Agent Double-O-No!: How Not to Be Recruited by Spooks

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Double Oh No  “Hang up. I’ll call you back”—the response when I first contacted “the Agency”

Most expert advice about advertising for staff includes warnings not to be vague, ambiguous, fuzzy about time frames, anonymous, terse, too low-key, hard to spot among other ads or otherwise nondescript. An ad like this one (about the size of and conveying about as much information as a piece of Dentine gum)—“Growth potential for right person.  Bilingual candidate interviews to be scheduled soon. Call 555-555-5555.”—doesn’t quite pass muster. Should the candidate be bilingual, or will the interview also be bilingual? Which second language? What sector? What company? What credibility? What deadline? And most importantly, what job?  Clearly a dud ad.

….Very much like the ad I couldn’t resist responding to some years ago when I lived and worked in a sleepy ocean-side small town in Shikoku, Japan. Paraphrasing the ad, since it’s been too long for me to recall it verbatim, I recall it went something and mostly like this: “Wanted: an XXXX, with well-developed analytical ability, superb command of English, familiarity with Japanese culture and current affairs, advanced Japanese translation skills and a willingness to relocate to XXXXX. Call XXX-XXX-XXXX.” [The reason for the X-outs and altered numbers of them will become apparent anon, if it isn’t already.]

That’s it. Compact and minimalist, like a United Fruit Growers sticker slapped on a CIA-backed and packed banana shipped from a banana republic.

I wasn’t going to be fooled by that recruiting haiku. Although it was in keeping with the Japanese art and traditions of understatement, I immediately knew—or thought I knew—that it had to be  part of a foreign hook-a-spook recruitment operation, i.e., a national government intelligence agency recruitment ad.

Intrigued, I called: My “Hello?” triggered a curt “Hang up. I will call you back.” Hmmm…forgot to turn on the tape? I called back, even though the recruiter rule about not being terse wasn’t merely broken—it was mocked. The voice, though attractive and female, was definitely “spooky”.

Trying to orient myself to and through the stealthily spewed fog on the other end, I asked the right and routine questions: “What is the job?”…..Response: “I can’t discuss that.”…. “When will it start?”….Response: “I can’t discuss that.”… “When will interviews be announced and held?”…Response: “I can’t discuss that.”….etc. Even though those were not the verbatim responses in all instances, they were otherwise indistinguishable from each other and that. One thing Iwastold: “Send your resume.”

This I did, more convinced than ever that I was indeed dealing with a spy agency.

Soon after that, I was contacted by phone and asked by the same woman…more like told…to fly to Tokyo for an interview. There would be an exam. They would pay for the flight.

When I arrived at the embassy, which looked like as big and intimidating as one of the alien motherships in “Independence Day”, I was in high spirits upon being greeted in the inner sanctum and made what probably was a first and fatal mistake: I displayed a sense of humor.

Smiling with a purely playful intent, I said the equivalent of “Hi, I’m Double-O-No!”, in an effort to communicate something like a sense of awe. Like a Masonic handshake, the exact wording and intent cannot be revealed without compromising the security of the security service. If that attempted humor elicited anything, I missed it. It was as though I had emitted white noise, a burp or radar chaff.

I was then led through a maze of corridors and offices to a very, very large room with an equally large and long table—suitable for a claustrophobe séance.

There were only four people in the room, including me. The other three were the deceptively pretty and very conservatively-but-tastefully-dressed young woman in charge and two other candidates—the three of us recruitment prospects spaced out like the points of a huge compass. We still hadn’t been told under whose auspices this recruitment was being conducted.

We were allowed to bring and use dictionaries for the translation, presumably, since our English was adjudged to be good enough to be invited. We were given the go-sign and began. Right away, I knew that I wasn’t directly under the light, so I started to slide over to the adjacent seat—still a paper-plane toss away from either of the other two candidates. That was a bad idea. “Out of view of the camera,” I guessed.

I was immediately and literally put (back) in my place and remained there for the entire set of tests, which I thought would yield results comparable to my previous standardized test results—except for one part: Japanese dictation. My penmanship is awful in any language, so I always wrote and still write only on a computer or the equivalent.  That limitation compounded by my total lack of Japanese dictation experience made it clear that I would have to top the charts on the other portions of the exam—the kinds of tests I was born for and stuff I had actually taught in university and colleges. Besides, the “pass” bar was set far below what I’d always cleared.

After the test, the invigilating and otherwise vigilant young woman did two things: She chatted amiably with the other young male applicant, who, I discovered, was an insider, working for the embassy, as was the female applicant.  She and he exchanged smiles and cards, but when I asked her for one, she didn’t hesitate to say, “No. It’s not necessary.” Ouch.

At that point, she drew back the curtain and revealed the identity of the Wizard of OAS…er…Oz.  Just as I had figured all along. It was the national intelligence agency XXXXX—whose initials and their number I must again withhold for a reason I will provide below.

Sensing that I had lost the job before I even got to know what is actually was and before the ink on my exam had barely dried, I left and waited for what I imagined would be the predictable negative result.

I was, to use a term I’ve coined, “disdicted”—things turned out just as disappointingly as I had predicted they would.  When the call came—from the same woman unmoved by my joke, displeased by my moving to another seat and unwilling to give me her card—it was rather dry, given the “wet work” involved, the cleaning up the conversational carnage to be inflicted.

I failed, I was told—to which a teaser was added: by only 1 mark (for the purpose of credibility, I suppose, lest I become really suspicious about the grading). Of course, when I asked for a copy of my results, the distaff staff version of Dr. No replied, “No.”

No pass. No proof. “Double-Oh-No!”

Why can’t (won’t) I tell you which super-secret agency it was? Well, to quote former president George Walker Bush, Jr, when asked about the secret Yale society, Skull and Bones, to which both he and his re-election rival and cousin, John Kerry, belong, I would have to say what he said in reply.

“Well, if I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.”


By Michael Moffa