Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Spies Like Us

Every area of the country has an industry. If I lived in Iowa, for instance, I would probably know lots of people with farms. If I lived in Los Angeles, I would likely have a few neighbors in the entertainment game. If I ever become a resident of Maine, I'll bet the lobster trade would be a big employer.

I live in Northern Virginia. It is where government work, defense contracting and high tech all meet. My little house is about two highway exits from CIA headquarters. That means the hot industry for my neck of the woods is "spy." Or at least "spy support."

No one comes right out and says. "Hi. Thanks for inviting me to your cookout. I am a spy."
But you just know. Things are different here.

"I told you, I work for the GOVERNMENT"

About two or three times a year, I get a visit from a man with a badge and a file. "Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about (insert unassuming neighbor's name here)? His/Her security clearance is up for renewal."

Seriously, I have served as a reference for pretty much everyone on the street. The man with the badge comes in and runs down his list: When did you meet x? How do you know him? Does he ever leave the country? Does he spend a lot of money on extravagant things? Do you know if he uses drugs? Do you believe he is mentally ill? What do you know about his line of work?

Um, not much, man with a badge. This is Northern Virginia.

Depending on the level of security clearance, the questions get more and more complex. Sometimes I hardly know the person at all. Other people I know better than some of my family members. I always tell the truth. So far, no one has gotten his or her spy status revoked.

Here is another typical Northern Virginia conversation. Setting, Parents Night at school or the public pool or Super Bowl party:

Q: "What do you do?"

A: "I work for the government."

That is code for "I can't talk about it." Because if they could, they would be more specific, such as "I am a lawyer for the EPA," or "I am an analyst for the GAO." Answering "I work for the government," is the polite casual party banter answer for "I'd tell you, but I would have to kill you."

I look at that answer as a challenge, though, so of course I always follow up with "Really? What agency?" just to see if I can get a stone-faced, waterboarding-trained former military dude to crack. Sometimes I can...barely.

When my son was bar mitzvahed last fall, he shared the service responsibilities with another boy. We had not met the family before, so we all sat at Starbucks to get to know one another as the big day approached. Bar Mitzvah boy's dad tried to hold me off with the old "I work for the government." I responded with "What agency?" Answer (in a whisper): "Defense stuff."

"Today, I am a man. Tomorrow, I will tell the guy with a badge you drank wine here."

Indeed, I am pretty sure there were a bunch of spies at temple. Very exciting. Especially since most of my relatives in attendance are from Cleveland, where the professions are this: 1) lawyer, 2) doctor or dentist, 3) steel salesman, 4) in a family business that people understand, like a used car lot or restaurant.

Here in Northern Virginia, tons of people go to work in big, unmarked office buildings with heavy steel gates around them. Several of my friends cannot reach their husbands during meetings in the satellite-protected, signal-scrambled metal room with no cell phone service. I have other friends who, if you are in their home and mention something about, say, some substance abuse that may have taken place in high school, they will give you the stink eye and remind you that the place may be bugged.

At school and on the swim team there are families who are here for a few years, just doing their thing and joining the scouts and driving carpool while they are "on assignment." Then they are gone to another assignment. My son has one school friend, whose mom - nice lady with three kids and a minivan - works for a super secret yet high profile agency. When she calls from work, it comes up on the caller ID as 000-000-0000. Yes, it's a call from inside the spy agency, but she is just RSVPing to the birthday party.

There are other friends of mine who I can tell you what they weigh and how much money they have in the bank. I cannot, however, tell you exactly what they do for a living. Because they can't talk about it. If you were to ask me, I would say "Something with computers and defense mapping and code and software and aerospace."

That friend would probably just cut to the chase and say: "I work for the government."

Hey, when they start saying "lobster fisherman," that's when it will draw suspicion.

Norwegian fisherman fishing lobster. Photo:

Not likely a spy.


  1. I had a background checker at my door here in FtL once a few years ago, I think on behalf of a candidate for a job with Treasury. But the person he was evaluating no longer lived next door, and anyways I had never met the guy. I was a bit weirded out by the experience and afterward I called the Treasury Dept. to verify the ID of the stranger at my door. So I was checking the checker. A perfect circle of government paranoia!

  2. I've had much better luck responding with, "ah, I have a bunch of friends who work for the government" or something else non-descript that lets them know that I understand.

  3. Great post... but keep in mind that a lot of these "I work for the government" types are trying to make a boring job sound more exciting. In a lot of these places even the guy who empties the wastebasket has a clearance. The ones who can't tell you what they do for real are going to have a better cover story than that.

  4. Agree with the second anonymous poster. Also some corrections - not everyone at CIA is a spy, in fact most aren't. They can probably just straight up tell you that they'are an analyst at CIA without revealing much. Remember, American spys spend most of their time abroad trying to gather intelligence (well, actually they try to convince others to spy for them). Also, it's the "Government Accountability Office."

  5. Love your post. Came over from DC Metro Moms. New reader of your blog.

  6. Where are the spies that look like Brad Pitt?

  7. My friends who "work for the government" have some of the best work stories, because of course they skip all the boring content stuff and skip right to the chase (in other words, the only thing they CAN talk about): the bizarre interpersonal stuff that goes down. I know more stories about their crazy coworkers than I can recall about my own.

  8. I "work for the Government" and I say that because it is quicker than detailing the boring job I perform.

  9. Anonymous #2 - actually, one probably needs a decent level of security clearance to empty the wastebaskets at the CIA - or at least I hope so! One spy's trash is another spy's treasure. :D

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