Web Essays

A Secret History

An interview with International Spy Museum historian Dr. Vince Houghton

By Taylor Curry | November 21, 2019
The International Spy Museum
The International Spy Museum

This month for the Scholar’s online book club, [Spoiler Alert], we’re reading the new memoir from former CIA officer Amaryllis Fox, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA. To understand what makes Fox’s book unique among espionage memoirs (and to give us some insight into life as a spook), I spoke with Dr. Vince Houghton, the International Spy Museum’s official curator and historian. He gave me a peak behind the curtain of U.S. counterintelligence, added to my reading list, and set the stage for a wonderful discussion on Fox’s book tonight during our Facebook Live event.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Taylor Curry: What did you think of Life Undercover? How is it different from a typical CIA memoir?

Vince Houghton: To me, the most interesting thing about the book is that she went around the CIA’s publication review board, which is a bit of a no-no. You can typically publish anything you want as long as the CIA can signs off on it. If that doesn’t happen, that’s somewhat problematic.

TC: Is there a chance that the book could get recalled?

VH: It wouldn’t be recalled. But something could happen like with No Easy Day, the book about the Bin Laden raid. A former member of SEAL Team Six wrote it without clearing it with the Department of Defense, and had to pay almost $7 million dollars to the U.S. government.

TC: So it’s not necessarily unusual to go around the review board then?

VH: Oh, it’s unusual. It’s not something that’s done very often, and I think that the $7-million dollar ruling was a kind of a shot across the bow to anyone else thinking about doing it—a way of saying, “Hey look, this is not something you want to do.”

TC: Why do you think Amaryllis Fox went around that review board? Do you think it’s because of the things she’s talking about in the book, or that she just wanted to make sure it was all her own writing?

VH: When people decide to do that or when people get fed up with the review board, it’s because the board takes too long, and they want to cut things out that you want to keep in. They are kind of arbitrary in the way that they decide things. For instance, they will sometimes cut out information that is public knowledge.

TC: Fox definitely had an interesting childhood, which helped prepare her for life in the CIA. How do people normally start working in this field, from your experience?

VH: There’s not a huge “normally” kind of thing. It used to be, back in the beginning of the CIA in the ’40s and the ’50s, everyone was a Yale or Harvard grad. They were all members of the old boys’ club. That’s changed pretty dramatically with the realization that you need people from all aspects of society in order to run a successful intelligence agency. You need scientists, you need people who grew up in a blue-collar environment, you need people who went to state universities, you need people from a lot of different backgrounds. That’s the difference between then and now. So, there is no average person. Everyone has a pretty distinct background.

TC: This is the second spy-related book we’ve read for our book club, [Spoiler Alert]. The first was Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynne Olson, about the woman who ran France’s largest underground spy network during World War II, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. None of us had heard of her before we read the book, which makes me wonder—who is the coolest spy we’ve never heard of?

VH: That’s a hard question because most intelligence work is not all that exciting. A lot of it is pretty boring. There are some people that have just wonderfully quirky lives and are able to get away with things that you would never imagine these people getting away with.

A man named Jack Barsky is a good example. Barsky is still alive today. He was what we call a “sleeper,” so very similar to what you would see on the TV show The Americans. He was a KGB officer who came to the United States and assumed the name Jack Barsky. He was illegally undercover in the United States and worked for the KGB for more than a decade—and then just decided to retire. He didn’t really like it anymore, he wanted to stay here. So he concocted this elaborate plan, which I won’t give away, to stay in the United States. Eventually, he was hunted down by the FBI, but the FBI couldn’t really do much to him at that point because it had been so many years since he’d actually done anything. Now he’s best friends with the FBI agent who captured him.

TC: It’s interesting to hear that Barsky wanted to leave, because it feels like people in the spy world so rarely do.

VH: Well, certainly people rarely leave the KGB. Leaving the CIA is as simple as saying “Okay, I quit.” It’s not like the movies where they kill you if you try to leave. But the KGB was a little less nice about things, so it was harder for Barsky to leave.

TC: Speaking of interesting cases in counterintelligence, what’s one of the biggest misconceptions being a spy?

VH: That every other day you are jumping out of a perfectly good airplane with a martini in hand. I think that the vast majority of intelligence work you would consider boring. It’s research, it’s study, it’s practice, it’s mundane—stuff that would not make good movies.

There are very few good representations of counterintelligence in pop culture. Mostly because it would be very boring if you showed it the right way. One of the biggest misconceptions is that these agencies are kind of run rogue, that they just think something up and do it. That’s not how it works. It all starts at the very, very, top. Any kind of covert action or operation has to be approved by the president, and that’s something even people who are in the business don’t quite realize or can forget. Intelligence communities are very strictly governed. They have House and Senate intelligence committees, inspector generals, and lots of lawyers to tell them whether or not they can do something legally—and of course they can only do things that the president instructs them to do.

TC: What aroused your interest in espionage?

VH: Lots of things. I dabbled in it myself, so I do have some background in it. It’s also a wonderful challenge as an historian to go and try learn something about a field where people are purposefully trying to prevent you from learning about them. It’s not just they are trying to be secretive, they just destroy documents or create fake documents. Everything is redacted. It’s a huge challenge and one that to me is very interesting.

TC: Do you have a favorite spy story?

VH: Some of the ones that are most extraordinary to me are these in which people get away with things that in a normal world, there is absolutely no way they would be able to do. There are some wonderful ones from World War II, like the story of Betty Pack. She was an American who worked for the British during World War II, and she was able to find her way the Vichy French embassy and learn all sorts of things about the German and the French war plans.

The American entry into World War II is a pretty extraordinary story. We had a speaker here last week who told us about how the British manipulated American public opinion with the aim of getting the U.S. into the war by using everything from fake news, like the kind you hear about today, to outright propaganda.

TC: Back to the Amaryllis Fox book—other than the lack of approval from the CIA review board, is there anything else that you would say is really unique about this memoir or that makes it different from other CIA stories?

VH: It’s hard to ignore her. She’s young, she’s good looking, she’s married to a Kennedy. She’s not a normal human being, so that does stand out a little bit. But her story is not unique. Her story is something that can be told by dozens and dozens of CIA officers who worked the war on terror. I guess what’s interesting about it is that it’s not that unique. The war on terror was interesting in that not only did CIA officers behave more like paramilitary commandos than traditional spies, even analysts were deployed to combat zones and where they had to carry weapons. The stereotype of an analyst as a nerdy guy sitting back at Langley reading stuff changed pretty significantly during the war on terror

Anytime you study intelligence, you have to separate the nonsense from reality. That’s not easy to do because the nonsense is all over the place, so it’s a good choice to pick a book that attempts to portray reality. But Fox didn’t get hers cleared, so you do have to calculate how much of it is real and how much of it is not. It’s a fun conversation to have.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus