By Quinn Kobrin
In a continuation of the LEAP Center’s Facebook one-on-one series, Professor Yawn interviewed Professor Jim Olson about his life during and after his career as a CIA case officer. This having been my first time hearing Mr. Olson speak, I was astounded at how little I knew about the world of counterintelligence.
Olson began the conversation with a definition of counterintelligence. He explained that its purpose is to protect the United States from other nations who may try to steal our secrets and technology. Much to my surprise, he told us that there are approximately 80 countries spying on us right now.
The conversation then turned to Olson’s 31-year career in the Clandestine Service. He was asked about his cover identity, which he could not share in great detail, but he explained that when he was in another nation, he would often have a cover as a U.S. diplomat, so he would have diplomatic immunity if he got into trouble. Sometimes, however, he was in other countries without working as a diplomat, and therefore would be subject to that country’s justice system if he were caught.
He shared that he and his wife – also a case officer within the CIA – never anticipated to come out from their cover identities, because doing so posed a threat to themselves and to their family. However, he was approached by President George H.W. Bush and George Tenet (former Director Central Intelligence) to work at the Bush School of Public Service. Olson was excited for the opportunity, but there is a CIA policy that does not allow officers to go onto college campuses covertly (which was news to me). So, he was forced to give up his cover.
In a similar vein, he was asked about how he and his wife broke the news to their children that they were officers in the CIA, and how they took it. Apparently, when he was stationed in Vienna, terrorists managed to get ahold of his address and sent him a death threat. They decided to tell their oldest son, who was sixteen at the time, and asked him to look after his siblings. As each of their children learned, he said, they took the information in with a sense of pride. He told us that each of his children has now gone on to pursue a career in the service of others.
Next he discussed CIA recruitment methods. We learned that the CIA seeks out a variety of candidates who may be cut out for a career as a case officer. Mainly, they are looking for character; they want recruits who are reliable and trustworthy.
To prepare for a career in the Clandestine Service (one of the most commonly asked questions of the event) Olson said that a bachelor’s degree usually would not be enough, and that students should aim to get a graduate degree of some kind. He suggested learning new languages, taking on roles of leadership, and working in positions that might allow you to travel abroad.
On the subject of character, he spoke briefly about some former CIA officers who betrayed the United States. He spoke vehemently about his former colleague Aldrich “Rick” Ames, who he considers the worst traitor to the country for turning over to the KGB. He explained that Ames had identified Russians who were working for the CIA to the KGB, which led to their imprisonment or execution.
To wrap up the session, we asked Olson what he wanted people to know about the CIA. He explained that CIA case officers are public servants. They do not do what they do for money, power, prestige, or status. They do what they do with honorable intentions.
It was a great experience to hear Mr. Olson speak live, and I look forward to reading his book, To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence!