Our Neighbor, The Spy
An hour with CIA Former Chief of Counterintelligence, Jim Olson
By: Ashley Diamond Siegert
On Tuesday, June 12, 2012, I spent an hour with Former Chief of Counterintelligence for the CIA and current Professor of Intelligence, James Olson. The Summary Article can be found in the July 2012 issue of About Town Press. Below, is the full interview.
ADS: First of all, what brought you here to Texas A&M?
Olson: It was just a piece of luck, because when I was finishing up my last CIA Assignment overseas in Mexico, I applied for what we call the Officer in Residence Program. I had always thought that maybe someday I would like to teach, and this was a great way to do it because I would still be a CIA employee but then at the request of a University we send officers out to teach intelligence. We want to encourage intelligence as an academic discipline. I was designated to go to Marquette University when I got a call from George Tenet who was the director of the CIA and he said, Jim, guess who just called? President Bush. He is putting his library and museum down at Texas A&M and in conjunction there is going to be a school of government and he called because he wants someone to come down to teach intelligence and you and Meredith are the only ones we have ready to go. He wants somebody soon.” And what do you say to an ex-director of the CIA and a former president? You say Yes sir. I had served under President Bush when he was director of the CIA and as president and I have great respect for him. And I actually briefed him when he was Vice President and President, so I thought this was quite an honor. And we have never regretted it. This is a special place. The traditions, the service, the values the faith, integrity, it’s just like nothing we have seen any place else.
ADS: The CIA Now recruits more from Texas A&M more than any other school, is that in part because of your presence here at the Bush school?
Olson: I hope so. I consider myself a resource to Texas A&M students who might be interested in careers in intelligence or some other aspect of national security.
I know that our recruiters really like Texas A&M. They are down here a lot and the Bush school’s national studies program in which I teach is considered one of the top programs of its kind in the country and so the CIA loves this program. They are down here a lot.
ADS: You mentioned in your book that your ear for languages was one of the things that helped spark your recruitment to the CIA. How many languages do you now speak?
Olson: Before I got to the CIA I had pretty good French and Russian already, I think that’s one of the reasons I got recruited. The CIA Perfected those and then taught me, from scratch, German and Spanish. And that’s not unusual, that’s a very typical CIA career. Other professions do their thing, and in the CIA we learn foreign languages. We have to because we have to deal with our foreign counterparts in their language.
ADS: For a student interested in going into a career in the CIA, aside from language, what is your top advice for them to prepare?
Olson: I tell students that at that stage in their careers, particularly as undergraduates, it’s really simple. There are only 2 things that you have to worry about. You have to make grades, because we are very competitive and if you don’t make grades, it’s not going to happen, and secondly, you have to stay clean.
Because if they get involved in those high risk, disqualifying behaviors out there… and it seems like kids are getting involved in that bad stuff at earlier and earlier ages…it’s heartbreaking. Because if they can not pass a full lifestyle polygraph, and withstand a very rigorous background investigation and get their top secret codeword security clearance, they are never going to serve in the CIA or any real position of trust in the United States Government. Really, it’s sad for me when a young person comes in and says, “Mr. Olson you have to help me find a way to serve our country,” and I talk to them for a while and I realize, it’s not going to happen because of the stupid decisions that they made when they were 17, 18, 19. Its a shame, but thats the way it is.
Beyond that, Anything that adds international flavor to your background…study abroad, coursework, your major, foreign travel, reading, and maybe most significantly, foreign language. When the CIA recruiters come down here, the first thing they ask me is, “Jim, who has really good language?” There is probably no bigger difference maker today than who has good foreign language ability. Any foreign language. We will use any language but if your language happens to be one of the “Big 5” then your application goes to the top of the pile. And the big 5 of course, the obvious Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Korean, and Farsi. Bush school master students are smart, ambitious, they know where the action is, they are gravitating towards those languages. So we have several students here who are working hard on those particular languages because they know that they are in such high demand.
ADS: Do you believe that the explosion of social media is helping or hurting our security from an intelligence standpoint?
