©2019 Paul Kix. All rights reserved.

When making recommendations, I sometimes use affiliate links. These links don’t impose any cost on you, and they help support the free content I provide here.

Transcript

Episode 13: Outsmarting Terrorists, with Michele Rigby Assad

Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Paul Kix:
Welcome to another episode of Now That's a Great Story, the podcast that reveals an artistic world view through a single piece of work, and motivates you, the listener, to be just as creative. I'm your host, Paul Kix. My guest today is Michele Rigby Assad, a former CIA agent whose book Breaking Cover is not only a fascinating examination of the CIA during the war on terror, but a feminist manifesto of sorts. And Michele, it's great to have you with us today.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Thanks, Paul.

Paul Kix:
Let's set the stage. What I want to do is discuss what we sort of thought would be best is if we discussed a single episode from the book. But to do that properly, I think we need to sort of give a little bit of a prelude to that. So what I'd like you to do is to try to describe your childhood as a ... Think of it as a one minute advertisement. If you wanted to hit upon the major points of your childhood and your upbringing, what would you say?

Michele Rigby Assad:
I would say that I am a very simple person from a very simple background. I grew up in rural central Florida. I had a wonderful family, but I didn't know anything about the world. And so my future career was not even anything in the realm of what I knew was possible. I could've never have dreamed of working for the CIA, of all things. So I come from a very apolitical family that never discussed foreign affairs or anything of that nature. So this world was so far outside of anything that I knew growing up.

Paul Kix:
And when you met your future husband in high school, a man who's Egyptian, you said that you didn't know that Egypt was a country.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yeah.

Paul Kix:
Now I don't say any of this to shame you, Michele. But I just want to show how you really didn't start with any expertise whatsoever in the Middle East or Arab culture. Is that fair to say?

Michele Rigby Assad:
That is very fair. And I ever discussed that in my book because I wanted people to know really where I was coming from, which was Egypt is a really country. I didn't know that. And so when I met Joseph, I was like, "Oh, okay." I'd read about Egypt in the Bible, and I'd seen pictures about ancient Egypt. But I literally did not know it was a modern state.

Paul Kix:
Okay. So let's do this again. So for your graduate career and your entrée into the CIA, let make it another advertisement. Let's give it two minutes, though, this time.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Sure.

Paul Kix:
So what's the two minute advertisement of your life during those years? Because you have an undergraduate degree. And then can you talk about where you went, graduate school, into the CIA itself?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Sure. So I discovered that I had this passion for foreign cultures through National Geographic Magazine as a child. So in order to explore this interest, I started getting abroad as often as possible. So that as an undergrad took me to spend a semester in Egypt. And it took me on several mission trips with my college to Russia, Ukraine, Egypt. And then eventually, it took me to Georgetown University to get a master's degree in Arab studies. And I was completely fascinated by the Middle East and the Arab world because it was so different than anything that I knew or understood. And in order to grasp it, in order to make sense of this cultural chaos, I just took every chance I could to get to the Middle East and try to understand this really interesting place.

Paul Kix:
What was it that fueled this desire? Was it Joseph? What were the factors that led you to say, "Wow, I'd really like to start to focus my life in Arab studies"?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yeah. So my first mission trip was just a life changer for me. I was newly ... I'd just turned 18 years old. I'd just graduated high school. And I spent a month working in an orphanage in Egypt. And that month was so fascinating to me. It really whet my appetite to understand more. And I guess definitely Joseph factored into all this. He comes from a minority population in Egypt as a Christian. I started to become familiar with this concept of people not being equal, which sounds kind of weird as an American. You just think everybody lives like you, and then you go to different places and realize it's not the case. So I was trying to understand. Why do other people have to endure things like persecution? And so that is what I started trying to understand and explore. Where does that come from?

Paul Kix:
So does that exploration lead you ultimately to the CIA?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yes, it did because when I was at Georgetown, the CIA held an information session, and I attended that. And again, I thought it was fascinating. But there was nothing in that moment that made me think that I was CIA material. But I just ended up putting my resume into every single job application pile there was at Georgetown. And weirdly enough, I got no bites except from the CIA.

