This is a transcript of the Jan. 31 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. This season on the show, we’re talking to people connected with fields imperiled in one way or another by the Trump administration’s agenda. These are the stories of people doing difficult, important jobs. Jobs that may get a lot more difficult and a lot more important in the years ahead.
Since his election, Trump has been dismissive of the intelligence community, reportedly neglecting briefings and sometimes even insulting the efforts of that community’s members. We wanted to understand what it means to actually work in this secretive world and while we couldn’t, for obvious reasons, get an active intelligence officer to talk to us, we did score the next best thing.
Our guest this week is Aki Peritz, who worked as an intelligence analyst for the CIA, focusing for much of his time there on issues of counterterrorism. He talked to us about what that job actually involved and about the importance of getting things right when you’re working on intelligence issues.
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Brogan: What is your name and what do you do?
Aki Peritz: My name is Aki Peritz, and I’m on the television show Hunted, which is on CBS.
Brogan: What did you do before you were on Hunted?
Peritz: I did a lot of things, but I think for the purposes of this conversation, I used to be an analyst for the Counterterrorism Center at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Brogan: How long were you involved with the CIA, all told?
Peritz: I was there for about five years, from 2005 to 2009.
Brogan: Here in—Langley, Virginia, is that?
Peritz: Here in the Washington, D.C., metro area.
Brogan: The Washington, D.C., area. How much can you tell us about what that work entailed? What are the limitations there?
Peritz: What analysts at the CIA really do is they try to craft intelligence—finish intelligence—for decision makers, whether it’s the president of the United States, the director of the CIA, other senior policymakers, and reduce the uncertainty that they need to make decisions. The world is full of noise. There are a lot of things that are out there that are opaque and what an analyst tries to do at the CIA is take all that noise and boil it down to maybe 300, 400 words for the senior policymaker to digest because very busy policymakers don’t have time to read a 20-page think-tank report. They just won’t do it.
Brogan: Can you give us some examples of the kinds of information that you were digesting? Was it 20-page reports from a think tank or are there other sources that you’re working with or juggling?
Peritz: It really depends, for example, let’s say you were dealing with Chinese currency use. You don’t really need a lot of insider knowledge, any classified knowledge. You just have to read all of the papers and you have to supplement that with your own base of knowledge. That said, if you’re working on counterterrorism issues, a lot of that is actually in the classified realm. You’re taking a lot of information from a whole bunch of sources.
What the CIA works on is human intelligence, called HUMINT. That is source material from individuals. That’s the bread and butter of the other side of the house, which is the Directorate of Operations. They’re the ones who actually go out there, try to get information from human beings, and bring it back and then mix it up into a variety of other all-source pieces, which is human intelligence—depending on the situation maybe it’d be geointelligence, which is looking at satellite infrastructure, pieces, things that orbit or things that fly—and put it all together so that the decision maker, whoever that person may be, can make the best decision on whatever the topic is.
Brogan: When you’re looking at the human intelligence that’s coming in, when trying to make sense of it, what form does that come in to you? Is it audio files, transcripts?
Peritz: A lot of the raw intelligence is just text because it’s the case officer going out, meeting with his asset and having a conversation about X, Y, and Z.
Brogan: And they come back and they write it up.
Peritz: They come back and they write it up and they put it into the system. Sometimes that’s raw intelligence and it gets turned into a more finished product and then we take that more finished product and make an even more finished product with it. Sometimes, depending on one’s level of access, you have access to the raw intelligence, which may or may not be correct.
If, let’s say, the asset turns over something, then that’s another way of moving the ball forward. Let’s say they stole a laptop from the Iranian nuclear program. It’s full of information. How do you get that information with schematics and drawings and all that sort of thing to the relevant individuals? Technology is such that you can actually send photos through the mail and photos through classified systems. But the vast majority of these are interview notes from assets all over the world. It’s interesting; intelligence is still a very text-based industry. Let’s put it that way.
Brogan: This information, huge amounts of information, the noise, is what’s coming from the operation side of the CIA and then you are parsing and processing all of that and trying to figure out which pieces of it to funnel to the relevant policymakers or other decision makers.
