Author Interview: E.b. Held Reveals Secrets Of Espionage

New Mexico Intrigues Revealed By Former Cia Officer

Christie Chisholm
5 min read
Spy Guide
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E. B. Held wasn’t a spy, but he was a spy recruiter. He worked as a clandestine operations officer with the CIA for 27 years, stationed around the world in Asia, Latin America and Africa. When he retired, he moved his wife and three kids to New Mexico, where he served as the head of counterintelligence at Sandia National Laboratories for seven years.

A Spy’s Guide to Santa Fe and Albuquerque details a number of spy activities that took place in the two cities before and during the Cold War. The plan to assassinate Leon Trotsky? It was formulated in Zook’s, a Santa Fe drugstore.Crucial atomic information leaked to the KGB? It was passed to the Soviet Union by Los Alamos scientists.

Held realized the potential for the book during talks he gave at Sandia, outlining some of those activities as a form of awareness—to show that spy activities did and still could happen here. “People really liked it,” he says. Co-workers asked him if he would give a walking tour to go along with the lectures, and he agreed. “I thought 10 to 15 people would be interested. Six hundred people signed up in a few hours,” he says. Knowing there was no way to accommodate such a large crowd, he took a suggestion from his wife and wrote a book instead.

A Spy’s Guide includes instructions for self-guided walking tours amid the scintillating history lesson, and Held says he hopes readers have fun with the exercise. But beyond the obvious intrigue, he also says the book should provide some insight on the nature of espionage. “It’s very different than what people think,” he says. “People think it’s about blackmailing or bribing.” Most of the time, it’s about doing what’s right, sometimes with little to no monetary gain.

In his more than two and a half decades in the job, Held recruited about a dozen spies for the U.S. government. “In any population, there are about one per 1,000 of the people that might make a good spy,” he says. There was a particular psychological makeup he looked for, and it included two key character traits: A potential spy had to like Held and trust him, he says, and they also had to believe spying would benefit the greater good. “It’s a really deep relationship, really intense,” he says. “And a wonderful relationship.”

He likens looking for a new spy to looking for a lover; there’s a chemistry and inherent trust that’s necessary in the relationship between an operations officer and an agent, who may be risking his or her life to do the job. It also means that after years of working together, letting go of the relationship can feel impossible. “Imagine falling in love, and having to move, but you don’t retain contact,” he says. Or in the most terrible of circumstances: “Can you imagine if someone who you recruited was caught and executed?” Luckily, that never happened to one of Held’s recruits. “But it certainly happened to friends of mine,” he says. “It’s a pretty traumatic experience. Terribly traumatic.”

As you might imagine, there are other difficulties that come with the job. Held’s life was periodically in danger, as were the lives of his family members. “They were evacuated out of one country under gunfire a couple times,” he says. He’s talking about Chad, where he was stationed during a flurry of political unrest. It was too dangerous for his family to return, and so they were separated for two years. Held could only have contact with them through weekly 30-minute phone calls and the occasional (and brief) rendezvous.

Held also had to keep his job a secret, using the cover of “diplomat” with the outside world. He was able to tell his wife, then eventually his children when they were old enough. But there are parts of his job he still can’t disclose, even to them. He laughs, remembering when he told his two youngest kids about his real job. “They thought I was a drug dealer,” he says. Finding out he was just a spy recruiter was a relief.

Despite the hardships of the job, it’s one Held loved. “I can’t imagine having done anything else as a livelihood,” he says, “and my wife and I are exhilarated that it’s over.” Held now serves as director of intelligence and counterintelligence at the Department of Energy. He’s also got another book due to come out next year, this one about the Kennedy assassination.

Held wants readers to be aware of potential threats. “Don’t be paranoid,” he says, “but be realistic.” If you have access to important intellectual property and think you may be a target, “reach out to somebody,” he adds. “Don’t try to play the game; you’re not going to win.”

E.B. Held talk and book signing

Sunday, Aug. 21, 3 p.m.


4022 Rio Grande NW


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