The Spy in the Room

The archetype most people have of a spy, if we’re talking real vs. reel (seriously, James Bond is a spy and everyone in all his movies knows what he looks like, what he drives, and what he drinks?), can usually be summed up in two words. They are “aloof” and “inconspicuous.” I say “aloof,” because the more distant you are with people, the less they can get to know you…. also, many less lies to handle under cover in terms of what you told whom. Additionally, others won’t be able to identify you later, because they don’t have details to jog their memories. “Inconspicuous” has to do with being the person you’d never notice so that case officers can move more freely.

For instance, I would make a terrible spy in terms of having the right skills for the job, but perfect in my appearance. I am a white woman over 40, who, dressed correctly and wearing a baseball cap, can also pass for a teenage male; I could even embody a tween if I dyed my hair.

For the woman over forty cover, all I would need is a sweatshirt with appliquéd school buses, pencils, notebook paper, and perhaps a chalk board for good measure. The micro SD full of intel would, of course, be hidden in a tote bag full of kid-level math books and flash cards.

“As a kid,” all I would need to get through airport security with a micro SD card is a Kindle Fire for kids and a Minecraft backpack…. maybe a t-shirt that is obviously a DC souvenir and the ubiquitous tween cargo shorts (which, for better or for worse, I already own).

The International Spy Museum speaks to this with a t-shirt slogan- a lot of them say “I Was Never Here” (the link to this particular t-shirt is cool as hell, fyi).

As Chief of Disguise (ten years apart) it was Tony and Jonna Mendez’s job to create these personas (link is to my source material), including the tiniest details. For instance, a rock in your shoe or an ace bandage around one knee completely changes your walk. An artificial palate can change the way you talk- perhaps adding a lisp. During Jonna’s lecture last night, she talked about Tony’s first quick change to show his superiors it could be done. 45 seconds and he changed from a man in a business suit carrying an attaché case to an old woman pushing a small shopping cart (the briefcase expanded).

After hearing her speak, the characterization of aloof and inconspicuous was demystified. I still believe that case officers have to be that way under cover, but in person, as herself, she couldn’t have been more warm and gracious. Her talk was a little under an hour, but it could have been three hours and I wouldn’t have moved. Not only was she personable, she was quite funny.

She told a great story about Tony… that he was originally hired by the CIA as an artist, and thought, “what would the CIA want with an artist?” The answer was painstakingly recreating passports, both foreign and domestic. He was also a genius at copying, and did a demonstration at the Spy Museum years ago in which he taught an entire room of people how to forge Vladimir Putin’s signature.

There were many, many laugh lines over the evening… there were also a few stories that were quite scary.

American case officers are not known for those Bond moments where everyone in the room is shot. Their mission is to get in, get what they need, and leave… often more quickly than you would think an intelligence operation would take. In Moscow, this is not the case. If you are caught spying against Russia, you are tortured and executed…. because to simply execute someone would be too kind.

Aleksandr Ogorodnik (code name Trigon) was recruited by the CIA as an asset, and because he knew what would happen if he was caught, requested what is called an L pill (a cyanide capsule). He said that he would not work for them without it. This was debated by the directors for a long time (due to the psychological damage done to the carrier, and its predilection for premature use) before they ultimately agreed, and hid it in a pen.

Trigon was caught in  1977, and offered to write a full confession. He then bit down on his pen, and was dead before he even hit the floor.

Trigon’s death was a tragedy, and not just because he was a human who knew he was better off killing himself. He was known as the best asset the CIA had, providing an exponentially larger volume of intel than others. The reason he was so critically important is that Moscow got so dangerous for American case officers that they had to recruit Russian assets, because the risk was too high that they’d get caught, even in disguise.

The only person that managed it was a woman named Marti Peterson. Jonna explained that since the KGB never, ever used females as operatives, they assumed that the Americans wouldn’t, either. She was never under surveillance, and was able to get away with being Trigon’s contact for over a year before she was caught. The only reason she’s still alive is that the Russians declared her a Persona Non Grata with diplomatic immunity and sent her packing back to the US.

