True Spies Episode 61: The Sociopathic Spy
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies Episode 61: The Sociopathic Spy.
JIM LAWLER: So here we are in this restaurant, and I'm thinking: “There's no way I can convince this woman to change her mind.” And then I heard her say something under her breath, and by this time she was crying. I could see tears coming down, and I thought: “What did I say to upset her?” And I heard her say something and I leaned in close and I said: “What did you say?” And she said: "I can do this."
NARRATOR: Exotic locales. Hi-tech solutions. Silenced pistols, poison pills. We’ve heard it all on True Spies. But really, isn’t that just window dressing? Strip all that away, and what are you left with? What will you find in the soul of a spy? The answer to that is another question. Am I one of the good guys?
JIM LAWLER: The same way I consider a Marine Corps sniper - who takes an al-Qaeda bomb maker into his sights at 1,000 yards - a moral person, I consider what I did to be moral as well.
NARRATOR: Now close your eyes. Dig deep. Ask yourself… Where do your limits lie? How far would you go to get what you need from someone else? Thought about it? Good. Hold on to those conclusions. Because by the end of this episode, you’ll know whether you’ve got what it takes to spy for your country. And who better to guide us down that dark and winding path than this week’s True Spy, James C. Lawler. You can call him Jim Lawler.
JIM LAWLER: Yes, my name is Jim Lawler. I was a CIA operations officer for 25 years and served in five overseas posts.
NARRATOR: Within the US intelligence community, Jim’s kind of a big deal. The operation that defined his career was the disruption of the most dangerous nuclear weapons network in history. We’re talking serious stakes. But this episode isn’t about that. Give it a few decades, and maybe we’ll be able to pry open that particular can of radioactive worms. No, this story takes place at the start of Jim's career, at a time where the skills that made his name were still raw and unhoned. It’s a story about persistence - using every tool at your disposal to bind others to your will. To persuade another person to override their instinct for self-preservation by capitalizing on their deepest desires or their darkest insecurities.
JIM LAWLER: I have a philosophy that everybody is recruitable given the right amount of stress, the right amount of extreme unhappiness. I frequently say: “I never, ever recruited a happy person.” You don’t recruit happy people. You recruit unhappy people.
NARRATOR: Now retired from the Agency, Jim lives a quieter life as an author and consultant. He’s still a respected voice in the world of secret intelligence. He’s also… Well, he’ll tell you himself.
JIM LAWLER: A good psychiatrist friend of mine once said: “Jim, you're nothing but a sociopath but one within lanes. And those lanes are US laws.”
NARRATOR: A sociopath, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is a person who lacks empathy, who feels little to no genuine remorse for their immoral or amoral actions. A person for whom manipulation is as natural as breathing, and deceit is second nature. For a spy, that’s not a bad skill set to have. But life in the shadows was never really on the cards for Jim.
JIM LAWLER: I was in my last year of law school and - like a lot of last-year graduate students - there's only one thing on your mind and that's to find a job. And I was interviewing with a number of different law firms. And, lo and behold, the CIA was coming to campus to interview attorneys for our office of general counsel. And so, on a whim, I just went to this interview and chatted with a former case officer - that's an operations officer - whose name was Bill Wood. And Mr. Wood and I started chatting and he said: “Jim, have you ever thought about the clandestine service?” And I looked at him and I said: “Well, I don't even know what that is.” And he said: “I have this feeling that you'd be good at this.”
NARRATOR: By ‘this’ Mr. Wood meant recruiting foreign agents for the US. Now, Jim can take a compliment almost as well as he gives one but, at the time, he was in no position to make an unplanned career change.
JIM LAWLER: Well, I thought about it briefly, but the possibility that my wife and I would move 1,500 miles across the country and then abroad was really out of the question because my mother-in-law, my wife's mother, was sick and it just was not going to be in the cards. So I returned the application to him.
NARRATOR: So, as a young graduate looking down the barrel of an uncertain future, Jim opted for security over excitement. He took up a senior position in his family’s steel business in Texas. In time, that was a decision he’d come to regret.