Peritz: Yeah, and what matters, what matters to that person. For example, if you’re working on some counterterrorism issue, the president of the United States does not care if you take out a VBIED cell in eastern Baghdad. It doesn’t matter to him because it doesn’t really matter from a strategic perspective. That said, maybe you’re working with folks downrange. You’re working with a military unit that really needs this information.
Brogan: What’s a VBIED?
Peritz: It’s a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, aka a car bomb.
Brogan: It seems like there’s sort of a heavy amount of jargon and stuff. Do you have to process that as you’re passing information downstream?
Peritz: It is an incredible amount of jargon. I remember my very first meeting on my first day. We had a morning meeting, 9:30 in the morning, and I actually had a notepad of acronyms that everybody was just using in this 20-minute meeting. And I actually ran out of space on my little notepad because I had over 40 different acronyms. Most of them made no sense to me whatsoever. I mean, if they said something like FBI, of course we know what FBI is, but everything else I truly didn’t know. It’s a whole different language that one has to master.
When you deal with intelligence folks, you run into a lot of imposters out there and one way you sort of figure out who these people are is, can they master the verbiage? If they speak it correctly and they understand the bureaucratic minutiae of where people sit and they also downplay what they actually did instead of up play their heroics, that’s usually a great way to figure out who the fakes are.
Brogan: It’s the people who know how to talk the talk.
Peritz: They know how to talk the talk but they also are circumspect about what they did. If you said that “I was a commando and I did all these amazing things and I’m going to go way out of my way to talk about it,” it usually suggests that you probably didn’t do it.
Brogan: You were, I’m guessing, not a commando who did all of these things.
Peritz: You’d be surprised. When you have the body of a 7-year-old … No, no, I was not a commando. I was not a ground guy.
Brogan: Can you talk about what your areas of expertise were? Is that within what you’re allowed to say at this point?
Peritz: What I looked at a lot of was, a couple years after the invasion—
Brogan: The invasion of Iraq?
Peritz: The invasion of Iraq. We looked at a lot of what al-Qaida in Iraq was trying to do, whether they could accomplish their goals of creating a caliphate. People always think about how ISIS created a caliphate back in July 2014, but al-Qaida in Iraq actually declared a caliphate back in 2006 and nobody remembers this because everybody sort of thought it was a joke. So, we talked about that. Who’s up, who’s down. From a tactical level, can we target any of these people, either for incarceration or through more lethal means.
If you remember back in 2005, there was a terrible bombing in Jordan on the 9th of November 2005. Al-Qaida in Iraq attacked several Western hotels and killed 60 people, bunch of kids, attacked a wedding party. So, what did that mean? They were some of the foremost users of the internet in terms of creating beheading videos, so we tried to figure out what did all that mean. Beheading videos were really popular, if you want to call it that, from 2004 to about 2006 and they just sort of petered off. Why did they stop doing it? They just stopped. All these things which matter to the war fighter, to the policymaker, I and my colleagues tried to put this together to the best of our ability.
Brogan: There’s a heavy interpretive component.
Peritz: Absolutely. There’s really a difference between just information and intelligence. General Hayden, who was the head of CIA a decade ago and he’s also the head of NSA, he had this great quote where he says, “If it’s just facts, it ain’t intelligence.” So facts don’t mean anything unto themselves. It’s the analysis of the facts, to put them in some sort of proper context.
Brogan: How did you get involved with intelligence work in the first place?
Peritz: I was working in 2004 for a political campaign and almost on a lark, I actually applied online, as does basically everybody nowadays, and the political campaign—well, we didn’t win. Then, the funny thing was, I had certain qualifications, which the CIA really was looking for at the time. So we lost, and then a couple days later I got the job.
Brogan: What was behind that whim? What drove you in that moment to make that decision?
Peritz: One of the things was, is that I was extremely interested in national security. If you are interested in national security and in the United States, you can take several roads. One is join the military, one is to work at, let’s say, the State Department, work on the Hill on foreign policy, national security issues, and one of them is really to go into the intelligence community and I just so happened to have a certain set of skills that CIA was looking for.
