Chloe O'Brian. Frame capture from the Season 7 trailer of "24."
Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey
Written content only
Working in the Intelligence profession is a challenge. We joined this happy community out of some well-placed motivations, such as patriotism, being an unknown soldier in a largely invisible war, or just having a Jack Ryan fixation. Or just enjoying the high pay and good benefits.
An Intelligence Analyst, in most cases, works in an office, although we almost never call it that. In an attempt to sound cool and hip, we refer to it as “the shop.” “Yeah, I work the Intel Shop.” It sounds cool because it implies that (1) we have explainable skills, and (2) we can actually fix things. It makes us sound tool savvy as well, although I don’t ever remember asking any of my colleagues for a 3/8-inch hydraulic regression analyzer.
It is one of those rare jobs that you can’t brag about. Part of this has to do with constantly working with classified information, and the natural reticence resulting from being at war with an enemy that has a demonstrated predilection for sawing people’s heads off. The other reason has to do with practicality. For some reason, the public thinks that if we work intel, and have a high clearance, then we must be wired in to all the mysterious stuff that they’re convinced the government is hiding. In my earlier days, I actually got a kick out of telling people that I was an Intelligence Analyst. Then, I wised up. I wish I could tell you how many times I was asked about who killed Kennedy, or what was really going on up at Groom Lake. Now, older and wiser, when people ask me what I do, I simply say, “I work for the government.” For most, that’s total snooze material and the inquiries stop there. For the persistent ones, I explain, “I read reports, then write a report about the reports I read. Then, I pass my report to someone else, who writes a report about my report.” That works. By the time I get through the first sentence, they’re off looking for the Jell-O shots.
Most people don’t understand the necessarily narrow focus of our individual jobs. Asking a counter-drug analyst about cyber crime is kinda like asking a dermatologist about kidney disease. But still, the child-like faith the public displays is touching, nonetheless. The reality of being an Intelligence Analyst, for most of us, is nothing like the public perception. Primarily because of Hollywood, we’re slotted into two categories: Gun-toting adventurers, and research geeks.
In the late 80’s and through the 90’s, an erstwhile insurance salesman gave the world a hefty series of novels about the intel community, starring the inestimable Jack Ryan. Jack’s career path was, shall we say, strongly upwardly mobile. He started out in a cubicle at CIA, and ended up running the Free World from the Oval Office. (I’m betting he never had to sweat out a within-grade step increase, but I digress…) On the way, he faced down corrupt politicians, had shootouts with IRA gunmen (eventually being knighted), made a fortune in the stock market, became a history professor, helped a Russian navy crew defect with a brand-new boomer, stopped a potential war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., ended another war with Japan, and fought a cartel army in the jungles of Colombia. That most of us will likely spend our careers at a desk in front of a computer, doing nothing more dangerous than the endless reboots of Microsoft products, doesn’t stop us from thinking, “Yeah…that could happen…”
The other model the public sees is the Research Geek. In a guy, this is the whip-thin introvert with the pencil neck and a protruding Adam’s apple. His voice, never seeming to have escaped puberty, is squeaky and annoying. He has no skills with people or sports, and is happiest in that small world that exists between keyboard and monitor. We find him annoying because he is always able, with just a few keystrokes, to pull up all kinds of interesting and obscure data which helps the hero to save the planet. (Oh, how we wish it were that easy…) As the culture has evolved, this role has been expanded to include women like the ubiquitous Chloe from “24,” the Swiss Army knife of intelligence research. While she is neither whip-thin, nor pencil-necked, she’s still…kinda...geeky. “24” even gave us a fat white guy (Edgar) as a sort-of puppy dog hero.
Of course, we all know that the real members of the analyst community are far more diverse. Collectively, we look like the normal swath of humanity. (Yes, folks: We Walk Among You. BWA-HA-HA-HA!!!) We are possessed of individual personality quirks, which I suspect are de rigueur in order to function in this arena. For example, I have a friendly colleague who regularly uses binary decision matrices in order to decide his family’s vacation destinations. There’s another one who likes to use HUMINT interrogation techniques on telemarketers. We need those quirks because of the way we have to view the world. That slightly off-center perspective gives us the ability to see things otherwise invisible to others.
I have friends who have spent their lives in construction, and they look the part, with rippling muscles, and rugged, tanned good looks. Doing hard, physical labor makes big muscles. It’s almost unfair that the “muscle” we use sits between our ears and stays the same size, no matter how many hours or days we’ve spent in complex analysis tasks. I suppose in a perfect world, those of us engaged in the pursuits of things cognitive would grow skulls that would resemble inverted pears, evidencing our superior intellects, although with such a presentation, it’s highly unlikely that we’d ever have the opportunity to reproduce.
Don’t get me wrong; what we do is important. In an increasingly complex world, someone has to be able to take it all in, think about it, and come up with a reasonably cogent explanation of where this all might be headed. In a sense, it is the complete opposite of a criminal investigator. A cop most times is concerned with the reconstruction of an event that has already happened; an intelligence analyst has to construct events that have not, or may not happen. When a cop succeeds, there’s a big, splashy trial, tons of media coverage, and a bad guy goes to jail. On the other hand, when an analyst predicts a possible outcome, and that outcome either occurs or is thwarted, no one finds out. The analyst ends up with nice, warm feeling, perhaps the appreciation of a few of his or her more prescient colleagues, and an obscure line in a personnel evaluation. But for most of us, that much is enough.
The public will never know the identity of the analysts who helped in thwarting the 19 major terror attacks attempted in the U.S. since 9/11. In fact, most of us in The Community will never know who those gifted individuals were. One of our collective strengths is our willingness to toil in obscurity and anonymity. There will never be a reality show called “American Intel Idol,” and we won’t see 80,000 screaming fans filing into a stadium to watch one of us construct a link chart or a relational database. We don’t pursue notoriety because we know that in this business fame can be fatal. That doesn’t, however, change the value of our impact. Sound, thoughtful analysis of information about enemies, both current and potential, is vital to national survival. Sun Tzu wrote,
“The means by which enlightened rulers and sagacious generals moved and conquered others…was advance knowledge. Advance knowledge cannot be gained from ghosts and spirits, inferred from phenomena, or projected from the measures of Heaven, but must be gained from men, for it is the knowledge of the enemy’s true situation. If you know (the enemy) and know yourself, your victory will not be imperiled. If you know Heaven and know Earth, your victory can be complete.” --The Art of War, Chapter 3: “Planning Offensives”
In a culture overcome by an obsession with fame, and filled with tireless self-promoters, we labor in the shadows. The only attention we get is when something goes wrong. The author of this legendary ditty certainly understood:
“They don’t let me drive the train,
Or even ring the bell;
But let this sucker jump the track,
And see who catches Hell.”
Hollywood will never do a movie about real Intelligence Analysts, unless it was to be used as a therapy device for insomniacs. Truth be told, very few people are cut out to do what we do. Despite the naïveté of the public, and the comical distortions of Hollywood, we remain proud. It’s a silent, almost invisible pride, borne out of the mission, and the certainty that without us, the whole train comes to a halt.
It is the quiet link that binds us together, and creates the essence of community.