'When I Worked for the CIA'

By Glenna Hall

When Jim asked us to send him some biographical information, I mentioned that during my five-year stint at the U.S. Library of Congress, I had worked for several obscure non-library-service outfits, one of which was funded by the CIA. At that time, in the late '60s and early '70s, there were numerous peculiar units stuck around LOC -- in basements, in the stacks, in odd corners.  (For almost a year, another group I worked for was tucked away beneath the gorgeous ceiling of the Great Hall during a major overhaul of the Reading Room.  See the photo after the break.)  Why was all this stuff located there?  Well, that's where the books were.


My second job at LOC was with a group called the International Organizations Section. When I first arrived, I was struck by how many of the employees spoke English as a second language or were fluent in a number of languages.  My immediate supervisor spoke and read Greek; one of my eventual friends was a Czech who also spoke Polish (he taught me how to pronounce "Zbigniew Brzezinski"). There were upward of a dozen desks, arranged in a block.  The real feature of the big room, though, was a huge tub file filled with index cards and card dividers.  The ostensible purpose of this group was to put together a quarterly publication called "The World List of Future International Meetings."  

Although no one ever said anything explicit, I was led to understand that our funding did not come from Congress or the Library.  Rather, it derived from some governmental body referred to by everyone as "The Agency." Sometimes our contact from The Agency would call the boss on the phone; her name was Mary Smith (oh, sure!). Basically, it was an open secret that we were working for the CIA.

Thumbnail image for LC GREAT HALL .jpgAs time went on, what we were doing became clearer to me.  The tub file contained cards with information about conferences and meetings of all sorts with multinational attendance.  We were supposed to find out as much as we could about sponsoring organizations, locations, presenters, and attendees. Sometimes Mary Smith would call to request further information. On one occasion, for example, I was asked to delve further into an event to be sponsored by the International Red Cross.


As I grew into this job, I started finding more and more things for The Agency and the publication.  I received a commendation for developing an entire set of resources about international music and arts festivals. (Those with a taste for poignancy will remember that Zagreb, in more halcyon days, was a site of a major such festival.)

I will never know for sure what this material was used for.  I have always pictured agents in overcoats and slouch hats being sent to these meetings to suborn Red Cross volunteers from Iron Curtain countries. If I ever harmed anyone through this work, I am deeply sorry.

Glenna Hall, a retired superior court judge and mediator, lives on San Juan Island, Washington.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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