Eat, Drink And Be Wary: Ex-CIA Officer Reveals How Eateries Are Key To Spycraft
In Ian Fleming's first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, the taciturn MI6 lothario with the cold eyes and cruel mouth who would go on to become the world's most famous spy muses that the restaurant is a key piece in themise-en-scèneof seduction.
This observation is borne out by the lavish caviar-and-champagne dinners in this epicurean thriller that unfolds amid baccarat tables, bomb explosions and bitingly cold vodkas in a modish seaside town of France.
But what also becomes crystal clear is that the restaurant is a key piece in the mise-en-scène of another equally subtle and unforgiving game: spycraft.
"Restaurants and cafés are in many ways the lifeblood of espionage," is how Amaryllis Fox puts it. Fox was a real spy. Her memoir, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA, released this month, recounts her adventures as a clandestine CIA operative from 2003 to 2010 deployed to 16 countries to infiltrate terrorist networks in the post-Sept. 11 world. "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. Sometimes those meetings are accidental. Mostly, they are planned to look accidental."
An equally emphatic endorsement comes from another former CIA operative, Lindsay Moran, whose 2005 memoir, Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy, recounts her espionage work in Macedonia. "During the 'developmental' stage of recruiting a foreign agent, you are typically meeting him or her for a meal or drink," Moran told NPR. "You want a place where you're unlikely to be seen by known associates of the target, so you pick an out-of-the-way restaurant not near his place of work. You might also choose a time of day when the place is relatively empty and you will have pre-cased the place to pick the best location within the restaurant. Back exits are always good."
After Fox and Moran were recruited, they were sent to "the Farm," a secret CIA facility in Virginia where their grueling training included all the obligatory skills of what Fox refers to as "the Bond business": how to flip or crash a car; how to use a Glock; how to parachute; how to use a speedboat; how to withstand torture; how to use a grocery bag and duct tape to bandage a punctured chest; and how to commit suicide. Most undramatically, but crucially, they were also taught how to reconnoiter restaurants.
Even before she joined the CIA, Fox had gotten a taste of restaurant espionage. In 1999, as an 18-year-old student, she pulled off a coup by recording a secret interview for the BBC with the Burmese leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who was then under house arrest. Before the meeting, a dissident journalist who was Fox's local contact told her that the safest way to communicate with him was to leave a taped message inside the water tank of the toilet at the ABC Café in Rangoon. Fox went to the cafe, which had "the look of an old Western saloon," visited the bathroom and found a folded scrap of paper taped inside the tank. Outside, there was a drawing of an amaryllis flower. Inside, an instruction: Order the french fries.
She did. They arrived with chopsticks, a side of hot sauce, and a waiter whose manner made it clear that he, too, was one of the comrades.
As a space that is both public and private and relatively safe, the restaurant is an unshowy but invaluable cog in what the great spy writer John le Carré so eloquently calls "the grammar of intrigue." It offers intelligence officers not only a place to exchange information (the envelope slid across the table; the briefcase switch; the taped message in the toilet tank) but a chance to evaluate their informants' habits, temperament and coolheadedness, over a meal.
But evaluation is a two-way street, and the recruitee can also assess the recruiter. As Fox, who is half-English and went to Oxford, did when a professor with the British Secret Service who had no doubt heard about her Suu Kyi interview invited her to a pub called the Fuggle & Firkin and sold her the whole help-us-make-the-world-safe spiel. It didn't work. The endless talk put her off. "I don't believe in your cloak-and-dagger stuff," she said, before walking out. "Thanks for the pint."
She is equally dismissive of the 007 brand of cloak-and-dagger daredevilry. "One street chase and my cover is blown for life," she writes wryly. Instead of the Bond business of dashing around in fast cars and ordering vodka martinis, shaken not stirred, routine espionage involves endless hours drinking coffee at cafes that are being cased and scouted for prospective meetings. But she agrees that certain aspects of restaurant protocol as depicted in spy novels are true to life.
Le Carré's 1993 novel, The Night Manager, describes one such meeting between a British intelligence officer named Burr and the eponymous night manager whom he is keen to recruit as an undercover agent: "Burr's field manners had been meticulous," writes le Carré. "He had chosen his restaurant in advance; he had inspected it the night before: an out-of-town lakeside trattoria. ... He had chosen his corner table, and for ten cautious Yorkshire francs to the head waiter, had reserved it in one of his work names, Benton."
Did Fox have a "work name"? "We often work in alias so we have to be sure we're using the name that's consistent with the op," says Fox. "And yes, back-to-the-wall is operational instinct to help with situational awareness and ensure the face of your conversation partner is turned away from onlookers in the room. Depending on the activity you have in mind, multiple entrances and exits can be helpful and private seating such as booths or hidden corners is a plus. There are also opening hours to consider, as many operational acts take place at unusual times of day. Perhaps most important of all, the presence of security cameras and the type of clientele that frequent the joint. No sense in planning a clandestine act at the local police hangout or meeting a high-profile source in a place they might be recognized."
While some espionage meetings take place in gourmet restaurants, this is not always the case. "It should be noted that while oftentimes you might have some nice elegant dinners on the U.S. government dime, there are also times where you're at some skeevy joint with unsavory characters," says Moran.
Chains like Panda Express, Panera Bread, McDonald's and Starbucks, which have a standardized layout and are open late into the night, are handy operational sites. Fox reveals how one instructor at the CIA came up with an ingenious way to use the Starbucks gift card as a signaling tool instead of the traditional chalk marks and lowered window blinds.
"He gives one [gift card] to each of his assets and tells them, 'If you need to see me, buy a coffee.' Then he checks the card numbers on a cybercafé computer each day, and if the balance on one is depleted, he knows he's got a meeting. Saves him having to drive past a whole slew of different physical signal sites each day [to check for chalk marks and lowered window blinds]. And the card numbers aren't tied to identities, so the whole thing is pretty secure."
While Fox warmed to the digital method, older instructors didn't. "We learn quickly which Cold War veterans demand chalk marks from their students and which modern warriors prefer silicon and Wi-Fi," she writes. In Shanghai, where she was sent after her training, she soon realized that the Chinese weren't especially perturbed about leaving traces. Each time she passed by them, the vendors of street food and other items, who are part of China's massive intelligence machinery, reached for their pencil and notebook to jot her comings and goings.
Restaurant meetings can sometimes lead to comical misunderstandings. Moran recalls that when she was targeting an Albanian businessman and insisted their meetings take place at a far-flung pizza joint, her choice of venue had unintended consequences. "He assumed I was insisting on a remote location so we would not be seen by his wife, and that I wanted a romantic relationship with him," she says. "Even after I repeatedly explained that was not the case, he still treated our restaurant meetings like dates, even insisting on cutting up my pizza for me."
Both Fox and Moran have moved on from the spy world. Fox lives in San Francisco with her family (she is married to Robert Kennedy III) and speaks at events around the world on dialogue and peacekeeping. Moran heads communications at the . "I don't get to eat out on expense meals anymore but that's OK," she says. "I am leading a simpler life but serving a greater purpose!"
Old habits, however, die hard. "My kids think I'm nuts the way that I jockey for the most operationally optimal seat in the restaurant," Moran says, laughing. "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."
A few years ago, she was working peacefully on her laptop at a Polish cafe in Washington, D.C., when she heard gunfire from a drive-by shooting. Without missing a beat, and still holding her laptop, she vaulted over the back of the couch she was sitting on and fled to the kitchen.
is a journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.