Living a Life of Intelligence
Alpha Chi Recorder
In the spring of 1989, Heather Triplett attended the Alpha Chi national convention in New Orleans and presented her senior research as a history major at Westminster College. Twenty-two years later, Heather Triplett Biehl made it to her second Alpha Chi convention, this time as recipient of the society’s 2011 Distinguished Alumni Award, bringing with her a stellar record with the Central Intelligence Agency and a continuing reputation as one of the nation’s foremost authorities on counterterrorism.
Biehl worked for the CIA from 1989 to 1999, serving as a senior political analyst for the Office of Near East and South Asian Analysis, as a senior Iraqi analyst, and on Iranian and counterterrorism issues, receiving four awards for exceptional performance. In 2007 the deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center personally asked her to write the CIA’s portion of the National Counterterrorism Implementation Plan. Her analysis was sent to the White House and was the CIA’s blueprint for efforts through 2009.
In San Diego this March, Biehl captivated the convention audience with a speech that gave glimpses into her CIA work and focused on life lessons gained from “living a life of ‘intelligence.’” Since leaving the CIA, Biehl has worked for two private companies, BAE Systems-Advanced Information Technologies and BBN Technologies, both of which support the country’s intelligence operations. Married with two children, she is also a cellist with the Merrimack Valley Philharmonic Orchestra and is active volunteer in the Acton, Massachusetts, school district.
Biehl graciously agreed to this interview with the Recorder.
Q: Your Alma Mater, Westminster College, nominated you for this award. How did you get from Westminster to the CIA?
BIEHL: In 1985 I graduated from the Jefferson City, Missouri, High School and made my way an entire 25 miles north to attend a small liberal arts college called Westminster. Westminster is a great college with the notable distinction of being the site where Winston Churchill gave his famous Iron Curtain speech 65 years ago. While I started the school expecting to be a pre-med major, in typical liberal arts fashion, I walked out four years later, in 1989, with a history/poly sci degree and a job at the Central Intelligence Agency. Because, really, what else do you do with a history/poly sci degree? I wanted a grand adventure, and just the process of moving to Washington, D.C., seemed like a good start.
Q: Despite the stereotype, we know not everyone in the CIA is a spy. Tell us about the training a new CIA recruit receives.
BIEHL: I entered a special competitive program at the CIA which provides paramilitary familiarization training, internships across the Intelligence and Defense Communities, and instruction in all four of the traditional CIA groups:
• Analytic—which would become my home component
• Operative—you know, the spies
• Scientists—aka, scientists and engineers like “Q” from the James Bond movies—and
• Logistics—the folks who make sure agents are protected and get overseas with all of their “stuff,” and all the other professions necessary to keep a bunch of spooks operating effectively
Over the next year, I found myself getting paid to jump out of helicopters, taking a course on how to build bombs, learning how to drive “defensively” in case I was ever being chased around a foreign country, and firing over 100 different kinds of firearms. This included a rocket-propelled grenade that I got to shoot at an old tank. Not your average company indoctrination… and I loved it.
Q: What was your primary responsibility in your years with the CIA?
BIEHL: I eventually became a senior political analyst in the office of Near East and South Asian analysis. For the entire decade of the ‘90s, I reported on Iraq, addressed the U.N. Security Council members on a regular basis, ended up briefing kings and prime ministers, and as a senior member of the Iraqi analysis team prepared daily publications for the White House, the State Department, and the Congress. I conducted in-person briefings with two Presidents, and after the horrors of 9/11, I helped write the blueprint for combating terrorism that was eventually adopted by the White House.
Q: You also married and juggled family and career.
BIEHL: Yes, I met my husband, Bob, at the Agency. As a trained engineer, he spent over a decade making cool widgets and deploying with Special Forces teams on counterterrorism and hostage rescue teams. For years, he couldn’t leave the Washington area as he had to be on constant standby to deploy. He won the Intelligence Commendation Medal for his work in 1990.
In late 1999 I was pregnant with my second child and living in the Boston area. Bob and I both felt that while we loved our exciting government service, it was perhaps time that we both had private jobs that would take us further out of harm’s way. We have both found ways to still serve the U.S. intelligence community, we just do this now by helping create new technologies to help national security efforts.