I teach a class at American University where I have a lot of grad students who come in and they want to talk about intelligence stuff and intelligence community and national security and I know a fair number of them actually apply to CIA and other intelligence agencies. I always ask them, “Why do you want to do this?” And the answers always kind of boil down to “I want to serve my country and it looks pretty cool.” That’s basically the choice I made. I want to serve my country and it looks pretty cool.
Brogan: Was it pretty cool?
Peritz: It was pretty cool for a while, like any job. You are opened up to a world that you only think you understand but you don’t really understand at all. A lot of it’s humdrum, sitting in front of a computer, but sometimes you get the opportunity to do some really cool stuff, which you would never ever do working on the Hill, working in a think tank. Those are experiences that you can only have working in very, very specific parts of the U.S. government.
Brogan: What were your qualifications?
Peritz: I have a master’s in China studies and they were looking for folks with that kind of background. Over half of the CIA’s workforce they actually hired after 9/11, so at the time there was this huge effort to plus up the workforce, so I was the beneficiary of this post-9/11 surge, if you will, in hiring.
Brogan: Sounds like you ended up also working in Iraq. Had you also studied any of that in advance?
Peritz: I had to learn a lot of that stuff on the job. The interesting thing is once you get into the system, it’s not really about what you know, it’s about how you present the material. It’s a different language. It’s an esoteric way of putting information together. Obviously, I did not come in as a counterterrorism specialist. The opportunity was there. This was now late ’05 and the war, if you remember, was not going very well, so there was a call for anybody who wants to do Iraq or counterterrorism to go and do it. It seemed like an interesting thing to do because it was the most important foreign policy/national security issue at the time, and I took the chance.
Brogan: Were there ever times when you got a request from on high that said, “We need this analysis from you tomorrow.”
Peritz: Absolutely. Those short-term turnarounds were always coming in and increasingly, if you look over the last 20 years or so, those kinds of short-term, short-fuse projects became the stuff that actually made up a lot of what CIA really did. There’s this criticism that CIA does a lot of short-term projects to the detriment of doing long-term thought pieces and I don’t know whether that’s really CIA’s fault because CIA’s only trying to figure out what their customers actually want. If they want what’s going to happen in Iraq in the next month or this parliamentary decision, “What does this all mean?” versus “We want to know things that are 10 years out,” those are two different issues. Anyways, who knows what’s going to happen in 10 years? There’s this apocryphal statement, I think in the ’60s, where senior policymakers wanted “What are Soviet air defenses going to be like over the next 10 years?” Who knows what that’s going to be?
Brogan: Because who knows how the technology will develop?
Peritz: Who knows what the technology—what’s going to happen in 10 years?
Brogan: International relationships.
Peritz: No idea but that’s what the customer wanted, so I believe the CIA turned out a piece about “This is where we think Soviet air defenses are going to be in the next 10 years,” even though it was a total guess.
Brogan: You’re basically writing science fiction at that point.
Peritz: Essentially, yeah. I don’t know what’s going to happen in 10 years. Nobody does. You can guess but somebody’s going to go back in 10 years and say, “Well, you got this wrong.” Yep, we got it wrong.
Brogan: You’ve been listening to former intelligence analyst Aki Peritz. After this brief break, he talks about office culture at the CIA, including its surprisingly well-appointed cafeteria.
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Brogan: Can you walk us through what maybe a typical day was like, to the extent that there was such a thing?
Brogan: Set the scene for us. Did you work out of an office?
Peritz: Yeah, we worked in an office. At the time, they were updating a lot of our cubicles and so we went from kind of an ’80s-style cubicle to a more modern cubicle and what that really meant was our cubes were actually smaller than they should have been but that’s neither here nor there.
Brogan: People—are their cubicles full of books, papers?
Peritz: It really sort of depends on the individual. I had a lot of books in my cube. So, drive to work, get up—
Brogan: Wearing a suit?
Peritz: Sometimes wearing a suit.
Brogan: Like, CIA is business casual?
Peritz: A lot of it’s business casual, unless you actually had a real meeting to go to with somebody important. I think most of the men kept a suit and tie in a closet somewhere just in case. It’s buttoned-up but not too buttoned-up. We would have a morning meeting. We would very quickly look through the traffic.
Brogan: When you say traffic, that’s incoming intelligence?
