What do spies tell their families?
October 16, 2005 7:29 AM   Subscribe

What do real spies tell their familes?

For example, what did Joseph Wilson think that his wife did? Does it really have to be a secret from that kind of family if you in espionage? I have been watching the show Alias and it always seemed to me to be so implausible that the main character would tell her roommate and everyone else that she worked in a bank.
posted by donkeymon to Work & Money (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I used to work with a friend who's Dad was a spy when she was growing up. The Dad's actual job was something in the American embassy in whatever country they lived in. I believe that his wife knew, but he kept it absoluely secret from both of the kids. He didn't tell his daughter until she was grown up, he had retired, and some amount of time had passed. He still can't tell her any details, if I remember correctly, because of a non-disclosure type of agreement that was part of his spy employment.
posted by MsMolly at 7:45 AM on October 16, 2005

Just wanted to add: I imagine that it's very infrequently that spying is a full-time job, a la Alias. So it's not so much that you have to lie about what you do for a day job. You actually do work at that day job. Spying is more like a second job that you do in your spare time.
posted by MsMolly at 7:47 AM on October 16, 2005

I don't know exactly what kind of answers you'd expect to get, but my father used to work in weapons development for the DOD and had Q level clearance (basically as high as you can get) and this might apply.

The only things I've ever been told have been when I first brought up a subject with him, and even then he would only give a passive acknowledgement. These were things that have long since come out in the open. I -do- know that there are several things he has not, and possibly will never tell me.

My family's ignorance of his work directly correlates with their own safety.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:02 AM on October 16, 2005

I used to work with a former spy who was always officially some kind of low-level State Department (embassy/consulate) employee. I don't know what exactly her husband did on paper, but I'm sure it all looked legit from the outside. Their families never questioned it.

They both quit when the kids were teenagers and later did clue them in to the extent that they could. The kids had a number of "oh!" moments, but they never had any idea at the time.

In this case my coworker had gotten into the business as a single mom with very small kids and later married someone on the inside, so I never heard what the protocol was if you had a civilian spouse. I imagine they know the basics, because there are a certain number of security precautions one has to take on a day-to-day basis.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:14 AM on October 16, 2005

In reference to the Joseph Wilson example, because he was a high-ranking government official, they were able to discuss her career from the start. I remember reading that that was a large part of the initial attraction of their relationship.

Also, Valerie Plame did not work in an American embassy - she was a "non-official cover" agent, meaning that she was in other countries without an official US Government excuse and no diplomatic immunity. In a way, that was part of the severity of the breach - if an official cover agent is revealed, it's not as big of a deal as obviously there are American spies working in our embassies. Valerie Plame worked for a private company set up secretly by the CIA as a front for their operatives, and when she was revealed, it also blew the cover of every other agent working at that company.
posted by awesomebrad at 8:14 AM on October 16, 2005

Also consider that a spy can actually be an employee of the institution on which they are spying. For example, consider Robert Hanssen, he spied for the Soviet Union and was employed as an FBI agent. While he originally kept the fact of his spying a secret from his wife, he eventually told her about his activities.

In the case of Victor Cherkashin (the KGB agent who was Robert Hanssen's handler), his wife knew that Cherkashin worked for the KGB. However, that might be considered somewhat of a special case since she too worked for the KGB.
posted by RichardP at 8:16 AM on October 16, 2005

Most people who work in the intelligence community have some sort of official cover work - so instead of saying "I manage undercover operatives in the Eastern European theater of operations." you tell people that you "are a protocol officer for the State Department."

This cover is often close enough to your actual job that any potential disclosure of innocuous information - like where you've been, where you're going, what a particular item or document or bit of information is for - fits in with your official cover.

Depending on the covertness of the work, it's VERY possible that no one knows what you do - there is no exemption to the rules of classification for relatives. If the very nature of your actual job is classified, your spouse should not be aware of it.

You are correct though that it's ridiculous to have some of the cover stories that happen with Hollywood spies - I think True Lies is one of the best examples. Who in their right mind would believe that Arnie was a salesman? Plus, all it takes is for his wife to find a shell casing, government document, fake passport or any of the other trappings of international-man-of-mysterydom and the whole cover comes crashing down. If he had claimed to be working for corporate security, U.S. Customs, a defense contractor or any number of other things, she would not find any of these things out of the ordinary.

