My time with the CIA

I didn’t actually work for the CIA. I did take money from them, for a few years, but we were never serious. Well, I guess we got serious for a little bit, but more about that later.

While I was working on my PhD in Chinese, I had occasional need for money. Actually, the need was more or less constant but I’m flexible. A friend at school had heard about an opportunity with some division of CIA whereby he translated Korean and made some bucks along the way. Nothing could seem more appropriate, so I inquired about any interest they might have in a guy who could do some Chinese translation.

I was sent a test. I felt good about the test. I can’t recall whether it was actually a passage from the works of Mao Zedong, but it certainly read that way. I remember how proud I was that although one paragraph—composed of a single sentence—ran the length of a common English-language page, but I was able to render said paragraph in English, also as one sentence and also more than a page in length. I also remember the lengthy evaluation that was returned to me. “What idiot would translate a single Chinese sentence/paragraph/page into English of the same configuration?” was, essentially, the gist of the evaluation.

The evaluation went on and on about the nature of translation—that moronically keeping Chinese sentence structure in the English translation was no translation at all. But evidently they hadn’t had many other candidates, so they hired me.

The division of CIA was (is?) called Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS—which we all pronounced ‘jeepers’). JPRS was some kind of step-child of a division called Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), and I’d actually had some kind of contact with that years previously.

While serving my Air Force enlistment on the island of Okinawa, Lynn and I met a family the father of which worked for FBIS. The mission of FBIS appears to have been the transcribing of “commercial” broadcasts from the Chinese mainland. The intercept personnel were native Chinese, probably all from Taiwan. These transcriptions were examined by editors, then passed on to analysts within CIA. Our new friend Dwight managed some portion of this effort, and as I was, in effect, working for the National Security Agency (NSA) in my Air Force job, we felt a certain kinship. In fact, we began a friendship that would last through my much later years in DC where the Marsh family had retired and where I worked for fifteen years.

The purpose of both FBIS and JPRS was to provide examples of what was being said to the public of China by the Chinese government. The equivalent would be for US agencies to take subscriptions to Chinese newspapers or to sit somewhere in China listening to the radio and television. Certainly innocent enough but not in the least practical during those years of China’s isolation from the Western world.

I can’t recall whether I had seen JPRS publications while at the University of Washington but they were certainly there. JPRS published translations of articles appearing in Chinese journals, newspapers, and any other public publications. The particular items translated depended, of course, on the decisions of the analysts. Let’s say that a journal on agriculture contained twenty articles. If an analyst felt that one or more of those articles had some value to understanding what was going on in China behind the Bamboo Curtain, then the CIA would pay someone like me to translate said article and publish it in a JPRS periodical.

Institutions could subscribe to JPRS publications, and certainly somewhere within the UW system this was happening. But users of said subscriptions were never such folks as I—would-be specialists in ancient Chinese documents. Mostly, they were political scientists, historians of modern Chinese, et al.

This initial contact with JPRS was happening in late 1983. I see that my evaluation is dated January 1984. You’re probably too young to remember that this was an age before the use of computers (by normal people, anyway). For most of my time as a JPRS contractor, communication with Langley was via mail and sometimes by phone.

The agency sent new translators items relating to different specialties. They did this to find the strengths of the translator, and this puts me in mind of a lengthy comment I got once (sigh; remember when people wrote letters?). Sadly, I don’t have a copy of that letter, but it went something like this:

China is changing. For decades, all articles about everything were more or less the same. Articles on agriculture ran something like: “Chairman Mao says to plant rice with the socialist spirit. Long live Chairman Mao!” Articles on steel production read like: “Chairman Mao says to make the fires hot when melting iron. Long live Chairman Mao!”
More recently, actual science and technology have begun to appear in Chinese journals. Our translators—who are usually humanities specialists, like yourself—have had to adapt. They’ve had to learn something of that technology. It began with agriculture, and it’s spreading rapidly to other fields. It isn’t that Chinese haven’t had special knowledge; they just haven’t been allowed to publish it.
We like what you’ve done with some computer stuff we’ve sent you, and I want to encourage you to consider computers as your specialty.

Some background here.

Probably in 1982, a friend took a UW seminar in how to use word processing. Rich was ecstatic about this new technology. It was unbelievably difficult to do but he felt that the future of writing was involved. I took the seminar soon afterward. Essentially, the operator programmed his text. You had to include code to signal everything—new paragraph, new page, everything. And you couldn’t see what you were doing. You had to submit a job to a special machine, then have the machine print out your attempt. This could take hours. Always, you would make a mistake, and have to do it all over again. I was hooked.

Lynn worked with a guy who sold computer systems on the side. These were S-100 machines and all the illegal software you wanted. By the way, he used the money he made on this sideline to buy a new computer that had just been introduced—the IBM PC.

The essence of home computing in those heady early days was do-it-yourself. If you wanted any change to your system, you had to figure it out yourself. Eventually, I would buy an EEPROM programmer, because I “needed” to change the system BIOS in my machine to do something or other. And to do that I had to first disassemble the code of the existing BIOS. All this without ever having taken a class concerning how computers work. You just read and experimented. It was intoxicating.

It just so happened that I was doing the translation from Chinese at the same time as I was learning some aspects of computer science. My success with the translation of Chinese computer materials was due to the fact that I was learning those same materials from English sources.

It is important to understand that there were no reference materials in those days. Near the end of my time as a technical translator, China would publish a wonderful two-volume set of terminology specific to various aspects of technology. But it was too late for my career.

I remember one painful example of my problem. I was translating an article on computer viruses, and ran across one that had the intriguing title of something like “the shady public promenade virus.” For all the other viruses, I had matched Chinese phrases to the names of contemporary viruses that I learned from various magazines. But this one stumped me. I don’t know how many hours I spent looking for the English name of this virus, but somewhere in the back of my mind, still below consciousness, I was wondering whether this Chinese rendering of “shady public promenade” might be a Chinese translation of the English virus name. I examined each virus name available to me, and eventually I happened upon the ’Alameda’ virus, which I soon learned could be understood as:

Spanish speakers used ├ílamo as the basis for their word alameda, which can name either a grove of poplars or a tree-lined avenue. English speakers found ‘alameda’ so appropriate for a shady public promenade that they borrowed it as a generic term in the 1700s. And yes, the Spanish ‘alameda’ and nearby poplar trees also contributed to the naming of the city of Alameda, California. [Merriam-Webster]

Although we translators never saw the results of the work we did, one year my “desk officer” sent me an issue for which I had translated every item in the publication.

Let’s talk about the position I’m calling “desk officer.” His or her job was to send articles to translators. I think at the time I presumed that said position also selected the pieces to be translated, but I now think that must have been the job of an analyst.

Sometime around 1989 I needed to find a real job. The work at JPRS had nearly dried up (those fringe offices of CIA were especially subject to budgetary whims), and it didn’t pay enough to justify, anyway.

I asked a friend at UW who had recently left NSA to take a job in language teaching at UW whether he had any government contacts with whom I could talk about a job. One day, I got instructions to call so-and-so at the CIA office in downtown Seattle. We had a pleasant discussion, and he pulled out a piece of paper that announced a vacancy in the position I’ve called “desk officer.” I thought about this for a moment, and then declined, saying that I loved translating the various articles I’d worked with but couldn’t imagine a job where all I did was send out articles to others for translation. That ended opportunities at CIA for me. But remember this.

At about this same time, I had been part of a group of translators who formed a professional group to be affiliated with the American Translators Association (ATA). ATA holds an annual conference somewhere within the United States, and this year the conference was in Washington, DC. For economic reasons, I made arrangements to stay with my FBIS friend (see earlier), and off I went.

The conference was held in what is called Crystal City, specifically at what was then the Doubletree Inn. At that time, I could not have told you that, but several years later I would live across the street from that hotel and it eventually all came back to me. As I walked in for the first day, a voice called out “Michael,” and I turned to find someone I didn’t know. “Michael, I’m Tom. I work for JPRS. Let’s take a walk.”