JIM LAWLER: I always like to ask how many people have been in a family-owned business and why they're no longer in a family-owned business? And it usually focuses on that first word: ‘family’. And the incredible thing was, I was making a lot of money, but very, very unhappy, not satisfied at all. And I came home every day after work complaining until about three-and-a-half years into this, my wife finally said: “Jim, look, either do something about this or stop your bellyaching.”
NARRATOR: This was a watershed moment for Jim, a fork in the road. Choose one path and he’d consign himself to a life of frustrated affluence. The other… Well, that road began with Mr. Bill Wood, CIA.
JIM LAWLER: So, I went into my office. I looked in my desk, found this card for Mr. Bill Wood. I wrote him a letter.
NARRATOR: Within three days, Jim received a life-changing phone call.
JIM LAWLER: And this woman, she said: “Mr. Lawler, you wrote Mr. Wood a letter a few days ago.” She never used the initials ‘CIA’, but she said: “He'd like to interview you this coming Thursday. Can you be at the Holiday Inn on the Gulf Freeway at 3 pm in the lobby?” I said: “Yes, ma'am, I sure can.” So I went, had about a two-hour conversation with Mr. Wood. He said he wanted to fly me to Washington in a couple of weeks. So, a couple of weeks later, I flew to Washington, had a bunch of tests. Then about three-and-a-half months later, I had another trip to Washington with another set of tests, including a psychological exam. Lord knows how I passed that, but I did. The so-called ‘polygraph’, which is what they call a lie detector test. And about three or four weeks later, I got a phone call and they said: “Mr. Lawler, we'd like to offer you a position as an operations officer at the following GS level, a GS-11.”
NARRATOR: A GS-11, for the uninitiated, is the 11th rank on the US Government’s General Schedule payscale. It’s not bad money, but it’s a significant downgrade from a high-powered role in the steel industry.
JIM LAWLER: I had to take about a 60 or 70 percent income cut.
NARRATOR: Today, Jim recognizes this modest indignity for what it was, a worthwhile sacrifice. But it wasn’t an easy decision to make. And it was a shot in the dark. He had no way of knowing just how good he’d be at the job. Truth be told, he didn’t really know what the job was.
JIM LAWLER: Now, the absurd thing was I had no idea what the CIA wanted me to do. I had no idea what an operations officer did. All I wanted to do was get out of Texas, get away from the family-owned business and do something on my own.
NARRATOR: It didn’t take long before he began to develop a good idea of what the Agency had in mind.
JIM LAWLER: Pretty soon, it dawned on me in our training exactly what they wanted me to do. And they wanted me to manipulate, to exploit, to subvert, to suborn people, foreign people, to get them to commit treason, to betray a trust. Now, these are all pejorative words. Your parents probably taught you never to betray your country, never to betray your family. And yet, the CIA expected me to do exactly that. And I found out that not only was I pretty good at it. But I enjoyed it a lot. In fact, they jokingly say that when they hire case officers, operations officers, how much sociopathy should we have dialed in?
NARRATOR: So, having discovered a useful talent for manipulation, it was with no little enthusiasm that Jim embarked on his first foreign posting. We can’t say where. We’ve been asked to keep that off the record. All we can tell you is that this story takes place in a mountainous region of Europe. And that to begin with, Jim's first foray into the world of intelligence gathering was less auspicious than you might expect.
JIM LAWLER: Okay, I'm on my very first tour. I'd had a spectacularly unsuccessful first year. I have no recruitments, no cases that look like they were going to be headed towards recruitment. And I was feeling like a complete failure. I used to do little talks to myself in the morning, to look at myself in the mirror and say: “What are you doing wrong? Why aren't you doing what you're supposed to be doing?”
NARRATOR: Call it inexperience, call it imposter syndrome. Either way, on his maiden voyage on the good ship CIA, Jim's confidence was shot.
JIM LAWLER: And my first year, it was a complete waste of money. I had nightmares that the American people would demand my salary back because it was such a failure.
NARRATOR: For the most part, Jim spent his time handling covert assets that had been recruited by other, more successful, members of his directorate.
JIM LAWLER: By ‘handling’ I mean, I would meet this person, debrief them, maybe task them, and find out what intelligence they could provide me.
NARRATOR: One asset, in particular, would prove to be the key that unlocked a brighter future for our beleaguered rookie.