The story is a miracle because as she was being interrogated, she was sitting at a large table where all her spy gear that the KGB confiscated was laid out in front of her one by one. Though I don’t know why she was considered a PNG instead of a case officer is beyond me, but my first guess is misogyny… which is alive and well today, but even more prevalent in the late 1970s.

It was about that time that Jonna ended her talk and started a Q&A session. I was second in line, and my question was about Argo. “First of all, let me say that I am sorry for your loss [she thanks me]. When did you and Tony meet John Chambers (the Hollywood makeup guy), and have you worked on any other movies? The one that occurred to me today that you might have been involved in was Atomic Blonde.”

First, she told me that Tony had a lot of friends in both Hollywood and magic, but didn’t know how he was introduced (I forgot he didn’t meet Jonna until years later). Then, her personality seemed to flip. She became a total product of her training. She gave me The Look,™ a combination of a smile, a winky face, and “I can’t say.” She redirected to “perhaps we should hire you.” I thanked her for answering the question, and said “that bit about ‘perhaps we should hire you’ will live in my memory for the rest of my life.” The entire room broke up with laughter.

There were lots of people with questions, and my favorite was from a young woman who said, “it seems as if The Cold War is still going on, but yet our current administration seems to be pretty friendly with Russia. Could you speak to how one feeds the other?” Jonna said that if they were out and both had a drink in their hands, they could talk about it, but she didn’t want to get into politics. So, note to self. Invite her to have a drink.

I don’t know why it panned out this way, but I was a little annoyed that I was the only person in the room that said, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Maybe other people were just afraid to acknowledge the spy in the room.

Before the lecture, I bought The Moscow Rules, and I also brought my copy of Argo, because she’s an uncredited author on it and I thought that was unfair.

I set “TMR” on the table and held Argo in my hands. I leaned in and said, “do you mind if I tell you a really quick story about this book?” She said, “about Argo? Sure.” I said, “at The Spy Museum’s old digs, they used to sell autographed copies. I didn’t have a job at the time, and I thought it was too much money to spend on a book. When Tony died, I realized that I had made a terrible mistake, and I wrote about it on my blog. My dad read it, and searched through every rare bookstore he could find. Two days later, it arrived at my house. I called him, crying hysterically, and he said, “don’t worry… that’s just what daddies do.” And that is the precise moment where my heart dropped into my stomach like a rock.

My story had made her start crying. I knew I’d pierced her public persona armor. Because my mother died in 2016, I knew it was the only thing holding her together. A string of profanities unleashed in my head, because I wish I had remembered other people had cried after that story and they didn’t even know Tony Mendez. She took the book from my hands and opened it lovingly, fingering Tony’s signature. She said, “I can really tell this was signed after the Parkinson’s had set in.” Under it, she added “+Jonna Mendez.” To redirect, she got serious and said, “so, are you looking for a job for real?” A shitstorm of pictures ran through my head as I pictured background checks that would put my family through the ringer and disclosing my Bipolar II diagnosis, getting rejected before I even got to talk to anyone that would take the time to know me. I said, “well, I am a professional cook.” She laughed and said, “well then, maybe I should hire you.” I don’t remember how it came up, but I also told her that I’d never gotten to see Tony before he announced he would no longer be doing public appearances. She said, “that’s such a shame. He would have really liked you.”

Then, she opened “TMR” and wrote, “For Leslie- Maybe we should hire you.” I shook her hand rather than asking if I could give her a hug, because I was feeling overly emotional and I knew she was, too. A hug would have undone us both. I told her it was such a pleasure to meet her, and the last thing she said to me as I walked away was, “I will remember you.” I walked very quickly to the women’s restroom, dropped my backpack, and cried my eyes out.

Feeling refreshed, I opened my Uber app and walked outside, desperately hoping that in some time, some place, we will meet again.

