This is about “a day” at the Central Intelligence Agency Headquarters Building. In the following piece, I will attempt to shed light on what an average day might look like for someone who is on rotation at Headquarters. Before you become disappointed, this isn’t about the Jason Bourne’s, James Bond’s or Jack Ryan’s of the intelligence world. The Central Intelligence Agency is housed on a compound in the Washington Metropolitan Area (WMA) located in the middle of some of the worst traffic areas (it gives the 405 in Los Angeles a run for its money) and most diverse populations in the country. If you are interested in a career in the National Clandestine Service, expect to spend a few years at Headquarters, which will include very long days, a never ending cycle of priorities and the joy of everyone in the area intent on playing “spot the spook” with everyone they encounter. Mix that in with a career destined to stress the family out from the inevitable home time interruptions and limited days off.
I was a Paramilitary Officer in Special Activities Division (SAD) of the National Clandestine Service (NCS). I spent all of my time in the NCS and my experience with other Directorates comes from my many interactions and projects with them. I spent some time in the Iran Operations Division, Information Operations Center, and National Resources Division but the majority of it was in SAD. Special Activities Division is an amazing place to work because, not only is it full of professional and mission focused Officers, those Officers exude the same code of ethics and camaraderie (but on a higher level since these Officers, with few exceptions, are picked from the best this country has to offer) that I missed since departing the Military. My time there was a blur of hard work, great people, constant internal/external pressure, and far more travel than I did while in the military.
The Agency houses some of the most intelligent and hard-working people, but even those premier Officers can’t escape a case of the “Mondays”. These Intel Officers attempt to protect US citizens and national interests (often times in spite of the bureaucracy that pretends to guide it) at a great personal sacrifice of personal time, social life, and public acknowledgement of their service. The truly amazing work of the CIA is as humbling as it is frustrating since you are constantly battling between effective mission completion, the Teamster style legal team that constantly looks over your shoulder, management, the ever evolving interests and focus of Congress and Senate (oversight and funding), and finance who dash your hopes of ever getting your operation off the ground if the decimal places don’t line up. The paramount responsibility is always the safety of your fellow Officers as well as that of the agents who risk their lives (and many times that of their families) to provide HUMINT in order to fill the intelligence gaps designated by the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).
On any given day the random Intelligence Officer wakes up before the club crowd gets to bed so he/she can get to the office before traffic and the Agency parking lot tempts them to request a mental health day. The awe of passing through the gates of the George Bush Center of Intelligence (a unique government building and living history museum rolled into one) quickly fades when one looks for one of the few remaining parking spots in the back 40 of the immense Agency compound. After the cross country trek to your office in the bowels of the Agency’s Old (or new) Headquarters Building and finally sitting at your desk in one of the endless cube farms, a sinking feeling, that your emails and morning meetings will result in 18 to 20 hours of work that needs to be crammed into the next 8-10 hours, quickly settles in. All of this happens while prepping for your upcoming TDY. You open your email and find that while you were spending the precious few hours with your family, others were diligently typing more than 50 priority emails that require your immediate attention (aside from those patronizing – you’re a good kid – ones from the ODNI). While deep in your latest mental rant about being tasked with something that is actually handled by another office, you mentally calculate which would take longer: explaining the actual process to the one tasking you AND the office that should do it, or just doing it yourself. The meeting results in task changes to many of the items you completed yesterday and adds a few management fires which easily puts your day at about 22-24 hours of actual work, including the paperwork, constant emails and instant messages needed to clarify and re-clarify your tasks, requests, responses, trip plans, and remaining meetings. After your seventh meeting and 63rd email, you realize that you missed your window to eat lunch by 2 hours and the resultant hunger delusions make you rationalize with yourself “its ok, you can just leave early since you didn’t spend your mandated 30 minute lunch time eating”.
After grabbing something from one of the many vending machines that adorn every floor of the building, you rush off to meet with someone from another office that may have some vetting info for one of your cases. On the way there you run into an Officer from another office who needs to ask you a few questions regarding one of his cases and get your thoughts on a request he needs to route for some resources your office controls. You finally finish and get to the intended office only to see your “contact” leaving. Chasing him down is the only option so off you go until you catch up and lay out your needs. A colleague from your office catches up to you and indicates that something has come up and a meeting has been called which you need to attend. An hour later you appear with new tasking to head a planning group which in two days, can have an effective rough draft of a plan that can be briefed to senior management in case the new potential hotspot becomes an actual. This involves pulling other Officers from their schedules, requesting information on resources, planning logistics and searching for assets in a location that hasn’t been dealt with in quite some time due to its low key, low priority status from the NIE and congressional funding. It is now 5 o’clock and you realize that if you leave now, you might be able to sit down and eat while your family sits in front of their already cleared places at the dinner table but that won’t happen because your boss calls your office in for a “quick” meeting to brief the results of his meeting with the Group and Branch Chiefs.
The quick meeting lasts about 45 minutes and concludes with immediate taskers for you to reach out to the field and other Divisions in order to coordinate some changing priorities. A renewed sense of urgency drives you to jump right in because these changes relate to a case you have been working on for several months which, until now, looked to be stagnating. You finally conclude your last instant message conversation and send your last email. You log off with a sigh, a stretch and begin to walk out when you hear “have a good night” from your boss’ office. When you peek around the corner he is typing emails and checking off items on what looks to be a very long list. You then realize he is going to be there for a few more hours. You say good night and walk out the door, then past security and out into the dark. It is then that you realize it is after 8pm. Cell phones are not authorized in the building and because you were either on the phone or away from your desk basically the entire day, you have had no contact with home. As you begin the drive home, you are sure that all you will get when you try to explain why is the all too familiar rolling eyes.
Cheer up though… its only Wednesday!!!
Sean P. Sullivan has over 15 years of Federal and Military experience in the US Navy and within the CIA’s Special Activities Division of the National Clandestine Service. Mr. Sullivan is now an intelligence, security, and surveillance systems consultant. You can follow him on Twitter or via the nascent Inglorious Amateurs website. You can follow him on Twitter @haplesspursuer.