CIA Undercover: How Sonya Lim Became an Accidental Spymaster

Sonya Lim didn’t intend to join the CIA let alone recruit foreign spies and lead undercover operations, living a clandestine life she describes as more thrilling than a Hollywood movie - “much more tantalizing”.

Back in the 1990s, Sonya was simply a Florida grad student studying political science and wondering how to fund her Ph.D. A friend from the Coast Guard offered to send her CV to a few people in Washington and, before long, Sonya was booking a hotel suite and flying to D.C. to meet two men from the ‘Department of Defense’.

"Two gentlemen showed up and said they were from the CIA. So my first response was, ‘I never applied.’ They said, ‘We understand.’ And they chuckled,” Sonya told the SPYSCAPE Festival.

Sonya, dressed in her one-and-only black suit, was ‘a little uncomfortable’ inviting two men into her hotel suite - even if they did flash government ID cards - so Sonya asked to leave the door open, bringing further laughter as the men assured her they were trustworthy. After a three-hour grilling and a lot of “What would you do in this situation?” questions, they handed her a wad of $50 bills to cover travel expenses.

It was all a bit surreal, but Sonya was hooked. She had an appetite for risk and adventure. As a first-generation, Korean-speaking immigrant with US citizenship, she also wanted to serve her adopted country. After all, it was only a temporary job - at least, that’s what Sonya thought.

Sonya Lim onstage with Christopher Turner at the SPYSCAPE Festival 2022
SPYEX Consultant Sonya Seughye Lim on stage at the SPYSCAPE Festival, October 2022


CIA covert operator Sonya Lim

Up until the Spring of 2021, when the CIA approved the lifting of Sonya's covert cover, she wasn’t even allowed to tell her closest friends that she would spend the next 24 years working as an undercover agent handler, two-time station chief, chief of operations, senior executive in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, and CIA spymaster in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and D.C. But they guessed something was up. “Nobody was surprised by it; immediate friends and family members were like, ‘of course’.”

Even now there’s a lot Sonya can’t reveal, however. The details of her first foreign posting - even the name of the countries she’s worked in - are off-limits. Still, she offered a fascinating insight into living her life undercover and the qualities that make a great spymaster, among them integrity, commitment, a sense of adventure, and mental agility.

“One needs to have a very flexible brain and brain power and be able to have a healthy amount of self-doubt. I think that’s very, very important. Challenge what you know at all times; there may be other answers and a different perspective,” she said. “You’re on 24-7 and at times it can be extremely mentally exhausting and sometimes physically exhausting but be prepared to accept that. It is the nature of this career.”

Surveillance is one of part of the CIA Tradecraft for spyinge
Surveillance Detection Routes (SDRs) are part of CIA tradecraft

CIA tradecraft

As a case officer, Sonya recalled spending many hours performing surveillance detection routes (SDRs) - covering a predetermined route to expose hostile surveillance - before meeting an asset.

“It depends on the type of mission,” Sonya explained. “If you were to carry out a very sensitive mission then you would need to be extremely careful and thorough in making sure that you don’t have any tail, you don’t have anyone following you, whether it be physical surveillance, people following or cars tailing you, or it could be technical surveillance like CCTV or traffic lights and so forth.

"So you need to make sure you are - we use the vernacular ‘clean’ - you are ‘completely clean’ before you carry out that sensitive mission.”

The SDR also depends on whether the area is rural or urban and takes into consideration the technical sophistication of the region as the stakes are high: a case officer’s life may depend on an SDR, and certainly a foreign spy’s life counts on their handler ensuring there is no surveillance.“We assume the surveillance is difficult in all areas whether it be Ohio or Moscow. We are always preparing for the worst-case possible scenario,” she said.

Which Hollywood spy would make an excellent CIA operative?

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) in Taken and James Bond’s ‘M’ (Judi Dench) 
Liam Neeson & Judi Dench

For most of us, Hollywood is about as close to espionage as we’ll get so SPYSCAPE wanted to know which fictional operatives Sonya would consider hiring.

James Bond’s spymaster ‘M’ (Judi Dench) was at the top of her list along with Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) in Taken, a movie involving a fictional ex-CIA officer who sets out to track down his teenage daughter when she’s kidnapped by human traffickers.