Paul Kix:
Wow.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yeah.

Paul Kix:
And you do this great job in the book. I mean, I don't want to go over everything in the book. But you do this great job in the book of showing the ways in which the CIA initially recruited you. You were intrigued. And then they seemingly, and without explanation, dropped their interest in you, only for it to be rekindled again. So when it's rekindled again, are you a little bit jaded? Or are you just as excited to work for the CIA as you were initially?

Michele Rigby Assad:
I really was so shocked when this first job that they had recruited me into to be an analyst was pulled out from underneath my feet just before I started that job. And so when I ended up then maybe a year later getting recruited into the completely other side of the CIA, the operations side, I had so many doubts, Paul. I really didn't understand what they did. And I had no idea if I was capable. So I was excited, but I was incredibly nervous and extremely intimidated.

Paul Kix:
And it's also, what's great about the book is it examines CIA culture itself. And I say this as somebody who just wrote a book about espionage. Right?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yes.

Paul Kix:
I didn't know all of the different facets of the CIA. There's the analysts, who analyze the information and the intelligence. And then there's the operational side, which actually is gathering it from various sources.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Correct.

Paul Kix:
And you wanted to be on the operational side because why? It's more adventurous. Can you help the audience understand what was guiding you toward that?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Well, when I got hired to be an analyst, it wasn't that I chose that position. It was just that they contacted me, and they said, "We want you for this job." And so later on, when a friend, after I had lost this analyst job, had said, "Hey, there's this other side. It's really cool. It's super interesting. And those are the actual spies." There was nothing, Paul, in that definition that made me think I was capable either. But again, I needed a job. And so I simply went into this thinking, "We'll see how far I can go down this road before I run into the wall of either rejection or flunking out." And it never happened. I got through training. I got hired. Next thing you know, right after 9/11, I'm getting sent to what felt like the edge of the Earth for my first tour for the CIA.

Paul Kix:
Just so the audience is aware as well, you're doing this with your then husband, right, Joseph?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yes.

Paul Kix:
He's also a CIA agent. And you guys were sort of, as you detail in the book, a two for one package. Right?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Right.

Paul Kix:
Like where you went, he could go.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Right.

Paul Kix:
Let's get into the episode itself. Now it's 2006. And you and Joseph are in your third locale for the CIA. You're outside Baghdad. It is the Iraqi War at sort of its worst. Right?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Correct.

Paul Kix:

This is not exactly an assignment that a lot of agents wanted because of just how perilous it was. Is that fair to say?

Michele Rigby Assad:
It was very fair that no one wanted to go and be part of the surge to Iraq in 2006, 2007. Nobody, no part of the US government, military, State Department, CIA, FBI, that was the last place you wanted to go was Iraq.

Paul Kix:
So there's this sort of instigating incident that sets off the thing that we'll discuss. And there is a non governmental organization. It's a Western organization, I believe an American organization as well. And it is attacked by terrorists. Would you care to tell the audience what exactly happened?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yeah. So a young official for this nonprofit was going to a meeting in a particular area of Baghdad. And she had a three car PSD, a protection to go with her. And upon leaving this meeting location, she was ambushed. And she ended up dying in her car. They had RPGs, they had AK-47s. They had grenades. I mean, a couple of her PSD walked away alive, which is shocking. But there were four or five of them that were killed in this incredibly brutal attack that was against people who were essentially trying to help Iraqis.

Paul Kix:
The organization, the CIA quickly ascertains that this is a terrorist attack. Correct?

Michele Assad:
Correct.


Paul Kix:
Yeah. And just so we can sort of set the stage a little bit, she was in the middle car. And then there was basically someone in front of her and someone behind her. Right?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yes, yes.

Paul Kix:
And I bring those details up only because for terrorists in Iraq at that time, if they see three SUVs sort of moving through streets, weaving through streets, does that suggest something?

Michele Rigby Assad:
It says there's somebody important here. And so the idea was, the speculation was that they potentially wanted to kidnap her and use her as a negotiating tool to get money, or resources, or simply to stage a beheading, which they often did just to scare everyone. At that time they captured, there was beheadings on videos. And you said, "All non Muslims, all Westerners need to leave Iraq."

