Thursday, May 18, 2006

JOB OPENINGS AT THE CIA: Bed-wetters and office clowns not sought

Today's piece came about as part of a reaction to the reputation held by features/entertainment writers at the daily newspaper. Bluntly, they were looked down on. Music writers were regarded as loafers -- lazy, stupid and incapable of doing real news reporting. Although no one used the words "lightweight" or "lazy" or "tyro" face-to-face, the attitude was abundantly clear in the patronizing way the reporters and free-lancers were dealt with by editors from the upper rungs of the publication.

And today it is still a common attitude. Rock critics don't have a good rep as newsmen nationwide. Some of that disregard is earned. But much of it is also pure snobbery.

In any case, the next story took over a year to develop and carry out. I continued to write for the features section but didn't tell anyone about it until the work was finished.

It remains a great read, one I'm still very proud of, and relevant to our current national security problems over a decade after publication. "Name five CIA experts on anything. I can't do it," said a former CIA analyst to the New York Times last Sunday ("Langley, We Have a Problem," Tim Weiner).

I write on substantive national security issues for the think-tank GlobalSecurity.Org and get quoted on them. While I'm not secret and classified, I do what CIA-men are supposed to do well but don't. The Times claim looks accurate from where I sit.

(1992, Allentown) So you want to be a spy? And you're sure the place to go is the CIA!

The CIA is interested in hearing from you. It interviews thousands of Americans for jobs as spies, intelligence analysts and technical specialists every year. But because of its classified mission, hiring methods are unusual and Kafka-esque, taking at least a year to complete and bound in smothering bureaucratic process, comic ineptitude and secrecy.

Although the number of people employed by the CIA is classified, it regularly recruits on college campuses and through the job listings in major metropolitan newspapers. A recent series of advertisements aimed at minorities in magazines like Ebony drew spectacular media attention, but the typical CIA ad is bland and unassuming, easily blending in with countless other corporate calls for highly-trained, college- educated Americans.

A year ago, one such ad ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Candidates were encouraged to send resumes for consideration to a post office box drop in Pittsburgh, one of the agency's regional personnel clearinghouses. Candidates would be required to undergo a rigorous physical examination and polygraph test, the ad warned ominously.

I forwarded my resume to the CIA mail drop, listing my qualifications as a scientist and journalist with the reasoning that these talents would be useful in analysis.

Apparently, the CIA's personnel staff agreed. They got back to me in about a month and in so doing, began a unique series of communications.

Candidates, you see, are not contacted directly by the CIA. Instead they are delivered mail that requests them to contact an agency worker by telephone within a certain time frame. The contacts are often anonymous. For example, prospects whose last names began with "S" were asked to phone "Bobbi - Program Officer" at the CIA's Stafford Building in Tyson's Corner Center, VA.

The initial interview with the CIA usually involves a type of cattle call. About a year ago, 30 of us met in a room at The Valley Forge Convention Center. There we underwent preliminary screening from a CIA team led by Pittsburgh-based representative. The team included workers from the agency's directorates of intelligence, operations and science and technology, including one agency employee who looked over my resume, saw that I worked at a newspaper and added that he had come to the agency as a newsman, too.

It was the job of this spy and his colleagues to weed out potential crazies and issue to the remainder the agency's personnel Holy Grail, the 30-page Personal History Statement (PHS).

The PHS is an inventory that scrutinizes all aspects of the job candidate's professional and private life. It becomes the basic curriculum vitae used during hiring and the template for the CIA's security team during its investigation of potential agents.

"Don't leave anything blank," warned one of the spies balefully at the convention center. "I didn't think anyone would really sit down and go over the whole thing when I started, but believe me, they do."

The PHS requires the spy-in-waiting to designate references in a number of categories, including family members, professional acquaintances and personal (not family) acquaintances who have lived in close proximity to the candidate for a year or two.

"This is so the agency can call up your neighbors and ask them if there's loud music and blue smoke coming out of your front door on the weekends," one of the CIA handlers cracked.

Porter Goss probably wasn't a sexual deviant
The candidate is asked to document any record of criminal activity including theft, traffic violations, sexual deviance and perversion, unlawful drug use or undue publicity surrounding a divorce or civil suit. There is a battery of medical inquiries probing the candidate's injuries and hospital visits, mental stability, prescription and non-prescription drug use, gastro- intestinal health and nocturnal micturition frequency. (The last seemed aimed at uncovering whether the candidate had an enlarged prostate or was a chronic bedwetter.)

