The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers (Part 6)

Welcome to the final essay of my 6-part series, The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers. Last week, we learned about the State Department being the responsible kids who clean up after CIA and NSA and how your drug experimentation in college is likely responsible for the rise of Boko Haram.

Want more laughs? Check out my novels, Victor in the Rubble, a satire of CIA and the War on Terror, and Victor in the Jungle, about a populist dictator. In the meantime, enjoy learning about the intelligence community!

Missed Part 1? Read it here.

Missed Part 2? Read it here.

Missed Part 3? Read it here.

Missed Part 4? Read it here.

Missed Part 5? Read it here.

The Intelligence Community:

Smart People Looking at Computers

(Part 6)

Central Intelligence Agency

The CIA are the cool kids. Everyone wants to sit at their table, which means it’s really hard to find a spot to park yourself nearby, just like the parking lot at the Agency in real life. Most people don’t understand exactly what CIA does or how it does it. As a result, their perspective is shaped by popular culture, so people figure CIA guys do cool spy shit and must be getting laid all the time.

But once you do hang out with them, you realize they eat their lunch just like everyone else in the cafeteria. Some of them probably even brought lunch from home, a sad little sandwich in a plastic bag that got squished on the way to work. They will be so normal that you will be disappointed they didn’t arrive in a remote-controlled invisible car like James Bond or assassinate someone right in front of you like Jason Bourne. But that won’t stop you from announcing to everyone else you know that it was the coolest hang out ever.

This is the agency I know most about, because I was lucky enough to be a non-essential employee there for a few years.

CIA is made up of four Directorates. Scratch that. The Director just announced a reorganization of the place and the creation of a fifth Directorate, which sounds like a movie starring Tom Cruise: “In the battle between good and evil, the truth will be revealed when the chosen one has achieved control over five groups of sheeple intent on wreaking havoc across the universe. Tom Cruise is up for the fight of his life. He has entered…the Fifth Directorate.”

This reorganization is coming at a tough time: right when I am trying to write about the Agency. This chapter is accurate at the time of this writing, but by the time you read it, it might be OBE, as we say in the business: Overtaken By Events. That leaves you, Dear Reader, to take my fragmented information and draw your own best conclusions. Just like intelligence in the real world.

The Directorate of Support provides soothing words and a safe place to share your worries and self-critique. Sorry, that’s my support group. The Directorate of Support is the Agency’s administrative branch. It provides whatever support analysts and operators need to do their jobs. In theory.

In reality, support officers have 4,768 different forms that all ask the same questions in a different order. You must fill out at least six of these forms to do anything and you must get them signed by 37 different people, 13 of whom are on flex time today and at least two of whom are at an off-site but will be back next week, except for Tuesday, when they will be hosting a quilt competition down in the atrium in honor of Amish History Day.

Many support officers also let computers think for them. If the computer tells them something can’t be done, then it can’t be done, because no human being could possibly override this all powerful machine. You’d like to fly Delta instead of United? Sorry, the computer won’t allow it. I understand you’re telling me you have three children, but the computer says you only have one, so we’ll only pay to move one to your new location.

Good support officers are heaven sent. Bad support officers leave you crying into a beer glass that you had to borrow because your stuff never arrived because your support officer was completely serious when he said he wouldn’t ship it until you had worked out that one cent accounting discrepancy.

The Directorate of Science and Technology provides all the cool technology and gadgets CIA needs to collect information and run operations. They make disguises and prosthetics so Tom Cruise can pull his face off. They built the Insectothopter, a tiny UAV that looks like a dragonfly. The project was dropped because the mini-drone was susceptible to crosswinds and large amounts of lobbying by defense contractors who wanted to make big drones. One of S&T’s greatest inventions was the hot dog vending machine, several of which are scattered around Headquarters.

The Directorate of Digital Innovation was created while I was typing this sentence. As such, no one knows yet how it will work in real life. In theory, it will conduct cyber-espionage and keep any digital or cyber communications by agents and officers safe. And if it is at all like NSA, it is recording my every keystroke.

The Directorate of Intelligence was renamed the Directorate of Analysis while I was in the middle of writing this chapter. As its new name would suggest, they analyze things. They use any and all sources available to them to study the shit out of a topic and draw conclusions from contradictory and incomplete information for policy makers to use to make decisions that will decide if the country implodes or explodes or not. It’s a lot of pressure, which is why analysts often look harried as they walk through the corridors with their heads down.

