What I Want To Be When I Grow Up: A Spook

I hear a lot of students have a hard time deciding on a major. I hear a lot of grown ups hate their jobs. So here it is: a series of interviews about What I Want To Be When I Grow Up. This is here to help people decide what occupation they want to occupy. Or, it’s here to help people resurrect their dreams of being a trapeze artist or Olympic speed walker.

First occupation in the spotlight: An Intelligence Agent

(This is a rare photo of Holmes. At least, I think it is Holmes. Can never be sure with spooks.)

He could be called many things: spy, intelligence agent, sleeper, plant, scout, undercover agent, heart throb . . . but today I’m just going to call him Holmes. Which might or might not be his real name.

He’s a good man. He’s noble. He’s smart. Behind his mask, he’s the real deal. Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m pleased to give you my interview of Holmes:

What did you want to be when you grew up?

First I wanted to be a knight with King Arthur. I had a really cool lance that I lugged around with my plastic shield. My mom refused to allow me to take them into stores or on subways. I eventually accepted my inability to rearrange the time continuum and shifted my ambitions toward being a fireman. I always had a fascination with travel and foreign cultures, and that certainly influenced my life.

Is your life constant car chases in Aston Martins, high stakes poker games, high-tech gadgets, jumping out of exploding helicopters, perfect hair, kidnapping dictator’s girlfriends, and fending off hordes of rich and well-dressed (albeit slinky) beautiful women? In other words, is James Bond FOR REAL? 

I am a conservative driver. I have never driven an Aston Martin. I admit to driving the wrong way on a busy one-way section of a main street in Madrid, and down a set of steps to a side street one time, but it was a Sunday so the traffic wasn’t as bad as at other times, and the circumstances merited it. Except for in training areas, I have only willfully ignored traffic laws three times.

Poker? I hate casinos and gambling in general. I have, on very rare occasions, had a reason to walk through a casino. I would have preferred to be in a library or a quiet section of forest.

Perfect Hair? I have pretty manageable thick hair. I spent several years having to keep my hair much longer than I would have preferred. That long, thick hair was a pain, but the “look” has to match the mission at hand. The well-tailored Tuxedo look only works in limited circumstances. The Tuxedo or well-tailored suit won’t work in a back alley in Caracas or the Atlas Mountains in Africa. The longhaired hippy look won’t work in a five star hotel lobby near an OPEC meeting. You have to look the “part,” but there are all sorts of “parts.”

Helicopters? I have survived one helicopter crash and have witnessed two others. I don’t desire extra helicopter rides. To me, they are a tool. I tolerate them without complaint when needed, but not for fun.

Kidnapping dictators’ girlfriends? Never done that. Did you have one in mind?

Fending off rich women? Are you mad? Why would I do that? Unfortunately, I’ve never had to. My rather tolerant wife gave me permission to not fend them off if they ever showed up, as long as they were going to share the riches.

James Bond is almost for real as one of many identities available to agents in the field, but the “Bond” type is very rare. Joe Tourist, Susie Business, Doctor Bob, and Pastor Bill are a few of the more common types of cover. Someone in a Bond role would be less willing to depend on luck and chance than the screen version that we all enjoy watching. I prefer the screen version. He’s more fun to watch.

What movies or books accurately portray the life of a spook?

There are many good books about espionage. A few that come to mind are Spy CatcherThe Falcon and the SnowmanThe Main EnemyThe Puzzle Palace, and By Way of Deception. There have been many tradecraft books published that describe the tools and mechanics of espionage, but I haven’t read the “open source” books on tradecraft so I have no idea which ones are realistic. Just remember that the world of espionage is a very big world, and that one person’s experience may be vastly different from that of another person. So there is no one “right” way for someone in espionage to proceed.

 Generally speaking, what qualities/personalities do spook’s possess?

