That Time the C.I.A. Tried to Recruit Me: Our Reporter on Covering Spies

It is a peculiar strength of American democracy, even by Western standards, that journalists are empowered by the First Amendment to pry into even the most protected government secrets with, generally speaking, little to fear. Skulking around the secret world over the years, I interviewed William Colby, the retired C.I.A. director, not long before he took a canoe trip on the Chesapeake Bay from which he would never return. I was among the first journalists to get inside the K.G.B. headquarters in Moscow during a brief experiment in glasnost. I traveled to Switzerland to understand how American intelligence had infiltrated a Swiss company that supplied encryption machines to many countries.

I was detained by the N.S.A.’s police force while peering through a fence, trying to figure out what the eavesdroppers did where. I took a joy ride with a former C.I.A. pilot who rolled his little plane and flew it upside down until I assured him I was impressed with his skills.

And there have been dark moments: I watched a former intelligence officer who had helped me with a few stories, and who in my view had revealed nothing that could harm national security, go to prison for disclosing classified information.

Many reporters have such spy stories, and people like to hear them. What is the universal appeal of spying? What makes it such rich fodder for fiction and movies?

Part of it is pure Walter Mitty — we envy those who go incognito to steal secrets or meddle in affairs of state. After watching a Jason Bourne spectacular or reading a novel by Graham Greene or John le Carré, who among us does not play with the idea that the headlights in the rearview mirror are tailing us, or spot the perfect place for a dead drop in the alley behind the office?

To cash in on such popular appeal, former intelligence officers often cross over into spy fiction — Greene and le Carré both served in MI6. Jason Matthews, who retired as a C.I.A. operations officer, has just completed a…

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