For Your Society

I was chief of disguise at CIA. ‘The Americans’ got a lot right.

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Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as spies in disguise in “The Americans.” (Eric Liebowitz/FX)

After 27 years in the CIA working on operational assignments around the world, I am somewhat numbed to the fictional espionage that engulfs us — the books and movies and TV shows that always get it wrong. That’s why I have largely shunned the genre, barely noting the reviews of the latest creations that celebrate the life of an intelligence officer. “Homeland”? No. The Bourne movies? No. “Alias”? God, no! It’s the main reason I work as an adviser and speaker at the Spy Museum in Washington: to present an informed but still entertaining picture of the work of a spy.

But then came “The Americans,” the FX TV series set to finish its sixth and final season to near-unanimous critical acclaim. It proved to be the outlier in my perception — and I wasn’t surprised when The Washington Post reported that Gina Haspel, the career CIA officer nominated to direct the agency, is a fan of the show. I was late to “The Americans” and had some catching up to do initially. But from the first spectacular episode, I was hooked, because the setup resonated. The show centered on a modern American family of spies with children and a suburban lifestyle. That had once been my life. But wait. These spies were not American at all. They were faux Americans — Russians, in fact — something I also knew a little about. There had once been Soviet sleeper agents posing as Americans. The structure of the FX show, predicated on the family dynamics that result when espionage is the parental career, allowed for a thoughtful exploration of the necessity to manage the daily deception that is part of the job of a spy (or, as we would call it at the CIA, an operations officer).

My husband, Tony, and I had 52 years between us working with the CIA in mostly foreign assignments. We had to convince nosy neighbors and casual acquaintances, as well as office mates, that we were what we purported to be — somewhat boring administrative workers. If we made it boring enough, it worked. Tony’s children, however, would eventually notice that their dad was gone far more often than their friends’ dads, and that he never talked about his job, that he was meeting strangers at home


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