“So many of the decisions we have to make, we often don’t have all of the information you need, all the data you need,” Sonya said. “Also, with everything, the deadline is yesterday. Sometimes you have to make a decision based on only what you have and trust your instincts - and with grave consequences or great consequences.

“But being able to take the risk and see the big picture, the macro level pictures of your decisions, and having that instinct, and intellect, and intelligence, and compassion, to a degree is, I think, quite important.”

Salt’s Angelina Jolie and Alias’ Jennifer Garner
Angelina Jolie & Jennifer Garner


Hollywood spies who need not apply?

Sonya gave the thumbs down to hiring Angelina Jolie’s sultry, suspected Russian mole in Salt or Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow in Alias. CIA operatives need to go ‘gray’, blending into their surroundings rather than attracting attention with revealing fashion statements or colorful wigs.

“I do cringe when I see them, how they portray women in a very stereotypical way… We have to use our brains and different types of attributes other than black belts, Karate or Taekwondo, guns, or our sexual wiles. That is something that we do not resort to,” Sonya said.

For those seriously considering a career in espionage, Sonya also had a few recruiting tips. “What we’re looking for to make fantastic, successful, officers is commitment,” she said. “You are given these responsibilities - the secrecy, and the classified information for national security - so they expect you, in return, to have complete commitment.”

It‘s also about having the right attitude, passion, and zeal regardless of whether you speak a foreign language or have a degree in a certain subject.

“You want to serve and you are a risk taker. You’re really open-minded about living abroad whether it be some terrible third-world setting or a fantastic, first-world setting like in Europe,” Sonya said. “Being able to do the job and having that sense of mission and commitment, I think, is not necessarily teachable but something that you bring.”

CIA Undercover: How Sonya Lim Became an Accidental Spymaster

BY
Caroline Byrne
5
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Sonya Lim didn’t intend to join the CIA let alone recruit foreign spies and lead undercover operations, living a clandestine life she describes as more thrilling than a Hollywood movie - “much more tantalizing”.

Back in the 1990s, Sonya was simply a Florida grad student studying political science and wondering how to fund her Ph.D. A friend from the Coast Guard offered to send her CV to a few people in Washington and, before long, Sonya was booking a hotel suite and flying to D.C. to meet two men from the ‘Department of Defense’.

"Two gentlemen showed up and said they were from the CIA. So my first response was, ‘I never applied.’ They said, ‘We understand.’ And they chuckled,” Sonya told the SPYSCAPE Festival.

Sonya, dressed in her one-and-only black suit, was ‘a little uncomfortable’ inviting two men into her hotel suite - even if they did flash government ID cards - so Sonya asked to leave the door open, bringing further laughter as the men assured her they were trustworthy. After a three-hour grilling and a lot of “What would you do in this situation?” questions, they handed her a wad of $50 bills to cover travel expenses.

It was all a bit surreal, but Sonya was hooked. She had an appetite for risk and adventure. As a first-generation, Korean-speaking immigrant with US citizenship, she also wanted to serve her adopted country. After all, it was only a temporary job - at least, that’s what Sonya thought.

Sonya Lim onstage with Christopher Turner at the SPYSCAPE Festival 2022
SPYEX Consultant Sonya Seughye Lim on stage at the SPYSCAPE Festival, October 2022


CIA covert operator Sonya Lim

Up until the Spring of 2021, when the CIA approved the lifting of Sonya's covert cover, she wasn’t even allowed to tell her closest friends that she would spend the next 24 years working as an undercover agent handler, two-time station chief, chief of operations, senior executive in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, and CIA spymaster in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and D.C. But they guessed something was up. “Nobody was surprised by it; immediate friends and family members were like, ‘of course’.”

Even now there’s a lot Sonya can’t reveal, however. The details of her first foreign posting - even the name of the countries she’s worked in - are off-limits. Still, she offered a fascinating insight into living her life undercover and the qualities that make a great spymaster, among them integrity, commitment, a sense of adventure, and mental agility.

