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  • Claire O’Donnell

Meditation, Navigating Uncertainty and Seeking Collaboration in Foreign Affairs: An Interview with former CIA Senior Intelligence Service Officer Bill Phillips

Bill Phillips, a recipient of the CIA’s Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal, grew up in the Jim Crow south - Arkansas. At 11 he moved to Pakistan with his parents, who were professors, and his brother. After living there for several years, his family moved to New Jersey, where Bill went to Highland Park high school. Bill then received his B.A. in U.S. History from Howard University in Washington, DC in 1972. Subsequently, he earned his J.D. from Rutgers University in New Jersey in 1975. For 36 years, Bill worked as a professional intelligence officer, serving 25 of those years as a CIA Clandestine Service Officer. Bill served as the Chief of Station (COS) in Latin America and the Near East, and later worked as Director of the Office of Counterintelligence at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 2005-2010. Throughout his career, Bill worked closely with Senior US Government officials and led global intelligence collection, counterintelligence and counterterrorism operations. In this interview, Bill describes how he ended up in the CIA, the challenges he met and some lessons he learned from his career.  He also discusses the importance of his long study of Ki Aikido and Zen meditation to his successful foreign affairs career. 

Q: Why did you choose to work for the CIA, and how did you enter the agency? 

A: When I was in law school, I was the president of the student bar association during my last year.  There was a career fair during the year and, if I recall, there were many law firms and government agencies represented. At one table there were two fellows who seemed a little out of place. As one of the co-organizers of the job fair I went up to them to see if they needed any help. In the ensuing conversation they mentioned they were from (CIA) and I ended up giving them my address and telephone number and they gave me a business card. However, I remember saying to them that I was not interested in working at the CIA or in the Federal government at that time. Later, however, I followed up and sent them my resume using their business card. I did not hear anything from the CIA for several years. My interest at the time was in Constitutional Law, Human Rights Law and Civil Rights Law and not anything related to national security or foreign affairs.  

Several years later when I was working in DC, I received a letter with a return address in Arlington, Virginia. The letter looked official. I opened the letter and learned the CIA had seen my resume and wanted to invite me to come for an interview. I thought it would be interesting to interview– still not really thinking I would ever consider working for them– so I went to the interview anyway. At the time, I was working in the Office of General Counsel for the General Accountability Office, or GAO for short, the investigative arm of the US Congress. I had a couple of interviews with CIA people and after a little more than a year, they accepted me into their entry level intelligence officer program called the Career Trainee Program. The program was and still is, as I understand it, very hard to get into.  It's a program in which an applicant experiences intensive training on how to be a professional intelligence officer. If you have passed the training course, and then do well working on probation, you can become a permanent professional intelligence officer. Needless to say, I was honored and very shocked at being selected for the program as I hadn’t really expected to ever be hired. For many years, the CIA, like most other institutions in the US at that time, struggled to find people of color, women, and other underrepresented people to work as employees. The CIA was and still is an elite, highly functioning and successful organization that impacts American national security policy and strategy. Now, it is quite diverse with people from all walks of life, races, sexes, religious backgrounds, and lifestyles working as career intelligence officers. When I joined, although I had been to law school and worked in the private sector for several years, I didn’t really know much about the CIA besides watching spy movies. I was young, arrogant, unattached and frankly, being a spy sounded like fun, which I must say, it was! It was a good decision for me at that time in my life. It's not the career for everyone, but that is how I got into the CIA. 

Q: How long did you work at the agency? What did your typical duties consist of, and how did your career position change past the trainee program and beyond? 

A: I worked for the CIA for 25 years. After that, I retired and worked at different places, but I was what you would call an intelligence officer in all of those jobs. There are a lot of careers in the CIA and a lot of people don’t realize this, believing every CIA job is a James Bond type spy job.  That's not the reality. There are mathematicians, scientists and physicians who work at the CIA, as well as engineers, historians, journalists, accountants, lawyers– like me– social scientists, teachers, psychologists and a whole host of other types of professionals who work and contribute mightily to the success of the Agency. Much of the work at CIA actually does not require an employee to go and live overseas. That type of work is carried out by the Case Officer in the Clandestine Service. The work of the Case Officer, primarily, is undercover and overseas. The CIA has no arrest authority (contrary to what we might see in the movies) and it does not have authority to spy inside the United States. The FBI agent, for example, has arrest authority inside the US (domestic authority), carries a weapon and a badge. CIA case officers do not have badges nor do they carry weapons and they have no authority inside the US. I worked as a Case Officer for much of my career then rose through the ranks to become an Executive Manager in the Senior Intelligence Service of the CIA.

