Popular culture has deceived us: a job in the spy world doesn’t promise martinis or Aston Martins. (But the tube of lipstick that’s also a pistol? That one is real.) Even without Bond-like intrigues, almost everything about working in the intelligence community is astonishing in some way. Here are 5 things that might surprise you.
The training is real world.
If you come from a military background, you’re used to training in simulated environments. JRTC and NTC come immediately to mind, but nearly every post has an area for urban operations training. (Look for the cinderblock buildings.) What makes the spy world surprising and wonderful is that officers often train in the real world. It makes perfect sense, after all. The whole point of the job is to not be discovered. Delta Force can’t practice clearing the Ritz-Carlton, but a spy can practice tradecraft there all day, and if he or she does well, no one will be the wiser.
In his autobiography, Jack Devine, former deputy director of operations at the CIA, described his initial clandestine training at the agency. It culminated in a field exercise in a “major northeastern city.” Teams were assigned to various locations. His was placed at “one of the most prestigious hotels in town.” Instructors role-played as the targets, and the trainees practiced surveillance and debriefing. At one point, they were tasked with bugging a hotel room. They planted the audio device successfully. The surveillance team kept tabs on the target. The transcribers were in their room waiting. “The large reel-to-reels were running; earphones were on. Everything was going smoothly—until a maid walked in without knocking to turn down the bed.” The maid bolted for the hotel security office, and the room was soon invaded by security personnel and CIA instructors. “The embarrassing lesson was etched in my memory forever: when performing a clandestine act, lock the door behind you.”
Members of the intelligence community have the coolest jobs in government—but they’re still government jobs!
A common refrain you’ll hear from former members of the intelligence community is that in most ways, their job was like every government job. Lots of meetings, layers of bureaucracy, a forest’s worth of paperwork, and middle managers who do what middle managers do best: take credit for someone else’s work. On the other hand, there’s good pay, great benefits, incredible opportunities, and the satisfaction of defending the free world. (That’s something you don’t get at the Postal Service.)
Working for the intelligence community doesn’t necessarily mean sunglasses and black suits.
Edgar Hoover cultivated the enduring image of the G-Man. Wesley Swearington, a special agent from the Bureau’s earliest days, described the uniform as such: “Mr. Hoover expects each of his Special Agents to wear a dark business suit, a white shirt, a dark conservative tie, dark socks, and black shoes. Argyle socks and colored socks are strictly forbidden.” Bureau-supported media nailed that image into popular culture. Even as late as the 1990’s, such shows as The X-Files bolstered the image; Mulder and Scully always wore suits.
According to the FBI’s website, a special agent’s attire is job specific. (You won’t see Hostage Rescue Team guys storm a building in jackets and ties.) That said, according to the FBI FAQ: “As representatives of the FBI around the world, agents are expected to dress and act professionally.”
Not every office in the IC adheres to such standards. In a story for the Washington Post, Richard George, technical director of the Information Assurance Directorate at the National Security Agency, described life in the office. “When I walk down the hall there are people that I see every day and I never know what color their hair’s going to be,” he said. “And it’s a bonus if they’re wearing shoes. We’ve been in some sense a collection of geeks for a long, long time.”
Employees don’t disappear from the real world.
A heartbreaking 2010 story in Marie Claire recounts the life of a CIA officer slain by an Afghan suicide bomber. The story is especially striking for how normal her life seemed to her friends. She’s described as “bubbly,” “goofy,” and “nerdy.” She was your typical fitness buff. She posted to Facebook! Her friends thought she worked for the State Department. No one had any idea that she worked for the Company, let alone that she was on the tip of the spear in the war on terror. The takeaway here is not only that Elizabeth Hanson is an American hero, nor that IC members sometimes give their all, but that even in high-risk jobs, members can have a real life, and live it to the fullest. So while the details of the work might require sleight of hand, the job doesn’t generally swallow employees into another dimension.
Not every job in the intelligence community is “spy” or “analyst.”
According to a 2010 expose on the intelligence community in the Washington Post, “counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence” programs operate in 10,000 locales across the United States alone. Water mains and sewer lines at those offices don’t care that they’re flowing from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. As such, just as in any large office, janitors, plumbers, and maintenance workers are essential to keeping things running. Massive bureaucracies need massive support structures, and those workers need security clearances like anyone else.