Writers in the Storm

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December 11, 2020

7 Questions for an Espionage Pro

by Piper Bayard
of Bayard & Holmes

Writing espionage is a balancing act between being authentic and being so accurate that we embarrass political leaders, get people killed, and/or end up with some angry FBI Special Agents on our doorstep. As a general rule, while the non-violent embarrassment of political leaders who are asking for it can be rewarding, writers, like all smart and decent people, want to avoid harming any of our own people or having uncomfortable conversations with the FBI. My writing partner, “Jay Holmes,” is a 45-year veteran of intelligence field operations, and we are committed to helping writers walk that line of authenticity.

In my last article, Fiction Favorites of the Espionage Pros, inspired by questions during our recent RWA online workshop, we shared our espionage movie and TV recommendations, along with the recommendations of our friends in the Intelligence Community. Today, we want to share more of the questions and answers from that workshop with you.

1. Do CIA officers carry firearms? If so, what specific firearm?

Not photo of actual officer. We wouldn't do that. But it's a fair representation.

Most CIA officers and employees have no need for firearms and do not carry them. Most are analysts, scientists, geographers, language specialists, human relations, etc. Very few are actually in field operations, and even they might not carry a firearm if a firearm would be inconsistent with their cover. Others might carry firearms in the field with exactly no expectation of using them.

JACK RYAN is one example of this last. While analysts who are sent to the field are minimally trained in firearms, they are not expected to use them. In fact, one legendary analyst is known for putting four holes in himself with only one bullet during training. In real life, in the event that an analyst is sent to the field, they are surrounded by Marines or other serious muscle, and it’s said that if an analyst ever actually has to use their weapon, something has gone terribly wrong.

For a long time, Sig Sauer was the preferred weapon, as Sig Sauer makes outstanding firearms. Glock, however, has an outstanding marketing department. It also has a cheaper firearm. So now CIA officers train on Glocks. Thanks to the Glock marketing program rather than the merits of Glocks, Glocks are currently the most popular weapons for training and use. However, some field officers are allowed to take the firearm of their choice with them, and they sometimes carry things larger than handguns.

2. Do CIA officers receive monthly paychecks and a government pension?

CIA officers and employees of other IC organizations receive bi-weekly paychecks, as long as the Finance doesn’t screw them up. They also have to file expense reports and keep receipts where it wouldn’t blow their cover to do so. As with any bureaucracy, Finance is notoriously stingy, and the reimbursement process is tedious.

Pay is the base government pay scale adjusted for cost of living depending on location. There is also extra pay for those in the science and technology fields and per diem for people overseas.

3. If you are a CIA officer, does your family know?

The CIA currently requires employees to tell spouses. It has not always been that way, and that, like most things, can change in time.

Those under diplomatic cover inserted in embassies abroad might even have their spouses help them out with identifying and developing assets. Many, however, do not tell their parents, children, or extended family. The more people who know, the more limited job assignments will be.

People in other parts of the Intelligence Community may not be able to tell their spouses any particulars at all about their employer or their work. That’s for two reasons. First, because the divorce rates are high in some career fields, and a disgruntled spouse could blow entire programs and get people killed. Second, because if our enemies know spouses are never told anything, they will not be kidnapped and tortured for information.

4. Is the concept of a safe house for officers real?

Yes, safe houses are real, but that’s not usually where officers live. Safe houses are usually used for meeting with assets or for stashing or hiding assets.

Safe houses need to be located someplace where they don’t stand out. They will not be near any foreign intelligence services or in quiet neighborhoods where people would notice strangers.

5. The CIA is an organization for overseas intelligence gathering. Under what circumstances would they actively be intelligence gathering in the US?

Never. Not even if the target is one of their own.

If surveillance or operations are required on US soil, the case should be turned over to the FBI or the DHS, depending on whether the surveillance is due to a counterintelligence threat, a counterterrorism threat, or both.

In other words, HOMELAND, in which CIA officers are spying on a returned American POW on American soil, would never happen. Even the infamous CIA traitor Aldrich Ames was only watched by his fellow employees until there was plausible reason to conduct official surveillance outside of Headquarters, and then his case was turned over to the FBI.

6. What is nonofficial cover?

Employees with nonofficial cover are called “NOCs,” pronounced “knocks.” They are employees and contractors who are in foreign countries without official recognition on the part of governments. In other words, they do not hang out at embassies. That’s really all we can say about that.

7. It’s day one of being an officer. Do you have a training officer? Do you get a briefcase with gadgets and fake passports?

Actual photo of new hires during their first week. ... Well, okay. Not an actual photo, but you get the idea.

Trust me, everyone wishes they did. However, the VAST majority of employees, regardless of what department they are in, spend day one like anyone in the corporate world—filling out paperwork and getting their computers and software straightened out. In fact, this part takes at least the entire first week.

Then comes the Sensitivity Workshop, the Signing Up for Benefits Workshop, the Where to Find the Defibrillator Workshop, etc., that accompany any government job. It has been rumored that some operations folks finagle their way out of the Human Relations hoop-jumping, and that one man in particular has avoided HR orientations since 1985, but I can neither confirm nor deny that.

What espionage or other questions do you have for us? We love taking the fiction out of fiction.

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About Bayard and Holmes

Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes of Bayard & Holmes are the authors of espionage fiction and nonfiction. Please visit Piper and Jay at their site to learn more about their books. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard and Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter or Facebook, or at their email.

Spycraft: Essentials takes the fiction out of spy fiction, covering the functions and jurisdictions of the main US intelligence organizations, the espionage personality and character, recruitment, tradecraft techniques, surveillance, firearms, the most common foibles of spy fiction, and much more. Available in digital format and print. See Bayard & Holmes Nonfiction for more books like this one.

8 comments on “7 Questions for an Espionage Pro”

  1. Every time I read one of these very cool posts, I want to write a spy novel! And I don't even write spy novels. Thank you, and thank you to Holmes. 🙂

    1. Yes. A great example is the arrest of Ramzi Yousef, the FIRST World Trade Center bomber. The CIA does not have arresting authority anywhere. The FBI does have arresting authority. They have to work together to bring in criminals from overseas for prosecution in the United States.

      To arrest a criminal like Youssef overseas, the CIA locates the person and notifies the FBI or DHS. FBI (or DHS) makes arrangements with the resident country's law enforcement to detain the criminal. The criminal is then detained by the local law enforcement, which, in reality, often means the FBI conducts the raid while the local law enforcement stands outside the building, as was done with Youssef. Then the local law enforcement of that country makes the arrest and turns the criminal over to the FBI or DHS. If the FBI, the person WILL end up in the US criminal justice system. If the DHS, the person will LIKELY end up in the US criminal justice system.

      Hope that answers your question. 🙂

  2. Thanks for a really informative post! I found all of it interesting, but the Glock vs Sig Sauer competition was especially good. I'm saving this one for future reference.

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