Michele Rigby Assad: Going Undercover in the CIA
Faith and vigilance empowered this CIA operative to carry out some of the nation’s most dangerous tasks.
She never imagined herself working for the CIA, especially as an undercover spy. Far from being a tomboy seeking adventure in her back yard, she was a little princess pretending to be a ballerina prancing around the house in ballet shoes. She would dance and make up moves for her cheerleading squad in high school. Her aspirations did not include espionage or black-ops. Rather, she dreamed of being a pediatrician or showgirl. But as they say, if you want to make God laugh, show him your plans.
Assad holds a master’s degree in Contemporary Arab Studies from Georgetown University. After graduation, the “almost ballerina” was in the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Operations as an undercover officer. She worked in Iraq and other secret Middle Eastern locations as a counterterrorism specialist.
No one could have imagined where this ballerina would find herself in adulthood. She would traverse 45 countries fighting terrorism. The Arab world would meet the cheerleader not tumbling about in a high school football game, but as a hero of counterterrorism.
How It All Started
The First Baptist Church of Tavares, her church, had raised funds to fly an Egyptian Christian who fled religious persecution in his country. They wanted to help him obtain an education in the United States, eventually they succeeded.
The church helped him get into Palm Beach Atlantic University. Assad was a senior at Tavares High School when she met her future husband, after a football game where she was a cheerleader. The two hit it off and later visited Egypt on a Christian mission. This trip to the Middle East exposed her to a world that would soon become the center of her life, professionally and personally.
“That introduced me firsthand to that fascinating world,” she said.
On a whim, she sent her resume to the CIA at a time when agents were recruiting at Georgetown. After an extremely lengthy process, she, along with her husband, were accepted.
Unfortunately, the war she had to fight started here, at home, in the United States. The human resources department and leadership constantly reminded her that as a female, she was simply ineffective, claiming that these are terrorists driven by radical, hateful ideology, not the cheerleading squad from the high school in the next town over.
It’s true that the sources and informants that they relied upon for intelligence did not think highly of western women, or any woman for that matter. She had to struggle to find ways to prove her usefulness regardless of her personality and appearance.
The non-believers in the organization could not be more wrong.
She is Woman, Hear Her Roar
Early on, she was unsure of herself until her first interview with a terrorist at age 33. She spoke Arabic to him, flashing her vocabulary and intimate knowledge of the culture, and watched his view of her transform from young woman to capable operative.
She was more than “good enough.” In fact, she was exactly what they needed to deal with the terrorist sources. Since she was not what they expected, she was constantly underestimated. Instead of seeing this as a negative, she turned it into an asset. By allowing the enemy to think that she had little intelligence or understanding, they tended to let their guard down and slip up when fabricating lies and plots, assuming she would never “catch on.”
All in all, Assad had an uncanny ability to connect with others, and was an expert at quickly assessing people and personalities (an ability frequently attributed to women). This meant she could quickly determine the impetus, weakness, and attributes of her sources. Subsequently, this meant that she could alter her behavior and body language at the drop of a hat. This way, her target would feel comfortable, safe, and most importantly, talkative. The intelligence she gathered through these attributes far exceeded her male counterparts. Her intuition was so powerful, that even she doubted it at times.
“The first time that I recall having an intuition about a case, I wrestled with it. I could not understand why I felt so conflicted over a case that had gotten high praise from a number of officers. It took many restless nights and loads of mental anguish to untangle what my subconscious had figured out in mere seconds: The source who claimed to be an al-Qaida Amir was not who he claimed to be. He was a fabricator.”
On a New Mission
After retiring from active service, both husband and wife led teams to aid Christian refugees who faced persecution in war-torn countries. On one such rescue mission in Iraq, Assad tells CBN News, “Miraculously, even though the evacuation almost fell apart on numerous occasions, on December 10, 2015 we successfully airlifted 149 Iraqi Christians out of northern Iraq to their new homes in Slovakia.”
Today she is a security consultant and living in Brevard County, Florida. Through her book, Breaking Cover: My Secret Life in the CIA and What It Taught Me About What’s Worth Fighting For, she exposed the world to her story and the events that led her to become a spy. She hopes people who read her book will gain a greater understanding of her faith which plays a strong role in the husband and wife team. Book tours and TV appearances are currently her main type of operations. She has been featured on NBC’s Megyn Kelly Today,CBN News, C-SPAN, and in many other news outlets and publications.