The class, now in its third year, had been commenced as a seminar on Thursday afternoons for some of his staff plus young officers who had been recommended to Harlot* as potential to draw upon for his projects. Those were Low Thursdays, but once a month, on what soon came to be called the High Thursdays, important guests showed up by invitation, as did visiting professionals whose Company labors had brought them back to DC from various lairs abroad.

On all occasions we would meet around the conference table in Hugh Montague’s outer office, a commodious room on the second floor of the yellow brick villa that Allen Dulles used for his headquarters. Situated on E Street, well away from the Reflecting Pool and Cockroach Alley, it was an elegant building larger than most of the foreign embassies in Washington. Harlot was one of the few high-ranking officers to work in such proximity to Dulles, and so an added zest was brought to the occasion by the importance of our surroundings. Indeed, Allen Dulles would keep popping in and out, a beeper in his breast pocket prodding him back to his own office, and once, I remember, he made a point of letting us know that President Eisenhower had just called him to the phone.

The lectures on High Thursday were, of course, the most exceptional. Harlot’s voice became even more commodious then, and he could not have been more unabashed in his use of rich syntax. How much one learned directly, however, is not easy to measure. He gave no assignments. He might recommend a book from time to time, but never pursued our diligence, no, it was more a matter of sowing the seeds. A few might sprout. Since the Director himself was not only our peripatetic guest, but had obviously given his imprimatur, and would often nod at the sheer wonderful glory of the subject—ah, one could almost hear Mr. Dulles say, “this wonderfully shrewd and metaphysical and monumental world of Intelligence itself!”—it took no vast acumen on my part to recognize that come a High Thursday, Harlot would teach our group from the top down. His preference was to stimulate his equals: On such occasions, the rest of us could scramble how we might. Low days were of more use to us. Then, the course served, as Harlot once remarked, to rev up the Mormons.” There were five of them, Ph.D.s from State Universities in the Midwest and they were always taking notes, always in crew-cut, white shirt with short sleeves, pens in the breast pocket, dark thin ties, eyeglasses. They looked like engineers, and I recognized after a time that they were the galley slaves over in Montague’s counterespionage shop at TSS, marooned in prodigiously demanding tasks of cryptography, file searching, estimate vetting, etc. To me it reeked of the Bunker, although obviously more purposeful, more lifelong—you could see it in their faces: They were signed up for a career of the highest level of clerking. I was, I admit, snobby, but then, as the son of a Bold Easterner, and thus, by titular descent, a Junior Bold Easterner, Ivy League out of Andover, Exeter, Groton, Middlesex, or Saints Paul, Mark, Matthew, a member, therefore, of our Agency Tier, how could I not begin to feel well-installed while listening to Hugh Montague? At full throttle on a High Thursday, he could employ rhetoric that was equal to high adventure. Since memory, for all its vicissitudes, can also be immaculate, I am tempted to swear that, word for word, this has to be close to the way he offered it.

“An understanding of counterespionage presents difficulties to which we must return again and again,” he would remark, “but it helps for us to recognize that our discipline is exercised in the alley between two theaters—those separate playhouses of paranoia and cynicism. Gentlemen, select one rule of conduct from the beginning: Too much attendance at either theater is imprudent. One must keep shifting one’s seat. For what, after all, are our working materials? Facts. We live in the mystery of facts. Obligatorily, we become expert observers on the permeability, malleability, and solubility of so-called hard facts. We discover that we have been assigned to live in fields of distortion. We are required to imbibe concealed facts, revealed facts, suspicious facts, serendipitous facts.”

Rosen had the temerity on this particular High Thursday to interrupt Harlot long enough to ask, “Sir, I know the meaning of the word, but not its application here. What are serendipitous facts?”

“Rosen,” said Harlot, “let us search for the answer.” Harlot paused. I was all too aware of the way he played with the name. There had been just a hint of mournful woe in the long “o” of Rosen. “Rosen,” he said, “assume that you are on a tour of duty in Singapore and a scrumptious blonde, a veritable bagatelle, happens to knock on your hotel room door at 2 AM, and she is—let us say it is 90 percent verifiable—not employed by the KGB, but chooses to knock because she likes you. That, Arnold, is a serendipitous fact.”


