Everyone loves a good spy movie, right? Espionage, chases, high-tech gizmos, explosions; it’s all super entertaining. But what if we told you that most cinematic depictions of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) barely reflect real life at all? For one thing, among its employees, there’s no such thing as a “CIA agent.” They’re actually known as “officers.” Weird, huh? Anyway, here are 20 fascinating facts about the realities of working for what’s informally referred to as “The Company”, as told by actual insiders.
20. There are no stereotypical agents with identical personalities
In the movies, the CIA is often depicted as a monolith, with the people who work there sharing similar traits and having a hive-mind mentality. But former CIA officer Brad Goral told website Business Insider that this couldn’t be further from the truth, revealing, “There’s no stereotypical ‘agent’ with a single personality and dictated political mindset.” He believes Hollywood has failed the agency in this regard.
Goral said, “I like a good adventure story as much as the next person.” But he claimed fictionalized accounts tended to misrepresent “the ratio of excitement to preparation,” adding “Most of the movies and TV versions I’ve seen have sold short the diversity of personalities and complexity of emotions encountered within the work we do, or they overcompensate with completely ridiculous elements.” It seems Hollywood has missed the nuance here.
19. Being a natural science major can be a big plus for a CIA officer
When Goral was applying for the CIA in the ’90s, his college major in biochemistry turned out to be unexpectedly useful. He explained to Business Insider that, at that time, chemical weaponry was a hot-button topic at the agency. His degree in biochemistry therefore separated him from the pack, many of whom had studied criminal justice or political science.
The natural sciences don’t seem to scream “CIA officer.” But Goral revealed, “My qualifications were that I came in with a great academic record in an area of specific interest at the time, and I had a personal interest in the agency and a fair understanding of how the CIA [fitted] into the bigger picture.” This meant, he revealed, that he could help to analyze whether other countries were developing chemical weaponry illegally and in secret.
18. CIA officers have no law enforcement powers
It’s common in spy movies for crusading CIA operatives to capture their targets and arrest them. After all, they catch the bad guys, right? Well, not quite. In reality, the CIA has no law enforcement power at all. The agency may share intelligence with the FBI, for example, who will then facilitate arrests if needed. But CIA officers will never do the apprehending themselves.
The difference between the FBI and the CIA is simple, though it can sometimes become blurry to the uninitiated. The FBI is a law enforcement agency created to seek out and put away criminals who are too big for local U.S. authorities to deal with. The CIA, on the other hand, is an intelligence organization that operates outside the U.S. and across international borders.
17. The agency is more influenced by the corporate world than the military world
It’s easy to imagine the CIA’s internal operations functioning in a similar manner to the military. But Goral told Business Insider that the structure of the agency and how it operates is much more akin to civilian businesses. He said, “People might be surprised to see a distinctly non-military, matrixed hierarchy taking real lessons from the world of corporate research and change management.”
For Goral, the amount of managerial and professional training the CIA offers to its employees is second-to-none. He also believes the agency has made great strides in improving communication between departments such as Intelligence Analysis, Science and Technology, Administration, and Operations. Overall, the work certainly sounds more corporate-minded than anyone may have initially believed.
16. The agency doesn’t routinely spy on its own citizens
Legally, the CIA isn’t permitted to collect the personal information of U.S. citizens. But, in the ‘80s, exceptions to this rule were granted if the attorney general and CIA director approved. Then in 2013 Edward Snowden exposed that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been secretly looking at the phone and email records of regular Americans. It led to a serious public distrust of the intelligence agencies and, in Hollywood, the CIA is now often depicted conducting this illicit spying.
Military website SOFREP has a major beef with this misconception. Its writer James Powell admitted that, while the agency may have spied in the past, it’s not a regular occurrence. He wrote, “I can tell you that not only do we not spy on U.S. citizens, if any intelligence that was gathered overseas even involved a U.S. person peripherally, it was either deleted or, if it involved criminal activity, turned over to the FBI.”
15. Operations never end in high-speed chases or shootouts
CIA operations in movies are usually full of thrills and spills, with exciting shootouts and high-speed chases through the streets of busy metropolitan areas. According to Powell, though, this is pretty much Hollywood nonsense. He wrote, “If we do our jobs right, no one will ever know we were there, and if they do know, they only know us under our cover story.”
“There is no – with some exceptions – sneaking into buildings at midnight, slitting guards’ throats, or planting explosive charges,” continued Powell. “And unless you are in an area designated as a ‘war zone’ or hostile environment – and sometimes not even then, depending on your job – you won’t be carrying a weapon.” Sorry, spy fans.
