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?
Because of the classified nature of work at the CIA, even non-covert operatives can't share many details of their jobs with their families. CIA officers report being able to share their job titles and sometimes the geographic areas they work in, but not much beyond that.
"I don't mind they think that I'm just a 'paper shuffler,'" says one agent, whose job actually entails spy recruiting and gathering sensitive information.
Telling their family anything more might become a matter of national security or divulge sensitive information about sources or methods. The amount an officer may tell their family often remains contingent on the sensitivity of their job.
When an operative becomes involved in highly sensitive work, they may hide their job from their family. CIA officers report lying to their family about their employer and the locations of their work. Former undercover operative Douglas Laux told his family he was a salesman working in Hawaii while he was actually on assignment for the CIA in Afghanistan. Naturally, this proved troublesome to keep up at times with his parents, who tried to visit him in Hawaii, or his partners, who assumed Laux's secrecy stemmed from infidelity or criminal activity.
Undercover officer Mary, whose work keeps her abroad most of the time, explains, "What [the CIA] encourages is that you limit the number of people that you tell, your very trusted inner circle, family, maybe a friend or two. But I chose not to tell most of my family, mostly because they worry."
During dangerous and discreet field assignments, operatives may not be able to tell their families where they are in the world. For security reasons, their exact locations are classified by the CIA. However, their families do have a contact at the CIA they can reach in these cases. Their contact at the CIA would know the operative's exact location and can get in touch with the agent if necessary.
On less sensitive assignments, operatives can divulge their travels to their family, at least letting them know the general geographic area.
The Department of Defense released a 2007 study revealing that over half of American citizens caught spying on the US also possessed close ties abroad. Naturally, this poses a problem for the CIA, because many agents meet partners overseas. If a CIA officer wants to marry a foreign national, it could cause complications for their career. The CIA requires that covert operatives and their spouses must be US citizens. The agency does permit marriages to foreign nationals, the caveat being the agent's spouse must pass a required background check and obtain US citizenship within five years.
If an operative becomes romantically involved with a foreign national, they cannot tell their partner what they do for a living until the partner passes a background check and a polygraph test. The vetting process gets exhaustive and complex, and many agents reportedly leave the service rather than subject themselves and their partners to it.