JIM LAWLER: And this gentleman that I was handling, he was a retired diplomat of a country that was incredibly hostile to the United States.
NARRATOR: Before we move on, no, we can’t tell you which country this agent hailed from either. By all means, make an informed guess - but we’re keeping schtum.
JIM LAWLER: He had been part of the former regime. And then, over a period of a couple of years, a new government came in that was hostile to the United States and forcibly retired all of the former regime adherents. And so, he had been forcibly retired and was now living in a major city in this mountainous European country.
NARRATOR: The former diplomat, Jim had learned, was well-liked and charismatic.
JIM LAWLER: And, in spite of the fact that he was part of the former regime, everybody in the Foreign Ministry of his country loved this guy. He was just a very nice, very charming man.
NARRATOR: It was his continued popularity among members of his nation’s current government which made the asset valuable.
JIM LAWLER: And so, people from his country would fly into this major city and he would meet them, talk to them and charm them with lunch and maybe some sightseeing. And then he would turn over written reports to me.
NARRATOR: So far, so average. But not for long.
JIM LAWLER: When, suddenly he hit a rich vein, a goldmine of information, and I started getting some fabulous grades on just cutting-edge intelligence from this country's Foreign Ministry.
NARRATOR: Yes, that’s right. Spies, at least in the CIA, are graded on the quality of their intelligence.
JIM LAWLER: First you might get an ‘F’. I mean, it's not really an ‘F’, but it's like basically: “We're not disseminating this for whatever reason.” So that would be where it's just not disseminated at all. It's like getting an ‘F’ on a paper, a zero. And then there are four other grades that vary from: “‘Okay, this is fine’, and then ‘good’, and then ‘excellent’.” And then there's one called, basically an ‘outstanding’ grade, which has a significant effect on US foreign policy. I mean, it's like the keys to the kingdom.
NARRATOR: Better grades meant better prospects - not to mention a happier, more confident Jim. But what changed? Who was the golden goose laying so many eggs for his charismatic asset?
JIM LAWLER: She was a Foreign Ministry employee and the younger sister of one of his good friends. And she had decided a few weeks earlier that she would like to take a three-month sabbatical and spend the summer in this beautiful alpine country, a very pretty mountainous country, and just decided: "I'm getting out of my dreary country. I'm going to spend it in this mountain paradise and live with my big brother and, of course, my big brother's best friend, who is my asset.”
NARRATOR: Jim's asset had taken a fatherly interest in the young woman. He was more than happy to show her the sights, buy lunch, and offer up a friendly ear to any work-related gripes and gossip she might feel compelled to share aloud.
JIM LAWLER: And the whole time he was doing this, she trusted him because he's a former employee. Even though he's retired, he doesn't have a security clearance. But she was like a little chatterbox. She told him everything. What's going on? Who hates who? Who likes who? What current negotiations are going on? I mean, she had been privy to some incredibly sensitive information from her position and she would tell him all this. He'd write it up and give it to me.
NARRATOR: The stream of information just kept flowing. After a couple of weeks, Jim's asset - kind and self-effacing as he was - suggested that the CIA might be better off tapping the source directly.
JIM LAWLER: He looked at me and he said: “Jack,” - and that was the alias I was using - “Jack, you could actually recruit this young woman. You don't need me in the picture here.” And I said: “Here I am, I'm a naive first tour case officer, that idea had not even occurred to me.” He said: “Oh yeah, you could recruit her. She's not a supporter of this regime and she's not anti-American like most of my government is. In fact, I think she likes Americans.”
NARRATOR: This was very good news for the US government, not to mention Jim personally. Remember, it’s been a somewhat fallow year for our rookie operations officer. Frankly, he could use a win.
JIM LAWLER: I began to put a plan together but it would have to be a subtle one. After all, if his true identity was on show, it would implicate his original asset too. And if that asset was blown, then his cozy tête-à-têtes with visiting officials from his homeland would dry up very quickly indeed.
JIM LAWLER: And, I may be sociopathic, but the one real priority we place is on making sure that our assets are secure and that they never reveal their identities. We always place a high premium on protecting our assets. So I was faced with this kind of conundrum. How do I meet this woman and yet not taint him with the CIA brand?
NARRATOR: How indeed?
