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Saturday, June 13, 2015

Some thoughts on writing a book about the CIA -

Since my memoir, "Mukhabarat, Baby!" was published early last month, I have made an effort to accept every opportunity to speak about the book and my experiences while a part of the CIA.  Actually, I have had to "rustle up" speaking engagements, as we say down here in Texas.  This is my first, and probably only foray into the world of book writing, literary agents and publishers, and I have received quite an education in the last year.  It hasn't been easy, and much of the heavy lifting did not come as a surprise.  I self-published because I was determined to keep my voice, and avoid as much political bullshit as possible.  If you read my book, you will notice that I never discuss my private life.  I made that choice because outside of the understood difficulty with long-distance relationships, my personal life was not impacted by my career.  I know plenty of very successful Operations Officers who met that special someone, got married, and had children, all in the middle of their career.  At times, life is about compromises and adjustments, and the idea that it is almost impossible to have a fulfilling personal life and a successful career working undercover, overseas for the CIA, is just false.  In my particular case, the details of my private life would have detracted from my intended message.  Most of the stories in my book introduced other characters; real people, with unique personalities and fascinating experiences to share.  My career was a tremendous experience that I wouldn't trade for anything, because of my brothers and sisters in the CIA.  Using my book, I wanted to be the conduit between real people and true, sometimes funny, other times sobering, stories about life - from inside the world's greatest vault: the CIA.

I was very fortunate.  I had the tremendous support of a number of very special people, and I had a general idea what I needed to do in order to turn a self-published, non-fiction CIA memoir into a success.  My friend Jennifer created an amazing blog page, which has been a great success, and the site that she built for the book is as professional, attractive, and user-friendly as any you will find on the net.  We showered the world of Twitter from one end to the other, with hourly tweets about the book and its subject matter, and we used our book Facebook page to drum up interest as well.  But I couldn't sit back and wait for speaking invitations to show up in my email; I had to do all the legwork necessary with that effort.  So I emailed and called everyone, and in lost instances received no reply.  But when I did, I was not picky.  I think I spoke at the opening of a Korean manicure and pedicure salon in Von Ormy, Texas.  Here is a bit of free advice: don't waste money on any of the frequently advertised "twitter campaigns".  Some claim that they will tweet your book title to "350,000" twitter addresses every hour, every day for a month.  It won't make a difference.  In order to break into the ranks of "successful" books, the media needs to pick it up.  The book needs to be mentioned on Shawn Hannity (an interview on his radio program would be a dream come true) or a CNN program.  If MSNBC came calling, they would be the first refusal I would give.  Its nothing personal, I just wouldn't be able to participate in a program that would attempt to use my book to damage people I admire and support.  Not that I expect an email from them anytime soon.

If someone is considering purchasing my book because they believe that I have an ax to grind,  I would have to respectfully inform them otherwise.  I have my complaints, mostly dealing with the process of compensation.  I started accruing medical bills in 2001; following the advice of both my personal physicians and the Agency Office of Medical Services, I went to see a number of specialists from the Baylor Hospital in Houston, Texas, to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.  By 2007 I had collected a hefty debt, even with my Blue Cross/Blue Shield Federal Employee Coverage.  I was told numerous times that my request for assistance was acceptable, but the end of the process was nowhere in sight.  I took some steps I which could have been avoided, but in the end, I received enough financial assistance to cover all my outstanding medical bills, and to assist with future therapy.  The decision to retire with full disability was made at a time when my prognosis was not positive.  This fact was acknowledged by my private physicians and OMS.  But it was always my goal to regain my health at least to the level that would allow me to return to work.  I believe I have reached that point, and I hope I am able to return to the Agency in some capacity.  In truth, the organization is my family.  I belong to a group of Agency officers who chose to make the Agency not only their career, but a permanent part of their lives.  I wrote the book as both therapy and to counter the negative information that I had been reading for years.  The Agency has a successful, proven hiring process, and the most accountable, useful training program imaginable.  As with any large organization, I met officers with whom I did not get along personally, but never once in my career did it interfere with the job at hand.  Before I joined the Agency, I had already spent time overseas, and had met a wide variety of people.  But the CIA managed to bring together the most dedicated, disciplined, honest, capable group of officers possible.  From my first day on the job, to the last, it never ceased to amaze me- the level of dedication, attention to detail, and thoughtfulness that was part of every operation.  It was such a pleasure working in an environment that remained focused on the people and the mission, and didn't get bogged down in the bureaucracy and obstacles.  And in my book (literally and figuratively), both bureaucracy and obstacles were made to be overcome.

Every time a person picks up my book to read the jacket cover, it fills me with gratitude and humility.  My memoir is not about "James Bond" exploits during the day and shacking up with the beautiful Russian spy at night.  Its about the real job being done by honest-to-goodness patriots in places like Katmandu and Monrovia.  I lived the life, and I'm very fortunate to be able to discuss it on the flipside (nothing confidential, of course).  I do consider myself a bit of an expert....not on James Bond, but on the people I describe in my book.  I tried to bring their experiences and perspectives to life.  its up to you to decide if I succeeded.

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