Paul Kix:
A little bit of time passes. You are part of the team that's looking into this, and someone in your office, a CIA agent whom you name John in the book, John had developed a contact with a terrorist named Mohammed. And I want to read. Is it all right with you if I read a passage from the book? Because I actually think it will help people understand things.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yes.

Paul Kix:
Okay.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Absolutely.

Paul Kix:
Mohammed begins to cooperate with the CIA. And what I found interesting reading your book, Michele, was some of the reason for why terrorists would begin to cooperate.

Michele Rigby Assad:
So fascinating delving into the motivations is, I think, one of the most interesting parts of that job.

Paul Kix:
Oh, absolutely. Okay. With your blessing, I'll just read a few lines.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Sure.

Paul Kix:
Some are tired of the killing. Some feel used by their terrorist cohorts whose ideology and behavior they no longer buy into. And some just need the money. Others seek protection that they think is afforded to them when they partner with the all knowing and omnipotent CIA. And some choose to work with the agency to take out their competitors and increase their own influence and prestige on the streets. So among those reasons, what was it that was driving Mohammad?

Michele Rigby Assad:
He was such an interesting case. He was a true terrorist. There was no question about Abu Mohammad. And he was driven, oh, he hated Americans. He hated CIA. He hated non Muslim. So his ideology was very, very, very terrorist like, I should say. But he was working with us because basically he realized at some point that the bigger issue that the Sunnis were going to be dealing with were not coalition forces, but Shia. And so when it was presented to him in this way, like you're fighting us, we really don't want to be here, we want to leave. If you'll stop fighting us, then you can focus on your bigger issues, which is what happens to the future of Iraq. So for him, he was motivated not because he liked us, but because he was willing to work with us against Al-Qaeda. And ultimately, he just disliked the Shia.

Paul Kix:
So he's a Sunni Muslim working under the auspices of the Taliban?

Michele Rigby Assad:
It was a pretty significant insurgent group. So it was Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It was an insurgent group that sometimes cooperated with Al-Qaeda and sometimes turned against them. It was a very complicated landscape of alliances. And it changed depending on the day. So at this particular time, they decided they didn't like Al-Qaeda, and they were willing to work against them.

Paul Kix:
I see. Okay. So as I said a minute ago, this other agent in the office, John, he brings Abu Mohammad into the fold. And then at some point, you are brought into the investigation as well. Why is that?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yeah. It was because I was given the project nobody else wanted because we were all so very busy at this time. And that project was to determine who was responsible for this attack against this NGO official. And so I took that project. And when I presented it to various case officers, who handled sources I thought might have intelligence on the attack, they said, "Well, clearly nobody knows this like you do. You'd be the best person to come in here and ask these questions." So it finally broke open the door, Paul, for me to get into these clandestine ops with bad guys, and get in front of them and deal with them directly, which was so fascinating.

Paul Kix:
Yes. But there are very formidable stakes here. You lay out in the book, you had four strikes against you. Number one, you're an American. Number two, you're a nonbeliever, meaning you're not a Muslim. And actually, for the sake of the audience, you're a firm believer in Christianity.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Correct, yes.

Paul Kix:
So number three, you're a CIA officer. And number four, you Michele, are a woman.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yes. Every potential strike was against me.

Paul Kix:
So you're preparing for this first interrogation. And what is it that you tell yourself you need to do to overcome all of these barriers?

Michele Rigby Assad:
I need to focus, and I need to think about the fact that I have been preparing myself for years for this moment in time, and that I can do this. So even though I didn't feel confident, I did that internal self speak, like, "Michele, you can totally do this." You know what you're up against, and that's 99% of the problem is just realizing what your challenges are before you go into the meeting. So if I'm going to bridge this major gulf between me and Abu Mohammad, I've got to figure out a strategy really quickly to get him on my side, which obviously, as you can see, was no easy calling there.

