Spy and Tell: Ex-CIA Agents Write What They Know Spies spend their whole careers hiding secrets from family and close friends. Yet, when they retire, they don't necessarily disappear into history. Many of them turn around and publish memoirs. We discuss what's behind the urge to spy and tell. Is it bad for sources — or the agencies?

Spy and Tell: Ex-CIA Agents Write What They Know

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The men and women of the CIA lead shadowy lives, unable to tell their friends and family what they do for a living, much less brag about their accomplishments. So perhaps it's no surprise that after anonymous careers, some intelligence officers go from guarding information to sharing it as authors. They publish memoirs, histories, exposes and spy thrillers. Bookstore shelves currently bulge with the thriving literature of the clandestine. This hour we'll talk with former CIA officers turned authors about their work, their motivations and their challenges. The agency reviews all work by former employees before it's published to make sure it does not reveal classified information, and those rules are in the process of being changed.

Later this hour, censorship controversy that involves the new secretary of Education, PBS and a cartoon rabbit.

But now, tell-alls from the tight-lipped, why spies write, what they have to say and how the agency responds. If you're a fan of spy lit, fiction and non-fiction, give us a call. What are you questions about motives, writing process, agency oversight and impact? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Our first guest joins us here in Studio 3A. Lindsay Moran is the author of the new book "Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy."

Welcome to the program.

Ms. LINDSAY MORAN (Author, "Blowing My Cover"): Thank you. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Early in the book you actually blame novels and movies about spies for giving you some rather inflated expectations of what your career was gonna be like.

Ms. MORAN: I do. As a young child, I had a fascination with Harriet the Spy, a series of books featuring this young girl who was a spy, and I kind of fashioned my life after her, and then graduated on to an obsession with James Bond movies. And I think that I portray in "Blowing My Cover" that I was admittedly naive when I joined the CIA about what the actuality of being a spy is.

CONAN: You went on to Harvard and a life before you went into the CIA, yet you were that naive?

Ms. MORAN: Well, I mean, I wouldn't say that I was naive to the point that I thought I was gonna be partaking of Bond girl high jinks for the entirety of my career, but I think I looked at the agency, as a lot of Americans do, as this kind of mythical and omnipotent organization, and also as a place that I thought would really reward risk-taking and independent thinking and creative-minded people. And when I got there, as I convey in the book, I realized pretty early on that on some level it was kind of a big, plodding bureaucracy.

CONAN: I think one of the lines you said, `At the end of the day, the CIA is just a lot of people in sensible shoes sitting at cubicles.'

Ms. MORAN: That's a pretty apt characterization. I mean, it's a simplification, obviously, and in "Blowing My Cover" I describe through anecdotes a lot of the sort of day-to-day business of being a spy, but I think one of the things that was most eye opening for me was the realization that the CIA case officer is actually not the person putting him or herself in danger or even taking a great risk. It's the foreign agents that we recruit who are really putting themselves at risk. And this was something that I found myself from the get go, almost immediately, very uncomfortable with, something that I didn't anticipate. And I certainly don't blame the CIA for my discomfort with the dirty business of espionage.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. But one of the themes of your book is your disillusionment with the agency.

Ms. MORAN: Right. I think that that disillusionment started probably even before I actually began my job there, during the recruiting process, and one anecdote I share in the book is they sent out a background investigator to talk to every yahoo in his brother who had ever come into contact with me, and this guy showed up at my door, and when I answered the door he said to me, `Do you know Lindsay Moran?' and I had to break it to him that I was Lindsay Moran. And that was sort of the first sign that maybe this was not quite the crackerjack organization I thought it was. During the course of the interview, I think he was a bit embarrassed, but he came in and eventually revealed to me that he was a retired shoe salesman and this was his first background investigation.

CONAN: And what size did you turn out to wear?

Ms. MORAN: I think I asked him if he had any shoes with him. He was actually a truly nice guy, but perhaps not the best background investigator.

CONAN: Now you eventually did join up and went through training, pre-9/11, I should say.

