The Making of a Spy

Written by Glenn Davisson

Joining the CIA

The typical recruit for the CIA’s Clandestine Service must be between 26 and 36 years old (though some exceptions are allowed, especially if they bring useful real world experience to the Agency), has a four year college degree (or be within a year of completing one – because of this, very few recruits are under the age of 21, though technically the minimum age to apply is 18) with a GPA of at least 3.0. He (or she) has strong interpersonal and communications skills, and has demonstrated an ability to think on his feet while working independently or as part of a team. Typically, he speaks at least two languages fluently, and he often has served in the military, or has traveled or lived in foreign countries on his own. He is loyal to his country, even patriotic, and is willing to follow orders he does not understand. He is physically and mentally fit, well trained in the tradecraft of espionage, and well equipped for his job. Most are volunteers, but likely candidates will be discretely approached by recruiters.

Those who wish to apply choose what position they are interested in (and may apply for up to four at a time). There will be an extensive background check (including polygraphs), and thorough physical, mental and psychological tests. Any evidence of illicit drug use in the last 12 months is automatic disqualification, as is most criminal history. (A traffic ticket or two isn’t a problem. Several dozen probably will be. Actual criminal convictions, especially for a felony, is pretty much automatic disqualification.) There are several in-person interviews, to ensure that both the Agency and the potential recruit have a clear understanding of what to expect, and to examine the recruit’s motives in wanting to join. A genuine desire to serve one’s country is far preferable to an adrenaline junkie who wants to play with guns and bombs. The psych screening can tell the difference.

There are no specific requirements for the college degree (and technically, the degree isn’t strictly required, but one has to be really exceptional to get in without it), but the degree should be related to the type of work one is applying for. Degrees in any sort of international politics, business or finance, and law enforcement/criminology are desirable for Operations and Collection Management Officers (the guys who sneak around in the dark doing naughty things), as is military service. Fluency is one or more foreign languages, especially Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Korean, Pashto, Persian/Farsi, Russian, or Somali is also desirable. Advanced degrees are also more desirable than undergraduate degrees.

There are four Directorates to the CIA: Intelligence, Support, Science and Technology, and the Directorate of Operations (which used to be called National Clandestine Service). Of primary interest to Covert Ops players is the last directorate, Clandestine Service, and this article will focus there.

Many recruits join the CIA shortly after graduating from college. Since they lack the sort of real world experience of military service or other non-academic endeavors (a job), any recruit under the age of 26 starts with the Professional Trainee Program (or PT Program) at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, which gives them “the opportunity to gain experience through a series of responsible Headquarters-based assignments that expose them to core aspects of the mission of the National Clandestine Service prior to joining the Clandestine Service Training (CST) Program.” 1 In short, they assist the headquarters staff in Langley in running the Clandestine Service, to give them a thorough understanding of what the field officers (and others) do. This program typically lasts two years. This includes managing field operations, from planning to clean up, as well as working with analysts and Targeting Officers to determine the objectives of field ops, and, frankly, getting coffee and donuts for the working stiffs.

The CST Program is CIA boot camp, mainly at Camp Peary (“The Farm”) outside Williamsburg, Virginia. Recruits with military service, or other “substantive work experience” start here. The program lasts at least 18 months, and teaches the recruits the fundamentals of their tradecraft. This includes martial skills, such as hand to hand combat, weapons training, and defensive (and offensive) driving, as well as language lessons and technical skills (and how to use the high tech toys the CIA is so fond of). But mainly it focuses on people – how to find those who are vulnerable to compromise, how to recruit, bribe, blackmail or seduce them, and how to manage them afterwards. Initially, this is classroom training, but as the program progresses, it changes to more and more field exercises, which can take place anywhere in the world, including foreign countries. These exercises can include making or picking up information packets from dead drops, meeting with long term agents, and investigating suspected leaks. Sometimes, these exercises are real missions, whether the trainee knows it or not.

Graduates of The Farm then go on to advanced training, tailored to their chosen specialty. There are six specialties open to new recruits (who are now known as “core collectors”):

  • Collection Management Officer (mostly an analyst)
  • Directorate of Operations Language Officer (mostly a translator)
  • Operations Officer (a field officer – a spy, but also case officers – the line between them can be fuzzy.)
  • Paramilitary Operations Officer (another field officer, but on a far more violent career path) (Another variation of this is the Specialized Skills Officer, who tend to be technical specialists in some field, such as aviation, maritime, military psychological warfare and/or information operations. They might be pilots, computer hackers, SCUBA specialists, psy ops specialists, etc.)
  • Staff Operations Officer (office support – often people who are not well suited for field work, but are worth keeping around.)
  • Targeting Officer (mostly a desk jockey who interprets the analysts’ work and
    recommends missions)

The duties vary, but all these positions are considered interchangeable to some degree; all have received the same core training, and all are certified for field work (though not all are certified to carry firearms). Nearly all officers spend some time as a Staff Operations Officer immediately after graduating from The Farm, even if that is not their specialty. Collections Management Officers and Operations Officers typically spend up to three years at a time on assignment in foreign countries. The other positions are usually based in Washington, DC, with stiff competition for the few overseas jobs that are available. (The Paramilitary Operations Officer is usually based in DC, with short overseas assignments being fairly common. They are the (para)military trouble shooters, for jobs that are intended to be violent. They have similar duties to military special forces units, such as Seal teams, and often work with Special Forces on particularly important assignments.)

Note: Graduates of the CST Program can become Specialized Skills Officers and Staff Operations Officers, but not all SSOs and SOOs are certified core collectors. Those who are not certified for field work spend their careers at a desk. All other positions are virtually always CST Program graduates, and have at least some chance of spending some time in the field.

Even once the recruit is fully certified and in the field, the CIA strongly encourages (and pays for) ongoing education throughout the officer’s career. The Agency runs several specialized schools that teach various aspects of tradecraft, such as breaking and entering, advanced hand to hand combat techniques, electronic intrusion (hacking), and so forth. The CIA also sponsors officers in classes at universities all over the world. While there is a preference for studies that apply to the officer’s job (especially language and cultural studies related to trouble spots), they are very open to almost any field of study, and will grant long leaves of absence to pursue advanced degrees or specialized education. The more diverse an officer’s skill set and knowledge base, the more capable he will be.

1 www.cia.gov/offices-of-cia/clandestine-service/careers/careersprofessional-trainee-program.html

Further reading: www.cia.gov/careers/opportunities/clandestine/index.html

Agent vs Officer

A CIA agent is a local asset, usually a foreign national, who has been bribed, blackmailed or seduced in to working for the CIA. They are, essentially, a contractor. They may or may not know whom they work for. They may think they work for someone else entirely. A CIA officer is a full time employee, a US citizen, fully vetted with background checks and polygraphs and such, almost always college educated, and well trained at The Farm in Langley (and the CIA is big on continuing education throughout one’s career). This is the classic professional spy of fiction. Robert DeNiro’s character in Ronin is a good example.

The agent has a lot more discretion, being expendable and deniable. The officer has access to far more resources and backing, but at the cost of freedom of action. If an officer is caught by the enemy, a considerable effort will be made to get them back, up to and including a prisoner exchange. If they are caught by friendly local authorities, diplomatic means will be applied to smooth over the international incident, almost an unofficial form of diplomatic immunity. If an agent is caught, the extent to which the Agency will care is based on how much damage can be done by the compromise. At least some consideration will be given to whether or not the best way to contain the damage is to assassinate the agent themselves.

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