Paul Kix:
Yeah. I'm wondering if there's something else at play too. Again, I'm going to quote from your book. In the sexually repressed culture of the Middle East, any opportunity for men to mingle freely with a woman feels illicit and exciting. So is the calculus? Is this knowledge part of your calculus as well?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Oh, I knew it. I knew as soon as I walked in that room that this is the first thing he's going to think of. So forget the whole, I hate Americans. I hate CIA. It was all going to be trumped by this whole sexual tension that's going to be there, and this excitement that he's going to feel at seeing me. And this might sound very odd to people who've never been to the Middle East, it's a dynamic that's kind of embarrassing to discuss, but yet it was one of the major dynamics that I had to, number one, understand, and number two, deal with.

Paul Kix:
I want to just for a moment, just briefly pause, because you mentioned this in passing. And I want to dwell on it. You say in passing that you'd been propositioned, followed, and harassed. Is that correct?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yes. I was used to this. I mean, I studied abroad. I spent a whole semester on the streets of Cairo. I mean, I really was mixing with the local population as much as I could, so I could really understand their culture. And so I was used to this strange sexual issue, so yeah, it was not new to me.

Paul Kix:
And I want to dwell as well, because we're going through a moment here domestically right now where women are speaking out and speaking their truth. And as I said in the intro, this book is a fascinating examination of the CIA and how it handled the war on terror. But it's also a fascinating examination of the CIA and its culture. So I'm wondering as well. Was the CIA a difficult place for a woman to work?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Oh, my goodness. Yes, it was. It was really interesting, Paul, because they didn't mind. They liked hiring women. But the thing was they would funnel women to a particular position, and they would funnel men into another. And their preference was very clearly to have men at what they called the tip of the end of the spear, who these were the ones meeting with sources and gathering the intelligence. And they trained the women to do the same thing, but their preference was, you do fewer operations, and do more stuff behind the desk. And I was taught by my first mentor, not taught, I was basically ... My first mentor just could not get over the fact, the idea, of women being operators. And he had been a living legend at the CIA. This guy had been one of those people that everyone else learned from. And he had been several decades into retirement. And the only women he'd ever worked with in the CIA were secretaries. So I'm starting out by being told by my first mentor, "I don't know what you think you're doing here, but I'm not really sure you're capable."

Paul Kix:
By my read of what you just described, because it's also in the book too, it seems like the women are pushed toward more secretarial positions. I don't mean secretarial in the sense that they're administrative assistants, but more like they are not on the front lines, quote, unquote. Or they're not doing the work of espionage as laypeople understand it. Is that fair?

Michele Rigby Assad:
It's very fair. And, Paul, I really thought for a while. I was like, "Well, okay. It's the CIA. They should know." Right? And so I believed them. And then it wasn't until I got to Iraq, and I looked at this complicated politics that were going on in this country. It was the reason why Iraq was falling apart. And then I looked at my colleagues, my male colleagues, and I was shocked because none of them had been to the Middle East. They couldn't speak a lick of Arabic. They had no idea the difference between Sunni, Shia, Yazidi, Christian. And so they were walking into this really complicated job with no experience. And I thought, "Well, how is it that he can do a better job than me?" And so I always tell people I just wanted to be judged on my expertise, not my gender. And across the board, I just want to be judged for what it is I bring to the table.

Paul Kix:
And this is in some sense another obstacle for you to overcome. You had the four strikes against you with respect to Abu Mohammad. And now you've got to deal with a CIA culture that even as late as 2006, is what? Is it questioning whether or not you'll actually be able to handle this interrogation with him?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yes. Exactly. And also, I heard multiple times from HR officers as well as leadership in the field that it just didn't seem like women could carry their own in this really tough environment, and understand how to deal with a culture that doesn't necessarily see women the same way we do in the West. They're right. You're dealing with very misogynistic males, whose ideas of what women are capable of are so different. But you've now completely, by just resting in that place, you're ignoring the fact that I have spent years of my life studying, trying to understand this culture, and the fact that I have what I need to get over these humps, that just wasn't ... No one even asked me: What's my experience in the Middle East? Multiple managers never even asked.

Paul Kix:
I just find that amazing. Yeah. I know.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Oh, my gosh.

Paul Kix:
And this is the CIA. All right. Well, let's get back to Abu Mohammad. What makes him so dangerous, Michele? What did he do on the outside, as it were?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Abu Mohammad had been what I would call a foot soldier in the insurgency. He was the kind of guy that, he'd kill someone without even thinking about it if that person, if he saw them as his enemy. So this guy really had no kind of conscience in that regard. So his ideology was such that if you're my enemy, I have every right to kill you if you won't convert, or you won't do what I want you to do.

Paul Kix:
You also provide in the book this sense for his personality and demeanor. He was clever. He could spot disingenuousness. This guy was not exactly going to be keen on trusting you. Right?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Oh, my gosh. Yeah. I mean, he was so street smart, very, very intelligent. And I mean, because when you think about foot soldiers in the mob, you've got to stay really fresh. And you've got to be very aware of your surroundings. You have to really understand people. He was that guy.

Paul Kix:
So at the same time, and I found this really fascinating about him too, he'd made these rather pedestrian, personal requests of John. What were some of these requests?

Michele Rigby Assad:
He wanted special pills to take to lose weight, and a special cream because he was losing hair. He was going bald, and he was trying to avoid it.

Paul Kix:
Really?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yeah. And here's this big, bad terrorist, who honestly has an ego the size of the room we were sitting in. And yet, he had this very pedestrian concerns like hair loss and battle of the bulge.

Paul Kix:
Wow. How old is he?

Michele Rigby Assad:
He was probably mid 30s.

Paul Kix:
And what was his level of education? You said he was street smart. Was he book smart, as well?

Michele Rigby Assad:
I don't think so. Nope. I mean, he probably finished high school and that was it.

Paul Kix:
So now let's get to the interrogation itself. All right. So you're about to go into the room, and I one of the many things I found fascinating about this whole episode, you have to take out your battery. Can you tell the audience why it is you have to take your battery out of your phone?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Well, you can be geo-located if your battery's still in your phone. And also, your phone can be used as a microphone. So foreign powers or foreign entities can access that microphone and hear or record your conversation.

Paul Kix:
So you guys are in a what? You're seemingly in a secure location. Right?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Correct.

Paul Kix:
Somewhere outside Baghdad. But these precautions are taken nonetheless.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Correct.

Paul Kix:
Okay. You open the door. And what happens when Abu Mohammad first sees you?

Michele Rigby Assad:
He does exactly what I expect him to do, which he jumps to his feet. And he has this look of surprise and delight on his face.

Paul Kix:
And surprise and delight why?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Because I'm a female about the same age. For him, I'm completely uncovered, so he can see my face. He can see my body. This is just not something he's used to. And the idea of being alone with a woman, I mean, there was the case officer and the translator, but the idea of being so close and being able to interact with someone like myself was just so exciting for him.

Paul Kix:
Okay. So there's you. There's him. There's a translator because while you speak Arabic, you're not fluent in it. Is that right?

Michele Rigby Assad:
That's correct, yes.

Paul Kix:
And then there's also somebody else in the room too?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yes, the person, it would be John, who normally handled that source.

Paul Kix:
So you say something in the book, so you're sort of like almost expecting this sort of lustful response. But then you say it's undercut by something else. You say in the book that you worried that he wouldn't respect you, in part because you couldn't protect him. And I'm wondering. You take that knowledge, this sense that, oh, I can't trust her because she won't actually protect me on the outside. What do you do next? How do you try to overcome these obstacles, the lust, this sense that perhaps that, you Michelle, can't protect him? How do you try to overcome that with him?

Michele Rigby Assad:
So these guys are essentially, they're very complex human beings. And so they are actually risking their lives to work with the CIA. So regardless of what we think about them, the fact that they've killed people, and they're terrorists and insurgents, they are putting their life on the line to work with the CIA. And so they have got to be sure that the person they're working with is capable and trustworthy. Because if you mishandle his information, or you leak his identity, he could be killed. And so the idea that when you walk in that room, you've got to establish some trust very quickly, because otherwise, he's just not going to work with you. He's not going to give you the intelligence you're looking for. So you have to establish I'm trustworthy. And more important, Paul, I am knowledgeable. I am intelligent. That was not what he was expecting.