So we did a few turns around a block that would eventually be very familiar to me, and he explained that JPRS needed me, that I should come and work for them at Langley. I really liked Tom. We had had a similar military experience, and he had taken the invitation we’d all received sometime after separation from the service to work for NSA at Ft Meade in Maryland. To this day, I have no idea how much he knew about me, but I guess we can presume it was everything.

There’s no doubt that I was flattered by this invitation to apply to CIA. I was still desperate for a real job, and I agreed to begin the process (it was a lengthy one, a duration I can’t even clearly recall). Back in Seattle, I took some sort of test, and how I passed that test deserves a slight break in this narrative.

After Lynn and I had split, I was in a doctor’s office reading the usual magazines when I realized just how much spare time I would soon have. After all, I didn’t have a real job. I was much impressed by the magazine I was then reading—something called The New Yorker, and I resolved right then to subscribe to this magazine and to read every word in each issue. Yes, each month I would not rest until I had read every article no matter on what subject. When the first issue came, I was excited, and plunged into the reading process. By the time I finished, a second issue had arrived. What’s this? Turned out, New Yorker is a weekly magazine. You know this but I didn’t. So because of my pledge, I had to read article after article that I would never have touched without the pledge. I loved every minute of the experience.

So when I took that first exam, I had seen in print the names of contemporary political figures and of other folks mentioned in news. My normal mode of living is to ignore absolutely everything that isn’t right in my face, so that I would know the name of some dictator making news somewhere was shock enough, but seeing it in NYer articles meant that I could even spell some of them. Never before nor, especially, afterward would I have been able to pass such a test.

The months dragged on. I had occasional phone conversations with Tom, who would tell me in general terms what might be going on at Langley concerning my application. “Everything is going just fine,” he told me one day. That very day, I received a letter from CIA. “Hundreds apply but only a few can be accepted,” I was informed as the letter went on to let me know I wasn’t one of the selected.

I ran to the phone and called Tom. “Let me look into this,” he said.

Remember that little interview at the CIA office in Seattle? Well, it turned out that a record was made that I was absolutely not interested in the very kind of position then being considered for me. I explained what I had meant at that earlier time, and a couple days later received another CIA letter: “Hundreds apply, and we’re certainly glad that you’re one of them.” Whew.

Of course, real life had not stopped during this extensive application process, and I had been looking for a job at the same time. I found one. It was a job that seemed perfect for me—a technical writer in the computer industry. I considered stopping the CIA application but was so indebted to Tom for his effort to recruit me—at a time when I really needed to be recruited by somebody—that I decided to go through the whole process. After all, I had often told myself that the only time to decline a job was after you’d been offered same.

For a reason I can no longer recall, I flew to DC for some non-CIA purpose (probably, the MLA convention), and told Tom I would be in town. He suggested that I go out to Langley and have lunch with him.

I took a cab into CIA headquarters, and Tom met me there. We walked long corridors to the area where Tom and the future I would work. I remember distinctly gathering a certain kind of impression as I made that long walk.

Tom introduced me to my current desk officer (we had spoken a couple times on the phone), and then considerately wandered off to some other task. This young woman then asked me, “So, you’re thinking of coming in, eh?” I admitted this possibility. “I’ll tell you what,” she said. “Turn around, walk back the way you came, and don’t look back.”

My reaction was immediate. I smiled and touched her arm. “I know exactly what you mean, but this won’t be a problem for me.” What I had seen as I walked down that corridor was that the Agency was filled with a lot of chiefs but there weren’t many Indians. Tom came back and took me to the desk where I’d be working. It was very lonely. He then rounded up a couple other guys doing the same kind of work, and off we went to lunch. There, we talked about the process so far, and I asked about what was expected of me. Tom said that I had one more step to take, and that was the lie detector test. “Not a problem,” I assured him. “I have no secrets and don’t lie (any more than one needs to in life).”

“It isn’t that simple,” he explained. “When I received the invitation to apply to NSA, I was excited. I failed the lie detector test. I wasn’t lying.” I think he said he got to take it once or twice more. All failures. He then applied to CIA and got in the first time. The point of all this was to warn me that lie detection is not an exact science.

It was time for the last phase of the application process, and a ticket was sent to fly me to DC for a long weekend. I think I flew in on a Friday, then left on the next Monday. I again made arrangements to see my FBIS friends, this time just for dinner as CIA was covering a hotel somewhere.

It is essential to understand the difference in my emotional state between that initial contact by Tom with a severely under-employed translator and my then current status as a technical writer fully employed. Oh, and I was in love, too.

The lie detector test was on Saturday, and my fellow testers and I gathered in some room somewhere in Langley. I still think about this group of people, because it was quite a surprise. There were many young people there, and I was probably surprised because they clearly had not had enough time to learn anything useful. Further exploration led to my discovery that CIA had (and certainly has) an active program to recruit promising young folks. The deal was simple: study what we want you to study, then we’ll pay for your education.

Remember what the original desk officer had told me—that they needed translators who actually understood something of the technology being translated. Of course, few of these folks would be translators. They were intended to become technology specialists working within CIA in some way.

The most amazing thing I saw there was that some of the kids had a parent with them! Oh, my god. Wasn’t I in the CIA building? What are they doing recruiting kids who need their parents with them?

Well, the one mother I remember talking with told me that her “incredibly brilliant” daughter was being recruited by all the agencies in the government. This CIA experience was part of their shopping. Whoever offered the best deal might get her services. Fascinating.

Back to my emotional state. I no longer needed this job. The effect this had was to make me simply an observer. I no longer cared whether I got the job offer. I would certainly try my best but nothing depended on success.

At some point, an official came among us, and told us not to be nervous, and then did his very best to make everyone as nervous as possible. I admired his skill.

Time for the test.

They strapped me in, I taking in all aspects of this experience. My interlocutor was an attractive woman of about my own age. She was certainly not being sweet, but let’s just say that I was enjoying the experience of being interrogated. After a couple hours, the door opened and another woman entered. She explained that she was the manager, and that the technicians had not been able to get any reading from me at all. She said that in such a case, they can only presume that I had done some sort of bio-feedback disciplining, and that if this didn’t change, the application process would cease.

They tested me for another hour or so. The manager then returned and said that although they did not like to do this, they were going to have me come back the next day—Sunday—and try again.

That night I had dinner with my FBIS friends, and we entertained each other with CIA stories; me, of my experience that day, and they from their now retired careers. Great fun.

The next day, I was again strapped in, this time by a large black man who hadn’t spent a lot of time smiling. His first question was whether I had talked with anyone about my experience. Figuring that I couldn’t just deny this, I explained that I had indeed discussed my experience but only with FBIS personnel. I usually characterize his next questions as along the lines of “So when did you stop f______ little boys?” In other words, it was nowhere near as pleasant as the previous day’s experience.

But alas. The manager informed me that they simply could not tell whether I was lying, and so had to presume that I was.

They paid me for my time and costs, and I shared a cab with another applicant who also needed to fly home. We had selected a car service from a list CIA provided, and when this limousine arrived—with its American-born driver in place, we each presumed that this was a further step in the process, and talked only of the weather or other safe subjects. This amused the driver, and at some point he said, “You know, when we pick up folks from that address, they see this beautiful car and that the driver is not from Russia or Pakistan or Mexico, and they presume that this is an Agency experience. It isn’t.” We then relaxed, and realized we didn’t have any secrets to spill, anyway.

Tom was disappointed. I would contact him years later when I knew I was moving to DC and wanted to get some feel for job possibilities in government. He explained (when Melissa and I drove to his house upon settling in DC) that he had retired from CIA but kept up with the same kind of non-classified translation I had done in the previous decade. As Tom was my age—50—I suspected that he had again failed his lie detector test, as I knew that CIA employees have to re-test every five years. He was a wonderful, skilled, and—I believe—completely loyal government employee, and his loss to the agency was truly unfortunate.

So, that’s the story. I worked in the Seattle area for another seven years then moved to DC where I got a security clearance but never had to take a lie detector test. They never knew what they were missing.

Text and photograph by Michael Broschat, 2016