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Intelligence Officer Careers and How to Get One
Students often ask me how to get a job in the Intelligence Community. I wrote this article to share some best practices for securing a career as an Intelligence Officer. This article reflects my 34 years of experience in that career field with three different agencies. In addition to my own experience I solicited and received comments from several senior executives in the intelligence and law enforcement communities. A career in intelligence can be an exciting, fulfilling and maddeningly frustrating. You will be part of an elite group of professionals. It is a career where can serve your country and humanity and make a real difference in the world; although very few people will ever know it. The US Intelligence Community (IC) hires thousands of people with many dozens of skill sets. Many people believe the myth that one needs to have a foreign language and extensive overseas experience to be employable. Not true. Many different skill sets are required whether one considers being a Case Officer (aka Operations Officer) or an Intelligence Analyst, or any of the other dozens of career paths.
Types of Jobs
The most well-known job to the public is Case Officers (Operations Officers). These persons recruit foreign agents and “run” spy networks. Truth told, they do a lot more running (handling) than recruiting. A key aspect about an Operations Officer career is that their work is primarily overseas. That seems exciting at first thought but there are negative aspects. It means your spouse will almost certainly have to give up a career and, depending on the organization, you will have to do some tours in remote third world countries (sorry, you can’t spend a career just in European capitals). Some overseas assignments are difficult, unhealthy, and even dangerous. Your kids will grow up in overseas schools which are usually excellent, but they won’t know the Pledge of Allegiance unless you teach it to them. The divorce rate is high in this career field. People with all sorts of backgrounds become Case Officers. There is a great need for technical expertise even for those in the clandestine service. It’s not just foreign language and cultural knowledge anymore. For example, it is helpful to have a background in biology or chemistry especially when you are trying to recruit or get information from a foreign biological or chemical warfare scientist. How do you expect to recruit a foreign aerospace engineer or cyber expert when you have no idea what the person is even talking about? Collecting information from humans (HUMINT) is not just limited to Case Officers. Other types of HUMINT collectors include strategic debriefers, counterintelligence officers. Strategic debriefers (civilian and military) are employed by the Armed Services and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA/Defense Debriefing Service). Law Enforcement officers and even security personnel do a fair amount of this work as well. Intelligence Analyst overseas opportunities are not limited to collection operations. There are far more Intelligence Analysts stationed overseas than collectors. For example, DIA has hundreds of analysts supporting each Combatant Command. Armed Services, CIA, FBI, U.S. Marshals, State Dept, etc. all have analysts overseas. Intelligence Analysts compile, correlate, analyze, and evaluate information from a variety of sources. Sources often include field interviews, databases, surveillance reports, human derived reports, signal intercepts, geographic information systems, and many, many others. Analysts generate finished intelligence products from raw, unevaluated, information. Analysts produce finished intelligence products for a variety of purposes. Just a very, few of these types of analyses are as follows:
- Geopolitical risk assessments;
- Military capability studies;
- Leadership analysis;
- Terrorist groups and Transnational Criminal Organizations;
- Cyber Treats;
- Treaty verification;
- Threat assessments for critical infrastructure and acquisition programs;
- Weapons of Mass Destruction program and systems.
It should come as no surprise that each of these types of intelligence analyses requires a different type of expertise – from country/language expert to military operations to computer scientist to nuclear physicist. All types of Intelligence Analysts generally have a few traits or skills in common:
- Critical Thinking skills (analysis starts and ends with critical thinking)
- Superior writing skills
- Strong briefing skills. In its essence, intelligence is a human endeavor. You can be the greatest analyst on the planet, but your information is useless if you cannot communicate your message to the intended customer.
- Superior Subject Matter Expertise.
- Strong research skills
- Attention to detail.
- Ability to collaborate.