Ms. MORAN: Right.

CONAN: But the training you describe, other than the fact that the face on the targets at the firing range was Osama bin Laden, other than that you seem to be describing an agency preparing to refight the Cold War.

Ms. MORAN: Yes, I do. And that's one of my, I would say, primary criticisms of the agency is that I was going through training in 1999 when certainly Osama bin Laden was not a household name, but George Tenet and everybody at the CIA viewed Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as our primary threat. And yet we were still being trained to troll the diplomatic cocktail circuit as a means of recruiting targets, which is really a paradigm that's appropriate to the Cold War, not to the war on terrorism.

CONAN: And when you talk about recruiting targets, not people to be targeted, but people to be targeted as possible recruits.

Ms. MORAN: Exactly. People who eventually might be recruited by the CIA case officer and become a foreign informant.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We're talking about espionage lit, former CIA officials who decided to spy and tell. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. E-mail is totn@npr.org. And let's begin with Amy, who's calling from San Marcos, Texas.

AMY (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. I'm a graduate student and I want to applaud this author for being on and for writing her book, because there are lots of us out here who would like to make a professional study of espionage literature.


AMY: And we wish it was considered real literature by the academic establishment.

CONAN: Why isn't it?

AMY: It's popular culture. It's not high culture.

CONAN: I see. So in other words you're having trouble getting somebody to accept a thesis.

AMY: Exactly. And that's really strange because, you know, in a lot of academic circles we've become more and more engaged with the real world and real life, and I think spy novels especially and the novel and the accounts written from real life can inform our knowledge of what goes on, and so that our perceptions of what happens in the news are enriched.

CONAN: Well, what did you consider you were writing, Lindsay, when you sat down to write this book?

Ms. MORAN: Well, I think my motivations were twofold. On the one hand, I wanted to write a book that would appeal to people who were not necessarily like me. I had always been kind of an intel wonk and fascinated with espionage, and the kind of person who would read any espionage-related memoir or even intelligence tome out there. And "Blowing My Cover" is a much more light-hearted book, you know. It's been compared to "Bridget Jones" at the CIA, which I actually take as a high compliment. I wanted the book to be funny, and I wanted it to appeal to people who might not otherwise take an interest in intelligence literature.

At the same time, my disillusionment with the agency and my sense that the CIA was not serving this country well was certainly something that I thought should be out there and that the public should know about. We foot the bill for what's estimated to be a $40 billion intelligence budget, and some of the anecdotes that I think show the nature of CIA dysfunction and the gross misallocation of resources in my book, I thought were necessary to get out there. Of course, I had to cooperate with the agency in the process of them vetting the book, but I found that they were very fair in what they allowed me to leave in.

CONAN: So did they take stuff out?

Ms. MORAN: They did. They asked me to take out certain portions and to change a few things here and there, but there was nothing that they asked me to change that I felt like detracted from either the humor of the book or from my personal opinions. They let me leave in some anecdotes which are not particularly flattering to the agency and show the agency in a less than stellar light, and I was impressed with that, that the parts they asked me to take out, I think, they justifiably thought could not be revealed, and yet they let me leave in my opinions.

CONAN: Amy, thanks very much for the call. Good luck finding somebody to take that thesis.

AMY: Well, thank you, and I look forward to reading your book, Lindsay.

Ms. MORAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

AMY: Thank you.

CONAN: It's--you mention "Bridget Jones." There's also been some less flattering comparisons, "Nancy Drew Goes to the Central Intelligence Agency."

Ms. MORAN: Well, I actually take that as a compliment, too. I think that sounds like a great book. Because in some ways I think I was like Nancy Drew. I was very earnest and I think committed, and found myself--at one point in the book I compare the agency to something between a confederacy of dunces and a pool of sharks. So I don't take that as a--too bad a criticism.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and this'll be John. John's calling from Boise, Idaho. Hello, John?

JOHN (Caller): Hello. Yes.

CONAN: You're gonna have to get a little bit closer to the phone there.

