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Former CIA Agent Reveals Her Secret Life

MIDDLE EAST ATTRACTION
Michele Rigby Assad grew up in the Florida countryside where she was named homecoming queen. Her father was a traveling life insurance salesman and her mother stayed at home with Michele and her little sister. Never dreaming of becoming a CIA agent, Michele thought she would grow up and live in the suburbs with her husband and children. During her senior year of high school, she met Joseph Assad, a Christian from Egypt who came to the United States to study. Michele explains, “Joseph opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed. Shortly after we met, we traveled to Egypt as part of a mission team sponsored by Campus Ministries at Palm Beach Atlantic University.” This is where Michele’s love of the Middle East began, and she traveled back to Egypt three years later as part of a study abroad program. Joseph and Michele married after completing their undergraduate degrees. Then, they pursued their masters at Georgetown University. Joseph began working as a Middle East research director at a think tank focused on human rights and democracy, while Michele felt called to focus on Arab studies. During her senior year she heard CIA recruiters were coming to the university and felt a pull to listen to them. She applied as a CIA analyst and was offered the job. Strangely, before she even began, she got a letter stating that the offer was rescinded. Michele was upset but focused her job search elsewhere only to receive more rejection letters. She shares, “I would never want to repeat this period of my life. I was flooded with depression and insecurity.” Little did she know that God was working behind the scenes.

UNLIKELY SPY
Months later, Michele and Joseph met a friend for dinner. “He was anxious to tell us that he had applied for a position in the CIA as an operative,” she explains. Michele never realized that there were so many divisions within the organization and Justin said that the operations side of the CIA was “the place to be.” Joseph was intrigued and submitted his resume first and received an interview request. Michele explains, “…at some point during the interview, Joseph mentioned that he had a spouse who knew the Middle East well and had a graduate degree in Arab studies.” The interviewer was also interested in Michele and that was the encouragement and open door that she needed to submit her resume. Both she and Joseph were hired.

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES
During training, Michele learned that the CIA is looking for walking contradictions. People who can keep a secret but pull them from others; who love their country but are willing to leave it and go to dangerous places; and those who live double lives but are trusted with the most highly sensitive assignments and information. She also realized, that confronting terrorists wouldn’t be her only obstacle, gaining respect as a woman in such a patriarchal culture within the CIA would also prove difficult. For example, her first CIA instructor, responsible for training her in life and death situations, refused to even look at her. Eventually, Michele gained his respect by working hard and proving herself. The cold shoulders and dismissal she received from several men during training only prepared her more for what was to come. She shares, “I learned so much—primarily to put my head down and just do the work. It takes time, but eventually people will recognize your substance and your spirit and respect that.” After training, Michele and Joseph were sent to one war zone after another in the Middle East. As CIA intelligence officers, it was their job to gain intel on terrorists organizations and try to thwart their plans before they put them into action. After years of testing from outside forces, Michele also struggled internally to believe in herself. Yet, this changed after meeting with jihadist Abu Muhammad in Baghdad. Michele knew that getting information from him would be tricky.

He was not only a terrorist but also a fighter with street smarts who failed to open up to her male counterparts. Michele knew that in order to reach him, she had to know who he was and how he ticked. Doing her research and using all of her interrogation skills, eventually, got him talking—something that her colleagues failed to do.  “This debriefing marked a turning point in my career. I discovered skills I didn’t know I had. In addition to my own surprise, colleagues and managers were fairly shocked. I was such a ‘nice person,’ they assumed this meant I wasn’t crafty, supplicated, or capable of rocking it against such challenging targets,” she explains.

After ten long years of dangerous work and countless missions in the Middle East, Joseph’s father died, and he became weary of asking for permission to visit family so he could attend to their needs. This, on top of serving in war zones for a decade, was taking a toll on them both and on their marriage. Michele shares, “We no longer had a vision for our future, which left us feeling empty and lost.” Michele also felt during that time that the Lord was telling her it was time to share her story which she could only do if she dropped her cover. This meant, leaving the CIA. Both she and Joseph agreed that it was time. But what would they do with the rest of their lives?

FINDING OUR NEW NORMAL
With no idea of what the future held or how to even begin establishing a life or income outside of the CIA, Michele and Joseph put their faith in God. Eventually, consultant work began coming their way and the unexpected happened again: they were hired by a consulting firm in Abu Dhabi which required them to move to the Middle East to work for four years. As their consultant clientele continued to grow, they moved back to the U.S. and began planting roots in Florida, not realizing that all of their training was leading up to what came next.

EVERYTHING LED UP TO THIS
After returning home to Florida, Michele felt a prompting by the Holy Spirit to tell Joseph that, “God is going to use you to help save your people.” As those words rolled off her tongue, they both looked at each other not fully understanding what those words meant but also knowing that it was a ‘God thing.’ A month later, Michele felt a strong urge to tell Joseph that he should contact a friend that they had worked with previously who was in the human rights and religious freedom sector. He got busy and forgot to call but Michele kept reminding him. When he finally contacted her, she responded, “You could not have contacted me at a more critical time.” Their friend was working with producer Mark Burnett to help hundreds of Syrian and Iraqi Christians fleeing from ISIS.  In 2015, Michele and Joseph were brought on to properly vet over 400 refugees’ making sure they were not a threat to the country willing to take them in. Michele explains, “It was a formidable undertaking, but given that we had spent the past fifteen years determining the authenticity of sources in terrorist countries, we had the perfect backgrounds for it. Simply put, it was a mission Joseph and I had been preparing for our entire lives.” The mission was difficult and grueling and only 149 refugees were accepted into Slovakia. The mission was covered by ABC’s 20/20. Their story has just been picked up by Middleton Media who will be making it into a motion picture focusing on their refugee evacuation efforts.

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Guest Info

Credits

Author: Breaking Cover: My Secret Life in the CIA and What it Taught Me About What’s Worth Fighting For (Tyndale, 2018)

Former CIA counterterrorism expert along with husband Joseph

Led teams to help Christian refugees

International management consultant, splitting her time between Middle East, Florida, and Washington, DC

Masters, contemporary Arab studies from Georgetown

BA in Political Science from Palm Beach Atlantic

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