Do Your Homework: The Difference between Law Enforcement and Intelligence I’ve heard many students say they want a career as “either an FBI or CIA agent.” A career in federal law enforcement as a Special Agent (government series (GS) 1811) is a dramatically different career with different required skills than an Intelligence Community “Case Officer” (an “Intelligence Agent” is a recruited foreign national, and an Intelligence Officer does the recruiting). In one career you are enforcing the law; in the other you are potentially breaking the laws of a third party nation. In one career you carry a gun. In the other, you will almost never carry a gun (unless you are in a war zone). When people say they want one or the other; it means they know nothing about either. Do your homework before you apply (and don’t believe what you see in the movies) so you don’t find yourself wanting to leave the job six months after the excitement wears off. Intelligence Analyst positions are different from collection operations work. Analysts in all agencies generally do the same type of work. The primary difference being your subject area of expertise, mission, resources, and the corporate culture in which you work. Other Jobs in Intelligence The Intelligence Community hires project and program managers, security specialists, personnel officers, linguists, graphic artists, makeup artists, videographers, logisticians, engineers, satellite operators, construction workers (someone has to build and accredit the classified facilities worldwide), administrative officers, lawyers, accountants, scientists, doctors, nurses, IT specialists, and a multitude of other positions. If you want to work in this industry, the chances are there is a career path for you. Where to Start So let’s say you have decided to become an Intelligence Analyst. Assuming you do not have a security clearance I would recommend starting with a company (or corporation) or state/local government. This is a good way to start particularly if you want to do some type of political (stability, risk assessment) or threat analysis (terrorism, criminal, cyber, security, risk management, etc.). Starting your career this way has three benefits:
- Working for a private company does not require an IC security clearance unless you are contracted to a government agency (more on that later). The company clearances are usually just police checks which are done in days or weeks.
- You are developing and refining analytical skill sets that are exactly the same as you would use in the IC. Some private companies have analytical capabilities that surpass IC elements. For example, Disney has a threat detection and analysis capability that is second to none.
- You will probably make at least a much if not more money than if you start in the IC.
Criminal and threat intelligence can also take you a long way. Mass shootings, Transnational Criminal Organizations, terrorists, and cyber criminals present a significant threat to this nation. It is an expanding field of increasing importance to homeland and national security. These same threats also plague companies, their infrastructure, personnel, investments, networks, and worldwide operations. Eighty five percent of critical infrastructure in the United States is owned by private industry so there is significant incentive to protect it. You often do not need a TS/SCI clearance in commercial and criminal intelligence analysis (at the state and local levels) so you can start quickly. Most IC organizations require a TS/SCI clearance and takes about a year to complete. A few (depending on the position) require only TS or even SECRET. A SECRET level clearance can be completed in weeks (sometimes even just days). Important Note on Security Clearances Most, but not all, government clearances require completing a SF86 (Standard Form 86). While this is often done online it will take you time to retrieve all previous home addresses, friends, recommendation contact information, school records, etc. Prepare these records while you are applying for jobs; not after your would-be employer asks you to do so. This simple act could save you weeks or even months in the hiring process. Commercial Firms First, go to Indeed.com and LinkedIn. Search for the term “intelligence analyst”. Here are a just a few companies to search for analysis positions:
Intelligence Jobs at the state and local level States differ in how many investigative and analytical resources they apply against homeland security, human traffickers, terrorism, organized crime, etc. Most states hire Intelligence Analysts (civilian or sworn officers – or both) in large cities and state police forces. For example, the New York City Police Dept. has an Intelligence Bureau and a Counterterrorism Bureau, each with uniformed personnel and civilian analysts. Many states and cities with large populations have separate investigative agencies (or state prosecutor’s offices) that employ intelligence analysts. Lastly, there are 78 State Intelligence Fusion Centers across the country. These entities conduct intelligence gathering, analysis and dissemination and are located is states or major urban area centers. Some of them hire civilian analysts separate from the police forces. Private companies also support some states with intelligence analysts. Analytical capabilities and resources are usually far better at the federal level but state and city agencies are a great place to start a career. Intelligence jobs at the federal level Here are a few federal agencies and jobs to research. Go to USAJOBS.gov. Search Intelligence Officer, Intelligence Research Specialist, (or just search 0132). Foreign Affairs officers are designated 0130. Several agencies and departments conduct foreign affairs (Defense, Energy, Agency for International Development, DHS, etc.) The 0132 series is a generic job category that includes Operations Officers, Intelligence Analysts, Policy Specialists, Collection Managers, etc. In a job search, you may also come across the term Intelligence Operations Specialist which is another term for analyst. In contrast, the 1811 job series is exclusively Federal Criminal Investigator (usually called a Special Agent). Gaming the System When you plan to apply for a position you need to “game the system”. There are dozens or even hundreds of applicants for positions. Agencies often use Applicant Tracking System software to scan for key words in your resume as a first level of screening. So your resume should use the same key words and catch phrases as listed in the job announcement. If the position description says “required experience is someone who can quack like a duck”; you write how much you “quack like a duck” in your job (of course this assumes that you actually do so. Don’t lie.). The software will count up how many times “quack like a duck” appears in your resume, mathematically scoring it for relevance, and sending only the most qualified ones to the personnel officer. You should use key words and catch phrases in your topic sentences (the first in each paragraph) as those tend to score higher. Use simple declarative statements. Lastly, keep it simple and use a standard font like Arial, Courier, or Times New Roman. Applicant Tracking System software often misses fancy fonts (Bad for you). Some agencies to consider in your job search 1. FBI – Analysis: Counterintelligence, counter-terrorism, and organized crime. 