Paul Kix:
This is coming through right now in just talking with you. But you also write in the book how your friendliness and your welcoming demeanor are often mistaken for a lack of sophistication or intelligence. So you are trying right after he sees you, and as you're sitting down, you're trying to front load the conversation with Abu Mohammad to indicate that you are well read and knowledgeable. And I'm wondering if there's a passage, and I'm wondering if you can read what it is that I'm talking about.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Sure. I said, "Abu Mohammad, I am so happy to meet you. I've been following your case closely and have been impressed with what you have accomplished in such a short period of time working with John. I very much appreciate your actionable intelligence, and your effort to get us this before attacks are carried out. It is not an easy thing to do, but obviously you are well connected and smart."

Paul Kix:
So then you start speaking Arabic to him. Why do you do that?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Because I need to show him that I know the Arab world. I need him to see that I didn't just fly into Baghdad from the United States and clueless about what's going on here. I needed him to know that I had studied Arabic and I had spent time in his part of the world.

Paul Kix:
So from his perspective, he's dealt with John. He's probably dealt with a translator. Is it a big surprise for him to run into a CIA agent who speaks Arabic.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Enormous, enormous. And I knew I had this translator, and I knew I needed the translator because in intelligence, every word matters. But regardless, I still must speak Arabic to him. so he gets that. And I need to use particular Arabic vocabulary, so that he understands I'm not just parroting five words. I've studied it.

Paul Kix:
How is it that he responds when you say that you've studied in Egypt?

Michele Rigby Assad:
He's like, "Wow. You studied in Egypt?" I mean, he's just shocked. And I'm like, "Yes, yes, I have." And I start talking about what it is I studied and when. And he's amazed. He looks at the case officer, and he laughs. This is not what he expected, which is exactly what I wanted his reaction to be.

Paul Kix:
Because now, to go back to the point we were raising a couple minutes ago, now have you successfully front loaded the conversation?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yes. And I kept just to continue reinforcing in his mind, I am smart. I am smart. I then went into some discussion about what was happening in his part of Baghdad.

Paul Kix:
What is it that you say to him with respect to sectarian violence, Michele?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Sure. I said, "Abu Mohammad, I'm concerned with what's happening in the Mansour District of Baghdad, with the uptick in sectarian violence and increased attacks against coalition forces there. The number of IEDs being deployed in your neighborhood is ridiculous. And they're not just killing our troops. They're killing innocent people. In fact, last week's IEDs mainly injured Sunni civilians, not coalition forces."

Paul Kix:
So when you say Sunni civilians, how is it that he responds?

Michele Rigby Assad:
He's realizing. I mean, it's almost like having to point out the obvious. And he kind of never thought about it like that.

Paul Kix:
Then you tell him that his real problems are much bigger than the US. What is it exactly that you say to him?

Michele Rigby Assad:
We need your help now more than ever if we're going to stabilize your neighborhood. The insurgent groups can continue these random and haphazard attacks, but as John noted, your real problems are much bigger than us. Iran's intervention in Iraq is much more harmful to the Sunnis than coalition forces are.

Paul Kix:
Okay. So how does he respond to this?

Michele Rigby Assad:
He was vigorously nodding. Yes. Yes, what you're saying is correct. And I could sense he was trying to grasp how a Western woman could know all of this, while at the same time saying, "Yeah, she's getting to the heart of the matter. This is exactly the problem we're dealing with."

Paul Kix:
So you're a Western woman in Western attire. Are you wearing a hijab or anything like that?

Michele Rigby Assad:
No.

Paul Kix:
And I sat on a panel with you down in Florida a few months back, so you were wearing business slacks that day, and a blouse. Fair to say that you were wearing something similar that day with Abu Mohammad.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yes. That's correct. Dressed conservatively, but I didn't change fundamentally who I was because I needed him to respect me. So I didn't cover myself because I also wanted him to see authenticity. And if I try to be something I wasn't, that wasn't going to work either.

