Could you introduce yourself a little bit, and tell us about your background, what did you do in the CIA and what are you doing now?
- Sara, thank you very much for having me. My name is Andrew Bustamante. I am a former covert CIA intelligence officer. CIA is the human intelligence arm of the United States and our collective intelligence service, which is quite large. We have multiple intelligence organizations from military to cyber security and signals intelligence. CIA is just one of those many different types of intelligence units. However, it is a very famous unit around the world. When I was serving with CIA, I had the opportunity to live and work undercover, and carry out some very interesting missions. I left CIA in 2014 after having my first child, with my wife who is also an undercover CIA officer. The two of us decided that we would rather choose to raise a family together at the same time in safety rather than try to raise a family in the weird crazy world of CIA action.
Understandably. So what are you doing now?
- Now I run a company called Everyday Spy. You can find it online at everydayspy.com. My job is to take spy skills, the skills that CIA taught my wife and I, and apply them now into the real world. We apply critical thinking skills, leadership skills, everything from security to social engineering and social protection. We apply that to businesses, individuals, ultra high net worth, wealthy people, and then of course also to business owners.
What does it mean to be a spy? What does it mean to be a field agent, a covert agent, and how does one get to be a part of the missions and of this secret word? What skills and traits someone who is interested in joining this word need and how did it happen for you? What was the process?
- Every country has a secret intelligence service. It just depending on how large or wealthy the country is, that's what dictates how large or how wealthy their service is. But in large part, what all countries are looking for when they hire someone for a covert role?
They are looking for somebody who can think on their feet. Someone who can make decisions very quickly without a lot of information.
Of course, those people tend to be people who can take risks. They'll take large risks not necessarily because they understand how dangerous the risk is. I would actually argue most of us don't understand how large the risk is. But we're very excited to take a risk, and we're very open to the idea of putting ourselves in a position that could potentially be dangerous, but could also be a position where there's a significant reward or a significant benefit to our country. And because of that, they're also looking for people who are very nationalistic, people who take great pride in their country, whether it's the BND recruiting for their German service or the DGSI recruiting for the French service, your own country in Hungary recruiting for its service. CIA is the same way.
They want very loyal, very passionate Americans to come into the fold. So because of that, they're looking for former military. They're looking for the children of military members. They're looking for the children of former intelligence officers, right? And it makes it so that whenever you join the actual service, everyone is very passionate about the same thing. And it makes it that much easier for the service then to be able to direct you in different missions because the missions themselves can sometimes be a mission that you may not agree with.
So it's important that if you don't agree with the mission but you do agree with the values of the organization, then it makes it that much easier that you can go out and execute what you need to execute and do it reliably.
Now the way that I got in, I came from the military. I was in the US Air Force, I was an officer, and I had gone to college and a military college. So when I was eligible to leave the military, that was when CIA asked me if I would be willing to apply and join their ranks. And for me, coming from the military and coming from a military background, my parents were also military veterans. Just like I said to you, it wasn't the kind of thing I would say no to. It's at least worth trying. And then once you get into it and you start getting good at what you do, then of course it's a great deal of fun.
So did they contact you? How did it look like getting in? Was it a set of tests?
It was interesting. The CIA found me while I was actually trying to apply to another part of the US federal government. So I was trying to leave the military and go into a part of our government that's called the Peace Corps, which is an organization that travels around the world and helps people. So I was trying to get away from the world of hurting people and getting into the world of helping people. And my wife was actually trying to do the same thing. She was trying to go from a social work career, which is helping people, but trying to also go into the Peace Corps, which is another federal organization for helping people. And it was in that process that
both of us received a phone call from CIA that said, hey, we saw that you were interested in traveling the world and helping people, would you be interested in doing an interview for national security, where we can offer you the same.
And we could also give you a chance to help Americans first. And they didn't say they were CIA, they just said it was national security. And I said yes. And then when I came in I was surprised because it took many interviews, three or four different interviews. So over the course of six or nine months, I was going back and forth to Washington DC multiple times. And every time I came, I had multiple interviews in a day, sometimes multiple days of interviews. Some of it was just simply talking to one person answering their questions. Other times I had to take tests like psychological exams that took many, many hours. Other times, I had to do puzzles or I had to solve problems. I had to do role plays. A role play is like a situation where one person pretends to be something and then they would assess how I did. Sometimes I had to interview in front of a panel of three or four people. So it changed every time, but there were always those tasks that you had to complete. And now that I'm through it all, I can look back and realize that it was all just one giant test spread out over nine months, right? But yeah, it was a long time.
Is it anything like what we see in the movies and reading the novels? I guess there are some similarities and there are some differences, but is it like most people imagine it is or it's very different?
