Think memos and paperwork, not karate chops and flamethrowers.
Blame mass media and pop culture for the misunderstandings around an intelligence career…
James Bond is one of the most iconic fictional characters of all time. He drinks martinis, drives an Aston Martin, and has the most beautiful women in the world fawning over him… all while still managing to kill the bad guys and save the world.
It looks like an amazing gig. But, of course, we all know intuitively that Bond lives in a fantasy with only the vaguest attachment to what a real spy does.
I should know. The first job application I sent out my senior year of college was to the Central Intelligence Agency. After joining, I spent time in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even briefed the president for the first time at 26.
Here’s a few of the things I learned…
First, those who work in the intelligence field eschew the term “spy.” The spy is the other guy (or gal) who steals information about a foreign adversary and passes it along to you. Professional intelligence personnel generally prefer to go by the title “officer” – which is a good clue as to what they really do.
Intelligence work has never been more critical to our national security.
Intelligence work involves a lot of time in offices, doing exactly what one would expect from many other mundane jobs. There are meetings, memos, and lots of paperwork. Most of the training does not involve karate chops or flamethrowers.
Instead of exploding cufflinks and watches with lasers that can cut through steel, your average intelligence officer struggles with stubborn copiers and carpal tunnel syndrome. There’s good reason for an intelligence community joke that “every mission starts with a coffee machine.”
But today, there is a strong argument that intelligence work has never been more critical to our national security.
Counterterrorism, cyber warfare, and a slew of other critical threat challenges rely on having the best and most sensitive information at hand. How to acquire, process, and act on that information is the work of intelligence officers. It may not be glorious work, but it is essential.
Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist, is credited with writing that “one good spy is worth 10,000 soldiers.” That’s an oversimplification – one you would tell a member of the infantry at your peril – but the sentiment rings more true now than in the fifth century B.C. Today, the right information at the right time could stop the next big terror attack or prevent the next unnecessary war.
How then, does one prepare for a career in the secret realm of espionage, covert action, and international intrigue? What should a college-aged person do to prepare for a life that is the closest real-world equivalent to Homeland, 24, and The Bourne Identity?
Read. Spying is a knowledge-based profession, and reading is a big part of the job. This isn’t glamorous, but the first step for every information warrior is to gather as much as you can.
You must constantly seek out and absorb new information.
A tremendous amount of background information is available on what is called “open source” material. To be a good intelligence officer, you must constantly seek out and absorb new information. It is as much a habit as a skill.
Languages. This is still a very useful ability for the intelligence profession, but it is also a moving target. Not all languages are equally useful.
Your two years of high-school Spanish isn’t going to cut it. While studying abroad in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan isn’t nearly as fun as meeting foreign-exchange students on the Spanish Steps in Rome, Urdu is a language that is likely to have more national security utility than Italian. Same for Russian, Arabic, Chinese, and other very difficult languages. Plan accordingly.
Paranoia. The world is one big intelligence vulnerability. The Internet has made it exponentially worse. Everything you do leaves a trail. Anywhere you go you can be tracked.
For normal folks, these are helpful tips about everyday security. For an intelligence officer, the environment around you takes on whole new sinister meaning. This isn’t going to help you sleep at night, but James Bond doesn’t get nap time.
You work in intelligence because you love your country.
Patriotism. You work in intelligence because you love your country. If you want to date supermodels and drive around in sports cars, there are better ways to go about it… Practice your fastball or become a great investor.
Intelligence officers aren’t in it for the glory, and they definitely don’t do it for the money. It really is public service – with an emphasis on the “service” part.
If after reading this, you’re still interested in a career in the intelligence world, God bless. It can be a thrilling calling and there is no other job like it.
Just remember not to wear a tuxedo and ask where the baccarat table is on Day 1.