CIA’s security theater

Les Earnest (les at


I was first exposed to CIA culture when I was invited to visit their Washington headquarters in the early 1960s and learned that they liked to view everything as secret even when that made no sense. I was given driving directions from the airport to their headquarters in the part of Washington called Foggy Bottom but was admonished not to reveal to my taxi driver where I was going. When I climbed in the taxi and gave the driver the directions, however, he replied, “Oh, CIA.”


When I arrived at their “hidden” facility I was greeted by a friendly high level administrator named Paul Howerton and shown around the place consisting of an abandoned roller skating rink and an old pickle factory next door, both retaining their original exteriors. I was impressed by the fact that Howerton knew everyone by name as well as information about their families and other personal interests. It seemed like a happy family. I was then given credentials that would allow me to visit various other CIA facilities scattered about town but didn’t follow up on that.


In late 1962 I was assigned to work at CIA Headquarters, after they had built a new headquarters in Langley, Virginia, just off the George Washington Parkway where the off-ramp was marked BPR (Bureau of Public Roads), their new cover. Never mind that anyone could drive into the large parking lot next to their giant new building and hang out as long as they wished. When I got there it struck me that this large building with many small windows was close to what I imagined the Ministry of Truth would look like in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, but we still had a dozen years to go before that time. Meanwhile the old CIA buildings in town were replaced with an elegant new office and apartment complex called Watergate that somehow acquired some history of its own.


I was assigned to a large office just upstairs from the main foyer of the building, with the large “CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY” mosaic on the floor that often appears in video introductions to news stories about the Agency. I was to share that office with other members of the multi-agency committee responsible for “integrating” two large CIA databases. Continuing the game of security theater, I was instructed that when answering the phone, if the caller didn’t immediately name a person assigned to that office I was to hang up without further discussion.


That was okay but I was taken aback when I learned that with the badge I had I could not leave my office without an escort, even to go to the men’s room just down the hall. I learned that I could get around that only by submitting to a polygraph test, often mistakenly called a “lie detector” in the press. I was also told not to say anything in the men’s room, where there were microphones connected to recording devices. On peering down the air duct in the windowsill next to my desk I could see there was also a small microphone down there. Clearly these spooks were seriously spooked.


For convenience I agreed to take the polygraph test even though I knew it had approximately the same scientific validity as reading tea leaves. The only way that a polygraph might detect a lie was if the subject believed that it worked and panicked while lying. I had earlier sent a subordinate named Charlie there to work on another project for a short time and learned that he got through the polygraph test in just two hours, which confirmed my suspicions, given that Charlie seldom told the truth about anything.


As it turned out I was not as skilful as Charlie in getting through it, probably because of my attitude. My response to the first question, “Is your true name Lester D. Earnest” evidently registered as a lie and we went on from there. I was strapped in for seven hours with an hour off for lunch. It probably didn’t help that I soon began experimenting and learned that it was easy to tell the truth and have it register as a lie, but almost as easy to tell a lie and have it register as the truth. In any case I eventually got through it and was given a badge allowing me to go to the men’s room and other places by myself.


As far as I know the intelligence agencies are still using this bit of security theater today even though they have never caught a real spy with a polygraph test, while a number of people who turned out to be notorious spies passed with flying colors, including Bernon Mitchell, a former housemate of mine at Caltech.


Hiding behind a big lie

As I learned early on, the Headquarters had a rather good cafeteria where most people ate, including me, but I also learned that there was a smaller place for overseas operatives who happened to be in town for awhile and, because they were away from their families so much, they were allowed to bring their spouses in for lunch, so that cafeteria had an outside door.


Sometime in 2003 a front page story by a woman reporter appeared in the Washington Post newspaper stating that she had lunch there with a bunch of spies. Apparently she approached the entry door with a group of operatives and their wives and was admitted. By 10 AM the day the article appeared orders were issued that I and other “outsiders” were reassigned to the small cafeteria and we were to pretend that was where we always ate. Meanwhile they put out the story that this was a public cafeteria and there had been no security breach. Concurrently the overseas operatives were reassigned to the big cafeteria. We all went along with this big lie but it convinced me that any statements put out by CIA regarding alleged misconduct on their part were likely to be big lies. I have seen no counterevidence since then.