JOHN: Yeah. There you are. Sorry, I had you on speaker.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

JOHN: Well, being a former CIA recruit, what disappoints me is how they don't tell people how much--hello?

CONAN: Yeah, you're on the air. Go ahead.

JOHN: How much they use and abuse people in the recruitment process.

CONAN: The recruits themselves?

JOHN: Right. They promise all these things, and then either jobs are eliminated, you're thrown out like the daily trash.

CONAN: Was that your experience, Lindsay?

JOHN: Pretty much.

CONAN: No, I was asking Lindsay whether it was her experience or not.

JOHN: Oh no.

Ms. MORAN: It's--really wasn't my experience. I think I had overall astoundingly positive experience at the agency. I did well in my training and had a very successful first tour, but I know what the caller is speaking about. During our training, there was always the fear that you could get cut from the program at any minute, and we did have some trainees who were basically escorted to the gate and told, you know, `You're out of a job. You can't tell anyone where you've been for the past couple of years, and see you.' So that does happen. And, you know, on some level I guess the agency has the right and the ability to do that, and if they think someone is not cutting the mustard, so to speak, in becoming a successful spy, but we found the people cut from our class who were cut at the last minute, some of us were really shocked. We had no idea why these people were cut from the program.

JOHN: Yeah, and they don't tell you why. That's the whole thing I have a problem with.

CONAN: Mmm. John, thanks very much for the phone call. Good luck.

JOHN: OK. Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: And we're gonna continue our conversation after a short break. We'll be talking with more spies who write about their secret life, and also talking more with Lindsay Moran. She's the author of "Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy." Again, if you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@nprnews.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking with spies who tell almost all. With us is Lindsay Moran. A new book out about her five years at the Central Intelligence Agency. If you'd like to join the conversation, (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And let's get another caller on the line, and we'll talk with Blair. Blair's in Edmond, Oklahoma.

BLAIR (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. Lindsay, I want to give you kudos for your service. The question I have, and this is based on work I've done in the Middle East with people in your former profession who were very dedicated and very dedicated in terms of leaving family and whatnot. Why didn't you kind of hang in there longer than you did with the CIA and give it a shot, so to speak, for more...

Ms. MORAN: Well, one thing that I don't really cover in the book, but I found the decision to leave the agency was something that I anguished over. It wasn't like I just decided, `Well, this isn't for me, I'm gonna leave.' As I note in the book, my disillusionment began pretty early on, even before we started our training, and through the training I think that I and a number of other trainees were really questioning our role and the role of the agency, and was this organization truly serving our country well. I do dedicate the book to the men and women of the CIA who continue to serve our country and to strive for excellence because I think there are a lot of them.

I think for me it was a decision that ultimately I didn't want to spend my life swimming upstream, and I thought I had a good and relevant story to tell and that I would be able to do that again with the cooperation of the CIA, and that by doing that I was actually serving my country better than sort of plodding along in the bureaucracy.

BLAIR: Do you--if I can just ask a quick follow-up--do you feel that the period of transition that you were with the agency made that easier or harder, that--your decision to leave? In other words, kind of waiting out the change in leadership and the post-9/11 change in hopefully direction with the agency.

CONAN: Yeah.

BLAIR: How--do you understand that?

CONAN: Go ahead. I'm sorry.

Ms. MORAN: Well, I describe in the book how in the years preceding September 11th I was already starting to feel that the agency was in some ways like a ship with no one at the helm, and I felt a renewed commitment to the agency and to my career immediately after September 11th, and then found myself disillusioned yet again that the agency was very sluggish, I think, to respond to what had been the greatest intelligence failure certainly of my lifetime. I describe in the book how I started targeting someone as a potential source who had ties to Islamic extremists, and my boss in the field was supportive of it and I was moving forward, and one day I received a missive from headquarters telling me to cease and desist all contact with this person because they might at one time have had ties to terrorism. This was months after September 11th, and still the agency seemed reluctant to cultivate the sources that we really needed to cultivate in order to combat terrorism.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. `I could have justified it'--you said, `I could have justified it if I really believed I and the agency were making a difference.'