Peritz: Incoming intelligence. We would try to figure out what the most important issue was on their specific topic. You’d do a very quick search. You’d talk to your boss and your other colleagues about developments over the last 24 hours or 12 hours, depending on when you came in. Then, we would work on projects, whether we had a short-turnaround piece that had to go out, whether we had a longer piece going out. There was coffee involved, a lot of chitchat with your colleagues because you’re sharing information but, remember, you see these people every day, so you develop a rapport. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not so good.
CIA has, I think, the best cafeteria in the federal government, personally. It’s actually quite good. At headquarters, there’s a Starbucks. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s a very well-apportioned food delivery service.
Brogan: What was your favorite food to get there?
Peritz: Oh, I don’t know. They had a great salad bar. It was always very fresh and everything was pretty good. You had your standard sort of mall food like Panda Express or Sbarro or whatever.
Brogan: Would the service people working in the cafeteria have to do some sort of security clearance?
Peritz: Oh, absolutely. Every single person in the building has a security clearance, so even if you were the cashier lady, you’d be checked because you’re interacting with a lot of people who are undercover every day.
Brogan: So, good cafeteria but also a lot of meetings. Is that good, bad? How were those meetings?
Peritz: A lot of meetings. Every bureaucracy loves meetings. Obviously, it depends on what you’re working on but it’s either working with your colleagues, whether it’s arguing with other offices over a specific issue. So, for example, let’s say you were working on Russian missile technology. The Russia people would actually have to talk to the missile people and then come to a conclusion. Each group has their own peculiarities about how to look at the data, because they’re all individuals. Then, you would sort of have to hash something out and that’s your paper.
A negative way of looking at this is saying that you’re coming up with lowest common denominator intelligence. A better way that the CIA thinks about this is that this is sort of like a crash-peer-review way to look at intelligence, so you know that you’re covering all the bases. These meetings get very, very contentious at some points. People just don’t agree and if you’ve been working on a topic for a long time, your ideas are pretty set.
One of the things that intelligence analysts are on guard for is confirmation bias. But it’s easy to say, it’s really tough to do, to challenge your own assumptions about a lot of things. So if you have a very specific way that ISIS is going to definitely take this strategy, you will fight to the death, bureaucratic death, to make sure that your voice is heard and maybe somebody else, some young person, would actually say, “I don’t really believe that.” I’ve actually been in those situations on both sides where I’ve had to defend my idea and challenge somebody else’s long-preconceived notion about the way things are.
Brogan: What’s the tone like otherwise? I mean, is it usually conversational and open or do people get combative easily?
Peritz: It depends on the topic. People are people and some people are open to criticism and other people are not. There’s an old joke that how can you tell an introverted analyst from an extrovert? The introverted analyst looks at his own shoes when he talks to you, the extrovert at your shoes when you talk to him. There’s this idea that analysts are introverted kind of folks who are very persnickety about their own specific topic.
Brogan: Are the operations people, is there a stereotype for their personality type?
Peritz: Well, it takes all kinds of people. What the operations folks and their collecting human intelligence is, is you’re actually getting people to betray their own country for the United States of America and that requires a certain type of individual who can persuade a government official in another country to help the United States. Stealing secrets is the point of CIA and that requires personnel who are willing to do that. Those who are analysts don’t actually have to get their hands dirty and so there is a definite difference of personality when it comes to those sides of the house.
It doesn’t mean that there isn’t back-and-forth. Some analysts become operators, some operators become analysts, and at the end of the day, you’re still working for the same organizations. People are coming in, they get to know each other a lot better than before but there’s still a cultural difference between the two sides.
Brogan: Did you hang out with those kind of people?
Peritz: Oh, sure. Folks who were in the—it’s now called the Directorate of Operations, the DO. Yeah, a lot of these guys were my friends and I hope they weren’t trying to get me to do things.
Brogan: Steal your secrets.