Since 2003, I’ve worked with two companies that are filled with Ph.D.s from MIT who truly are rocket scientists, quantum physic experts, the world leaders in speech and language technologies, sensors, information assurance operatives, and more. It has been a liberal arts major’s dream come true. I work with these geniuses to take new technologies into the intelligence community (we call it the IC) to solve continued hard problems.
We are most grateful, however, that we have managed to raise two great kids while maintaining exciting careers. My son, Alexander, is an avid musician and formed a rock band called “Contents Under Pressure” with other junior high students. My daughter, Sophie, is in grade school and is ready to rule the universe!
Q: Your convention speech in San Diego focused on lessons you learned from what you called your CIA “war stories.” How do such lessons apply to success in any job?
BIEHL: I thought it was important to share the lessons because they reflect just how rewarding it is when you find yourself “changing the world,” or least your part of it. You might think that having a career in the Intelligence Community makes it easy to come up with examples of success. But it really comes down to the same thing in any job. To live a life of intelligence—pun intended—no matter your chosen profession, you must find and practice your passion, understand the needs of yourself and others, and work harder than you imagined possible.
Q: One of the stories you told was about when you discovered what it means to be an expert. It made a powerful impression on the young people in the audience who are at about the age you were when you learned this lesson.
BIEHL: Before I went to Washington, I had the notion that folks who worked in the Intelligence Community (IC) or who made US Foreign Policy were brilliant and somehow anointed with a magical power of understanding the right thing to say or do. It IS true that we have amazing and creative public servants who work tirelessly to try to “do the right thing.” It just never occurred to me that I could become one of those experts just by doing my job day in and day out.
My first training rotation inside an analytic component landed me in the East European section on the Romanian desk. The senior analyst there had worked this account for 20 years, but in the summer of 1990 following the fall of the dictator Ceausescu, she had to leave to take care of her ill mother. This left me, at 23-years-old on my first assignment, to cover the first democratic election of a new Romanian leader and to make the call if these elections were “free and fair” by US Standards.
I spent three months reading all of the information from the field and collaborated with other agencies. I literally slept on a cot at the office to stay “on top” of the fast paced and ever changing situation. I was hooked! I could not imagine doing anything more exciting in my life. At the critical moment, I wrote a paper stating that the elections were NOT, in fact, free or fair.
The next day, the head of the East European office, returned from monitoring the elections in person and called me in to question my analysis. He said he personally had not seen any indication of my claim that the interim government had kept people away from the polls and intimidated opposition candidates. He listened to my recitation of the evidence, my consideration of the various hypotheses, and an estimation of what information we lacked to give the full picture. He finally said “good job” and then bundled me into a car to go brief “some guy” at the State Department.
My first clue that something was up should have been that I was put into a chauffeured car (that rarely happens… you usually have to schlep yourself downtown, find parking, and hope you can run fast enough to make your meeting). Then, I was taken to a very nice office at the State Department and introduced to the head of the Eastern European section. He wanted me to justify my conclusions, give solid evidence to back up my analysis, and point out what I didn’t know that might affect that bottom line. At the end of 2 hours, he smiled, put his feet up on the desk, and said, “I hope you realize you just cost the new Romanian government $195 million in US Gov’t aid and support.”
I stared at him and said the first thing that came to my mind, which was the brilliant, “Are you sure? I’m just a kid from mid-MO. Don’t you want to ask your experts?” He laughed and said, “I think you are the expert. You’ve memorized every cable you’ve read, you did hours of homework on Romanian history to understand the nuances of their speeches, you considered every hypothesis I can think of, and you made a case for why our inevitable information gaps would not fundamentally change the bottom line. Hard work and preparation is all any expert really is.”
I learned several lessons that day:
Q: From watching movies and reading espionage novels, most of us have the stereotype that people in the Intelligence Community operate in a culture of lies and deception and therefore have at best a dubious ethical sense. How does an individual of good conscience survive in such an environment?
BIEHL: You can imagine that there were many times when my husband and I had to deeply examine the ethics of what our job required. The last thing we wanted to do was to go to work one day, and end up testifying to Congress the next! Trust me: having to testify about your analysis is plenty scary enough.