Guffaws popped forth. Rosen managed to smile, indeed, I felt his gleam of happiness at arousing the wit of the master. “I thrive on derision,” said his manner.

Harlot resumed. “Gentlemen,” he declared, “in the more advanced regions of our work, sound judgment is paramount. Is the apparently unsuccessful operation that we are trying to analyze no more than an error by our opponents, a bureaucratic fumble, a gaffe, or, to the contrary, do we have before us an aria with carefully chosen dissonances?” He paused. He glared at us. Just as a great actor can give the same soliloquy to beggars or kings—it does not matter—he was here to expatiate on a theme. “Yes,” he said, “some of you, on such occasions, will be in an unholy rush toward the Theater of Paranoia; others will leave their name at the Cinema of Cynicism. My esteemed Director—“ he nodded in the general direction of Mr. Dulles—“has sometimes assured me that I hold forth at times too long over at Paranoia House.”

Dulles beamed. “Oh, Montague, you can tell as many stories on me as I can on you. Let’s assume there’s nothing wrong with suspicion. It tends to keep the mind alive.”

Harlot nodded. Harlot said, “The man with talent for counterespionage, the true artist“—now using the word with as much nesting of his voice as an old Russian lady saying Pushkin—“draws on his paranoia to perceive the beauties of his opponent’s scenario. He looks for ways to attach facts properly to other facts so that they are no longer separated objects. He tries to find the picture that no one else has glimpsed. All the same, he never fails to heed the warnings of cynicism.

“For cynicism has its own virtues. It is analogous to the oil that wells up from every crushed seed, every damn plan that went wrong.” Sitting near Allen Dulles on this day, I heard him grunt in pleasure. It was a small but enjoyable sound. “Hear, hear,” he said softly, and I heard him. “Do not,” continued Harlot, “attempt to comprehend the KGB, therefore, until you recognize that they have some of the most flexible and some of the most rigid minds in intelligence work, and their people clash with each other, even as some of ours have been known to do. We must always feel the play of forces in our opponent’s scheme. It teaches us to beware of divinations that are too comprehensive, too satisfying. Cynicism teaches you to distrust the pleasure you may feel when previously scattered facts come into a nice pattern. If that happens just a little too quickly, you may have come upon your first hint that you are dealing with a pre-calculated narrative. In a word, disinformation.”

Advanced were the High Thursdays, awfully advanced for the Lows. I would ponder some of his conclusions for many a year. If Montague’s method of discourse on such days threw the more inexperienced of us over such high hurdles as the Theater of Paranoia and the Cinema of Cynicism, he could on any Low Thursday return us to the threading of a rusty nut to a dirt-grimed bolt. Indeed, the first day of the first Low had us working for two hours to construct a scenario on the basis of a torn receipt, a bent key, a stub of pencil, a package of book matches, and a dried flower pressed into a cheap unmarked envelope. These items, he told us, happened to be the pocket litter left by an agent under suspicion who had decamped in unholy haste from a furnished room. For two hours, we fingered these objects, brooded upon them, and offered our theories. I forget mine. It was no better than the others. Only Rosen was to distinguish himself that day. Once all the others had finished their exposition, Arnie continued to look unhappy. “In my opinion,” he said, “too many pieces are missing.”

“This is the sum of your contribution?”asked Harlot. “Yessir. Given the paucity of facts, no viable scenario is available.”

“Rosen,” Harlot told us, “is on the nose. These objects were selected arbitrarily. A correct solution does not exist.”

Explanation: The exercise was to alert us to the risk of auto-intoxication when formulating scenarios. Deductive passions could be loosed all too easily by a dried flower, a cheap envelope, a stub of pencil, the bent key, the torn receipt for $11.08. Our first lesson had been designed to make us aware (in retrospect) of any subtle discomfort we had ignored in the course of working up our explanation. “Respect that subtle hollow,” Harlot told us. “When a scenario feels absolutely right, it is usually right, but if your story feels almost right, yet just a little empty, well, then, it’s all wrong.” The next Low, he told us, would be devoted to espionage itself. Espionage, plain and simple, as opposed to counterespionage.