(these masked people are obviously spies)

The qualities possessed by a cryptanalyst working in the NSA might be quite different from the qualities possessed by an analyst on the Cuban Desk at the CIA. The qualities that might make a covert action participant ideal for a trip to Somalia might be the same qualities that would leave him uncomfortable working patiently on a long-term operation in Europe. It’s a big world. There’s room for lots of types of folks.

The Director of the CIA, the NSA, or the DHS might have a different view on this, but I look for intelligence, reliability, loyalty, and commitment. I don’t look for big, fragile egos. Heavy drinkers and drug users are an instant “no.” Skills can be honed, new skills can be learned, but I need to see commitment to the mission at hand to begin to trust someone. I can teach you to shoot better, I can teach you to use a radio safely or run a dead drop. Gravity can easily teach you to parachute. I can’t teach you to be committed. That has to come from inside of you.

What do you love about your job?

I have enjoyed some of the travel. I have enjoyed knowing interesting people and developing life long friendships with people that are so different from my neighbors. What I like most of all is that I have been able to contribute in my small way to things that are very important to me.

  What don’t you love about your job?

That’s a tougher question to handle. I don’t like failure. I don’t like it that things don’t always go well or that the intelligence establishments of the USA and its allies (vast and shockingly expensive that they are) cannot always anticipate or predict the future. The lost opportunities prior to 9-11 gnaw at me if I let them. I can’t let them. Crying about yesterday makes us useless today. But for all of us, in any walk of life, we have to “be here now” in order to contribute to the well being of our loved ones and ourselves. In a better world, there would be no spies, no guns, no nuclear weapons, and no hungry or abused children, but I was born in this world and in my imperfect human way, I have responded as best I can.

Say I want to be a spook when I grow up, what are some things I could do in jr high/high school that will prepare me for the job?

(a good spy always takes out the trash for his mother)

 Foreign language studies should be started at the earliest possible age. By learning a language prior to age twelve, you will be able to speak it without a foreign accent. Learning a language late is still useful for certain jobs in the vast intelligence community.

-Pay attention in science class, and learn to use computers for more than video games. An interest in human geography and history helps, but those things can be acquired later. There will be a demand for Arabic speakers, Farsi speakers, Chinese speakers and (fluent) Spanish speakers for a long time to come.

-Avoid drugs and alcohol. Unlike Congress, the intelligence community requires sober employees. Self-discipline and self-restraint are valued.

-Be a respectable member of your community. In college, major in what you have a real interest in and likely will do best in. A good psychology major is a more attractive prospective employee than a poor mechanical engineering major.

-For most types of intelligence work (not all) we’ll be talking to your neighbors. If one crank neighbor says nasty things about you, we won’t automatically believe them. If several neighbors tell us that they don’t trust you, we won’t trust you either.

You’d be surprised at how detailed and enthusiastic neighbors can be when describing youngsters to us. People remember that time you helped them when they were sick. They remember that you helped the senior citizen shovel the snow in his driveway. When your neighborhood trusts you, they often become your best PR campaign. If your neighbors trusted you enough to go into their house and water their plants for them when they were on vacation, that’s important to us. You don’t need to be an “exciting” kid or a “cool” kid. You need to be a good kid. We’ll provide the excitement.

And finally, the question I’ve been dying to ask: What really happened in Area 51?!

Area 51? Hey, look. She and I were both young, and I was single at the time so . . . just kidding.

I have never been to Area 51. It’s outside my area of expertise. Area 51 is for work on high tech stuff like fast planes and missiles and things that are best not tested over the skies or under the streets of downtown Los Angeles or New York. I have heard no evidence of anything paranormal or intergalactic occurring at Area 51.

The greatest promoters of UFO stories have been the world’s leading Air Forces. It was always better to have the public believing in intergalactic UFO’s rather than asking questions about real experiments with real equipment. Can you imagine how many “UFO sightings” stealth planes and cruise missiles have generated?

