From the Outside Looking In

In Essays on May 3, 2011 at 2:26 pm

By Lindsay Moran

Since I resigned from the Central Intelligence Agency in 2003 and wrote Blowing My Cover, a memoir about my experience in the CIA’s clandestine service, I frequently field the same question from interviewers, friends and other curious parties: Do you ever regret leaving?

I have always answered truthfully, “No.” I left the CIA for reasons both personal and ideological. Personally, I didn’t want to continue leading a double life—lying to my family and friends, and becoming further isolated from them, and to a certain extent, reality. Ideologically, I had become disillusioned with the organization that I’d once revered, but which from the inside looking out had proved alarmingly dysfunctional.

I was working overseas as a CIA operative on September 11th, 2001. The events of that day, devastating for all Americans, seemed even more so for my colleagues and our Agency, which was precisely the entity charged with protecting the country from such a horrific attack. No matter how it was spun over the ensuing months and years, 9-11 was undeniably a colossal intelligence failure. And it was our failure. Somehow each and every one of us at the CIA, and particularly those within the clandestine service, the intelligence-gathering arm of the Agency, bore a deep and personal responsibility for the deaths of countless Americans.

Our shared sense of guilt was not debilitating however; September 11th merely strengthened our resolve. Mine too. I had already been considering leaving the Agency at that time. 9-11 convinced me that I should stay. An overriding mission seemed to have been mandated from above. This mission—get Osama bin Laden!—so pure in purpose that surely the petty politics, futile turf wars, and soul-killing bureaucracy that seemed to beset and beleaguer the CIA would not get in the way.

At the CIA, we knew at once that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the multi-pronged attacks of that horrible Tuesday. Long before Osama bin Laden was public enemy number one, we’d been tracking him at the Agency. I entered on duty at the CIA the same month that bin Laden and his hate-filled followers orchestrated attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths.

The following summer when my fellow Clandestine Service Trainees and I went through paramilitary training at the CIA’s spy school known as The Farm, our targets during weapons training were photocopied images of Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden.

When my mother reached me overseas on September 12th, 2001 and said, “They’re saying it’s some guy named…” and produced a garbled version of Osama bin Laden’s name, I had to remind myself that the American public previously had not been aware of what a grave threat this man represented, or even of his existence.

And still, after September 11th, the days turned to months and then years, and the CIA seemed no closer to getting Osama bin Laden. A grim joke among my colleagues was that bin Laden could be seated at the CIA’s popular cafeteria Starbucks, sipping a latte, and we’d be none the wiser.

Certainly after 9-11, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, previously thought to be a dumping ground for ineffectual operatives who were unwanted by the various geographical divisions, did start to attract energetic and motivated young officers. But their efforts were quickly derailed.

I was shocked when rumors started to circulate the Agency that many of us would be “surged” to support a war effort in Iraq. Iraq?! What?! We were going after the wrong country, and the wrong guy. True, Saddam Hussein was an admitted enemy of the United States, but he didn’t represent even a fraction of the threat that Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda did. Yet at the CIA, we were expected to go along with the wholly erroneous notion that Operation Iraqi Freedom represented some kind of retribution for September 11th. The American public was buying it, and so should we sell it.

That’s when I lost all faith in the Agency. Indeed, I was pulled out of language training in order to devote my efforts—along with countless other officers—toward the war in Iraq.

Would we ever get Osama bin Laden? Were we even going to try? It didn’t seem so.

My resolve eroded. Whatever sense I’d maintained that I worked for an organization that served our country in some important way, and that that fact alone made all the discouraging and difficult aspects of the job worth it, evaporated. And so I quit.

Luckily for all of us, there are people at the CIA with more resolve than I. People who sallied forth in the long, arduous, anonymous, and mostly thankless pursuit of this evil man. People who didn’t let the petty politics and the fruitless turf wars and the soul-killing bureaucracy get in their way. Those people—my former colleagues—are now enjoying the sweetness of success, a hard-earned reward for their efforts. Most of them will never be known to those of us, including myself, on the outside looking in.

For me, a bit of the mystique of the CIA—its omnipotence, its overriding competence, its willingness to take risks, its spirit of can-do—has been restored. So yesterday for the first time, I might have answered that question, “Do you ever regret leaving?” differently. I might have said, Yes. If only to be there today to congratulate the men and women at the CIA, and simply to say Thanks.

Photo provided by Lindsay Moran.

  1. Deeply felt sentiments eloquently conveyed – Thank you for this.

  2. Lindsay Moran reveals a bit of her soul – a rare event, we must presume, for former CIA employees. The conflicting loyalties, focus and perspective of a burgeoning government bureaucracy can often be at odds with the very people it depends on to carry out policy: pressing individuals into situations that don’t fit their ethics. I applaud Ms Moran for having a reasonable internal struggle over the work, the results, the people the intelligence community uses and the recipients of their actions. Getting Bin Laden was a good day, indeed. The CIA has another 364 to fill.

  3. My sense is it is the politicians(elected reps) who have gotten too powerful and blinded by power. When their ego’s get hurt they take this power to become personal turfs and do what they believe to be right. Agencies and Services are at their command and hence in a subjugation role. Have heard a couple of story’s similar to the above with increasing cynicism – we live a life where truth and Lies merge so perfectly into each other that it gets difficult to stay objective…

  4. I hope the CIA is on top of the possible reprisals that kicking this ant hill might bring too. Much as I like Obama, Bin Laden should have simply ‘ceased to exist’ rather than been used as a political shrunken head. Using his death as a trophy puts us in danger. And it was a choice that was made selfishly. Obama has finally disappointed me as a person.

    Anyway, the CIA isn’t to be lauded. It took them 10 years, if they were the ones that figured out Bin Laden’s where-abouts at all, and I rather doubt that. I picture the CIA as bumbling and this essay only reinforces that perception. Individuals may be well intentioned, I guess, but the organization has lost all credibility. I do give credit to the author of the essay for leaving under her own steam and own convictions though. Don’t look back, don’t regret.

  5. […] to sneeze at, Gerald Casale’s raw acknowledgement that even rock stars make compromises, Lindsay Moran’s eloquent thank you to the men and woman of the CIA, an employer that has long inspired in her […]

  6. […] was quickly shared more than 90 times. But six months later, Work Stew still has just as many CIA operatives in the mix as […]

  7. […] parenting and, in the days after the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden, she contributed a second essay reflecting on her decision to leave the CIA back in […]

  8. […] in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and many other publications (including Work Stew). The photo to the right is of Moran in disguise (yes—really!), during the summer of […]

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