He never once said, “If I tell you this, I’ll have to kill you.” Nothing quite that dramatic, but Steve Almy, former operative with the Central Intelligence Agency, did shine a light on some secrets nonetheless.
“Don’t ever call a CIA guy an agent,” the ex-spy cautioned. “An agent is the foreign ‘asset’ recruited by the CIA operative or officer. If you call him an agent, you only show that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Almy was the guest speaker at a recent AAUW forum at the county library in Placerville. That is the American Association of University Women.
The CIA runs several different kinds of operatives. Special Operations accounts for about 10 percent of the agency’s efforts, Almy said. Those are the former Special Forces or SEAL guys, basically doing “warfare” and “good at what they do.”
Although he was trained in all manner of combat, from brass knuckles to bomb-making, Almy was at various times a spy of a different color. As a “NOC” officer, that is one with “non-official cover,” he and later his wife would enter a target country as an employee of an American corporation doing business in that country. To ensure some measure of safety, he said the company had to be in on the caper. It was not uncommon for operatives to actually do the “cover” job and spy during off hours. He was treated and paid as if he were an actual employee (usually far more than his government salary), but had to give back the balance at the end of the tour.
“If the KGB guys start checking you out, your story and documents had better back up who you say you are,” he said.
Operatives who have “official cover” often work in the American Embassy and have diplomatic immunity. NOCs are on their own to a large extent and have to live as would another employee of a company stationed in a foreign country.
“Job one for a spy is to spy,” Almy explained without irony. By that he meant find out who is who in the “host” country. Go to parties, join the local golf club and keep an eye out for someone who may have access to that country’s secrets. An American operative has no chance of actually getting into another nation’s version of the Pentagon.
“I can’t get into our Pentagon, so how could I get into someone else’s Pentagon,” Almy joked. “So we have to look for a person who works in the Ministry of Defense, for example.”
Getting someone to actually betray his or her own country is generally a slow and deliberate process, he said. The basic steps are to “spot” a potential candidate. “Assess” the individual. “Develop” a relationship. And finally make the “pitch.” That is the recruitment — what the spooks call “lifting the fig leaf.”
Almy explained that the entire process depends on maintaining constant communications with headquarters. Because there may be one or even many other operatives working in the same area –unknown to each other — there could be a risk of operations overlapping or becoming unnecessarily complicated. Having one’s “cover blown” would be a very bad thing and likely lead to being “PNG’d” or kicked out of the country and declared “persona non grata” — or worse — ending up in the local prison.
Foreign “agents” have many different motivations for spying on their own country. Money is big, Almy said. Being friendly to America is common. Knowing and hating that one’s own government is corrupt is also fairly common. Sometimes an agent started for altruistic reasons and later demanded money, he said.
Americans are known around the world as “the guys in the white hats,” and during the Soviet era, many KGB agents knew they were the “black hats,” he said. Over the years, the agency helped a great number of high ranking Soviets and their families to defect to America. The prospect of freedom and a new life in America are very attractive anywhere “the voting machine in your country looks like a Kalashnikov.”
Assessing a potential agent is especially important. Almy said the entire purpose is to “know what the country has that we want and don’t waste time getting what you already have.” Training the agent to protect himself is also crucial to protection of the operative.
Almy spent a significant part of his career as a NOC in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam war. His wife went along as part of his cover and eventually became an officer in her own right. He described some hairy experiences living in a house in the jungle and enduring rocket attacks several times a week. They built a brick and cement “hot tub” in the bathroom on the second floor of the house. But its more important function was to serve as a “fort,” he said. It was stocked with food, water and a .45-caliber submachine gun.
Interrogating North Vietnamese prisoners of war was another assignment, not unlike putting little pieces together to form a large puzzle.
“We never tortured them and didn’t need to. I already knew most of the answers, so it was more about verifying if a guy was telling me the truth. If you lie, you don’t get your cigarettes or you have to sleep here in the dirt. We kept extensive files on three-by-five cards, so we could almost always cross check someone’s information.”
He was also in charge of a refugee transit camp on the Thai-Cambodian border for a time.
Almy speaks Vietnamese and Thai along with Spanish, Greek and “American.” Language training is basically the first course in becoming a CIA officer. Typically, a new recruit may spend a full year or more going to language classes eight hours a day. And even after such rigorous training, when he arrives “in-country” he finds that he only knows a fraction of what he needs to know.
The audience kept Almy talking for about an hour after his presentation answering a wide range of questions. One young woman asked how she could join the CIA. The answer clarified why Almy had used masculine pronouns to refer to operatives throughout his talk.
“Women can’t do this job in much of the world, so there is a built-in prejudice against women.” To highlight the point, he described a hypothetical situation wherein the American spy in Saudi Arabia is out walking the streets at midnight to meet an agent. A man could pull it off, a woman never in that or many other countries where women do not have such freedoms.
However, not to discourage anyone, he added that there are many other interesting jobs in the agency. Positions listed on the CIA website include Analytical, Business, IT and Security, Clandestine Services, Language, Science, Engineering and Technology.
The latter three divisions account for “more PhDs under one roof than any university,” he said.
Almy brought it down to an entry level saying “You need a minimum of a four-year degree and be under 35 years old. And know a lot about a place — preferably a weird place.” Knowing a “weird” language could also be very helpful, he added. Any language proficiency is a leg up on the application.
Indeed language aptitude is the first pre-employment test, followed by a visit to the psychologist, physical fitness and an extensive background check that includes investigators talking to your neighbors, looking at your school records and putting your entire life under a powerful microscope. About a year and a half later, you are summoned to headquarters for a polygraph test and with luck you take the oath. Once on the payroll, he said you will be given a polygraph test at least every year and often more.
Almy said in his case he simply called the CIA and told them he wanted to be a spy. Of course his older brother Dean was already an operative, and a family history of “spying” goes back 400 years. But he still had to jump through all the same hoops anybody else would.
He and his wife met in college and agreed that they both wanted the same kind of life experiences. To live overseas, meet different kinds of people, eat foreign food and “as patriots, we wanted to do something for our country.” That lifestyle would never include children for the couple.
Asked about the “Libyan incident” that occurred on Sept. 11 and left four American State Department officials in Benghazi dead, Almy said he would not discuss any of the politics that might be involved. With hundreds of locations and thousands of government employees around the world, he said “the president doesn’t know about every security plan… You need a good enough plan to protect you, but you need some good luck too.”
Describing the so-called “outing” of CIA operative Valerie Plame in 2003 by Washington Post writer Robert Novak, Almy showed a palpable reaction. The case eventually led to the conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide “Scooter Libby.” Speaking more generally, anyone who would blow an officer’s cover, “should be hanged,” Almy said.
After a career of negotiating an often exciting but dangerous path, Almy said adjusting to retirement is “easy.” He admitted however, with half-a-smile, “Occasionally I drive around Placerville doing counter-surveillance.”
For information about the many projects and programs being offered by the local American Association of University Women check the website at aauw-placerville.org.
Contact Chris Daley at 530-344-5063 or [email protected] Follow @CDaleyMtDemo.