Ms. MORAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And I think that when I left, I left on the heels of the war in Iraq, I felt that the agency was, as I said, not serving this country well. And I had joined this organization particularly because I felt it was a job that might be appropriate for me and that I felt I could serve my country through, and I found that being at the agency your allegiances are expected to be to the agency and the agency alone, and that's when I really decided that I didn't want to spend the rest of my career there.

CONAN: Thanks very much for joining us.

By the way, Blair, thanks very much for the call.

BLAIR: Thank you.

CONAN: Lindsay Moran joined us here in Studio 3A. She's the author of the newly published "Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy."

Joining us now is Milton Bearden who, after retiring from three decades with the Central Intelligence Agency, co-authored the book "The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA's Final Showdown with the KGB." That was in 2003. He's also written a novel about the CIA. He joins us now from northern Virginia.

Glad to talk to you.

Mr. MILTON BEARDEN (Co-author, "The Main Enemy"): Yes. Good to be with you.

CONAN: Could you describe briefly what you cover in "The Main Enemy?"

Mr. BEARDEN: Well, it's the--begins with that strange moment, the year of the spy when quite literally all of CIA's agents in Moscow started dropping one by one, and follows through until basically the hauling down of the hammer and sickle over the Kremlin, and it's a look at it from both sides, what was going on in that strange year beginning in '85 and running all the way until 1991, '92 when I left.

CONAN: And your motive was to try to tell this history?

Mr. BEARDEN: I'm just telling a story. I'm not trying to make a point or anything like that. This story, you know, if I don't tell it, Oliver Stone will, and he'll get it all wrong, so...

CONAN: Well. You...

Mr. BEARDEN: Basically it's an oral history. Nobody's going to do it. And the people on the other side of--the Soviets, the KGB officers that I dug out of the woodwork in Moscow to go work this thing over, are gonna be leaving the scene as well, so it--I look at it as a piece of history.

CONAN: Now this is a different piece of work than a lightheaded memoir about five years in the Central Intelligence Agency. The review process, what was that like?

Mr. BEARDEN: Well, I think it's as your other guest has described it, you know, it was--you had to be careful. I went into the project with, you know, two of my own personal goals which were simple: don't do anything that hurts anybody that's still out there that may have collaborated with us, and don't do anything--don't write anything that makes the job harder for the men and women back there still trying to do it. And the review process found a few other things that they didn't want to get out. We negotiated a few of them and never any really huge issue. You know, the truth is that secrets--the kind of secrets that the review process wants to keep out of there, for the most part, are boring. Some of them are a little silly, but for the most part they're rather boring and they don't take away from the story.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and Michael's with us from Washington, DC.

MICHAEL (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

MICHAEL: I'm a 30-year veteran of the Defense Intelligence Agency and I have been on loan off and on to the CIA for over 20 years. The only comment I wanted to make was--I think you might find it amusing--that I was involved in black ops, and there has never, ever been a book written by anyone involved with black ops for the CIA, and basically the reason is they make it very clear that they say two things: One, the book will never be published, and number two, your continued existence would be a questionable one.

CONAN: Well, that's more discouraging than even hearing you might have to repay back your advance from a publisher.

MICHAEL: Yeah, it absolutely is. And I think that over the years, the major publishers in New York and, well, for that matter around the world, because some books have been published out of the country...

CONAN: Sure.

MICHAEL: ...contain information about the CIA, but the publishers are very much aware of how dangerous it is to handle something like that.

CONAN: Milt Bearden, does that ring true to you?

Mr. BEARDEN: Well, I'm not sure what I can make of `your continued existence would come into question,' but the reality is, is that black ops, covert action operations, are by nature deniable, don't exist, and these will fall into areas that you're just not going to get clearance on, and we all signed that document that say, you know, we will give the agency the right to pre-publication review, so I've been involved in some of those things over the years, and I'm not inclined to want to write about them. I think some of them will come out, as the one I did in Afghanistan. I mean, that was a covert action with all of the restrictions on it, but basically that's come out piece by piece. So, you know, it all depends. And I don't know what the caller was involved in but, you know, there are some things that are just going to--not going to see the light of day, and rightly so.

