The Inside Story: What's Real and What's Not in CIA Spy Drama 'The Recruit'?

Netflix’s The Recruit follows a rookie CIA lawyer who becomes entangled with a former asset who threatens to reveal Agency secrets.

The series is based on the adventures of executive producer Adam Ciralsky, a former CIA lawyer who found himself not just working for the Agency but also suing them in court.

We wanted to know how much of The Recruit rings true so we were intrigued when Ciralsky -  who grew up in Milwaukee - gave an interview to his hometown newspaper and spilled even more of his secrets in a Netflix interview.

The Recruit actors Noah Centineo (right) and Vondie Curtis-Hall

What’s the trickiest thing about being a lawyer for a US spy agency?

“At the CIA, you work for an organization that, by its very charter, is breaking the law in every country in which it operates. And what you’re trying to do in the course of doing that [is to ensure] they’re adhering or abiding by US law, Ciralsky said, describing the job as… ‘unusual’. 

Was Ciralsky a rookie when he joined the CIA as well?

Yes, Ciralsky definitely has similarities with Owen Hendricks (Noah Centineo), the fictional young CIA lawyer whose first week on the job goes pear-shaped when he reads a letter by former asset Max Meladze (Laura Haddock) threatening to expose spy secrets. 

Ciralsky was hired by the CIA in 1996 straight out of law school when he was 25 years old. He stayed for four years. While his day-to-day work was different in real life, Ciralsky also felt out of his depth at first. "People may not know what it’s like to work for the CIA, they do know exactly what it’s like to go into that first job and feel like you’re in over your head, you don’t understand the office politics," Ciralsky said.

Do CIA lawyers go into the field?

“CIA lawyers do, in fact, travel overseas for a variety of different reasons,” Ciralsky told Netflix. “Some of that has to do with educating CIA personnel and ensuring that they’re knowledgeable of the law and where the red lines are.”

The Recruit Netflix series
Noah Centineo stars as a CIA lawyer in The Recruit

How realistic is his portrayal of the CIA? 

Ciralsky was involved in The Recruit from the start - reading scripts, overseeing edits and screening daily footage - so it’s fair to say he ensured the show stayed grounded in authenticity even if the plots veer into the absurd at times.

Ciralsky told Netflix that the CIA isn’t all action, all the time, nor is it one monolithic organization working toward the same goal: “What I think we wanted to focus on is that it’s an organization that has parts and sometimes they’re competing. [Each part has] different missions, different interests and, like any other bureaucracy, those are sometimes aligned and sometimes they’re at odds.”

The Inside Story: What's Real and What's Not in CIA Spy Drama 'The Recruit'?

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Netflix’s The Recruit follows a rookie CIA lawyer who becomes entangled with a former asset who threatens to reveal Agency secrets.

The series is based on the adventures of executive producer Adam Ciralsky, a former CIA lawyer who found himself not just working for the Agency but also suing them in court.

We wanted to know how much of The Recruit rings true so we were intrigued when Ciralsky -  who grew up in Milwaukee - gave an interview to his hometown newspaper and spilled even more of his secrets in a Netflix interview.

The Recruit actors Noah Centineo (right) and Vondie Curtis-Hall

What’s the trickiest thing about being a lawyer for a US spy agency?

“At the CIA, you work for an organization that, by its very charter, is breaking the law in every country in which it operates. And what you’re trying to do in the course of doing that [is to ensure] they’re adhering or abiding by US law, Ciralsky said, describing the job as… ‘unusual’. 

Was Ciralsky a rookie when he joined the CIA as well?

Yes, Ciralsky definitely has similarities with Owen Hendricks (Noah Centineo), the fictional young CIA lawyer whose first week on the job goes pear-shaped when he reads a letter by former asset Max Meladze (Laura Haddock) threatening to expose spy secrets. 

Ciralsky was hired by the CIA in 1996 straight out of law school when he was 25 years old. He stayed for four years. While his day-to-day work was different in real life, Ciralsky also felt out of his depth at first. "People may not know what it’s like to work for the CIA, they do know exactly what it’s like to go into that first job and feel like you’re in over your head, you don’t understand the office politics," Ciralsky said.

Do CIA lawyers go into the field?

“CIA lawyers do, in fact, travel overseas for a variety of different reasons,” Ciralsky told Netflix. “Some of that has to do with educating CIA personnel and ensuring that they’re knowledgeable of the law and where the red lines are.”

The Recruit Netflix series
Noah Centineo stars as a CIA lawyer in The Recruit

How realistic is his portrayal of the CIA? 

Ciralsky was involved in The Recruit from the start - reading scripts, overseeing edits and screening daily footage - so it’s fair to say he ensured the show stayed grounded in authenticity even if the plots veer into the absurd at times.

Ciralsky told Netflix that the CIA isn’t all action, all the time, nor is it one monolithic organization working toward the same goal: “What I think we wanted to focus on is that it’s an organization that has parts and sometimes they’re competing. [Each part has] different missions, different interests and, like any other bureaucracy, those are sometimes aligned and sometimes they’re at odds.”

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Noah Centineo and Laura Haddock in The Recruit


Is there such a thing as ‘graymailing’ - where an asset threatens to expose the CIA?

Yes. Ciralksy describes graymailing as “a tactic by which a person threatens to expose government secrets unless the charges against them are dropped, most often seen with people who are defendants in a criminal case”.

"Lots of spy thrillers have the all-knowing, all-powerful CIA," Ciralsky said. "This one has the very knowledgeable and powerful asset who’s graymailing the CIA, and that inverts the dynamic."

 Adam Ciralsky, exec producer of The Recruit
Adam Ciralsky, exec producer of The Recruit


Why did Ciralsky leave the CIA?

The details are murky, the court case dragged on for years, and Ciralsky doesn’t go into a lot of depth in his interview with his hometown paper or others. From what we can tell, Ciralsky sued the Agency after his security clearance was revoked. He left in 1999, claiming discrimination based on his religion. More than a decade later, Ciralsky withdrew his case saying his goal was to bring the facts into the public realm rather than receive financial compensation. He has said he continued to have “a deep and abiding respect for the organization and its mission”. 


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Are black passports real?

Owen heads to Yemen to investigate a case but uses his regular passport instead of a black passport (which his co-workers hid from him as a prank). So are they real? Yep. Ciralsky said a black passport is a diplomatic passport issued to foreign service officers or other American government personnel with diplomatic status.

What is a hall file?

A hall file is an unofficial account of somebody’s reputation in the building at CIA headquarters or within the CIA more broadly, Ciralsky said.

Owen’s boss describes Vienna as ‘the Olympics of espionage’. Is Vienna really a spy capital?

Absolutely. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN operate there along with many spy agencies: “Every country has representation there because of these international organizations, and those can provide cover - theoretically.”

Ciralsky expects the show's success to accelerate the half-dozen projects he has in works, so expect to see much more of the real-life ex-CIA lawyer.

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