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When I Was Spy for A Day

Guest Column Steve Altes

In the mid-80s, while my liberal MIT classmates were busy attending pro-Sandinista rallies and boycotting Coors, I decided to really rebel and try for a summer job with the CIA. The world was a dangerous place and I was going to make it safer. Or, at the very least, protect U.S. multinational business interests abroad. I figured if life as we know it seems to require graduate degrees, one might as well wield them adventurously. So I signed up for an on-campus interview with the local CIA recruiter.

To enter the interview room I had to sidestep a group of student protesters bearing "Culpable In Assassination" signs. This made me tense, the Agency recruiter broke the ice by saying, "Forget about them. Hey, know how you become Communist? Go to Harvard and turn left."

At the end of a pretty good interview the recruiter stressed absolute secrecy: No one could know I was applying. It saddened me to think of conversations that could never be: I worked at the salad bar at Sizzler this summer. What did you do, Steve?' Oh nothing much. Parachuted into Afghanistan, infiltrated the Soviet Union, sabotaged the guidance package on an SS-17.' "

From that point on, the CIA used brown envelopes to correspond with me. My roommate thought I had a secret porno subscription; plain brown envelopes are usually a sign something is afoot. No doubt this ruse foiled any Soviet spies monitoring my mailbox.

The nine-month application process consisted of multiple interviews, aptitude tests, psychological profiles, and medical examinations. One CIA psychologist had me describe every possible way I could imagine getting secret information from a foreign scientist. I rapidly exhausted the schemes that were merely immoral or illegal and moved on to some that were truly twisted and bizarre. He nodded approvingly at my ethical flexibility. Another test consisted of a single essay question, "Do the ends justify the means?" Trust me, if you ever want to see that secret decoder ring, answer "yes" to that one.

In May I faced the final hurdle, the polygraph. We went at it all morning and had a three-hour encore after lunch. Had I ever practiced bestiality? (Note: polygraph examiners have no sense of humor.) Had I used drugs? (Define "drugs"; define "use.") Had I ever committed a crime? That one's tricky. After clearing my conscience of adolescent shoplifting, underage drinking, and other petty crimes, I remembered to ask, "Isn't oral sex still considered sodomy in Massachusetts?" After working through that issue, I admitted that I was surely guilty of a whole slew of offenses, considering all the loony laws still on the books. You know, archaic bans on things like juggling without a license, entering a movie theater within four hours of eating garlic, and crossing the street while eating an ice cream cone. Not being Catholic, I was new to the confessional experience and was on a roll. His patience eroding, the examiner boiled it down to one simple, catchall question: had I ever done anything that made me susceptible to blackmail? No? End of exam, and a good thing too: by that point I was ready to confess to starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Finally on a Thursday morning in early June, the CIA called to say I made it. I would start at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on Monday. Assignments would follow. I was ecstatic. My spy karma continued that afternoon when I won tickets to a sneak preview of A View to a Kill, the latest James Bond movie. (I wrote a mental note to Q: I'll take a size 10 shoe-phone.)

The next day the CIA called again, this time to unhire me. "What happened," I asked.

"It's a secret," the woman said sheepishly.

"What do you mean it's a secret" Yesterday you said I was in. What did I do overnight to change your mind?"

There was a long pause. Then she began, "Well, it could be that yesterday Congress canceled the program we wanted you for. It could be we decided not to proceed with that project. It could be that the world situation changed overnight. It could be that we discovered something relative to your security clearance. It could be"

As she continued her litany of "it could be's" it dawned on me that I had no backup plan.

Here it was June and I was just starting to look for a summer job. Personnel managers treated me like a guy who waits until age 64 to open an IRA; they howled when I asked if they had any summer jobs still available. All the good jobs were locked up months ago. When things looked particularly grim, I applied to work as a taxi-driver. They didn't want me either. Eventually a consulting company took pity on me and got me off the streets.

Recently I discovered that I had a cousin in the BVD - the Dutch intelligence service, not the underwear. Did that derail my career as a spook? I never found out. Looking back, it's just as well I never made it into the CIA. Without any prodding from me the Soviet empire folded faster than a guy holding a kangaroo straight in a game of seven-card stud. And with all the spy scandals, who knows? An Agency mole might have sold me out for cheap thrills and a down-payment on a condo in Arlington.

As an epilogue to my story, three years later I was taking a cab to the airport with a chatty driver. Where did I work? Where had I gone to college? "MIT," I said. He laughed and said he had a story for me. A few years earlier his company received a resume from an MIT student inquiring if there were any openings for taxi-drivers. How much of an underachiever do you have to be to slog through all those engineering courses and then pursue a job as a cabby, he wanted to know.

"What did this fool do, blow up the chem lab? Knock up the dean's daughter?"

"Maybe he had his reasons," I blurted, "good reasons, secret reasons he couldn't share because they were a matter of national security." The driver stared at me like I was some sort of nut. I backpedaled, "I mean, yeah you're right, what a nimrod!"

Steve Altes '84 is an actor and author of The Little Book of Bad Business Advice.