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IP: Uncle Sam Wants Spooks.
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Uncle Sam Wants Spooks
by Arik Hesseldahl
With the Cold War over and United States
intelligence agencies in flux, both the Central
Intelligence Agency and the National Security
Agency have begun to struggle with an issue
plaguing the private sector: how to hire and
retain talented employees.
In a world that increasingly uses computer
networks to communicate and transfer
information, the agencies are specifically looking
for people who can navigate the Net and other
The CIA launched the most ambitious hiring
program in the agency's history earlier this year,
and it is expected to hire record numbers of
case officers between now and 2005.
Along with a new, Java-heavy recruiting section
on the agency's home page, the agency is
advertising widely in magazines like The
Economist and recruiting on college campuses
and within the military.
"Our recruiting efforts are much more focused
than they have been in recent years and we have
a better idea of our target audience," said CIA
spokeswoman Anya Gilsher. "We're facing
increasingly difficult challenges like terrorism,
mass destructive weapons, and narcotics.
These are all very difficult targets, which require
innovative approaches and a talented work
Computer programmers and engineers are as in
demand in the intelligence business as they are
in any other industry, Gilsher said.
"We're looking for people who can deal with
different computer systems and software.
Someone who is creative in their ability to
handle and manipulate information technology
and build programs that could be useful to us,"
While Gilsher would not go into specifics, an
article in The New York Times in June suggests
that the proliferation of computer networks
around the globe has, for example, complicated
the ability of agents to slip in and out of
countries covertly using fake passports.
It's a different story for the National Security
Agency, the country's super-secret signals
intelligence agency. In an unusually candid
series of answers to written questions, the NSA
said it is struggling with one of the same issues
plaguing the private sector: employee retention.
A recent article in the magazine Government
Executive said the agency is suffering a "brain
drain," losing some of its best code-makers and
code-breakers to the private sector. In a written
statement, NSA spokesman Patrick Weadon
confirmed that the agency is working harder than
it has in the past to attract and keep its
"NSA, like most of the nation's IT community,
has had significant challenges in hiring and
retaining IT personnel," Weadon wrote. "Having
said that, NSA has been successful attracting
computer professionals with the stimulating
nature of the work, student programs, and the
total benefits package."
The NSA also happens to be the country's
single-biggest employer of mathematicians, and
expects to hire more than 100 Ph.D.-level
mathematicians in the next three years.
Like the CIA, the NSA has launched a
recruitment Web page, which has attracted 20
percent of its recent resumes. The NSA also
posts its job openings on employment Web
sites like Job Web and Career Mosaic.
The agency has been aggressively marketing
itself to students, offering several internship
programs. One program gives college juniors 12
weeks of summer work experience, after which
they return to school for their senior year with a
job offer in hand. Another program allows college
students to alternate working for the agency and
going to school each semester.
Some personnel also qualify for a fully funded
graduate studies program, during which they can
go to school full time for a year and still earn a
salary, provided they commit to work for NSA for
NSA employees aren't likely to take jobs for the
money, however. Computer science jobs at the
NSA pay between US$35,000 and $70,000 a
year, much less than in the private sector.
"IT professionals seek out the NSA due to the
unique nature of our work," Weadon wrote. "This
has made us successful in attracting computer
professionals over the past several years, and
we believe this appeal will continue into the
Not everyone agrees. Steve Aftergood, a
research analyst for the Federation of American
Scientists, said the allure of working in the
intelligence community is wearing thin.
"The intelligence agencies have an unattractive
air about them," Aftergood said. "They have an
aura of failure about them, especially in recent
years. Rightfully or wrongly, they have been
attacked as incompetent and even obsolete.
Those charges may or may not be true, but they
cast a long shadow over the agencies in the
In recent years, the CIA has faced its share of
problems within and criticisms from without. This
year, for example, the agency was criticized for
not having predicted nuclear weapons tests by
India and Pakistan. In 1994, CIA employee
Aldrich Ames was caught after revealing the
identities of CIA operatives in the Soviet Union
over the course of nine years. For its part, the
NSA has been criticized for its efforts to keep
strong encryption systems out of the hands of
Both the CIA and NSA still maintain a
technological edge over the private sector, but
Aftergood said that lead is shrinking.
"The reality is that the private sector now
competes in many areas that used to be the
exclusive domain of the intelligence agencies,"
he said, citing encryption, computer software
implementation, and analysis of foreign military
and economic conditions as examples.
The schools that train the spies and intelligence
analysts of the future are placing a new
importance on learning to use the Net and other
online resources to get the job done. Robert
Heibel, director of the Research/Intelligence
Analyst Training Program at Mercyhurst College
in Erie, Pennsylvania, said students get a
thorough exposure to the Net and computers in
The program trains students to "drink from the
firehose," to glean important nuggets of
information as tools for decision makers, Heibel
Graduates of the program have gone on to
become analysts for the CIA, NSA, FBI and
other agencies swimming in the intelligence
community's alphabet soup, he said.
"We teach a concept called open source and
public domain intelligence -- that is, taking what
is in the public domain and creating new
knowledge by analysis and interpretation," he
said. "If you spend 20 percent of your
intelligence budget on open source intelligence
you'll be able to answer 70 percent of the boss's
Applying for a job with the CIA is easy: Send a
resume. The CIA scans the resumes it gets
using optical character recognition technology.
An applicant for either agency must also submit
to a thorough background investigation, a
polygraph test, and medical and psychological
examinations, said Gilsher, who went through
the process herself. The process currently takes
five to six months, but the agency is hoping to
shorten that to three or four months, she said.
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Robert A. Hettinga <mailto: [email protected]>
Philodox Financial Technology Evangelism <http://www.philodox.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'