St. Elmo’s Wired

Dan and I are sharing a small table at St. Elmo’s, a coffee shop that serves Stumptown. I told the barista that I’d lived in Portland for a number of years and she stared at me like I was from outer space. You’d think if you were serving Portland coffee, you’d know it (Stumptown is Portland’s “official” nickname). But that’s neither here nor there. Less expensive than Starbucks and twice as good. They didn’t have a dark roast, so I just got a large and added some espresso shots to it. Depending on where you live, this is either a “red eye,” a “shot in the dark,” or a “wizard jump.” Personally, I picture it as stumbling into a coffee shop with my eyes half open and saying, “just fuck me up.” Although doing that rarely gets me the required results. Lindsay does. My sister is a magical being with coffee. For some reason, everything she orders is perfectly calculated to not quite stop your heart. When I’m with her, I don’t even bother ordering. I just stand next to her and say, “I’ll have what she’s having.” I don’t care what it is. Dragon skin, unicorn blood, nine shots double meth, whatever.

Caffeine is really my only vice, my favorite drug. I will occasionally drink alcohol, but I tend to go weeks without it because I get enough calories from all the crap I eat. I just don’t feel the need to add to them, especially since I go mental when the alcohol kicks in and I am not in complete and total control. Most people don’t feel this until they’ve had a few. I feel it immediately because of my size and lack of tolerance. I’ve also noticed that the sugar rush from even one beer will keep me up for hours, so a “shift beer” literally means “let’s not fall asleep until 0700.” I’m sure for some people, this sounds really fun. For me, not so much. I tend to keep resetting Stitcher, because I think it will take 30 minutes to fall asleep, then it’s “End of Episode,” then it’s 60 minutes, then the sun is up and sleeping through the day is a special kind of hell, especially on the weekends, when there are generally contractors working on the house when I’m trying to sleep. Nothing like trying to fall asleep to the uneven rhythm of a hammer.

Because I get sometimes very little and mostly uneven sleep, I have so much to do that I am overwhelmed, from laundry to organization to just getting a haircut (I like the one I have now, just need to get it shaped again). On the way home might be my best bet, because I also have to get a few things at the store… and by that I mean pads, because my period tracker application finally has enough data to warn me beforehand. When I got the e-mail, I was all like, “SO THAT’S WHY I ATE HALF A LARGE PAN PIZZA LAST NIGHT!!!” In case you’re wondering, cheese, cheese, more cheese, jalapeños. I’m lucky I still have some left. Really.

All of my rules about eating vegan at home go out the window when I am basically a premenstrual Cookie Monster, except that it’s not just cookies, it is anything and everything within my reach. Today it was a Carolina pulled pork sandwich and a Cheerwine™ If you have never had a Cheerwine, I do not know what you are doing with your life. If you live in a place where they don’t sell them, order off the Internet. They’re that good.

Also a big fan of Maine Root lemon lime soda, because it also has ginger in it. Great for a cold shift drink with no caffeine, because I’ve generally overdone it beforehand. I am extremely proficient in this area. Reminds me of a funny meme I saw on Facebook:

Me: These edibles are shit.

two hours later

Joins search party for myself.

Wait, you mean coffee takes a few minutes to kick in? #mindblown

It’s been about 20 since I finished my red eye, and I am still dragging ass. But, because it’s 1500, I am reticent to order any more, and I have a feeling it wouldn’t help, anyway. I have taken my clonazepam, Zyrtec, Sudafed PE, etc. In order to combat all that, I’d have to have an energy drink as well, where I would end up tired AF and staring at the ceiling most of the night. Right now I just feel like I am up, dressed, and still asleep at the same time. In fact, when I was at the Metro station this morning, I fell asleep while standing up against one of the columns. It was delicious. It was only six minutes, but it was a really good six minutes. I figured I’d wake up when the train came roaring into the station, and I was right, thankfully. I got a good enough cat nap not to trip my way to a seat.

I brought my Kindle on the train, and bailed out of “Trump,” by Bob Woodward, to give my brain a rest from the utter insanity of a world without time travel.

