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The Secret Life of Agent Hillsberg

Christina Hillsberg, who was with the CIA from 2006 to 2015, says the biggest misconception about field agents is that they’re always in the middle of a James Bond-style chase down. “Generally, CIA officers do not carry weapons,” Hillsberg explains. "If someone pulls a gun on you or you’re being chased, you’ve done something terribly wrong. The goal is to [operate] in the shadows and steal state secrets without anyone knowing.” Photo by Alex Crook.

In 2006, Christina (Fonte) Hillsberg, BA’06, took an oath and joined the Central Intelligence Agency as an analyst. She would spend nearly a decade writing briefs for U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on East Africa affairs, uncovering intimate details about world leaders, and meeting with assets to collect confidential information. Having left behind the secret life of an international spy, Hillsberg is able to offer a small peek behind the CIA curtain.

The one distinct thing Hillsberg remembers about her CIA recruiter is that he looked like Sean Penn.

“It was so bizarre,” she says. “It was not Sean Penn, at least not that I’m aware of.”

At a mere 21 years old, Hillsberg interviewed with the Agency—but not before telling a little white lie.

“I didn’t know [the interview] was for the CIA, I just knew it was for a government agency,” she explains. “[The day before my interview,] my Zulu class at IU Bloomington went up to Chicago to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I decided to stay the night, and I completely skipped the interview.”

The following day, she told the recruiter a revised version of the story—blaming car trouble for her absence.

“Then, [on my way home from Chicago,] I was about an hour outside of Bloomington, and I had car trouble. I learned a very important lesson that day,” Hillsberg says with a laugh.

Luckily, the Sean Penn look-alike was persistent; the interview was rescheduled and Hillsberg soon found herself in a sterile, white room undergoing a four-hour polygraph test.

“[The cord around my waist] was very tight and they didn’t care,” she says. “It was a terrible experience. I went to McDonald’s afterwards, and I remember crying into the speaker as I said, ‘I’ll have a Happy Meal.’”

In her memoir/parenting book—License to Parent: How My Career as a Spy Helped Me Raise Resourceful, Self-Sufficient Kids—Hillsberg recounts her recruitment:

I failed my first polygraph on account of suspicions that I was a drug smuggler, all because of a pot muffin I consumed during a layover in Amsterdam and failed to tell them about. Luckily, I had another opportunity the following day. I passed the second attempt with flying colors, and four months later, I found myself sitting in a room with about 50 others taking an oath to spy for our country.
Christina Hillsberg stands on the seal at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Fairfax County, Va., after graduating from the Agency’s analytic training. Photo courtesy of Christina Hillsberg.

The polygraph, Hillsberg goes on to explain, is simply a tool to get people to fess up.

“There’s a reason why it’s not permissible in court. A polygraph is only as good as the [person] who is administering it,” she says. “People who have been caught as traitors have always passed the polygraph. A lot of that has to do with the fact that they didn’t feel guilty about what they were doing.”

Ironically, years later, during a routine CIA polygraph, Hillsberg remembers being so relaxed that she fell asleep with her eyes open.

“I had nothing to worry about,” she says. “I wasn’t sharing secrets with anyone. I had been up late on the phone with my boyfriend, and I was tired.”

A Fork in the Road

Joining the CIA wasn’t a path Hillsberg had imagined for herself. While at IU, she studied linguistics—the study of language and its structure—and two African languages. Her passion for Africa and its people seemed to be pointing her toward humanitarian work.

Following a discouraging interview with the Peace Corps and a CIA offer in hand, Hillsberg was faced with a dilemma: If she accepted the Agency job, she would forfeit any future with the Corps.

“The [Peace Corps] doesn’t want to jeopardize the integrity of missions with suspicions that people could be spies,” Hillsberg explains. “I knew that when I went the Agency route, I was closing a door.”

People join the CIA for various reasons—patriotism, the desire to be James Bond—but Hillsberg admits she joined out of love for a foreign land.

“I saw joining as an opportunity to educate and inform,” she says. “Africa is a part of the world that people have a lot of preconceived notions about. You don’t make policy as an intelligence analyst, but you can objectively lay out options and opportunities for the U.S. to have potential impact.”