First, I just want to say: Thank You Holmes for being born in this world and for responding to the threat of evil men with bravery and responsibility. I’m sure you have hundreds of cool stories. I hope one day they’ll make a movie about you. P.S. Who do you want to play you in the movie about your life?

Second, if you want more of Holmes (who wouldn’t?) then check out his fantastic articles for Piper Bayard about world politics, famous spooks, current affairs, and interesting history. (just look on the sidebar for his articles)

Tune in next time for Arielle Danielson’s interview: What I Want To Be When I Grow Up: An Archeologist

Do you want to be a spook?

Do you have any questions for Holmes?

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56 Comments

  1. How brilliant is this?! I want to be a spy. I want to be a spy. Do I have the qualifications? Er, let’s see.
    1. Help elderly people – I once passed an old man dragging his garbage bag to is dustbin, so I stopped my car and jumped out to help him.
    2. Speak a foreign language? Does London Cockney count?
    3. Good at school? Oh man, I was so good, you’d cry. (Well behaved, that is).
    4. Good at Science? Well, I never blew up the lab.
    5. Geography? I can find my way home.
    6. All my neighbours love me!

    Have I passed?

    Brilliant post EllieAne. And Holmes, I tip my hat to you. May you be safe in every mission you do.

    Reply
    • J Holmes

       /  November 17, 2011

      Hi Donna, Thank you for your compliment and your good wishes.

      A cockney accent would be most useful if you wanted to work for one of Iran’s many intelligence services or for the Syrians or Algerians. You probably don’t but don’t be discouraged. MI-5, MI-6, Special Branch and GCHQ all have their “help wanted” signs out and you are welcome to show up and test.

      It’s best to apply on line. If you do not tell anyone that you are applying that allows you to be considered for a broader range of positions. If your family knows that you are applying then deep cover work and certain other positions are out of the question.

      Go on line to your first choice and apply only there. If that doesn’t work try your second choice.

      Writing is a useful skill in any large organization. That holds true for intelligence services.

      Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  November 17, 2011

      I would KILL (figuratively speaking) to hear your London Cockney!
      And may you also be safe in every mission you do, Donna!

      Reply
  2. Michael S.

     /  November 17, 2011

    Sweet! Ellie, I hope you don’t mind, but I’m switching my career to an intelligence agent. I just need to catch up on my foreign language, then I should be good to go…. : )

    Reply
    • J Holmes

       /  November 17, 2011

      Hi Michael. I am not sure where you are from but The USA, Canada, Australia and the UK are all hiring today. If you are tempted to try don’t sell yourself short. If the CIA only hired ex military special ops people with foreign language ability they wouldn’t have enough employees to run a single mission.

      One of the common false perceptions about the intelligence world is that agencies are all looking for a particular type of ;person. That’s true but in a very broad sense. For example an honest, reliable school teacher or accountant is a more attractive prospective employee than an ex-SEAL with a drinking problem.

      Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  November 17, 2011

      They DO need Arabic speakers.

      Reply
  3. Dave

     /  November 17, 2011

    Interesting stuff here, thanks for sharing. Reliability and commitment? It isn’t just the intelligence community that values those qualities. Corporations do as well, they’re just not willing to pay for them. Um, wait. Does that mean they don’t value them?

    Reply
    • J Holmes

       /  November 17, 2011

      Hi Dave. I think it means that the law of supply and demand drives down the price when unemployment is high.

      Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  November 17, 2011

      That’s the truth, Dave. SOME companies still do pay for those qualities, and you can tell by the quality of their work!

      Reply
  4. I grew up with the Man from UNCLE and James Bond and always wanted to be a spy! I will brush up on my Farsi and Chinese and give them a call….
    Fun post~

    Reply
    • J Holmes

       /  November 17, 2011

      Operators are standing by. The first hundred callers receive a magic decoder ring.

      On a serious note the application process is free. Go for it. All sorts of people are needed.

      Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  November 17, 2011

      Holmes- a magic decoder ring? ha! awesome. I think I’ll apply now just to get the decoder ring.

      Reply
  5. I hope that move’s made, too! Great post, Ellie. I’m always intrigued by what people’s aspirations… Eager to read more in this series. :)

    Reply
  6. This interview was great – jeez, Ellie, you sure know a lot of excellent folks.

    - and a spy named Holmes? Seriously? Fantastic.

    Interestingly, this interview also cost me just over $30 in books from Amazon. Thanks for the reading suggestions, Holmes!

    Reply
  7. I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up. Then, I completed my first business expense report and realized I was better suited for fiction. I could NOT be a spook (much as I LOVE reading about them) because:

    1. My IQ moves in inverse proportion to my adrenaline level.
    2. I lost my fluency in Spanish after not using it for a decade. I am attempting to regain it by reading books in Spanish (Marley y yo) and listening to Spanish radio while driving. However, the only stations I can find are Spanish religious programs. If Hail Mary, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Serenity Prayer would suffice, you can delete this objection,
    3. My brain-to-mouth/keyboard filter sometimes malfunctions, as evidenced by…
    4. I used to claim the expense of pantyhose on income tax returns as a “uniform” cost b/c I only wore them at work.

    GREAT to get to know more about you, Holmes. AMEN to your sentence (in bold) beginning with IN A BETTER WORLD.,.

    Reply
    • J Holmes

       /  November 17, 2011

      Hi Gloria. Not all spooks work in a “adrenalin inducing” jobs. In fact most do not. Someone has to do the books. Someone has to keep the place clean (without eavesdropping). Someone has to keep security systems working. Analysts are expected to work in a quiet setting without adrenalin or drama to produce clear and accurate analysis. Someone has to teach students how to dress for particular locations and circumstances. Bright creative folks work hard to create fool proof “legends” for agents working under cover.

      There are even unfortunate folks that are hired to play “HR” games and try to get people like me to take them seriously. That’s certainly one of the more challenging jobs.

      If you were fluent prior to your twelfth birthday you will likely easily recover fluency without any accent issues.

      Reply
      • Until I read this comment, I was thinking I’d be ill-suited to intelligence work. I blush too easily and I hate to lie. However, I can teach my ass off. Whether it’s dress code or HR games, I’ll bet I could keep my fellow spooks entertained while they learned.

        Reply
  8. J Holmes

     /  November 17, 2011

    Who would play me in a movie? I’m not sure that Hollywood would want to make a movie about long hours in cheep hotels, bars, and back alleys in “developing” nations or long hikes in deserts and jungles. I suppose they could make a movie entitled “Jay’s day off” where my character gets to be a docent in my favorite European museums.

    Actually there was a project to make a movie about me staring George Burns. Unfortunately George got a little over-excited with a young lady on the set and died of a heart attack. If the project is revived I would like Joe Pesci to play a fictional Jay Holmes with a hilarious plot. The world can always use a few good laughs.

    Reply
  9. Texanne

     /  November 17, 2011

    Ellie, thanks so much for this interview. Good info. Wonder how you got up the nerve to ask?

    Long time ago, a co-worker joined the CIA. His going-away party changed my life, but I’ve never been able to tell him, because I haven’t seen him or heard from him since that night. And so it goes.

    Thanks for all you did and all you do, and glad you’re home safe. (If the “home safe” part is rosy over-optimism, please don’t tell me.) Gotta go–the Feds are due here soon to evaluate my mom. :)

    Reply
    • J Holmes

       /  November 17, 2011

      Hi Texanne. Are you going to tell me tat you are the first woman from Texas lacking nerve? I don’t believe you.

      Good luck with your mom.

      Reply
  10. Absolutely love this! So down to eart, real, AND funny!!! Seriously well done Ellie Ann and Holmes – you two rocked my Thursday!!!

    Reply
  11. One of my favorite blog interviews ever. Really good stuff guys!

