Voices: My father was in the CIA. I’m trying to make peace with his complex legacy

·6-min read
Flowers for the 9/11 anniversary outside the Pentagon  (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Flowers for the 9/11 anniversary outside the Pentagon (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

My dad cried on 9/11. I didn’t agree with all of his work in the CIA — but I know what I wish I had told him that day.

He joined in 1961 and, unlike many Cold War spies, he wasn’t recruited in college, approached by a “professor” who told him he had the chance to do important work protecting America. Instead, signing up was his own idea. It was the terror of knowing that the Soviet Union possessed nuclear weapons and was poised to use them that drove him to join, he told us.

When I was younger, I didn’t understand that kind of fear at all. All I saw was paranoid Dad, constantly looking over his shoulder while passing strangers on the street or checking the rearview mirror while driving. By the time I learned he was in the CIA, I was twenty and had formed my own worldview. According to my thinking, America was mostly on the wrong side of things. Not just America. Dad was on the wrong side of things.

During my freshman year at Boston University in 1983, my phone rang in the early morning hours. I stumbled across my messy dorm room and picked up the receiver. It was Dad. After a quick greeting, he said, “Listen — the US is going to invade Grenada. I’m telling you before it hits the news.”

I remember thinking, Grenada?Where is that?

“I need you to find a pen and take down the number to my hotel,” Dad continued. “I’ll be out of the country for a few days. You can leave a message for me there.” I scoured the floor for a pen, found one, and jotted down the number.

Hours later, I watched a news report about the US invasion of Grenada along with a handful of other students, including a girl I had a crush on. I pretended that I had zero connection to what was happening there and that my dad wasn’t in that faraway country doing who-knows-what. I hadn’t yet learned he was in the CIA — not officially. Similarly, I didn’t know he was running the intelligence arm of the invasion. When President Reagan came onscreen and gave the justification for the invasion — that American medical students studying there were in danger — I rolled my eyes and thought: More American imperialism.

A few years later, the Iran Contra scandal broke and the world learned that the US had secretly sold weapons to Iran in order to fund a war in Nicaragua. Not only that, but the CIA had been involved. I couldn’t let it sit.

“The CIA did this,” I said to Dad over the phone, summoning enough courage to confront him about his work.

“Where did you hear that?” he asked.

“The Miami Herald,” I answered.

“They never print the truth,” he replied.

I realized then we’d probably never be on the same page about anything. Not politics and not my sexuality. Though I was happy to challenge him about his work by then, I hadn’t found the courage to admit to him that I thought I might be a lesbian.

After graduating from college, I found an apartment in Boston, came out, and dove into an uber-queer life — marching in Pride, joining a women’s soccer team, and becoming a feminist radio broadcaster. Around that time, I met a lesbian couple from Cyprus. They told me stories about what it was like to be gay back home, and how women had to meet in secret rooms. I told them I had lived in Greece in the late 60s, and that it had been my father’s first field assignment with the CIA. When I said my family had arrived just months before a Greek military coup took over the government, they stared at me, stunned. They said the CIA had helped set up that coup. Shame engulfed me. Once again, my father was on the wrong side of things.

Eventually, when I got tired of hiding my sexuality from my father, I sent him a letter saying I was gay. He called right away and said it wasn’t normal to be the way I was but that we didn’t have to lose contact. Lame, I thought. From then on, whenever we talked, I shared little about myself. We stuck to small talk about the weather or our cats.

I was 40 when I decided the only way to deal with my shame around Dad and his career was to try and learn the truth about his assignments — especially the one in Greece. My investigation took years. It included scouring microfiche, meeting scholars, and traveling to the Greek islands. Eventually, it led to a series of conversations with my father and a breakthrough in our relationship. My outlook on his work shifted. I came to see that despite our differences, his focus on defending America and his belief in its ideals was genuine. I gained an appreciation, too, for his achievements: being Chief of Station in two countries, earning two Medals of Merit awards, writing books, appearing in documentaries, and teaching at universities.

But on 9/11, when the towers fell, these conversations hadn’t happened yet. Neither had my shift related to his work. Similarly, Dad still hadn’t accepted my sexuality or met my wife, Susan, the girl I’d had a crush on in college. I was living with Susan in California when I turned on the television and saw the devastating attacks in New York City and Pennsylvania. I was horrified. I had to call Dad. He will think this was his fault, I thought. Something his work couldn’t prevent.

It was my stepmother who picked up the phone. “Your father cried in his chair watching the footage,” she said. “Our apartment is right across from the Pentagon. We can still see the smoke.”

Dad got on the line. His voice, usually booming, sounded small. If we had recovered our relationship by that point, we could have shared our sorrow and tried as best we could to comfort each other. Instead, I failed to find the right words. Neither of us found a way to bridge the gap that existed between us that day. After a few minutes, the call ended.

My father has been gone ten years now, and 21 years have passed since 9/11. But I still think of Dad’s work in the CIA often. There are some assignments that are easier to embrace, like his first assignment on the Cuban Missile Crisis. He participated in every report and estimate leading up to the U-2 reconnaissance flight that confirmed the missiles being deployed in Cuba. It’s easy to be proud of the assignment that allowed President Kennedy to avoid war. But even the assignments I have trouble with, like the invasion of Grenada, I can now see from my father’s Cold War point of view, even if I still don’t ultimately agree with it.

Today, if I could have a do-over of that call on 9/11, I would try to listen better. I would share with Dad how sad the attacks made me feel, and despite our diverging points of view, I would try and hold us both in compassion — him, for all he had experienced in his nearly 32 years in the CIA, and me, for all I experienced as his daughter. More compassion and less judgment is what I would offer. I think it’s what we all deserve.

Leslie Absher’s memoir ‘Spy Daughter, Queer Girl: In Search of Truth and Acceptance in a Family of Secrets’ will be published on October 11