Trips Across the Globe

The first time Hillsberg visited Africa was as a Fulbright Scholar the summer after her sophomore year at IU. She spent seven weeks in Tanzania, where she studied Swahili and lived with a host family who was instructed not to speak English. Her study-abroad experience was eventful thanks to a one-night hospital stay.

“I was hospitalized for tonsillitis,” Hillsberg recalls. “I was severely dehydrated, so they put me on an IV drip and administered antibiotics. It was a small hospital with several young kids who were ill. I remember being very scared—it was my first time being that far away from my parents.”

She wasn’t the only one in her Fulbright cohort that got sick that summer. Nearly everyone dealt with giardia—a tiny parasite found in soil, food, or water. Hillsberg avoided the stomach bug that trip, only to experience its wrath on a subsequent visit to the region.

Christina Hillsberg published License to Parent in June 2021. Image courtesy of G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

During her near decade at the CIA, Hillsberg took frequent trips to the continent for Agency business.

“I had the opportunity to travel to Africa with President George W. Bush while he was in office and then again with President Barack Obama during his presidency,” she says. “I can’t give you details about what I was doing on these trips, as those are classified, but I can tell you that both trips remain highlights of my career.”

As an analyst, Hillsberg’s primary role was to brief the president and other U.S. policymakers on East Africa.

“Every day I would review intelligence traffic that had come in overnight from my part of the world,” she explains. “If there was something going on in my area, such as a disputed election or terrorist attack, I’d write [a report to be included in] the President’s Daily Brief. If our president was going to meet with one of the presidents that I followed, I provided the psychological and biographic assessment of that leader—everything from how the person leads to their inner circle to their [personal] likes and dislikes.”

Spotting James Bond

Hillsberg describes working at CIA headquarters as an isolating situation. The demands of the Agency—long hours and secret-keeping—made it challenging to foster friendships and romantic relationships outside of the building.

Spending most of our waking hours at work meant meeting someone outside the CIA bubble was highly unlikely for us, and for this reason and others, it was common for many CIA officers to date from within. After all, it was easier to date someone who understood the secretive lifestyle. More than that, they had already been through the same extensive security and psychological checks that you had. Free vetting, so to speak. In some ways, this made dating simpler, but in other ways, it made CIA Headquarters an incestuous pool, filled with operations officers practicing their, at times, manipulative tradecraft … with you as the target.

Hillsberg’s dating anecdotes sound like storylines plucked straight from Sex and the City. There was the guy who took her to a gun range on the first date. The guy who cooked her crêpes naked. And the guy who rifled through her underwear drawer.

“I learned the hard way how to spot the James Bond wannabees.You just hope every relationship ends on good terms because you will see them again,” she says. “Every time I went to the cafeteria, I could pretty much count on running into someone [whom] I had dated.”

Despite numerous bad dates and a failed cohabitation, Hillsberg hadn’t given up on love. Little did she know that a career pivot would lead to a promising new romance.

Field Agent Status

Roughly six years into her career at the CIA, Hillsberg left her desk job to go undercover. She was tasked with recruiting foreign assets who were willing to share intelligence with the U.S. government.

To prepare for field work, Hillsberg went through surveillance detection training. This included the practice of designing and memorizing routes.

A surveillance-detection route is what the CIA calls a preplanned circuitous route that enables an individual to determine whether they’re being followed. It was rare for analysts like me to have the training, but my rotational assignment in the DO [Directorate of Operations] required an intensive, at times grueling, surveillance-detection course. It was there that I learned how to plan a route with natural look-backs, how to identify makes and models of cars by their headlights in the dark, and ultimately how to ensure I was arriving at my asset meeting clandestinely to ensure their safety and my own.

“These routes can be hours long,” Hillsberg says. “It can be single mode or multi-mode, which means part of the route might be on foot, then you might get on a metro, and then you might hop in a car or a cab. You design a route knowing exactly what streets you’re going to be walking or driving on and every turn you’re going to make. It’s all memorized.”

