Undercover . . . in the CIA?

The opening of the book description for TREACHERY, book 3 of the series Meeting the Enemy, is “You can’t serve two masters – or spymasters.”

The main plot of book 3 is the build-up to the war in Iraq. You remember all the hype about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, backed up by intel from the CIA? You know, the WMD we never found because there weren’t any. Our government at the time wanted an excuse to invade Iraq to “finish” the first Gulf War.

In book 1 of the series, TERROR, I establish, through some judicious use of dramatic license, that Mai Fisher goes undercover in the CIA as Katherine Burke, a long-time CIA case officer who comes to Langley for a taste of management. September 11 happens, and the CIA director taps her as his chief of staff, putting her at the forefront of the agency, right where the Directorate wants her.

Now, even I asked myself if that was possible or plausible. Could someone be undercover in the CIA, even with the knowledge and cooperation of the CIA director?

Well, yes, it could because dramatic license.

An “Undercover” Traitor

There have been traitors in the CIA, who were sort of “undercover” as they betrayed secrets. The most famous of these is likely Aldrich “Rick” Ames. Ames, a counterintelligence officer in the CIA, was a spy for the Soviet Union and Russia until his arrest in the early 1990s. He was convicted under the Espionage Act in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Okay, Ames wasn’t technically operating under a cover story because he was a real CIA employee, but in a way, he was undercover there for the Russians. He has the dubious distinction of having compromised more CIA assets to the Soviets then Russians than anyone else until the FBI’s Robert Hanssen was arrested. Indeed, unknown to either man, the Soviets and Russians often used one to verify the information provided by the other.

Some Ames History

When Ames was 11, his father went to work for the CIA in the Directorate of Operations. While Ames was in high school in northern Virginia, the same high school where I would teach some twenty years later, he worked as a clerical at the CIA for summer employment. His job? Marking classified documents for filing.

After college and some odd jobs, Ames returned to the CIA initially as a clerical but was accepted into the agency’s career trainee program to become a case officer. In his background, were several alcohol-related incidents with the police, but that didn’t exclude him, perhaps because his father was an employee.

His training completed, he was assigned to Turkey to recruit Soviet intelligence officers there. After several years, he returned to CIA headquarters because of his lackluster performance as a case officer. However, the agency determined he was much better at the paperwork side of missions than planning and executing them.

And that set him up perfectly for his later betrayal. He worked in the Soviet/Eastern Europe office and would have access to reports and other paperwork from case officers identifying eastern bloc individuals spying for the CIA.

Throughout his CIA career, Ames’ performance reviews were less than stellar, and he started drinking heavily. His first wife divorced him because of several affairs when he was stationed in Mexico, some of which he didn’t report to the CIA as required. One of those affairs was with a cultural attaché in the Colombian embassy, who was also a CIA informant. This was Maria del Rosario Casas Dupuy. He later married her, and they had a son.

His continual drinking led to embarrassing actions at diplomatic receptions, and he was transferred back to CIA headquarters. Despite his less than satisfactory performance reviews, not reporting his affairs, and his drinking, he was again placed in an area where he would have access to the most sensitive documents.

His divorce settlement from his first wife and his second wife’s spending habits were likely what spurred him to sell information to the soviets. Indeed, when the CIA began to suspect Ames, they put him under surveillance and recorded his phone calls, including several where Rosario scolded him for not selling classified documents to get more money.

For her part in encouraging his treason, she was also sentenced to prison, though for only a few years because her and Ames’ son was still a child. That was part of Ames’ deal with the authorities – give her a light sentence for the child’s sake, and he’d talk. Much like Robert Hanssen’s arrangement with the FBI after he was caught.

How did the CIA discover Ames’ treachery?

They noticed a high number of assets being compromised, and they followed the paper trail back to CIA headquarters. Eventually, with the wiretaps – not to mention the Jaguar and the million-dollar-plus house – they figured out it was Ames. He tried to say his high-priced lifestyle was from his wife’s family money, but that didn’t hold up long.

But Could Someone go Undercover in the CIA?

Ames’ exploits weren’t the same as my fiction: having a counterintelligence officer from one organization – my fictional Directorate – going undercover in the CIA.

That kind of operation requires not only a cover story, but a legend so deep it holds up to heightened scrutiny. In my fictional world, the Directorate’s head, Nelson, worked out the possibility of such a mission with a previous CIA director, and the two of them developed the legend between them, working on it for years to make it airtight. Nelson didn’t have a specific operative in mind in the beginning, but after observing some of the rhetoric of the incoming, fictional Arbust administration, he activates the plan with the CIA director’s concurrence after 9/11. That’s when he selects Mai Fisher as the operative.

As is usual with creating a deep legend, Nelson incorporated some of Mai’s operational experience into the legend. That made it easier for her to blend into the CIA and have credibility with its personnel. The CIA director, Boyd Wahler, must call in some markers to make sure the legend holds. There are some suspicions, and Mai herself thinks she’s the wrong person for the job. However, being CIA is the only way she’s going to get to Afghanistan to find Alexei Bukharin.

At the end of book 2, REVENGE, she finds Alexei, and book 3, TREACHERY, begins with her getting him back to the U.S. and debriefed by Nelson.

With that, she thinks her mission at the CIA is done, but both Boyd Wahler and Nelson have other plans. Once again, she must wear the persona of Katherine Burke and be the CIA chief of staff.

Dramatic License

In reality, if anyone were to try this, they wouldn’t go for a high-level job. The background checks are stricter, as is the scrutiny of finances. A better choice would be a mid-level employee, like Ames, who would have access to lots of sensitive material. After all, Ames was successful for years before anyone got suspicious.

However, for the purpose of my story, chief of staff it was. That, and I was a chief of staff in a department in a government agency, so I felt comfortable writing about that role – even if most of my chief of staff work wasn’t as interesting as I made Mai Fisher’s. I mean, I only had to resort to violence once – and it was self-defense.

So, yes, there is a scene in TREACHERY based on something that happened to me, but you’ll have to read the novel to figure out which scene it is.

Yes, that’s my way of saying “buy my book” without actually saying “buy my book.”


TREACHERY, book 3 of the series Meeting the Enemy, is now available to preorder. You can find it HERE.