The CIA is often glamorized in TV shows and in movies. And while it is an exciting career path to take, there are many myths out there about what it’s really like to work as a CIA agent.
Darrell Blocker was a CIA operative for 28 years. At the end of his career, he was awarded the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal and retired as the most senior Black officer in their directorate of operations. Darrell has worked as an ABC News contributor since October 2018 and is the COO of Mosaic, a crisis management intelligence and security advisory firm.
After nearly 30 years of chasing terrorists and living in ten different countries, Darrell decided to use his experience with the CIA to battle criminal networks that target youth in foster care with an organization called Peace 4 Kids. He has much to share about his time with the CIA, and I was thrilled to be able to sit down with him on my podcast.
We spoke about the many misconceptions and myths surrounding the CIA, how terrorist organizations are able to recruit people and the psychology behind being in the CIA.
CIA agent misconceptions
There are several misconceptions that the general public has regarding the CIA. The first is that the CIA spies on Americans. Darrell affirms that they don’t really care what Americans are doing. They are more focused on foreign terrorists. Another one? Only about 20% of people who work for the CIA are undercover. Darrell in particular was a part of that percentage, and for 28 years had to say that he was a diplomat for the State Department. He was required to hide the fact that he was CIA.
His CIA origin story is simple: he was an intelligence officer in the Air Force and answered a newspaper ad for a new job. He was interviewed and vetted, and after about a year he was issued a job offer. The CIA has five directorates, one of which is operations, where Darrell ended up working. His job was to recruit spies. Here he reminds us that CIA agents are not spies, they recruit and handle them.
He was assigned to a certain country and then was sent to find potential sources of information. While Darrell was undercover, he never had to take on a different life or identity. That’s another myth about working in the CIA — not all undercover agents have to completely give up their former lives.
Although he was stationed in dangerous places, Darrell says that he never felt unsafe, and something important to understand is that the people he was working with were his partners, not his enemies. They worked side by side — he calls the intelligence community “the perfect example of collaboration you could possibly think of.”
The making of a terrorist
There are many definitions of a terrorist — it’s different depending on the country you’re in. History has shown us that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. In the United States, the founding fathers may be American heroes but were terrorists from the British standpoint. But essentially, a terrorist is anyone who has a politically motivated reasoning for wanting to attack you for your policies. “Politically motivated” are the key words there.
When asked why and how terrorists are radicalized, Darrell says that it’s a mixed bag. He gives the example of ISIS. The group has done a really good job at recruiting people and put a massive focus on enticing the disenfranchised amongst us to join their ranks. They look for people who feel invisible or lonely and then make contact with them, usually online. They begin to build trust by telling them that they matter and are seen. Then the brainwashing begins.
Much of the reason why some people are vulnerable enough to get sucked into a terrorist organization goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. One of those needs is a sense of love and belonging, and these groups really latch onto that. They provide potential recruits with whatever it is that their government, society, culture, or family can’t.
The psychology of being CIA
You need to master some level of compartmentalization to work as a CIA agent. You also need to be okay with lying, hiding information, and deceiving people. Darrell says that he is able to combat feelings of guilt because he was lying for a reason — he was working to protect his country.
While this way of living may seem unimaginable for the average person, Darrell is able to stay positive and separate himself from his work. He was very present for his children throughout their childhood and he feels lucky that he was able to show them the world.
I felt compelled to ask Darrell about the suicide rate within the agency. With so much pressure, I imagined that it would be high and that CIA agents may have struggled with mental health issues. He told me that he was only personally involved with one suicide over the course of his career. But he did mention that he does think that the pressures within the job are there and are very real.
There is a lot of obvious stress that comes with being in the CIA. But, agents like Darrell are trained to handle it. Now that he no longer works for the agency, he has turned his attention to other places he can help his country.
And, as always, you can listen to the podcast episode I recorded with Darrell to learn more.