How do you get hired to work for the CIA?” I remember looking at a large pile of resumes—there were hundreds of them—and throwing mine on the top. I had never met a CIA agent, and I had no idea what they were looking for, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t me. I desperately needed a job, so I threw my resume into every possible pile hoping something would work out.
I had just attended the CIA’s information session at Georgetown University, where I was working on my masters degree in Arab Studies. Recruiters like to shock the students by reminding them that this is not Hollywood. It’s serious business. They told us, “The CIA steals secrets.” “CIA Intelligence Officers talk people into committing espionage against their countries.” Yikes. This is hardcore. Not sure I’m up for this, but they’ll never call me anyhow. I was so sure I didn’t fit the bill. I slinked back to class and told no one about my little adventure. I hoped no one had actually seen me at the recruiting venue.
But it turns out I was wrong. I received a phone call two weeks later, and it shocked the heck out of me. The woman on the other end of the phone confirmed that she was a recruiter for the CIA, and the Agency was interested in me. Apparently, it was because I had knowledge of a hard language (I was learning Arabic) and extensive overseas experience. (I studied in the Middle East and had already spent time in six different countries.) My resume indicated that I was a person who sought adventure and wasn’t scared by the small things. While my friends were studying abroad in London, I went to Cairo and explored the back streets and alleyways of this fascinating city. I was discovering the Sphinx, exploring the pyramids, climbing Mount Sinai, and diving in the Red Sea.
But, it’s not enough to catch the CIA’s attention. You have to pass an extensive series of tests, a recruitment process that can last up to two years. Pursuing a position as an intelligence officer requires a thick skin and considerable determination. If you think that a smooth road equals success, then consider all of the bumps in the road I endured to get into the extremely selective Clandestine Service:
First Phone Interview: My first phone interview went well. The nice lady on the other end of the line asked me about current events. I answered all of her international affairs questions without a hiccup.
Second Phone Interview: The second phone interview did not go so well. The interviewer asked which part of the world I knew the most about. Without hesitation, I proudly answered, “The Middle East!” “Great,” she said, “I’m going to ask you about Latin America.” Oh crap. I hardly knew a thing about that part of the world. I had tried to learn by reading newspaper articles on Central and South America, but quickly found myself bored and focused on Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. I deeply regretted doing so at that moment. The interviewer asked me the name of the person who had just been elected the president of xxxx country. She reminded me that it was a landmark election. I was so embarrassed—I had no idea. I stalled. I hemmed and hawed. Not knowing what else to do, I apologized and said, “I’m not really this uneducated. I am so sorry, I just don’t focus so much on Latin America.” Total fail. I thought I’d never hear back.
First Personal Interview: Contrary to my assumption, I was asked to come in for the first series of personal interviews, which included three days of physical and psychological testing. The interview lasted a very long time (several hours). Everything was going smoothly until the woman told me we were going to do some role-playing. Knowing my specialization was the Middle East, she asked me to pick a country. From out of nowhere and for reasons I am completely unaware, I chose Saudi Arabia—a place I had never been to and knew the least about in the Middle East. What? What did I just say? Where did that come from? Turns out my role player just happened to be an expert on Saudi Arabia’s history and culture. Just my luck. I said to myself: Nice effort Michele, but I think you’re finished here …
Meeting with Psychologist: After completing several days of personality and psychological testing, I was seated in front of a psychologist who opened the conversation in a very unorthodox manner. (Mind you, I’m terrified, I think the CIA is a giant and knows everything, and I am utterly intimidated.) The doctor informed me, “Michele, based on the way you answered the questions on the exam, you’re either lying or you are a psychopath.” Huh????? I swallowed hard. Oh Lord, how in the world do I reply to that? What should I say? Neither option he gave me was palatable or true. “Um, sir, I was definitely not lying. I just found some of the questions hard to answer because they were situational and unclear.” He sat staring at me for what seemed like an eternity. My heart was racing and my palms were sweating. The interview never really recovered. It was a bust. I don’t remember anything else we discussed; all I remember is that I couldn’t wait to get out of that chair—I practically flew out of the psychologist’s office. This time I was certain that he was drawing a big X on my recruitment file, and I was about to be kicked out the door. To this day, I don’t know if he was a complete idiot or there was some method to his madness. But for whatever reason, months later I found out I was still in the running. …
Polygraph: To pretend that a polygraph is not a BIG DEAL is a BIG FAT LIE—unless you are a psychopath, which clearly, I am not. The examiners tell you not to be nervous while they hook your body up to a strange-looking device that we have all seen in the movies. You are told to clear your head, but because they are asking whether you have ever lied or cheated, a movie reel of material flows through your mind—every sin you have committed in your whole life. The polygrapher reminds you that you need to clear your head and just answer the question, but all you can think of is, Maybe I’m forgetting to tell her/him something!” It is at this point that all serious Catholics and conservative Evangelical Christians completely fail the exam because we know—based on decades worth of preaching—that even if we have considered a sin in our hearts/minds, it’s as if we’ve committed the actual sin. God sees our hearts, and the polygrapher must too! We feel so guilty for our transgressions that the polygraph goes haywire, making it look as if we just tortured and killed someone in the next room. For people like us, the polygraph is hell. There is no way around it. The polygraph is a torture device that is most effective with people who have a conscience. The rest seem to get through it without a hitch.
And yet somehow, despite my certainty that I had failed, I did make it through the gauntlet to begin my year of training—and I crossed my fingers that I could get through that!