It was all new and exciting and nerve-jumbling, this secret world.
The year was 1980, and Sandi Lucas stood at the beginning of what promised to be a real-life version of “True Lies.”
A freshly minted graduate of the “Farm"--the Central Intelligence Agency’s training center--she and her husband had just arrived in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for their first joint overseas posting as case officers. Nominally attached to the State Department, Sandi and Steve were “a tandem couple,” bound by marriage, bound by responsibilities for two small children, bound by espionage.
Indeed, Lucas was one of the first married women with children appointed to be a case officer, the intelligence community’s euphemism for spy.
For the next 15 years, this attempt to inhabit both her secret world and the above-the-line world of wife, mother and diplomat would be her life. It would be a life that mingled disillusionment and triumph, professional success and personal travail, high drama and low comedy.
She retired from the agency last year after settling a sexual discrimination lawsuit, and is speaking openly for the first time about life inside one of the world’s most isolated societies.
At 47, she has frazzled hair, an open smile and a laid-back style. She seems exhilarated as the words tumble out.
“I loved it inside the CIA. But I never for a second have regretted leaving,” she says. “I feel free, it’s such a strange feeling now to be out of the agency.”
The CIA refused to comment on whether it had ever employed Sandi Lucas, and it would not confirm or deny any of her statements. But David Whipple, a retired CIA official and the executive director of the Assn. of Former Intelligence Officers, confirmed that she had been a case officer.
Whatever else her career was, a Hollywood movie adventure it was not. Her assignment in Sao Paulo made that clear.
Operating under diplomatic cover as an economic officer at the American Consulate, Lucas was primed for her first rendezvous with a CIA informant. He was a Brazilian official with a long record of spying for the agency, and Lucas was taking over as his CIA handler.
Perhaps because it was her first such meeting, the chief of the CIA’s Sao Paulo base decided to go along to make the introductions. That’s where the trouble began.
Ignoring “trade-craft,” the base chief picked Lucas up in a car with U.S. diplomatic license plates. He drove straight to a CIA safe house, making no effort to see if they were being followed.
Once there, he couldn’t remember the apartment number. The Brazilian source had to meet them in the middle of the street and lead them to the CIA’s own safe house.
Finally inside, Lucas and the Brazilian got acquainted. He indicated he wanted to quit spying for the CIA, and Lucas was trying to persuade him to continue betraying his government.
“I was so pumped up, you know, this was my first covert meeting,” Lucas recalls. “And I say to myself, ‘I’m going to save this asset, I’m going to convince him to keep working for us.’ And as I’m talking to him, we suddenly both hear snoring. We both look over, and [the base chief] was out cold.”
“The [Brazilian] looked over at me and said, ‘Don’t worry, that happens to him all the time. At least if he’s asleep he won’t ask me for a job.’ He [the base chief] wanted out of the CIA and he had been asking the asset to help him find work.”
After a time, her chief woke up, and the conversation continued as if nothing had happened. But Lucas’ bubble had just been burst.
“All I could think about was what one of my instructors at the Farm had said, which was that things in the field are not always the same as they are in training. He was so right.”
Still, Lucas saved the source. Later, he told her he liked working with her because she was different from his previous CIA handlers--all men. Those officers, he said, had used the safe house to sleep with prostitutes so often that the bed had broken.
Down on the Farm
The CIA was the last place Sandi Fremont ever expected to end up.
A smart, sophisticated young woman from New York, she spent two stultifying years at a small college in Kansas before ending up back at Queens College, where her father was a professor.
She studied political science and joined protests against the Vietnam War. She helped occupy Queens College offices after National Guard troops killed four Kent State University students in 1970.
She did graduate work in African studies at Boston University, where she married fellow student Jay Mann. In 1975 they went to Kenya; she worked in advertising and conducted field research for her doctoral thesis. They returned to Washington in 1978 after he joined the State Department as a foreign service officer.
Mann urged her to look for work at the State Department or the CIA; her education and experience in Africa made her a model candidate.
“I said to him, ‘The CIA? You’ve got to be kidding. . . . Those people I protested against?’ I just couldn’t imagine me in the CIA. My mother still thinks it’s the most ludicrous thing that I ever did.”
To Lucas’ surprise, the CIA hired her in September, 1979, as an intelligence analyst. She said her initial job interview gave her a hint of the discrimination she would confront in the clubby atmosphere inside the male-dominated agency.
It was a time when most women were desk-bound assistants or researchers, and the recruiting officer couldn’t understand why Lucas seemed eager to work overseas. “He said, ‘Why do you want to do that? . . . You have children.’ ”
Later, after she did well on the entrance exams and was accepted into the agency, a CIA psychologist told her: “You should be proud of yourself, young lady. You scored as high as the men.”