JIM LAWLER: So I came up with the following scheme. I said: “Look, I want you to take that young lady to this specific restaurant in this certain city of this country, and I'm going to show up about 15 minutes later. And I'm going to be up at the front, the Maître d's desk. I'm going to look like I'm waiting for someone, and after a couple of minutes, you're going to look at me and then you're going to turn to her and you're going to say: ‘Oh, look, there's Mr. Jack Mitchell. I just met him at a cocktail party three days ago. Let me just go say hello.’”
NARRATOR: The asset gets up from his table, and walks over to Jim Lawler, sorry, Jack Mitchell.
JIM LAWLER: That's normal, I mean, if you just met somebody and you saw them somewhere, you would go and speak to them. So he does. He comes over, he reintroduces himself. And I kind of acted like I didn't know who he was. And I thought: “Oh, yeah, right now.” I remember it was at that cocktail party, within earshot of her so that she could hear all this play out.
NARRATOR: So far, this all seems pretty innocuous. But what Jim and his asset are doing is laying the crucial groundwork for the next play.
JIM LAWLER: And so we shake hands. He goes and sits back down. A few minutes go by and he sees me still standing up there. I always like to say this is like Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot. Godot is never going to come. But I'm up there looking at my watch, looking worried, looking forlorn, like the little puppy in the dog pound that hasn't been adopted.
NARRATOR: Textbook emotional manipulation. Jim already knows that the target is friendly, open, and above all, chatty. Exactly the kind of person who might take pity on him. They haven’t even met, but Jim's already figuring out how to pull her strings.
JIM LAWLER: And he turns to her, per script, and he says: ”Why don't we invite Mr. Mitchell over for a drink until his friend comes?” And she said: “Sure, that sounds fine.” So he came over and I first tried to beg off: “Oh, no, no. I'm sure he'll be here any time.” He said: “Hey, look, just come on over, sit down, have a drink until your friend comes.” So I go over, sit down, and introduce myself.
NARRATOR: Now this is key, the introduction. Who is Jack Mitchell? Officially, he’s an employee of the US State Department - a diplomatic cover. But his target is from a hostile country. She might very well like Americans on a personal level, but she knows that fraternizing openly with a US diplomat is unlikely to win her any praise at home. And that’s putting it very mildly. So, what to do? Jim needs to create an identity that will get him access to the target, without flashing the red, white, and blue.
JIM LAWLER: Turns out that her country, like a number of countries in the world, has very, very, very rich oil and gas reserves, stupendous oil and gas reserves.
NARRATOR: So her country’s got fossil fuels, and Jim's a Texan. It’s a match made in heaven.
JIM LAWLER: I said that I was an oil and gas speculator. And so as I sat down, she said: “Well, I'm with the Foreign Ministry.” And I said: “Are you really? Gosh, this is such a privilege to meet you. Would you be willing to have lunch with me?”
NARRATOR: The woman was surprisingly receptive. After all, there was no harm in a little off-the-books chat in return for a free lunch.
JIM LAWLER: She said: “Well, sure, I'd be happy to have lunch with you.” So we set up lunch a few days later. It went extremely well. We got to know each other and chatted about some of her country's oil and gas policy, what they were doing in OPEC, and things like that.
NARRATOR: Jim may not have enjoyed his time in the family steel business, but it had been the perfect preparation for this commercial cover.
JIM LAWLER: Boy, did I learn a lot about how to handle clients, how to persuade people to buy things. I learned how to sell. I learned how to persuade. I learned how to manage people.
NARRATOR: This first meeting laid the foundation for a mutually beneficial commercial relationship. But how do you seal the deal? One word: leverage.
JIM LAWLER: And about that time my friend, who had been the key part of this, told me something that I didn't know before, and that's that this young woman had a medical condition that required a procedure that was going to cost her the equivalent of about $5,000.
NARRATOR: The woman had written to her government asking them to cover the cost. She had been informed in no uncertain terms that her state insurance would not cover her during her summer holiday abroad. If she wanted the treatment, she’d have to come home.
JIM LAWLER: Well, that was really upsetting to her because she was having such a great time being squired about by my friend and spending time with her brother in this gorgeous alpine paradise, so she didn't have the money.
