Aerial view of the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters some time between 1990 and 2006. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Last spring, a friend of a friend visited my office and invited me to Langley to speak to Invisible Ink, the CIA’s creative writing group.
I asked Vivian (not her real name) what she wanted me to talk about.
She said that the topic of the talk was entirely up to me.
I asked what level the writers in the group were.
She said the group had writers of all levels.
I asked what the speaking fee was.
She said that as far as she knew, there was no speaking fee.
I dwelled a little on this point.
She confirmed that there was no speaking fee.
When an organization has, say, financed the overthrow of the government of Guatemala, you would think there might be a speaking fee. But I was told that, in lieu of payment, the writing group would take me out to lunch in the executive dining room afterward. I would also have my picture taken in front of the CIA seal, and I could post that picture anywhere I wanted.
“So my visit wouldn’t be classified?”
Vivian confirmed that I could tell anyone I wanted. “Just don’t tell them my name—or I’ll have to kill you. Just kidding!”
As I considered the invitation, I kept wondering why I’d been invited. I don’t write about CIA-adjacent topics, nor am I successful enough a novelist that people outside a small circle—one that I doubt includes U.S. intelligence agencies—know my name. So the invite was a bit of a mystery. This was the second-most common question that came up when I told writer friends about it, topped only by: “No speaking fee?” At first, I wondered whether the gig was part of a recruitment strategy. But it doesn’t take a vast intelligence apparatus to know that I am not intelligence material, not least because I am a professional writer.
Next I wondered if my visit could be used as soft-diplomacy propaganda. Look how harmless we are! We let writers come to our headquarters and pose for pictures. The CIA had veered into this type of literary boosterism before—supporting, for example, the founding of the very magazine for which I am writing this piece. So it wasn’t out of the question. In 2021, I had turned down an invitation from the government of Saudi Arabia for an all-expenses-paid trip to a writers’ retreat at al-‘Ulā, as I didn’t want to be a part of their arts and culture whitewashing. But in the end, I couldn’t think of a way that I’d be a useful propaganda tool for the CIA—unless they anticipated me writing this essay (in which case, kudos CIA)—and so I said yes.
On the agreed-upon morning a few weeks later, I left my apartment in D.C. and drove into the haze of Canadian wildfire smoke that was floating over the city. By the time I turned off the George Washington Parkway at the George Bush Center for Intelligence exit, and on to a restricted usage road, I was already nervous. I’m the kind of person who weighs and measures my suitcases before flying, lest I be scolded at the airport, and I do not like driving down roads with signs like EMPLOYEES ONLY and WILL BE ARRESTED.
At the gate intercom, I gave my name and social security number—Vivian had gathered this information and more ahead of time, over a series of phone calls, each from a different phone number—and a police officer gave me a visitor’s badge that was to be displayed on my person at all times. He warned me that I was to be escorted at all times.
I met Vivian in a lot between the first gate and the second gate, where her car was the only one parked. She gave me another badge that appeared identical to the first. I left my phone in my car as instructed, and we got into Vivian’s car and drove to the second gate. That was when things started not going as planned.
Four agitated police officers blocked our way.
“He can’t leave his car here!” they yelled when Vivian rolled down her window.
“But I cleared this ahead of time,” Vivian said.
“He can’t leave his car here. It’s a security risk.”
“But how am I supposed to escort him if we can’t drive together?”
“Ma’am,” one of them said, “I just do parking.”
It turned out that, like in many bureaucracies, the individual parts that made up the CIA were siloed, and there was no point in arguing about logical contradictions.
Vivian gave up and drove me back to my car, clearly stressed. I told her it wasn’t a big deal—I would just follow her.
The problem, she said, was that we wouldn’t be able to park in the same lot. And I had to be escorted at all times. And employee parking at the CIA was a mess. “It’ll take me forever just to walk to you.”
She resolved that she would simply park in VIP visitor parking with me, and if she got a ticket, she got a ticket. “Just follow me.”
