Former CIA operatives discuss careers in intelligence at Penn State

Jennifer Gibbs can tell you her real name, at least for now.

She can tell you she worked for a Turkish-American nonprofit, that she is in the first of a two-year master’s program at Penn State’s School of International Affairs and that she’d love to be in a job that ties together foreign affairs and public service.

Gibbs might not be able to tell you any of that in 2017 if she follows in the path of Mary Beth Long and Valerie Plame Wilson, both 1985 Penn State graduates who became covert operations officers for the Central Intelligence Agency shortly after they left Happy Valley for foreign lands.

Long and Wilson, leading less secretive lives since leaving the CIA, spoke about careers in the intelligence field Monday at the Lewis Katz Building. They are also School of International Affairs advisory board members.

Their resumes are long.

Wilson’s work involved preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, until her identity was leaked by the Bush administration in 2003. She would later pen The New York Times best-selling memoir, “Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House.” Her story was later portrayed by Naomi Watts in the movie “Fair Game.”

Long served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, the first woman to serve at that level in the Secretary of Defense Office, and was appointed as the first woman to head the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s high-level group responsible for nuclear policy. She was also the deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and was the architect for the Defense Department’s initial training of Afghan police.

Their stories, told carefully to not give too much away, are equally impressive.

“We identified someone ... who was sort of the Wal-Mart of the Colombian Cali Cartel,” Long said. “When they were not in Colombia and needed things done, this guy, for reasons I can’t go into, was the guy. We decided he was vulnerable.”

The man, she said, was obsessively convinced he had a Scottish ancestor.

Long decided to hold “St. Andrews Day,” a celebration sponsored by a new organization in the area.

“Magnificently, by some strange quirk of nature, he got an invitation, because someone noticed his Scottish ancestry,” Long said. “He got to sit by this beautiful, sultry, intelligent, just amazing woman who looks a lot like me, with one of my all-time favorite black, lace dresses. I had nothing in common with this guy.”

She knew, however, the man’s interests and one possible inside track to get to him was he felt like he made the best barbecue.

“Lo and behold, I claimed to be the best barbecuer in that particular country, and I invited him to a cook-off,” she said. “Long story short, we became very good friends over the course of time. That guy ended up being instrumental some other things, including the largest drug takedown in the history of that particular area.”

What most in the audience came for was advice.

How do I get into the CIA quicker? What experience do I need to get into the CIA? Will I be at a disadvantage because I am a woman?

How far you get in the CIA, they said, depends a lot on how you maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses — sound advice for any field.

Wilson answered students’ questions at one point with some of her own.

“Are you that person that can tolerate corporate or bureaucratic environments ... or do you need to be out and about?” she said. “How are your interpersonal skills versus do you prefer to be more of an analyst? Those are really hard conversations with yourself.”

They are questions CIA hopeful Gibbs has already answered.

“Hopefully, I’d get in right after graduation,” she said. “I love traveling. I love meeting people, understanding new cultures. As they said, (being undercover) is one of the most fun jobs to do. I’d love it.”