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What is Loose Lips?

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O will never know the truth.

My friends thought I was a budget analyst who worked for the Department of Agriculture. It wasn't my choice for a cover. In fact it would have been just about my last choice, but it was what the Agency told me to tell them. I had business cards that said "Selena Keller, Planning and Accountability Division, USDA," and if someone called the number on the card, he would reach a bank of sterile phones at the Central Intelligence Agency. In principle, a CIA flack would deftly look up who I was and who I was supposed to be on an electronic Rolodex. In practice, callers were likely to receive a "Selena? Selena who? You said Keller? Does she work here? Are you sure you have the right number? Selena ... hold on ... Department of Agriculture, right? Um ... oh, okay ... yeah, she's still in a meeting. Yeah, still there. No, no idea when she'll be done. Can I take a message?"

I wonder if any of my friends ever thought it odd, my abrupt change of careers. I'd spent most of my adult life in India, studying Sanskrit literature. When I joined the Agency, I'd just received my doctorate from Columbia University, and what I knew about budget analysis, or agriculture for that matter, could have been inscribed inside a matchbook. After I'd been in Washington for six months, the head of my thesis committee called to invite me to the annual Ramayana Conference in DeKalb. I declined, telling him that I was up to my elbows writing a report on the industrial pet feed sector. If he suspected anything, he never let on.

I got the job at the CIA the way you get a job anywhere: I answered an ad on the Internet. That spring I was living in Manhattan, and nine major university presses had recently declined to publish my dissertation, The Dialectic of Manjusri: Monasteries and Social Welfare in Northeastern India, 600-800 AD. To support myself, I was teaching an undergraduate section in multicultural studies at NYU as I sent out applications for postdoctoral fellowships and tenure track positions. It was beginning to dawn on me that I might spend the rest of my life teaching at some God-forsaken Midwestern university - a place called, perhaps, Mongeheela State - writing articles that would be perused by no more than six geriatric scholars.

I found the ad while surfing the Drudge Report. An article there linked to the CIA's Website, which in turn connected me to a section called "Employment." The text read:

For the extraordinary individual who wants more than just a job, we offer a unique career-a way of life that will challenge the deepest resources of your intelligence, self-reliance, and responsibility. It demands an adventurous spirit, a forceful personality, superior intellectual ability, toughness of mind, and a high degree of personal integrity, courage, and love of country. You will need to deal with fast-moving, ambiguous, and unstructured situations that will test your resourcefulness to the utmost.

The accompanying photo displayed a black man, a black woman,  and an Asian woman, all in their late twenties. The women conveyed rangy athleticism underneath their sensible professional clothes; the man wore no tie, and his collar was open beneath his blazer. Their expressions were alert and serious. All three were staring intently at a piece of paper I imagined as the Order of Battle for the Russian Mechanized Infantry Brigade.

I had a stack of copies of my resume in front of me on my desk. On an impulse, I folded one into thirds and sent it to the CIA's Department of Human Resources. I never expected to hear from them.

A few months later I was still only barely employed. I had all but forgotten the CIA when a woman who identified herself as "Martha from the federal government" began leaving messages for me on my machine. I had deducted all of my income on my last tax return on the grounds that I had been living in India for most of the fiscal year, and feared that I was about to be audited. Finally Martha caught me at home; when she announced that she was from the CIA and not the IRS, I was relieved.

"Your resume is a bit unusual for us," she said on the phone, "but you have overseas experience and a great education, and that's something we like to see. And we're always looking for people with foreign languages. I see you speak Sanskrit and Pali?"

"Well ... " I coughed. "Well ... yes."

She described the position she had in mind for me: "You would work overseas, probably under diplomatic cover. Your job would be to spot, assess, develop and recruit human sources of intelligence for the United States. It's a job that requires good judgement and a lot of people skills. Is this something that would interest you?"

"Yes, I think it is ... " I thought about Mongeheela State University. Go, Heela Monsters! ...  "Yes, it definitely is."

She scheduled me for an interview in the Jacob Javits Federal Building in Manhattan. She told me I would be asked some tough questions about current events, and that if the interview went well, I would be invited to Washington for further evaluation. Before placing the phone in the cradle, I stared at the receiver for a few moments in astonishment. It seemed to me that her phone call was nothing less than an act of divine intervention.