I got in my car and followed her to the gate. I watched from behind the wheel as she drove up to the gate, talked to one of the police officers, and drove off past the gate at a good clip, very much not being followed by me.
I pulled up to the gate, and an aggressive police officer questioned me about why I had two badges.
“Didn’t it seem strange to you to get a second badge when you’d just got your first one?”
“I’ve never been here before,” I said. “Everything seems strange to me.”
A different cop told him to give it a rest, handed me a third badge, and asked if I needed directions to VIP parking. I have a terrible sense of direction—I once got lost at Costco for so long that they had to call my mom over the PA; I was fifteen—and Google Maps isn’t much use at Langley.
The nice cop said that I needed to turn right and follow the road until the sixth left. There I would see a line of squad cars and a gate, where my badge would swipe me in.
“If you see a helicopter, you’ve gone too far,” he said. “Just loop back around. Don’t make a U-turn.”
When I later told Vivian about the mean cop and the nice one, she said, “They’re always doing that good cop–bad cop thing.”
I found the VIP parking on my first try. I held my badge out to the scanner. The gate rose! I drove in. And drove. And drove. And drove. In circles, because all the spaces in the small VIP lot were taken. I couldn’t leave the parking lot—I wasn’t supposed to be unescorted anywhere on campus, but at least in visitor parking my presence was somewhat explainable—so I kept circling the lot, accumulating sweat. Finally, someone left. I parked, got out, took a breath of ashy air, and wondered what to do next. I was relieved to see Vivian’s car stuck at the VIP gate, negotiating with the voice on the intercom.
“They won’t let me into VIP parking,” she explained as I got into her car. “They said it’s a security risk.”
We turned back onto the main road and drove for a bit. And then, after a bend, there appeared an abundance of parked cars. Cars upon cars upon cars. I’d never seen a parking lot this big, outside of professional sporting events. The quadrants were labeled by color, the rows by letter; we weaved through row after row of Virginia plates, from Blue D all the way up to Purple V without finding a spot.
I asked Vivian how many people worked at the CIA.
“Maybe two million?” She smiled and confessed that she had no idea, even though I was made to understand that she had been at the CIA, and in the writing group, for a number of years.
As we snaked through line after line of cars, Vivian told me that if you worked here and wanted to avoid a twenty-minute walk from your car, you had to be at the office by 7 A.M. I wondered if this was intentional—a way to encourage long hours, like the tech companies that offer employees free dinners in the cafeterias that don’t open until 6:30 P.M. Or if it was the result of expansion necessitated by the post-9/11 surveillance state and the popularity of phones that record our every movement. As Kerry Howley notes in Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State, we have created and stored more data in the twenty-first century than in the rest of human history combined. If the government wants to find coherent stories in all that data, I thought as I looked at the vastness of the lot, someone has to comb through it.
At first, we couldn’t find the conference room. Like me, Vivian wasn’t allowed to bring her phone into the main building, but even if she had, I don’t know who she would’ve called for directions. CIA officers generally don’t know their coworkers’ last names. (The Starbucks at Langley is the only Starbucks where baristas aren’t allowed to ask for your name.) So I am without photos or notes, but walking through the main building at Langley, is, in my memory, like walking through an airport terminal in a major metropolis, crossed with a hospital, crossed with an American mall, crossed with an Eastern European university. It’s big and gleaming and cold and brutal, all at once. There was a hall of presidential portraits with notes from commanders in chief to the Secret Service, all of them written in elegant fountain pen, except for Donald Trump’s, which was written in Sharpie and said “I’M SO PROUD OF YOU!”
We finally found the conference room, through a side door in the CIA Museum. It was unclear who this museum was for, but it was not a bad museum, full of objects of interest: pieces of the Berlin Wall, tie-clip cameras, Soviet bugging devices, et cetera, displayed in glass cases. Six people were seated at the conference table inside the conference room, which was windowless and had a big CIA seal on the wall.
