Leaning on People
Updated: Mar 26
I cleared my throat, dimpled the Windsor knot in my tie and knocked. A TV blared on the other side of the door.
It was January 20th, 1984, 5 pm. I was at a Ramada Inn, Phoenix. Arizona, and had just gotten off work from my day job as a Superior Court investigator. A week earlier I’d received a letter to my employment inquiry instructing me to meet this day, this time, a Mr. Jenkins: Central Intelligence Agency Recruiter.
The television volume was lowered; the door swung open. A Billy D. Williams look-alike, with a well trimmed mustache, dressed in a sleek black sportcoat, plain red tie, and pressed slacks, looked me over quickly, and without a word waved me in.
He pointed to the chair next to the television and took a seat on a couch, mesmerized by a news report.
The sun cracked through a corner of a closed curtain.
”And so it ends for these brave 52 Americans,” Ted Koppel, the ABC newsman said in his deep, smooth voice. “They are finally going home, hostages in Iran for 444 days. One hostage remains.”
He flicked off the remote. “Finally,” he said to himself. He took a copy of what appeared to be my resume from the table and crossed-legged, showing his polished Wingtips, asked unabashedly, “So, James,” Pause, “ How do you feel about leaning on people?”
I nervously glanced upwards.“ Uh.” Quick chuckle. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Grimace. ” Oh, I think you know what I mean,” he said, probing me for what was obviously a simple question.
I inhaled. “Well…I, suppose, I ….”
“How about this,” he said, “ You are attached to an embassy and one of your assets tells you that he has information about another embassy that will be blown up. And he gives the time, which is today. Mind you it is not an embassy you have dealings with. And you are not even certain this asset is being truthful. What do you do?”
Without hesitation, I said, “ Well, I’d call the embassy and try to get the people out.”
He shook his head. “ Wrong answer. You have no connection to this embassy. You don’t need to be involved….. James. And who knows why this asset would be telling you this anyway.” Pause….”You really don’t know much about what we do, do you?”
Interview over. But instead of showing me the door, he proceeded to read my resume.
He pursed his lips and pursued the paper for any facts not readily evident from his first impression of me. And for the next several minutes he congenially asked me about my job and why I wanted to be in the CIA.
I responded the best I could, telling him that I could write a good sentence, something the ad in the paper said was needed for this job as a case officer. And that my current job required analytical skills, also a job requirement.
He kept his eyes glued to my resume. Finally, he nodded and said,” Mr. McGee, I don't feel you know enough about what we do, or are a good candidate at this time for this job.”
He was about to stand, but without hesitation and certainty, I perked up, readied my elbows on my knees and I boldly said, “I have to disagree.”
He scooted back slightly, narrowing his stare on me and nodded for me to continue.
For the next minute I disassociated myself from the old unassuming me. I looked at Mr. Jenkins eyeball-to-eyeball, recapping my success at my job and my adventurous side bumming around Europe as a 20 year old. I said something about resilience and creativity. I went on that I easily established rapport with people which I thought the ad in the paper had said was needed for the job. I concluded, saying, “I’d be a real asset to the Central Intelligence Agency,”
Mr. Jenkins studied me, again steepling his fingers, then tilted his head. ” “Alright, James,” he said. “ I am going to do something I haven’t done today. I am going to set you up with our test which will show more about you. This is the second step in the process. In the meantime I want you to pick a book from this reading list so you can learn more about what we do.” He handed over a typed list to me.
“ A couple of things,” he said. “You will receive a letter about when and where the test will be given. Likely, it will be on a Saturday. When you report, you aren’t to talk to anyone. Understand?”
I said, I understood. He stood. We shook. I said thank you. He said, “Pick a book and read it.”
I left exhilarated, mostly because I’d stood up for myself. But not too certain how my, then wife, would take the news I’d made it to the second step in the CIA hiring process. I made a note to check the bookstore or library for The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence.
Two weeks later, on a Saturday morning, I entered the testing center at Phoenix College, with a letter validating that I had permission to take this test. My ID was checked by a monitor. A half-a-dozen other young adults sat, heads staring at the floor, no one peeping a word.
A somber-face monitor led us into the testing room single file and told us to spread out and to take a cubicle. For the next four hours at timed intervals we were given booklets asking us to make sense of a fictitious language, analyze scenarios much like the one about the embassy Mr. Jenkins had asked me in my interview, and to write a summary about what some readings said. When the chime rang at noon to end the test, I was exhausted.