Peritz: Steal my secrets, yeah. I don’t know that I had really any secrets to steal. But some people in the operation sides, most of these guys are great but sometimes they just can’t turn it off and that’s just the nature of the job. And that’s OK. They live a life that is much more sequestered than my life. Even though it was inadvisable, I was always an overt employee, so push came to shove, I could say that I worked for the CIA. Those folks who were covert would say something else. They would be allowed to lie, essentially, to a lot of people, not that lying is … If you’re at a bar and you meet somebody and you say, “Well, I work for XYZ company,” that’s not illegal but you have to be much more circumspect. You have to be much more careful about what you do and what you say in your daily life.
Brogan: How much of your time would you spend in these meetings or in these kinds of conversations?
Peritz: Hopefully you wouldn’t spend too much time because you’ve got to write, that’s how you got promoted, but no man is an island and so you always had to work with your colleagues. CIA products don’t have your name on them. They are a corporate product, so you can turn out a thousand pieces and nobody would ever know that you actually wrote it because you write a piece, it goes to your boss, it goes to his supervisor, it would go to a—
Brogan: Are they rewriting as it comes through?
Peritz: Yeah, they are editing, re-editing, and editing your piece and it takes hours to go through, if not weeks, because everybody wants to make sure that you are right or everybody wants to make sure that you are not wrong. Nobody wants to be wrong because once you write it, once the CIA writes something, it’s there forever in black and white. CIA is an organization that needs to trade on truth telling at the end of the day. The director of central intelligence, Richard Helms, actually once said, “If we are not believed, we have no purpose.” And if CIA is a kind of place that does not make truth and the knowledge of truth to be its bread and butter, then it has no purpose.
Brogan: Is there any room when you’re writing these documents that you know will be edited but that you also know will be so important for promotion, just for your general, presumably, status within the agency as a whole, is there any room there for style, for personal voice, or is it just that corporate?
Peritz: For panache?
Peritz: There’s no panache in intelligence writing. CIA turns out a style guide every so often, every five years, and you can actually see this online if you’d like. The 2011 version is on the Web and you can see that you scrape out every single adverb, adjective. It is extremely dry writing. The idea is that adjectives and adverbs create doubt in people’s minds about what something … So, if you say, “An important meeting,” it’s like, “Why is it an important meeting?” or “a very important meeting” or “He strongly suggested X, Y, Z.” Well, how do we define strongly? Actually, if you read intelligence work from the ’60s, and the CIA’s been doing great work about declassifying things, PDBs from the ’60s, from the ’70s—
Brogan: Sorry, what’s a PDB?
Peritz: Oh, I’m sorry. A Presidential Daily Brief. PDBs started in 1964 with President Johnson. They had something for President Kennedy. It’s called the PICL [President’s Intelligence Checklist]. Then, the PDB basically started in 1964 and then it’s been ongoing ever since. If you actually read what the PDB was for Johnson, for Nixon and so forth, they were much looser in the ’60s and they use a lot of adverbs and a lot of weird stuff that got in.
Things that the CIA wrote 50 years ago would never fly today. I think there was something about some sort of border flare-up between Chile and Argentina and it said, like, “Latin tempers flared, blah, blah, blah.” It’s like, who would write like that? That’s kind of nuts. What do Latin tempers mean anyways? This piece of paper went to the president saying because of some random thing that happened on the border between Chile and Argentina, it was because of Latin tempers.
Brogan: This newer, drier style, though, is about maintaining that sense of objectivity, of clarity, of just sort of factual interpretation.
Peritz: Right, it’s a clarity of prose. It’s the ability to present facts as best as one can or as best as the bureaucracy can. Obviously, when you brief a senior person, you can actually talk about things not in a dry manner but the written product tries to be as accurate and as factual as possible and that sometimes leads to pretty boring reading, to be honest.
Brogan: But also it sounds like, vis-à-vis that ’60s anecdote that you offered, it’d be freer now of stereotypes and such.
Peritz: Oh, I hope so. It’d be interesting to read what is written today in 50 years to see whether the tropes we use about the Middle East, about Asia, are seen as hopelessly archaic as we look at some of these things in the ’60s and say, “Well, this is the way it was.”
Brogan: What were the hours like? Was it a 9-to-5 job or were you always on call?
Peritz: It was actually. And I worked during the war and the occupation. Oftentimes it was a 9-to-5 job. It was actually quite strange that you still could go home at a reasonable hour and have dinner at home. That said, if you were working on some major project or something that was going up to the president or some senior policymaker in the future, you probably stayed a long time at work because if it was going into the Presidential Daily Brief the next morning, you had to go through this editing process, so you would have to spend more time at work.
