I previously wrote about what it is like to work within the CIA and noted reality and Hollywood are not aligned. One question which continually comes up, given I was an operations officer within the CIA, is “are CIA ops officers as badass as in the movies or on TV?”

When I ran this question by my bride of more than 19 years, she giggled. The reality is, I’m not bad-ass. But I did over the course of my more than 30 year career serve in interesting locales and engage in interesting work.

There area, however, a great many recipients of the CIA’s Intelligence Star bestowed upon individuals for “voluntary acts of courage performed under hazardous conditions or for outstanding achievements or services rendered with distinction under conditions of grave risk.”  That’s indicative of someone who is willing to put others first.  Then there is the Distinguished Intelligence Cross, which has been awarded to only a handful of individuals, the CIA’s highest honor for those who through “a voluntary act or acts of extraordinary heroism involving the acceptance of existing dangers with conspicuous fortitude and exemplary courage.”

Yes, CIA officers have the opportunity to display remarkable courage.

Every day at the CIA vs. the Movies

Now to the mundane everyday existence versus the life of Jason Bourne or other high octane action-filled events. The movies are for entertainment, while reality is much more mundane.

Based on my own experiences in a number of locations around the globe, I would put the badass level of the case officer on the street to be largely dependent upon environment.

War zones require different operational rules than European capitals. The Hindu Kush or the Levant may require different rules than Sub-Sahara Africa. You get the idea. Weapons are a necessity only when they are necessary.

The idea in intelligence collection is to get in, get out ,and no ever knows you are there.

To accomplish such often required 99% preparation and 1% perspiration. It rarely is the work of one person, though the vanguard of the activity might be a solo officer.

Once one is on the go, the number of variables requiring on the fly judgement calls and decisions can escalate rapidly. We all know from our daily lives that Murphy’s Laws have never been repealed.  When the stakes are national security, and things don’t go as expected, you have no other option but to make them right.

Stones of Steel

A now famous operational activity which has been declassified occurred literally within the sewers of Moscow in the height of the Cold War – CKTAW was the code name and it is described in the book “SpyCraft” by Robert Wallace :

CKTAW, for example, referred to a special device attached to an underground communication cable in the Moscow area that recorded transmissions between the Krasnaya Pakhra Nuclear Research Institute and the Ministry of Defense.

Now think about that. Putting a tap on a communications line in the heart of Moscow, in the height of the Cold War. Then servicing the tap for a number of years to ensure Soviet nuclear secrets were securely obtained.  This activity might not have required weaponry, but it certainly required stones of steel.

This activity was compromised by two separate CIA operations officers in the mid-1980s – Aldrich Ames identified the existence of the operation to the Soviets (as well as the identity of a number of brave Soviet citizens who provided valuable intelligence to the US), while Edward Lee Howard provided more detailed information about the operation itself, post defection to Moscow. The Soviets eventually put all the information together and located the tap, deep in their sewer system, and no doubt realized they were facing off against the CIA in their backyard, Moscow.

Russian press published a photo of the environment where the emplacement took place in Moscow and drew a representation of the technical tap on the line.

History and Reality

The public tends to read of the operations which go sideways, and not the ones that are successful – as it should be. That said, a great many successful operations are now being declassified and histories are being written about the events which occurred during the Cold War.

For those who wish to read about both the successes and the failures I commend the Center for the Studies of Intelligence. I had the pleasure of a History Fellowship within the center and can attest to the rigor within their published works.

You might also find of interest the recent treasure trove of documents (millions of records) released by the CIA FOIA Reading Room Project to be great interesting reading, and full of the #badassery from which many tales have been spun.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of securelytravel.com