Olson: It’s a plus and a minus. Obviously we use it aggressively to develop information on applicants and foreign targets, I would say on balance, though, it is a negative. I tell my entering students here at the Bush school, be very careful of the social media. Because when you apply to something like the CIA, what is one of the first things we do? We scrub all of the social media sites and if you’re over exposed, if your photograph is all over the place, your whole life story is out there, if your indiscretions and stupidities at Northgate after a game or something is all out there for everybody to see, you can be disqualified before you even get started in the process. So be careful, you don’t want to be overexposed.
ADS: How about in regards to gathering intelligence overseas?
Olson: We use it. Its very very helpful. I mean our business is convincing foreigners to give us their country’s secrets. And so we target sources of intelligence overseas who may be members of a terrorist organization, or may be a member of a hostile government, or may be involved in their country’s nuclear weapons program, so we target them and we learn a lot about them before we even make contact with them if they are all over the social media.
ADS: On a lighter note, do you watch any of the CIA drama shows and have you ever identified with any situation you have seen on any of those shows?
Olson: A lot of them are very unrealistic, but some of them really ring true. I think the one that I particularly thought was accurate was Alias with Jennifer Garner. Jennifer Garner’s father is an Aggie and I have met him and talked to him and sent Jennifer a copy of my book and she sent me a very nice note. She’s been up to CIA headquarters. Shes a lovely person, very patriotic, we really like Jennifer Garner. And her show was good. It was something that those of us who have been there can really identify with.
A lot of the movies are hard to watch for us professionals because they are so far removed from reality. The Bourne Movies, I can’t watch, I think they are just awful. The James Bond movies have some good elements but they are not very realistic either. There was a movie a while back called The Recruit, which I would recommend because of the treatment of the training episodes. The way they describe the training for CIA officers is very accurate. And then another really good movie about our business is the movie Breech. Which is an accurate portrayal of a counterintelligence operation that I was involved in so I can vouch for its accuracy.
There is a big difference between the movies about spying and the reality of spying and I think the biggest difference is that our gadgets are much better than theirs. We have some amazing gadgets in our business. The marriage of spying and advanced US technology is a beautiful thing, it really is.
ADS: In that case they are recruiting a lot of engineers as well?
Olson: You bet. An awful lot of aggies from the college of engineering go to the CIA every year. One of my students was up at CIA headquarters last week for her polygraph and some of her medical and psychological testing and she told me that she walked into the polygraph room and the examiner had of course been reading her file for the exam and he said, “Oh another Aggie, huh?!”
ADS: Your wife, Meredith was one of the first female CIA agents–
Olson: —Don’t call us agents, we don’t like to be called agents. We are case officers.
The term agent refers to the foreigners who steal secrets for us. There is confusion because the FBI and DEA calls their professional officers agents, but its a mistake for us to be called agents. I tell my students in my intelligence class at the Bush school that it is a flunkable offense to call us agents. (Chuckle…)
But back to my wife– I met meredith at the CIA and we were definitely a husband and wife team. I couldn’t have done what I did without Meredith she is an amazing woman. She combined her professional career in the CIA with being a wife and mother, and she raised 3 children–
ADS:–Who you didn’t tell until they were in their teens–
Olson:–No, they didn’t know until then—
ADS:–And you mentioned in your book that when some of your peers told their children about their status as case officers, they would get angry, etc. however, your kids were more relieved?
Olson:– Yes, they were proud i think is the best way to put it and that made us feel really good. That is what we had hoped. You are always scared that they would be hurt that you had been lying to them all of these years
ADS:–But they understood it was for their safety?
Olson:–Yes they did, that’s right.
ADS: Back to Meredith, how did she get recruited and is she active in support of recruitment of up and coming female case officers now?
Olson: Yes, Meredith is an amazing woman. when we came here and I discovered teaching as something that I truly loved and wanted to do as my second career, Meredith said, I’d like to have a second career as well. So after this crazy life of spying, Meredith said, “I feel called to be a nurse.” And her educational background was political science, so she had to do a year and a half of science prerequisites before she was even eligible to apply to nursing school.