One of the things, and I think they may have changed it around a little bit recently, is that you have briefers who go out to talk to the president, talk to the vice president, talk to other folks. They have these meetings first thing in the morning. These briefers are very smart people, capable individuals, but they don’t know the intricacies of everything that goes into the PDB. They might have to master eight different topics over the course of the night. So, they get there extremely early in the morning, let’s say 4:30 in the morning, so they can understand the stuff, ingest all the information, and then go out and brief their principals at, let’s say, 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning. So, if you had a particularly important piece, you could actually show up at 4 in the morning to brief the briefers on this specific topic. You might do that all the time or you may not do it at all.
Brogan: Did that happen much for you?
Peritz: It happened every so often. I didn’t really like getting up at 4 in the morning but I felt that my topics were important enough to go in and say, “Look, this is a complicated issue full of individuals who you may not have mastered. These are the reasons why so-and-so is important and this is the relationship.” It’s just sort of talk through your topic with the briefer themselves so they would adequately and accurately explain to their superiors what exactly happened.
Brogan: Yeah, because you want to make sure that—
Peritz: You get it right.
Brogan: —people understand all of the stuff that you’ve been struggling to understand, I guess.
Peritz: Right. And it’s complicated. These people are very sharp people. I think if the American people knew how thoughtful and how interesting and creative these people are on a daily basis, I think people would be pretty proud of the intelligence community in general. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t clods who also got into the system, because it’s a bureaucracy and it happens, but generally I think the caliber of individual that you meet on an individual basis is a pretty good one.
Brogan: Did you ever write anything that you knew made it into the Presidential Daily Brief book?
Peritz: Oh, sure, I wrote a lot of stuff that got into the PDB.
Brogan: What was that like? What did that feel like to have written something that was sitting there beside all this other stuff of national and international importance?
Peritz: It’s a great feeling. It’s a great feeling to know that your piece got to the president and other really important individuals and maybe they made a choice based on your information.
Brogan: You’ve been listening to Aki Peritz. In a minute, he talks about what it’s like to work in a covert environment and he also shares some thoughts about Donald Trump.
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Brogan: One of the things that we’ve been talking around is the necessary fact of secrecy. Were the demands of secrecy ever an issue for communication within the agency itself? Are there ever times when you can’t talk to your co-workers about what you’re working on?
Peritz: Sure. Different analysts have different levels of security based on their need. So, if you worked on some very secret squirrel issue, you couldn’t tell your colleagues about what you were working on.
Brogan: Just to be clear: You said secret squirrel? Is that a technical term?
Peritz: Secret squirrel, yeah. That is the technical term. No, it’s not.
Let me give you an example. In 2005, when all this stuff started coming out in the press about black sites and waterboarding and a lot of the other issues that sort of came to dominate the intelligence discourse over the last decade, I personally learned about it in the press. I believe one of these major things that came out, I remember reading it in the paper, sitting at my desk, and I turned to my colleague who was sitting in the cube next to me and said, “Is this happening?” She was a 30-plus-year veteran of the agency and she’s been around since the Soviet era. She goes, “I have no idea.” We didn’t know because we didn’t work on it.
It’s interesting because it shows that there is a compartmentalization that actually happens. But it’s also—it’s a little strange. It’s a strange thing not to know what is truth and what is not and you can’t—
Brogan: Especially in an organization that’s all about truth.
Peritz: Truth, but also secrecy, so you have to always walk that fine line. Even if I had friends who worked on one of those topics, they couldn’t tell me because I wasn’t read into whatever the compartmentalized project was. I’m sure there are some very secret things that are happening that 99 percent of the agency workforce has no idea are going on. And that’s the way you kind of want it because people talk.
Brogan: Sure. What about outside of the agency when you were working there? Was it weird to, say, go to a bar with your friends and not really be able to talk about what you’d been working on that day?
Peritz: Yeah, it’s really strange.
Brogan: Because in D.C., that’s all anyone talks about, in theory.