14. Not everyone who works for the CIA is a spy
This one goes out to all the Jack Ryan fans. In the classic Tom Clancy novels and movies, Ryan is a CIA analyst who is also a globetrotting spy who chases down bad guys with guns. Powell claimed this is bunk, though, as the notion of an analyst accomplishing the same tasks as an operations officer is highly unlikely. It has helped foster the idea that everyone who works at the CIA is a spy.
Unfortunately, this is simply not the case, according to Powell, who made it clear that while operations officers recruited agents to commit espionage, they were backed up by a wealth of staff including admin personnel, security staff and back-room analysts. He added, “Some are operations-qualified, but not everyone is a spy in the literal sense.”
13. You don’t have to keep your status as a CIA officer secret from those closest to you
A common trope in spy movies is the agent needing to hide their real job from friends and family, usually out of fear that it would put them in danger if they knew. Powell admitted that, yes, the agency wouldn’t want you broadcasting that you work for the CIA. But there isn’t actually an edict stating you must keep it a secret from those closest to you.
Powell revealed it’s best not to tell anyone you have applied to the agency initially. But once you’re in, you can loosen the reins. He wrote, “After you’re on board, you are then advised that you should only tell those close relatives who need to know and who you trust, but obviously no more than that.” In fact, the writer insisted that the CIA actually demands that you tell your long-term partner or spouse for whom you are now working “from day one.”
12. You are highly unlikely to be issued a fake spouse or family for an undercover mission
We’ve all seen movies or TV shows in which a marriage, or even a family unit, is revealed to be little more than a cover for a spy. It makes for great drama, undoubtedly, but Powell claims it’s never been real. Yet that doesn’t stop people continuing to assume that such activity is standard practice. Powell wrote, “No joke, people believe that.”
In fact, Powell’s wife even believed her husband would be assigned a fake spouse for undercover assignments. He reassured her that would never happen, and wrote, “In my time there, I have never read any ops reports that even hinted at someone having a ‘cover family.’ Could it happen? I suppose anything is possible, but the logistics and security of that would be a nightmare.”
11. Very few people at the CIA live glamorous lives
In the movies, spy work is mostly shown to be super-glamorous, filled with missions in exotic locations, luxury cars and high-society escapades. In reality, though, it’s a lot more boring than that. Oh, and there are very few rich spies. Powell stated, “I did see some Porsches and Rolex watches…but the flashy folks were rare.”
In the real world, working for the CIA is like any other government job, and the remuneration goes along with that. Powell revealed, “Yes, the money is okay – it pays the bills – and there are the benefits – medical, dental, life insurance – that I was absolutely grateful for, but it is the government, for Christmas sake. Nobody, at least at the pay grade I was at, is getting rich doing this.”
10. CIA officers don’t see themselves as the bad guys
Overall, Powell’s biggest problem with Hollywood’s portrayal of the CIA is how the agency is overwhelmingly shown in a negative light. He admitted, “Yes, I acknowledge that at certain points in our history we have done some pretty unscrupulous and sometimes horrible things in a misguided attempt to ‘promote democracy.’ I cannot and will not excuse that.”
Powell continued, “But I have worked with many incredible and honorable men and women at the CIA and it bothers me that almost every movie, book or TV show that includes us portrays us as lawless cowboys who will destroy everyone and everything to further our agenda. Simply not true.” Powell added, “We are human beings just like you.”
9. You can’t do a tell-all memoir when you leave the agency
In 2018 former CIA employee Emily Brandwin spoke to Cosmopolitan magazine about what was expected of her when she left the agency. After having a cover job for her time there, she was finally able to come clean with people outside her close family circle about what she really did. But even though she wasn’t forced to sign an NDA, she knew there were things she could never tell anyone about.
Brandwin revealed, “You can never share sources or methods, or people’s names, and anything I write has to be submitted to a publication review board who will approve it.” Far from being a nuisance, though, Brandwin revealed she respected the agency so much that she wanted to keep its secrets. She added, “I want to keep everyone that works there safe, and I do that by keeping my mouth shut.”
8. It’s all about intelligence gathering and basic psychology
J.C. Carleson wrote Work Like a Spy: Business Tips From a Former CIA Officer. She had an interesting answer when asked by careers website The Muse about the most significant misconception people had about working for the agency. She said, “People are surprised by how basic the techniques used by CIA officers are.”
Carleson revealed, “Really, the techniques boil down to basic human psychology and a basic understanding of what motivates people. The work involves meeting, networking, studying and analyzing, much more than it involves any of the things you see in a James Bond movie.” She even admitted that, if a CIA officer became embroiled in a dangerous situation, it would be because they’d messed up, not because danger came with the job.