I can tell you generally what Case Officers (who work in the clandestine service) do without going into specifics. Clandestine case officers spot, assess, develop, recruit and handle non-US citizens with access to foreign intelligence that is vital to US government foreign policy and US government decision makers. So that’s what I did for about half of my career in many different places all over the world. It was fun, impactful,  and interesting, but it was very stressful work. Most days you always felt as if you were actually making a difference in the world! 

When I worked abroad as an Executive Manager for the CIA, people knew I represented the Executive Branch of the US Government - the intelligence side. As an Executive Manager for the US, I was responsible for being an advocate for American political policies overseas. Being an advocate like that included my entire presence: how I carried myself, how I talked, what I said, and the language that I used. Just saying I was this or that was not enough.


I was the representative of the American government and a representative of the President of the United States for intelligence management in the various countries that I worked. I talked to diplomats and to government officials from foreign countries about how our countries could work together on mutually beneficial issues. When I was in those management positions in Washington D.C. I talked with Congressmen and senior officers from many of the departments of the US Government, including the military. From this position, one learns a lot about foreign policy and you must be really prepared on the job. Everything is so important, or at least you think it’s important: what is important and what you think is important are two different things. 

As an Executive Manager, I also learned the importance of teaching other people coming up after me and guiding people how to be successful in their jobs. I also learned that you will see some colleagues and peers who don’t have the same feelings about things you have, so I learned how to deal with those kinds of issues in a manner that was non-confrontational, non-conflictive and “non-collisionary”.  Even as a young case officer, one must learn to work with all kinds of people, some of whom you might not like. If you want to be successful, one also must learn to talk to and interact with people you might disagree with or people who don’t share the same views on things that you have. This was a learning point for me from the CIA that I carry now in my daily life and in today’s world here in the United States. I developed the necessary ability to listen to people who have different views and not to judge them, but to try and listen with an open mind and open heart and understand their perspective. That ability is something I think is a very important skill one needs to be successful in the world. I didn’t get those skills from law school, but I got those skills from my experiences working as an Executive leader and as a Clandestine Service officer in the CIA. And I must mention, I had to do all of that while raising a family, which is an aspect that many people in the general public don’t understand. Many people in the CIA raise families and have children. CIA employees have the same interests, concerns, stresses, anxieties that everyone else has, but these problems are probably magnified many times because the CIA clandestine service officer is overseas, in a different culture, dealing with national security issues and global policy. 

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of your career? 

A: For me, the most challenging aspect of my professional career in the CIA was the unpredictability of international and even domestic events. In the CIA, we work for any administration, any President, and we don’t have a political view. So, if the U.S. policies change, then we also have to change. For example, let’s say you’re working on a research paper, and you're working diligently on it,  and you're talking to teachers/advisors about your paper and it's going great.  Then, two days before it’s due, your advisors and teachers tell you ‘well no, this isn’t what we want you to work on, and you’re going at it incorrectly’. How would you feel? For many of us at the CIA, especially in the Clandestine Service (but also in other careers within the CIA), this happens all the time… this unexpected shifting of gears.  So, one must learn how to distinguish between the things that are actually important and those that are not. We had to learn that some things were actually out of our control.

I do have to admit that the stress was also a critically challenging aspect of CIA work. I was fortunate because I had studied zen meditation before joining the CIA. I knew how to sit in zazen. All of the zen training I learned in my 20s I used to help me have resilience in situations of stress and tension in the CIA, and also in my daily life outside of the CIA. 

Q: Can you speak more about the importance of using meditation in such a high stress career? 