Peritz: Everybody loves talking about work, so if you run into a bunch of people who are really not very comfortable about talking about what they do for a living, that’s maybe a tell.
Brogan: But what was it like for you?
Peritz: The interesting thing about the CIA—and, again, there are a lot of young people who work for the CIA, young, smart, dynamic individuals—you actually come to a point where you can only talk about work with these people because they are cleared to talk about these issues and then you actually hang out with a lot of these people and it becomes a very insular group. It’s tough sometimes for folks in the agency to have a lot of outside friends. You have to actually go out of your way to make a lot of friends. In fact, I remember I was at a party years ago, there were, let’s say, 50 people. I knew every single one of the people in that room.
The funny thing is you go to events or parties where people don’t know your background, and so they start spouting off about some foreign policy issue and you know who works where, but they don’t. For example, I was at a thing and this one Hill staffer went on and on and on about Pakistan and about how so-and-so, the president at the time, something bad’s going to happen to him. What she didn’t realize is that she was surrounded by agency officers who interacted with the Pakistanis and interacted with senior folks and read the intelligence and we all just sort of said, “Oh, that’s really interesting. Tell us more. Wow. Very interesting. You’re very smart.”
Brogan: Do moments like that ever make you feel like a spy?
Peritz: Well, there’s no such thing as a spy, really. D.C.’s a funny place. What other place can you interact with people who work for an intelligence service and also interact with anybody else under the sun? I think once you get out of D.C., people are blown away by CIA efforts, both positive and negative, because CIA in the past has done some kind of shady things. I had a friend of mine who ran for Congress in 2014, he’s a former agency guy. People would come up to him and say, like, “Do you have a joystick on your desk and you can drone people just for fun? Is that how it works?” I mean, the level of understanding of what the intelligence community is and specifically what the CIA does—
Brogan: Just to be clear, he presumably did not have a joystick on his desk?
Peritz: He did not. Yes, yes, I have to say that, as far as I know, he did not have a joystick where he could just drone people for fun and for profit on Thursdays. He did not do that. He was just an analyst. But it’s interesting how movies and mass media have shaped the idea of what the intelligence community is. You have a lot of movies that are completely fabulous but it’s really not what the reality of the world is.
Brogan: Presumably the secrecy has something to do with that, the fact that we can’t know what’s happening.
Peritz: We can’t know and it’s spicy. It’s funny, people always refer to James Bond, even though James Bond is a British—
Peritz: —British Civil Service employee, if you want to call it, for SIS, but people sort of talk about, “Oh, you’re a James Bond kind of guy,” and it’s like, no, it’s not really like that’s the case. Art imitates life and life imitates art, so people talk about James Bond even within the system and they love playing that music. A generation ago, people would always talk about Hunt for Red October because the Jack Ryan character was a CIA analyst and as the movies and the books got more fantastic, then it didn’t really make much sense.
But if you remember in Hunt for Red October, he’s just, like, this guy who doesn’t really—he writes books, even though nobody really writes books at the CIA—but, he’s basically a writer who happens to work for the agency. He was not a guy who actually went out and did action stuff. So, when Jack Ryan was put in this situation, he has to get on the sub, and he has to talk to all these folks, and run away from the Soviets or whatever, he says, like, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Now, obviously, it’s a movie, it’s not real but—
Brogan: Closer to reality then.
Peritz: Slightly closer to reality.
Brogan: You spoke a lot about the customer focus of what analysts do at the CIA, that you’re attentive to the needs, the interests of, your audience, the people that you’re writing for. Of course, the number one person that you all would be writing for at any given time, I assume, is going to be the president.
Donald Trump, as we know, has in recent weeks been dismissive, sometimes aggressively so, about the efforts of the intelligence community and the CIA. What do you make of his tone? Is that likely to just lead the CIA to have to change the sorts of information that it provides?
Peritz: I think it’s too early to tell. Right now, we’re in this feeling-out period where the CIA, the analysts, the intelligence community writ large is trying to determine its place in the firmament of the U.S. government with a new president in charge. Will Donald Trump actually listen to the CIA or the intelligence community, generally, about things that really matter? It’s unclear.