7. There are more ethics in the world of espionage than you may think
An important chapter in Carleson’s book dealt with what she dubbed the “ethics of espionage.” While most people think the spy game mostly involves intrigue and duplicity, she revealed that isn’t the reality at all. She commented, “These tactics involve a lot more carrot than stick – they’re about giving people what they want to get what you want.”
Carleson’s view was that a CIA officer wouldn’t risk destroying a relationship with subterfuge, as they could make a powerful enemy that way. After all, it’s impossible to know who will eventually wind up in a position to help your goals or career in the future. As Carleson put it, “Spies have to maintain good relationships, even in ugly political situations.”
6. You can’t throw protocol out the window in favor of a badass stunt
In the Mission: Impossible film franchise, Ethan Hunt regularly abandons protocol in order to execute an insane stunt that inevitably helps him accomplish his mission. In the opinion of spy historian Dr. Vince Houghton, though, if Hunt were a real-life CIA operative, he’d have been fired many times over. In reality, Hunt would probably abide by his mission parameters pretty rigidly.
Houghton told Vanity Fair magazine, “One of the most important prerequisites for employment at the CIA is being mentally competent. Yes, you need to take chances, however you don’t want someone who is so crazy that they are going to get themselves involved in a situation where they are putting their lives and the mission in danger.” So it seems hanging off the side of airplanes isn’t a sensible use of government resources, after all.
5. Spies sometimes use high-tech gadgetry that is years ahead of the movies
When watching a spy movie, it’s easy to assume any gadgets are beyond the realms of possibility of what a CIA operative would have access to in real life. Sometimes this is the case. But, according to Dr. Houghton, sometimes the movies actually lag behind real life. This is because technology used in the spy game is top secret, so the world doesn’t find out about it till long after it’s been invented.
Houghton claimed that, back when the Bond movies were at their height, the CIA director would often ask his Science and Technology teams if they could replicate a gadget seen in the latest film. Sometimes they did just that and life imitated art. But on other occasions the gadget guys would reply, “Yeah, we’ve had that for ten years.”
4. Killing anyone from a rival nation’s agency would be a big no-no
Contrary to what movies would have you believe, it is extremely unlikely that a CIA operative would kill anyone from a rival country’s spy agency. This goes both ways, too. Dr. Houghton revealed, “The civilized nations that have established intelligence agencies don’t tend to kill off their professional competitors, because it would turn into a free-for-all.”
Houghton used the example of a CIA officer being caught by the Soviet Union. He said, “They may arrest me or interrogate me for a couple hours, but for the most part they are just going to kick me out of the country. They’re going to let me go, because the minute they kill one of ours, we start rounding up theirs and making their lives a living hell.”
3. A spy can’t lose a tail in a matter of moments with a few stunt-laden maneuvers
We’ve all seen it in the movies. An intelligence agent discovers they are being followed by a bad guy, so they take evasive action. Usually this involves driving across a few lanes of traffic or running over rooftops or cleverly switching jackets with some unsuspecting member of the public. In reality, though, losing a tail is generally a lot more prosaic than that.
Dr. Houghton explained, “If you wanted to work inside Russia in the Cold War and you needed to get clear of your surveillance – we call it ‘going black’ – you could go on a counter-surveillance run, meaning changing buses and going on different metros and on walks. That could take you four or five hours to get black.” Four or five hours? Sheesh…
2. It all starts with a written application, just like any other job
Maybe some CIA operatives are super-smart savants recruited by mysterious people in suits who turn up at their workplace unannounced. They are then whisked away into the secretive world of counter-intelligence, never to return to their normal, boring lives again. But, for most people in the real world, they fill out a written application just like with any other job.
Goral told Business Insider, “I can say that after speaking with a recruiter on a couple of occasions, I received an absolutely massive application packet in my dorm room during finals week one semester.” Apparently, the bundle had a tightly specified return date, which interfered heavily with his revision schedule. Goral added, “Several months later, I received a call inviting me for interviews and testing.”
1. CIA officers don’t have closets full of expensively tailored suits for every occasion
According to Dr. Houghton, if a CIA operative’s cover story is that of a rich man of mystery, their wardrobe may very well be expensive. He chuckled, “They might have an amazing designer closet if their cover is an international playboy or businessperson. If they are going to play a high-stakes casino game against an international terrorist money-launderer then, yes, they are going to have a tailored tuxedo.”
Unfortunately, in case you didn’t guess from his tongue-in-cheek description, this situation tends to be the domain of Bond movies and not real life. Dr. Houghton explained, “But if they are just trying to fit in as a deputy assistant agricultural attaché, that would be a public servant who is making like $80,000 a year. They are shopping at Men’s Wearhouse.”