Mann died of leukemia in 1980, leaving her with two small children.
Later that year, she married Steve Lucas, an agency analyst, who had four children from a previous marriage.
But before they took a honeymoon, Sandi Lucas was accepted into the CIA’s training program to become a case officer in the Directorate of Operations, the elite unit that conducts covert operations.
The Farm, which is really Camp Peary, is an old military base outside Williamsburg, Va. There, the agency teaches the deceptive arts--trainees snake in and out of the town’s taverns to shake instructors trailing them, for instance.
The police around Williamsburg have grown accustomed to such antics. Late one night, a suspicious park police officer approached Lucas and three other trainees at the posh Williamsburg Inn. Suddenly, a look of recognition crossed the policeman’s face.
“Go back to the Farm,” he said wearily.
“If you see a bunch of adults doing silly things around the buildings in Colonial Williamsburg, chances are they are CIA,” Lucas says, laughing.
The Farm’s faculty, Lucas says, was something of a dumping ground for alcoholics and others who had troubled careers. That meant bad habits died hard, and old-school trainers could not believe that women and minorities were being hired as agents.
Lucas says the Farm’s chief of training called headquarters to try to get her out of the class. But she wasn’t intimidated. In her own words, she became known “as the pushy broad who thought she could be a case officer.”
Once in Brazil, the Lucases confronted a unique problem: what to do with the kids while they were on assignments. CIA officers have grueling social schedules. They must attend parties and official functions more frequently than their State Department counterparts to mingle with potential recruiting targets.
To her relief, Lucas found servants who could be trusted with her children--and who wouldn’t turn informant for the opposition. It was only years later, when her son, David, was 14 and her daughter, Jessica, was 11, that she told them her real job.
Arranging secure child care turned out to be the easy part of life as a woman inside the CIA.
When she recruited her first agent within the Brazilian government, Lucas says her base chief suggested that she must have slept with him to win him over.
Lucas used such assumptions to cover her tracks and get close to Brazilian men, who were often openly chauvinistic. Some of them believed her interest in them was sexual--until the time came for her to make her pitch for the agency.
“That was when I was thin, I was 32, and I was driving around Sao Paulo in a little sports car,” she says. “I was in my Mata Hari period. I let my hair grow long and dressed like a Brazilian woman. I would get very tan . . . so if I was walking down the street I would not stand out as an American official.”
One Brazilian official in Sao Paulo--who did not yet know she was a CIA officer--arranged to meet Lucas in his pied-a-terre, an apartment equipped for seduction, with a huge bed and a refrigerator stocked with Moet-Chandon champagne. She stalked out, pretending to be hurt and angry.
“About 10 days later I get this call, this meek little voice,” she says. “So apologetic. He says: ‘I’ll do anything you want.’ And he did.
“It’s easier for a woman to go to a hotel for a meeting with a man. . . . People just think you are having an affair, they don’t think you’re spying. . . . In a chauvinistic culture, you can have tremendous success as a woman because you take the chauvinism and you use it.”
But Lucas was not always so sure of herself, and often turned to her husband for advice.
“Being a case officer is probably the most insular job in the world,” she says. “It’s not just that you’re living in a closed fraternity. You are also living in a world that’s not real. Everything you do is a lie. Your life is based on a lie. You have to talk to someone. I cannot imagine being single as a case officer. You have to bounce ideas off somebody you trust.”
Yet after confiding in him, Lucas was always slightly irked that her husband showed no jealousy about her intense relationships with powerful men. “We had to separate our professional lives from our personal relationship,” Steve Lucas says sternly.
Perhaps the biggest danger to the Lucases’ marriage from their life of espionage was that they both were in a kind of work that continually called for psychological seduction.
“We had to watch each other,” she said, “and make sure we didn’t act like case officers toward each other.”
Mexico and the KGB
The Lucases left Brazil in 1984 for a stint at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and in 1986 were assigned to Mexico City, one of the CIA’s largest foreign stations. It was a miserable tour of duty for both: She got violently ill with typhoid fever; he suffered heart problems.
But Mexico had its moments.
The country had long been a hotbed of Soviet and Cuban espionage, where KGB officers could meet their American recruits away from the intense FBI scrutiny that Soviets faced in the United States. Mexico City, in particular, was an intelligence battlefield; Soviet mole Aldrich H. Ames served there for the CIA in the early 1980s.
One day, as Sandi Lucas was walking to lunch in the Zona Rosa, a shopping and restaurant district near her office in the U.S. Embassy, she noticed a tall blond man walking nearby. Later she saw him outside a shoe store, then ran into him at a Japanese restaurant.
“If you see the same person twice, you start to get concerned. If you see them three times, you know you’ve got something.”
Lucas suspected that she had been betrayed by a Mexican source she had inherited from another case officer.
