Five years ago, I was working my way through my undergraduate degree with one single goal in mind: become an employee in the intelligence community.
I had good grades, recommendations, and professors, and I was also part of an academically rigorous program specifically created to prime students at my university to work in the intelligence community (IC). I attended conferences, met with recruiters, and had interviews with IC professionals, and before I graduated I already had an offer from a public relations firm that worked closely with the military and the IC. But by my last semester, I had become thoroughly disillusioned with the intelligence community, and I still am to this day.
I’m glad I went through the program and got my degree. It gave me invaluable critical thinking, communicating, research, networking, and public speaking abilities. For years I was single-minded in pursuing a lengthy and prestigious career in the community, but now more than ever, I’m thankful I didn’t.
When I entered my college program, it was immediately communicated to me and my peers that we were special. We’d had our academic abilities and competency heavily scrutinized throughout the application process, and it was repeatedly emphasized that the committee of professors (all of whom were former IC experts or employees) would only choose the best and brightest of the wide applicant pool. Because of this, understandably, it felt pretty satisfying to get my acceptance letter during my sophomore year and feel that I had finally been recognized as goal-oriented and hardworking.
My cohort was small, and even if we didn’t all know each other, we knew of each other. From the beginning, aside from a few people I formed friendships with, I felt I couldn’t really relate to any of them...at all. Everything seemed cutthroat and competitive, whether it actually was that way in reality or not. There was also an air of self-aggrandizement and superiority that I couldn’t help but notice. Many of them were constantly praised for being high achievers, which transformed into pretentious, holier-than-thou attitudes of entitlement. Throughout my classes, there was always a voice in the back of my mind reminding me that these peers were my future co-workers.
Everything felt cutthroat and competitive, and my peers had an air of self-aggrandizement.
When I looked at actual, real-world IC professionals, I figured out that these people really hadn’t changed, they’d only gotten older. As an IC professional – even a low-level analyst, which I was training to be – objectivity and minimizing personal biases as much as possible in favor of communicating just the facts is emphasized more than anything else. But a quick look at former FBI director James Comey’s very public disdain of Donald Trump, as well as the suggestion of General Michael Hayden (former director of the CIA and NSA) that the “MAGA wearing unvaxxed” be dropped off in Taliban-occupied Afghanistan shows that ideology, rather than objectivity, has a stronger influence in the IC than originally thought. It’s completely natural to have opinions, biases, and beliefs, but when your work depends on communicating only the facts, regardless of those opinions (and regardless of whether you like the president or not), your personal feelings bleed over into your analysis, which is antithetical to what the IC tries to accomplish.
Employment in the intelligence community is, in a word, stressful, and understandably so. Our professors emphasized this in and out of class as much as they possibly could, leading me to think that was a motivating factor in their departure to teach in higher education.
More than anything else, work in the IC is depicted as glamorous and sexy, rather than the everyday drudgery of desk jobs which is probably more accurate. 99% of the IC is not on overseas missions in sunglasses and trench coats, but for those who are, personal relationships can quickly turn sour.
In a now-infamous Washington Post article, a woman reveals how her husband’s covert job damaged and eventually destroyed their marriage. Due to the “ethos of secrecy” surrounding IC employment – which can take a toll on relationships – the unnamed woman in the article related how her husband’s career, including the resulting stress and alcohol dependency, imploded their marriage. She even alleges that her husband used her and their infant daughter on a secret operation wherein he had to stake out an individual, using the presence of his wife and child to blend into the casual environment.
One woman shared how her husband’s covert job destroyed their marriage.
Though there are no concrete records of how rampant divorce is in the CIA or even the IC as a whole, one official acknowledged that the stats are “astonishingly high.” Aside from potentially putting their child in danger, the anonymous woman in question says that her ex-husband was never really present around the house and never helped with laundry, washing dishes, or other chores.
As you can probably guess, potential divorce and ugly custody battles were a potential side effect of IC employment that I wasn’t looking forward to. There’s also the fact that substance abuse, strained family ties, isolation, as well as the concerning attitudes of the IC’s foremost voices were all possibilities I had either observed or heard about firsthand from former professionals and experts.
Looking at today’s current events, it’s evident that the intelligence community has never had a more crucial job, nor has it likely ever been under more public scrutiny or criticism.
In 2018, then-director of National Intelligence Dan Coats reported that the U.S. and its intelligence agencies were facing four major issues: organized crime, global terrorism, economic intelligence, and efficient analysis. But looking at why the IC has been in the media lately, you wouldn’t really think any of these were much of a priority.
In July, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released its annual demographic report for the last fiscal year, where supposed IC employees of all ethnicities (and abilities) could be observed posing on the cover. While using a generic stock photo is probably nothing new, the ODNI chose the photo...and then added a blind man with an assistance dog and a woman in a wheelchair for good measure, just to exhibit how diverse their hiring practices are. They were roasted on social media for the gaffe, rightfully so, which would be hilarious if it weren’t so painful.
The ODNI photoshopped handicapped people into a cover photo to exhibit how diverse their hiring practices are.
Then there’s Afghanistan. Back in May, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, was asked about the possibility of the Afghan military surviving with the deadline for removal of American troops approaching. Gen. Milley replied he didn’t know, and that we’d have to wait for things to “develop over the summer.” And develop they did. By mid-June, as Gen. Milley addressed a Congressional hearing wherein he said he was trying to understand “white rage” and defending critical race theory as well as the Army’s policy on “diversity, inclusion, and equity,” the Taliban was overtaking rural Afghan territories. Terrorism is more of an imminent threat now than ever before, but you wouldn’t know it from the main talking points of the people in charge.
Given that the IC’s most notable figures aren’t at all shy about mixing their voting preferences with their professional recommendations for the future safety and security of our country, you have to wonder how the rank and file members (some possibly my former classmates) are letting their own political convictions influence their work.
I don’t regret my degree, and I certainly don’t regret my years learning from experienced, knowledgeable, talented people. In the end, I wouldn’t say that I didn’t have what it takes to make it in that kind of career and that all my classmates who wound up there did – I would say my priorities, which now emphasize building my home and my family with my husband, took precedence over a flashy job title.
In writing these thoughts, many of which have sat silent with me for a long time, I’ve essentially sealed my fate in a way. In criticizing the intelligence community, I’ve effectively made myself unmarketable and unable to ever have any kind of career there, which is an intimidating thought. But I’ve found out what’s important to me, and though it’s not as exciting or glamorous or impressive, it’s more rewarding than I ever could have imagined.
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