'The Americans' Producer Reveals His Secret CIA History
As FX turns 20, fifteen of TV's top scribes -- from Rescue Me's Denis Leary to Louie's Louis C.K. -- reveal what it's like to write for a network that encourages smart TV (almost) without rules as part of a series that The Hollywood Reporter is rolling out this week. This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
During my 3½ years at the CIA, I moved back and forth between training classes and headquarters, alternately being taught by and working alongside officers who spent most of their careers abroad. In order to protect their covers, all of these officers lied to their children about what they did. Like my fellow trainees, I told myself this was a necessary part of the job, one of the things you had to do to serve your country.
After I finished the training program, while waiting for my first assignment abroad, I was working on a desk in an office I don't think I can name without the Publications Review Board making me take it out. The office ran the biggest covert action in the history of the CIA (at least I remember somebody saying that; you never knew for sure at the CIA). One day the branch chief called me into his office and assigned me to do a file review of every agent being run by the office.
In this action-oriented agency, the phrase "file review" carried more or less the connotation of "read yourself to death." The branch chief looked at me sympathetically. I was being given this horrendous assignment because I was a newly minted case officer, too junior to protest. I nodded grimly and kept secret that I wanted to do it.
As I moved back and forth between the file cabinets and my desk over the next few months, with stacks of heavy orange plastic folders filled with thousands of pages of cable traffic, I got the kind of background in espionage you just can't get in that amount of time unless someone gives you access to every case in a large office at the CIA. Forget the theoretical agents we recruited in training. I read everything about the real agents that comprised the vast majority of CIA assets: how and why they were recruited, what intelligence they provided, how their case officers dealt with (manipulated) them over the years, when someone ended up dead, how it happened and what the response was.
I don't think I realized it, but I was probably done with the CIA at the end of the file review. The intelligence wasn't valuable, and none of the agents did anything useful to help with the covert action. On the other hand, my God -- the human drama in these files was incredible: the efforts to understand people, successful and otherwise; the relationships; the delusion; the desperation; the human needs laid bare. Put it together with a family lying to their kids about who they were and what they did, and you might just have a TV show.
Joe Weisberg is the creator of and an executive producer (with Graham Yost and Joel Fields) on The Americans, which is in its second season and airs at 10 p.m. Wednesdays.