    Reply
  12. Ellie….I like the start of your new series! This is great, and spies are super sexy and mysterious. Way to really get Holmes to open up. Spies are usually tight lipped…

    Reply
  13. J Holmes

     /  November 17, 2011

    Hi Tiffany. I’m glad that you enjoyed the post.

    Reply
  14. Amazing post. I am so impressed. . . can’t wait to read the next one. Blessings, Janet

    Reply
  15. Great interview. Having grown up during the Cold War era, I truly appreciate what you’ve done to help our country.

    I always enjoy your take on world events when you post on Piper’s blog, and anyone she is good friends with is aces in my book. I enjoy your sense of humor, i.e. you comments to Natalie above are hilarious (yes, I read her blog this week, too). I say a Bowflex machine for all Americans. Oh, I guess Canadians too, since she’s from NB.

    Anyway, it is a true honor to be able to peek into the world of someone that has traveled the world so the rest of us can sleep safer at night. Thank you.

    One last question. I’m assuming “Southern” wouldn’t count as a foreign language on the application?

    Reply
    • J Holmes

       /  November 17, 2011

      Hi Kerry. Thanks for your high praise. I tend to take a very broad view about what constitutes national security. I am one very small piece of a huge mosaic. I am always aware that many people have given far more than I have to ensure the freedoms that we enjoy in our western civilization.

      There are young people (and a few old ones) in and out of uniform around the globe risking their lives for us as we write this blog.. We should never forget that they will not all come home alive or with their limbs intact. Whatever I have paid is insignificant compared to their sacrifices.

      One need not carry a rifle on foreign soil to defend freedom. When a nurse does his/her job well while short staffed, when a good teacher manages to inspire a child while managing a class of thirty youngsters, and when a factory worker avoids short cuts and turns out a truck that works properly they are all using their integrity to make us strong enough to maintain our freedoms.

      “One last question. I’m assuming “Southern” wouldn’t count as a foreign language on the application?”

      Well not on the application but I’m sure DHS or the FBI could have you pose as a foreigner in Boston or New York. The world has changed during my life time and there are far more domestic security operations then there once were.

      Reply
  16. Love this! I always wanted to be a spy. Unfortunately for me I’m about as subtle and sneaky as a bull in a china shop :(

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  November 17, 2011

      That is NOT very sneaky, Tori. LoL.
      I could never be a spy because I’m bad at hiding my emotions.
      But like Holmes said–intelligence agents cover a whole gamut of different jobs. I”m sure they need bulls in china shops for SOME jobs. :)

      Reply
    • J Holmes

       /  November 17, 2011

      Hi Tori. Not to worry. You can still help national security. We can teach little Thomas to sniff out illegal food imports. You could stroll him around the luggage conveyors at JFK airport and when he screams customs agents will pounce on the smugglers.

      Reply
  17. Ellie, a truly delightful post (as always)! Great interview. I agree…I’ve always thought Holmes is THE MAN. Thanks for letting me play in your comments section. It was fun.

    Holmes, my favorite line in a tremendous post was:
    But for all of us, in any walk of life, we have to “be here now” in order to contribute to the well being of our loved ones and ourselves.

    Your honor shines brightly through your words.

    Reply
    • J Holmes

       /  November 17, 2011

      Thank you for your generous assessment Jenny. I am not really “THE MAN”. I’m more like “One cranky opinionated old man”. I’m OK with that. I have fun with it.

      Reply
  18. Love love love this interview.

    My favourite line: “Crying about yesterday makes us useless today.” Yup.

    Thanks E, and Thanks H!

    Reply
  19. Interesting stuff, Holmes, and thanks for putting the business in perspective (even though I’m sure you’re being modest).

