What Makes An Operations Officer
I get this question a lot, mostly from people interested in joining the CIA, or from people who were not selected and are wondering why. Some want to know the secret of becoming a case officer, trying to game the system. It’s a lingering question, "Can I make it? Do I have what it takes?"
I can't offer any comforting words on how to get accepted by the CIA. It can be opaque, inefficient, and, at times, seemingly unfair. The CIA looks at a set of criteria to determine whether you make the first cut and receive an invitation to an interview. This is followed by a series of tests, interviews, and eventually a background investigation and polygraph. There are also quotas. They might need more case officers or already have enough. I had a friend who spoke 4 languages, had a prior career in investment banking, and had tracked through Afghanistan, on his own, after 9/11. This was an ideal candidate. He applied but received no response. After repeated calls, the CIA admitted they had lost his application and asked him to apply again. He did. Once again he did not hear back and after numerous calls, they once again admitted they could not find his application. He decided to look elsewhere for employment. Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but it shows that the process can be unfair and inefficient. All I can offer is one of the greatest quotes from a Hollywood movie, the CIA "is not the Macarena. It takes patience. She is like a fine, well-aged prostitute....it takes years to learn her tricks. She is cruel, laughs at you when you are naked, but you keep coming back for more and more! Why? Because she is the only prostitute I can afford."
What I can do is provide a sense of what I believe are necessary qualities for a case officer to have, qualities that will help her or him have a successful career, not just in the sense of promotion and advancement, but personally rewarding. First, if you are not accepted into the CIA do not take it as a negative reflection on yourself. This does not indicate that you are not a talented person. As I have noted, there are a variety of variables that affect the selection and it may not have been the right time for you.
The job of a case officer is to work with people and people are varied. As a result, case officers are varied. It takes all types and all personalities to do the job. One of the best recruiters of Chinese agents I ever met had little personality. He was quiet, unassuming, and did not mingle at large social gatherings. Most Americans tend to be outgoing, gregarious, and friendly. He was the opposite. During dinners with the Chinese, there were long, silent pauses. Most people try to fill in the silence. However, the Chinese did not mind the long pauses and enjoyed his company because he was not an overwhelming personality.
Despite the varied personalities that compose the case officer corps, there are some common traits that many successful officers exhibit. Yes, we tend to be above average—above average in looks, in intelligence, in agility. Just joking. But there are certain characteristics that serve one well in this business. This list is not all-inclusive. In no order of importance:
A case officer should be mentally agile. By this I mean he or she must be able to think on their feet and adapt to changing circumstances. We all plan and prepare for whatever we are doing, but invariably something unexpected happens and we need to be able to rapidly adapt our plans to either neutralize the problem (I do not mean kill) or take advantage of the changed circumstances. A case officer must adapt to changing circumstances, not just in circumstances but in dealing with different cultures, and different languages. It is like the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, "If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch." You must be able to adapt.
Once upon a time, I ran the Agency's training program for case officers. It can be an intense program. Its real strength, in addition to the actual training, is the evaluation process. Students are constantly being evaluated by over 30 experienced case officers, all of whom have one idea in mind when they evaluate: do I want to serve with this person? Students finish the course with close to 60 accurate, no holds barred evaluations. The final evaluation is the most detailed and truthful evaluation anyone receives in the CIA. We had a student who was doing well. They devoted the necessary time and effort, generally producing good results. Somewhere at the midpoint, however, they began to exhibit a worrying trait. During various exercises, the student, when confronted with a situation they had not planned for, froze. I don't mean they were at a loss as to what to do, they physically froze, hands clasped in their lap, eyes looking down, and not a word. We threw a good number of unexpected situations at the students to test their judgment and this student was having difficulties.
We allowed the student to continue but threw a few more unexpected events their way in order to get a better understanding of the problem. The problem persisted and at the midpoint evaluation, the student was told they would not be allowed to continue. As if to confirm our decision, the student froze when the news was delivered. They sat there, unable to even speak. Mental agility, operational judgment, call it what you will, but a successful case officer must be able to think on their feet.