“Sorry we’re late!” Vivian announced.
“Strip search?” one of the men joked.
“Parking,” I said.
A collective groan. The goddamned parking.
I began by asking what people were writing. Surprisingly, none of the CIA writers were writing spy novels. They were working on short stories. Self-published dystopian sci-fi. A presidential biography. Upmarket fiction. A personal blog, which I was told to check out if I ever wanted a really good muffin recipe. The writing group was organized around what sounded like a listserv announcing periodic meetings to whatever members were available that day. Only about half the people in the room seemed to know one another.
I talked a little bit about writing beginnings and working through false starts. I read the first page of my latest novel, explained why I’d set the first scene in the U.S. when the rest of the novel takes place in Ukraine, and went through all the false starts I’d taken to get where I was going. One officer raised their hand and asked about establishing voice in first versus third person. Another asked about revision techniques. Another about the shift from writing alone to working with an editor. It was the least remarkable Q&A I’ve ever been a part of.
I had a little time to kill before our lunch reservation—seating time in the executive dining room was not flexible—so Vivian took me to the gift shop.
Given that almost no one’s allowed inside Langley and the people who work for the CIA aren’t supposed to advertise it, it was, like with the museum, a bit of a mystery who the gift shop was for. The shelves were stocked with T-shirts (Central Intelligence Agency), mugs (Central Intelligence Agency), and novelty barbecue sauce (Top Secret Recipe!). There was also a Pride Month display (Central Intelligence Agency in rainbow). I bought a Pride Month pen for four dollars.
The dining room was long and mostly empty—apparently a security thing—with white tablecloths and a long wall of windows looking out at the swampy greenery of northern Virginia. Or I was told that it normally looked out at greenery. Today it looked out at wildfire smoke. The menu was essentially cafeteria food—normal American fare. I ordered a burger with sweet potato fries and a Coke from a businesslike waitress in a white dress shirt.
The CIA officer seated next to me asked if I thought it was worth getting a literary agent. I said yes, and she seemed skeptical.
“In my other work,” she explained, “I can get movie people attached.”
I still have no idea what she meant.
While we waited for our food, the writer of dystopian sci-fi confirmed that if you work for the CIA, lawyers have to vet anything you publish. But they were more lenient than I would’ve guessed. She said that one of her novels had helped change how the agency viewed fiction versus nonfiction. While reading her novel, the lawyers decided that just because a character in a novel says something doesn’t mean that the author necessarily agrees, so there should be more leeway for CIA fiction writers. (Which suggests CIA lawyers are more nuanced literary critics than half of Goodreads.)
Obviously you can’t share classified information, I was told. You can’t violate the Hatch Act, showing your political affiliation, and you’re also not supposed to violate the Washington Post rule, which was: Would the CIA be embarrassed if this were in tomorrow’s Washington Post? (This seemed trickiest to determine.)
Another officer mentioned that, since the CIA has people doing things abroad that could be considered dubious, you had to be sensitive about that. I asked what they meant when they said dubious, which resulted in a change of topic. I asked if they knew of any issues with someone trying to publish something that they couldn’t get approved. One of the older writers said that she had heard of an officer who had tried to publish a memoir that discussed his experience of racism in the CIA and was told he couldn’t until he retired.
After lunch—everyone paid at the register, in cash, and Vivian paid for me—Vivian walked me out to my car.
“It was interesting to learn what you all can and can’t write about,” I said to Vivian. “I didn’t realize you had so much freedom to write about your jobs.”
We passed through the security turnstile and walked over a giant CIA seal, which I recognized from several movies, painted on the marble floor.
“The last thing in the world I’d want to write about is this place,” Vivian said at the door. “I can’t imagine anything more boring.”
Johannes Lichtman’s debut novel, Such Good Work, was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. His second novel, Calling Ukraine, is available in hardcover and will be published in paperback in April.
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