James Olson is former CIA chief of counterintelligence. He and his wife Meredith met at the CIA and raised three children during a dangerous 25-year career as spies. They retired from the agency, but their work continues as mentors on life, love and the meaning of American patriotism.
Jim: Meredith was already working at the CIA as an analyst when I arrived. That made things easier, because we both had top secret security clearances and understood what our undercover life together would be like.
We also, of course, believed strongly in the mission of the CIA and were proud to devote our professional lives to fighting totalitarian, oppressive and atheistic Communism. We would do it all over again if we could.
Meredith: Jim is a man of great integrity and honor. I tell him often how blessed I am that God chose him for me. He is quiet and thoughtful and once people get to know him, they are drawn to his honest, sincere and genuine ways. He is slow to take credit and quick to acknowledge others’ accomplishments.
Jim: Meredith has always been an inspiration to me because of her strong faith, deep concern for others and generous heart. I think she did a remarkable job of being a wife and mother first and a good spy second. We have always shared a commitment to the prolife movement. It is a fundamental part of our belief system that all human life is sacred, whether born or unborn.
Meredith: Professionally, Jim is highly respected for his knowledge and judgment. His respect for life from conception to natural death has been constant throughout the years.
The most critical issue
Jim and Meredith take every measure to call attention to the most critical issue. Next time you see a car with pro-life bumper stickers, one of the Olsons may be driving it.
Jim: I personally believe abortion is the most critical moral issue of our age. I accept the teaching of the Catholic Church that human life begins at conception. It is, therefore, a great personal sadness to me that over a million unborn babies die in the United States every year. My belief in the sanctity of human life also extends to a strong opposition to capital punishment, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research.
Meredith: The right to life is our most basic right. Too many people confuse the right to life with the right to “my life;” living as “I” want to live, doing what “I” think is best for me. This philosophy has been such a destructive force for society.
We have been committed to life issues for many, many years. We were not involved while living abroad, but between overseas tours and since returning to the U.S. permanently, we have made our position well known.
Jim: Meredith and I have been active members of the Brazos Valley Coalition for Life [an American Life League Associate] in Bryan, Texas since its creation several years ago. For most of that time we have been on the board of directors.
All of us in the coalition are proud and delighted that David Bereit of American Life League began his pro-life career here with us. It has been heartening for us to see so many churches, businesses, organizations and private citizens rally behind the pro-life cause in our community. Through prayer, education and peaceful demonstration we are making a difference.
Thanks to the strong foundation laid by David and Margaret Bereit and others, today the coalition is larger and more effective than it has ever been. I predict that our current director, Shawn Carney, is also destined for a national role in the prolife movement.
Meredith: We are also involved in Stand and Pray, which is the backbone of the BVCL’s work. We volunteer one hour per week to stand and pray in front of Planned Parenthood during its business hours.
It’s hot in the Texas summer, and cold and windy in the winter. One often wonders whether it’s making any difference because women continue to come and go, cars continue to drive by and ignore our presence. Yet we know that God will reward our constancy, hearts will be changed and lives will be saved.
Keeping the faith
While people of faith and religion are under attack in the U.S. public arena, Catholics still enjoy numerous opportunities to receive the sacraments every day, but Jim and Meredith don’t take that for granted.
Jim: Only in Moscow, where we lived from 1978 to 1980, did we have difficulty in receiving the sacraments regularly. The U.S. embassy there had the services of a French-Canadian priest, who served both the English-speaking and French-speaking Catholics. Since we could not hold Mass outside the embassy, it took place inside the embassy cafeteria, a location we all ended up calling “Our Lady of the Snack Bar.”
Confessions were difficult because everything was susceptible to being bugged by the KGB. The only solution was to take a walk with the priest around the embassy compound, but even that was risky because the KGB could aim parabolic antennas at us from nearby buildings to pick up conversations at a long distance. We had “normal” Catholic parishes everywhere else we served.