I prepared for the interview as if it were a set of grueling graduate boards. I read the major texts on the theory of espionage, memorized the names of all the Directors of Central Intelligence since the passage of the 1947 National Security Act, and poured over decades of testimony before the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees. I studied the language of tradecraft: Only amateurs referred to CIA operatives as secret agents, evidently. They weren't agents, they were case officers; the people they handled were the agents. An agent was also called an asset, like a country house or a fiduciary instrument. I committed the terms to memory and practiced using them, speaking aloud into the air.

I read about the Intelligence Cycle and about the Church and Pike Committees. I found a tattered copy of Philip Agee's Inside the Company at a bookstore in the Village called La Lutte Finale. The passages on Guatemala were underlined in indignant red ink; someone had written "state-sponsored terrorism!" in the margins. When the day for the interview came, I could have delivered a fully nuanced discourse on the history of espionage from the Babylonians to the present.

I arrived at the Federal Building early, smoked a cigarette outdoors, scrubbed my hands in the ladies room, shpritzed breath spray in my mouth and took the elevator to the unmarked conference room to which I'd been directed. I knocked firmly. A man who introduced himself as Carl opened the door and shook my hand. He was about my age, and he wore a dark baggy suit and sunglasses. I had brought my sunglasses, just in case, and when I saw that he was wearing his although we were indoors, I put mine on too. We sat down at the conference table, straining to see each other.

Carl warned me again that he was about to ask me some tough questions. "Ready?" he asked.

"I'm ready."

He began by asking me if I knew the name of the Prime Minister of Canada. By luck, I had read an article about Canada just that morning on the subway.

"Jean Chrétian," I replied, relieved that I knew.

"Good. Amazing how few people know that." 

"Really? That's too bad. You know, Canada is the United States' number one trade partner, too."

He peered at me curiously, and I worried that I might have sounded overly eager to impress, too academic. I tried to look serious and alert, like the case officers in the photo on the Website.

He asked me a few more questions about world leaders and geography. Who were the permanent members of the UN Security Council? Which former Soviet republics had nuclear weapons? I knew the answers and felt pleased with myself for knowing. He made notes that he shielded from my view, but when he set the pad down, I could see that he was filling out a form. He had placed all his check marks on one side of a ledger.

 "Okay," he said. "I'm going to tell you about a hypothetical situation. There are no right or wrong answers, I'm just trying to get a sense of how you think. Okay?


"Let's imagine you're working for us in Nigeria. You've just arrived, it's your first assignment, and you're under cover as the agriculture guy from the USDA. That's someone really low on the diplomatic totem pole, by the way. And the first thing the Chief of Station tells you is that he's really glad you're there, because they have no one in the station who's deep enough below the local radar to meet a really sensitive asset - the Nigerian Foreign Secretary. So you're going to be the one who meets him. Okay?"

"I get it."

"So you drive out to pick up this guy, out on the edge of town, right?"


"And everything goes fine - he gives you the intel and you give him the money, and you're driving him back, right?"


"And then, you're out on the edge of town, and all of a sudden a dog runs in front of your car. And splat! - you hit the dog." He smacked his right fist into his left palm.

"Splat." I nodded.

"Yeah, you hit the dog - splat! And an angry mob of villagers runs up and starts pounding on the window of your car. Kids, teenagers. And they're screaming and pounding and the foreign secretary is terrified. He's all pale."

"He's Nigerian?" I was suddenly worried I'd misunderstood something.

"Well, it's all relative. He's not looking so good."   


"So what do you do?"

"What do I do?"

"Yes. What do you do?"

I thought for a few seconds. What the hell would I do? Cry?

I asked: "Is there any plausible reason for me to be out with this guy?"

"Not at all. The Nigerian foreign secretary, some junior American agriculture officer - there couldn't be any plausible reason."

If there were no right answers, why was he asking this question? Of course there was a right answer. I tried to think through all the angles. "Well," I said finally, "I lived in India for a long time. And a few times, I got into a little trouble. I always found that the best thing to do was stay cool and try to grease my way out of it."


"Well ...  we're talking about Nigeria," I said.

Carl nodded.

"Life expectancy in the rural areas ... probably not much higher than 55? Infant mortality is what - one in six? One in five? - And I've just hit a dog. That's just not such a big deal. A dog's life doesn't count for quite as much in these parts of the world as it does here." I decided from his encouraging expression that I could be on the right track.

"I guess here's what I'd do. I don't think hitting a dog in this part of the world is such a big deal, and I think if I'm okay with this, well, maybe, they'll be okay. I guess I stop the car, get out calmly - no, wait, I just roll down the window - and explain that I'm so sorry, I love dogs, have a dog at home actually, so I understand why they're upset, and I want to compensate them for their loss by passing around all these twenty dollar bills. Twenty dollar bills and American cigarettes - no wait, they're just kids - American candies." He nodded approvingly.

