Though pop culture typically depicts them as James Bond-type loners, plenty of real CIA officers have active personal lives they balance alongside their classified work. When so much of their lives remain secret, what do CIA agents tell their families?
Government agents already have a lot on their plates, from intense and unpredictable daily schedules to physically and mentally rigorous training. Thankfully, agency protocol makes it possible for CIA agents to lead normal lives. Like everyone else, CIA agents date, marry, and raise kids, in addition to maintaining relationships with friends and family. Unlike everyone else, operatives can't share most details of their day-to-day lives with their loved ones, and their relationships must follow the CIA's rules. With so much of their lives shrouded in secrecy, how do CIA agents maintain a personal life?
Operatives Must Report Any 'Close' Contact With Foreign Nationals
Long before operatives consider marriage to a foreign national, they have to report any significant relationship to the CIA. Agents must disclose any "close and continuing contact" with a foreign national - even associations that aren't romantic. Any nonprofessional relationship must be reported, including family members.
An operative may not report a contact, but the risk of getting caught comes with consequences. Agents are questioned about their connections in periodic polygraph tests.
Once the contact is reported, the CIA can deny the person without any explanation, forcing the operative to end the relationship.
Spouses Must Help Operatives Maintain Their Cover
Once a covert operative's spouse is trusted with the information that their loved one is a CIA agent, they have to be careful never to let their partner's real identity slip. Jeanine Hayden, the wife of former CIA director Michael V. Hayden, started a voluntary training program for the spouses of operatives to prepare them for the task.
The Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira explains, "The Saturday sessions, called 'Living and Managing Cover for Spouses,' involved role-playing exercises that gave the non-agency spouses tips to prevent them from inadvertently exposing their husband's or wife's true occupation."
Children Often Get Left In The Dark
While CIA officers commonly let spouses know where they work, telling their children is a different matter. Case officer Martha Peterson explains:
I worried about telling them this secret when they were younger because children don't fully understand why being exposed as a CIA officer could pose a real danger to a family living abroad. When we went overseas in 1992 right after the Gulf War, I had to be certain that, if their school bus were hijacked and they were confronted by terrorists, they didn't have in their brain the fact that I worked for CIA.
Peterson chose not to tell her children until they were teenagers following their return to the United States.
Other children of CIA officers report they knew their parents worked for the CIA, but they had no idea what their parents did. Even after agents die and their exploits are in the distant past, the agency may still refrain from disclosing any information to the agent's relatives.
Families Can Accompany Officers To Overseas Posts
When a CIA officer is assigned to a long-term overseas post, their family may be able to come with them. Their spouse and children get to live abroad, explore different cultures, and travel within the area, but they will still know little about the officer's work. According to many agents, the chance to expose their family to new locations and cultures stands out as a highlight of their work.
However, officers may still be separated from their loved ones in long-term posts if there are safety concerns that prevent their families from accompanying them.