Meredith: In every country where we lived, there was an English-speaking Catholic community. We were active in parish councils and parish life and taught the sacramental programs. Our oldest son received his first Holy Communion in Moscow. The two younger children received their first Communion and later their Confirmation in Vienna, Austria. Classes were small and resources in English were limited, but we believe the children received a good foundation
I’ve been chairman of the Respect Life Committee at our current parish for about six years and the deanery liaison for our diocese. Our goal is to continually remind people that while they are living their lives, going about their daily business, there is a holocaust occurring at our local Planned Parenthood facility. It is too easy to ignore.
There are other right-to-life issues to consider, such as cloning, stem cell research, euthanasia and contraception; so we have to do a better job of educating the people about the Church’s teachings on these issues.
Jim: We saw no irreconcilable inconsistency between our faith and our work for the CIA. We saw our work as spies to be similar to what soldiers do. “Thou shalt not kill” is a clear commandment, but U.S. soldiers sometimes have to kill in the legitimate defense of our country, something they would never do for other reasons.
Likewise, U.S. spies must sometimes lie, steal and deceive. I believe that the just war doctrine of Saint Thomas Aquinas applies to spying, just as it does to actual combat. Spying is an integral part of our country’s right to defend itself and therefore is, in our opinion, morally justifiable.
There are certainly moral limits to what a spy can do and I was never asked to go beyond those limits. For example, I never would have engaged in torture or assassination, which was not an issue because the CIA strictly prohibits those practices. It’s contrary to the popular stereotype, I know, but I found the CIA to be a very moral place to work.
I feel so strongly about the moral issues of spying that I recently wrote a book. It’s called Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying. It will be released later this year and it’s already listed on Amazon.com.
In it I describe Meredith’s and my experiences in the CIA, the philosophical and historical justifications of spying, in addition to the criticisms of it and changing U.S. attitudes toward espionage and covert action. My purpose is to show the reader what the real world of spying is like and to encourage a debate on the important moral issues facing the U.S. as it fights the war on terror.
The Olson legacy
When charity begins at home, a powerful legacy is born. Following their parents, the Olson children have become leaders who serve others.
Jim: Our children didn’t know we were in the CIA until they were in high school. It wasn’t exactly a normal family life, but we did everything we could to insulate them from the dangers and inconveniences of our secret life.
Quite often they only had the three of themselves, so they also became incredibly close to one another, something that has continued to this day. That has been very gratifying for us to see as parents.
Our oldest, Jeremy, was an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and is now doing campus ministry in Houston. Our second son, Joshua, was an officer in the U.S. Navy and is becoming a teacher at graduate school in Wisconsin. Hillary, our youngest, is a missionary
Meredith: Our daughter is a speech language pathologist. She and her husband Jeff are the program directors for a mission deep in the rainforest of southwest Ethiopia, called Lalmba. They manage a health clinic and have an orphanage for children with AIDS
Jim: Since my retirement from the CIA, I’ve been teaching courses on intelligence and national security at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service of Texas A&M University. The Bush School offers a master’s degree in international affairs, with an emphasis on national security. Graduates are going into successful careers in intelligence, diplomacy, counterterrorism, law enforcement, homeland security and related fields.
I’ve had several offers to return to active duty with the CIA, but Meredith says I’m probably doing more good for the country by staying here and helping to prepare the next generation to follow behind us in national security careers. I think she’s right. Teaching there has been an extremely rewarding second career for me.
Meredith: During our posting in Mexico, while volunteering at Mother Teresa’s home for the severely handicapped just outside Mexico City, I was inspired to become a nurse so that I could help in a more professional way.
When we returned to the U.S., I spent a year taking science courses and prerequisites for nursing school. It was difficult because I had absolutely no background in science.
Then we moved to College Station, where I enrolled in an associate’s degree program and became a registered nurse in 2000. I spent the next five years working with rehab patients in the Catholic hospital here. I love caring for people who need a friendly hand to hold or an ear to listen to their troubles. My greatest joy has been to go on medical missions, because serving the poor brings great peace to the soul.