It’s not every day you get a chance to meet a real life spy, even if it’s only after they’ve retired from their official undercover duties.
But that’s exactly what a group of Palm Beach Atlantic University alumni and their supporters got to do Saturday -- and lived to tell all about it -- during a special event in Jupiter.
During the Alumni Afternoon scholarship fundraiser at the Wyndham Grand Jupiter at Harbourside Place hotel, former undercover CIA officer and PBA alumna Michele Rigby Assad ’95, shared some insights about her decade-long journey with the foreign intelligence agency.
Assad also shared snippets from her book “Breaking Cover: My Secret Life in the CIA and What It Taught Me about What’s Worth Fighting For,” which offers glimpses from her time as CIA counterterrorism intelligence specialist. In the book, which was published in February, Assad talks about how her faith helped her through some of the unique challenges she faced as a female working for the CIA in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.
In a Q&A session with Assad, former CNN political news correspondent and PBA alumnus Chris Moody ’07 asked how the small town girl from Central Florida who initially had dreams of becoming a ballerina, Rockettes, pediatrician or pharmacist, made it into the CIA.
Assad’s interest in the Middle East developed as a student at PBA when she had the opportunity to travel to Egypt on a summer mission trip to paint beds for orphans and later on a study abroad program.
“I intuitively felt the Holy Spirit nudging me toward learning the Middle East and I couldn’t articulate why, I just had this passion that kept coming out [while] I was a student here at PBA,” Assad said.
After college graduation, she looked for work in Washington, D.C. but couldn’t find anything and so decided to heed the pull of the Middle East by pursuing a master’s degree in contemporary Arab studies at Georgetown University. That education ultimately laid the foundation for her future CIA career. And the timing of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, sealed the deal.
Assad recalled how her husband Joseph, a PBA alumnus, had been undergoing surveillance education with the CIA while she was preparing to enter training when the planes struck the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C.
It was then that they knew God had prepared them and perfectly positioned them to be ready for the beginning of the war on terror, she said.
Moody also asked Assad how she was able to balance or reconcile her faith with her job as a CIA agent, which often required duplicity and dishonesty.
“Yes, you’re being asked to live a lie, you’re living undercover, hiding your identity, your purpose,” she said. “It’s not unlike you being a missionary in a place that doesn’t allow you to be a missionary, so in that sense it’s similar.”
Assad, who for some time felt being female was a disadvantage as a CIA agent eventually had a breakthrough moment that turned her femininity into a key asset in the male-dominated countries she worked in.
During a secret meeting with a CIA informant, she was able to gain his respect, trust and admiration by speaking in Arabic, complimenting him for previous intelligence work and talking about the complicated Iraqi politics of the day.
Within minutes of applying that strategy, the mood in the room shifted and she was able to win him over and get the intelligence she needed to find out who was behind the ambush and brutal murder of an American woman in Baghdad.
“I realized in that moment that I actually had a gift of reading body language and getting intelligence out of sources that other officers could not,” she said.
In addition to the challenges of being a female CIA field agent, Assad also talked about the couple’s repeated assignments to seemingly undesirable locations, which at first left them feeling “slighted.” But those war zone experiences were God’s way of fortifying their skills as counterintelligence and counterterrorism experts, she later realized.
“Doing [these] things made me become a counter terrorism and counter intelligence expert that was off the charts,” Assad noted. “There is no way to become a counter intelligence expert unless you’ve met face to face with the enemy numerous times.”
After retiring from active service, the Assads have helped to lead a mission to rescue and relocate 149 persecuted Iraqi Christians to Slovakia, which was featured on ABC News "20/20" television show. Today the couple works as international security consultants in Florida, Washington and the Middle East.
Read more about Michele Assad’s story here.