Grace's Mosaic Moments

Friday, February 11, 2011

An Inside Peek at the CIA & Postal Inspection Service

This week's blog at Grace's Mosaic Moments is a continuation of my 2009 tour of the FBI, State Department, Postal Inspection Service, and the CIA, which was arranged by the Mystery/Suspense chapter of Romance Writers of America. Today: the Postal Inspection Service, the CIA, and a Summary of my impressions of all four government agencies.

The Postal Inspection Service
After we enjoyed an all-too-quick picnic lunch at the National Arboretum, our bus rumbled off to the regional headquarters of the Postal Inspection Service. This group describes itself as “The Silent Service.” After hearing all the things the Service does, I told them they should do more to blow their own horn. And they certainly tried while we were there—they even told us, rather wistfully, that they’d be really happy to have us write about them!

Yes, they carry guns. Yes, they investigate weapons, drugs, and bombs being sent through the mails. And any other dangerous substances. Yes, they have portable X-ray units, Geiger counters, hazmat suits, etc. They also have vans set up as portable labs that can be driven to suspected mail crime scenes. In other words, they are constantly vigilant over what enters our households or businesses.

One of our speakers was the agent in charge of investigating the anthrax letters. Since the suspect has been caught only recently and is awaiting trial, the agent couldn’t give us details, but he did show slides of two quite different types of anthrax that were used. When I asked if they had developed a theory about why the samples were so different, his answer was, “Yes.” Big pause. We all laughed. Finally, after he thought over what he could tell us, he finally gave us a vague sort of explanation of why the two samples were so very different.

They also spoke to us about mail fraud through the years (scams conducted through the mail) and about identity theft. And they provided us with several DVDs outlining individual Postal Inspection Service cases.

Oddly enough, while we there, a mail carrier van was attacked and several agents had to rush out. They did not tell us the why of the attack—they probably didn’t know yet. We saw the van right outside headquarters as we drove out.

The Postal Inspection Service is yet another example of people dedicated to protect and serve. People who really care about what they were doing and feel good about their role in protecting the public. I think most of us began to realize for the first time that we may not have much personal contact with the FBI, the CIA, or the State Department, but mail comes to us six days a week. The role of the Postal Inspector in protecting us on a daily basis is a constant effort of which we should be more aware and more appreciative.

Having the CIA willing to share itself with fifty mystery/suspense authors was, in itself, mind-boggling. I should say, by the way, that the Kiss of Death chapter of RWA went to a great deal of trouble to prepare gift bags of books for every single person involved in all four tours - from the PR people who arranged our tours to all the various speakers.

Although all of us had been pre-screened, we had to get out of the bus at the guardhouse and be checked in, person by person, and given personalized visitor badges. Then back in the bus for a drive through the CIA’s wooded grounds to the original building, site of the famous circular floor emblem. Since no cameras are allowed, of course, an official picture of the group (in two sections) was taken with us lined up behind the emblem. (I, naturally, chose a bright white smock top that day and stand out from the crowd like a whale in a group of guppies.) Interesting note: at all times, not only did we have to stick close to our group leaders, but two guards traveled with us, watching our every move. No wandering! (The FBI settled for one leader for each group and a mild warning about not wandering off.)

We were shown the CIA memorial wall and the stars in the memorial book, where only a few names are included, since most CIA officers remain as anonymous in death as they were in life. We walked through the CIA museum, which is housed in their broad corridors, as there is no dedicated museum space. There was an almost infinite array of spy gadgets, from ladies’ jewelry and tieclip cameras to a single-shot lipstick gun. We saw an image of Washington, D.C., imbedded in that floor and were asked to figure out the time of day, the time of year, the day of the week, and some other question my mind isn’t resurrecting. I was impressed by how quickly some of our members managed it. Time of day from the shadows, time of year from the trees, day of the week from lack of traffic.

We had a briefing which included the four Directorates of the CIA - case officers, the front line in foreign countries; analysts, formerly in Langley, but now often posted overseas so they can get the feel of the places whose information they are analyzing; the techies, whom are speaker explained as the “Qs” of the CIA; and the support directorate that makes life run smoothly at Langley. Also included were many, many questions. Our group leader, for example, had been an analyst for many years, then decided to switch to public information to get a broader outlook on how the CIA operated. (Also, I suspect, after she did a tour in Iraq!) So, naturally, she was bombarded with questions. She admitted she loves the agency so much she comes out to Langley on weekends to run on the track that surrounds the complex. One of the PR girls with our group had been a dancer, but a cousin was killed in 9/11 and she felt she had to do her bit to contribute. So now she’s conducting tours at the CIA.

