What Is it Like to Work at the CIA?

Career Advice

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What it is like to work within the CIA?

Following a 30-year career within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) it is not unusual for me to field questions about what it is like to work within the agency.  And with “intelligence” being in the news of late, these questions have increased.

While I’d like to say that it is just like the movies … it isn’t. So let’s talk about it.

Now when many think of a career in the CIA, it is only natural to associate a career in the CIA with the work of the operations officer. And while operations officers (aka field case officers) absolutely exist, there is more to the CIA.

The mission of the CIA drives the work and the experience. Unlike many private sector positions, the ability to directly correlate your work to the overall mission of the CIA is a root positive for all employees.

I had the pleasure of working within multiple directorates of the CIA during my career – Administration, Intelligence, Operations and Science & Technology. While the work was significantly different from directorate to directorate, the mission – collecting and providing foreign intelligence to the policy makers of the United States – was always at the forefront.

The CIA website describes the opportunity succinctly:

There’s no other career like a CIA career. The work here is truly that of the nation.

Is being an operations officer respectable?

Yes (clearly I have a bias).

Most countries have an intelligence service or an intelligence function within a national police service.

The tasking to the organization may be defensive (counterintelligence and counterespionage) or offensive with a collection function.  Collectors or operations officers collect against a specific foreign target set – Foreign Intelligence.

Why? The nation’s policy makers must have the ability to understand events in a potential adversary’s country, be it military, leadership, economic and political or geo-political. This drives home the adage, knowledge is power, as with knowledge one reduces the likelihood of an errant interpretation of events.

What about an administrative work?

While my very first position was that of a file clerk – literally placing documents in the appropriate files, there are many administrative positions in both the infrastructure and operational sides of the house.

Accountants for instance are an excellent example of a career path for which there is a need both administratively and operationally.

The law enforcement side of the intelligence community (FBI)  has proven the value of following the money.  As the “Global War on Terror” expands, it is no secret that following the money in an effort to target organizations of interest makes sense. Enter the Forensic Accountant.

A well publicized counterintelligence case of forensic accounting revealed an individual who enjoyed the trust of his nation was Aldrich (Rick) Ames. He lived beyond his means, and the ability to document this was key to confirming to the satisfaction of all that he had indeed broken trust.  The video series The Assets (B-level acting, but the story is for the most part accurate) details the investigation from the point of view of two of the counterintelligence investigatory team.

Then of course, the debit and credit side of the equation within the internal administrative house is equally important to assure tax payer funds are used for the purpose intended, budgets maintained and variances kept to a minimum.

Interested in a CIA career?

Here’s a smorgasbord of the type of positions which the CIA is currently hiring:

  • Analytic Positions
  • Business, IT & Security Positions
  • Directorate of Operations (Clandestine Service) Positions
  • Language Positions
  • Science, Engineering and Technology Positions
  • Student Opportunities

Thus, the short answer is, it is just like working anywhere else, while at the same time being within one of  the most unique work environments surrounded by colleagues who are as mission driven as you.  It is indeed humbling to know that each individual was selected from the many thousand who apply, and all my career I enjoyed being surrounded by people who I knew were smarter than me.

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008).

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