Former Mossad officer Michael Ross and I were comparing notes on the unusual messages and emails that come our way and, not surprisingly, we both deal with some similar characters. Setting aside the absolute nutters for a moment we’d like to address those sometimes young, sometimes naive, but often well intentioned people who contact us about jobs in the US/Israeli intelligence communities. Let me start by saying that if you fantasize about a career as a super spy and your first step on that journey is contacting either one of us through a direct message on Twitter (or the contact form on Blogs of War) you are not off to a promising start! No worries, though. we’re here to shore up your security practices a bit and hopefully point you in the right direction.
John Little: It seems rather obvious but contacting a stranger on the Internet, especially one not connected to the intelligence community, in an attempt to launch a spying career exposes potential applicants to quite a bit of risk doesn’t it? I usually point people in the direction of an official recruiting site such as http://www.intelligence.gov/careers-in-intelligence/ or http://www.intelligence.gov/careers-in-intelligence/types-of-opportunities/for-students.html if they express interest but I have often been troubled by how much they reveal in their direct messages or emails. How do you deal with people who, misguided or not, want to join the Mossad? As a Canadian citizen that is a sensitive topic is it not?
Michael Ross: I receive innocent queries from people on a fairly regular basis enquiring how they can join the Mossad. In fact, I recently corresponded with a well-meaning person who informed me that their renowned skate-boarding prowess allowed them to travel to all manner of exotic locales. You have to admit that a skateboarder appearing at the gates of Fordow would certainly be the most original approach the Iranians had ever encountered however, gaining access to a target by skateboard is the least important of things to consider when setting out on the career path of professional espionage. I think people who want to be spies should set out by exercising some initiative in finding out what they can through open sources first before furtively approaching me on Twitter or via an email.
My first question when someone approaches me is what is their citizenship? If they are an Israeli citizen then I have no problem directing them to the Mossad’s website at: http://www.mossad.gov.il/Eng/AboutUs.aspx. If they are citizens of other countries, I politely advise them that it’s not a good idea to offer one’s services to another country’s intelligence service regardless how closely the countries are allied – unless you are in fact – a citizen of that country. If the person approaching me is a U.S. citizen, I direct them to the plethora of intelligence agencies that are available to the American citizen. U.S. citizens are spoiled for choice in this realm.
I think people have been conditioned by Hollywood to believe that spies can be stateless soldiers of fortune and so long as they’re fighting terrorists, details about nationality and allegiance are not that important in the scheme of things. I have to often explain that while we share many worthy goals, intelligence services pursue differing agendas that are driven by national security priorities specific to their government. For a long period of time, the Mossad had a very difficult time convincing the British SIS that Hezbollah was more than just a localized threat to Israel. Likewise when on rare occasion they approached us concerning a matter involving IRA terrorist activity. Turkey couldn’t understand why the PKK wasn’t top of the counter-terrorism agenda for everyone else. You can see through these examples that while we’re all countering terrorism, national security priorities do not always align 100% between allies.
In my own case, I lived for a long time in Israel, served in the IDF, became fluent in Hebrew, and spent some years going native before I was even considered for recruitment. While national security priorities differed between Canada and Israel, I never once felt that I was straying into a grey zone that would put me in a moral conflict with my Canadian citizenship.
I encourage people interested in pursuing a career in the intelligence milieu to do their homework. Official websites offer a great deal of useful information about how to apply and what criteria they are specifically looking for in a potential candidate. If you approach me without doing all that initial research, I’ll tell you that by first coming to me, the message you’re sending is that you’re probably not cut out for this business.
John Little: And what would you say to those aspiring CIA/Mossad officers about their communication and personal security practices in that period leading up to potential employment? It’s never too early to practice discretion is it?
Michael Ross: Well, first of all, if you write me asking how to join the Mossad and your IP address shows you live in Dahieh, then you’re either suicidal or think I’m asleep at the wheel. Either way, people should be aware that computers are the most insecure devices ever conceived by man and users should bear that in mind when using electronic communication.
For anyone interested in joining an intelligence service – regardless of which – it’s best to do the research and then keep your intentions to yourself. One thing that is highly valued in a candidate for recruitment is an innate sense of discretion. During the course of your being assessed as a candidate to work for an intelligence service, questions will be asked about with whom you’ve been communicating your intentions. When it comes out (and it will) that you’ve been emailing far and wide, it’s going to indicate to your perspective employer that you’re clearly not the right stuff.
As for social media, having pictures of yourself engaged in any type of indiscreet activity or participating in online behavior that can be translated as even mildly compromising, isn’t going to help your case. Let the sentiment behind the saying, “discretion is the better part of valour” be your guide.
Other Discussions with Michael Ross
A Gentle Reminder About Security and Social Media for Security Cleared Professionals