Stephen & Martha Holder Take Students Undercover

CIA agent Stephen Holder and his wife Martha Holder impressed students with their high-intensity careers last Friday as they spoke at an event sponsored by the Phillips Academy International Relations Symposium. Mr. Holder, a former case officer and the director of operations in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Italy, and the Ukraine for the CIA, started by talking about what led him to be a CIA officer. “During the start of the Vietnam War, I drew a 26, which meant I was going straight to Saigon if I did not go into training. I went to my local drafting office, and asked the officer which languages I could study. I ended up going to Monterey California for 57 weeks to learn Chinese,” he said. Explaining how he became fluent in Chinese, Ukrainian, Malay, Italian, French, and Spanish, Mr. Holder went on to list the colleges where he studied, including Indiana University, Hanover College, Middlebury College, Stanford University, and Taiwan National University. Mr. Holder encouraged students to take their foreign language classes seriously as proficiency in foreign languages can open job opportunities. He said, “I sent the CIA a letter saying that I wanted to work for them, and that I could speak Chinese. They did a background check on me, and hired me right away. Being able to speak another language and to pick up languages relatively quickly was a real help for me.” Mr. Holder went on to describe the lifestyle of a CIA agent and how one becomes someone else when undercover. “At the time I didn’t know what I was getting into. For twenty seven years I told everybody I met, including one of my brothers, that I worked for the State Department,” he said. “When I took on an alias, I had to become that person and do what they would do in a [particular] situation. I needed to think like them, and know everything important about them, like their birthday and history of where they lived and what they did,” he added. Mr. Holder warned of the great danger that accompanied his job and shared experiences in “denied areas” where CIA agents and their work are “less welcomed.” These areas, currently including China, North Korea, parts of Russia, Cuba, Ukraine, India, and Cairo, and Iran, are some of the hardest places for CIA to work and recruit assets. “In denied areas I really had to be aware of the environment around me. In Moscow I would have three men following me at all times, and in India the security is probably the worst,” he said. Ms. Holder, who worked as an international water management expert for the United Nations Development Program, began by stating how she became so involved in water resources. She said, “At Johns Hopkins I studied hydrology, and we would raft down the Grand Canyon. We had historical photographs that we compared to the canyon then to see how the canyon had already begun to change over time, and took note of erosion and water changes.” Ms. Holder then described how she got a job at an international development agency. “One night at a cocktail party I was talking with a man who worked for a major international developing company and he found out that I spoke Ukrainian,” she said. “His company needed someone who could speak the language, and I had been educated in the field, so they hired me right away,” she continued. Ms. Holder explained that the intent of World Bank, the company for which she currently works, is to free the world from poverty. She also emphasized that environmentalists are needed to help people of impoverished countries to use resources prudently. She said, “In a project like the Black Sea project, I helped the countries around the water source, in this case the six countries around the Black Sea, conserve their resources and manage the effects of pollution.” Currently working and specializing in African water resource management, Ms. Holder spoke of the effects of the Niger River on the nine countries boarding it. The World Bank helps the impoverished countries understand and change the effects of pollution and water use.