Paul Kix:
You say in the book something that I find really interesting. At this moment, there is almost this change in the environment around you two. What is happening now between you two after you explain these factors to him?

Michele Rigby Assad:
As this revelation hit him, I sensed a sea change in his perception of who I was. He had quickly arrived at the place I needed him to be. He had decided that I was more than a woman, that I was an officer with whom he could trust. I had successfully recruited him to be my friend. And now he would think of me as a counter terrorism partner. And what a feeling that was.

Paul Kix:
You're starting to win the day, right?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yes.

Paul Kix:
What information, either in that session, or future interrogations, what is it that he is providing you?

Michele Rigby Assad:
He didn't have natural access. In other words, he was not dealing directly with the people who had caused this attack or planned it. But he went, and he asked around, and he provided some very good foundational second and third hand information, which I then used to focus my further queries and investigations.

Paul Kix:
Do you guys at the CIA end up figuring out the culprits of the attack itself?

Michele Rigby Assad:
No, not 100%. We had some ideas, but we could never pin it down, and that was very frustrating. But for me, even a situation where ultimately I didn't win in the sense of I did not get that golden nugget of information I was so desperate to acquire. I ended up walking away with this experience dealing firsthand with really bad guys. And I had my Oprah aha moment when I said, "Oh, my gosh. I now realize that not only was I good enough for the CIA, I'm actually really good at this job." And it was the first time I realized that.

Paul Kix:
How do your colleagues respond to this as Abu Mohammad opens up to you and begins to give you this information?

Michele Rigby Assad:
I think the leadership was surprised because, again, I'm smiley, I'm outgoing. And within the CIA, the leadership was not very good at saying, "Okay. Who do I have working for me? And what are their capabilities?" So a lot of them didn't even realize what it was I brought to the table. So at this moment, it's like, "Oh, wow. She's capable." I'm like, "For the love of God, I've been trying to say this for years. Give me a chance." And so it started opening people's eyes. And then it was really cool, Paul, because that was the moment in which people said, "You know, Michele, you're really good at this. There's this piece of information I've been trying to get out of my source for six months, or however long. He just refuses to give it up. Would you mind coming to my meeting and seeing if you could get it out of him?" And of course, I'm like, "Yes, of course." It was my favorite thing to do. I was like, "Yes." And so I became known as a person that was able to get these critical pieces of intelligence that these sources did not want to give up earlier because I used my emotional intelligence to size each and every source up as a unique person, as a unique human being. So I wasn't just slapping them with a label, CIA intelligence source. I would look at each and every person. Who are you? What motivates you? And then how do I communicate with you in a meaningful way?

Paul Kix:
Yeah. That's great. So you started to get these better assignments. And what I love about this is that what you do with Abu Mohammad that sets all this off is you're turning your presumed weakness into your strength. And earlier in the book, you'd written something that really stuck with me as I read through the episode with Abu Mohammad. You said, "If you can read others while thinly disguised." Excuse me. "If you can read others while thinly disguising your own hand, you can turn your "gender liability" into an advantage."

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yes. Yes. And I love, I just love the idea of being mis-assessed because, Paul, we all understand you can't help what other people think about you. They walk into the room with preconceived notions about who you are and what you're capable of. But I tell people all the time, "You've got a chance to change their mind before they walk back out that door." And even if you're mis-assessed the entire time, in the world of intelligence, it wasn't always a bad thing because they'd be like, "Oh, I'm being interrogated or debriefed by a girl. This is nothing." Well, I would end up getting such good insights because they didn't realize I was smart. And in a couple cases, even identified double agents who had no idea what I was doing because they didn't think I was very smart.

Paul Kix:
Did you read Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Oh, yes. I love that book.