The candidate is warned that the veracity of his statement is liable to be tested by polygraph.

Accompanying submission of this dossier to the CIA are any collegiate transcripts and a long writing sample dealing with any topic of interest to intelligence workers. For example, writing about home grown pilot plants designed for the production of biological warfare agents in Third World countries is appropriate if you're applying for a job as an analyst.

All candidates were warned not to inform anyone except close family members of their CIA screening. The CIA encouraged the use of a cover like "the government" or "Department of Defense" when notifying those who needed to be designated as references.

A few months after submission of the personal statement and transcripts, the candidate is likely to get a phone call from CIA security who identifies himself only as a member of "the Agency."

His job is to verify and embellish some of the information included in the PHS, specifically those sections dealing with criminal activity and homosexuality.

In my case, the agent was particularly interested in a reference to recreational marijuana use in college.

"How many cigarettes would you say you smoked?" he asked. He was also interested in whether or not I had sex with men.

Satisfied, the agent continued by inquiring about drinking.

"The Agency's position in these matters is one of abstention enforced by testing," he said. [Sure, bro'. ] That concluded the interrogation.

"You have a nice day," said the spy before hanging up.

Most of this preliminary screening is in response to much publicized problems the CIA has had in the past with the penetration by the criminal or mentally ill. James Jesus Angleton, the feared head of the CIA's counterintelligence wing and one of the most powerful men in the agency during the height of The Cold War, left his office in disgrace, having acquired a reputation, documented by journalists Thomas Mangold and Seymour Hersh, as a paranoid alcoholic and pathological liar.

If the prospective employee's personal statement and transcripts survive the initial evaluation, he or she is given a series of aptitude and psychological tests.

Those in eastern Pennsylvania were again contacted and issued a ticket/summons for the tests, which were administered one summer Saturday morning in the physics building at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

The testing at Penn, an all-day affair, included a series of vocabulary, simple math, reading comprehension and abstract thought multiple-choice quizzes, similar to a college aptitude test.

Also included was the California Psychological Inventory, devised by Dr. Harrison Gough, psychologist. Our copy, which had a copyright date of 1956, asked for true/false responses to a number of statements, including:

"I have wound up in trouble because of my involvement in unseemly sexual activities."

"In high school I was often sent to the principal's office for 'cutting up.'"

"I sweat in even the coolest weather."

"I believe it is every citizen's duty, as part of the community, to keep his sidewalk and lawn neat and clean."

"I must admit, I think people are fools who don't think the American way is the best there is."

"I often think people are watching me."

"I like tall women."

"I must admit, I don't mind being the 'cut-up' at the office party."

One can only wonder what the two women who took the psychological inventory that Saturday answered to the question about liking tall women.

It seemed curious that the agency was using a test from 1956 -- when presumably very few women applied for jobs in intelligence and when being a "cut-up" in high school was one of the worst things you could be accused of - to screen young professionals in 1991.

Two other tests included a work environment survey and a current world events test, both tailored for the CIA.

For example, the work environment survey asked whether the candidates would accept a job in a foreign culture or where conditions of extreme physical hazard (presumably a war zone), unpalatable food, no sanitation or debilitating disease prevail. It also focused on whether candidates would be willing to work anonymously and without recognition for long periods of time for people they find personally repugnant.

The hardest test was the current world events quiz. It presumed a comprehensive knowledge of world politics and personalities that might only be gained from religious study of The Washington Post or a background in international relations. Actually, I thought I did rather well on it.

After the testing, a couple more months passed.

Candidates were then informed by mail whether they had been bound over for interview at CIA headquarters in McLean, VA.

During this 9-month long period, no one from the agency had spoken to me for more than five minutes.

Finally, another letter arrived. It included an appointment date with "Agency Officials" interested in discussing possible employment.

The interview was set for the week after Thanksgiving in the Directorate of Intelligence's Office of East Asian Analysis. "Ellie" was my contact. A room was reserved for the night before at The Days Inn in Vienna, VA.

It was a 15-minute drive to the CIA the next morning. The unmarked compound is not far from Langley High School. You can tell you are there by the barricades of concrete and obstacle-wire surrounding the wooded campus.