2. CIA – Analysis, Operations, Counterintelligence (CI) 3. Army Intelligence – INSCOM (Intelligence and Security Command) is located worldwide. The work is supported by contractor analysts 4. Air Force Office of Special Investigations. Present in the U.S. and overseas and do the CI, criminal investigations, and analysts support for Air Force. They also do the CI collection. 5. Naval Criminal Investigative Service NCIS. Present in the in the U.S. and overseas, and do the CI and criminal investigations for the Department of the Navy and the Marine Corps. They also do CI collection and analysis support. 6. Defense Intelligence Agency, Office of Counterintelligence, Directorate of Analysis – analyst, targeting officer. 7. US Marshals Service – The USMS has a large staff of GS-0132 Intelligence Analysts across the nation and overseas. They also have contracted Intelligence Analysts through “Preferred Systems Solutions” (PSS) 8. ** US Department of State – two analytical shops: Intelligence and Research (INR) and Diplomatic Security Service analysis and watch center – take DSS if you can. Try a career as a Foreign Service Security Officer (Special Agent) if you want a job that is a good cross between intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomacy. My single biggest career mistake was leaving DSS. It is probably the best job in the USG for counter-terrorism (If you like living overseas and a fair amount of adventure). 9. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)/Customs and Border Patrol (DHS/CBP) is hiring up to 5,000 people. A large number will be Border Agents but they will be hiring intelligence analysts as well. This is a job where you probably obtain a SECRET clearance. 10. Department of Homeland Security. DHS has a number of analyst jobs in the Office of Intelligence and Analysis. 11. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Intelligence Research Specialist 12. DHS/TSA, Intelligence Analyst 13 DHS/Secret Service – Special Agent and Intelligence Analyst positions. Despite recent public embarrassments, an excellent organization in which to work. 14. DHS U.S. Coast Guard – Intelligence Analyst 15. U.S. National Guard has civilian Intelligence Analyst positions. 16. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Plans & Resource Integration Directorate, Intelligence Analyst Positions. 17. Department of Energy. If you have a STEM background this is a great place to be an Intelligence Analyst. 18. Department of Treasury. Financial Intelligence (FINCEN) analysts. This list should keep you busy for a while. Remember, contractors support each of these agencies with Intelligence Analysts. Follow These Rules to Actually Get Employed There are a few rules you should follow if you are serious about working for the IC.
- Don’t use illegal drugs. This should be common sense. You can hardly expect to be trusted with the nation’s secrets if you can’t even be trusted to obey the law. Time tends to heal all wounds so if you have used drugs in your youth, you may want to wait a few years before applying. Once you have been turned down for a security clearance it is much more difficult to get one in the future.
- Clean up your social media accounts. I can’t tell you how many applications immediately hit the shredder because the applicant was bragging about acting like a drunken idiot on his/her social media account. Competition for jobs is fierce. Your potential employer is trying to decide if you are mature enough for the job.
- Use proper English grammar in all correspondence. Managers look for people who can write in clear, concise, correct sentences. Case Officers write information reports and analysts write finished intelligence products. Either way your career will be one that requires you to communicate in writing. Make sure your cover letter is perfect. It is quite common for an applicant to be asked to submit a writing sample. Make sure that is perfect as well. English mistakes gets your application sent to the bottom of the pile.
- Publish, publish, publish. I can’t think of a better way to get noticed then to publish your work online. Publish through a journal if you can. If not, post your work on a blog. When your potential employer searches your name you want them to see a critical thinker who can conduct research. If you are in college or graduate school use the papers you have written. Ask your professors for help and hire an editor online (Fiverr.com).
- Be flexible. Be patient. The world is changing and so is the IC. Change can often lead to a stressful work environment. You should expect that walking in the door so be flexible. It will take some time to understand this community and the opportunities it offers. And the only way you are going to learn that is by working in it; so be patient.
- Be realistic and temper your expectations. When I first entered on duty with the CIA I was more than a little disappointed by the bureaucracy. My James Bond dreams were shattered. It was only years later I learned that agency has a far more responsive bureaucracy than most other government agencies.
Finally, remember, you are entering government service. It is service. That means you are dedicating yourself to serving the nation. There will be long days. There will be assignments you definitely do not want. There will be travel you do not want to take. There will be bosses you hate. It all comes with the job. In time — you will make a very good living (not rich but a very good living). Just remember, it is government service.