My Short, Sorry Career as a Spy

Steve Altes is the author of "If You Jam the Copier, Bolt" (Andrews McMeel, 2001).

In “The Recruit,” Colin Farrell plays a top MIT student recruited by spymaster Al Pacino. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I plan to. Maybe I’ll discover what I did wrong.

I’m “The Reject.” In the mid-'80s, while my liberal MIT classmates were busy attending pro-Sandinista rallies, I decided to really rebel -- I applied for a summer job with the CIA.

The Soviet Union was a bad actor in world affairs then, and I wanted to join the fight. Entering the on-campus interview room, I sidestepped protesters holding “Culpable In Assassinations” signs. This rattled me, but the recruiter quickly broke the ice with: “Hey, know how you become communist? Go to Harvard and turn left.” He then introduced himself as John Littlejohn, and didn’t smile when he said it.


At the end of our meeting, he stressed absolute secrecy. No one could know I was applying. Later, the agency used plain brown envelopes to correspond with me -- envelopes my roommate promptly tore open, suspecting I had a secret porno subscription. Presumably this ruse was more effective in foiling any Soviet spies monitoring my mailbox.

The nine-month application process consisted of multiple interviews, aptitude tests, psych profiles and medical exams. One CIA shrink had me describe 50 possible ways to extract secret information from a foreign scientist. From bugging his briefcase to holding his dog hostage, I let my imagination run wild. The psychologist nodded approvingly at my ethical elasticity.

Another test consisted of a single essay question: “Do the ends justify the means?” Trust me, if you ever want to see that shoe-phone, answer yes.

In May I faced the final hurdle: the polygraph. The questions covered the entire spectrum of taboo behavior. Had I ever practiced bestiality? (Note to self: Polygraph examiners have no sense of humor.) Had I used drugs? (Define “drugs.” OK, define “use.”) Had I ever, in my entire life, committed a crime?

Uh-oh. Klaxons blared in my head. This seemed more a test of memory than character. I began by clearing my conscience of adolescent Bubble Yum pilferage, underage drinking, Halloween vandalism and other youthful indiscretions. Next, I itemized the laws I’d broken as an adult -- the copyright laws I’d violated by photocopying articles without permission, the mattress tags I’d recklessly torn off, illegal U-turns, open containers, fireworks.

Not being Catholic, I was new to the confessional experience and was on a roll. I even copped to jaywalking that very morning. I conceded that, given all the loony laws still on the books, I was surely guilty of a whole slew of offenses: juggling without a license, crossing the street while eating an ice-cream cone, cursing while playing mini-golf. Apparently, I’d been on a crime spree since birth.

His patience long gone, the examiner boiled it down to one simple, catchall question: Had I ever done anything that made me susceptible to blackmail by hostile intelligence services? No? End of exam.

And a good thing too: By that point I was ready to confess to starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

In early June, the CIA called to congratulate me. I would start at CIA headquarters on Monday. Assignment to follow. I was ecstatic. The next day the CIA called again -- to unhire me.

My career as a spy lasted exactly 19 hours and 13 minutes.

“What happened?” I asked. “It’s a secret,” the woman said.

“What do you mean, it’s a secret? What changed since yesterday?” Long pause. “Well, it could be that yesterday Congress canceled the program we wanted you for. It could be we decided not to proceed with that project. It could be that the world situation changed overnight. It could be that we discovered something related to your security clearance. It could be.... “

Looking back, it’s just as well I never made it into the CIA. Without any prodding from me, the Soviet empire folded faster than an origami master.

Recently I learned I have a cousin in the BVD (the Dutch intelligence service, not the underwear). Did that derail my career as a spook? I never found out.

I bet it was that polygraph. No doubt Colin Farrell had the good sense to keep mum about the Bubble Yum.