Skip to main content

I had never gone on a cruise before, never harboured any interest. But when I caught wind of Spy Cruise, I was deeply intrigued.

A lecture series by covert operatives? Spies on a boat? My one reservation – and it was fleeting – was along the lines of "I hope al-Qaeda doesn't find out about this ship."

So I bought a ticket. And that's how, last week, I found myself chatting up American spies in the Caribbean.

I was targeting one in particular: Michael Hayden, a man who has probably forgotten more state secrets than most spies will ever know.

The Air Force general acted as president George W. Bush's eyes and ears while heading an ultrasecretive electronic-eavesdropping agency. Then he was made head of the Central Intelligence Agency, a job that is like being the president's brain – and covert fist.

Once at sea, it wasn't hard to buttonhole Hayden, a featured Spy Cruise speaker.

"I'm as much of a civil libertarian as the next guy, frankly," he told me when we sat down together. He argued that the CIA had been very restrained during the war on terror. "The little voice in your head says be careful whatever you do – you're going to have to live with the consequences the rest of your life."

He was so affable I had to keep reminding myself that spymasters are the most Machiavellian men on the planet. In Langley, Va., he would have helped decide who gets killed in Waziristan and Yemen – the badlands where CIA drone planes blow up presumed terrorists with Hellfire missiles. Recently retired, Hayden had traded his four-star general's epaulets for civilian shirt sleeves.

When we docked, I went on a guided horse ride through a rain forest – the general, I heard, swam with dolphins.

Casino Royale

My unofficial maxim for Spy Cruise was this: "All work and no play makes Jack Bauer a dull boy."

The Eurodam was built two years ago by the Holland America cruise line. She's an engineering marvel, 12 floors tall and a quarter of a kilometre long. In her belly, there are high-end restaurants and bars galore, and she's home to a pool, library, gym, spa, disco and a full-size basketball court.

Her diesel engines propelled us so gracefully that the sensation of sea travel was an afterthought. How smooth was the ride? While winning at blackjack in the ship's casino, I stacked my chips into precarious towers. Nothing rattled their foundations … nothing nautical at least. It was left to the pretty card dealers from Eastern Europe, women with oddly rhyming names like "Galyna" and "Sabina," to cut down my stacks.

Still, there was always this discombobulating to-and-fro aboard the Eurodam. I wasn't seasick – it was the weird pitching and rolling from mindless mirth to serious security seminars and back again.

Days were spent chewing over topics along the lines of the growing Iranian hegemony in the Shia Crescent. Evenings were spent savouring shiraz, sucking back "sake-tinis" – delicious – and watching showgirls strut onstage. Even as I eyeballed the Eurodam's ostentatious luxury, my mind's eye kept imagining the specific kinds of brute force being employed in some of the world's failed and failing states.

Spies among us

So who signs on for a Spy Cruise?

Our group numbered just over 100. We were woven into the fabric of the Eurodam's 2,000 passengers, most of whom had no idea we existed. We were given lapel pins – a U.S. Secret Service insignia embedded into an American flag – so we could identify each other as friendlies.

Among the friendlies were two former CIA directors – the aforementioned Hayden and his predecessor, Porter Goss, along with retired intelligence officers, an ex-CIA station chief and various writers. And, of course, the organizer, a retired CIA "operations officer" named Bart Bechtel, who has put together four Spy Cruises so far. A true-blue patriot, Bechtel was working at a California liquor store when first recruited by the CIA. "If I can sell a bottle of Jack Daniels, I can sure as hell sell America," he recalls thinking.

Joining the speakers were the civilian audience members – predictably, many retirees. Many of these, though, had worked for the CIA or the Pentagon. There were some young people in the audience, twentysomething wannabes who hoped that the spy seminars would boost their prospects of paid national-security work.

A few Spy Cruise passengers mystified me. They claimed to work for non-governmental terrorism-fighting groups and to be really good at dredging up sensitive information. That seemed fishy to me. I would have preferred speaking to serving government spies, but none were aboard the ship – so far as I could tell.

The participants' politics were, broadly, red state. President Barack Obama was not popular with this crowd. Nor was the American Civil Liberties Union. Nor were the WikiLeaks disclosures.

I liked to think of us as the men and women who operated underground and lived in shadows. Less fancifully, we were the earnest passengers who sat in a dim third-floor conference room watching PowerPoint presentations, while the carefree loafers on the main deck soaked up the sun.