Speaking of the CIA complex, it’s immense, and all hidden in the woods. The fence around it is electrified. We were only in the original building, the one that houses the VIPs on the top floor (the 7th), but there are several newer, more modern buildings, and other lesser outbuildings. For lunch we were turned loose in the CIA cafeteria, which has stations offering almost every kind of food imaginable. But if you don’t like any of those, there’s a Subway and a Starbucks.

A CIA officer was assigned to every lunch table occupied by our group. They were representatives of the different directorates, and we were allowed to ask questions. One of the interesting things that came out is that the CIA has many family groups. Since they can’t talk to outsiders about their work, it’s quite common for CIA employees to marry each other (same rules as the State Department), and not uncommon for their children to work for the agency also. You might call it a “family” business. When asked by outsiders what they do, the standard answer is, “I work for the federal government.”

One absolute no-no for writers: be sure you understand that case officers may only recruit foreign nationals. They do not recruit Americans. Can they socialize with foreigners? Yes, but if it’s more than seeing someone once or twice, they must report it so the person can be checked out. (The same rule applies to the FBI and State Department.)

To end our tour on a lighter note, we were allowed to shop in the CIA gift shop. Yes, they actually have one. I have kept my shopping bag that proclaims “CIA” in large letters. The greatest irony, however, is that the gift shop sells the most beautiful, and expensive, matrioshka dolls (“mama” dolls, aka wooden nesting dolls), all of them Made in Russia!

Looking back, we were left with the impression of an absolutely enormous organization, where people work because they are devoted to what they do. For example, there are actually three employees left from the OSS, the precursor of the CIA which functioned during World War II. We saw one of them in the hallway, and he appeared to be about ninety, his back bent nearly double as he hobbled down the hall. But he was still there, still doing his job. Amazing.

Over the past two blogs, I have merely skimmed the highlights of these four dedicated agencies. So often in the news we hear only about their failures, or in the case of the Postal Inspection Service, we don’t hear about them at all. Perhaps we see headlines about a local FBI raid (ho-hum, just another federal fraud case), or note that Hilary Clinton is off on yet another visit to a foreign country. After a terrorist attack, we hear the CIA failed to communicate, etc. But they’re all out there, every day, doing their best, for far less money than they could make in the private sector. Who arranged for airplanes to get Americans out of Egypt just recently? You got it—the State Department. Who is constantly vigilant to protect you from everything but junk mail? That’s right—the Postal Inspection Service. And did you know the FBI handles all investigations involving Americans, even if the incident locations are Iraq, Somalia, or Mumbai? I once asked an FBI agent about that. (He’d been in charge of the investigation of the first World Trade Center bombing a number of years ago.) His answer: The CIA are spies. The FBI has the training and equipment to investigate.

And the CIA? I was overwhelmed by the love of country and love of the job I witnessed while there. And of course the atmosphere sparkled with a high level of intelligence. All in all, a truly mind-boggling experience.

So next time you hear someone grouse about their taxes or someone badmouth these four federal organizations - the FBI, the State Department, the Postal Service, or the CIA - stop and think where we’d be without them. Are all their employees as dedicated as the ones we saw? Of course not, but I’d bet the great majority are. They could earn more almost anywhere else, but there they are, working for us, dedicated to Protect and Serve. I consider my visits to these four agencies one of the highlights of my life, something any American should truly appreciate, and not just as a writer looking for background for his/her books.


Thanks for stopping by. Next week: A Week at 3 mph - my travels on Britain's canal system

Grace, aka Blair & Daryn &


  1. Great information. Thanks for sharing. The CIA gift shop, huh? Who knew?

  2. Most people don't realize that your own mail carrier takes his or her job seriously as the first line of defense against any kind of crime via the mail. They are also vigilant neighborhood watchmen and often heroes in their community when they report unusual activity on their route. After all, what other service sees every single house on every street in America every day?