There are always black and white cases where your moral code will lead you to the right answer. It’s not always so clear that you’re getting near the ethical boundaries, however. In the IC, it is quite simply required that you deal with some “bad guys,” as these are the ones who have the information you need to keep the nation from harm. Likewise, when you live overseas, the customs and moral values often differ from your own. My husband was always faced with the chance that he might have to take another’s life to save his own or those of the hostages he was rescuing. We both had the opportunity—untaken, I assure you—to financially benefit in questionable ways as we handled large amounts of money.
Understanding the need to check and double check your motives and your actions is imperative. This is true even if it means you have to put your continued employment at risk. Fortunately, Bob and I both had great bosses and leaders around us who deeply believed that doing right was just as important as doing well.
Q: Who in your life had the greatest influence on the development of your moral compass?
BIEHL: It would have to be my parents. As an example, I like to tell a story about my father. At age 30, Dad found himself finally moving up the old corporate ladder after marrying young, starting a family, and having to drop out of college. He was the manager at a company and quickly became the head of the business office. The night of his promotion, my mother also let us know that we’d have a new little one appearing the following winter.
Unfortunately, my father’s boss turned out to be a loser. The next day, he pulled Dad aside and told him that he realized my father would soon discover that he was cooking the books. He offered my Dad a substantial share of the ill-gotten profit if he would keep his mouth shut and go along with the activities.
My father walked away from his job that day. The consequences were harsh. He spent the next six months living above my uncle’s auto repair shop two hours away and pumping gas six days a week in order to keep our home and feed my family. My mother had to raise a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old by herself while she waited for her third child to arrive. It took my Dad six months to find another job and be able to move back home. But he took the course that he knew was right and stayed true to who he wanted to be.
Q: What advice would you offer to Alpha Chi students on this matter of ethical integrity?
BIEHL: I would say that right now is probably the most important time in your life to think about—even write down—those basic, fundamental truths you hope to maintain as you move out to practice the academic passions you’ve followed in college. Look back at your list often, adjust as necessary, and work your way through the inevitable grey areas as honestly as you can. Truly, this is one of the best ways to live the “Intelligent” life that we all aspire to.
Q: Speaking of emotionally difficult decisions, no one at the convention will forget your story about the food test at the dinner in Japan. Please tell it again.
BIEHL: During my career, I‘ve traveled and worked in over thirty countries, primarily in the Middle East and Europe. However, in 1995, I found myself on a very interesting two-week trip outside Tokyo as part of a small U.S. delegation meeting with a large Japanese government contingent. We were participating in an Intelligence exchange about the Middle East, and in particular were trying to get the Japanese government to sign a document to back the United States on a new approach to dealing with Iraq’s refusal to abide by U.N. sanctions.
A senior manager of the CIA headed the U.S. delegation, and I worked closely with him to explain to the Japanese why the U.S. felt so strongly that we needed their support. Day after day we conducted business while he pestered the Japanese for their signature. We got to the last evening without the paper in hand.
Now, as the only female member in the entire gathering, I got the dubious honor of sitting at right hand of the Japanese army colonel who was our host and who also guided us through a different ceremonial dinner each night. As a result, my comrades could pass up all the raw and weird food, but I felt obligated to try a bit of everything. (A reminder here: I grew up in mid-Missouri. Not a lot of sushi bars back there to prepare me for this occasion.)
As the dinner hour came to close that final night, my boss became quite irritated and sulked about the Japanese intransigence. The Colonel just smiled and said he was saving a “special treat” for us honored guests. Soon the lights dimmed and six women in spectacular ceremonial garb carried in a very large decorative bowl, eight jars of special sake, and a large basket that seemed to be squirming.
They placed the bowl in front of the Colonel, poured the sake in, and then uncovered the basket. Inside was the largest bug I had ever seen. Its body segment was at least 18 inches long, and its head and tail added another foot to the length. They dropped the giant cockroach-looking creature into the bowl, where it essentially almost drowned in the sake as it became numb. Then the Colonel took the bug out, flipped it on its back, opened up the stomach and scooped out the insides.
The Colonel then handed the “treat” to my boss and told him that as the most senior guest, it was his responsibility to accept this great gift and demonstrate that the U.S. honored Japanese friendship. Then, said the Colonel, he would sign the paper of support we were requesting.