CONAN: Michael, we do--even if no one who's actually been involved in these things has written a book, we seem to read about them all the time. Do any of them bear any relation to reality?

MICHAEL: Oh, I think there's some liberties taken by some authors and screenwriters, but the--in most cases if they're referring to specific incidents, they're just guessing, because it has been my experience in the course of 30 years that we cover our trail real well, and there has never been a single incidence that I am aware of where anything was left behind or there was information that could conceivably have identified what actually took place.

CONAN: Michael, thanks for the call.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

One way around this problem, Milt Bearden, is to go on and write a novel. You did, a novel called "The Black Tulip," about the war in Afghanistan. Why a novel after writing a history of the Cold War?

Mr. BEARDEN: Well, no, the novel was--preceded the history of the Cold War, which was something I wrote in 1998. I'd always wanted to write anyway, and then a 30-year career in the CIA sort of postponed that, so I went and sat on a frozen lake in New Hampshire and decided, `Well, I'll write a novel.' It was probably an easier way to do the Afghan thing than to try to write it as a memoir. And, you know, it was one of those things where you could say, `Well, you know, if it didn't happen this way, it would have happened this way.' So at least you're--the experience of having wandered around and--with the, you know, 250,000 mujaheddin fighting the Soviet army. You know, I'd seen it, smelled the cordite and ...(unintelligible).

CONAN: And because it was a novel, were you able to say some things that would not have been--made it through...

Mr. BEARDEN: Yeah, I think so. I think fictionalizing the thing allowed me a lot more liberties. But, you know, you can take an awful lot of it to the bank, just not the kind of--some of the threads that go through it in a family story there. That's kind of fun.

CONAN: Well, let's be joined now by Francine Mathews, the author of several spy novels. Her latest is "The Secret Agent." She spent four years with the Central Intelligence Agency back in the early '90s.

Nice to have you on the program.

Ms. FRANCINE MATHEWS (Author, "The Secret Agent"): Oh, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: You've written 10 mystery books before you tried your hand at spy fiction. Why the delay?

Ms. MATHEWS: You know, I think I was actually trying to avoid the review process that you have to go through as a former agency employee.

CONAN: So even your novels go through this.

Ms. MATHEWS: Oh, yes.

CONAN: Is that true, Milt?

Mr. BEARDEN: Oh, sure. Yeah. No, everything--actually, an op-ed piece must go through. I mean, I don't know how Francine got anything out there. I mean, you know, maybe some other things--but most everything you write gets looked at.

CONAN: So, Francine, when you finally got around to submitting your manuscript, what happened?

Ms. MATHEWS: It was actually a lovely experience. They were thrilled to read the book. They turned it back in about a week, and they only asked me to change one word, which immediately, of course, begged the question in my mind of whether I'd written anything relevant, you know? But they told me that, you know, fiction's inherently deniable, so you can put things that are relatively true in fiction, and simply because it's a story you've technically made up, they'll let it go out.

Mr. BEARDEN: There you are.

CONAN: Yeah. We're talking about spy lit with Milt Bearden and Francine Mathews, both veterans of the Central Intelligence Agency who have also written books. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line, and this is David. David's in Little Rock, Arkansas.

DAVID (Caller): Hello. Good evening.


DAVID: I did some intelligence studies in college, and one of the things that my professors kept on stressing was that you never hear the things that went right for the agency. You always hear about the accidents, the things that get in the nightly news. And I just wanted to ask all of your guests if that affected their writing and the perception of the agency while they were in.

CONAN: Well, Francine, why don't you go first.

Ms. MATHEWS: Sure. You know, I think that that's an absolute truth. It's a sad fact of intelligence work that your failures are what are broadcast, not your successes. And I think part of my motivation for writing spy novels as I have as been to kind of present a more balanced view. I write about terrorism, and I started writing about it before 9/11 when I felt it was sort of the realm of the unsung heroes, because counterterrorism people are so intensely dedicated and they have kept us safe for so long. So that certainly was part of my agenda in using that background as the basis for a novel.

CONAN: Milt Bearden?

Mr. BEARDEN: Oh, sure. You know, intelligence isn't a terribly efficient undertaking. I mean, you're--in a lot of very tricky operations you've got a 51-49 percent success up front. And, you know, when you get one of those, you know, your inclination is not to send a drop copy to The New York Times. You know, when something bad goes on, that's picked up pretty quick, and people have a lot of fun with that stuff, you know? There's nothing that looks, you know, more awkward than a failed intelligence operation. It's sort of a pratfall, and we always like to laugh at pratfalls. And that's too bad, because, you know, it's like leaping over a chasm sometimes, you know? If you make it, wow, that's graceful and smooth, but if you miss it by just a quarter inch it's a pratfall and they say, `What a dunderhead.'

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BEARDEN: So--yeah.

CONAN: Isn't that chapter one and a half of the first of every spy novel, Francine--something terrible happens?

Ms. MATHEWS: The disaster?

CONAN: Yeah. The disaster happens, and then you've got to spend the rest of the book fixing it.

Ms. MATHEWS: Absolutely, or you have the pending disaster, which is even worse. It hangs over you, like, most of life when you're in intelligence work. I think that part of the grace of an intelligence novel is that it's allowed to be more complex, Neal, than the common run of suspense fiction. We deal with complexity in intelligence work, and part of the fascination of casting it into fiction is attempting to hand that to the reader.

CONAN: Hm. Before we let you go--and we're going to do this to Milt Bearden before we let him go, too, but just to give him fair warning--before we let you go, do you read other espionage literature? And if so, what do you like?

Ms. MATHEWS: Oh, Lord, yes, absolutely. You know, I love Robert Harris' work.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MATHEWS: He's British. I've been a longtime reader of John Le Carre and I read everything he writes. I also enjoy Daniel Silva. As you notice, I'm mentioning men.

CONAN: Yeah. And fiction, too.

Ms. MATHEWS: And I've read "The Black Tulip," Milt. I think that, you know, there's wonderful stuff out there, and I certainly learn from it as much as I contribute to it.

CONAN: Francine Mathews, thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. MATHEWS: Oh, my pleasure.

CONAN: Francine Mathews. We reached her at her home in Denver, Colorado. She's the author of numerous mystery and spy novels. Her next thriller, "Blown," comes out later this year. We can only guess what that's about.

Milt Bearden's going to stay with us and take more of your calls after we come back from the break. If you'd like to join us it's (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org. After we finish our discussion about spies who write, we'll talk about a flap over a bunny's trip to Vermont that has raised some eyebrows at the Department of Education.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Here are the headlines from a couple of stories NPR News is following today. Ten people were killed and more than 200 injured this morning just outside Los Angeles when a commuter train struck an SUV. The train derailed and crashed into another train. And a helicopter crash in western Iraq killed 31 US troops today. President Bush expressed sadness, saying, `Americans weep and mourn when US troops die in Iraq.' You can hear details on those stories coming up later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, inside the Rehnquist court and the future of constitutional law. That's at this time tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Right now we're wrapping up our conversation about espionage literature. Our guest is Milton Bearden. He's the co-author, with James Risen, of "The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA's Final Showdown with the KGB," and also the author of "The Black Tulip," a novel of war in Afghanistan.

And let's get another couple of callers on the line if we can, and Nathan is with us. Nathan's calling from Boise, Idaho.

NATHAN (Caller): No, I'm calling from Minneapolis, sir.

CONAN: Oh, I apologize. Go ahead.