"I think if I pass around enough money they'll forget they ever had a dog."

It must have been the right answer. The wrong answer, I later found out - and a surprisingly common one - was shoot them all.

We went through a few more of these problems. What would I do if I were out with a developmental who knew me as "Angela," and I ran into an asset who knew me as "Mary?" How would I convince an American businessman in Rio to let the CIA use his apartment as a safe house? I answered these questions as sensibly as I could, trying to look serious and responsible, but when I heard myself talking about assets and safe houses I felt a delicious frisson.

 Then Carl placed his hands on his knees and leaned forward, fixing me with a serious gaze. "Selena, would you feel comfortable convincing another human being to commit treason?"

I knew this was the moment to convey my character: He was looking for depth, maturity, moral compass. "Well," I said slowly, "that would depend which government, and it would depend why it was necessary." I hoped I sounded authoritative, but thoughtful. But perhaps that response was too brief, too passionless? "Of course I could convince someone to commit espionage," I added, "if the information would be used to avert a war, or to prevent an aggressive regime from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, or to prevent a surprise terrorist attack on innocent civilians. I would have no hesitation at all."

Of course, I didn't have the first fucking clue what I was talking about.

 Carl and I kept talking, using up far more than our allotted time. When I said that he must be hungry and suggested we go out for a slice of pizza, he accepted. Over lunch he told me what to expect from the rest of the application process. "When you talk to the shrink," he said, "be sure to wrap everything up in the American flag. Don't say you're in it for the thrills or the James Bond thing. I mean, of course that's why you're in it, that's why everyone is, but when you talk to the shrink, it's all about how you love the red white and blue." He also told me that he woke up every morning eager to go to work. I had never heard a Sanskritist say the same thing.

On the subway ride home, amid the chatter and babble of the city at rush hour, I fantasized about clandestine assignations, imagining myself spiriting away the secrets of the Iranian missile program, alone on a train to Marrakech, a desert sirocco whipping up the scent of jasmine in the hot night air. I was so involved in my fantasy that I missed my stop. I thought I might walk back, but when I exited the subway the glares of the crack dealers suggested that this might not be a good idea. "Lady, you're lost," a pleasant Rastafarian observed politely. "You gotta get back on that train right away before something bad happens to you."

"Thanks," I said. "I guess I should pay more attention."

Three weeks later, I received a letter from the Agency inviting me to an office in the suburbs near Langley, Virginia, for a medical and psychiatric examination. I took the Metroliner to Washington and then a taxi to a motel the letter recommended called the Comfort Inn of Tyson's Corner. I spent the evening walking around Tyson's Corner, an ugly cluster of strip malls about half an hour from the Capitol. It was an overcast evening in late summer, and even when the sun went down, the air was close. I tried to go to sleep early because my appointment was at 6:45 in the morning, but lay awake with nerves, smacking the motel wall repeatedly in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the mosquitoes.

At dawn, I took a taxi to the address I'd been given. Nothing at the building's entrance indicated in any way that it belonged to the CIA. It might have been the regional headquarters of Fidelity, say, or Costco Insurance. It was about the size of the other office buildings on the block, six stories or so; its smoked glass windows reflected the broad, tree-lined suburban street. It was separated from the road by a unremarkable parking lot and a neatly groomed lawn. But an armed guard at the gate stopped my taxi and asked to see my identification. He examined my credentials carefully, then told me to step out and walk the rest of the way to the building's entrance. More armed guards manned a reception desk behind the sliding glass front doors, surveying the premises via closed-circuit television. They too asked for my identification, and compared it to a typewritten list. Finally finding my name, a guard picked up one of several phones. "Miss Keller is here," he said.

A woman with hair teased and sprayed into a kind of curly blonde plumage came to meet me at the entrance. "I'm Tammy," she said with the musical vitality of a game show hostess, offering me her hand. She was in her late forties, I guessed; she was made up in heavy foundation and false lashes. A laminated badge hung around her neck, knocking against the big glittering brooch on her lapel in the shape of a giraffe. She escorted me through the turnstiles by the reception desk, swiping her badge against an electronic sensor and punching in a code. "Darn it!" she said when the machine rejected her code three times in a row. "I swear that thing hates me!"

She asked me if I was nervous, and without waiting for a reply told me to "just relax and do your best. We're not looking for geniuses, so don't worry about that. The problem with geniuses, you know, is that they don't have any common sense." She kept chattering as we walked down the hall, her high heels clicking like canastas. She said that the Central Intelligence Agency was like a family, and that she had been in the Agency since the age of nineteen. "Nineteen?" I asked. "How did you end up working for the CIA when you were so young?"

"Oh, they found me fresh out of secretarial school, in Utah," she answered, and before I could ask what she meant we arrived at a small medical laboratory, where she deposited me with a flourish. "See you in a few!" she waved and bustled off.

The walls had the usual doctor's office decorations: a guide to the food pyramid, a poster about Lyme Disease. I filled out a form about my medical history, proffered blood and urine on command and suffered myself to be inspected by a physician with an old-fashioned lantern on his head. He tested my vision, whacked my knees with a mallet, listened to my chest and then sent me back to the waiting room.

Tammy returned and took me to the psychological evaluation clinic. At exactly ten o'clock, the door opened anda man with a neatly-trimmed beard peered into the reception area. He introduced himself as Dr. Mason and invited me to follow him.

His small office was tidy and unornamented, as was he. He held my resume in his hands as if he were looking at it for the first time. I sat down and waited for him to speak. "Well," he said after scanning my resume for a few more seconds, "you've had an interesting life, haven't you?"

"I've been very lucky," I answered, wondering when I should mention my outstanding patriotism.

"So ... let's talk a little about you," he said.

"Sure, I'd like that." I met his eyes and tried to project stability, self-awareness, a positive outlook on life.

"Have you ever had any emotional problems?" he asked.

"Well," I replied, trying to sound as if I experienced appropriate emotion, neither too much nor too little. "Of course I've had difficult times in my life. But I've never suffered any mental illness."

"Mmmmm. Ever hear voices?" he asked. I admired the way he cut right to the chase.

"Voices? You mean, ones that don't really exist? No, never."

"Mmmmm. Ever feel agitated?"

"Well sure, sometimes, I guess."

"When have you felt agitated?"

"Well, you know - when I get stuck in traffic, or when I get put on hold trying to reach a customer service representative, you know, the usual."

"Mmmmm. Ever feel suicidal?"

"No, no. Never."

"Ever feel worried that everyone is watching you?"

"No, not really."

"Would you say you're in good emotional health?"

"Well, sure, yes."

 "Mmmmm. What makes you want to join the CIA?"

"Patriotism, Dr. Mason. I want to give something back."

He nodded; his face gave nothing away.

He asked a few questions about my parents and my education. I looked for angles to mention my patriotism again, but I couldn't find any. Did I have a history of sexual deviancy? "I think my tastes are pretty normal for an upper-middle class white woman," I said.

"Mmmmm ... well," he answered. "Well. I guess that's good." He sounded disappointed.

He walked me to a nearby conference room and handed me a series of multiple choice psychological batteries. He told me he would be back in two hours.  True/False: I will go to hell because of my thoughts about my mother. I carefully avoided the answers that would peg me as a schizoid or a borderline.

And then I was done. Tammy took me to the accounting office, where a white mouse reimbursed me in cash for my hotel and travel expenses. I shook hands with Tammy, who wished me luck, and took the Metroliner back to Manhattan that same evening.

One month later, a letter arrived offering me the job on the condition that I pass an extensive background investigation and a polygraph. The offer came on plain white stationary without letterhead, and nowhere did it mention the CIA. It referred instead to "our organization." "You will be joining our organization at a very exciting time," it read. I stared at the letter in astonishment, then called my mother.

"Mom, you will not believe this," I began. "You simply will not believe this."

I'll never know how I got through that background investigation. Mind you, I didn't really have any skeletons in my closet. I'd never killed anyone, if that's what they wanted to know. I'd always lived a more or less lawful life. But I'd smoked a lot of dope. For God's sake, I was a Sanskritist.

According to the CIA Website, "recent" or "frequent" drug use could prove disqualifying. They offered no precision of these terms. I admitted on the form they sent me that I'd had some acquaintance with the cannabinoid family, as they called it, but I left ambiguous the issue of quantity, hoping they wouldn't ask. When the background investigator, a gray man in a gray suit, came to my apartment to interview me in person, he asked me exactly how many times I'd ever gotten stoned, as if I would have the faintest idea. I fished around for a number that sounded plausible but not excessive.

"About ten?" Actually, it would probably be easier just to tell you about the times I wasn't stoned.

"Are you sure of that number?

