Spies, Cairo, and Cats on The New Yorker

I don’t know how I feel about rumours that Apple might buy part or all of Condé Nast – yes, their unlimited resources might boost journalism, but there is a long history of tech companies buying news companies and it usually doesn’t end well. Still, if Apple brought more readers to stories like these two from this week’s New Yorker issue, that’d be a small win:

The Spy Who Came Home by Ben Taub. The training process at the Farm sounds incredible:

[Skinner joined the C.I.A.] during the early days of America’s war on terror, one of the darkest periods in its history, and spent almost a decade running assets in Afghanistan, Jordan, and Iraq. He shook hands with lawmakers, C.I.A. directors, the King of Jordan, the Emir of Qatar, the Prime Minister of Singapore, and Presidents of Afghanistan and the United States. “I became the Forrest Gump of counterterrorism and law enforcement,” he said, stumbling in and out of the margins of history. But over the years he came to believe that counterterrorism was creating more problems than it solved, fuelling illiberalism and hysteria, destroying communities overseas, and diverting attention and resources from essential problems in the United States.

Meanwhile, American police forces were adopting some of the militarized tactics that Skinner had seen give rise to insurgencies abroad. “We have to stop treating people like we’re in Fallujah,” he told me. “It doesn’t work. Just look what happened in Fallujah.” In time, he came to believe that the most meaningful application of his training and expertise—the only way to exemplify his beliefs about American security, at home and abroad—was to become a community police officer in Savannah, where he grew up.

“We write these strategic white papers, saying things like ‘Get the local Sunni population on our side,’ ” Skinner said. “Cool. Got it. But, then, if I say, ‘Get the people who live at Thirty-eighth and Bulloch on our side,’ you realize, man, that’s fucking hard—and it’s just a city block. It sounds so stupid when you apply the rhetoric over here. Who’s the leader of the white community in Live Oak neighborhood? Or the poor community?” Skinner shook his head. “ ‘Leader of the Iraqi community.’ What the fuck does that mean?”


Training begins at the C.I.A. headquarters, in Langley, Virginia, where aspiring case officers develop cover identities to facilitate clandestine work abroad. After a few months, they are sent to the Farm—a sprawling, wooded campus in southeastern Virginia. There, for about nine months, the students inhabit an increasingly complex role-playing scenario, in which the Farm is a fictitious unfriendly country and the instructors serve as teachers, tacticians, sources, border guards, and officers of a hostile intelligence agency. Case officers rarely steal secrets themselves; instead, they recruit well-placed foreigners to pass along information.

Students practice their recruitment skills at fake embassy parties. Each is assigned a target from the host country, and is tasked with carrying out conversations that play to the target’s interests and hobbies; by the end of the evening, students are expected to have elicited their assets’ contact details, which are used to begin a delicate, months-long process of recruitment. The next day, they receive feedback on their approach. They lose points for tells as minor as drinking beer from a bottle; diplomats typically use a glass.

The Personal History section is seemingly written for people 30 years older than me, but Cairo: A Type of Love Story by Peter Kessler was a lovely tale:

After Morsi arrived, the mice vanished. He ate the heads of a couple, leaving the bodies behind, and others stopped showing up. The coat markings of Egyptian Maus resemble those of cats that are portrayed on the walls of ancient tombs, and even the name is old: in pharaonic times, mau meant “cat.” Maus are agile, and they are characterized by a flap of skin that extends from the flank to the hind leg, which allows for greater extension. These house cats have been clocked at speeds of up to thirty miles per hour.

The toddlers, like the mice, learned to give Morsi a wide berth. He had no patience for their chattering and tail-pulling, and he scratched each of them hard enough to draw blood. This was handled efficiently: one attack on Ariel, one attack on Natasha. Leslie and I thought about having Morsi declawed, but it would have put him at a disadvantage against the neighborhood’s rodents and stray cats.

It was impossible to keep him inside. He was strong enough to open screen windows and doors, and he hid around the apartment’s entrance, waiting for an opportunity to dart out. Often I’d hear cat screams within minutes of his escape. We had a small garden, where strays liked to gather, but Morsi refused to tolerate them. Many times, I saw him drive some scraggly animal out through a gap in the spiderweb fence.

Sayyid, the neighborhood garbageman, warned me that somebody might grab Morsi. “He’s a beautiful cat,” Sayyid said. “Qot beladi.” People often used this phrase—“a cat of the country”—when they saw Morsi and his stripes. Egyptians are believed to have been the first cat breeders in history, and they loved the animals so much that they forbade their export more than thirty-seven centuries ago. They used to call Phoenicians “cat thieves,” because the seafarers snatched them for their ships.

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