At home, I told my wife she no longer had to worry about me being hired by the CIA because I was pretty sure I’d failed the test. She breathed a sigh of relief; her life would not be uprooted by her Walter Mitty husband’s fantasy of being a secret agent man. My failure would allow her to keep her nursing job and to continue our life of weekend barbecues and ski trips to Park City.
For the next month, I resigned myself to a life as a county investigator, until a long distance call came for me at work. “ Mr, McGee, “ a plummy voice asked.
“This is Mr, Smith from the Central Intelligence Agency. Are you somewhere you can talk freely?”
I said not right now, thinking that one of my hoaxster friends was playing a joke on me, but quickly remembering I’d followed orders not telling anyone about the interviewing process except my immediate family.
“ Can you get to a place within ten minutes?” Mr. Smith asked.
I told him I could. I went to the secretary, Ellia, and asked to patch my calls back to my boss’ office who was out of town.
Precisely ten minutes later, Ellia called and said a Mr. Smith is asking to talk to you. I cleared my throat, readying for the unknown.
In a matter-of-fact manner, plummy accent now prominent, Mr, Smith told me I'd made it to the third level in the interview process, scoring adequately on the entrance exam. For a second, I thought I was talking to Q, the sophisticate and creator of gagetries in the James Bond series.
“Have you talked to anyone about the test or your interview?” he asked.
I told him my wife and my mother in Missouri knew about the interview. And that I’d told my references I was interviewing for federal jobs.
“That’s fine,” he said. “You could be overseas and will likely have a cover name as case officer. How do you feel about that?”
I said I had no problem with that. He then asked. “ How does your wife feel about living overseas?”
I paused, then said, “uh, she, uh has no problem.”
He said, many wives are apprehensive about such a change.
I immediately thought, I should have been straight with the guy. He was savvy enough to read my word fillers as a hesitation.
Mr. Smith continued dissecting my resume, asking me about undergraduate school and my master's degree, commenting that my grades in my first four years of college weren’t impressive. He saw my notation about past marijuana use, which I downplayed as very limited. And that I no longer did it.
After what seemed like an hour but was no more than 20 minutes, he told me the next step in the process would be the in-person interview in Virginia. And that I’d be flown in. He thanked me, saying that the CIA would be in touch.
At home, I related the interview. “ You said you failed that test, and now they call you!” my wife said.
I said,” I thought I did fail the test.”
As adamant as she’d ever been in our then 6 years of marriage, she said, “ I am not going to some God forsaken country and leave all this. I am telling you now.” It was a Friday. She cold shouldered me for the weekend.
Some weeks went by. I’d kept thinking about the CIA to myself, figuring the matter would somehow take of itself.
On my 30th birthday it did just that. My college roommate and his wife were visiting us. When the mail arrived I excused myself from the good nature chatterings on the patio, my buddy happily taking on barbecuing duty by our pool.
A solitary letter was stuck in with junk mail, officially addressed to me. The return address was from the Department of Treasury. Not knowing for sure whether it was from the CIA, I walked to our bedroom to open it.
It began, After careful review, the standard language for Dear John turn-downs. My stomach sank. Short and sweet, it wished me the best of luck and success in future career pursuits.
I returned to the poolside drinking and cookeries. My wife asked about the mail. I said, “just junk.”
During the night of laughter and replaying old times, I made up a story that I had to write a report for work and retreated early to the bedroom. For whatever reason, I retrieved the rejection letter from the waste can, as proof I’d been interviewed by the CIA. And stuffed it in a college year book.
When my wife came to bed, I told her about my rejection. She warmed up and said she never saw me as CIA material.
I thought, resignedly, it’s good to know my place: a sensible man who works 8 to 5, barbecues on weekends, and takes his two week vacation.
The book I had begun reading did shed light on the nature of what it was like to be a case officer. Mr. Jenkins' first question to me several months earlier on the day the hostages were released made sense now. I wasn’t the kind of guy to lean on someone, which was a character trait a case officer needed. I told myself I was far too sensitive a person to do so. Sour grapes.
I kept my job as an investigator for some 15 years thereafter, but there was a lesson I took away from Mr. Jenkins’ inquisition all those years ago: Speak up for yourself, convincing comes with conviction.