Before Hillsberg could send her book, License to Parent, to the printer, it had to be thoroughly read by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board. “I signed the CIA secrecy agreement, so I can’t publish anything related to my job without getting clearance,” she says. Photo by Alex Crook.

Asset meetings are almost always taken alone, and, generally, CIA officers don’t carry weapons.

“We’re not law enforcement,” Hillsberg says. “So much of espionage is about building trust with the asset. Trust isn’t formed when you’re sitting across from someone with a gun and a badge. Plus, we can’t know the veracity of the information because the asset could feel that they were intimidated into sharing things.”

In the movies, sex and money are often offered in exchange for confidential information. In real life, CIA agents use the “You Me, Same Same” approach, where they build rapport with an asset through common interests. But first, a “bump” takes place.

I found the training on how to bump a target (making a moment seem natural, like a chance encounter, or a “bump”) remarkably similar to rushing a sorority in college, although I’m sure if I shared that with my instructors, they would have insisted this was much more complex. Role-playing was common in DO training, and we took part in fictitious diplomatic receptions for training purposes. Before entering the room, we were given a photo of our target and a few details about him or her—things like hobbies, interests, likes, and dislikes. Our goal was to use the information on the card to identify the target, strike up a meaningful conversation, and ultimately secure a second meeting. Similarly, in my sorority house [Phi Mu] we received a photo and biographic details of the girls who were rushing prior to their arrival. We then lined up according to how the girls would arrive. If all went as planned, you were paired up with the girl about whom you had read before the arrivals. It was gold.

After successfully bumping a target, Hillsberg’s objective was to land a second meeting and eventually develop an authentic relationship with the potential asset. She did so by using the tactic “You Me, Same Same.”

“I once had an asset who spent significant time in Africa,” Hillsberg says. “I knew from the artifacts on his walls and the jewelry he wore, how special [Africa] was to him. We frequently talked about our love for the continent, and it helped me build a relationship of trust with him.”

Love and Espionage

Intelligence collection is an art, not a science. Those with a knack for making legitimate connections with assets are often the most successful operations officers.

Talent for espionage was what first attracted Hillsberg to her now husband, Ryan. The pair met at an undisclosed CIA field station when Christina left headquarters for clandestine asset recruitment.

“Ryan has this ability to get people to share things with him that they’ve never shared with anyone else. I learned so much from him,” says Hillsberg. “He’s a smooth operator, but not in a smarmy way, in a very genuine way. At our station, he was the top intelligence producer, and I was No. 2.”

Christina and Ryan Hillsberg. Photo by Gabriel Van Wyhe.

On a few occasions, the power couple ran cases together. After they were married in 2014, the agency no longer allowed them to work together. But that didn’t stop her from reading Ryan’s asset meeting notes.

“One woman had told him that she felt like they were soul ties—that they had known each other in another life,” she recalls. “She was a 70-year-old nuclear scientist, and they had bonded over their love for medieval knives and bread baking. It was hilarious to read.”

Ryan and Christina left the agency to raise their family and return to civilian life in 2016. For a brief time, the couple worked together at Amazon in cybersecurity. Today, Christina is focused on writing nonfiction books and developing a TV show loosely based on her CIA dating life. Ryan is the director of corporate security for a global biotech company.

“It’s an adjustment going from such a secretive life to now openly talking about it,” Hillsberg says. “But part of me always knew I would leave [the Agency]. I didn’t know how or what the circumstances would be, but I always envisioned a life where I could hop a flight to wherever in the world without permission or eat a pot muffin, if I dare.”

You can read more about Hillsberg’s book and CIA-inspired parenting style in Secret Agent Mom.

This article was originally published in the Summer/Fall 2022 issue of the IU Alumni Magazine, a magazine for members of the IU Alumni Association. View current and past issues of the IUAM.

Excerpts, in italics, are from License to Parent by Christina and Ryan Hillsberg, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Bear One Holdings, LLC.

Written By

Samantha Stutsman

Samantha Stutsman, BAJ'14, is a Bloomington, Ind., native and a senior content specialist at the IU Alumni Association.

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