I love this little story by David Foster Wallace because it so perfectly captures my feelings and experiences after being outed as a CIA covert operations officer by the Bush administration in 2003:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
Exactly. When you’re in the middle of something, you don’t necessarily understand the context of it until you leave. Jump the fishbowl, as it were. I didn’t appreciate how special and sometimes strange my CIA world was, until it suddenly and spectacularly ended in a newspaper column.
The most obvious example is that I no longer needed to prevaricate or misdirect anyone who asked me what I did for a living. I didn’t have to remember a cover story or a cover company that I ostensibly worked for in order to carry out my operations. No more having to remember a fake address, fake title, an alias, or what I supposedly did with my day or why I needed to travel so frequently at a moment’s notice. That all vanished in the blink of an eye.
I also realized that I no longer had to determine upon first meeting someone whether that person might have access to intelligence of interest to senior U.S. policymakers. I didn’t have to figure out a way to meet again, engage, develop a friendship, and then get this new asset to spy for the United States. Poof! That part of my life was over. And yet, frankly, it took me years to come to terms with that — because I loved what I did.
I joined the CIA out of a sense of wanting to serve my country, and the notion that the U.S. government was going to pay me to live and work overseas was a tantalizing bonus. I come from a family where public service was part of our DNA: My father was an Air Force officer who served in World War II. My brother was a Marine, wounded in Vietnam. As I developed my expertise in nuclear counterproliferation — making sure bad guys, from terrorists to leaders of rogue states, did not acquire a nuclear capability — I was incredibly proud of my ability to contribute to this critical national security interest. My CIA colleagues were smart, dedicated, funny and creative. Yes, there was sometimes stifling bureaucracy, boredom, colleagues who never should have been there, and later, deeply disturbing stories of the CIA’s involvement in torture. Still, I got to do work I thought was incredibly important and, many times, had fun doing it.
When I suddenly found myself “a civilian,” it dawned on me that so many of the skills I learned and carried out in the CIA — many of which had become second nature — were no longer of use or necessary. I didn’t constantly have to check my rear-view mirror to see if I had picked up covert surveillance. (For a while there, the only people following me were reporters and photographers.) I didn’t have to memorize safe codes or be sure to clear my desk at the end of every work day. I didn’t have to worry that a disguise wig would slip off or look ridiculous. I didn’t have to go through my mental Rolodex when I met a new person to be sure I got my name right. I was simply Valerie Plame: wife, mother of twins and former spy.
But old habits die hard. One characteristic that I hope I never relinquish is an intense curiosity about the world around me. To be a successful recruiter, you must have a genuine interest in your targets — you figure out their body language, their motivations, their interests and feelings. If you are doing it right, you might know them better than they know themselves. I figured that everyone has a story and you just need to ask the right questions to hear it. I hope that never goes away. For one thing, it’s a immeasurably useful quality on my current mission: raising teenagers.
So, do I have a “normal” life now? I guess. I go to my kids’ sports games and don’t have to carry the enormous burden of secrecy with me every day. However, adrenaline still courses through my body whenever I go through passport control to another country. And exiting a taxi still involves a moment of panic, of thinking, Have I left any classified information behind on the seat? It is the life, I suppose, of a former spy.