One new piece of foreign intelligence and “everything can change in an instant”, a CIA instructor tells new recruits in a slick 60-second commercial broadcast this week on video streaming services across the US.
Moments later, a young black female field officer palms a memory stick from an older male asset as they cross paths on a staircase outside an unnamed foreign ministry overseas.
In a first for the American spy agency, the CIA is advertising on both streaming services and social media to recruit top intelligence officers as it battles competition from higher-paying corporates and tries to hire more people from minority backgrounds.
CIA director Gina Haspel, America’s first female spy chief, said in a statement this week that it was “an important step forward to reach talented Americans with the diversity of experiences we require”. The agency brought forward the commercial to coincide with the fact that so many people are at home on lockdown watching television.
The agency faces an uphill struggle to attract and keep workers whose heads can be turned by better salaries in the private sector.
Gina Haspel, the CIA’s first female director © Brendan Smialowski/AFP
“Amazon moving to this area makes me a little sleepless at night, because we have the best analytic cadre on the planet and they probably could make more money doing something else,” Dawn Meyerriecks, the CIA’s head of science and technology, said earlier this year, adding she was “aware that government may not be the best pay employer if you’re a techie”. The agency has since fast-tracked promotions for technical officers.
Amazon began recruiting last year for its new second headquarters in northern Virginia, the same area where the CIA is based. The tech giant wants to take on 25,000 people in the next decade and says it will pay mean salaries of more than $150,000 a year. The CIA does not reveal its salaries or headcount but people briefed on the matter say private sector wages can easily be as much as three times higher. The agency’s headcount remains shrouded in mystery, in part because of its reliance on contractors.
The CIA has also faced reports of low morale under US president Donald Trump who last year accused the intelligence service of running “amok” and needing to “go back to school”.
While few join the agency for the money, attracted instead by the lure of a life lived out in code names abroad and the potential thrill of briefing the president, some do leave for a bigger pay packet.
Sean Roche, a top CIA official who retired last year to be with his family on the west coast, conducted almost a hundred exit interviews with officers, saying people left to follow their partners, to do something else or for work-life balance reasons, but that the agency always encouraged them to come back if circumstances changed.
Juliane Gallina, the agency’s chief intelligence officer, rejoined after a decade at IBM. Ms Meyerriecks herself joined after a spell at AOL; testament to a push to sign up mid-careerists. Although the patriotic “mission” was the big pull, she acknowledged “all of us have life events like elder care or kids starting college”.
A still from the CIA’s commercial © CIA/YouTube
Some CIA workers also grow weary of the personal toll of the job, which requires long hours, living under a veil of secrecy and logging even passing contact with foreigners. Former officials say the CIA puts its workers through an extensive “lifestyle” polygraph every two years, which includes intrusive questions about private lives including sex.
The agency does not publish its workforce demographics, but a 2015 agency report revealed African Americans comprised little more than 4 per cent of its senior ranks and that both absolute numbers and proportions of those in senior ranks had declined during the preceding decade.
Under Ms Haspel, who rose through the ranks of what she describes as a “thoroughly male-dominated organisation”, all five directorates — spanning analysis to operations — are headed by women.
Gaining security clearance can be harder if family and work connections include foreign ties, creating hurdles for the agency to expand its talent pool, said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst whose paternal grandparents were North Korean and whose security clearance took 18 months.
Last year the CIA launched an Instagram account profiling diverse members of its workforce. One worker grew up homeless; another sports extensive tattoos. Black and lesbian CIA employees are among those describing vocations in an agency once synonymous with grizzled white men and stereotypical honeytraps.
Many welcome the more diverse approach to hiring, part of a broader modernisation drive that began in 2015. “We were like lawyers were in the 60s — we didn’t advertise; you had to know somebody, even four years ago,” Mr Roche said of the agency’s outdated clubby approach to membership before it conceived the TV recruitment campaign.
Daniel Hoffman, a former clandestine officer who served as station chief in three locations and counts Ms Haspel as a friend, said he left the agency to spend more time with his family after three decades as a covert operator during which he learnt four languages, including Russian so fluent he could tell the dirtiest joke and dissect Chekhov.
“We’re a nation in crisis right now and people are saying ‘How can I help? What can I do?’,” said Mr Hoffman. He welcomes the advertisements. “My wife watches the Cooking Channel and she worked in the CIA too.”