"Um ... it's a little hard to remember. It was a while ago. Maybe less?" Well, Sir, I was pretty much stoned all through college. Yeah, I was pretty much stoned the whole time. Once or twice I stopped smoking to take finals or something, you know? So I'd just say I was stoned, well, technically, four or five times, but for a very, very long time each time, okay? 

"And would you consider this to have been experimental usage?"

"Yes, exactly." The experiment indicated a strong relationship between smoking dope and getting high as a kite.

He looked suspicious. "You sure about that?"

"Yes." How could I be sure about anything? I was stoned out of my mind.

His team was going to interview as many of my friends and neighbors as they could find, he told me. That didn't concern me; I expected that most of them would describe me as friendly and studious.

But I did have a small nagging anxiety.

Directly after coming back from India to write up my research, I'd shared an apartment in Manhattan with a librarian named Mildred and a failing jazz pianist, Antonio-the-Untalented. I'd moved in with them following a desperate search for an inexpensive place to live. Mildred had met me at the door when I came to look at the room for rent. She was a stooped weird sister with black teeth and a shock of white hair. But she was pleasant enough and the room was only $500 a month. The apartment was clean - dazzlingly so, in fact - and the neighborhood safe. I think she was taken with the fact that I was a Sanskritist; she wanted to talk about the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. When she asked if I'd like to move in, I accepted gratefully.

On the night I arrived with my bags and books, I found a handwritten note under my door. The letters were crabbed and close:

I do not believe that I have yet explained to you about MY STRUGGLE. Your predecessor in this apartment did not respect my circumstances. I expect you to behave with perfect integrity. As I have every confidence you will.

I read the message several times, trying to make sense of it, then moved the heavy dresser that came with the room against the door.

The next day, I asked Antonio what the hell was going on. "Oh, don't worry about her," Antonio waved his hand. "She's a fruitcake, but she's harmless."

I soon ascertained that Mildred was, indeed, a full-blooded schizophrenic. She believed that a cabal of doctors had stolen her left breast, and was conspiring to steal the right one. She held that the government was sneaking into the apartment at night to poison her food and spray toxic chemicals in her face as she slept. She regularly boiled and bleached everything in the house trying to get the poison off. She believed that my predecessor, whoever he was, had been working as an informant for the government. Sometimes, I would find her sleeping on the living room floor, wrapped in a black plastic bag. "They can't find me in here," she'd mutter. I became used to the sound of coins tinkling: She cast the I Ching constantly, allowing the ancients to determine her every decision. "Dark birds," she crooned, looking at the coins, "very dark birds." She wrapped her food in brown paper to keep the government from spraying it with poison.

One day, Antonio came home to find that Mildred had thrown away his entire week's groceries. "What the hell did you do that for?" he asked her, his eyes popping with exasperation.

"They got poison over your food too. You would have been sick if you'd eaten it."

"Mildred," Antonio said slowly, "how precisely do you think 'they' got into a locked apartment on the fourteenth floor?"

"You should know!" She hissed. "You're the one who's been helping them!"

Antonio stared at her, completely at a loss, then backed out of the room, shaking his head. What can you say to that?

I lived there until I could afford my own studio - it would have taken more than Mildred to make me abandon a $500 room in midtown Manhattan - and I never had a problem with her. She cast the I Ching for me whenever I needed to make a tough decision and she kept the apartment spotless. Sometimes she sanitized the toilet eight times in a day.

But the questionnaire I'd been sent by the CIA required me to list everyone I'd lived with for the past seven years, and when I put down Mildred's name I had a moment of foreboding. What on earth would Mildred do if a strange man in a dark suit showed up on her doorstep, claiming to be from the federal government and demanding to know whether she'd ever seen me engage in any suspicious activity? Would she scream? Would she try to whack him? I imagined her raising a shovel into the air and triumphantly smashing it down on the investigator's head.

I tried not to think about it. It was in God's hands.

The Columbia Law Library housed an extensive collection on the legal admissibility of polygraph results in court, which I studied closely. The luminaries of American jurisprudence were unanimous: The polygraph was a sham. The CIA might as well have invited Mildred to Langley to cast the I Ching - and perhaps they should have, since Mildred was often eerily accurate, having predicted to the month both the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Asian stock market crash.

The fallibility of the polygraph was an axiom of forensic science, yet members of the national security community reposed in it an almost reverential confidence. Evidently, the polygraph functioned as an aid to interrogation; people believed it worked, so they told the truth. I was anxious about it. While I had nothing to lie about, I had many things I didn't care to discuss. More importantly, the polygraph returned a disturbing number of false positives, and I didn't want to become a victim of bad luck.