    I grew up reading Ian Fleming’s books and was throughly convinced I want to be a spy. But even at that tender age I had the vaguest suspicion that the books and films might be a slight exaggeration. The thing that really put my off the idea of being a spy was when I found out MI5 had a building with an address. You could send them a letter! I wanted them to have a secret stately home with an underground entrance through the back door of a post office in the neighboring town.

    Cheers!

    Reply
    • J Holmes

       /  November 17, 2011

      Hi Nigel. “I wanted them to have a secret stately home with an underground entrance through the back door of a post office in the neighboring town.” Your in luck Nigel! They have a few of those as well. They can always use a good engineer.

      Reply
  20. I’m a day late (as usual). This was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve read. I learned some stuff. (!!!) Thanks for the book recommendations.

    I’m dying to know what circumstances inspired the long hair and the drive down the steps in Madrid. And I know you can’t tell me. I wonder if you’re ever scared and how many languages you speak.

    Man. Very very interesting. :D

    Reply
    • J Holmes

       /  November 18, 2011

      Hi Catie, I speak three languages fluently and I speak french well enough to earn the scorn of Parisian waiters and airport employees. Yes I have been scared.

      Thanks for your visit to Ellie’s blog. I like the way she uses the English language. Her language seems to flow from a very “centered” place and that lends a very elegant quality to her words.

      Reply
      • Oooh, on the languages. That’s something I wish I’d done. Thanks for replying to me–especially a day late. :D

        And Ellie has a way of being funny without being obvious about it. That’s my kind of humor.

        Reply
  21. This is great stuff, Holmes. I love reading your analyses on Piper’s blog, and you’ve always struck me as clear thinking and intelligent. This only reinforces that impression. :)

    Those who work behind the scenes for the safety and security of this country contribute to our continuing freedom just like our soldiers. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your service. I wish I knew you in person so I could shake your hand. (I’d actually like to give you a hug too, but your wife might not be tolerant of that since I have no riches to share. ;) )

    For a brief time, I thought about entering the field (mostly because a friend delusionally thought the CIA would come knocking on his door to recruit him), but for many of the same reasons others have listed, I decided I would suck at it. I was too young at the time to realize the scope of the supporting players. Luckily, I’m very happy with how my life turned out, so I’m not bemoaning lost opportunities. I’m glad you’re explaining the many options for others.

    Thank you, EllieAnn, for sharing this with us.

    Reply
    • J Holmes

       /  November 18, 2011

      Hi Jami. Thank you for your compliments.

      As for the hugs my wife would take no offense at all. She is from southern Europe and hugs are normal for them.

      As for your friend, the CIA does knock on doors looking for employees now and then. Certain members of the military with expiring terms of service are often recruited directly. Other people with particular unique talents are often sought out as well. The CIA has to be very careful in how it approaches people inside of the USA. Unlike in Hollywood movies they don’t ever want to be seen as harassing or coercing people to work for them so they have to be very circumspect in their approach. That has inadvertently created somewhat of an “old boys network” effect because it’s always easier to approach someone that has an associate already working in the agency. The associate will know enough about the prospective employee to make an approach less dangerous in PR terms.

      Since 9-11 the “PR” concern has radically changed. For example I’m sure that if DHS wants to speak to a perspective employee they don’t hesitate to do so and probably forget to wipe their feet on the door mat as well. The PR climate will continue to change over time. When I joined the military as a young man I pretty much became an outsider to most the people of my generation. I was OK with that, I had my own agenda to pursue.

      There are fashion trends that effect “patriotism” and flag waving. Perhaps that reflects a certain lack of caution and shallowness in the political views of a significant segment of our population. If it times it seems that as a nation we are too careless in our political convictions don’t despair. The rest of the world is either as gullible as we are or worse. There’s noting like reading a foreign newspaper to discover some small bit of forgiveness for our own media.

      It has been a pleasure doing this small bit of work with Ellie. Above all else I admire civility, compassion and gentleness in others and I get a sense that Ellie has a good quotient of those qualities. So I too say Thank You to Ellie.

      Reply
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