I switched to, unsurprisingly, a time travel novel instead. It’s part of a series. Though it’s not the first book, I got “The Chronothon” by Nathan Van Coops for free from BookBub, and as the months have gone on, some of the others have appeared as well. I just got the latest one from Amazon. I don’t want to tell you much about the series- too many twists and turns to give away that are awesome, but I will say that “The Chronothon” is a set of Olympic type games in which you also have to find your way through time to get to them. It’s the perfect “I’m going to Alexandria” read, because it’s light and fun so that I don’t get so engrossed I miss my stop… although that’s kind of hard, because if I am even remotely paying attention, I know that when we pull into the airport station, it’s time to pack everything up. I am rarely even remotely paying attention. 😛

I tried to get a good picture coming across the Potomac, but it took me a second to get my camera open, and then the lens was facing me. By the time I got all that straightened out, I’d missed my shot completely. Just imagine it was awesome. All DC pictures are. I don’t have to work very hard. Just quickly if I’m on the train. Blink and I miss it.

My next shooting expedition is going to be the new Spy Museum. So happy they’re getting expanded digs, sad that the James Bond exhibit is on its way out. With the Spy Museum, I have this funny image in my head of the museum in “Futurama” where all the heads are in glass jars so you can talk to them and find out how they died, etc. Everything from “trying to save the world” to “tripped on a sidewalk in Kabul.” The latter being me as a spy, of course. I can totally picture talking to the CI, getting the intel I need, and dying on the way back from something totally and completely lame. Like, my nickname would be “George W. died” for all eternity, because W. was almost taken out by a pretzel. At the very least, he never got stuck in a bathtub, though I’m not sure which is more embarrassing. Thoughts?

I would probably put it in my will not to put a star on the wall at Langley for me if the cause of my death was akin to tripping over my own feet.

“She gave her life in service to this country.”
“How?”
“She didn’t see a tree stump that was literally right in front of her and it was the one thing for a hundred miles with a big rock right in front of it.
“Brave. Like, that is seriously Seal Team Six valor right there.”
::uncontrollable laugher::

Which is totally how time travel would come in handy for me, being able to back up ten seconds at will…. except you can’t cross your own timeline.

“Are you sure you can’t let me walk around the tree stump?”
“Fixed point in time. I’m so sorry.”

I just have to hope that on the days I’m most likely to trip, my sister is there to help make me quicker than usual.

Personal and Global

My gut is telling me I should write something. My mind is saying, “I got nothin.’ This is because so much has happened that the pictures from each event are swirling so fast that I can’t grab one long enough to describe it. As one Tumblr user said, “do you know how much braining it takes to make the words go?” I’m not sure I’ve ever identified more with any statement. Ever. I am much better one-on-one, so I’ve been writing a lot of letters… believe it or not, there are actually some things I won’t vomit all over the Internet. I know it’s hard to imagine. I mean, I’m so shy and retiring when it comes to talking about myself. But right now, so many things are internal that I literally can’t force them from the river that runs underneath my skin into my fingers.

What I can say is that my birthday was full of joy at having my family here to celebrate. It’s been years since I had a birthday party with my dad and sister. What’s even better than that is my sister is the good kind of lobbyist, so I see her almost as frequently as I saw her when we both lived in the same city. Now that Congress is winding down, I won’t see her again until possibly October and definitely in November, but it was great that this month’s work trip coincided with the transition from 40 to 41.

Movies and television about the CIA are so fascinating to me that I love that my age is the same as George H.W. Bush’s presidential number. No comment on how I’ll feel about 43. In this vein, I would like to skip directly from age 44 to 46.

Interesting sidenote about CIA television. Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime Video begins in Lebanon, so I’ve been able to look at amazing pictures from the real country (it wasn’t actually filmed there) thanks to Hayat’s upbringing. For those of us just joining us, I rent a room from a Lebanese family, complete with photos in country throughout most of the house. Because of them, Lebanon is on my bucket list- too beautiful to ignore.