NATHAN: It's OK. My question is--well, I spent a little time around in the military, spent a little time around some of these people. And I never had figured out the appeal of the job. I mean, I understand it's all glamour and everything, but I couldn't understand why the folks--why they would go and do the things that they would do. Like they would have to hide their identity and they'd have to, you know--you wouldn't know who they were, and it was just--it was always kind of--they couldn't ever been who they wanted to be. And I understand how it is, you know, on the surface, how it looks to the public, and why that would be such a fascinating subject, but in truth, it's not that fascinating when you've got to go out and do that, which is almost a mundane job. How is it--how can that be? How is that translated to an exciting book?

CONAN: Milt Bearden.

Mr. BEARDEN: Well, I don't know that I could fully agree with the caller on that. I mean, maybe the job looked a little mundane from the point of observation he had. You put up with all that kind of stuff. Let's say what--you know, one of the questions that was raised was: Why do you join the CIA? I think that the answer to that's different for every generation. I came in in 1964, when there was sort of a groundswell of a willingness of people coming out of the universities or out of the military to go out in that world that maybe John Kennedy had called us to, to service. And the CIA was something that I was attracted to. There was a real adversary out there; I mean the Soviet Union. Whenever you needed to be reassured that the Soviets were up to no good, you could see them do something in Hungary or invade Czechoslovakia or invade...

NATHAN: Yes, sir. But the...

Mr. BEARDEN: And...

CONAN: So you felt like you were making a difference, in short.

Mr. BEARDEN: You absolutely did feel like you were making a difference, and it really wasn't all that off-putting to worry about the business of having to have cover and live a lie.

CONAN: Hm. Nathan, thank you.

NATHAN: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Lucinda. Lucinda's in Queen Creek, Arizona.

LUCINDA (Caller): Hi.


LUCINDA: Well, you know, I just wonder what his take is on maybe the future of the CIA in a day and age where even dead men can't keep secrets anymore. Being a former military intelligence myself, I just kind of see all kinds of changes on the horizon in that area.

CONAN: Milton?

Mr. BEARDEN: Yeah. Well, I think that your caller's probably got a good point. The future of the CIA--I really don't know, but let's--you know, we've had just a sea change in the world. The CIA was created in 1947 and it was basically a Soviet-oriented issue, and China was in there. But after 9/11, you know, we've got an entirely different world. I don't know if CIA will make the cut on this. It may be something new. I mean, don't forget that we went into World War II where people still loved battleship fleets and horse cavalry, and we came out of there and it was carrier fleets and airborne. And there may be as radical a change as that. And certainly, living near Washington as I do, you can see all kinds of jockeying for position between Langley, Virginia, where CIA headquarters is, and the Pentagon.

CONAN: Mm. Lucinda, thank you.

LUCINDA: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And before we let you go, Milt Bearden, as promised, do you read spy literature, espionage literature, non-fiction or fiction, and if so, what do you like?

Mr. BEARDEN: Well, I started off just after I'd gotten to my first overseas posting in Germany in 1965 and picked up Le Carre's "Small Town in Germany," and was just...

CONAN: That's a great book.

Mr. BEARDEN: ...shocked to see that all of the spy meeting places that he used in there were the ones that seemed most appropriate for me to use. And then I always thought he had a good, deft hand at it, although I always thought he had sort of an underlying kind of snotty, elegant, anti-Americanism in there, but that made his stories kind of fun, too. You know, what are the great spy novels of the world? God, you've got to go back to Kipling's "Kim." But do I read a lot? No. When I'm writing, I don't read other fiction. I think it inhibits me somehow. I'm working on a new novel and I don't want to mess with somebody else's stuff. Maybe that's just because writers are such angst-filled people and they don't want somebody else's stuff to all of a sudden knock them off their pace. But--so I may not have the confidence that Francine Mathews has on reading everybody else's stuff while she's writing hers.

But, you know, there's a lot of stuff out there. Some of it's good. Some of the stuff where people have actually been inside--they can actually get the address right. And there's an awful lot of junk out there, too.

CONAN: Milton Bearden, good luck with the new book.

Mr. BEARDEN: Hey, thank you.

CONAN: Milton Bearden, retired from the CIA. He's the author of "The Main Enemy" and the novel "The Black Tulip," and he joined us from northern Virginia.

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