“One needs to have a very flexible brain and brain power and be able to have a healthy amount of self-doubt. I think that’s very, very important. Challenge what you know at all times; there may be other answers and a different perspective,” she said. “You’re on 24-7 and at times it can be extremely mentally exhausting and sometimes physically exhausting but be prepared to accept that. It is the nature of this career.”

Surveillance is one of part of the CIA Tradecraft for spyinge
Surveillance Detection Routes (SDRs) are part of CIA tradecraft

CIA tradecraft

As a case officer, Sonya recalled spending many hours performing surveillance detection routes (SDRs) - covering a predetermined route to expose hostile surveillance - before meeting an asset.

“It depends on the type of mission,” Sonya explained. “If you were to carry out a very sensitive mission then you would need to be extremely careful and thorough in making sure that you don’t have any tail, you don’t have anyone following you, whether it be physical surveillance, people following or cars tailing you, or it could be technical surveillance like CCTV or traffic lights and so forth.

"So you need to make sure you are - we use the vernacular ‘clean’ - you are ‘completely clean’ before you carry out that sensitive mission.”

The SDR also depends on whether the area is rural or urban and takes into consideration the technical sophistication of the region as the stakes are high: a case officer’s life may depend on an SDR, and certainly a foreign spy’s life counts on their handler ensuring there is no surveillance.“We assume the surveillance is difficult in all areas whether it be Ohio or Moscow. We are always preparing for the worst-case possible scenario,” she said.

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Living a life on high alert

Life as a CIA officer’s job can be extremely challenging on foreign postings.

Sonya Lim

“We’re on such high alert at all times when we are deployed,” she said. “The alertness is to avoid being in a difficult situation.”

She has operated in war zones, including Iraq, but found Baghdad Station to be such a fortress Sonya didn’t feel her life was in danger. “I probably felt safer there than living in downtown Washington, D.C.”

Day-to-day, office politics can pose a very different type of challenge, particularly for a woman who’s smashed through the glass ceiling to twice be appointed chief of station. Sonya is one of many Agency recruits who’ve risen to positions of real power in the past decade, but being the boss is never easy: “As a female, sometimes it might’ve been hard for a few of my male colleagues to have a woman as their boss.”


Sonya Lim at the SPYSCAPE Festival, October 2022
Sonya Seughye Lim and husband Christopher Turner (far right) at the SPYSCAPE Festival, 2022


The CIA’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith?

Some 24 years after joining the CIA, Sonya finally felt it was time to take a step back and do something more relaxing but she admits her retirement was bittersweet.

“It was supposed to be a temporary job but I fell in love with it, made it my career. Absolutely. The mission. The excitement. The patriotic call. And also camaraderie with your fellow workers, employees, is something that I count as my privilege,” she said.

Along the way, Sonya also fell in love with SPYEX Consultant Christopher Turner, an archeologist turned CIA officer and instructor of advanced clandestine tradecraft. Sonya met Christopher about a year after she joined the Agency. He too has now lifted his cover. 

“It was meant to be, for us to be together,” she said.

Sonya Lim onstage with Christopher Turner at the SPYSCAPE Festival
Christopher Turner (left) on stage with Sonya Lim at the SPYSCAPE Festival, 2022

CIA: Working together

So are they a real-life Mr. & Mrs. Smith

“We love that movie because it is so entertaining - far from the truth. We have a better relationship than that. Nothing competitive,” Sonya told the Festival audience. (“We haven’t ever tried to kill each other,” Christopher added.) “Exactly. But what we see is that it can be extremely competitive. Even between couples and colleagues.”

One of the biggest challenges of working together is the reality that one or both officers will likely face life-threatening situations throughout their careers.

In 2008, a dump truck filled with explosives detonated in front of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, killing more than 50 people and injuring hundreds. Christopher, on his way back to the US from a CIA operation, was having supper at the Marriott with colleagues and escaped through the carnage. Sonya was in Washington, 7,000 miles away, unaware of what was unfolding.

Some of the broadcast stories showed a flash of Christopher, covered in ashes, escaping from the hotel, so he called to let Sonya know he was okay. “Of course it was horrifying, but it is also part of the job. We signed up and we knew those kinds of things happen. It’s awful. Terrible. Terrifying. But we managed it,” she said, pausing. “It’s very strange, isn’t it?”