- I would say it's mostly different. It's mostly different because what you see in the movies is action. And when you're running a secret operation in real life, the last thing that you want to see is action. Because if you're doing something right, nobody even knows you're there. Nobody's shooting at you, nobody's chasing you, nobody even recognize you, nobody knows that you are what you say you are. That's how you run a professional secret operation. But when you do something wrong in the field, that's when it looks the way it looks in the movies. That's when people start chasing you. That's when people start shooting at you. That's when you start having your life in danger. It's very rare that we ever actually operate in groups. So you know how James Bond always has somebody with him. He's always got a beautiful girl with him, or he's always got some other agent with him, or he's always got something with him. That's not how we operate.
We operate alone. We do have a support network, but the support people are not with us.
They're thousands of miles away. We talk to them once or twice a day via radio. It's not at all like there's somebody sitting next to you in the boat as you're driving down through Venice shooting out of both sides and it's not like that at all.
It might have a lot of boring parts as well. When I think about surveillance for example, that can be pretty boring. How are usually covers created? I was wondering if it's your idea or you get it from the Company, this will be your name, this will be your job, etc., etc. Is it hard to live a double life, switching between your cover and your real personality and identity?
-Yeah, those are two great questions. When it comes time to create covers, there's different types of covers that we create. Some covers are very complicated and they exist everywhere. They exist on the Internet. They exist on a phone like your cell phone will look like it belongs to your cover identity. because if you think about it, something as simple as a cell phone has call logs and text message history and login credentials and for months. Months and months, maybe years worth of data is on your phone. So if you're trying to create a cover and you want your cover to be very real, then you have to have a fake phone or a real phone that has a whole call history of all of your fake calls.
So some covers are extremely complicated and they can take months if not years to build. Other covers are very basic.
If you want to pretend to be a business person, for example, all you really need is a business card, maybe a website and the website only has to have one page on it. And basically as simple as that, you can pretend to be a business person. So covers are always, they can be quite varied. And then when it comes to who picks those covers, a lot of times the person who chooses the cover is also the person in charge of how complicated the cover is. So if it's a very complicated cover, then the company itself will often choose it. They'll choose it, they will build it and they'll spend months backstopping. It's called backstopping when you create fake call records and fake data and fake information that's all called backstopping. They'll create all of that collateral to support your backstopping so that you have this very strong cover. If you choose your own cover, then it's much easier. It's a business card. It's a website. Maybe it's not even that. Maybe it's just, maybe you just walk around and say that you're somebody that you're not. If you think about it, Sarah, if you walked into a bar anywhere in Hungary and you just introduced yourself as Gina instead of Sarah. Everybody there would think you're Gina. You are undercover. It's just that you don't have anything that proves that you’re Gina.
But I guess, the more lies you tell people, you have to keep them in mind and stick to them. At least according tot he movies. I guess that's correct, that the less information you share with the other people that the easier is to stick to that. But at the same time, maybe if you share more, they will trust you easier.
- It's actually the other way around. So to get to your point, you asked about how hard it is to live undercover also. It is difficult, it is difficult to live a double life. But what's interesting is to your second point, people don't actually trust you when you talk more. People trust you when you talk less. What happens is, as human beings, we don't like to hear other people talk about themselves. When we hear other people talk about themselves, we feel bad about ourselves. But when we're sitting with someone who doesn't really talk about them and instead what they do is ask questions about us. That makes us feel interesting. That makes us feel special. That makes us like the other person. So in any given day, you're probably going to talk to 100 people. The majority of those people are going to tell you how good they are, how smart they are, how important they are, and they're going to make you feel like they don't even care about you. But then a small portion of people are going to ask you, how do you feel? What do you think? What's your opinion? What are you having for dinner? What's your favorite food? Those questions make you feel good about yourself. They make you feel interesting. And because of that, you end up trusting those people faster and trusting those people for a longer period of time.
Living undercover becomes quite easy when you learn to stop talking about yourself. You don't have to lie, you just ask the other person questions.
So to your example, if we send you to a bar and we say your name is Gina, and you sit around and introduce yourself as Gina, don't talk about yourself. Gina just asks people questions. How is your day? Where are you coming from? What are you drinking? Tell me about your thoughts on this football match or tell me your thoughts on what's going on in the world. And all of a sudden, Gina becomes a very popular, very likable person.
When you are at the field, you also have to develop assets on the ground, I guess, to access more information. Your main objective is to collect information. How do you do that? How do you cultivate assets? Of course we talked a little bit about that in the last few minutes. This is how it starts, but how do you get someone to share information with you that they would normally not be willing to share, and how do you get them to trust you on a deeper level?
- Yeah, you do that. This is another place where the movies are very different. Because in the movies they try to make it look like James Bond walks into a room and starts immediately getting information. That's not really how it works. If you think of the relationship between a field officer and an asset.