My boss looked at the mess and grew very pale. He said he couldn’t accept this gift and clearly balked at eating the “delicacy.” I stared at him, not believing that he’d let the chance to cement the deal pass us by. The whole trip and a very important U.S. policy interest hung in the balance, and he couldn’t “man up”? Then he looked at me and blurted, “She’ll do it.”
The Colonel looked at me and said, “In Japan, we teach that a boss should never pass a job to his underling that he cannot do himself. Heather, what do you think the underling’s role should be in a case like this?” I smiled and said, “Sir, I believe that the underling should do her best to make her host know how much she and her entourage appreciate the hospitality and courage shown to them. She should accept the honor and gift for her boss--but expect that the boss will repay her with a nice hefty bonus for doing his job.”
The Colonel roared with laughter. I wish he had also just signed the paper. But I had to eat that bug! Honestly, I haven’t had sushi since!
Q: And the moral of the story?
BIEHL: I said there were three. First, sometimes service, in this case to country, really is more important than your sensibilities. Second, the fact that your boss is a wuss doesn’t mean you have to be. Third, doing the right thing is, in fact, better than taking the easy way out.
Well, also a fourth lesson, actually: Bugs really don’t taste good.
Q: You’ve described your intelligence work—both with the CIA and private firms—as a liberal arts major’s dream. As education assessment specialists would ask, what “knowledge, skills, and dispositions” did you develop in college that have contributed to your professional success?
BIEHL: I entered college as a pre-med major, sure that I would graduate and go to medical school. While I remain fascinated by the human body and the medical sciences, I allowed myself to explore multiple academic areas at Westminster. By my sophomore year, it was clear that my true passion was in history and international relations. Even today, twenty-two years after graduation, I’m a news junkie and can’t wait to analyze and predict what might happen in various countries. I feel fortunate that I was able to build a career around this passion.
There are basic important skills, however, that I consistently see shared amongst all of the “superstars” I have had the chance to work with:
One—and I preach this to my kids—in every spare moment you have, you’d better have a book in your hand! Reading broadly across all types of fiction, non-fiction, trade publications, etc., is the number one factor in most success stories. My husband often teases me that I must have graduated from the “Hunter College of Obscure Knowledge” when I come up with odd bits of trivia. However, it makes me able to communicate with bosses and co-workers and brings new views to the table.
- Two, learn to learn. By this, I mean make sure you keep yourself open to new discoveries, interesting tidbits, and the newest thought in your field. Even if you “become the expert,” you always have plenty more to learn.
- Third, always be willing to take a chance. I had plenty of doubt as I morphed from CIA analyst to private company executive. However, taking the previous two points to heart, I knew that I needed to continue to expand my horizons even as I worked for that job-family life balance.
Q: Although your career in the intelligence community is a demanding one, you find time for other civic involvement. Tell us about some of your interests and why you are passionate about them.
BIEHL: I’ve been very involved in my children’s schools and in trying to re-work state-level funding fairly across all of Massachusetts. I served as head of the PTO at my children’s grade school. The parents there would give over $100,000/year in order to keep aides in every classroom and give special programs in the arts their due. I also continue to play the cello, which I began in an elementary school program in Missouri thirty-five years ago.
Q: You’re apparently the first Distinguished Alumni Award winner to have attended a national Alpha Chi convention as a student. What do you remember about that convention in New Orleans in 1989?
BIEHL: I had such a lovely time in New Orleans. I presented a portion of my senior History thesis, which dealt with Churchill’s decisions to prevent the immigration of Jews to Palestine before WWII. My parents happened to be in New Orleans at the same time on another conference, so they got to see my presentation. I appreciated the questions I received from the other attendees and the wide-variety of topics to explore.
I also had the chance to eat alligator there… maybe that prepared me for the raw bugs later in life! There was also a Navy ship in port and I got to sit in a helicopter for the first time while touring the vessel.
Q: It was neat to see that you brought your young daughter with you to this convention.
BIEHL: Sophie, who is 11, joined me on the trip to see just how “cool” it is to be a college student. She had a hard time deciding which of the student presentations to see, as she is interested in history, law, veterinary science, poetry, and being the scientist in the future who proves the existence of dark matter. I’m sure she’ll find herself at the Alpha Chi convention of 2021 under her own power!
Reprinted with permission from the Alpha Chi Recorder