At one point or another, everyone wants to be a spy when they grow up. There’s a certain unattainable quality to it, though—it has an absurd ring on par with wanting to be Superman or Batman. But it is a realistic, achievable goal. So question remains: If you’re sixteen and want to one day join the intelligence community, how should you begin preparing? Tradecraft isn’t exactly a checkbox on a college application (usually), although, as the Washington Post reported last year, schools in the Ft. Meade, MD area “are adopting a curriculum… that will teach students as young as ten what kind of lifestyle it takes to get a security clearance and what kind of behavior would disqualify them.”
In terms of preparation, there may be no area more important than getting a solid education. According to Special Agent Kyle Hanrahan, a spokesman for the New Orleans bureau of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Two undergraduate degrees that are common for FBI Agents are political science and criminal justice. Graduate degrees are also encouraged and enhance competitiveness, particularly a law degree. For individuals wishing to pursue national security/intelligence career paths within the FBI, degrees in international affairs and foreign language are often coveted. And perhaps the most universally and consistently desired academic background is an expertise in computers. Cyber now touches every program, from counterterrorism, to counterintelligence, to traditional criminal programs.”
A national security supervisor at the FBI writes, “From the national security perspective, computer science knowledge is a big plus, as both terrorism and counterintelligence efforts are becoming more cyber-centric. Ultimately, however, the most fundamentally important skill of an agent in any program is the ability to get people to talk to them. I would encourage education/practical experience in fields that stress interpersonal communications and writing skills.”
Another aspect essential for work in the intelligence community is a security clearance. If for no other reason, then, it’s a good idea to avoid the back seats of police cars, and to avoid sticking needles in your arm. But it’s not quite as simple as that. According to Kel McClanahan, a lawyer who specializes in national security-related employment law, drug use means all drugs, to include Ritalin, Adderall, and prescription painkillers. “If you can’t buy it at CVS without a prescription,” he says, “a security person will consider any use of it to be a violation of the law.”
If you’ve burned Indiana hay a few times, however, don’t panic. All is not lost. Unless you were a heavy user, you might still be eligible for a clearance. Security officers conducting your interview understand that most prospective G-men didn’t come out of the womb in a tie and dark sunglasses. “The exception to that is if you don’t tell them,” says McClanahan, “If they figure out during the interview, polygraph, or background investigation that you didn’t tell them something, it doesn’t matter if it was one joint at a party six years before, they’ll slam you with it.”
Investigations are thorough, and you need to assume that they will find out everything about you. This includes juvenile records—“even those that are sealed, purged, burned, rocketed into the sun.” Complete disclosure is essential, because it’s the investigators’ jobs to determine if you’re susceptible to blackmail. Some past transgression won’t necessarily disqualify you; lying about it will.
“If you are going to do something illegal or showing questionable judgment, don’t take pictures. This isn’t so the background investigator won’t catch you; it’s more subtle than that. One of the main things security people look at is ‘does he demonstrate questionable judgment?’ Getting drunk and high and driving on the wrong side of the road without lights on is one thing. But how solid is the guy’s judgment who then films it and posts it on Facebook?” (Also, as McClanahan notes, updating your status to “So psyched about my interview with CIA!” is a good way to not get hired by the CIA.)
To get a clearance, it’s a good idea to get serious about your finances—even your student loans. Brad Moss, associate counsel at the Law Office of Mark Zaid, says, “There are some cases where having too much in the way of student loans can be considered a financial burden when determining a clearance. You see that a lot with students who go to expensive private schools, for example, and get an undergrad, and then go to graduate school, and so on, but never really get a job—some of these agencies get concerned that they have no intention of paying off their loans.”
Moss points to another issue beginning to seriously affect clearance applicants: pornography. “I’ve seen this so much in the last six years. A lot of young twenty-something-year-old men are getting investigations coming back with ‘child pornography noted’ noted.” He explains, “The question asked during the polygraph is: ‘Have you ever seen anything pornographic that makes you feel uncomfortable?’ The men say yes, sure—that sometimes gets false flagged as child porn.” Making matters worse is that you can’t prove it was or wasn’t. “They’re not looking at a computer; this is during a conversation with a polygrapher. Once they’ve ‘admitted,’ guilt, it can make for very, very uncomfortable conversations with employers—especially at places like CIA where you’ve got a lot of women in the room.”
Going into the clearance process, if you’ve got a few red flags or questionable answers—anything that might cause you trouble in a security context—it’s a good idea to consult a professional. Says McClanahan, “There are so many things that can be easily fixed before they become problems that spiral rapidly out of control after the paperwork is submitted. That’s the one lesson I try to impart to anyone planning on entering the national security arena: don’t wait until there’s a problem to consult a lawyer. And don’t consult your family lawyer or your school lawyer or your parents’ corporate lawyer. Consult a specialist. It’s like paying a premium for security clearance insurance. You hope you don’t need it, but you’re sure happy if you do.”
D.B. Grady is the pseudonym of author David Brown. He is the co-author of The Command: Deep Inside the President’s Secret Army, and can be found at http://dbgrady.com or on Twitter at @dbgrady.