The entrance block-house guard was supposed to check my photo driver's license, but he handed it back and waved me through without taking a look.

The Directorate of Intelligence is a modern looking edifice of cement and green glass. At the entrance were a score of smokers bearing the same furtive, hounded look seen at other corporations where smoking within the building has been banned.

Just inside was a marble hallway containing a likeness of William Casey.

Getting to the Office of East Asian Analysis entails a check-in at reception, where I presented my papers. After a few minutes, "Ellie," a middle-aged woman showed up to escort me.

I was issued a green piece of paper and a pass card used to get through an electronic Pinkerton security turnstile. A security man gave my briefcase the once-over. Overhead was a sign stating that passage beyond the portal conferred agreement to a search of your person, your belongings and your car at any time.

The agency has been sensitive to accusations that it's possible to walk out of the building with highly classified materials ever since 1978, when William Kampiles walked off CIA grounds with technical manuals for the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office's KH-11 spy satellite. Kampiles, a junior clerk, was sentenced to 40 years in jail for selling the manual to the Soviets. During the same period, 16 other KH-11 manuals disappeared and were never traced.

While I was coming in, many were coming out. No bags were checked. Later, when I left, no one asked about my briefcase.

Upstairs in the Office of East Asian Analysis, National Geographic-like photos of China adorned the walls. Documents marked "SECRET" littered the desks.

Maddie, a personnel administrator, was holding court.

In her office, I asked her if the recession had affected hiring. It had, she said. "I don't like the word 'down-sizing'," she said with a glassy smile. "We call it 'right-sizing.'"

Maddie said she couldn't say whether the agency's "right- sizing" involves cuts in 60 percent of prospective hires, as had been recently reported in national newspapers. But then she changed her mind and commented, "That's a little high."

This has created problems for the agency, she said. Since attrition isn't removing veterans at the expected rate, it's been difficult to bring in new people she added. Complicating matters is the polygraph and security check. "Eighty to 90 percent of the people to which the agency makes an offer fail it."

As for where I fit into things, interest was from the China Division: Industry & Technology branch of the office.

"The section head's not here today," said Maddie. "But Stan will speak with you."

Stan turned out to be an airy, blond-haired analyst with a master's degree in international relations from American University. (Today, Stan works at a company that specializes in business intelligence. When its partners aren't out on the golf links they will -- essentially -- spy on your corporate competitors and provide research assessments or teach your firm how to do corporate counterintelligence.)

"What did you say your name was?" he asked as we walked down the hall to his boss's empty office.

Stan didn't have my resume, my PHS or any information on my scientific background, the reason I was being interviewed, so he didn't ask any questions, preferring instead to talk about himself.

How many scientists are currently working in the office, I finally asked.

"None," said Stan. "That's why we're trying to look at some."

The agency, Stan said, made up for this lack by sending analysts to seminars on topics the various departments may have to deal with, such as ballistic missile technology. Stan said he was glad he had finally learned what an accelerometer was and how integral design is to ballistic missile development.

I asked Stan about the polygraph screening and nature of the psychological testing.
He laughed nervously but said, "Everybody has to go through it and it's not any fun. But security believes very strongly in it and the agency works hard to get candidates through the lie-detector. We allow them to take it three times."

At the end of the interview, Maddie asked me to take some "stuff" over to the Stafford Building for her when I went there to collect travel expenses. A moment later she thought better of it, but supplied me with directions anyway.

Outside the Stafford Building later in the day were more harried smokers. Inside I asked for gas money ($20) and mileage. A CIA worker insisted that this be compared against the price of the lowest airline ticket from Philadelphia. I argued that this was ridiculous, to no avail.

As predicted, a telephone call to a CIA airline-ticket specialist came up with a figure far in excess of the gas money. The agent then gave me a little more than $200 of the taxpayer's money, a generous per diem, and mileage allowance. The hotel room had been paid in advance.

A call to Maddie's office a few days later elicited the information that there were no job openings and no hiring plans.

When I asked why, in that case, the testing and interviewing, no one had an answer except to say "the agency has to plan for every contingency."


Blogger F.Michael Sigler said...

This piece was very well written, I was engrossed from start to finish. Well done.

11:54 PM  

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