One doesn’t expect a spy to have a cat. Or, at the very least, when one hears a spy interviewed on the radio about his new memoir depicting life in the CIA, there’s not a place when one thinks, “I wonder whether he has a cat?” Meet Douglas Laux, author of Left of Boom: How a Young CIA Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Laux does have a cat, it turns out, and he offered to speak with us about how that figured into leading a dangerous double life in the CIA and later as an independent contractor. Before and during the interview, Laux demonstrated that he has as rich a sense of humor as any cat guy I’ve met. And his cat? Adorable, and also funny, starting with his name.
Tell me about your cat’s name. He’s called Mr. Oleg Penkovsky, aka “Bubbins.” Where does his full name come from? How about the nickname?
I was a spy so of course I was going to name my cat after one. I chose Mr. Oleg Penkovsky as his full name because every spy from MI6 to Mossad has heard of Oleg Penkovsky, code name HERO. He was a Russian colonel who sold secrets to the CIA in the 1960s that in large part prevented the Cuban missile crisis from ending horribly. He was eventually discovered and executed for treason, but he truly is considered a “hero” in the halls of the CIA for his efforts. My cat is also a Russian Blue, so it made sense to choose a Russian name.
As for the nickname “Bubbins,” that was given to him by my little brother from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. He’s 10 years old and was playing with O.P. one day when he called him his “bubbins,” which was his term of affection for the cat. It’s stuck ever since and now rarely do I ever call my cat O.P. unless he’s in trouble.
During a Huffington Post interview, you said you didn’t want to talk much about your upbringing. But here it seems relevant. Did you grow up with cats or other pets? What led you to get a cat?
Ha. You guys always go for the personal story, huh? Yes, I grew up on what most would consider a farm, and we had lots of cats that would come and go, much as any farm will have. We never let them in the house but would put food out for them each day in the garage. Generally, when they became adults, they would venture out into the great unknown and we would never see them again. So, ultimately, we never really got too attached to any of them.
My current cat ownership came a little unexpectedly, but I suppose I should have seen it coming. I originally got the cat for my little brother, whose mom didn’t think he was quite ready for that type of responsibility. So I ended up “stuck” with this kitten and by the time I had weathered all of the growing pains that go along with having a kitten, I had grown pretty attached to him. I arranged with my little brother’s mom that my little brother could play with him when he came over. She didn’t object, which is good, because by that point, there was no way in hell I was giving him up.
I got Bubbins almost immediately after I left the CIA, but then I became a contractor doing similar stuff so the foibles that followed were consistent with my old job.
Being a spy is unpredictable — you’re gone for long periods of time, and there’s a chance you won’t make it back. Tell me how Bubbins played into that schedule.
Thankfully, I was an independent contractor when I got Bubbins so I could select which contracts to take based on how long I would be away and whether I could find someone to watch him … or if I could take him with me. Which I did on one occasion. I can’t say where I was in the world but it wasn’t the most friendly place on Earth, and their hotels definitely didn’t allow cats. I was there for a month so I knew I was going to have to take Bubbz with me.
I designed a concealment device for him using my prior training. Once we landed at the airport, I collected Bubbz and took a taxi to the hotel and had the dude drop us off by the dumpsters around the backside of the hotel. I then placed Bubbz in the concealment device, checked into the hotel, and let him out once we were in the room. Of course, from that point forward, I had to keep the “do not disturb” sign on my door for the entire month I was there which confused and concerned the cleaning staff. They would see me in the hallway every day and ask whether I was sure that I didn’t want them to clean the room that day. I always politely declined, and I’m sure on the day I finally checked out they expected to find some corpses or a meth lab in there.
Otherwise, for short ventures, one of my good friends who lived nearby would stop in each day to make sure Bubbz hadn’t set the place on fire.
Salon.com characterized your descriptions of stateside life — “constantly coming and going, dodging questions from friends, lying to girlfriends” — as “powerful and raw.” But you don’t have to lie to a cat. Tell me about that.
Anyone who has ever been to my house knows that I talk to Bubbins 24/7, which, I think most pet owners do. I know my parents talk to their dog all the time and most people have affectionate phrases they like to use with their pets. I probably take that a step further by carrying on lengthy geopolitical conversations with my cat. I get a kick out of asking him things like, “What do you think we should do about this Iran nuclear deal?” Meow. “I agree, but have you considered what they might do then?” Meow. “That’s not true.” Meow. “I’m telling you that your facts are wrong.” Meow. “Hey! There’s no need for name calling in this house of learned gentlemen!” Meow. “I accept your apology and am glad we can continue this civilly.”
Is that weird? It only goes on for a couple hours at a time so I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me.
How did having a cat affect your mental state when you were overseas? Was it helpful or did you worry about him?
The best part about having a cat and going overseas is returning home to them and they are so excited to see you that they just shower you in love. At least that’s what I heard. Bubbins does the exact opposite and will ignore me for equal to pretty much whatever amount of time I was gone. So generally while overseas I would think, “Man, it’s been 10 days. Bubbz is going to put on full shun to the max when I get home.”
In an interview with Salon, you talk about the difficulty of leading a double life, and that for many CIA employees, “the easiest thing to do is to only hang out with other clandestine officers – people who already are in the know.” Did having a cat help you cope with this aspect, or offer any kind of relief valve for giving up social interaction?
I suppose in that I never had to hide any of my gear or equipment from him like I had to do with past girlfriends. Also, I guess I could have told him all my top secret stories knowing he couldn’t repeat them but then again, he is Russian, so I can never be too sure …
A Huffington Post interviewer said that upon meeting you, “he almost seems nervous. Mouse quiet, he stares up awkwardly.” The “mouse” metaphor notwithstanding, this sounds like the behavior many cats express when meeting a person for the first time. Are you cat-like in other ways?
Yes, in that I eat copious amounts of tuna. So much so that I have a tuna drawer in my house with around 50 cans in it at any given time — because when I see it on sale for 49 cents at the supermarket, I buy in bulk.
I also like to walk across other peoples’ keyboards while they’re trying to type.
During that interview, you ordered your burger rare — also cat-like. Are you an obligate carnivore?
Possibly. Though I will say that Bubbz won’t touch anything but tuna or salmon — aside from his cat food. This is a real benefit for me because he never tries to eat off my plate, and I know to simply give him his own can of tuna when I have mine.
You say the CIA often gets a bad rap. Cats too, and that has been underscored recently by books such as Cat Wars that advocate exterminating all cats except those who remain indoors. Cats get blamed (I believe wrongly) for decimating massive amounts of wildlife and spreading disease. Do you see any parallels between cats and the CIA? Two populations misunderstood?
Possibly. But I think the haters of both need to just fall back because they are in the minority. Cat ownership and the coolness of owning a cat has skyrocketed over the years. Similarly, applications to the CIA have consistently been on the incline since 9/11, and it goes without saying that working there is pretty damn cool. If it weren’t, they wouldn’t make every other movie or television show about the agency. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Spy Cat the movie? I’d pay matinee prices to see that.
“CIA” and “cat” are almost the same word. What do you make of that?
So are CIA and “cad” so I’m not quite sure.
I’m a cat guy, and like most cat guys, I’ve taken flack for it throughout my life. Did you experience this, especially being employed in such a daring profession?
Ha. Yeah of course but once people realize I don’t give a damn what they think and I’m going to continue having a 30-minute conversation with my cat about cyberterrorism in front of them, they get over it pretty quick.
Is there anything you’d like to say that I’ve not asked about?
Bubbz touched my keyboard no less than 45 times during this interview.