How to Get a Job in the Intelligence Field
For over thirty years I worked in Intelligence. I held many positions from line pilot on an ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) aircraft in Africa, South America, and Southwest Asia to playing an arms dealer in a meeting with communist rebels in Colombia. I had a great career. I didn’t make that much money, but it left me with lots of stories. I use some of those places, stories and characters in my novels.
One of my readers asked me the other night, “How do I get into that business?” That question started the wheels turning. How would a young person get into the intelligence field today?
First, we should define the terms.
Intelligence Business: The gathering of information, analyzing that information, and out of that process, delivering actionable intelligence to the parent organization.
Whenever one talks about the intel business, everyone thinks about being a spy. But the intelligence business has several pieces, and each piece has a different type of job. Below is an incomplete list of jobs in the intelligence field:
Everyone is familiar with this job. A spy. Sometimes dangerous, sometimes boring, but surprisingly low paid. Stay away from this section of the business. Too many egos, too many agents rotting in some foreign dungeon, and too many early “retirements” if your cover is blown or a different political leadership comes to DC.
Transporting personnel, arms, and flying ISR missions. Pretty good pay. Surprisingly, the drone pilots are bringing in the best money.
These people take raw information (interviews, reports, images, articles and emails) and using context and history (and some other magic), they compare sources and puzzle out the truth. Harder than it looks. Then they write reports for the bosses that explain their findings and offer appropriate responses. Requires a wide range of knowledge in a variety of subjects and the ability to weigh many factors to build a scenario of likely outcomes from an incomplete data set.
The area specialist consults with all team members to give insight to the part of the planet where they will be operating. A Chinese specialist will speak Mandarin, understand the customs, current events, military, geography, social mores, and politics of China. They will brief operators during mission planning, politicians, economists, and logistics.
An equipment operator could mean the person flying in the back of an ISR aircraft operating the infra-red camera or riding in a jeep operating a radio direction finding set. But they are experts on their systems.
The maintenance expert keeps things running. Computer systems, aircraft, vehicles, armament, and all other items mechanical or electronic.
Computer experts can be hackers or builders of systems. We once had a network center in a tent in the jungle. The technicians’ main problem was keeping the ants from building a nest in the equipment. It seems the insects loved 60 hertz. Sometimes they live in tents, sometime in palaces.
Shooters include bodyguards, snipers, facility security, and quick reaction forces. If you can, stay out of this field. The pay is abysmal, the risks are huge. Your career is usually short due to physical fitness issues.
· A 40-year-old can’t move or carry like a 25-year-old.
· Wounds and injuries pile up.
It helps if you identify which pathway you wish to take. The earlier the better.
The other path is a harder choice. Civilian or Government Intelligence.
Civilian intelligence companies operate out of view of the public. This is the route I took. I worked for a corporation that had a contract with a government agency, or another corporation. At different times my company worked for the US Army, NAVY, multinational corporations, and several government agencies. Contracts lasted from a few days to several years. Sometimes we just provided raw information, usually imagery from aircraft. Sometimes we provided security. On other contracts we gathered information, analyzed it, wrote reports, and were part of direct-action responses.
Government Intelligence means getting hired full time by one of the US Government Agencies. The CIA is only a small part of the community. The National Reconnaissance Office to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the list is too long to put in this article. Do your own research.
Retirement benefits, job security, and good pay are advantages of working directly for an agency. Office work, bureaucracy, and boredom are some of the disadvantages.
The best and easiest path to the intelligence business is through the US military. Other country’s armed forces are also a good place to start. I have worked with men from the South African Army and the Israeli Army.
Military veterans are sought out by the intelligence agencies of the government and large corporations for two reasons. RISK and COMMUNITY.
Risk: Governments and corporations like to see a record of your achievements. They like the “filters” military people have gone through. Weaklings are filtered out. Lazy people and whiners are filtered also. Other filters include becoming a member of Special Forces, Marine Recon, or Navy Seals. This translates into less risk for the person hiring you, because the hirer knows you are physically fit, have lived in austere conditions, and are able to “play well with others”.
Community: Many times, hirers are veterans of one of these elite groups. They know what it takes to be accepted. Within the intelligence field, one will find that one contracting company is almost all Navy Seals. Another group is mostly Army Special Forces. For these trusted positions, hirers turn to their networks, and recruit from those networks.
Should you decide to enter the intelligence field through the military, choose a specialty that will be considered valuable. When one enlists, he has a choice of jobs. Don’t pick a military job because it sounds easy. There are not many slots for payroll clerks or fuel truck drivers in the intelligence field. Artillery and Armor are not considered good fields either.
While in the military, you will attain more rank and better access to elite units if you have some infantry background. I am most familiar with the Army process.
1. Airborne Infantry
2. Ranger School
3. Special Forces Qualification (Q Course)
In addition to shooters, all these elite forces use communication and computer experts, intelligence specialists, medics, and, of course, shooters. One of the best routes to an intel job is to volunteer for an elite unit, become a shooter, and then cross train into an intelligence field.
The exception to this is being a pilot. Once a military pilot, volunteer for the elite squadrons supporting the intelligence units.
With membership in an elite military organization comes a built-in network, instant bona fides, a TS (Top Secret) security clearance, and a marketable skillset. Consider it like going to college for an advanced degree.
The other door into the intelligence business is through specialized education.
That will be the subject of my next article.