Argument

CIA Recruitment Has Joined the Social Media Age

A new video tries to make spying for the United States attractive for today’s youth—but cuts some corners along the way.

A man walks across the seal of the CIA at the lobby at CIA headquarters in McLean, Virginia, on Feb. 19, 2009.
A man walks across the seal of the CIA at the lobby at CIA headquarters in McLean, Virginia, on Feb. 19, 2009. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The first time I saw, it stopped me in my tracks.

It was over a decade ago, and I had just landed at Washington’s Reagan National Airport after a short trip home to Texas. The quick walk from the arrival gates to the baggage claim—the reverse commute whose only scenery was a smattering of fast food outlets and newsstands—was one I had made countless times, but the poster caught my eye as I made the sharp hairpin out of the terminal’s secure area. It was a recruitment ad for the CIA bearing the agency’s unofficial motto: “The work of a nation. The center of intelligence.”

The ad was sleek and, at least for me, jarring. I stopped to admire it for just as long as it took me to register that I had done so—in the middle of a heavily trafficked area, no less. I was a CIA analyst at the time, and I was hypersensitive about allowing my gawking to potentially suggest to those around me that I was at all connected to the institution the poster was hawking. Even as I kept walking, the poster and its tagline rattled in mind because it captured why I, along with so many of my contemporaries, applied to and joined the agency in the first place. We were the post-9/11 generation of CIA officers, and it was precisely that sense of mission—the work of the nation—that compelled us to Langley and left us motivated to do the job.

Just this week, the CIA released a new recruitment ad campaign, its first ever designed for streaming services like YouTube and Hulu, targeting the next generation of officers. It’s sleeker and more dramatic than the agency’s previous recruitment videos with a narrative arc that’s about as developed as 60 seconds will allow.

What it may lack in verisimilitude, it conveys the same sense of mission that struck me about that poster all those years ago.

First, a bit about the new ad. It begins—as most CIA careers do—in an orientation classroom in an undisclosed location. The instructor narrates the ad, which includes scenes from the classroom, the CIA’s Langley headquarters, and a generic “overseas” urban setting. In addition to the orientation leader, the ad features at least eight CIA officers with varied roles—analysts, operations officers, even a translator. The minute-long video reaches a crescendo as officers collect and make sense of a piece of intelligence apparently important enough to merit alerting the White House. We, the viewers, remain none the wiser as to the details of that revelation.

Also, a note about the medium itself. There’s still a lingering impression that the CIA’s recruitment process is more targeted, more discrete, than the shotgun approach that streaming services provide. That may have been the case decades ago when the Hollywood depiction of a grizzled recruiter approaching a promising student on a college campus or in a dark bar was more accurate, if not always commonplace even then. The agency still undertakes targeted recruitments of especially qualified would-be officers, but today’s CIA receives more unsolicited résumés—reportedly to the tune of 10,000 per month—than it can plausibly review in any detail. When I went through the process in the early 2000s, the message I heard from recruiters and CIA hands even then was consistent: applying through the website provided the best shot at a fair shake.

Is the ad all that realistic? Not particularly. Even the premise of the ad—an intimate orientation session with a dozen or so officers in a dimly light room—is more cinematic than accurate. Unless those sessions have changed markedly since I left the agency in 2017, new officers are likely to be herded into a larger lecture hall-style setting, where they are talked at for weeks about issues both sublime and mundane. In my case, orientation was where I learned my first official U.S. government secrets and listened to CIA graybeards—at least a few of whom also looked the part—tell war stories about the operations that defined their careers. But it’s also the place where you learn about federal health insurance options and retirement plans, elements that I, as a healthy 22-year-old at the time, found much less fascinating. The ad portrays orientation as universally enthralling, rather than what it is: a roller coaster whose steep—and often long—climbs through bureaucratese are occasionally rewarded with thrilling revelations.

The operation at the heart of the ad also takes a hefty measure of cinematic license. The key scene takes place in the “overseas location.” It’s there that a CIA officer—presumably playing the role of a case officer, whose ranks spend their careers recruiting and running foreign agents or spies—conducts a “brush pass” with an official of the local foreign ministry. The two officials, the case officer and her foreign ministry asset, pass each other in a deserted stairwell, where the latter discreetly places a USB drive in her palm without either breaking stride.

That’s not to say that brush passes are solely the stuff of fiction. They’re not. But color me skeptical that a case officer, whose ranks are targets of intense surveillance the world over, would take such a risky approach to acquire the drive. A dead drop—the act of leaving behind information often disguised to fit in with the surroundings—would be safer. Alternatively, one could imagine any number of means of electronic transmission. For example, after the FBI in 2010 arrested a ring of Russian sleeper agents, who in many cases had no overt connections to the Russian government, the FBI and court documents spoke of their use of secure and hidden Wi-Fi networks to communicate with their handlers. Presumably such a tactic would’ve subjected the CIA officer and her asset to less risk of exposure and arrest—even if its depiction would’ve been less cinematic.

The ad also showcases a version of the CIA that’s more aspirational than accurate. While the agency has made strides in recent years on diversity and inclusion, it still has a way to go to ensure that its workforce—previous generations of which were in large part “white, male, and Yale”—looks like today’s America, especially at the more senior ranks. The ad, on the other hand, presents a level of diversity, especially in terms of race, that today’s CIA could only dream of. Just with the orientation, moreover, a CIA officer will encounter thrills as well as bureaucracy during the course of a career, and the spot understandably elides the latter in favor of spotlighting the former. An analyst will encounter the challenge of coordination—the process of ensuring that the CIA and, on occasion, the entire intelligence community speak to policymakers with as close to one voice as possible—just as operations officers in the field will fight second-guessing and red tape from headquarters on their proposals. While the ad features none of that, the creators could be forgiven for omitting the more mundane from a minute-long spot.

What does the ad get right, then? Its treatment of the intelligence cycle—the process of identifying intelligence requirements and gaps, collecting that intelligence, analyzing it, and packing it for policymakers—is about as thorough as 60 seconds will allow. The spot features a presumably headquarters-based analyst identifying the missing piece of information, her colleagues in what is most likely a CIA station overseas devising an operation to collect it, a case officer undertaking the mission, and—as the dramatic denouement—a senior official alerting the policy community, the White House in this sensationalized instance, of the blockbuster analysis and conclusions. Of course, the ad doesn’t capture the nuance or details of a cycle that routinely lasts months or years, but it accurately depicts the essence of officers across the CIA’s career paths working together to accomplish the mission.

There’s a broader essence also there, and that’s what’s most important. At the heart of the new ad is the same message that stopped me in my tracks all those years ago. It portrays the idea that the agency affords its officers unparalleled responsibility, opportunity, and mission. It’s what continues to make a career with the CIA rewarding. The plot implicitly captures that agency ethos, but it becomes explicit when, in the final seconds, one of the officers breaks the fourth wall, telling viewers: “Start a career at the CIA and do more for your country than you ever dreamed possible.”

The message may not be all that novel, and it may even strike some as trite. But in an era of cynicism and scandal—and amid the demonization of the so-called “deep state” by those at the apex of power—there’s something comforting in knowing that mission and purpose are just as compelling to the next generation of CIA officers as they were to the last. If this ad is to be effective, and I hope it will, it will send a signal that Americans broadly recognize that the work of a nation has never been more important.

Ned Price directs policy and communications at National Security Action and teaches at Georgetown University.  He was a senior CIA analyst and served in the Obama administration as a special assistant to the president and as a National Security Council spokesperson. Twitter: @nedprice

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