You must also be a team player and a lone wolf at the same time. Within the CIA, within your Station, you are part of a team. Each member supports the other and you must rely on them for help, be it countersurveillance for a particularly risky meeting or to provide you with a meeting site that will be secure. However, once you walk out the door of a Station you are on your own. There will be no one to provide you guidance and support, that was done before you left. Now you are alone and responsible for whatever happens, success or failure. This leads to the next quality.
Uncompromising integrity is critical. The CIA, the US Government, and by extension, the American people place a great deal of trust and responsibility in its clandestine service. As a case officer, you represent the US government—at least that is how sources and contacts see it. As a result, you speak with authority. When you complete your operational act and return to the Station we expect you will tell the truth. If a mistake was made or something occurred that could compromise the operation you will tell the truth, even if it makes you look bad. Honesty is imperative. I remember standing in an isolated area of a city with another case officer holding a duffle bag with $500,000 in cash for passage to an asset for a covert action program. I was there as security and as a second pair of eyes to make sure the money was passed. We could have claimed we had been robbed and split the money, but we didn't. You get the point, no need to belabor it. There will always be a few people who fail the test and succumb to temptation. I have attended a number of personnel evaluation boards to decide the fate of someone or another who had failed. In the end, however, I have been more surprised at how few there have been.
This brings us to discipline, in all its forms. There is the military-style discipline of following orders and submitting yourself to a chain of command. A case officer's role can be myopic. You see your operation as the center of the universe when in reality there is a bigger picture to take into account. The chain of command serves this role. Yes, they are wrong at times, but so are you. Discipline also refers to the need to follow procedures. I don't mean paperwork and bureaucracy here, I refer to doing a proper surveillance detection run (SDR) so you aren't caught committing espionage. I mean making sure you follow tradecraft which is critical to protecting your operations and your agent. You must have the discipline to carry all this out. You cannot afford to cut corners and get lazy. Most operational compromises I have seen are the result of someone not being disciplined enough to follow tradecraft.
Another quality, which should be obvious, is an understanding and appreciation of the world. The CIA is a FOREIGN intelligence service. This necessitates traveling and living overseas, immersing yourself in foreign cultures and languages, understanding them, good and bad, and understanding the people. Despite the obviousness of the importance of this basic requirement, I have been surprised at so many new officers who seem not to understand this. During one of my last overseas assignments, a good number of officers were having a hard time adjusting to this particular overseas post. Admittedly, it was a difficult environment. It was very different from living in the US and took some adjustment, but life as a diplomat is fairly comfortable. It seemed to me that new officers were expecting Northern Virginia light rather than this alien place. I could not fathom their discomfort as I was enjoying all the differences. It is what I had signed up for, adventure, and challenges.
These difficulties invariably lead to officers denigrating the local people and culture. They look down on them and develop contempt. This is extremely dangerous in our profession as it can lead to underestimating the opposition, a recipe for disaster. This required understanding and appreciation of the world including foreign cultures. You must bring a degree of curiosity to succeed. You should be curious not only about events in the country you reside in but about how that society functions, and how average people navigate their world. The officer who has this curiosity and appreciation is much better for it because he or she can better understand people and events, becomes a better recruiter of sources, and an expert in that country. You need a dash of Lawrence of Arabia to be successful. You need that desire for adventure.
Finally, you need a sense of humor. This can be a hard job. You experience the best and the worst. There is a great deal of pressure. Sometimes there are lives at stake and if you screw up people can die. Some of the people we deal with are horrible human beings but we need to obtain the intelligence in order for policymakers to make good decisions, we need to provide a degree of protection to the US. Failure has consequences. A sense of humor will help you keep your sanity, help reduce stress and put things in perspective. I once worked a very difficult job. In the office by 6 am, leaving by 9 or 10 pm. Many nights I slept in the office. In one particular week, I was taken to task by both the Director of the CIA and the President of the US for not moving particular elements of a program as fast as they wanted. It was pretty stressful to be on that particular shit list. But, despite all this, every night that John—my friend and deputy—and I left the building, and walked to the parking lot in the middle of the night, we were always laughing our asses off. We found humor in the strangest things and that helped keep morale up and deal with stress.
In closing, if you are looking to make a career of being a case officer these are some useful traits to have. They won't necessarily help you be selected because, as I noted, selection criteria are different, but these traits will help you succeed in this career. Remember, this is a thinking job. It is not how fast you can run but how fast you can think.