MS. REBECCA SHEIR
But first, if I were to ask you, Rob, what one of the most underground jobs of all would be, what would you say?
MR. ROB SACHS
I don't know, maybe a miner or something?
Okay, well played, but I recently met a guy who spent decades working a job so underground that, at the time, he couldn't really even talk about it. His name is Peter Earnest and he spent 36 years with the Central Intelligence Agency. For 25 of those years, he was a case officer in the CIA's Clandestine Service, mainly in Europe and the Middle East. And being that it was clandestine and all, Peter didn't share too many details with me when we met. But in general, he did things like recruiting and running agents to collect intelligence, working in counter-intelligence and double agent operations.
He also partnered with the FBI and with military intelligence. And since 2002, Peter has used his espionage expertise as the executive director of the International Spy Museum in downtown D.C., which is where I visited him earlier this week. Peter says, these days, the intelligence community in the U.S. is huge, 200,000 people and an $80 billion budget. But he grew up in the Washington region and he says that when it comes to espionage and intrigue, D.C. is a spy central dating all the way back to George Washington.
MR. PETER EARNEST
We say here in the museum there are more spies in this city than in any other city in the world. And we say that for a reason. Washington D.C. is, more or less, the capital of the world, in a sense. This is where all the embassies are and typically one of the places that spies work out of is embassies, official installations. So we here in the capital have this going on all the time.
MR. PETER EARNEST
And there are a number of spy cases here that break open. I mean, it's a regular thing. It's not like this just happens once and a while. You've heard of the recent arrest of the Myers, the fellow who was in the State Department, and his wife who were spying for Cuba for 20 years.
MR. PETER EARNEST
Ana Montes, another one, she was a CIA government official. She had a great deal to do with reporting on events in Cuba, the analysis of intelligence about Cuba and was arrested here for spying for Cuba. And where you and I are sitting here in the spy museum, we are just around the corner from FBI headquarters. And of course, you've heard of the case of Robert Hanssen, an FBI turncoat who spied for the Soviets, if you will, initially GRU, later the KGB for upwards of 20 years. That's a case right here. He worked right here, I think, on the fourth floor of the building right behind me. So these are going on around us all the time. This is a city loaded with spies.
So as someone who's spent so long in the CIA, I kind of want to ask about your cases you cracked. I don't even know the language when I'm talking to someone who was in the CIA. Is that what I say, cases you've cracked, you know?
Well, intelligence officers are usually in the practice of trying to find intelligence, which often involves recruiting sources, people particularly working in what are called human intelligence operations. One of the stories that did make the news here, which I headed up, was the taskforce that dealt with Arkady Shevchenko who was our highest-ranking defector to this country. He was undersecretary of the U.N. He had worked in place for us as a source for a couple of years, then defected and so we settled him. He eventually became something of a success story so...
All most people know about the life of an intelligence official is what they see on television and in movies. Is it really that dramatic, that action-packed?
There are exciting moments. It's just not a steady diet of squealing tires and shots in the night. The difference is in the films you have to tell your story in 90 minutes or whatever it is and so everything has to be packed in together.
So when you watch spy movies, do you find yourself sort of fact-checking or that's not right. We would never do that. That would never happen.
Oh, I think you can't help but do that. But I will say I enjoy a good spy story. I mean, I think it's hard to resist a good spy story and some of them are very well told. People who have been in the profession will just take movies for what they are, which is entertainment.
Do you miss it? Do you miss that life?
Oh, it was a great career. Yes, I would go back. But I will say this, at the height of the Cold War, our arch adversaries were the KGB, was the Soviet Union. And we did everything we could to influence the Soviet Union covertly, to frustrate their intelligence officers, manipulate them, recruit them, same thing they were trying to do to us.
However, it never came to the point of our attempts to assassinate one another. We did engage as countries in proxy wars, whether it was Korea or Vietnam or Central America, whatever. But the U.S. and the Soviets did not come into direct conflict. Perhaps one of the closest times was when we provided covert support to the mujahedeen who were trying to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan after the occupation in 1979.
But we never had each other in the gun-sights, as it were. That's not true today. And I think intelligence work is, for that reason, much harder working the terrorist target. So yes, I do miss it because it was about serving your country. It was about helping to protect your country. But I will say this, I think it's a much tougher nut to crack these days than it was for us. Not that ours was a gentlemen's war, so to speak, but I think the nature of the conflict is quite different today.
Peter Earnest directs the International Spy Museum in downtown D.C. He's also the co-author of two books, "Business Confidential: Lessons for Corporate Success from Inside the CIA" and "The Real Spy's Guide to Becoming a Spy."
To see photos from the spy museum, including one of those coat cameras used by the KGB in the 1970s, visit our website metroconnection.org
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.