Breaking Cover: A Former International Spy Shares Valuable Lessons She Learned from Her Secret Life in the CIA
How does a small-town Southern girl become a fierce secret intelligence officer who fights terrorism in treacherous Middle Eastern war zones?
Michele Rigby Assad, a CIA intelligence operative and an ex-counterterorrism expert, led highly skilled secret missions in some of the most dangerous places on Earth. She and her husband Joseph were a husband-and-wife clandestine team, the Mr. and Mrs. Smith of the CIA. Both were familiar with the Middle East, both spoke fluent Arabic, and unlike many other agents, both were willing to deploy anywhere in the world.
Serving in the Middle East, the couple faced real threats and navigated through perilous missions. Yet, through their remarkable journey, Michele discovered a faith and a purpose that outweighed her greatest fears.
Michele Rigby Assad has been cleared by the CIA to drop her cover and share her personal story in an explosive tell-all book, Breaking Cover. In the book, the reader is granted unique access to Assad’s secret life as an international spy and a counterterrorism officer, as well as a female who succeeds in a male-dominated field. Most importantly, the book is an inspirational journey of an ordinary person who discovers her own ability to do extraordinary things in the most unusual circumstances.
Here is an EXCLUSIVE PolitiChicks interview with Michele Rigby Assad:
PC: How did you know that being an intelligence operative/counter-terrorism expert was your calling?
MA: I actually never dreamed of being a spy. In fact, if you would have told me twenty years ago that my calling would involve traveling to dangerous war zones and dealing with jihadists, I would have thought you were crazy.
While I never strayed far from home growing up, I would catch glimpses of the wider world from my neighbor’s National Geographic magazines. Also, missionaries would occasionally visit our church to talk about their work in other cultures. I just found other cultures to be so intriguing. Yet, my family was simple and we didn’t ever discuss politics or international affairs. And those who grew up with me only knew me as a sweet Southern girl.
But then I met my husband Joseph my senior year of high school. He was from Egypt and he was unlike anyone I had ever met before. He grew up in Egypt at a time when it had given birth to a hostile form of violent extremism. He described his experience of being threatened by classmates whose parents were members of secret terrorist cells and how he was deliberately blocked from entering the university (in Egypt) because he was a Christian. His story amazed me, especially since I lived a pretty sheltered life. Joseph opened my eyes to a world I ever knew existed. Shortly after we met, we traveled to Egypt. We also traveled to many other places in the Middle East. Those travels changed the course of my life.
I ended up graduating from Georgetown University with a master’s degree in contemporary Arab studies.
Joseph and I eventually became operations officers in the CIA. After completing the clandestine training program, we worked as a husband-and-wife team. This worked out great for the CIA because we were willing and able to go to places most other agents weren’t, and also because we were kind of a “buy one, get one free” deal. While we both received salaries, we required only one set of housing-related expenses. We were a bargain.
It worked out great for us as well. Not only were we able to provide each other with invaluable emotional support, we were able to share our experiences with each other and we had each other to lean on. It was really nice to know that wherever we went, there was another set of eyes watching out for us. We also got to carry the burden of living undercover together.
PC: What was it like being a female working in a male-dominated field?
MA: I decided that I was still going to learn everything that I could from them, even when they underestimated me. My friendliness and welcoming demeanor are often mistaken for lack of sophistication or intelligence. Because of this, I had to demonstrate that I was not only knowledgable, but capable as well.
PC: What were your biggest concerns or fears as you served some of the most treacherous areas in the Middle East?
MA: It could be extremely dangerous in some of these places. One location where we served was one of the carjacking and kidnapping capitals of the world. In fact, one of my predecessors at work had been carjacked right there in the city. Kidnappers used to treat hostages like honored guests because they would use Western hostages as leverage with the government for some service they needed for their village. However, in recent years, kidnappings turned into a deadly sport that ended up in deaths of victims. Tribal men would take foreigners captive and sell them to al-Qaida for money. And one thing I knew was that those kidnappings never ended well. So, I knew I had to do all that I could to avoid being kidnapped.
Unfortunately, there are many stories of people who became paralyzed by fear and ended up victims of terrorist attacks. More often than not, people die by simply not doing anything. That’s what the instructors were trying to condition us for in our simulated ambushes during our counterterrorism training–to conquer the tendency to freeze. We had to have the capacity to react, to move.
PC: What did your secret life in the CIA teach you about what’s worth fighting for?