Think of it like a long-term friendship or think of it like a dating relationship.
Nobody falls in love on the first date. Nobody makes a best friend the first time they meet them. It takes many, many meetings, many dinners, many drinks, many conversations. So when you're developing an asset, then you're doing the same thing. You see them many times.
The first conversation might be a very basic conversation where you introduce yourself and you ask about football or you ask about the weather or you make plans to go to a restaurant together. But then after three months or six months or nine weeks or however long, then the person starts to develop trust in you. And a relationship with you, they start to think of you not just as a friend, but as a close friend, as a trusted friend. And then as you continue down that road, that's when you can start asking those sensitive questions. What's happening at work? How is your boss? What interesting projects are you working on? And the goal of course is to dig deeper into those questions so that you can get them to share more and more information.
But the wider strategy is not a strategy of trying to talk to a stranger and get them to give you secrets. It's of building a friend and then getting your friend to tell you things they shouldn't tell you. It's the same thing that I'm sure just like you were saying earlier. It's easy for people to start talking to you. If you're not talking about yourself, people tell you the most amazing things. They start telling you about their affair. They start telling you about their husband who's cheating. They start telling you about what project their company is working on that's new and revolutionary. People aren't very good at keeping secrets. It's just a matter of giving them enough space and enough comfort that they start sharing those secrets without realizing it.
How can you know if you are under surveillance in a different country? How do you notice it and what can you do about it?
- Yeah, it's not an easy thing to say and just a simple answer. But the tool that we use to detect surveillance overseas is something called a surveillance detection route. In America we call it an SDR. And what a surveillance detection route is, it's a way of walking or a way of driving over many minutes or many miles that forces a surveillance team, anybody who's following you, it makes them act a certain way that a normal person doesn't act. So when you're on this route, when you're taking these turns or stop lights or stop signs or getting on off the train or getting in and out of a taxi cab, you're actually watching for what's happening behind you.
You're not thinking about what you're doing, you're thinking about what the person behind you is doing.
And when they start to act like a surveillance team, you'll see it because you're trained to be able to use the tool. I know that's not a very easy answer, but that's how we do it. When you look over your shoulder and you see somebody suspicious, that does not mean you're under surveillance. That could just be a crazy person who happens to be behind you. But when you see the same crazy person behind you, after multiple different stops on a train or multiple different turns on your way to work, now you have a higher chance of it being surveillance. But you still need a full surveillance detection route before you can really confirm who it is.
What do you do if you know for sure that you will be under constant surveillance? For example, again from the movies, there are the Moscow rules that when you are in Moscow, you should assume that you are constantly under surveillance. So how do you operate then?
- When you know that you're under surveillance, the most correct answer is when you know that you're under surveillance, you just let yourself be under surveillance. You ignore it and you know that it's there, so you don't operate. That's part of the reason that they put you under surveillance is because they don't want you to operate. So if you operate under surveillance, you break an international law, you can be arrested, you can be put in jail. If you're under surveillance and you don't operate, then you haven't broken any laws. So you're safe. Now there are always exceptions to that rule, but it's not at all like the movies. In the movies, you always seep them run away from surveillance, always. James Bond looks over his shoulder or
Jason Bourne looks over his shoulder and he sees somebody, he turns a corner, he runs, he ducks into a closet and he peeks out through a little peephole and boom, he ditched surveillance, right? In the real world, we never do anything like that.
We almost never do anything like that because it's so dangerous. If somebody sees you doing that, then you look like a criminal and they're going to take you to jail. Now when the time comes that we do have to ditch or avoid surveillance, we do it in a very professional trained way, but that's still classified. So I can't talk about how we do that.
With all the surveillance and misinformation, disinformation going on, does real privacy exist still in the world? And also can we really find out what is actually going on? I'm working in the media so I know it perfectly well that there is no objective media and there is so many influence that goes on even if there is no influence, then there is a narrative pushed by certain media outlets. And then we have rules which prevent us from reading certain media outlets because they are „disinformation” from one side. And one can assume that disinformation can come from both sides or many sides.
- You're exactly right. So unfortunately, I don't have a lot of good news for people on this side. Your first question was about privacy. I do not think there is any reasonable expectation of privacy anymore. There just can't be. Everything on your cell phone, everything on your computer, everything in the digital space is trackable. It's trackable by the government, but it's also trackable by commercial companies. If you think about whoever provides your cellular service, they're collecting your cellular data. They collect it because they need to help your cellular network stay resilient and deliver, but they're also collecting it because they can make extra money off of your data. How you use your cell phone, what you do on your cell phone, what apps you download, how much time you're talking, who you talk to, how many text messages you send, all of this is valuable data for just your cell phone provider.