Paul Kix:
I love that book. The opening chapter is actually the story of David and Goliath. Goliath was this giant. He was six foot nine. And in the battle, he was wearing a full bronze body armor. He had a javelin in one hand. He had a spear in the other. He had a sword at his hip. And he had an attendant preceding him. And David was a shepherd boy. And he was called to battle David. Excuse me, he was called to battle Goliath. And he only had, I think it was five smooth stones and a slingshot. So this story has been told for millennia as the underdog winning in the unlikeliest of situations. But Gladwell shows how the situation actually favored David the entire time because Goliath moved slowly, and he couldn't see well. The Biblical passages themselves actually dwell upon these facts. Goliath literally says, "Come to me, David," meaning, I cannot see you, so come to me so that we can do battle. And he also had this attendant preceding him, which is another indication that perhaps he couldn't see all that well. Because if he's such a mighty fighter, why does he have to have somebody who's going out in advance of him. Okay. So Gladwell shows that according to modern medical experts, Goliath likely suffered from a medical condition. And I'm going to perhaps botch this, but it's acromegaly, which is a disease caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland, which causes this overproduction of the human growth hormone, which would result in Goliath's size and vision problems. Okay. Now let's look at David. Right? David, he picked up stones and a slingshot. That means he was a slinger. And in ancient times, slingers were versions of the calvary. They were very accurate marksmen. They could hit and kill moving targets up to 200 yards. These stones were also like ancient bullets. They could pierce the skin, and sometimes even kill the enemy on the spot. So you take all of that into consideration, and you're like, "Well, of course David would've won." And what you're talking about, Michele, is so similar to this fascinating insight in Gladwell's book. You both have this idea that you can turn your presumed weakness into strength, your self styled faults to your advantage. And I'm wondering. How is it that that realization has informed your life since?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yeah. So you see it a lot these days where people talk about, it's just not fair that people think A, B, and C of me, or are judging me in this way. And I say fundamentally, find a way to use it to your advantage because in my life, I can't help how people perceive me because of who I am physically. I mean, obviously, you and I are going to be perceived differently. You're a tall guy. You're a muscular guy. I'm short, and I'm a little bit on the smaller side. And you know what, that's okay. But if you can figure out some way to use it to your advantage in the way that I did, and have done ever since, it's the biggest high in the world. Being able to get over this problem and to do it so cleverly is something that gives me such great satisfaction.

Paul Kix:
Yeah. And I said at the beginning of this conversation that your book is, to me, it read as not only, again, that examination of CIA, but a feminist manifesto of sorts. But I'm wondering now if feminist manifesto is even the right term to use because really, it's just a sort of pull yourself up by the bootstraps narrative.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Yes.

Paul Kix:
It's like, yes, you are a small petite woman. And yes, you overcame these perceived shortcomings. But it's really like this stuff that you're writing about is really applicable to anybody.

Michele Rigby Assad:
Absolutely. And I always remind people too. The way that I did that was contingent upon my ability to know who I was dealing with. So in other words, there is no replacement for having the expertise in that area. It was so fundamental to my success that I knew Arab culture really well. Without that, I couldn't have succeeded. I couldn't have gotten over these mountains that I had to cross. I tell people, "You can be the most well meaning individual in the world. But if fundamentally, you don't know your craft, you're not going to win."

Paul Kix:
That's, I think, actually a great place to stop. So Michele, I want to thank you. Now That's a Great Story is produced by Jeffrey Willet. If you like stories of espionage, might I suggest ever so humbly that you buy my book, The Saboteur. I believe both Michele and your husband, Joseph, have read it. Is that right, Michele?

Michele Rigby Assad:
Oh, I love your book.

Paul Kix:
I am not paying you to say that.

Michele Rigby Assad:
No, you're not paying me to say it. I love The Saboteur so much. If you want to learn what real spy craft was, look at what the SOE did in World War II against the Nazis. And your book is so well researched. It's both inspiring and also, as someone who loves intelligence topics, it is so fascinating. And you wrote it so well. So it's constantly moving. It's so exciting. I can see this as a movie someday. I highly recommend.

Paul Kix:
All right. Well, no one can see this, but I'm blushing. If you like this episode or any other episode of Now That's a Great Story, please go on iTunes and rate and review it. That's one of the best ways to spread the word. I'll be back next week with another episode. So long, everybody.

Untitled design-10.png