MA: A couple of things. One is really critical is holding onto your faith. There were so many times when I couldn’t get a job and I went through so much rejection and it just seemed like every door slammed in my face. It was absolutely critical for me to hold on when I didn’t understand why. And it was not letting go of my faith that enabled me to stay on a path that I didn’t know I was on and got me where I needed to go. For me, it was faith in God that was absolutely critical. Secondly, I learned that it is really important to fight for your own authenticity. I can’t conduct an operation like my husband does or like all of my colleagues. I had to find a way to be myself, to be uniquely Michele with my empathetic nature, my friendliness, my expertise. And when I allowed myself to do it that way, that’s when I really shined in that job. But it took me years in the CIA to figure that out. So, it is absolutely critical to fight to be who you are and to do things your unique way even though it can be very intimidating in places like the intelligence sector, the CIA, the military, or big business.
PC: How are you now using your unique background and platform to educate and inspire people?
MA: When people hear my bio, it sounds so impressive that I traveled to so many countries and was undercover with CIA and in counterterrorism. But when people meet me, they say, “You’re so normal.” Yes, and that’s the point. One of the key messages of my book is being able to use my own story to show that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when their faith is greater than their fear.
PC: How did you get involved in the mission to relocate internally displaced Iraqis to Slovakia?
MA: My husband and I try to do our best when we are called upon to help persecuted Christians and other minorities when they are in bad situations. We haven’t done anything as big as that particular rescue mission. In fact, it was featured on ABC’s 20/20 a while back. Of course, my husband being a Christian from Egypt who was denied a university education because of his faith, he has a special place in his heart to help others the way that he was helped.
PC: Many Christians are being persecuted in other areas of the world, especially in the Middle East. What was your personal experience traveling to these particular places?
MA: I think everybody is pretty clear that ISIS is horrible and they kill people who don’t agree with them and we are all very clear on that now. But what people don’t understand is what it’s like to live as a minority in Muslim majority countries. And when I say minority, I mean Christians, Yazidis, a Muslim who no longer has their faith, an atheist or an agnostic. Whatever that is that’s no the accepted norm, it is very difficult to live your life in a place that, by law, treat you differently.
For example, when I travel to certain Arab countries, they see my last name Assad and they immediately ask me how it is pronounced. Because one pronunciation of my name is Christian and one is primarily Muslim. So, they are saying, “I need to know what your name is so I know how I should be treating you.” So, on a very basic subtle level, that gives a tiny glimpse into this world where you’re not treated the same and you have this undercurrent of “you’re not okay if you aren’t a Muslim.”
PC: What was it like being a female working in cultures that are extremely oppressive toward women?
MA: The kind of sources that we met with were radical ideologues, jihadists, and really bad guys. So, in their mind, I’m like the opposite of what they expect to be dealing with when I’m the one that walks in the door to do the debriefing. In their mind, I shouldn’t be outside the home and I shouldn’t be uncovered in front of someone who is not my relative. So, how are you going to get that source to give you critical pieces of intelligence to stop a terrorist attack when they don’t think you’re intelligent and don’t think you know anything about the Middle East ? They have no respect for you. Therefore, I had to get over these massive misconceptions about me in order to get these guys to deal with me as a CIA intelligence officer. Primarily because they’re risking their lives to work with the CIA. If they don’t trust you, they’re not going to give you those details.
PC: Getting back to all the displaced families from war-torn areas. That’s been a debate here in the United States and many Americans have a real fear of refugees coming here. What can you say to Americans who have these types of fears?
MA: What I would say is not to be fearful of people coming into our country. Instead, find ways to engage them or reach out to them. There are so many churches and other groups that are providing support to refugees. They’re doing English as a second language courses and they’re helping them get reestablished in new places. It is so very hard to integrate into a new country, even when you want to. It’s the hardest thing being completely uprooted and thrown into a new culture where you’ve got to go to work and learn a new language. Think about how hard that would be. So, that’s what a lot of them are dealing with and I think the best way to show who you are as a people is to give help and support to the refugee who is the person who has lost everything and is coming here to establish a new life.
PC: What other encouragement would you like to share with our readers?
MA: I’m really trying to encourage people to do the things that scare them. Because I think so often, we can get wrapped up in “I’m passionate about this thing, but I don’t know how to go forward” kind of thinking. People are often intimidated to try new things. I’m saying, “Look, if you wait until you have confidence or you wait until your fear subsides, you’ll never move forward.” Everything I have ever done in my life, I’ve walked into with so much fear and trepidation and questions about my capabilities, and I did it anyway. So, we have to encourage each other every single day in our lives to do the things that scare us. It can be so hard to do. But I tell people that it’s the baby steps that get you where you need to go.
PC: What’s next for you after your book tour?
MA: My husband and I still work as security consultants. Most of what we’ve done since leaving the CIA has been international and now that we are back in the United States we are starting to focus to provide more of our expertise locally. So, that’s helping churches with training, active shooter-type training, helping international travelers, helping students who are going to study abroad, helping train them on how to keep themselves safe. So, these are new areas that we’re exploring right now, which is super exciting.
Assad’s new book, Breaking Cover, is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Books A Million, and Walmart.