Intelligence and Counterespionage Careers

Intelligence and Counterespionage Careers


There is no single template for a career in intelligence and espionage. Three of the nation's leading intelligence organizations—the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and National Security Agency (NSA)—hold a wide array of opportunities in areas ranging from science, engineering, and mathematics, to linguistics, cartography, and foreign analysis. For each agency, career choices are naturally geared for the tasks at hand, with the NSA, for instance, concentrating on mathematics and cryptography, and the FBI focused on law enforcement. Nevertheless, opportunities are varied, though requirements, which call for extensive background checks, are high.


Intelligence agencies have always been, by their nature, secretive. During the Cold War, this secrecy extended to their personnel requirements and practices. Today, however, while computerized encryption and other forms of technology maintain a higher level of secrecy than ever, where vital intelligence information is concerned, the CIA and other agencies are remarkably open about matters such as hiring.

The CIA, which regularly publishes declassified studies of past operations (some of them highly critical of CIA activities), has been a leader in establishing a tradition of openness among intelligence agencies. In 1998, it even took out newspaper advertisements to recruit talented personnel for what the ads called "the ultimate international career for the extraordinary individual." Since that time, Israel's Mossad has also undertaken a recruiting effort.

Despite the scaling back of CIA resources following the end of the Cold War, director of recruitment Gil Medeiros told the media in 1998, "We found no lessening of tasking to the agency. We had to face the fact that it takes people in the field to do human sourcing intelligence." Soon the CIA also had in place job listings at its Web site, where it listed dozens of possible professions within the organization. Many of these fit under one of several categories: analytical positions; language positions; scientists, engineers, and technologists; and "clandestine service."

CIA jobs and the intelligence cycle. Most jobs in intelligence relate to some particular point in the intelligence cycle, a process whereby raw information is acquired, converted into intelligence, analyzed, and disseminated to the appropriate consumers. The acquisition in the field may be most familiar to civilians, but a much greater amount of activity is involved in the conversion of raw data into intelligence.

Among the areas of specialty the CIA uses in the processing and production phases of the intelligence cycle are various language and analytical skills. Within language skill areas, demands in 2003 were highest for Arabic and Korean, a reflection of the efforts against terrorism in the Middle East and weapons proliferation in North Korea at that time. The CIA also called for instructors and foreign media analysts with abilities in a variety of languages. Among the analytical positions advertised in 2003 were statisticians, as well as analysts specializing in China, the Middle East, the military, counterintelligence threats, and counterterrorism.

In acquiring, processing, and disseminating information, the CIA calls on the skills of scientists, engineers, and technologists. Advertised positions in 2003 ranged from mechanical, civil, electrical, and materials engineers to software specialists, signals intelligence officers, and even textile specialists.

The CIA also advertised opportunities in what it referred to as "clandestine service," including the positions of operations officer and language officer. Additionally, it has an ongoing need for a range of other professional personnel, including architects, attorneys, cost estimators, geographers, graphic designers, human resource consultants, medical officers, nurses, paralegals, physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, video production specialists, and many others.

The agency offers a number of opportunities for college students, including a generous scholarship program (up to $15,000 yearly in 2003) for qualifying applicants

Students at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, learn techniques for subduing suspects. ©ANNA CLOPET/CORBIS.
Students at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, learn techniques for subduing suspects. ©

majoring in electrical engineering or computer science. Requirements include U.S. citizenship, an SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) score of 1000 or above, a grade point average of 3.0 or better, and demonstrated financial need. Internships are also available, as are student trainee and graduate studies programs, all of which require at least temporary relocation to the Washington, D.C., area.


Although it is a much more secretive organization than the CIA in many regards, the NSA has a number of available positions, and is known as both the largest employer in Maryland and the largest employer of mathematicians in the United States. Its areas of specialty as of 2003 included language and intelligence analysts, electronic and computer engineers, and systems analysts and computer scientists, mathematicians, and cryptanalysts.

Prospective employees in any sensitive government position must expect a fairly extensive process of background checks, and nowhere is this more apparent than with NSA. Employment of any kind with NSA requires that an individual obtain a high-level security clearance. Applicants should expect to undergo medical screening, a polygraph interview, and a background investigation that will open up past financial dealings and other details that a private citizen would consider personal business.

NSA employees do not enjoy the same privacy rights as ordinary citizens: overseas travel, plans to marry a non-U.S. citizen, even one's choice of a doctor or dentist, must be submitted for approval. (In the case of the doctor or dentist, this is because the employee might reveal secrets while under anaesthesia.) In addition, NSA employees, like many others in government positions, must submit to random drug testing. On the other hand, NSA is willing to consider persons with dual citizenship, though dual citizenship raises potential issues that must be addressed on an individual basis. All NSA new-hires must relocate to NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland.


Within the FBI, the most visible position is that of special agent, but the bureau also offers an array of professional, administrative, technical, and clerical positions. Among the specific positions for which the bureau has a continuing need are attorneys, intelligence research specialists, and secretaries. Other examples of professional support personnel with the FBI include financial analysts, program analysts, computer specialists, nurses, auditors, language specialists, and photographers.

All applicants for professional support personnel positions must be U.S. citizens, with at least a high school diploma, as well as college or graduate degrees appropriate to particular areas of specialty. They must undergo a background investigation with a duration of between one and four months, during which time investigators will contact former and current employers, personal references, friends, neighbors, and family members. FBI personnel will also review school, credit, arrest, medical, and military records of prospective employees.

Special-agent applicants must be U.S. citizens, at least 23 years of age, but younger than 37. They must possess a four-year degree from an accredited college or university, as well as a valid driver's license, and must pass polygraph, drug, and color vision tests. Uncorrected vision must not be worse than 20/200 in one eye, and 20/40 in the other. If accepted for employment, they will undergo 16 weeks of intensive training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, where they will receive 708 instructional hours in areas that include academics, firearms, physical training, defensive tactics, and practical exercises. Following graduation, special agents will undergo a two-year probationary period.

Once hired, an employee can expect to spend four years in the first office of assignment. For a special agent who has spent 10 years at the same office, a non-voluntary rotational transfer to a second field office will most likely take place. Some professional support positions, such as that of language specialist or investigative specialist, may call for temporary duty or short-term transfers.



Phillips, David Atlee. Careers in Secret Operations: How to Be a Federal Intelligence Officer. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1984.


Boyle, Matthew. "The Prying Game." Fortune. (September 17, 2001): 235.

Lang, John. "CIA Ads Tout Career in Espionage." Dallas Morning News. (November 1, 1998): 15A.


Careers in Intelligence. Association of Former Intelligence Officers. < > (April 30, 2003).

CIA Careers. Central Intelligence Agency. < > (April 30, 2003).

Employment. Federal Bureau of Investigation. < > (April 30, 2003).

NSA Career Center. National Security Agency. < > (April 30, 2003).

Online Career Center. Intelligence Careers. < > (April 30, 2003).


CIA (United States Central Intelligence Agency)
Classified Information
Crime Prevention, Intelligence Agencies
FBI (United States Federal Bureau of Investigation)
Intelligence Community
Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), United States Federal
NSA (United States National Security Agency)
Privacy: Legal and Ethical Issues
Security Clearance Investigations
United States, Intelligence and Security

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