I am an unapologetic believer in our nation’s national security apparatus, and not just because I was a part of it as an officer in both the U.S. military and the Central Intelligence Agency. I also witnessed, firsthand, the dedication of those in the intelligence- and security-agency trenches, and saw them put their considerable skills to work on a daily basis to effectively combat America’s foes. I certainly do not claim that our national security establishment always gets everything right, or is free of mistakes—far from it. However, I assert that those professionals who work at the CIA, NSA, FBI, NGA, and the other security agencies, are dedicated in their purpose, and work tirelessly and effectively to serve the United States.
That all being said, working in the intelligence field, and specifically, for the CIA’s National Clandestine Service (NCS), is a kick-ass job, and a great way to serve your country. You will find little else as intellectually stimulating, challenging, and thrilling—on a regular and sustained basis—as a career in the NCS. You can make a direct and critical contribution to your nation’s security while simultaneously making money doing a job you would probably do for free if they let you. With that in mind, I offer below a list of five qualifications that will help you secure a job working for the NCS, if you are so inclined.
First, I should define the National Clandestine Service: it was formerly called the Directorate of Operations (DO) within the CIA, differentiating it from the Directorates of Intelligence (DI), Science and Technology (DS&T), and Support (DS). The NCS is comprised of the CIA’s core collectors, and those that directly support collection. The former include operations officers (often called case officers) and collection management officers, while the latter include targeters, staff-operations officers, and other special-skills officers.
The NCS is the nation’s premier human-collection organization, where the great majority of the nation’s strategic, national-level human collection occurs. If you think you might have what it takes to spot, assess, develop, recruit, and operationally run a human spy, or penetration of a foreign entity (terror groups, foreign governments, and criminal enterprises, for example), then the NCS is for you. Before you can secure yourself a job there, though, you might want to make sure that you have some or all of the qualifications listed below. These will make you a more attractive candidate for recruitment, and when you read the list, they will probably sound pretty obvious. That does not negate their significance.
1. Military experience. Just as in the private sector, the CIA/NCS places great value on military experience. Obviously, if you are looking to become a paramilitary case officer in the agency, you would absolutely have to have military experience. However, the agency even likes when its bread and butter, traditional case-officer candidates have experience in the U.S. Armed Forces. There really is no substitute for the mettle one acquires in the military, a fact not lost on NCS and agency leadership. You start instantly ahead of your competitors for employment if you have a military background.
2. Language skills. Speaking a foreign language is not a requirement to get hired by the NCS, but it sure helps. First, it makes you instantly more valuable as a candidate case officer, as you can communicate with potential assets in their own language. Secondly, it is training the agency will not have to provide you, should they hire you. Third, it shows you possess the aptitude to learn a foreign language. The agency will teach you a foreign language if it deems you need to know one, so they like to know that you can learn languages before they bring you on. Not everyone has the aptitude, after all. Again, you do not have to speak multiple foreign languages before you apply, but it will only help you in the application process if you do. The most valuable languages are probably the most obvious: Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Pashto, Farsi/Dari, etc. The more you speak, the better.
3. Experience abroad. It only makes sense that an organization that puts 90% of its focus on events and developments abroad would prefer its potential employees to have experience living overseas. Again, this is not required, but it shows that a candidate is comfortable living abroad (not everyone is), and provides experience that will be directly beneficial to life as an NCS officer. It also does not hurt at all to be a dual citizen (simultaneously American and foreign), depending on the circumstances, the country involved, and various other factors. On that point, if you spent a significant amount of time living overseas in “denied areas” (i.e., Russia, Cuba, Iran, etc), you can expect a little extra scrutiny in the hiring process, but fear not: it by no means disqualifies you from employment. Without saying more, it can even help you. Dual citizenship can be advantageous.
4. Higher education. I am absolutely not one of those people who thinks that a college education somehow makes one more qualified for life than does vocational training, or just good old-fashioned real-world life experience. In fact, I have known lots of idiot college graduates with whom I would not trust my dog, let alone the fate of my nation’s security. With that said, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree is pretty much required for an NCS candidate. There is no getting around that fact, and post-graduate work and/or degrees help even more, if you have them.
A bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs or international politics is by no means required (though, again, can be helpful), and a biology or history major has his or her own set of skills to bring to the table. In certain circumstances, you might be able to sidestep this degree requirement—for example, if you are a master computer programmer or a 20-year special operations veteran moving over to do paramilitary work—but, for the most part, this one is non-negotiable.
5. Life experience. This should go hand-in-hand with #4 above, in that one should be required to have both of these qualifications for employment in the NCS. However, the agency does hire a number of graduates right out of college each year. These young people have little to no major life experience, but plenty of them do just fine in the NCS. Moreover, they usually gain their experience as they proceed through an NCS career. Some of the best officers I knew came right out of school to the agency. In my opinion, though, life experience is crucial for a prospective NCS officer. It might just be the most important qualification on this list.
How can you empathize with a source and his struggles if you do not have the life experiences to draw on to give you that empathy? It can be done, but if you have experienced your own struggles, ups and downs, successes and failures, and roadblocks, then you are much more likely to be a more effective case officer. The job is handling people, which often means being their friend, confidant, and sounding board. If you have lived some of your own life, then you will be so much more effective in relating to theirs.
What do I mean? Maybe you have run your own business, or you served in the peace corps for five years after college. Maybe you served six to eight years in the military, and deployed overseas to a war zone. Or, maybe you worked as a lawyer in Chicago for 10 years before applying to the NCS. All of these paths would have bestowed on you some wisdom, and would have provided you some valuable life experiences from which to draw in your NCS career.
So, that’s it. Sounds easy, right? All you have to do to work for the United States’ premier human intelligence collection agency is have the desire, and a good mix of the qualifications listed above, and you are well on your way there. That assumes, of course, that you actually apply, and that they are hiring when you do so. After all, nothing is guaranteed in life, but for those who never risk anything, nothing valuable will ever be won. Good luck.