real life

Warren Reed was an Australian spy for 10 years, and he's finally able to share his story.

If you’d met Warren Reed at a barbecue, he’d have told you he was a diplomat. And he wouldn’t have been lying, necessarily.

He travelled a lot – as diplomats do.

Warren wasn’t secretive or vague about what he did for a living. Rather, he describes his personality as “outward going and open.” He’s always been that way. But, he concedes, “I’ve always been a person who can keep confidences.”

For Warren, he hadn’t grown up with any particular ambition to work in intelligence. He wasn’t the child in kindergarten fantasising about lying to his parents, fast cars and futuristic gadgets.

LISTEN: Ask Bossy discusses what to do if your career has left you feeling disillusioned on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below. 

Years ago, when he started out, working in the intelligence service wasn’t something you could apply for online. Generally, you were approached through word of mouth, with someone who knows you putting forward a recommendation.

“In one way it came out of nowhere,” Warren told me, “but I was doing clinical science, foreign policy and diplomacy, studying languages…”

“The sort of men and women they want are people who can somehow juggle three worlds. Who are interested in foreign places. Different thought patterns. How different systems work in different countries and are comfortable living in a foreign place.”

He added, after a moment of reflection, “most people wouldn’t be able to do it.”

But Warren did for 10 years.

"You don't have to be an outstandingly dishonest person." Image via Getty.

He worked as an Australian Secret Service Intelligence Officer, but had the cover of a career in diplomacy. When he travelled overseas, that's what he wrote down. Since, he has written several spy books, like Code Cicada and Darkrift: Arrival. 

I asked Warren if he'd always been good at keeping secrets, a skill I am particularly in awe of.


"To be a spy and be able to carry all that off, you don't have to be an outstandingly dishonest person," he said. Warren was just selective about what he told people.

What you need is a strong sense of the national interest, he told me. If you know why a problem has to be handled with secrecy, then you develop a how. "It doesn't have to change your natural personality to do that," Warren said.

In the process of being recruited, Warren had to undergo intensive psychometric testing. "They've got to go through every area of your life and find out how you function," he told me. "And they ask about how close you are to your parents and your siblings and what not."

"You live in three different worlds really at the same time." Image via Getty.

Not telling your family what you do is often a way of protecting them. Warren explained that they're your first line of defence, because if someone suspects you might be a spy, the first people they'd go to is your family. If they sincerely do not know, there's no pressure on them to be deceptive.

There's also the option to formally seek permission to tell your parents or siblings, which is often granted.

He told me that working in intelligence means, "You live in three different worlds really at the same time."

The first world is in the intelligence service, one your friends and family can't know about. The second, is as a diplomat. He had an office and colleagues. That world wasn't a fabrication, it was one he absolutely occupied. The third, and the one that "often gets forgotten," is what you are as a human being. Your soul. Your heart. Your identity.  And that's an easy place to lose sight of.

He never married or had a long-term partner. It was too hard.

"There's a very high failure rates with marriages," Warren said. "It often causes problems between spouses. Not only because there are lots of things you can't talk about, but because it's a considerably draining sort of work you're doing.


"You can never, ever get emotionally involved with the traitors, but you've got to make them regard you as their best friend, so they tend to lay on you all their emotional problems, problems with their mother-in-law, problems with their office, with their boss... you encourage them to discuss everything with you, because you need to know all about them and what they're doing."

"Across the board, if you have a few years doing that, like 10 to 20 years, you're just about exhausted. You just want to go back to being a one dimensional human being with work colleagues and friends, just a simple life, without any of those complications," he told me.

The only people you can talk to about your job, are other people inside the service.

"There are lots of times that you're in some strange country and you're not getting much sleep, you did the same thing the night before, you're just about to explode, but you simply can't talk to other people around you," Warren told me.

"But what you do if you're lucky and you're part of a setup where you've got two or three other colleagues working with you, as spies, then you dump everything on them and they dump it on you."

Image via Getty.

I asked Warren if - when you become so invested in pretending to be someone else - befriending traitors, falsifying relationships and having those you love not actually know what you're doing for a living, you begin to lose a sense of who you are.

"Where the loss of identity often comes from is... you've got to modify your personality to fit in with what type they [traitors] are. And some spies after doing it for quite some time actually lose sight of who they are, and when they eventually leave, they're left asking 'who am I? I've forgotten who I was.' It's a very common problem after people have been in the spy game for some time. You've accommodated so many other people in your work, and you haven't put enough emphasis into who you are, as one soul individual."

Warren no longer works for the intelligence service, but feels as though he can still access what excited him so much about his work, in Homeland by 20th Century Fox.


"The characters are very realistic and it's amazing how many different series of Homeland have actually tracked reality," he told me.

Claire Danes in Homeland. Image via 20th Century Fox.

"And if you look at season six, you have a new coming female  president in America and she's nothing like Hillary Clinton, she's more like Donald Trump I suppose."

Warren explained how in the U.S. a change of government can greatly influence the projects the intelligence service are working on, although that is not so much the case in Australia.

Warren says Homeland follows the real life experience very closely, and praised it's representation of both men and women in the intelligence narrative.

"Spy series have traditionally been about men, and women have just been sitting around as decorations. In Homeland it's very modern and it shows how men and women work closely together in these sorts of areas," he said.

Although intelligence is highly technological, Warren said ultimately, the stuff of spying has always come down to human beings. People who work as spies, "really aren't that different to you and I - not that different to the people you spend your weekend with," he said.

Homeland reminds us that people who work in intelligence are not superhuman. They are not automatons. They might - as Warren reasoned - "have better nerves than most people, a stronger sense of purpose and concept of what the nation is and what they can do to work for it," but they're largely like the people we know.

After all, if you'd met Warren at a barbecue, you'd have left believing he was just a very well-travelled diplomat.

Own Homeland Season 6 on DVD & Blu-ray from July 19. 

You can purchase any of Warren Reed's books, such as 'Code Cicada' and 'Darkrift: Arrival', here

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