I read on the Internet that passing was a matter of evidencing stress when asked the control questions. The trick to showing stress, according to an article I found posted to a chat group, was the cloacal clench. The author of the posting claimed to be a former police interrogator. He promised that one well-timed squeeze of the sphincter would cause the subject's heart rate and galvanic skin response to rise  exactly as if he were telling a shameful porky.

I arrived for my polygraph, in another unmarked building in the suburbs of Washington, with apprehension. The polygrapher came to the waiting room to fetch me. He and I walked together to the polygraph chamber down the hall and exchanged pleasantries about the weather. He then spent a great deal of time emphasizing to me how scientific the polygraph was, making it sound like electron microscopy. I listened politely. He discussed the questions he was planning to ask: Had I ever committed a major crime? Had I ever attempted to gain unauthorized access to classified information? Was I working for a foreign intelligence service? I nodded to signify that I understood.

I was confused. These questions seemed to be perfectly reasonable lines of inquiry. But there should have been, according to my research, a relatively trivial question among the others, one designed to evoke a lie - Have you ever told an untruth  to a supervisor? Have you ever stolen office supplies? That was where to manifest the strongest response, if you wanted to pass. But his questions concerned issues with which the government would legitimately be concerned. Oh what the hell, I thought, I'm an honest woman. These questions are easy. I'll just hope for the best.

The polygrapher strapped me to the chair and hooked me up to the electrodes and the breathing monitor. The chair was ample and squishy, actually quite pleasant. He switched on the device, intoning the questions in a hypnotic voice. When he asked me the question about my criminal history a second time, I suddenly wondered whether that might be the control question. After all, everyone breaks a few laws now and again. Afraid that I would fail if I didn't have a strong reaction to something, I made a sudden decision to seal my mula banda, as the yogis might say.

When it was over, he left the room, saying he needed to review my results. I knew from my research that he was doing no such thing; he was leaving me alone to increase my anxiety prior to the interrogation, the interrogation being the real point of the polygraph. The tactic worked; I was anxious. I sat there by myself, uncomfortable and apprehensive, nervously picking my nose until I realized that I was doing so in view of the pinhole camera on the wall before me. I put my hands to my side and straightened myself.

The polygrapher returned to the room. He sat down across from me and stared at me, his thin lips peevish and cold.

"Selena, we seem to have a problem here," he said.

That was exactly what I'd read he would say. This was where, had I been lying, I was supposed to realize that the polygraph had trapped me and spill my guts. If I hadn't been lying, I would simply be puzzled.

"Problem?" I asked.

"You showed a very strong reaction one of the questions. Do you know which one it was?

"Er, no, I'm afraid I don't," I said. You lamentable witch doctor.

He leaned in and glared at me, eyes inches from mine. "The question was whether you've ever committed a major crime."

Oops. Yep, that's where I squeezed, alright. I guess that wasn't a control question. "I don't understand that. I've never committed a major crime," I answered.

"Well, the charts don't lie. The charts are scientific. There's got to be some reason they're telling me that you haven't been 100 percent with us today."

Yes sir, there is. I was squeezing my sphincter when I answered that question. "Well, perhaps I was a little nervous? Could we try that again?"

"This isn't something you just try until you get it right, Selena. This is science. The machine is a carefully calibrated scientific tool, and it is telling me that you have something you need to get off your chest."

Wrong body part, Colombo. I was angry with him and furious with myself. This would have gone fine if I hadn't been, literally, a smart-ass. I explained again that I hadn't lied, the irony of it being that I really hadn't; and he explained to me that the charts never lie, and back and forth we went until he agreed to hook me up again. This time, I abandoned all scientific experimentation. When I left, he was still muttering over the charts.

In all, I calculated that my chances of getting a security clearance were no better than half. It took them another three months to adjudicate my case, three months in which I ran to the phone every time it rang, like an impatient lover. When the call finally came, I had almost given up hope. But when the call did come at last, they told me I had been cleared to the Top Secret level. And as I said, to this day I have no idea how I slipped through.

They told me to report for duty in Washington in January, with the rest of my class of trainee spies.

Training would take place over eighteen months, and would be divided between the CIA's Headquarters in Langley and the mysterious facility they called the Farm. During that time, they warned me, I would be scrutinized carefully. At some point, I would be asked to jump from a plane. At the end of training, if I met their expectations, I would be taught another language and then sent overseas. My destination would be determined by the needs of the service.