NARRATOR: Jim had the money. And to get what he wanted, he was prepared to wave it under her nose.
JIM LAWLER: Well, when I found out that she needed this medical procedure, and that it was going to cost about $5,000, I knew that this was the kind of thing that would sweeten the whole moment and would make it more palatable.
NARRATOR: You see, when given the choice between a carrot and a stick, a good case officer always chooses the carrot.
JIM LAWLER: I'd much rather convince somebody to want to do this, to want to please me, to be on my team, work with me, rather than the threat of some kind of coercion.
NARRATOR: Armed with a spectacularly juicy carrot, Jim arranged a second meeting with the potential asset.
JIM LAWLER: So, on the second meeting, I made her a commercial consulting proposal. I said: “Look, I'm willing to pay you so much a month to be my consultant, to be on my team as a special adviser on your country's oil and gas policy. And you know what? To sweeten the deal, I'll throw in $5,000 as a little signing bonus.” She was overjoyed. I still remember we had a bottle of Cristal champagne. We celebrated. She gave me some nice information on the oil and gas policy. I was happy. She was happy.
NARRATOR: It had finally happened for Jim, his first recruitment. Naturally, he returned to his station with a smile on his face.
JIM LAWLER: I went back. I'm going: “Oh, got my first recruitment, although it is a commercial recruitment, I've got this recruitment.” And my boss, who is an extremely bright guy. He said: “Okay Jim, that's great. Now we're on the scoreboard. This is the first time anybody in this division has recruited someone from her country in well over a year.”
NARRATOR: Well, this just keeps getting better, doesn’t it? It had taken a while, but when Jim came through, he really came through. Except his boss wasn’t quite finished speaking.
JIM LAWLER: “Now, you have to go back down where she's living in this city. And you have to tell her that she's really working for the CIA.”
NARRATOR: Ah. So close.
JIM LAWLER: I was in shock. I said: “What?” He said: “Well, you've got to go back and tell her you're really with the CIA.” And I said: “Well, that's not going to work.”
NARRATOR: Remember, Jim's new asset is unlikely to play ball with the US government. Why would his boss ask him to jeopardize this relationship?
JIM LAWLER: He said: “Look, you've got to do that for several reasons. First off, we're interested in a lot of things that have nothing to do with oil and gas. Yeah, that's of some interest. But we have no sources in the Foreign Ministry that can provide us what she can provide. And secondly, we're going to have to put her on some kind of covert communication system, which means we're going to have to put her in a lie detector test. And you can't justify that under commercial recruitment.” And I said to my boss: “Joe, she's not going to go for that.” He said: “You can figure this out. Go do it.”
NARRATOR: Somewhat deflated, Jim organized his next meeting with the asset.
JIM LAWLER: I went down there and I said: “I don't know how to say this except to just come out and tell you, but I don't really work in the oil and gas industry. I'm really a CIA officer.”
NARRATOR: This went about as well as you might expect.
JIM LAWLER: And she looked like the proverbial Bambi in the headlights, a look of shock on her face and she said: "Jack, I can't do this. I like you, and I like Americans, but if I go back to my country, they're going to see ‘spy’ written all over my forehead.” And she said: "I just can't do this. Somehow, I'll get you the money back that you loaned me, that money that I needed. And I'll get that back to you somehow. But right now, I can't. I'm sorry. End of the deal.”
NARRATOR: Jim couldn’t argue with that. In fact, part of him respected her choice. She’d weighed up the risks and benefits, and knowing what she knew about the way her country treated spies, had come down firmly on the side of caution.
JIM LAWLER: That's really a wise decision. So I go back to my home office and I go in and I tell my boss: “Joe, just like I thought, she's turned me down.” And Joe looked at me and he said: "Jim, what is it I said the first time that you didn't understand? We're on the scoreboard. The chief of our division, the chief of the division that her country is located in, our chief of station - everybody is ecstatic because you've recruited the first asset in over a year from this particular country and you want to take the score off the scoreboard?” I said: "But Joe…” He said: "Look, figure it out. You can recruit her.” And then he went into his office and he shut the door.
NARRATOR: Well, that’s that then. Do or die.
JIM LAWLER: So here I am. And I'm thinking: “Well, here goes my career down the toilet, I get the big prize and it's just frittered away.”
NARRATOR: Flashbacks to his time at the steel business clouded Jim's brain. He couldn’t go back. He had to recruit this asset. Time for a renewed charm offensive.
JIM LAWLER: I phoned her from a phone booth. I said: “Look, I'm going to be coming back through your city in about three days and I thought maybe we'd have a little farewell dinner.” And she was civil, I mean, it wasn't like she was bitter or irritated with me, but she said: “That sounds like that would be good, sure.”
NARRATOR: He had to find a way to overcome her justifiable reservations, to appeal to something more powerful than fear.
JIM LAWLER: Okay, now I've got three days to figure out how to persuade this woman to change her mind and become a spy for the United States, in a country where they execute people for doing things like this.
NARRATOR: But by the time three sleepless nights had come and gone, he was no closer to a winning hand.
JIM LAWLER: I thought, and I thought, and I couldn't come up with anything. I got down to the train station in the city in which she lived. I trudged through that train station, kind of thinking: “This is doomed.” And I saw a little gift shop and I thought: “Well, the decent thing to do would be to go buy her a little farewell present.” So, I went into the store and I saw an eight-inch-high bud vase, a very delicate Imari bud vase. It must have cost me $50. And so I put it in a little plastic bag and went off to my hotel, and then I went to dinner.
NARRATOR: A nice touch but, honestly, a vase? Surely he’d have to do better than that if he wanted to win over his asset. The dinner itself, on the other hand, might actually stand a chance.
JIM LAWLER: Now, the dinner was in a restaurant that is absolutely one of the best restaurants in Europe. It has spectacular cuisine, a spectacular wine list. Fabulous mountain scenery. It is just absolutely the pinnacle of haute cuisine.
NARRATOR: Sadly, we’ll never know exactly which restaurant but let us paint you a picture. Our palette is dark wood, white tablecloths, and stunning mountain scenery. The perfect setting for seduction.
JIM LAWLER: Low music, absolutely fabulous cuisine, fabulous wine… Extremely, extremely romantic.
NARRATOR: Now, as we move on, bear in mind - nobody’s paying Jim to be nice. He knew that this woman enjoyed being wined and dined. She’d gone to dinner with him, again, even after she’d turned down his offer of work. Could it be that she just enjoyed his company? Jim could work with that. From the time he’d already spent with the asset, he had a feeling that she’d be susceptible to a little well-placed male attention.
JIM LAWLER: If you were in college and a friend called you up and said they were going to set you up on a blind date, what's the first question any male would ask? “What does she look like?” And, if the answer was: “Oh, she's sweet. She's got a great sense of humor. She's such a thoughtful person...” you kind of knew what she looked like. And this gal was that.
NARRATOR: And they say chivalry is dead.
JIM LAWLER: She was living with her mother here. She was in her early 30s, not married yet, which, in her culture, basically, meant that she was probably going to be living with her mama for the rest of her life.
NARRATOR: Charming. But not, technically, untrue. Jim's identified a potential weakness and, as an operations officer, he’d be a fool not to use it to his advantage. Luckily, Jim had just bought the perfect tool for the job. And it had only cost him $50.
JIM LAWLER: I set this gift-wrapped box in front of her and she said: “So what's this, Jack?” I said: “Well, just open it.” So she opened it and she put it in front of her. And I said: “I'd like you to take this back when you go home in a few weeks. And you could even take it to the Foreign Ministry and put it on your desk. And when you look at it, you could think of me.” And she started looking at it.
NARRATOR: Let’s say you’re lonely. Unfulfilled. Maybe, just maybe, you’ve developed a little crush on a charming young American with a soothing Southern accent. And now he’s given you a beautiful gift and asked you to remember him by it. How strong are your defenses? Could you turn down the chance to really mean something to someone?
JIM LAWLER: And then I heard her say something under her breath, and by this time she was crying. I could see tears coming down and I thought: “What did I say to upset her?” And I heard her say something and I leaned in close and I said: “What did you say?” And she said: "I can do this."
NARRATOR: The vase had been an afterthought. Now, it could be the key to a treasure trove of information from within a hostile government. Money well spent.
