One of the perks of studying at an elite U.S. university is that top companies, organisations, and agencies congregate in search of talent. What follows is my experience attending a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruiting brief and simulation session at the Johns Hopkins University. Names have been altered to preserve personal security. You can read part I and II here. 

“Hell no,” said John.

Michael had given us five minutes to come up with a decision: do we inform the Director and the president, or do we. . . fail?

“I repeat: hell no. We can’t provide an analysis to the director and president with what we’ve got.” John’s portly face was blazing red. He was truly worked-up by the prospect of failure. “It isn’t like we can give an assessment only to retract a few minutes later when a new piece of information trickles in.”

“Can we request more time,” asked Manuela?

“I doubt it,” I responded.

The cataract of information that Michael had given us was still twisting in my mind. Numbers, capabilities, blast radiuses, motives.

“Are we certain we haven’t missed anything? Skipped a detail?” I said.

“I’m pretty sure we can exclude Faddis,” said Manuela. “The blast suggests a warhead between 20-45lb.” She looked resolute. It’s funny how appearances can fool someone, I thought. Not three hours ago, Manuela was only a shy freshman. Now she looked like a seasoned trooper.

“All right,” I said. “Timeris and Nearland, then. Both have the capabilities and their drone warheads fit the blast radius. But who would benefit more?”

“Nearland,” said John. He seemed calmer. The beads of perspiration that had been previously trickling from his forehead had vaporised. “Since the partition, they have been getting the shorter end of the stick. First, they lost two chunks of territory (Timeris and Faddis). And now they’re set to lose — if we consider the news reports — a prime piece of real estate.”

“But, then again, it could still be Timeris,” I said.

Before John had the time to object, Manuela chipped in, “You’re right. John, I get your argument. On the face of it, Nearland has more to lose. If we’ve seen it, so would the Timerians. Let’s suppose they orchestrated the attack knowing that suspicions are bound to fall on the stronger Nearland, which has more to lose. This would be the final blow against Nearlandian territorial aspirations.”

No one responded. A double bluff? It would certainly meet our expectations of a CIA simulation event.

“Hmm, is it enough, though, to inform policymakers,” asked John. “I agree that the whole idea is plausible — even likely. But, again, we can’t be 100 percent certain.”

“Maybe that’s on purpose,” said Manuela. “I think he’s purposefully fed us enough information to come with a plausible but not certain assessment. In a real-world situation, CIA analysts would be facing similar uncertainty. It’s about percentage rather than complete conviction.”

We’d have to agree with her. Maybe it was just that: a test to gauge if we’d the balls to stick with a decision even if weren’t completely sure about its accuracy.

Still, something was bugging me. Numbers, capabilities, blast radiuses, motives — numbers.

“But of course!” I rifled through the DIA report with the drones’ capabilities. “All right, operational ceiling: 9,500ft.”

Manuela, who was watching me with intense curiosity, caught my thinking and scrambled for the USAF radar intercept. “No activity below 8,000ft!” she said.

“Nearland!” shouted John.

The room looked towards our team.

“And why Nearland,” asked Michael. His face betrayed no emotion.

“Because of the altitude and the drones’ operational capabilities,” said Manuela. “According to the USAF intercept, the strike could have come only from a drone flying above 8,000ft. Nearland’s drone is the only one that could do that.”

The CIA recruiter didn’t respond. He just went to the table and picked up yet another document and handed it out. It was a SIGINT intercept. The NSA had intercepted a phone conversation between the Nearlandian Defence Minister and the country’s military Chief of Staffs. It read:

Why did you unleash the wolf without authorisation? Do you even understand the mess you’ve put me into? I’ve been lying to the Americans for the past nine hours, saying that’s not us. Heads will roll. Be sure of that.

Nearland.

“It was a rogue faction within the Nearlandian military,” said Michael. “They believed that their politicians were going soft. It might sound like fiction, but such a scenario wouldn’t be absurd in many of the countries that the Agency is operating in.”

I looked at the team. John seemed relieved, Manuela content.

Good call.