“The [source] was not making meetings, he was not picking up his salary from us, which was a pretty hefty one. I knew something was wrong.”
Lucas arranged a meeting with the Mexican in a public place; Steve and two other CIA officers backed her up. Sure enough, the Russians were there, too, and Sandi dropped the Mexican from the CIA payroll.
Lucas also admits to an embarrassing failure that emerged during that period. Early in her CIA career, she had bought a special camera case requested by a CIA mole in the Cuban intelligence service. But when the Cubans announced in 1987 that all of the CIA’s Cuban recruits were double agents, the camera case was among items the Castro regime used as props for its news conference.
Boss From Spy Hell
The Lucases were transferred from Mexico City to the CIA’s Houston office in 1988.
There, Lucas said, she participated in an effort by the CIA and the FBI to recruit foreigners studying in the United States. It was successful beyond expectations; the 1989 Tian An Men Square massacre in Beijing had renewed Chinese students’ enthusiasm to defy their government.
Operating under assumed names, Lucas traveled to campuses throughout the Southwest, meeting with graduate students and other promising recruits to determine if they would be willing to go home and work for the CIA.
She recruited visiting foreign officials as well. She remembers the intense feeling of relief she felt after being reunited with a Russian source who had survived a year back in his homeland.
“When my Russian came out of the country,” she says, “he walked up to me and burst into tears. He just said: ‘I made it. I made it.’ It was always incredible to me that anybody would trust me so much.”
She says her tour in Houston was marred by the station chief, a veteran of the CIA’s famous Phoenix Program--the civil pacification program during the Vietnam War.
The station chief, Lucas says, was a gaudy man who took new male officers out for long lunches to sample Houston’s topless bars, and rented white Lincoln Town Cars when he traveled on assignment. He had been trying to pressure the station’s administrative assistant to leave so that he could replace her with his wife, and he wanted to make an old war buddy his deputy.
Unfortunately, that was Steve Lucas’ job, so the station chief tried his best to make both of the Lucases’ lives miserable.
At Sandi’s annual evaluation, the station chief exploded in a tirade.
“It was shocking to hear the yelling and shouting coming from his office,” recalls Steve Lucas. “He jumped up and slammed his fist on the desk. Sandi thought he was going to hit her.”
The station chief cut their tour in Houston short and installed his friend as his deputy. The station chief’s conduct had become infamous, however, and he was soon forced to retire.
The Lucases went next to Zaire, but after seven weeks they were ordered to evacuate in the midst of a bloody military uprising in 1991.
Steve headed back to Africa, but Sandi stayed in Langley. By early 1993, she had joined the Iraq operations team in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, as the CIA sought to aid the Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq and subvert the regime of Saddam Hussein.
The results of the efforts to undermine Hussein sometimes turned farcical, Lucas says. After the war, the CIA set up a giant radio transmission station in a neighboring country to broadcast anti-Hussein propaganda into Iraq. One night lightning struck the tower, turning it into a megaphone that blared into the desert, where a few Bedouins were trying to sleep.
“Suddenly, these Bedouins hear this enormous voice telling them that Saddam is evil. It must have sounded like the voice of God to them.”
In her last job at Langley, Lucas was deputy chief of operations for the Iraq Operations Group. She ended her career on a high note, as part of the effort behind the June, 1993, missile attack on Iraqi intelligence headquarters in retaliation for Iraq’s attempted assassination of ex-President George Bush.
“It was one of those things that was perfect,” she recalls proudly.
But her husband was in Africa, involved in operations that he refuses to discuss for the record, and his stint was stretching into years. The pressure on their marriage was intense.
What’s more, she was still frustrated at work, where she felt she had fallen behind in pay and promotions because she was a woman. She never earned more than $44,000 a year as a spy for her country (not including cost-of-living and other overseas allowances) and topped out as a GS-12, two pay grades below men with comparable experience.
Fed up, she joined the class-action sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by a group of women against the agency. But she isn’t bitter. She accepted a court-ordered settlement and opposes efforts by at least nine other women to continue to fight the CIA on the matter.
When she finally left the agency in 1994, she did so on her own terms.
With her son in college and her daughter just graduating from high school, she dreams of writing a book or a screenplay about her life, and of running a bed and breakfast.
This summer, after years of separation, she has moved to Baton Rouge, La., to rejoin Steve, 58, who left the CIA last fall to return to teaching. There they will try to readjust to the real world, outside the CIA’s hall of mirrors.
Through it all, she has retained her sense of idealism.
“I got people to commit treason,” she says. “But I am never going to apologize for being a spy. I didn’t make anybody do anything they didn’t want to do. These were people who very often had an inherent belief that that U.S. government stood for something good, and that the United States could help change things in their country for the better.”