The thrill of the chase

What’s the most exciting thing about being a CIA officer?

Just another day at the office for Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise)

For Sonya, it’s not about shoot-outs, car chases, or dangling from the side of a plane. It’s thinking her way out of trouble and the mental backflips CIA case officers perform to recruit foreign spies, machinations rarely portrayed in Hollywood spy movies.

“What we don’t see is them using their brains and using their skills and experiences to talk themselves out of a dicey situation or being able to convince the others, persuade others - potential spies, who you want to recruit - to come to trust you as a person and as a CIA officer, and say, ‘Okay, I will do what you want me to do,’ whether it be for money or ideological reasons, whatever it may be for,” she told SPYSCAPE.

“For a case officer to come to a point of convincing and persuading the other person to want to spy for the United States willingly - and sometimes with this sense of adventure and sometimes honor - is an astounding experience both as a receiver and an observer and doer,” she added.

After a year of retirement, Sonya was finally able to accept that it was okay not to awaken to a crisis every day. She now reads the newspaper without personalizing the issues and can even read The Economist without looking for intelligence gaps and wondering who could answer her questions.

“I am much more relaxed now in my views. I don’t look over my shoulder constantly. But as an occupational hazard, my husband and I, wherever we go, we say, ‘Yeah, I saw that car two blocks ago.’”

She’s also had time in the past couple of years to focus more on her mental and physical health, so would Sonya ever go back to the CIA? “If my Agency were to come back now and say, ‘Hey, with all of the things going on in Ukraine and China, we really need your expertise. Will you come back for six months?’ Both my husband and I will say yes.” 


Sonya Lim is an expert on undercover operations, collaboration, problem-solving, and transnational issues. She can be booked at SPYEX.com for training, speaking, and consulting engagements.

Which Hollywood spy would make an excellent CIA operative?

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) in Taken and James Bond’s ‘M’ (Judi Dench) 
Liam Neeson & Judi Dench

For most of us, Hollywood is about as close to espionage as we’ll get so SPYSCAPE wanted to know which fictional operatives Sonya would consider hiring.

James Bond’s spymaster ‘M’ (Judi Dench) was at the top of her list along with Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) in Taken, a movie involving a fictional ex-CIA officer who sets out to track down his teenage daughter when she’s kidnapped by human traffickers.

“So many of the decisions we have to make, we often don’t have all of the information you need, all the data you need,” Sonya said. “Also, with everything, the deadline is yesterday. Sometimes you have to make a decision based on only what you have and trust your instincts - and with grave consequences or great consequences.

“But being able to take the risk and see the big picture, the macro level pictures of your decisions, and having that instinct, and intellect, and intelligence, and compassion, to a degree is, I think, quite important.”

Salt’s Angelina Jolie and Alias’ Jennifer Garner
Angelina Jolie & Jennifer Garner


Hollywood spies who need not apply?

Sonya gave the thumbs down to hiring Angelina Jolie’s sultry, suspected Russian mole in Salt or Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow in Alias. CIA operatives need to go ‘gray’, blending into their surroundings rather than attracting attention with revealing fashion statements or colorful wigs.

“I do cringe when I see them, how they portray women in a very stereotypical way… We have to use our brains and different types of attributes other than black belts, Karate or Taekwondo, guns, or our sexual wiles. That is something that we do not resort to,” Sonya said.

For those seriously considering a career in espionage, Sonya also had a few recruiting tips. “What we’re looking for to make fantastic, successful, officers is commitment,” she said. “You are given these responsibilities - the secrecy, and the classified information for national security - so they expect you, in return, to have complete commitment.”

It‘s also about having the right attitude, passion, and zeal regardless of whether you speak a foreign language or have a degree in a certain subject.

“You want to serve and you are a risk taker. You’re really open-minded about living abroad whether it be some terrible third-world setting or a fantastic, first-world setting like in Europe,” Sonya said. “Being able to do the job and having that sense of mission and commitment, I think, is not necessarily teachable but something that you bring.”

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