I will just have to find a big, strong man to accompany me, because I’m a feminist and I’m also not stupid enough to ignore the rules in a Muslim country. Lebanon is not as strict as some of the others, but I’m not taking any chances. Because I’m such an introvert, I’d probably be the most comfortable in a burqa, and I’m not kidding. I’m a writer and observer. Not so much with the talking to strangers, and although I am generally delightful in conversation, for the most part it is me overcoming my natural shyness and jumping into The Leslie Lanagan Show.™ You don’t generally get the real me until we’re at a secluded table, cups of coffee between us… and even then, we have to have known each other a while. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with people until I’m assured that they know the real me, and for better or for worse, love me anyway. But no one I’ve ever come across dislikes The Leslie Lanagan Show.™ It comes from years and years of practice. Fake it til you make it and all that comes with it.

It is probably for this very reason that I spend so much time alone, because I want to spend my time as an authentic person, able to walk around in my own gargantuan inner landscape. I think mostly about where I want to go from here, not career-wise, necessarily, but who I want to be as a person. As my anxiety goes down, my capacity for love goes up. It’s easy to love people who love you back. Hard to love the irritable, the angry, and the unknown.

My authentic self wants the capability to love the world where it is, how it is… and at the same time, so angry about the things that divide us as a country and as citizens of the world.

For instance, it is inconceivable that people are having trouble believing that Bob Woodward’s book, Fear: Trump in the White House is just a basic hatchet job, when this is the same reporter that broke the Watergate story and has also covered seven other presidents in addition to Trump and Nixon. For instance, my favorite Woodward book is Obama’s Wars, where he doesn’t even blink in his critique of the president, and presents some information that tempers unfettered adulation, such as his own Syrian blink of 2012-13. No president is above reproach, and while I admire Barack Obama greatly, and would do basically anything he asked, that does not transfer into thinking he is a perfect person. No one ever is. We are all angels & demons, depending on the choices we make and when.

Trump… opens with staffers stealing things off the president’s desk, knowing that if the papers aren’t there, he’ll just forget about the issue… and one of them involves instigating conflict with North Korea. I am not kidding when I say that almost literally, the bombs start dropping in chapter one.

So, to discredit a reporter and non-fiction writer who has an amazing reputation is infuriating to an enormous degree. If anyone is capable of telling this story, it is Bob Woodward.

Write it down.

So, to put it mildly, my thoughts have moved past the personal into the global, which is probably what is driving my interest in intelligence-gathering. One of the points that Woodward makes, which is very relevent at this time, is that the FBI and CIA have different standards for espionage. This is because CIA evidence is rarely used in court cases, and “the Feebs'” evidence often is. Therefore, vetting in the CIA doesn’t have to be quite as high, because it does not have to meet the “beyond a reasonable doubt” or “preponderance of evidence” requirement- the former in criminal cases, the latter in civil litigation.

This, of course, bit CIA in the ass during the WMD years, which has, in turn, made them even more cautious now… in the words of Martha Stewart, “a very good thing.” Now I’m just pleased with myself. I made a complete sentence using CIA and Martha Stewart. #touchme

But, of course, it’s not just thinking about the world that has me interested in intel. I am just one of those people who likes Knowing Stuff.™ To be in a room full of journalists or government workers is being invited to sit at the cool kids’ table for me… the reason I know DC is where I belong.

One of the great joys of my life is when Dan and I meet for lunch, and I get to walk her back to her office in Foggy Bottom. I’ll let you guess what that means. More fun to figure it out on your own. However, I will say she’s not a spook. But she’s sure as hell smart enough to be. Also, because she’s so small, it tickles me to think of her back in her Army days, running around in full battle rattle. I have no doubt that one of her main strengths was running right at the enemy and knocking them off-balance. 😛 (Oh, am I ever going to catch hell for that one…)

Now I’m back to thinking about the personal, all the light my friends bring into my life. I am one lucky, lucky 41-year-old. I’m not sure how the next trip around the sun can top this one, but I’m sure going to try. It seems easier when I feel like I’m literally lifted off the ground, the warmth of friendship holding me aloft.