Can CIA agents marry foreigners like they do in Salt?

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 23 2010 4:29 PM

Rules of Engagement

Can CIA agents marry foreigners like they do in Salt?

Liev Schreiber and Angelina Jolie in "Salt". Click image to expand.
Liev Schreiber and Angelina Jolie in Salt 

In the action-spy thriller Salt, which opens Friday, Angelina Jolie stars as a disgraced CIA agent who must at one point rescue her kidnapped German husband from Russian spies. Meanwhile, in the pilot episode of the TV series Covert Affairs, a rookie CIA agent is told that she should not date foreign nationals. So which is it—can CIA agents have romantic relationships with people from other countries or not?

For the most part, they can. Employees and applicants to the CIA must be U.S. citizens, but their spouses need not be, at least at the time of their hiring. The agency's career Web site does stipulate that if you'd like to become a spyfor the National Clandestine Service—that's the CIA's covert-operations branch—then both you and your spouse must be U.S. citizens. However, marriages to foreign nationals are allowed so long as the spouse agrees to become a naturalized U.S. citizen within five years and clears all necessary security checks.

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Given the international nature of the CIA's clandestine work and the age range of its operatives (applicants must be under the age of 35), it's not uncommon for agents to become romantically involved with foreigners. The agency discourages this behavior, however, by turning any resulting marriages into bureaucratic nightmares. A spook is also prohibited from telling her partner what she does for a living until he's had a thorough background check and a polygraph test. (If the partner were American, there would be no such restriction.) The vetting process and accompanying paperwork can be so stressful, and, in some cases confusing, for a fiance that agents are said to have left the service in order to avoid it. Others might opt for the easier path, marrying an American, or the easiest, marrying another CIA employee. An in-house marriage is considered a smart career move.

There are some good reasons to discourage international marriages. CIA counterintelligence is constantly dealing with the risk of foreign influence and the danger of moles. A 2007 report (PDF) from the Department of Defense found that among U.S. citizens caught spying against their own country from 1990 to 2007, 58 percent had relatives or close friends overseas. That's compared with just 34 percent in the 1980s. The report goes on to say that fewer spies are acting against the United States in exchange for money and more as a result of their divided loyalties. To counter the threat of foreign influence on its own agents, the CIA has a long-standing policy of requiring its operatives to report what the agency refers to as "close and continuing contact" with foreign nationals. Milton Bearden, who headed the CIA's covert assistance of anti-Soviet Afghan rebels in the 1980s, reportedly offered this rule of thumb: "If you keep a pair of slippers under your friend's bed, it's close and continuing." However, "close and continuing contact" doesn't have to be sexual in nature. It seems to cover all nonprofessional relationships that an agent might have, romantic or not, including those with family and friends.

Not all agents choose to report their contacts, but they are administered periodic polygraph tests in which they are grilled on the subject. Failure to disclose contacts may land an agent in hot water. If she does disclose a contact, she may be told that the relationship has been "denied" and that she must terminate it. No explanation is required. Fortunately for agents raised on Bond flicks, the CIA does not require employees to report one-night stands.

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