On the other hand, the VAST majority of highly-classified work is mundane and routine for all but the highest-level people. This is due to the compartmentalized nature of the system, where you will only be working on a tiny subset of the information and will not even be aware what the point of your work is. Think of it like working on a puzzle: all day long, you are putting together light blue pieces, unaware of whether the whole picture is sky, ocean, both or something else entirely. Someone else on the project spends his time putting together green pieces and knows nothing about your blue ones. It's only when you get far enough up the chain of command that someone is aware that there EXIST both green and blue pieces, and even farther up that someone is aware of how the whole puzzle looks.

I have to go now...I think there's someone knocking on the door.
posted by jetdata at 8:25 AM on October 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to add: I imagine that it's very infrequently that spying is a full-time job, a la Alias.

Well, there are a lot of intelligence analyst types who work in Langley and such places. They probably tell their family that they work for the CIA/DOD/NSA but do not discuss any specifics of what they do.

Oh and funny that you should notice this implausibility when the show is full of magical technology and an espionage organization that not only has actual offices in LA but also has pretended successfully to be a part of CIA for a long time.
posted by lazy-ville at 8:34 AM on October 16, 2005

The people I know (tangentially) who are involved in that sort of work usually say they "work for the State Department." If asked for more specifics, it would be something along the lines of what jetdata said -- vague, not quite a lie, but certainly not the whole picture.

My aunt once ran into an old friend from high school who now "works for the State Department." He gave her a business card -- other than his name, it was utterly blank. (I imagine he wrote on some contact info; otherwise the giving of the card would be pretty useless, except to make for an amusing story.)
posted by alyxstarr at 8:39 AM on October 16, 2005

"Bye Honey, I'm going to work now!" [wink] [wink] [nudge] [nudge]
posted by blue_beetle at 8:44 AM on October 16, 2005

Glib Answer: If I told you, I'd have to kill you.
Serious Answer: This book seems interesting.
posted by themadjuggler at 9:06 AM on October 16, 2005

I used to work with a former spy who was always officially some kind of low-level State Department (embassy/consulate) employee.

Actually, this is Vaughn's cover in Alias. In one of the episodes, a Bad Guy did a search on his name and it came up that he worked for the State Department. Immediately, the bad guy says, "He's CIA!"

/Alias geek
posted by callmejay at 9:07 AM on October 16, 2005

The classic spy cover is cultural attache.

I've known the kids of lots of spies who didn't know what their parents did at the time. Like people said above, they believed the cover.

Re Wilson, from a Vanity Fair profile:

"He had met Plame in February 1997 at a reception at the Washington home of the Turkish ambassador. He says that when his eyes fell on her from across the room he thought he knew her. He realized as he drew near that he did not-and that it was love at first sight. From that moment on, he says, "she did not let anyone into the conversation, and I did not let anyone into the conversation."

At the time, Wilson was based in Stuttgart, serving as the political adviser to George Joulwan, the U.S. general in charge of the European command; Plame was based in Brussels. Meeting in Paris, London, and Brussels, they got very serious very quickly. On the third or fourth date, he says, they were in the middle of a "heavy make-out" session when she said she had something to tell him. She was very conflicted and very nervous, thinking of everything that had gone into getting her to that point, such as money and training.

She was, she explained, undercover in the C.I.A. "It did nothing to dampen my ardor," he says. "My only question was: Is your name really Valerie?" "
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:25 AM on October 16, 2005

Um, huh. How about that. Given all these premises, I think my Dad might've been a spy (vague State Department job, several business trips for which no reasons could be disclosed, me being stumped when someone asked me what my Dad did for a living). He's retired now, and I still have no idea what he did for 30 years of his life.
posted by Zosia Blue at 9:29 AM on October 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

In case yoiu're interested, the careers section of MI6's new website says:

"Because of the nature of this work potential candidates should not divulge to anyone, other than a spouse or close partner, their application to SIS. Failure to observe the confidentiality of an application may affect eligibility for employment."

posted by flashboy at 10:02 AM on October 16, 2005

I had a summer job at Langley many years ago, made possible because my father worked there. He made no secret of it, even car-pooled to work with some other openly-agency-employed folks, altho he never talked about exactly what he did; he said he worked in the “non-clandestine” branch, and he had lots of foreign assignments both short and long-term.

I certainly had no cover, nor do I recall ever being told to be particularly discreet about the dumb clerical stuff I was doing. But, oddly, my immediate supervisor, when she discovered that I went to the same school as her daughter, warned me that she had a cover she told her family: She supposedly worked for some other gov’t agency, in a distant part of DC. It spooked me, thinking about how she must have had to conceal even her route to work, and wondering what made what she was doing so sensitive...
posted by dpcoffin at 10:40 AM on October 16, 2005

I dated a Russian spy once. I didn't know she was a spy or, for that matter, Russian. She passed herself off as French Canadian by way of Germany. She worked in an insurance company here in Toronto and was, she told me, separated from her husband (who I had met). He worked at a large camera retailer in Canada (Black's).

One night around midnight I was visited by CSIS (Canadian FBI) and "interogated" about my relationship with the woman (her "name" was Laurie Lambert)--the agent refused to tell me why she was being investigated or how CSIS knew that I was "connected" to the woman (I hadn't seen her in 2 years I think).

Turns out that both her and her 'husband' were spies and that they had taken their names from dead French Canadian siblings (I found all this out later from the newspaper). At the time they were apprehended, I believe she was engaged (or at least in a serious relationship) with a Toronto-based doctor who, of course, had no idea about her real background.

So, though I don't have a definitive answer for you, in my experience spies tell no one, including those close to them, that they are spies. As the CSIS agent told me on her way out of my house, 'No one is who they claim to be. People just lie to different degrees.'
posted by dobbs at 10:45 AM on October 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

I knew children of CIA types ostensibly attached to the State Department. They knew at the time and some were even indiscreet enough to let others know. Of course, it might have been bravado, but their home address stateside was Langley....

(And they did get more discreet as they grew older.)
posted by IndigoJones at 10:52 AM on October 16, 2005

My cousin's dad works for "a company," and makes regular trips to this area that's know to have lots of satellites in Australia. I don't think he's an actual spy, but it's pretty clear he does something with intelligence -- and his family knows, though they don't know the specifics.

My dad worked for the State Department for 30 years, and he would always tell us who the spies were when we were posted overseas. They'd also live in State Department housing, their kids would go to the same American schools, their spouses would hang out with the other spouses, but they'd have job titles that didn't actually exist within the State Department hierarchy and mysterious job duties. It was easy for the real State employees to identify them.

I'm not sure their kids knew what they did for a living, though. My parents swore us to secrecy and we weren't supposed to talk about it. I suspect that just talking about it around the dinner table with my parents was enough to alert the foreign authorities when we lived in China and communist Poland, though, because we were all bugged and spied on there.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:05 AM on October 16, 2005

I met a retired pilot who told me he did missionary work with an organization called "Christians In Action". Other experiences corroborate the "Low-level job with the State Dept." stuff.
posted by Triode at 12:17 PM on October 16, 2005

"In early 1961, Chaim Herzog, Chief of Military Intelligence and later president of Israel, signed the document authorizing Cohen's use as a spy. He was driven to the airport, where his wife Nadia saw him off. She understood from him that he would be working for the Ministry of Defense, but she didn't know where or in what capacity. She was told he would be completely safe and she believed that until his capture in 1965." [via]
posted by ori at 1:10 PM on October 16, 2005

I'm thinking "The best stories are never told", but decided, as I sometimes do, to Google before posting. I got this website, which, appropriately enough, is full of dead links.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:15 PM on October 16, 2005

My ex-father-in-law turned out to be a CIA operative. He had a "legit" -- if a little strange -- cover job that sent him to a certain part of Asia for months at a time, over and over again. His step-kids and I were completely in the dark, though I think his wife must have known. He fessed up after retirement.
posted by sntamonica at 1:20 PM on October 16, 2005

I have been watching the show Alias and it always seemed to me to be so implausible that the main character would tell her roommate and everyone else that she worked in a bank.

Luckily, that's the only implausible thing about that show.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:49 PM on October 16, 2005

I have a relative who's worked in the clandestine services since college. We're a small and nosy family; nevertheless, we don't know what he does. He's always been up front about the fact that he can't tell us about his job; I have no idea why he doesn't have a "cover," but he doesn't, at least not with us. We knew he worked for the CIA for many years, and that he transferred to the State Department a few years ago. As a kid, I used to think he was James Bond. Now, I'm pretty sure he's more like Dilbert, except with security clearance.
posted by junkbox at 7:31 PM on October 16, 2005

They pose as writers.
posted by Hildago at 9:48 PM on October 16, 2005

You are correct though that it's ridiculous to have some of the cover stories that happen with Hollywood spies - I think True Lies is one of the best examples. Who in their right mind would believe that Arnie was a salesman?

Indeed. But the original French version had a more plausible actor :
He's the guy on the right. And, yes, the French actress was replaced by Jamie Lee Curtis. Don't ask :)
posted by XiBe at 6:48 AM on October 17, 2005

I was once told, after pressing, "I have a career position at the State Department - I monitor technology transfers in Southeast Asia."

That guy was a spy.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:33 PM on October 17, 2005

a friend-of-a-friend applied for a job with ASIO (the Australian spying folks) out of university... and then suddenly changed his story to "I need to move to Canberra because I've been offered a job at the ATO" (the tax office)...
posted by russm at 7:56 AM on October 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

I bet most intelligent spouses of spies know (or strongly suspect). My wife and I work miles apart in totally different industries, but I have a pretty intimate knowledge of what goes on in her workplace and what she does. She knows about my worklife too. We tell each other things.

Sure, she might be making up a cover story, but if so, it's a REALLY elaborate one. It gains new details every day. This seems like a waste of time. Better solutions would involve either her telling me she's a spy and swearing me to secrecy (maybe without telling her bosses) or bringing me to the CIA and officially having me swear to secrecy (I would think the CIA would have some sort of procedure for this, rather than some naive rule like "don't tell your spouse.")

When you live with someone, it's really hard to keep secrets from them, and it's stupid to assume secrets won't be kept.

Sure, SOME people don't ask (or care about) details of their spouse's work (I've heard people say, "I don't really know what my husband does"), but that's far from universally true. If my wife only gave me vague answers about her work, I'd become suspicious really quickly.
posted by grumblebee at 9:32 AM on October 18, 2005

In late 1993, I met a British guy arriving at JFK who was waiting for the helicopter ride into Manhattan, who described his job as "freelancing for the Foreign Office".

When pressed, he stated that this involved turning up in foreign countries "just before the trouble started", in order to act as go-between between embassy staff and whoever was going to start the trouble.

Apparently he ruined a number of suits diving into the nearest storm drain when the shooting started.

The other weird thing he said, was that he was present when that helicopter fell off the Pan-Am building years ago. Makes you wonder...

Interestingly, he was arriving in NYC to introduce Maggie Thatcher at a speech that evening. Another little freelance assignment...
posted by blue_wardrobe at 7:44 PM on October 20, 2005

Let's see....

There was a famous spy in the 1800s who told everybody he was a spy....kind of reverse psychology, like in Grosse Point Blank. Just a neat anecdote I thought I'd share.

I know a few military intelligence types. One is an analyst, i.e. not a spy. When pressed for what he does he says "I work in Langley" and then smiles.

Another guy I know says he works in military intelligence, but can't tell you anything about it. He disappears for up to a month at a time, and his wife doesn't even know anything about it until it happens. She knows he's MI, of course, but not what he does. She's still not used to it. It always reminded me of that crappy Charlie Sheen movie about Navy SEALS.

A retired foreign service agent I met said he worked for the CIA in their "monkey business" division.

I've heard about using "cultural attache" before, along with the "I work for the State Department" line. These are both clandestine service official cover stories. I think of Pierce Brosnan in "The Thomas Crown Affair". These are the spies that the host country may know is a spy so they've gotta be pretty sneaky.

If you're a mole, you work for an actual company and your wife may know (Robert Hanssen) or may not, I suppose. Your classic "spy", I would think. It appears to be up to the actual spy.

I assume NON-official cover (Valerie Plame) you're supposed to be a foreign civilian in another country doing some type of work. Makes me think that Sydney Bristow's "Bank" story isn't too bad. Its equivalent to working for "Christians in Action" or as an ex-pat author. I'd also imagine it'd be harder to tell your spouse, but that's all speculation. All I know is that you're bankrolled by an American company that is bankrolled by the CIA so you get to do a lot of things that official government employees aren't supposed to do.
posted by taumeson at 12:19 PM on November 1, 2005

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