The Life of a Case Officer
I have been wanting to write on this topic for a while and have had a few false starts. The problem is there really isn’t a typical day for a case officer. To remind folks, a case officer is the individual who is tasked with recruiting sources to provide classified information, HUMINT. It is the core of what the CIA does, in addition to analysis. How a case officer operates depends on the environment they are in, the particular duties they are asked to perform, the circumstances of the particular day. That having been said, there are some common elements of day-to-day operations and some overarching characteristics of the job.
Someone at the CIA once told me that being a case officer is not a job, it is a calling. It is more than a career, it is a life commitment requiring sacrifice, discipline, and putting the needs of the service above your own needs. For example, you can expect to be sent overseas with little to no warning. I was once called into the office in the middle of the night, handed an airline ticket, and told I was going off to a small invasion the following morning. I had to link up with Agency personnel in a country I had never been to, taken to a secret part of an airport, and flown to the invasion in an Agency aircraft in the dead of night. I had no idea when I would be back home, and neither did my family. This was in the days before cellphones so I had no way to contact anyone once the invasion commenced. The same is true if an agent you handle shows up somewhere on the planet and triggers an emergency meeting. You have to drop everything and get to that meeting even if it is halfway around the globe. There are a lot of missed birthdays, anniversaries, funerals, holidays. Military personnel will be familiar with all this.
Another aspect of the job, yes, I know, I just said it was not a job, but using “job” makes things easier, is that you will likely spend most of your time overseas (gladly). The CIA is a foreign intelligence organization. We collect intelligence on foreign nations. That is best done overseas. You, and your family, will move to another nation, live there for several years, learn the language, culture, adapt to the environment. You will get to deal with some unpleasant things, as will your family. With the exception of more stable and advanced countries, you will face big struggles: coups, wars, terrorism, high crime, people targeting you and your family. I lost track of how many coups and attempted coups I have experienced. There will be small inconveniences: You can’t drink the water unless you want to sit on the toilet for the next week. You won’t be able to buy things you normally get in the U.S. Medical facilities can be less than you expect.
It's not all bad. The government will pay for your housing, sometimes very nice housing, sometimes not so much. You or your family will be evacuated should you fall seriously ill, and if political instability leads to open conflict (but kiss your possessions goodbye in that scenario).
Another source of stress is that a case office needs to become accustomed to leading a double life. You are a CIA officer but you also have a cover job so that people don’t know you are with the CIA. Sometimes you have to work your cover job during the day and your actual job at off-hours. Two jobs, one salary. Imagine doing a full-time job, then trying to do your real job at night, weekends, lunch break, etc. It can be exhausting. 12-hour days and 6-7 day work weeks are not uncommon. If you are in a war zone, 24/7 is pretty much the norm. In that regard, the Agency has no sympathy. You are there to do a job and your cover job is there to protect you and your operations. You are expected to work harder and longer. All this will take a toll on you and your personal life. Some succeed in juggling all this, others don’t.
Even things you take for granted in the U.S. can be problematic overseas. For example, You are always aware of not setting patterns. Patterns can be used against you. Terrorists love when a potential target leaves the house at the same time every day, using the same route every day. It makes it easy for them to determine the best time to kill you. You are always trying to avoid patterns, leaving the house at different times, using different routes, and the same going home. Lunch should never be at the same time or place every day. You need to avoid routines such as leaving the house or the office at the same time because terrorists can use that information to lay an ambush against you. I remember an assignment where I had to give my car a quick inspection every day to make sure someone had not planted a bomb on the car.
All this work is done while trying to avoid the attention of the local security service that is trying to stop you from doing your job. You always have to be careful what you say on the phone and face to face. You can’t give away your true affiliation or the security service will be all over you in an attempt to compromise your operations. This goes for your family as well. They need to be part of the team since they share the risks.
Nothing you do is simple and straightforward. Everything must be seen through the prism of whether you are creating a security problem or compromising an operation. A simple phone call to your family back home might reveal personal information about you that a security service, listening on your phone call, can use against you. You have to do everything right throughout a two- or three-year tour. In a very active, overseas station you might commit 150 operational acts of one type or another, such as meeting a source or finding a location for a dead drop of quick meeting, surveillance detection, etc. Some minor, some major. You have to do these acts right each and every time. Sometimes you don’t, but maybe you are lucky and get away with it. The opposition, the enemy, has to get lucky just once to catch you. At that point, you are thrown out of the country after being arrested. Your agent might spend years or life in prison, or face execution. The stress on a case officer is real.
One positive is that this builds camaraderie. You can’t really talk to anyone about what you do or how your day has been except other CIA officers. There is no coming home to your spouse who asks how your day was and you getting to unburden yourself. You tend to rely on other CIA officers to help you because only they are cleared and trained for this type of work. Yes, you will get an asshole or two every now and then, but in general, these are the people you rely on and who rely on you.
Despite the hardships and risks inherent in the job, being a case officer offers many positives as well. To many, the idea of living overseas, learning a new language and culture is exciting. It is intellectually challenging. It broadens your horizons. It appeals to the Lawrence of Arabia in some of us. While there are long moments of boredom and bureaucratic requirements, there is also adventure. Imagine yourself in the Khyber Pass supporting Afghan insurgents against the Soviet Union. If that doesn’t send chills up your spine, then this is not the job for you.
There are challenges. Conducting espionage activities under the very noses of an opposition security service is a dramatic challenge and when you succeed, there is a major feeling of accomplishment.
There is impact. Many CIA officers lose the sense of impact while in the field because they send their intelligence reports back home but are seldom aware of how significant an impact they have had. The reports are graded and judged on how much importance they had in addressing intelligence gaps, but that is not really tangible for a case officer in the field. When I was in Washington D.C., I attended a meeting with the Vice President of the United States. During the meeting, he pulled out several intelligence reports on which he had written commentary and we began to discuss them. It really hit me right then and there. A senior U.S. policy official had read the reports, commented on them, and was basing policy on those reports. There was impact. We were making history, for good or bad.
Finally, there is uncertainty. Yes, uncertainty is a positive aspect of the job. Once upon a time, I was involved in training newly recruited case officers in the skills they needed to succeed. A friend and I walked out of our hotel early one morning to conduct some training exercises in a large and busy city. We were on our way to act the role of agent and evaluate how our trainees were performing. It was morning rush hour and I noticed a crowd of people exiting the subway station. I turned to my friend and said, “Those people probably came out of that very same exit at that very same time yesterday, the day before, and will do so again tomorrow. They will go to the same desk and perform the same job day in and day out. You and I have no idea what tomorrow will bring. We might still be here training students, we might get called away to a different assignment or be flying overseas for some operation that suddenly reared its head.”
That, to me, is a major positive aspect of the job. It is hard to get bored being a case officer, at least overseas. Every day is a different challenge.