Spies hang out in Panera, just like us

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If you watch a lot of James Bond movies, you may be forgiven for thinking that spycraft requires much physical exertion, what with all the chasing of potential assassins through narrow streets, across rooftops, and down mountains, not to mention the jumping out of planes and off boats. But in real life, it’s not so! (Who would’ve thought that James Bond movies lied?) NPR talked with a pair of former CIA operatives who have written memoirs of their time in The Company. In real life, they said, spies do a lot of work sitting on their asses in restaurants and cafes. We can all be spies!

Okay, maybe not, but does it hurt to dream?

“Restaurants offer the opportunity to meet the people we most seek—those with access to a government or terror group that might be able to help us predict or prevent the next attack,” said Amaryllis Fox, author of the new memoir Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA. “Sometimes those meetings are accidental. Mostly, they are planned to look accidental.” (I read an advance copy of Life Undercover last spring and recommend it, although if you spent your childhood planning for a life of high adventure that never materialized, it may make you a bit wistful.)

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Fox began her career in espionage as an 18-year-old college student when she interviewed Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who was then under house arrest, and smuggled the tape out of Myanmar; it was subsequently broadcast on the BBC. The meeting was arranged via secret messages hidden in the toilet tank in a restaurant bathroom in Rangoon. Later on, as a trainee in the CIA, Fox practiced her skills in a Panera and other chain restaurants in the Washington D.C. area. Operatives like chain restaurants for their anonymity and because their layouts are so similar. They are also convenient in other ways. One of Fox’s mentors devised a method to keep track of assets using Starbucks gift cards: Whenever one of them wanted to schedule a meeting, they would buy something with the gift card and the change in the balance would alert the agent.

Lindsay Moran, author of Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy, told NPR that she retains some habits from her spying days. “My kids think I’m nuts the way that I jockey for the most operationally optimal seat in the restaurant. And they often beseech me to stop listening in on the conversations of other patrons or analyzing their body language and speculating about their relationships.”

But wait. Isn’t that part of the fun of going to restaurants and coffeeshops?

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About the author

Aimee Levitt

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.