A: For me, meditation has been helpful in my life and career. During my last year before retiring at CIA, I was asked to help teach a few meditation techniques to select employees and managers. I was part of a small group of CIA career employees who had studied meditation in their private lives and who could share that experience and knowledge with colleagues. We taught some of our colleagues the tools for managing stress and maintaining resilience in the face of stress. In the world today– and I noticed this as I was becoming more senior in the agency– stress has become a very important factor in life. Things are more stressful, things move faster, deadlines are shorter and people don’t seem to have as much patience as they used to. These factors can create stress in people. I think this is universal regardless of where one works. I believe it’s important to figure out a way to develop tools to manage stress so one doesn’t burn out or panic.  Managing stress properly and developing tools for resilience enables one to have a greater chance of being successful and reasonably happy in life and in the work they choose to do. There's so much information available in the public domain now on meditation, and there are so many different types of meditation one can learn. If you investigate meditation and develop resilience tools in your twenties - I think you will find a great deal of very useful information which you can use in all aspects of your life.  One note of caution, however:  It's very important to have a good teacher if you are truly interested in learning about the benefits of meditation and resiliency training. There are many excellent teachers now in the public domain.

Q: Is there anything you've learned from working in the CIA that has enlightened you or made you change your mind on any current or past political discourse? 

A: The things I learned while working in the CIA that have changed my way of looking at the world and or enlightened me include, but are not limited to: 1) being humble and having humility about my own views, 2) learning to not be judgemental about the views of other people, 3) learning how to listen, and 4) understanding that things are never what they seem, and 5) understanding that truth usually lies somewhere between several points of view. A couple of the things I am learning from my study of Ki Aikido and Zen meditation are: 1) human beings are already enlightened, but most of us are not aware of it, and 2) developing the ability to have a beginner’s mind in everything that I do. An old martial arts axiom says that “an expert has few options, but a beginner has so many.”  I prefer having options.

Let me take one of the points I mentioned - The importance of listening:  There's a difference between hearing what someone tells you and listening to what someone tells you. Most people don’t listen well.  I remember going to meetings at the White House or the State Department when I was a Senior Officer. At some of those meetings, many participants had a sheet of paper or note card listing the points they wanted to make.  Very rarely did those people listen to the points that other people were making. So, once you go to a meeting, or a class, or you are at home with loved ones at dinner, or at the mechanic’s, try not to go in only with points you want to make. Develop the ability to listen with your whole being to others when having conversations with them. Be fully attentive to them, not yourself. In my life, and especially at the CIA, I  learned that there is always someone who is smarter than you are. There is always someone bigger, and there is always someone stronger. So maybe stepping back a little bit and being more soft with how you deal with people is the best way to collaborate to accomplish what you are trying to do. 

Also, from my work in the Agency and my training in Ki Aikido, we learn about “non-collisonary” action and discussion.  Non-collisionary action is the ability not to ‘collide’ with people when you're talking with them or doing any action. As my Ki Aikido teacher likes to say: “One can hit a nail with a hammer in a collisionary way or in a non-collisionary way.  Doing it in a non-colliionary way means you can hammer all day and the nails won’t bend and your arm won’t get tired”. This takes training, patience, a calm demeanor, and humility so that you don't bump against people when you're talking to them. Non-collisionary behavior is a very effective way to communicate and also to learn. 

In most of the discussions I hear, people are just trying to push their own views and they're not trying to listen. Instead, they're trying to belittle others or make them look like monsters. In the way I see and hear things on the news media now, for example, everyone is colliding and no one is being collaborative. From me, a Black American who grew up in the segregated American south during the mid to late 1950’s, I have learned there is always a way to be collaborative with people that you don’t agree with or even with people you don’t like. You don't have to persuade someone of your point of view.  It's better to see if there’s any daylight in their view or something that you have in common with them. Most people, regardless of their background, want the same things, such as a comfortable home, nice job, nice car or means of transport. Additionally, they want their children to have a good education, they want to pay a fair amount of taxes, they want to be treated fairly and justly, they want to feel safe, and they want to be healthy: these are the things we all have in common. So, in political discussions, I look to find those things when I talk to people, and not be so intent on pushing my own personal view because my personal view might not be right for them. The idea is to negotiate, to be collaborative, to be gentle, to be soft and to move to join with and move together with people in a unified fashion. This is not giving in. Being non-collisionary gives one a great advantage because it is actually the natural way of living. I don't see a lot of non-collisionary behavior generally, but I know it works because I have used that methodology in my own empirical work with the CIA representing our Nation when I've talked with senior diplomats and officials of foreign countries who have views that are not the same as those of our country.

Thank you Ms. O'Donnell for asking such good questions. I hope my answers provide interesting and thought provoking information for your readers of The Observer. Your readers may contact me at


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