JIM LAWLER: And I said: “I know you can do this.” In fact, at that point, I took her hand, held it, and said: “I know you can do this, but I don't want you to do this if you don't want to do it.” She said: “I can do it.” Boy, could she do it.
NARRATOR: Finally, the weight of failure had been well and truly lifted. Jim had made the recruitment. And all he’d needed to do was make himself into the kind of sweet, thoughtful man that his target would wish to please.
JIM LAWLER: We got her. We did get her into a polygraph exam, and I remember the operator of the polygraph, the examiner, said: “Are you used to lying?” And she said: “Not until now, but now you want me to go back and tell all my colleagues nothing's different when in fact I'm a spy for the CIA.” And she was trembling. She was so scared.
NARRATOR: Sociopath or not, it takes a certain level of detachment to watch somebody shaking in fear and simply push them through it.
JIM LAWLER: And then we trained her in the covert communication system. And then we bade her farewell and she went back to her home country where she worked for us for the next five years.
NARRATOR: And there’s something we’ve held back about our mystery lady, a rare detail that Jim was willing to share with us.
JIM LAWLER: She wasn't an ordinary diplomat. She was a secretary. You might say, what good is a secretary? Well, she was secretary to the foreign minister, so everything he saw, she saw, and we saw. And so, for the next five years, we were privy to every sensitive negotiation that this country had. We learned the identity of every intelligence officer that they posted abroad under diplomatic cover, and it was one success after another.
NARRATOR: Eventually, the secretary’s reports dried up, and the CIA amicably terminated the relationship. As it turned out, this would prove to be a serious mistake.
JIM LAWLER: A few years later, she reemerged from her country. And we found out why her access had dried up. It had dried up because she was in a special training program, and that special training program was to give her access where she was going to monitor the installation of every cryptographic system and every foreign installation for this particular country in the world. And somebody did not - I was not the handling officer at that time - somebody didn't ask her what she was doing and they committed a cardinal sin, which was not to establish a recontact plan where she'd come back into access as she did. Man, did she come back into spectacular access. So, it's a story that has kind of a sad ending.
NARRATOR: Sad for the CIA, sure. Not nearly as sad as it could have been, however.
JIM LAWLER: After she was amicably terminated, we had a major counterintelligence disaster. I'm not going to go into the details, but somebody somewhere screwed up, and virtually every asset we had in this country was rounded up, tortured, and shot. And she was never found out. I would have felt horrible if that had happened.
NARRATOR: Even for a self-described sociopath, the thought of having accidentally sent someone to the firing squad is a difficult thing to brush off.
JIM LAWLER: I was sincere when I told her that I didn't want her to do this if she didn't want to do it. I mean, I was really sincere. When I recruit somebody, I want them to do this with all their heart. I honestly want to control them. Yes, but I want them to want to do it, to want to meet with me.
NARRATOR: As we know, Jim would go on to a glittering career with the CIA, recruiting tens of vital assets for the US government. This early recruitment was just a taste of things to come. In time, he’d go on to teach others...
JIM LAWLER: To manipulate, to exploit, to subvert. In fact, I've trained young operations officers, and a lot of them are good, but occasionally you'll find one who just has a natural talent. We can't teach that. We can polish it. We can bring out the qualities that make a good recruiter, and it consists of patience and empathy. I'm not a particularly large person or athletic person, but I have a soft, soothing voice. I had one asset once tell me that when she listened to me, it was like her brain was in a warm water bed. I became their therapist, and they could tell me anything, and I did have to get inside their head in order to recruit somebody. I have to find out what makes you tick. Who are you? What do you need? And what can I do to fulfill your needs?
NARRATOR: Bearing that in mind, ask yourself one last time: Do you have what it takes? I’m Vanessa Kirby. If you enjoyed Jim’s story, you can read two more this summer. Living Lies and In The Twinkling of an Eye are spy thrillers that draw on Jim’s own experiences in the CIA. Can you separate the truth from fiction? Join us next week for another brush with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
James ‘Jim’ C. Lawler is a US national security consultant who previously worked as a CIA operations officer for 25 years. His international postings including Oslo, Paris, and Zurich. Lawler also practiced law and was the president of a steel components company in Texas. He has completed two novels: Living Lies, a story of the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and In the Twinkling of an Eye.