The same thing is true for any place you shop online. What you buy, how long you shop, what colors you choose, all of that data is incredibly important to the people who are selling to you online. Where you walk every time you use GPS maps on your phone, even who you choose to carry your data through, whether you use Apple or whether you use Android or whether you use something else, all of that data has so much real business value that the businesses giving you the access are also the businesses collecting your data. And then once they collect your data, they resell it. They resell it to their peers, they resell it to their competitors, and of course, the government can also buy that data back and use it for national security or anything else. So there is no expectation of privacy anymore.
And then when it comes to the topic of information. You're exactly right. Objective news, objective media is very difficult because people demand information so quickly that we don't have time. Media professionals just don't have time to vet and properly apply journalistic rules to the information. And then of course, editors don't want you to put those rules in place because the audience demands the information right now. So there's this challenging expectation that makes it so that news media is not objective anymore, it's very subjective. And as a result of it being subjective, it's prone to misinformation. Misinformation, remember, is a mistake, is just incorrect. Disinformation is intentionally a lie. So misinformation is rampant. It's very easy for misinformation to get through.
Disinformation can sneak through because it carries on the same waves as misinformation. And both of our opponents use the tools, but so do our allies.
And what you're seeing especially in Ukraine is a fantastic example of how allies are using disinformation inside their own media channels because they are trying to target the Russian audience. They're trying to target English-speaking Russians, but in the process they're also lying to Americans and Brits and Germans and Hungarians who speak English along the way. Because that's part of an information war against Russia. And it's unfortunate, but that's something that media has allowed itself to become because it just doesn't have time to be objective anymore.
So we mentioned the Russia-Ukraine War. I saw one of your previous interviews, where you said that you think that the war will be over before winter. Do you still think that?
- Yeah, it's very interesting. So when I made my prediction about the war ending before the winter, it was early in the summer and there was no talk about a counter-offensive, there was a great deal of momentum coming from the Russians. In a war, momentum changes often. And I had specifically said that the probability, the highest probability was that the Russians would win. I still believe the highest probability is that the Russians will win. The demands coming from Ukraine are too great and Ukraine cannot sustain itself. Ukraine is 100 percent dependent on NATO and the United States for everything. It only has troops. It does not have weapons, it does not have training. All the weapons in training comes from NATO and comes from the United States. Of course, they're stealing back the weapons from the Russians as they win more territory, but those we've already seen are antiquated, unreliable weapons. So unless somebody from outside steps into help Ukraine, Ukraine does not have a chance to win by itself. And with the United States is about to go through a major election and the appetite will change.
The United Kingdom has gone through major leadership issues. Hungary doesn't unanimously support Ukraine and Hungary as part of NATO. So there's a huge shift going on that is unknown, but it all speaks to the fact that Ukraine can't resist on its own. I no longer, of course, I've updated my assessment. Clearly, Ukraine is not going to lose by the fall. Does that mean they're going to lose by the winter? It doesn't appear like Russia wants to attack over the winter. Russia's trying to increase its defensive positions. It's digging trenches, it's using missiles to attack electrical grids. If you look at it, it looks like what Russia wants to do is starve Ukraine, freeze Ukraine, damage Ukraine throughout the winter.
Let the winter be the weapon. That's what Russia is doing right now.
And then of course, Russia also knows that Nato's interest in supporting Ukraine is not going to last forever. As inflation is rampant, as energy bills soar, as sanctions have two effects. They were designed to affect Russia, but they're not really affecting Russia. Instead, the countries dropping sanctions against Russia are only hurting their own people. And Russia sees that. Russia is able to use China and India and Brazil as an offshoot to support their own economy.
What is really happening is the damage is being done to those NATO countries that are supporting sanctions and just increasing their own energy costs. So it's all very tricky. It's all very dynamic. My assessment still stands. Russia has the highest probability of winning. Ukraine has the highest probability of losing. It's not going to happen. Unfortunately, everybody was pushing. I saw all sides pushing for it to happen before the winter. And I think when you see the counteroffensive, the counteroffensive that was launched at the end of August, Zylinsky said himself that the reason they launched a counter offensive at that time was because he saw support for Ukraine waning. He saw that the West and NATO were not going to be supportive unless Ukraine had big military victories on the field. So he attacked, and where did he attack? He attacked in the North, because he knew that the north was not the primary focus of attack. Russian forces were thin in the north, they were thick in the South. And that's why this counter-offensive in the south didn't really worked very well, and the North worked very well. Now, you continue to see fighting in the Hairson region, that fighting has gone on for a long time. And if Russia retreats, if that's what they end up doing, if they destroy a bridge or a dam along the way. It's just further proof that what they're trying to do is isolate Ukraine and let winter do the work for them.