The Spy Who Loved Hamlet

By Neill S. Rosenfeld

The CIA's Michael Sulick says literature figured figured in his success.

During his days at CUNY's Graduate Center, Michael Sulick never thought of becoming America's spy master. That's hardly a typical goal for someone whose 1977 dissertation compared translations of Hamlet into French and Russian.

But chance, fluency in Russian and a sharp-eyed wife propelled him toward becoming chief of the Central Intelligence Agency's Clandestine Service.

Literature figured in his success. "My job was to recruit spies. You have to build relationships and gain the trust of foreigners before you ask them the big question — will you be a spy for me? Literature is common ground," he said. "Foreigners, certainly Russians who were my main target, are proud of their literature and are proud when a foreigner knows something about it. When you discuss literature with somebody, they reveal much about themselves. A Soviet official who spoke lovingly about [dissidents] Boris Pasternak or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would be of interest right away." Another asset was his facility with languages, which also included French, Spanish, German and Polish. "People will say more because they are comfortable in their native language," he said.

Before joining the CIA, Sulick briefly taught an introductory English course at Queensborough Community College. But academic jobs were scarce as he completed his doctorate (he took three years off during undergraduate studies at Fordham University to serve in the Marines, including in Vietnam, returning for bachelor's and master's degrees in Russian Studies in 1971 and 1972). Then his wife spotted the CIA's first newspaper ad for analysts. "They said they didn't have any of those jobs left, but they did have operations officers," Sulick recalled.

"I said, 'Is that what I think it is?' and they said yes. I went to training and I was off."

For 25 years he ran spies in the Soviet Union, Poland, Japan and Latin America and served in administrative posts. Then, in September 2007, he took charge of all covert operations and disruption of terrorist operations.

Human intelligence is especially critical today. "I never met a single official of the [Soviet] government or the KGB [spy agency] who was willing to put a bomb on his back for the cause of communism. But with terrorism, there are numbers of them who are willing to commit suicide for the cause," he said. Besides, "now the terrorist can be living right next door to you, or work in a bank or be a student." That's why Sulick is building ties between the CIA, FBI and local law enforcement agencies.

Details of Sulick's career are understandably few, but he did disclose one incident in the CIA's magazine, Studies in Intelligence. It was August 1991. In Moscow, democratic forces had thwarted an attempted coup by Communist hard-liners against reformist President Mikhail Gorbachev. Lithuania had declared independence from the Soviet Union. And at the behest of President George H.W. Bush, the CIA had dispatched Sulick to meet with Lithuania's nascent intelligence service.

"I was well known to the KGB, which would have been less than thrilled about my traveling to the USSR's rebellious republic," so he left without a Russian visa, he wrote. Turned back when he tried to drive into Lithuania from Poland, he flew to Vilnius. When "the yawning border guard" there noted no Soviet visa on his passport, Sulick said he'd been told he didn't need one. The guard thought a moment, then "shrugged his shoulders and pounded his stamp in my passport...I walked through the small gate into Lithuania and became the first US official to enter a Soviet republic after the coup."

The Lithuanians proved enthusiastic about cooperating. In "a surrealistic moment," Vice President Karol Motieka left him alone in his document-strewn office so that he could phone the CIA in Warsaw. Before, he wrote, "I would have thought I had struck an intelligence mother lode." Now, "If I had any interest in the documents, I could probably have just asked Motieka about them."

Sulick's career almost derailed in 2004, when he was the second-highest espionage official. He and his boss, Stephen R. Kappes, resigned in protest when an aide to CIA Director Porter Goss tried to transfer another senior officer. Other resignations followed, demoralizing the agency. But Goss' successor, Gen. Michael Hayden, quickly rehired Kappes as his No. 2 and promoted Sulick to spy master.

Hunter College professor Elizabeth Beaujour, who had been Sulick's graduate advisor, said, "You could have knocked me over with a feather" when she learned about his career in espionage. She speculated that the language and analytic skills honed in his dissertation "must have served him in good stead" at the CIA. She recalled his 371-page dissertation, which compared "Hamlet" translations into French and Russian by André Gide and Boris Pasternak. "It was a very good dissertation," she said. "He came at it primarily from the point of view of the original language and the translator's language."

"'Hamlet' touches on so many aspects of human life, which is why it is one of the greatest works of literature," Sulick said. "It deals with espionage, betrayal and trust, so there are lessons there for an intelligence professional. We're trying to get people to betray a cause inimical to the U.S., but we also have to engender trust ... [and] make sure we don't betray their trust. We don't use spies, get their information and throw them away. It's just the opposite."

Sulick laughed when asked about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two hapless spies whom Hamlet sends to the unexpected death that the king, his uncle, had intended for him. "They didn't go through our training, or their fates would have been different. Hamlet is the master spy in the tale, the operations officer. He found them out."