I was once dating a young woman we'll call Jane, and I was intimidated by her prior boyfriends, who included the likes of an All-Big-Ten quarterback, one of the youngest Fortune 500 CEOs, and a comparably successful financier who was fluent in several languages. The financier and I happened to have gone to the same college and graduated the same year, but we never met, probably because I only hung out with mortals.
I suffered from the comparisons to this pantheon of great boyfriends until Jane told me a story about the time the financier took her home to Virginia for Thanksgiving.
Tragically, Alzheimer's had forced the financier's father into retirement in his early sixties -- he'd been a big American company's factory manager in several foreign countries. While the family lived abroad and the son soaked up cultures and languages, becoming a worldly sophisticate, the father was a xenophobe of the Archie Bunker school, going out of his way to procure Budweiser and adamantly sticking to speaking English. Accordingly, everyone around the table that Thanksgiving day in Virginia was surprised when he began speaking French.
Taking in the looks of mystification, he switched to German.
Evidently, xenophobic factory manager and Bud man had been cover.
I wondered: What do intelligence agencies do when operatives lose their ability to retain important secrets?
According to Fred Rustmann, who was a CIA operations officer for twenty-five years, "Whenever anyone is going to be under anesthesia or in any situation where he may babble, there's an agency minder to make sure he doesn't divulge classified information."
It turns out that there are so few long-term cases of potential babbling, however, that no official policy exists.
"Usually with older operatives, keeping secrets is practically ingrained," says Peter Earnest, the executive director of the International Spy Museum whose thirty-six year CIA career included over twenty years in the Clandestine Service. "You also have to take into account the relative sensitivity of their secrets: Generally, when these men and women leave the field, they spend years consulting for us or for outside firms. During that time, the sources and methods that they are obliged to keep forever secret change at an incredibly fast rate."
So once the former spies' minds begin to fail, decades have passed, at which point they could sit down and dictate their memoirs to a North Korean agent and cause little damage, if any.
Still, it's not unprecedented for an older or retired spy to have a head chock-full of valuable intel. What if such a person did fall into enemy hands?
Take the case of William Colby, who served as director of the CIA from 1973 until 1976, then founded a law firm and remained actively involved in intelligence matters. On April 27, 1996, Colby went canoeing by himself near his home in Rock Point, Maryland. Later, the canoe was found, but he wasn't.
A week passed without any sign of him. Had enemy operatives spirited him to a secret interrogation facility? Were they extracting vital national security secrets from the seventy-six year-old?
His body turned up in the water two days later. Although suspicion of foul play ran rampant, an inquest established that he had suffered a heart attack or stroke, fallen out of the canoe, then died from drowning or hypothermia.
But what if there was merit to the suspicions?
Similarly, what if someone like the financier's father went for a stroll in the park one day and didn't return? Alzheimer's sufferers often depart for the corner store and are found halfway across the country. The financier's dad was still young enough, still close enough to his clandestine service days, that he might have rattled off the names of numerous American operatives abroad, compromising their operations and costing them their lives.
The hypothetical intrigued me enough that I wrote an entire novel, "Once a Spy" (Doubleday, March 2010), which I hope contains a sufficient portion of reality -- the research brought me into contact with an array of other intelligence community personnel ranging from a National Security Agency temp to a director of the CIA, plus several spies so bright and dashing and heroic that I would guess at least one of them dated Jane.
This story originally appeared on The Huffington Post