I packed up my studio in New York and moved to Virginia, renting an airy, modern apartment with a balcony in the completely uninteresting suburb of McLean - condos, cul-de-sacs, lawns with little swing sets - about ten minutes from CIA Headquarters. It was easily four times the size of my studio in Manhattan, and half the price.

The move was uneventful save that it was the first time I'd ever driven a car on my own. Like many New Yorkers, and New Yorkers alone among Americans, I'd never really learned to drive. The deficit marked me as an alien elsewhere in the country, quite likely mentally infirm or dangerously unpatriotic. I hadn't needed to drive when I lived in India, where I'd spent most of my time in a village with exactly one car, a 1978 Lada that was more rust than engine. Judging from the garlands strewn lovingly around its antenna, that car had functioned primarily as a religious icon.

I bought myself a used Ford Taurus, the safest car in its class, and captained it through the suburbs of Virginia like a Sherman Tank. I hesitated at every intersection. I braked when the wind blew. I signaled when I shouldn't have and I didn't when I should. I couldn't read a road map. My sense of direction was terrible and I kept getting lost: I tried to go to the grocery store and found myself well on my way to the Appalachians before I realized my error and corrected my course. The mirrors confused me; I couldn't figure out the relationship between the reflected image and reality. If objects in the mirror were closer than they appeared, did that mean I should merge faster, or not at all? Why did people keep honking at me, even when I was driving exactly the speed limit? On my third day in Virginia, I stopped at a tollbooth and tossed my change successfully in the basket. Then I threw the car in reverse rather than forward and drove promptly into the car behind me.

On the morning of my first day at the CIA, I dressed in a fresh cream winter suit with gold buttons and brocade trim. I wore silk panties, sheer nylons, pearls that looked real and earrings to match. My Ferragamo pumps came from a thrift store, but they didn't look it. I put expensive serum in my hair to make it straight and shiny, and I wore three very thin gold bracelets with my watch. I checked myself in the mirror one last time before I left: I decided I would have looked right at home in the photograph on the CIA Website.

I had been told to return to the same anonymous office building. I left an hour early in case I got lost, then waited in the parking lot, fussing with my lip gloss and adjusting the seams of my nylons. I was still the first of my classmates to walk through the sliding glass doors. Then more appeared - three women and a man. We introduced ourselves with pleasantries and affable firm handshakes. Presently we were met by a silver-haired man, well into middle age with a careworn face; he introduced himself as Ned. Ned told us that he would drive us to Headquarters in a minivan, where we would meet the rest of the class. We bundled ourselves into the van, and Ned pointed out the local landmarks as we drove. "I remember my first day," he said. "You've got an adventure ahead of you, that's for sure." He blinked quickly a few times. "I wish I could start all over again."

We turned into the left-turn lane on Route 123 at the sign that said "Central Intelligence Agency," pulling up beside a small makeshift memorial to the two Agency employees killed at that traffic light by a deranged Pakistani gunman. They had been ambushed while waiting for the light to change. The site was marked by two small wooden crosses and a straggle of limp pansies. I looked at the memorial with dismay; the light seemed to stay red for a long time.

At last we turned into the long driveway, cruising past signs that said "WARNING: OFFICIAL GOVERNMENT FACILITY" and a barrage of other prohibitions: no photography, no firearms, no recording devices, no cellular phones, no unauthorized entry, no alcohol, no tourists. We drove past twelve-foot gates topped by razor wire, and over a mechanized rising road barrier designed to rear from the ground and flip unwelcome vehicles like pancakes. Once, Ned told us, a flustered security guard, new to the job, had accidentally upended a visitor from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who had hung inverted in the air until the rescue crews arrived. The damage to his car had been considerable. But on the day we arrived, the armed guards seemed fully on top of their game. The motion they made to wave us in was something between a beckon and a salute, a welcoming but respectful gesture, full of gravitas.

Our minivan continued down a road that circled the vast parking lots. Ned explained that titles to the reserved spaces, close to the building, were bitterly contested. "It's not worth it," he advised, describing the viciousness of the battles for parking lot supremacy. "Don't get caught up in that game. So you walk a few minutes every morning. It's good for your heart." The lots were full of dark economy sedans, mostly Dodges and Fords. There were a few SUVs, some had bumper stickers. "My Son is an Honor Roll Student at McLean Middle School," read one. Ned showed us where we should park our cars in the mornings. The lots open to trainees were practically in Montana.

