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Waterloo native, former CIA employee, taps experience in new book

Waterloo native, former CIA employee, taps experience in new book

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WATERLOO | Waterloo native Joe Goldberg used his eight years of experience working at the Central Intelligence Agency to write his first novel.

He also needed the CIA's publications review board's approval to publish it. To get that, Goldberg labeled the work, "Secret Wars: An Espionage Story" as "fiction."

"And I'm sticking with that," Goldberg said.

Goldberg said although the book is fiction, he wanted to use his knowledge and experience at the agency to make the work realistic.

"People are asking me, 'did this really happen?'" he said. "That's a victory." 

Even if the story is fiction, the people in it are based on people he worked with or knew.

"These are real people," he said. "And that's really why I wrote the book.

"It's a hard place to work," Goldberg added. "I wanted to give the people recognition."

People who work at the agency don't have the luxury of letting off steam about their job to friends and family.

"Inside this very cloistered, introverted world, it's very hard to relieve stress," he said.

Goldberg recalled one co-worker who would tell people he was a mortician to pre-emptively cut off small talk about work. He also met a former agency employee, retired and in his 80s, who never told his family what he did.

"You're always on guard outside work, in conversations, making friends," Goldberg said.

That doesn't mean everyone there was on clandestine super-spy assignments of life-or-death importance.

"Those moments are a sliver of the agency," Goldberg said.

"The people there are information people; they're analysts, they're writers," he added. "It's almost like a university."

It was at the University of Iowa that Goldberg first entertained the thought of working for the CIA. After studying political science and communications and earning a master's degree there, Goldberg met with a CIA recruiter who came to campus. After a year of interviews and writing, Goldberg moved to Washington, D.C., in 1985 to work in the agency's fledgling video intelligence program. After about eight years, he stepped down.

In 1999, he began writing a book based on his experiences. Goldberg said he was partly motivated knowing he had inside knowledge of the agency and its reaction to events in the 1990s.

In the story, Goldberg's main character tracks a international terrorism plot. Goldberg shopped the book around to publishers in 2001. Although he didn't get it published, Goldberg knew the book would have relevance for readers, especially after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Goldberg said although the book details international domestic terrorism plots, the story doesn't come from any special insight.

"I could pretend to be smart and say I predicted this," he said. "Some of it is just the way world politics run."

"I was speculating and trying to be as real as I can without going to prison," he added.

Family matters put the book on the back burner until last year. After some proof reads, extra research and details, Goldberg published it himself this year. His main motivation to get the book out was to honor the people he worked with in his time at the agency.

Now living in the suburbs of Chicago, Goldberg carries that same gratitude in his visits to Waterloo. He credits his teachers for his success, including his former English teach Ray Jorgensen. Goldberg started a scholarship at Waterloo West High School.

"I wanted to give back to the school," he said. "Everything I've become is because of that school."

Goldberg also credits the Waterloo Community Playhouse and former artistic director Chuck Stilwill for inspiring his creative side.

"I think about being in those plays and everything I learned almost every day," Goldberg said.

He has already formulated the plot to a follow-up book to "Secret Wars" and has his sights set on a third book about his hometown of Waterloo.

"That's one I'm looking forward to writing," Goldberg said.


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