I mean awful things like microbiology, and organic chemistry, anatomy and physiology and she did it, and she got into the nursing program at Blinn and she graduated a few years back as a registered nurse and she found real fulfillment in nursing.
ADS: And so is she at all active in recruiting women to the CIA now?
Olson: What Meredith does, is meet periodically with women in the Bush school who are interested in exploring a career in intelligence. She will have lunch with them, or invite them over to the house, and sometime stops in and lectures to the class about the realities of this kind of lifestyle. And she of course has a very special perspective as someone who combined being a wife and mother with a professional career and I think it is very helpful for women who look at Meredith as someone who is going to tell it to them straight and be a good role model and Meredith’s message is that yes you can combine the two and you can serve the country and at the same time not neglect your family.
ADS: What is it like to retire from such a high intensity lifestyle and do you actually ever retire or do you always have one foot back in the agency?
Olson: Well, I miss it. I sometimes feel guilty that my colleagues are out there serving and I am not. We have had opportunities to go back. Bob Gates (Former Secretary of Defense) asked me to go back, others have asked me to go back and I was very tempted. Bob said to me, “You know Jim in our culture, when your country asks you to serve, there is only one answer.” I said, “Bob, don’t do that to me. I have served.” And Meredith really convinced me that what we are doing here working with young men and women helping to prepare them for their own careers to following behind us in the CIA and elsewhere was more important than anything we could be doing in washington and I think that that is something that alleviates my guilt about no longer serving. And I think that she is right. it is extremely gratifying to work with our aggies and to help prepare them for really important and exciting careers in serving our country.
ADS: What are the causes here in the Brazos valley community that you and your wife focus on?
Olson: We are both very active in our church, and Meredith sings in the choir and we are active in the brazos valley coalition for life Meredith is active in women’s groups, and I am active in a lot of Aggie sports groups, we have definitely caught the Aggie fever.
ADS: Your book, Fair Play, is a collection of case studies regarding the ethics and morality of spying. Where do you personally feel that that line falls?
Olson: We are facing a powerful, ruthless enemy in terrorists and I don’t think that we can successfully protect American lives with our hands tied behind our backs. We have to be given the tools to fight tough and that means that we do engage in things like targeted killings and renditions and I believe that those things are morally justified. I have no problem with taking waterboarding off the table. It is a horrendous practice. But at the same time, we must realize that waterboarding did produce intelligence that saved lives. and so its a trade off. It makes us feel good, but its not cost free. What I wanted to see come from my book was a clearer understanding of these moral issues and clearer guidelines from the government. And we don’t want to be in the “Never Never Land” where we don’t have clear guidelines, that ambiguity doesn’t serve any body well. I think its unfair to send CIA people out there to do this tough job and not tell them what the limits are. What the rules of engagement are, and that was the case before. So if the president of the US says “No more waterboarding,” fine. At least we know exactly where that line is drawn.
ADS: Is that ambiguity because the Agency is still so young that they are still developing the rules over time?
Olson: No, not really, it’s that politicians have avoided dealing with these murky moral issues. They would rather abstain. No politician wants to be charged after the fact with having condoned things that could be considered amoral or criminal. So, the CIA has been sort of left adrift. We have had to go out there with some uncertainty about how far we could go and that’s not good because someone in Washington after the fact that they went too far. Friends of mine in the CIA have been notified that they were targets of prosecution for things that they did in the line of duty and I think that is an outrage. Tell us what the rules of engagement are. Tell us what the limits are. We will not go beyond those points but in fairness to us and for effective prosecution on the war on terror, we need to know how aggressive we can be. We won’t cross the line but you have to tell us where that line is. And we shouldn’t be doing it ourselves. We in the CIA have gotten in trouble when we have tried to determine where that line is ourselves. We are too close to it and we are too susceptible to overzealousness because we believe in what we are doing and we are not directly answerable to the american people. In a democratic society, it should be our elected officials who decide what kind of a country we are going to be so it needs to come from Congress and from the White House.
ADS: Case Officers, similar to the military are exposed to many potentially traumatic situations. Is there a high rate of PTSD and burn out in the CIA and is there a support system in place to deal with those issues?
Olson: Yes, absolutely. I have found the CIA to be a family. We take care of our people. If we have an officer who is suffering from stress, whether it be PTSD or some other form of stress, we take very good care of that person. If you need to go back to washington to decompress or for any kind of treatment, it’s available. I was very moved by how much the CIA cares for its people. But, it is a very stressful career. Living undercover is very stressful in itself. We operate in some very bad neighborhoods and deal with some very evil people and it is dangerous. I would say that the hardest part of this profession is losing friends and Meredith and I have lost several friends who have fallen in the line of duty and its a great sadness for us.
ADS: As civilians here in the community, how many undercover operatives are we encountering on a day to day basis? Are we grocery shopping and standing in lines next to case officers?
Olson: Before I came to college station I asked our security people to do a computer run for me of how many former CIA people, undercover, live in this area…… (wink, smile) Enough.
ADS: Any way you can give me a ballpark number?
Olson: No, haha, I can’t give you a ballpark figure, but there are many intelligent persons in this community who are still undercover.
And that is where we would prefer to have been. Meredith and had planned to retire undercover and never have to reveal the fact that we had been lying to people for over 30 years. It is nice undercover, because you have this protective cocoon. Its safe and warm and cozy in there. Coming out has consequences. By coming out, which we were required to do by regulation to be on a college campus… that was the hardest part of accepting the offer to come to Texas A&M. Once you are out, you really can’t go back. So it meant that we could never go back and do what we truly loved which was espionage and covert action undercover overseas which we were prepared to accept at that point in our careers, but think about what you are doing is announcing to the world that when you were in those other countries, you were violating their laws, and committing espionage. And so Meredith and I are limited in where we can now travel overseas.
ADS: So if you were to go back, you would be prosecuted?
Olson: –I will not be visiting Russia anytime soon. While I was there, I violated their laws every chance I got. Stole their secrets, subverted their citizens, yeah thats what we do! I committed espionage in their country and they know that and they have long memories.
Secondly by coming out, there is a safety issue. A lot of people hate the CIA particularly in this era of targeted killings. And so, by coming out, you have to be very careful.
ADS: You mean with everyday citizens who disagree with the practices of the CIA?
Olson: Yes, but our real concern would be terrorists and narcotics traffickers. Meredith and I worked in Mexico city, we targeted the trafficers down there, we are not that far from Mexico here. Yeah, we would have prefered to stay undercover, but we don’t regret our choice because we love it here and we couldn’t have done this without that and we have been extremely well received by this community, and this University. We always had some concern about that because we have other CIA friends who have gone to teach at other Universities and when they got there, they found out that they were the targets of student protests or, faculty senate resolutions against having CIA on campus, or boycotts of their classes, things like that.
The CIA is not universally popular on college campuses. So, we were apprehensive about coming out from undercover because we had to be certain that it was not a mistake. It is kind of funny because when we came down here for the first time and we were determining if I would choose Texas A&M over Marquette, I met with this Dean who had been cleared for the process and I asked him if he anticipated any protests about having a CIA officer openly on campus and teaching courses. He just looked at me and smiled, and said, “This is Texas A&M.” Haha, and I didn’t really realize what he was saying then but I do now. What he was saying was that this community, this university will respect service to country. There is a lot of patriotism on this campus and around the state. We love it here. We have made many wonderful friends. We have no desire to go anywhere else.
ADS: Do you now consider yourself and Aggie?
Olson: I do…I do..My wife and I have definitely caught the Aggie fever, we love it here, we have season tickets to football, baseball, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, we just love this community and we love Texas A&M, what are you gunna say?
Olson’s Book, “Fair Play, The Moral Dilemmas of Spying” can be found on Amazon.com