On politics and torture

The Bush-appointed spymasters ruminated on terror-fighting strategies, on Beltway politics and on leaks of classified information. Disappointingly, neither came remotely close to spilling a state secret.

In fact, when I asked Goss a question about the CIA's covert drone strikes – about the world's worst-kept secret – he denied knowing anything about them. He also said that nothing would ever make him violate the oath of secrecy he swore as a young intelligence officer to CIA director Allen Dulles.

That was in the 1960s, before Goss served as a Republican congressman, and before Bush returned him to the CIA as director in 2005. After a short and rocky run, he was replaced by Hayden.

"Mike has a calming personality," Bush writes fondly in his new memoir. Obama was less charmed – he cold-shouldered the general and replaced him once the Democrats took over.

Today, Hayden likes to point out that Obama has stuck with many controversial CIA programs. He is outraged, however, that the administration ordered a criminal investigation into the spy service – specifically a probe of the CIA's destruction of videotapes showing "waterboarding" interrogations of top al-Qaeda terrorists.

The general didn't sound like much of a civil libertarian as he expressed fears that "risk aversion" is hobbling the CIA. "When you're operating out there, somebody's got to have your back. And it's got to be your government, not a particular administration," he told me. "What the agency has gone through in the last two years has shaken that trust."

Spies should be encouraged to be aggressive as lawfully possible, he argued.

One night in a bar called the Silk Den, while talking to the former CIA directors, I called them Doubting Thomases. Centuries ago, the most circumspect apostle, Thomas, had demanded to see Christ's wounds before acknowledging that the crucifixion took place. These days, the CIA refuses to admit that torture has gone on in Middle Eastern prisons to which it has sent individuals suspected of terrorism. Hayden inspired my remark by mentioning that he is Catholic – but found it off the mark and out of line. He finds "torture" to be an ugly word and fiercely denies that the CIA ever encouraged it or acquiesced to it anywhere.

Bad blood and bad jokes

There were other speakers. Several writers, including an ex-CIA station chief, talked about their works of spy fiction. A former Lebanese intelligence officer tried to stir up a greater U.S. interest in tackling Hezbollah. We were shown many maps purporting to show the global spread of militant Islam. And several participants expressed hopes that the U.S. intelligence community may yet find those missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. (Their continuing absence still gives Bush a "sickening feeling," according to his new memoir.)

Organizer Bechtel's presentations on the continuing threat of terrorism were replete with pictures of the World Trade Center Towers burning and bald eagles whose bodies consisted of stars and stripes. The message: "Dear Terrorists: Sleep with One Eye Open – We're Coming."

With so much talk of terrorism, some audience members gravitated to black humour. Some Spy Cruise jokes got real hackneyed real fast.

Representative question: "Where's the conference room?" Representative deadpan response: "I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you."

There were more inspired quips by audience members, including one zinger along the lines of "Forget shuffleboard, we're going to learn how to shoot stingers off the back of the boat!"

"Stingers," surface-to-air missiles, were covertly supplied by the CIA to the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s Cold War.

We were never actually given any weaponry during Spy Cruise.

Still, we had fun.

But I felt for the Eurodam's staff after learning they numbered about 800 seafaring souls who typically spend 10 months a year working. Beyond obsequious, the Indonesian cabin stewards and Filipino food servers act as if they exist to carry your bag, take your food order, fetch a bottle of wine. I was assigned an Indonesian steward, Ridho, who was a pro: I couldn't leave my cabin for an hour without him covertly entering to give it an expert cleaning.

His special skill: origami. Every day, he wrestled new bath towels into animal shapes – leaving behind a squid, a scorpion, a monkey hanging from a clothes hanger. (Oddly, the monkey seemed disturbingly reminiscent of a captured enemy combatant placed in a "stress position.")

Near the end, Ridho asked me the question that had apparently been bothering him for days. "Mr. Freeze," he asked, "are you a spy?"

How had I blown my cover? I had never even mentioned Spy Cruise to him.

Then Ridho pointed out that I had six books about the CIA on my nightstand. (I admit I was having too much fun to even crack the spines.)

I let him in on a little secret.

"I'm not a spy," I replied. "But there are many aboard this boat…"

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles