Emily Brandwin was a theater major living in her childhood bedroom in St. Louis, Missouri, when her life sharply veered toward the extraordinary. At the urging of her "spy nut" of a mother, Brandwin applied for a mysterious posting at the CIA — and got it. After a brief stint in the disguise department of the CIA (where her theater major came in handy), Brandwin became an operations officer, the official term for the job more commonly known as “spy."
Like Justin Theroux's character in The Spy Who Dumped Me, out Friday, August 3, Brandwin and her fellow operation officers hid their identities from their loved ones outside of the agency. But unlike Theroux, they wouldn't involve their significant others in European shootouts. “That would never happen,” Brandwin said, laughing. “If that happened, the American spy would get thrown into prison and sent back to the U.S., where they’d lose their job — or work in the basement of the CIA on the Canada branch.”
While Brandwin finds fault with aspects of the movie’s more fantastical premise, The Spy Who Dumped Me is accurate about one thing: Dating as a CIA agent is always a wild ride. In a conversation with Refinery29, Brandwin shed light on the occasional bureaucratic challenges that dampen romance, the absolute raucousness that takes place amid trainee spies at “the farm,” and why spies make the best, and most dangerous, partners. After a thorough investigation, these are our key findings.
There’s a lot — and we mean a lot — of dating (and marriages) among CIA operatives.
“Everybody was hooking up constantly,” said Brandwin, point blank. “It’s a little like Melrose Place because everyone dates each other.”
Brandwin said the most fervent period came during “spy school,” where new operatives were taught the ins and outs of the job. “It’s this very high stress environment, and instructors want make it high stress. Hooking up is a natural release. The rigors and stresses of the job, especially in training, lead to romance. As cliché as it sounds,” Brandwin said. For a pop culture insight into the quotidien stresses (and steamy stress relief) of the CIA, look no further than the show Quantico.
Even if hooking up reached a fever pitch during spy school, Brandwin continued to date other operatives throughout her time at the CIA, as did other operatives. Often, these relationships resulted in marriages. “I know more couples who dated and got married within the agency than didn’t. Hundreds. There’s so much intermarriage in the agency because it’s such a crazy job,” Brandwin said. “You might be working at 2 a.m., but your spouse is too.”
Based on Brandwin’s intel, CIA Christmas parties must be pretty awkward with all of these inter-CIA marriages. “I also know tons of couples who got married, got divorced, and then got married to someone else in the agency,” she said.
Operatives apply their job skills to their dating life. This is not always a good thing.
Dating amid a pool of “government sanctioned liars” can be complicated. “At spy school, you get the black book on how to lie and manipulate. Now you’re dating someone else who knows how to do this,” Brandwin said. “There’s a saying within the agency, ‘Don’t case officer me.’ As in, I know your tricks. Don’t try to use your Jedi mind tricks on me. You have to remember to be a normal human being.”
One of Brandwin’s operative boyfriends took the application of spying in a relationship to a new, literal level. Brandwin and the man had just started dating when D.C. experienced a terrible ice storm. During the storm, the man called and asked how Brandwin was doing.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I have to scrape off my car. It’s going to take hours.’ He replied, ‘Yeah, you don’t have to do that.’ He said he came over and scraped my car,” Brandwin said. The man proceeded to say he saw her watching TV, too. “It was one of those Inception moments. I had to piece it together. That means he had to be in his car. That means he had to park in this place. That means he may have had to use binoculars to see what I was doing. It creeped me out. All of that was so creepy. But he did a lovely job on the car,” Brandwin said.
You think your dating life is hard? Try being a spy.
Though pop culture would tell you otherwise, spies aren't glamour magnets like James Bond. In fact, covert operations officers have to hide behind a disguise of dullness. Brandwin said that when it came to dating outside the agency, her cover job — purposefully designed to be boring and technical — was a real damper. “When you're dating, you want to put your best face forward. You want to look attractive and interesting. But if you're under cover in the CIA, you have to have a [cover] job that’s incredibly boring. You’re meeting people who are lobbyists and working for senators, and you're like, ‘I work in the basement of the Pentagon.’ Some guy’s going to be like, ‘Check please,’” Brandwin said.
Let’s say you surmount the obstacle of a cover job, and actually meet someone you like. If the person is not American, you must decide whether you're prepared to scale the CIA’s mountain of bureaucracy for love. The CIA requires its employees to submit paperwork for any foreign national with whom they have “close and continuing contact,” which begins after two dates.
“A lot of men have one night stands because they don’t have to report it. They can literally sleep with whoever they wanted and be like, 'Okay, no paperwork,’" Brandwin recalled. She overheard debates among colleagues about whether a person was merely good, or if they were “paperwork good.”
At least the secrets don't have to last forever. If the relationship is headed towards engagement or marriage, an agent is allowed make their partner witting of their employment.
Incidentally, spy school also trains you to be good at dating.
Brandwin suggests sending the contestants to spy school on the next season of The Bachelor. It'll make them better listeners — and better daters, too. She experienced the transference of skills firsthand when, after six years in the CIA, she moved to L.A. and started dating as a civilian again. "When you’re a spy, you have to always be listening and thinking about that other person and the information that they’re sharing. When I left, that was immensely helpful. To really hear what someone is saying and really take it in — it’s made me a better partner in that sense. I really try to hear what someone is trying to say," Brandwin said.
U.S. operatives never, ever sleep with their assets.
According to Brandwin, the goal of any operations officer is to "spot, assess, and potentially recruit assets to the U.S" using the methods taught in spy school. In works of pop culture about Russian spies like The Americans and Red Sparrow, characters are trained to use their body — all of their body — to extract information from targets. American spy school teaches the opposite.
“Getting romantically involved with your asset is the biggest no-no there is. It’s essentially a fireable offense,” said Brandwin. “Once you introduce that aspect into a relationship, you lose control because your emotions become involved. And the most important thing is to always have control over that relationship. Other countries like Russia will use it as a tactic to recruit somebody, whether it’s to manipulate someone or use it as blackmail, but the U.S. doesn’t.”
Since the honeypot trope is so commonly associated with spies, Brandwin said people frequently asked her how many people she slept with for the job. “I’m like, ‘A: I love that you didn’t ask me if I did, you just jumped to how many. And then I’m like, ‘It’s a government job! What do you think people would do for a government job? I’m not going to do that.’
The odds are low your ex was a spy — although you can never be sure.
Is your significant other always coming up with excuses for why he can't meet up? Is she frequently out of town on mysterious trips? Brandwin says there are a million reasons why your partner’s unavailable — and chances are, they're not because he's involved in U.S. intelligence. “There aren’t a lot of CIA spies out there. The actual operatives make up the smallest percentage of employees at the CIA,” she said.
Emily Brandwin worked as a Disguise Officer and an Operations Officer at the Central Intelligence Agency where she was deployed all over the globe working on mission critical operations. You can follow her on Twitter @CIAspygirl.