The real life Zero Dark Thirty spy

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While my career training involved shorthand and the minutiae of local government, ex CIA operative Lindsay Moran was getting up to speed on weapons, hand-to-hand combat training and the art of defensive driving.

When I was busy chasing down news releases and making endless rounds of herbal tea, she was recruiting sources on the ground in Eastern Europe under the guise of a foreign diplomat.

ABOVE: Former CIA operative Lindsay Moran

Moran - who left the CIA in 2003 - is surprisingly irreverent for someone who once evaded death by a gun-toting mob on the streets of Macedonia.

"It was my dream job at one time. Now I just use it to get kudos with my kids. It’s the only cool thing they think I’ve ever done," she laughs.

Moran has a number of similarities to Maya, the driven and single-minded CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's lauded and controversial film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Like Maya, Moran operated in a fiercely competitive and often lonely environment to collect intelligence overseas ("It's an incredibly stressful job and you can’t share your stress with anyone," she says).

But unlike Maya, she left the CIA in 2003 and is fiercely critical of the agency's recent policies, including the Iraq invasion - "I genuinely did not feel that the war was handled properly" - and the increasing reliance on torture to extract information.

"What I was doing – and what operation officers have traditionally done – we’re not going out and torturing people. We’re actually trying to make friends with people, infiltrate networks, try to get people to willingly work for us," she says. "As a country, we’ve done ourselves a great dis-serve by relying on torture. We no longer have the authority to claim any kind of moral high ground."

See what Moran has to say on the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, her near-death experiences in the field and why women make better CIA agents, below.

A woman’s world

"I would say there are specific challenges to being a female CIA operation officer. There’s a culture where you have to leave your femininity at the door: it’s a very male-dominated environment.

At the same time, on the operations side where you’re actually going out and recruiting sources to get information, there are actually quite a few advantages to being a woman. Most of the people that the CIA target in order to get information are men. Sexist as it might sound, it’s very easy, as a woman overseas, to get a guy to go out for coffee with you and be completely unsuspecting of your true motives and your true affiliations.

So I always felt I had an immediate advantage in approaching targets of interest to us. I don’t like to think of it as a “honey trap” because that’s how it’s portrayed in Hollywood, but I feel like women are more disarming than men. A lot of being a spy is having basic social skills and being able to talk to people. We gave out training on how to talk to people, how to flatter them and manipulate them and feed their egos, in a way that made them willing to share information. I felt like that came a lot more naturally to women than it did to men.

As Americans, as a country, we’ve done ourselves a great dis-service by relying on torture

As women, we’re also conditioned from a very young age to listen more than men are. A lot of the CIA guys who work in the world of espionage and intelligence have big egos, they want to talk about themselves. They have to be actively trained to listen and receive information.

The other advantage in being the weaker gender physically is that many of us women, through the years, have developed heightened security awareness. When they’re training us in surveillance detection, a key element of being a good spy – because you know, you’re not going to be a good spy if you’re being followed – I’ve been doing this my whole life as a woman. It’s just having that heightened sensitivity to dangerous situations. The best CIA operatives I ever knew were women."

Dancing with death

"I was in the Republic of Macedonia at a time of huge unrest. It was 2000 and the country was on the brink of civil war because of incursions by the Albanian liberation army. I was a riding my bike up to make a signal for one of my agents – to leave a chalk mark on a water fountain that would trigger a meeting. And as I was riding back down I saw this group of guys with AK47s jump into the bushes and start to ready their weapons. Luckily I spoke Macedonian well enough to create an affinity with them but I remember thinking at the time, ‘This is it for me.’

That said, it’s not quite as exciting as programmes like Homeland. We had training in weapons and hand-to-hand combat, defensive driving - being able to crash your car through two parked cars – surveillance detection, subterfuge, land navigation. A whole part of our training is paramilitary training and that’s actually the most exciting part of anybody’s career.

There’s always going to be an aspect of your history that you don’t share with anyone

As operations officers we're not really worried about ourselves, we’re worried about other agents that we’re handling. I didn’t have kids when I worked at the agency, now I do. I realise now that in handling my agents, sometimes my maternal instincts would come into play.

You know you have the training to protect yourself and your identity. But you're handling human sources who could be put in jail for the rest of their lives or executed. And it’s your job to train them properly and to try to get them to be safe.

A lot of the time the people you’ve recruited aren’t the most stable people in the world. They’re willing to work commit espionage and work covertly against the organisation that they’re part of. There tend to be quite a few risk-takers, sometimes they're ego-maniacs, sometimes they’re alcoholics or bipolar. So you, as the operations officer, are everything to them: you’re a mother, you’re an employer and you’re a mentor. That for me, was the hardest part of the job."

The CIA and torture

"There’s been a shift at the CIA post-911. With our primary focus being counter-terrorism, we really shifted away from the traditional way of collecting intelligence, which is recruiting sources.

I had already decided to leave the agency in 2003, when torture started being talked about in the hallways. There was an awareness that we were interrogating people in Guantanamo using these methods, that before would have been unheard of. I remember at the time thinking, 'I’m so glad I’m getting out of here.' Because I wouldn’t have been able to stay at the agency knowing that that’s what they were doing.

I think that as Americans, as a country, we’ve done ourselves a great dis-service by relying on torture. We no longer have the authority to claim any kind of moral high ground. And personally I think it’s been a detriment to our national security. I think it will enrage people.

Kathryn Bigelow has gotten a lot of flak for the movie for portraying the torture [that took place at the CIA during its anti-terrorism operation] and my feeling is, she did a brilliant job tackling a very complex subject matter. I think she was fully justified in saying, 'Why is this anger directed at me? It should be directed at the people who are actually doing the torturing.'"

Hunting down Bin Laden

"Osama Bin Laden represented a genuine threat to us as Americans and I felt pleased and really proud and happy when I found out that the CIA had finally got him. I actually enjoyed telling my kids, ‘Yeah, we got the bad guy. He’s gone now.’ It’s a simplistic way of looking at it but I think that particular raid is a great example of the pain-staking process of human intelligence work.

Some people make the argument that the film Zero Dark Thirty suggests that the use of torture led to the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden. I think the film showed the CIA’s reliance on torture, but if torture was so effective why didn’t we have Osama Bin Laden right away? Why didn’t we get him after we started interrogating people at Guantanamo?"

One a spy, always a spy

"I think you do always carry it with you. It’s impossible for me to leave the CIA after the training I’ve had and not be a little bit paranoid. When I left the agency, there was a long time when I still looked behind me to see who was following me.

I actually consider my training an advantage for coping in the real world. I’m a much better driver, my kids are impressed that I know how to use weapons and stuff.

In a way it never does leave me. I’ll always have that heightened sense of awareness and you’re always suspicious of people, you’ll always take extra precautions. You almost get accustomed to living two lives. I’ve got so used to using aliases that I’ve never really shifted out of that. There’s always going to be an aspect of your history that you don’t share with anyone."

Zero Dark Thirty is available on Blu-ray, DVD with Ultraviolet from June 10. Pre-order it now here

Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Rex Features