The Headquarters compound was something like a small university campus. The two main buildings were adjoined; the older building, heavyset and somber, was made of precast concrete, the newer one of steel and glass. A walkway linked the old building to a freestanding domed auditorium. This nucleus was surrounded by woods, lawns and vast parking lots from which soared satellite dishes and radio towers of surreal gigantism. The scene conveyed business and motion: Rolls of chicken wire and PVC piping emanated from a large construction site near the main buildings; helmeted workers rattled pneumatic drills. From somewhere in the middle of the compound, a generator pumped steam into the air.

We took a footpath from the lot through a small wooded park, which led to a lawn with picnic tables and a triptych made from a fragment of the Berlin Wall. A cluster of smokers, shivering in the cold, stood outside. Ned ushered us past the building guards and the security turnstiles. The CIA seal, carved in granite, spread magnificently over the floor of the foyer. Ned pointed to our right, showing us the stars on the marble walls that commemorated the Agency's fallen. There were seventy-seven stars, he told us. A glass-encased book below the stars listed forty-two names: The names of those remaining were, even in death, too sensitive to be revealed. Etched into the wall ahead of me was the legend: And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

We proceeded down the hall and assembled in a dark-paneled, carpeted auditorium. A heavy, matronly woman rose to take the podium, standing between the Stars and Stripes and a flag with the CIA seal. She moved only with effort, but her deliberate stride and sturdy carriage conveyed enormous confidence. An assistant rushed up to her with a glass of water; she acknowledged him with a nod. She waited until we were all seated.

"Welcome to the Central Intelligence Agency," she began, then allowed those words to sink in. "Some of you may know me as Maxime Shroeder." Her matron's lips creased into a knowing, sly smile. I recognized the name: She had signed the letter offering me a job. "In fact," she said, "my name is Brenda Argus, and for the next eighteen months, I am your boss."

There it was, my first secret. The real name of the head of the Clandestine Service Trainee Program.

She gave a rousing speech. We were embarking not only on a challenging career, but on an honorable career. We would serve the people of the United States with little recognition, but with much satisfaction. She expected the very highest standards of integrity and accountability from us, and we in turn would have the pride of knowing that we were working for the finest intelligence service in the world, an organization that was more than just a service; it was a family. We had been chosen because we were outstanding, talented young people. We would work hard, and we would have extraordinary lives.

When she finished, we took our oaths. We swore to uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States. I held up my hand with everyone else, and when I repeated the words, I felt profound conviction, a deep thrilling pride.

The trainees spent the rest of the day in a large conference room where long tables were arranged in the shape of a horseshoe. There was a Central Intelligence Agency seal on the wall. I met the rest of my classmates. As instructed, we introduced ourselves by our first names only and said a few words about our backgrounds and our hobbies. The group was about the size of my high school graduating class, with twice as many men as women. Many of the men looked as if they had arrived straight from military service; they had very short hair and excellent posture; they addressed the authorities as "Sir" and "Ma'am." My new colleagues were athletic and trim, with healthy pink complexions; the men had large and well-developed upper bodies, from what I could discern beneath their sober suits and neatly pressed shirts. There were a fair share of attorneys, a few former investment bankers, and a man who had worked for Microsoft. One woman had worked for a multinational energy corporation headquartered in Singapore, another had been a regulator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

To my right sat a woman from Vermont named Allison. Crisp and professional in a slim gray suit and an eggshell silk blouse, she was a champion triathlete and a prizewinning show-jumper. To my left was Kevin, from Florida, a licensed Scuba instructor who had learned to speak Farsi at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey. Most of my new colleagues had graduated from mid-rank universities - Penn State, Northern Illinois - where they'd majored in political science or government. There were two graduates from West Point. One of them had thick dark hair and such well-proportioned features that he might have been the model for a Roman coin. He introduced himself as Allison's husband. Some had master's degrees, one woman had an MBA.

They were largely from mid-sized cities such as Philadelphia and Atlanta; they enjoyed vigorous outdoor sports such as rappelling and white-water rafting. Several of the men had served in the Gulf War. The men were mostly married and the women mostly single. There were no nerds or geeks, even the man from Microsoft seemed hearty and sociable. No one but me seemed eager to go outside to smoke during the breaks. When it came my turn to introduce myself, I thought I noticed a look of  polite bewilderment in everyone's eyes as I described my former life.

At the end of the day, we were taken to an office to be photographed for the laminated identification badges we were to wear around our necks at all times while in the compound. In the photograph, I appear eager, flushed, excited. A great adventure, my expression seems to say, lies ahead of me.

The hopeful woman in the photograph is gone now, of course. Gone to wherever people go when things don't work out the way they planned.

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