It’s also unclear, how does he consume information? Supposedly he watches TV all the time. He’s on Twitter, obviously. From what people have said, he gets easily bored and he’s kind of scattered in the way he approaches things. So, would a 400-word piece of paper on some topic be too much? Would it be better for briefers to come in and just speak to him, especially on topics that he not only has no knowledge in but also no experience in?
For example, supposedly he has taken an interest in what’s going on in North Korea. He doesn’t have any strong opinions about it and so therefore you can both educate and provide analysis that he would actually be receptive to. Now, compare that to what appears to be his very strong views about Russia. It’s going to be very difficult for anybody to change anybody’s mind if they have very strong views on a specific topic and if a customer or if anybody, really, has a very strong view on a specific topic, how do you change that person’s mind if that view is incorrect or perceived as incorrect?
Confirmation bias works in all places. If the president or senior policymakers are disinterested or uninterested in your analysis, maybe you’re wrong, but also maybe you’re right and it’s very difficult to sort of puncture the preconceived notions of what the customer wants. If Donald Trump has very strong opinions about Russia, about Vladimir Putin, about their cyber capabilities or lack thereof, it’s going to be very difficult to change his mind. In fact, one of the most difficult things to do for anybody is to actively get a person with very strong opinions to change their viewpoint.
You don’t have to be in the CIA to figure this out. Try to get your girlfriend or whatever to fundamentally change a thing that she cares about and it’s going to be next to impossible.
Brogan: Yeah. What’s life like for you after the agency?
Peritz: It’s interesting. After the agency, I went to a number of think tanks, at Harvard and also here in D.C. I get to write. One of the things is that you are basically anonymous at the agency because you don’t want to broadcast the fact that you are employed at this organization, so when you leave, it feels like a giant … You get your life back and you can write. You don’t have to check in with anybody. You can travel to other countries without checking in with people.
Your level of paranoia actually goes way down because when you work in the agency, there’s this feeling that a lot of folks are out to get you, which is true, because other intelligence services are actually trying to potentially recruit you, to get you to cough up information. In this world of social media, we give out so much more personal information now than we ever did maybe 15 years ago. Hostile intelligence services are collecting that information but once you’re out, it doesn’t really matter that much because you have nothing to provide. I would actually suggest to anybody listening who actually works at the agency and are thinking, “What are my next steps?” that there are a lot of options out there.
The thing about CIA is that it does give you opportunities that you can’t really get anywhere else: to travel, to brief, to do a lot of things. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’re really at the pointing edge of the national security spear here in the United States and I have experiences, which I can’t really talk about, which cannot be replicated anywhere else.
Also, probably one of the best things about the CIA is a sense of mission. You know why you’re doing something very specifically and you are oftentimes aware that what you are doing matters. Even if it doesn’t really, you feel like it matters and that sense of mission, that sense of purpose is something that a lot of people are missing in their lives. And CIA, because of its unique space in this country, provides that in spades.
Brogan: Do you feel like you made the world better?
Peritz: Hmm. I hope I did. I don’t know. I feel like I gave it a good shot, and it wasn’t the career for me, and that’s OK. But I feel like I did my job to the best of my ability, given restrictions.
Brogan: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. I’m Jacob Brogan and I prefer my martinis stirred, not shaken.
We’d love to hear your thoughts about the podcast. Our email address is Working@Slate.com. We read those emails and whenever we can, we also take suggestions, so if you have thoughts about people we should cover in this series, we’d welcome that and we would love it too, especially if you like the show, if you would rate and review it on iTunes. It makes a big difference for us. You can listen, of course, to past episodes at Slate.com/Working.
If you are interested in Hunted, the reality show on which Peritz demonstrates some of those skills that he acquired during his time at the CIA, it airs on CBS on Wednesday nights. We’d also encourage you to hunt down Aki’s book, which is called Find, Fix, Finish. You can learn there a little bit more about his time at the CIA.
Working is produced and edited by Mickey Capper, who would look great in a tux if he owned one. Thanks to Joe Weisberg for some assistance with this episode and special thanks to Fuzz Hogan, who connected us with Aki Peritz. Our executive producer is Steve Lickteig, the person most likely in my own life to actually be a spy, and the chief content officer of the Panoply network is Andy Bowers.