Back at the Farm, there had been a course called Agent Recruitment; it gave no clear picture of the reality. Harlot moved us quickly from conventional formulations to the marrow. “Espionage,” he told us, “is the selection and development of agents. That can be comprehended by two words: disinterested seduction.

Taking his pause, he added: “If you see me as an advocate of unbridled carnality, you are in the wrong room. We are speaking of disinterested seduction. That is not, if you reflect on it, physical. It is psychological. Manipulation lies at the heart of such seduction.”

“In our Judeo-Christian culture, therefore, difficulties arise. Manipulation is Machiavellian, we say, and are content to let the name judge the matter. Yet if a good man working for his beliefs is not ready to imperil his conscience, then the battlefield will belong to those who manipulate history for base ends. This is not an inquiry into morality, so I pursue the matter no further than to say that a visceral detestation of manipulation is guaranteed to produce an incapacity to find agents and run them. Even for those of us who accept the necessity, it may prove difficult. There are case officers who have spent their working lives in foreign capitals, but cannot point to a single on-site agent they managed to recruit. Such failure tends to produce the kind of unhappiness you see on the face of a dedicated hunter who dependably fails to bag his deer. Of course, the odds in certain countries are very much against us.”

I do not think any of us were too bothered by the idea of manipulation at this point. To the contrary—we wondered: Would we be able to do the job? We sat there in a mixture of anticipation and worry.

“At this point,” said Harlot, “you may be thinking: So incredible a purpose, so difficult an achievement! How do I begin? Rest somewhat assured. The Company knows better than to depend on your first instinctive efforts. Recruitment is usually the product of the time and care that is spent in studying each prospective client or target. If, for example, the condition of steel production in a certain country interests us, then a cleaning woman who has access to the wastebaskets of a high official in machine-tool production can, for the moment, serve us better than a high functionary in agriculture. There is logic to this work, and to a degree, one can instruct you in it.”

Everyone nodded profoundly as if we had come to the same conclusion.

“Today, we will place ourselves in a specific milieu,” Harlot said. “Let us suppose we are stationed in Prague, yet can only speak a minimal Czech. How is one to cook the omelette when the pan has no handle? Well, gentlemen, we have a support system. In the labyrinth, we are never alone. It is not expected that you, personally, will try to handle Czech agents who speak nothing but their own tongue. Obviously, there has to be an intermediary whom we can employ, a working native. This fellow is called a principal. The principal agent is the Czech who will solicit his countrymen for you. You will merely guide his work.”

“Sir, are you saying that we don’t really get out in the field?” asked one of the Junior Bold Easterners.

“In the satellite countries, you won’t get out,” answered Harlot.

“Then why are we studying recruitment?” he asked.

“To be able to think like a principal. Today, in fact, working in company, we will try to think as one such principal. All of you will now convert yourselves into one imaginary Czechoslovakian, an official in the Prague government who has already been recruited by the Agency. Now he—by which, of course, we now mean I, our surrogate principal—is trying to bring in a few more Czechs from nearby government offices. Manipulation commences. The first clue to effective manipulation happens to be the cardinal law of salesmanship. Would any of you be familiar with that precept?”

Rosen’s hand shot up. “The customer,” he said, “doesn’t buy the product until he accepts the salesman.”

“How do you know that?”

Rosen shrugged. “My father used to own a store.”

“Perfect,” said Harlot. “I, as the principal, am there to inspire the putative agent—my client—with one idea. It is that I am good for his needs. If my client is a lonely person with a pent-up desire to talk, what should be my calculated response, therefore?”

“Be there to listen,” said several of us at once.

“But what if I am dealing with a lonely man who lives in isolation out of personal choice?”

“Well, just sit beside him,” said one of the Mormons. “Enjoy the quiet.”

“Clear enough,” said Harlot. “In doubt, always treat lonely people as if they are rich and old and very much your relative. Look to provide them with the little creature comfort that will fatten your share of the will. On the other hand, should the client prove to be a social climber who gnashes his teeth at the mention of every good party he was not invited to, then sympathy won’t get you much. Action is needed. You have to bring this person to a gala gathering.” Harlot snapped his fingers. “Next problem. The client has just confessed to you a secret or two about his sexual needs. What would you do about that?”

Savage, a former football player from Princeton, said, “Satisfy them.”

“Never! Not in the beginning.”

We were at a loss. Discussion circulated aimlessly until Harlot cut it off. “Confess to similar sexual needs,” he said. “Of course, this assumes our client is not a homosexual.” We laughed uneasily. “All right,” said Harlot, “I will provide an easier example: Suppose the client is ready to be unfaithful to his wife? Not an uncommon possibility in Czechoslovakia. Well, you, good principal, do not try to provide him with a mistress. Do not complicate the relationship by adding so dramatic and unstable an element as a mistress. Instead…well, what does one do? Rosen?”

“I’m temporarily at a loss.”




It seemed to me that the answer had already been provided. “Perhaps you should confess to the same longing yourself?”

“Yes. Hubbard listens to what I say. Confess to similar sexual needs.”

“But we still don’t know,” said Rosen, “what to do if the client’s desires are frankly and actively homosexual.”

We went around the room again. It was my day in class. This time I had a small inspiration. “I think you should show sympathy, not identity,” I said.

“Keep on,” said Harlot.

“I suppose you could say that while not a homosexual yourself, you do have a younger brother who is, so you understand the need.”

“Well,” said Harlot, “we now have an approach. Suppose the client happens to gamble?”

The most effective response, we all agreed, would be to tell him that one’s father also gambled.

We moved on. What if the client wanted to get his oldest son accepted at a prestigious university? The principal might then have to call on influential friends. Some preparations took years.

“One has, however,” said Harlot, “to keep a firm grasp on the intrinsic problem. An exceptional friendship is being forged. One is acting as generously as a guardian angel. That can arouse suspicion in a client. He has to be aware, after all, that his job deals with government secrets. Your official might be as suspicious as a rich girl with a plain face who is being rushed by an enthusiastic suitor. Depend on it. Espionage has its parallels to matchmaking. Ministers sitting on large secrets are the most difficult to woo. One more reason to focus on the easier target—the petty official. Even in such modest purlieus, however, you, as the guardian angel, have to be ready to dissolve the client’s mistrust as it forms. It is reasonable to assume that the client, in some part of himself, knows what you are up to, but is amenable to your game. Now is the time to talk him into taking the first step—that same first step which will lead him into becoming an espionage agent. The success of this transition—term it the pass—depends on one procedure so well established that it is a rule of thumb. Do any of you have a contribution?”

We were silent.

“I guess one has to move slow,” said a Mormon.

“No,” said another Mormon who had done missionary work in the Philippines, “fast or slow, make it seem natural.”

“You’re on the right track,” said Harlot. “The rule is to reduce the drama.”

“Is this always true?” asked Rosen.

“None of what I tell you is true,” replied Harlot. “At this point, you are being provided with scenarios to substitute for your lack of experience. Out in the field, count on it, your agents are going to act in unforeseen patterns.”

“I know that,” said Rosen. “It’s just that I have this idea that the pass, as you call it, can make matters more dramatic.”

“Only in counterespionage,” said Harlot. “In time, we will take a look at that arcane subject. For now, however, keep the transition modest, uneventful, dull. Reduce the drama. Request something minor. Your purpose, at this point, is not to net information, but to relax your client’s conscience. A salesman, as Mr. Rosen’s father can no doubt tell us, wants to keep a potential buyer from wondering whether he really needs the product. What procedure is analogous to our circumstances, Hubbard?”

“Do not let the client recognize how much he’s getting into.”

“Good. You, the principal, are there to allay anxiety. Warm the soup slowly. ‘Look, friend,’ you might complain to your budding little agent, ‘When I want to speak with someone in your office, the number is not available. I cannot pick up the phone and call them—I have to send a letter. No wonder our socialist economy creeps along. If you could let me borrow your department’s telephone registry for one night, it would make my work so much easier.’ Well, how can the client refuse after all you’ve done for him? It is, after all, a modest request. The interoffice phone book is thin. One can slip it into the torn lining of one’s overcoat. So the client brings it out to you and you get it copied immediately, and return it early next morning before work. Now, what do you do?”

We were silent.

“You let a week go by. If any anxiety was aroused in the client’s tender breast, it should have settled. Now, ask for a bit more. Can your friend let you have a look at X report? You happen to know that this X report is sitting on one of the desks in his bureau. Nothing weighty—just something your boss would be pleased to see. It could advance your boss’s interests to have such information available to him.

“An unhappy sigh from the client,” said Harlot, “but he agrees. The report is carried out in his briefcase that night, and is returned to him in the morning.

“The major shift, however, is yet to come. In order for the client to develop into a reliable agent willing to work in place for years, what is now necessary?”

Rosen had his hand up. So did the Mormons. Soon, everyone around the table but myself had raised his hand. I was the only one not to realize that the next step would lead our new agent into taking money for his services.

“It is easier,” said Harlot, “than you would suppose. Just as many a woman prefers to receive kisses and gifts, rather than kisses solo, so your just-hatched agent won’t mind being paid for his sins. A little corruption warms the chill. Remember, however, that hypocrisy is indispensable here. Keep to the model of the young lady. Offer presents before you get around to money. Avoid any hint of the crass. Pay off, for instance, some old nagging debt of the client’s. Just one more favor.”

“Sooner than you would believe, our novice agent is ready for a more orderly arrangement. If he senses that he is entering into a deeper stage of the illicit, money can relieve some of his anxiety. For criminals, this is always true, and an agent is, at the least, a white-collar criminal. In our case, he has just emerged from an orderly but hitherto unsatisfactory middle-class life. Money becomes awfully attractive when one is perched on the edge. Strike your bargain, then. You, as the principal, can bring in an offer from your boss. In return for regular removal of selected official documents, a weekly stipend can be arranged.”

Harlot nodded. “An interesting period commences. Our novice’s secret work now provides him with excitement. If he is middle-aged, you could say he is having a fling. If young, he might actually be stimulated by discovery of this potentially for deceit in himself.”

Here, Harlot looked around our conference table. Did I have the impression that his eyes rested just a little longer on mine? His gaze moved on. “I cannot repeat often enough,” he said, “the importance of this regular cash stipend. It must, however, not be so large as to show up in a bank account, or a new home. Yet it has to be enough to quiet anxiety. Again, we rely on rule of thumb. A good measure is to peg the supplements at not less than one third and not more than one half of the agent’s weekly salary. Regularity of payment serves the same purpose here as dependable meetings with a lady-love. Hysteria, always ready to flare up, is abated to some degree by predictable performance on your side. Questions?”

One of the Mormons put up his hand. “Can you afford to let the agent become witting of who he is working for?”

“Never. If you are able to manage it, don’t let him know it is the Company. Especially in an Eastern satellite. His anxiety would be excessive. If, for example, he is a Czech Communist, let him acquire the notion that he is working for the Russians. Or if, like a few Slovaks I know, he is an Anglophile, you might slip across the idea that MI6 is funding all this. If he likes to see himself as a spiritual descendant of Frederick the Great, nominate the BND. Question?”

“What if the new agent doesn’t want to take money?” I asked. “What if he hates Communism so much he wants to fight against it? Aren’t we abusing his idealism?”

“In the rare case, yes,” said Harlot. “But an idealistic agent can burn out quickly, and turn on you. So, the financial connection is, if anything, even more desirable with idealists.”

“Isn’t the real purpose of the money,” Rosen now asked, “to keep the agent intimidated? He has to sign a receipt, doesn’t he?”


“Well, then we’ve handcuffed him to the job. There’s evidence against him.”

“The KGB uses such tactics. We prefer not to,” said Harlot. “Of course, there will be times when a signed receipt does underline the situation. I would argue, however, that the true purpose of the stipend is to give a sense of participation, even if the agent does not know exactly who we are. When you are living at the end of a network, nothing is more crucial than to feel you are not wholly alone. Money confirms—here is our paradox—money confirms the virtue of the vice.”

“Let us count our gains,” Harlot said. “As principal, you have done your favors, avoided traps, made the pass, put the client on regular salary, and concealed the source. A perfect performance to this point. Only one major step remains. What might that be?”

“Well, you have to train him,” said one of the Junior Bold Easterners, “You know, weapons, illegal entry, one-time pads, all the stuff that’s got to be learned.”

“No,” said Harlot, “training is kept to a minimum. He is not an intelligence officer, but an agent. Use him as you have found him. He will be asked to take out official papers from his office. He will be taught to photograph documents that cannot be removed. He must never be pushed, however, unless we are desperate to obtain relatively inaccessible material. That is dangerous use of an asset. A good agent ends up not unlike a good hardworking animal on a farm. We teach it not to gallop, but to pull its load. We regulate its diet. The end we seek is an industrious performer who will help us to harvest dependable product on a regular basis year after year. That is a valuable commodity never to be risked for too little, and never to be asked for too much. Underline this in your thoughts: The stability of espionage work is the element that generates good results. As far as possible, crises are to be avoided. Therefore, gentlemen, ask yourselves: What is the last step to be taken in the relationship between the principal and the agent?”

I do not know how the next answer came to me. Either I had developed some small ability to read Harlot’s thoughts, or was growing familiar with his intellectual style, but I spoke out quickly, wanting credit for the answer. “Withdrawal,” I said. “The principal withdraws from a close relation with the agent.”

“How,” he asked, “do you know that?”

“I can’t say,” I said. “It just feels right.”

“Hubbard, who would have thought it? You are exhibiting the instincts of an intelligence officer.” The class laughed, and I flushed, but I knew why he had done this. I had been sufficiently indiscreet once to confess to Rosen that Hugh Montague was my godfather; now the class knew it, and Harlot must have picked that up. “Well,” he said, “instincts are indispensable in our occupation, but I will spell it out for those of you who are not as endowed as Hubbard. Some of us have spent a few years here brooding professionally, you might say, on how to keep an agent in quiet working balance. We have come to conclude that sooner or later, the principal must separate himself from his agent. Look upon it as analogous to the shift from early parental warmth to the increasing discipline that a child has to accept as it grows older.”

“Does this have anything to do with the agent’s sense of his new identity?” asked Rosen.

“Excellent. Identity is no more than how we perceive ourselves. To become an agent, therefore, is equal to assuming a new identity. But, note: with each change of identity, we are born again, which is to say that we have to take another voyage through childhood. So now the principal will reward the agent only for disciplined behavior. Of course, the agent, if he has been developed properly, should be in less need of an emotional bond than of good advice. He no longer requires a one-sided friendship nearly so much as he can use someone with the skill and authority to steer him through hazards. Given the danger, he wishes to believe that so long as he does exactly as he is told, his new life is safe and moderately prosperous. Of course, he must learn to take precise instructions. Certain precautions may seem onerous, but spontaneity is forbidden. In effect, the agent has a contract, and the free insurance that goes with it. After all, in the event of serious trouble, the principal is ready to pluck the agent and his family out of the country.

“All right, then. Their new roles established, the principal can complete his withdrawal from the agent. They still meet, but less often. After a few years, agent and principal may not even see each other. The agent, furnished with a dead-drop, leaves his papers, and picks up his instructions. On those rare occasions when it is crucial for the agent to talk to the principal, a meeting is arranged in a safe house but since this is time-consuming in a hostile land, they usually stay apart. The principal is out breaking ground with new clients.

“This, gentlemen,” said Harlot, “is espionage—a middle-class activity that depends on stability, money, a keen eye for the architecture of anxiety, large doses of hypocrisy on both sides, insurance plans, grievances, underlying loyalty, constant inclinations toward treachery, and an immersion in white-collar work. See you next week. Before too long, we will come to more damnable stuff—counterespionage. That is where we say farewell to white-collar mentality.” He waved at us and walked from the room.

Copyright © 1991 by Norman Mailer

This Issue

September 26, 1991