The Directorate of Operations was changed to the National Clandestine Service in the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act and was changed back to the Directorate of Operations two paragraphs ago. That’s good news for folks who never bothered to change their coffee mug and have that old DO mug still sitting in some desk drawer somewhere. These are the operators, the people who go out and do what you think spying is. There are a number of different job functions, but the Core Collector—that is, the person who goes out and collects intelligence—is usually a case officer, sometimes called an operations officer, depending on what generation the officer is from and if they refused to ever call it NCS because it was the DO damn it and should stay that way and it’s about time the director realized that and changed it back!

In the end, the main function of CIA is to collect and analyze intelligence. This requires a lot of people in different roles, but at its core, it comes down to two people: the analyst and the case officer.

Case officers are the people in the field. Without these people collecting information, no one else in the chain has a job. As a result, everyone tends to hate them.

Analysts analyze the information. They use phrases like “paradigm shift” in everyday conversation and hedge every declaration they make: “Homeland is the best show on television, except for any other show that might come along or maybe already exists, and I say that with 64 percent confidence.” A common joke in Agency hallways goes like this: How do you tell if an analyst is an introvert or an extrovert? The introvert looks at his shoes. The extrovert looks at someone else’s shoes. Get it? Because apparently all analysts look at shoes.

Analysts find this joke very funny and occasionally even laugh at it. They are also some of the most intelligent people I have ever met, although paradoxically some of the least smart. I’d worry about offending them by saying that, but they are too busy looking at my shoes to read what I just wrote.

These people could tell you, off the top of their head and with great enthusiasm, the tensile strength of a single component of a plutonium bomb built in June 1949 at the Chelyabinsk-40 weapons plant in Russia (not to be confused with Chelyabinsk-70 plant, you moron), and that analyst will be bursting like a child in a candy store while recounting this information to you and offering to draw you a figure to help you understand. But put that same analyst in, oh, pick any foreign city, and they’ll say, “Hey, these shoes look different. That’s odd.” And then they’ll go back to their screens and books.

Case officers, on the other hand, have no patience for footnotes and full sentences and have probably already stopped reading this sentence. When they write, subject-verb correlation is optional. But a case officer can find a copy of Playboy’s November issue and a bottle of Johnnie Walker in the middle of a Middle Eastern country on a Friday.

The Agency, particularly the DO/NCS/DO, has a wonderful Headquarters-field dynamic that usually looks something like this: People at Headquarters have big titles and like to feel like they have control over operations because they manage the budgets and the lawyers. People in the field tend to dislike people at Headquarters for getting all up in their business when it’s the field officers who are out there with their balls hanging out and risk getting arrested or killed or having their source arrested or killed while you’re sitting in your cushy office drinking coffee from the Starbucks downstairs, or in someone else’s cushy office networking to get that hardship tour in Europe.

Here are a few interesting things about the Agency you might not know (although the Russians surely do) that give some insight into the culture of the place but hopefully won’t get me redacted by the censors:

The building is buzzing with motorized carts. It’s a big place and when you sit in a cubicle all day after a requisite stop at Starbucks, some people also become big and moving around becomes difficult. These carts sometimes come with cup holders for those people’s three-gallon-sized cup of Diet Coke.

Most of the cafeteria workers are Chinese. No one seems to see the irony of this.

If you’re undercover, you have to buy your food in cash. If you forget to bring cash, you will starve because no one at the Agency has any mercy, according to a Senate report. In reality, someone will be nice enough to lend you a few bucks because they know you are trustworthy and will pay them back.

The geese in the courtyard are Canadian, which is why there is always a sign posted in the corridor warning employees of “Foreign Visitors in the Area.”

Parking at the Agency is notoriously difficult. I once managed to find a close-in parking spot and felt triumphant all day. But at the end of the day, out of habit I walked way the hell out to the outer spaces where I usually parked, only to realize I had walked past my car about 20 minutes before. I also lost my car in the parking lot several times and once a friend had to drive me around to find it.

The place is remarkably shut off from the world. When I meet friends who still work there for evening drinks, they often ask, “So, what happened in the world today?” This would frighten me if it didn’t make me laugh so hard.


2 thoughts on “The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers (Part 6)

  1. Hey Alex, I laughed out loud at this one. As an ops guy that’s found (cold) beer in a remote Sahelian outpost on a Friday, I really appreciated your description! Also the Chinese guys in the cafeteria…priceless. Keep it up.

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