When you hear the word ‘spy’, your imagination likely conjures up images of James Bond in a sharp suit, wielding weapons and seducing everyone in the room over a martini. In reality, Emily Brandwin – with a background in improvised comedy and a totally unrelated university degree – is the one doing the spying.
As a twentysomething theatre graduate, Emily went from doing ad lib comedy at the local dive bar to working at the CIA. Trading laughs for lies, she immersed herself in the underground world as an Operations Officer, and for eight years, kept her true career a secret from everyone she knew.
It was less sexy dinners at the casino, and more wearing a disguise to protect herself from a potential asset – but she loved every second of it.
Trading laughs for lies
After her spy-obsessed mum found a CIA opening online, Emily applied for the job on the promise of living at home rent-free. And to her surprise, she found herself getting through rounds of applications, questionnaires and interviews, before eventually landing the job. Start to finish, the process took 12 months, and was as much a test of stamina as it was about mental ability.
“At first it involved filling out pages and pages of personal information about my upbringing, background and possible foreign connections. It felt very top secret – manila envelopes would arrive in the post with no return address, and people would phone me without leaving a full name”, Emily tells us.
“I was then flown to Washington DC to complete a lie detector test, before taking a mental assessment questionnaire and having my answers torn apart by a CIA psychologist. It was a thousand questions long, and designed to make you second guess yourself. Asking you if you preferred your mum or your dad, or whether you liked S&M. By question 400, you have no idea what you’re even answering – you’re just trying to get it done.
“For the next round, the CIA flew me to their HQ for an interview with the people who were going to be my bosses. It was intense, and probably the first time I realised the magnitude of the job I might possibly get. For someone who does improvised comedy for a living, being there just didn’t feel real.”
Emily admits she wasn’t an obvious candidate for the CIA (“all my peers had very traditional routes into the CIA, working in international relations or studying foreign languages – I was doing improv at the Funny Bone Comedy Club!”), but her employers spotted something promising in her.
“The agency (the A in Central Intelligence Agency) usually looks for a very specific type of person, and while I was an anomaly in the sense I didn’t fit the mould of what they would usually hire on paper, they obviously saw something in me. Often, they are looking for people who can speak a hard second language like Arabic or Russian, or someone with oversees experience or a military background. It takes a person who doesn’t mind living a double life.”
Spy another day
Emily landed landed the job – which involved creating disguises for spies – but then quickly transferred departments to work as an Operations Officer. Her job involved meeting and recruiting people to be spies – she wasn’t technically the one doing the spying, but instead finding people with information to do the front line work for her.
“An Operations Officer goes into the field to meet potential assets. It can feel a bit like dating – what you’re trying to do is find people who have access to information your country needs, and recruit them to work for you. The CIA will say, ‘Where are there gaps in information? Where do we need more intelligence?’, and you’ll have to figure out a way to meet somebody with that knowledge, and make yourself interesting to them so they want to meet you again.
“The job sometimes means protecting your identity. If you’re a woman in the Middle East who shouldn’t be driving alone in the middle of the night, you’re given the profile of a man with a baseball hat and padding in the shoulders. Or, if a particular job means going undercover, the CIA will disguise you with fake facial hair or a wig.”
Thanks to the likes of James Bond, Mission Impossible and Atomic Blonde, there are a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be a spy. But no, Emily hasn’t killed anyone, and no, she hasn’t used sex as a tool to get information out of people.
“I feel bad because people often want the misconceptions to be true. I get questions all the time like, ‘Did you have to shoot people?’, and ‘How many men did you sleep with on the job?’ People are truly disappointed when I explain that that isn’t what the job entails. It’s a government job – the CIA wouldn’t allow Officers to use sex to coerce cooperation. Once you introduce that into any professional relationship – whether it’s when you’re recruiting a spy or trying to get information – you don’t have control any more. It’s one of the biggest no-nos of the agency.
Secrets and lies
Unsurprisingly, a job at the CIA isn’t the type of work you can leave on your desk when you go home at night. Or actually, that’s exactly what it is – because a lot of employees are covert, which means not only the details of, but their whole entire job has to be a secret.
“I had a cover job that I can’t disclose, and nobody really knew I worked for the CIA. The only people I told were my parents, my brother and my grandparents – and I regret telling my grandma because she has a huge mouth and found it so hard to keep secret!
“You are allowed to tell your spouse but only when it’s serious, which made for some fairly tense moments when employees got engaged. They had to do a big reveal – ‘Hey, I know I told you I worked here… but in reality, this is what I do’. The CIA tell you to use your best judgement – you know if you should tell somebody or if you shouldn’t.”
Emily was given a cover job with “a little bit of detail”, but filled in most of the gaps herself. The trick, she says, is to make yourself the most boring person in the room, so that no one asks any more questions, but not to choose a job that will make people who know you think, ‘what?’
“Spies want to make themselves blend in – you want to be the scenery. You don’t want to be the girl in the red dress at the party; you want people to walk straight past you. But then, if you have an incredibly technical or complicated cover job that doesn’t suit your personality, that will make people who know you question things, too. It’s a balance.”
One thing that wasn’t so much of a balance was Emily’s personal and work life.
“Working for the CIA is all-consuming, which is why lots of people would date within the CIA; to take that extra layer of stress off. They know who you are and what you do – you don’t have to lie.
“Dating outside of the agency was hard. My schedule was never planned, and I was away a lot. My boss could say, ‘Hey, we need you to fly across the world for two weeks’, and I’d disappear with no explanation. When someone doesn’t know where you work, that makes things very hard.”
Maintaining a lie didn’t just impact relationships, but friendships too. Emily missed her best friend’s wedding because of the job, and wasn’t able to tell her the real reason why.
“It was horrible. She couldn’t understand why I was missing it, and our mutual friends were so angry at me. I couldn’t tell them the truth and I didn’t have a choice – I had to go on the job. All I could do was apologise about being on a work trip, and hope she forgave me later down the line.
“I also missed out on some big family events – my brother got engaged and had a huge engagement party. I was so excited for him, but was on a work trip where I wasn’t able to have much contact with home. I managed to cram in a 10 minute phone call, and could hear all my family and friends celebrating with him. It felt so lonely. Those are moments I’ll never get back, so it was challenging.”
Emily left the agency after eight years, and was able to reveal her real job to people – “and tell them I wasn’t a massive bitch!” – but there are some things she’ll never be able to disclose.
“When you leave the CIA, you don’t sign a non-disclosure agreement, but obviously there are things you can never talk about. You can never share sources or methods, or people’s names, and anything I write has to be submitted to a publication review board who will approve it. There are limitations to what you can share when you leave the agency, but I have so much respect for the CIA and my time there that I’d want to keep their secrets, anyway. I want to keep everyone that works there safe, and I do that by keeping my mouth shut.”