An Intro to the World of Intelligence

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Welcome to A Spy’s Mind, a blog by former US Intelligence Officer Drew Berquist.  Throughout the course of this blog, I will comment on current events, my life as a spy on a functional level, as well as personal level, and other areas that are of interest to the reader.

This week I will take a moment to address some common questions I have received about my career and what is really involved in being an intelligence officer.  Of course, there is much that I cannot go into given the nature of my work and past experiences, many of which are still classified.  Still, there are some things that I can discuss and would love to share with you.

Before addressing some questions, let me preface by saying the following:

Americans have always been intrigued by the spy world.  Like most things in life, we always want to know more about things we aren’t supposed to. The aura of mystique is without question the most powerful element to the spy world.  No one knows exactly what goes on behind the closed doors of America’s senior policy makers as they direct their analysts and operatives to ensure our nation stays safe.

Excitement is compounded further by television and film portrayals of the intelligence community.  Characters on screen are idolized, and many viewers want to walk in their fictional shoes.  And why wouldn’t they? Who wouldn’t want to be Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne, James Bond, and the like?  The list is probably pretty short long?.  Spies on screen live the high life– fine food and cocktails, gorgeous women, high-speed car chases, and gun fights galore.  All the things an alpha male craves when he rolls out of bed in the morning.

However, while moments of genuine excitement exist in our little crazy world, sometimes more frequently than others, it’s important that the general public understand we are not watching you sleep from a satellite deep in space, and we have not all been in high-speed car chases through exotic environments around the world.  In fact, as you go about your business, we are likely writing a report or sending out operations requests to make sure leadership approves of our little plans.  These plans, by the way, are usually denied due to the fear that has permeated the intelligence community from possible public backlash should things fail.  I will go into this dynamic in a separate post.

On a personal level, I have been extremely fortunate to be a part of almost exclusively operational units.   However, the vast majority of intelligence officers never leave the front of their computers, sans quick trips to lunch and to relieve themselves.  Before you judge though, the spy world is vital to our national defense and those officers who sit behind desks can play critical roles too.  While their jobs are far more research-focused, it’s their minds that help drive the small number of case officers and operators’ missions around the world more often than not.  Think of examining data captured from all over the world and then trying to piece together plausible identities, associates, and whereabouts of bad guys.  This is intelligence.  The next step is to feed that information to those in the field and let them use their clandestine assets and other methods to verify the data and accomplish the mission.

So with that I will answer some brief questions.  Feel free to send in additional questions to the site, and I will make every effort to incorporate and answer them in future posts.

Q: How much can a real spy actually incorporate into a fiction novel such as The Maverick Experiment?
A:
Great question.  Being a spy requires signing document after document stating you will protect your country and the information that becomes available to you. We are held to high standards within the intelligence community when it comes to information-sharing.  Still, the CIA has been very gracious to many creative-minded authors who decide to write books, essays, and the like, so long as they submit their work to the Publication Review Board.  The PRB encourages people to write as they please but ensures that all information released, whether truthful or fiction, does not contain anything  classified that would compromise or be harmful to the CIA.  The Maverick Experiment is peppered with several true statements or descriptions of the CIA and its operational thinking. However, much of the story, to include its characters, is predominately fiction.  Of course there are some parts I cannot comment on.

Q: What is it like being an intelligence officer?
A:
Being an intelligence officer, like many career fields, has its ups and downs.  I thoroughly enjoy getting to serve my country and believe wholeheartedly in our mission.  However, the job can be very difficult on families and relationships.  I spend a majority of the year overseas doing things I cannot tell my family about.  As if being away was not hard enough, the inability to communicate what I am doing or often where I am going is discouraging at times.  Fortunately, the camaraderie among my teammates has always been strong, and I have developed life-long relationships with them.  The work itself is most often rewarding, but constant report-writing becomes exhausting and battling the increased level of bureaucracy and internal Agency politics can make anyone crazy.

Q: What type of training do you receive as an intelligence officer?
A:
It depends.  There are several career tracks within the intelligence community.  For those who are more operational in nature, i.e., case officers, paramilitary , interrogators, strategic debriefers and other specialized skills officers, the training cycle usually includes basic intelligence collection courses.  In these courses, individuals learn about the history of intelligence and are taught how to properly build rapport – in an effort to manipulate the target, ask proper questions, and report their findings in a clear and concise manner.  Officers are routinely given weapons training, hostile area driving courses, surveillance/surveillance-detection training, and alias travel courses.  This list grows as your assignment requires and officers are able to request additional training depending upon their assignment and their manager’s approval.

Q: How do I become an intelligence officer?
A:
There are several ways to become an intelligence officer, but none of them are necessarily easy.  I suggest taking courses and obtaining skills that set you apart from your classmates or colleagues, e.g., Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, or Pashtu language skills or getting an advanced degree in international affairs or some form of policy studies.  The Agency wants you to not only have special skills but also to understand the world around you.  Always maintain a strong awareness of key world leaders, their policies, and current events.  You will be asked about them.  Finally, apply to several agencies as their missions all have much in common and the most elusive element to an outsider is a Top Secret clearance.  Once you have your foot in the door with a TS clearance, you can learn more about the community and set career goals.

Q: Where have you spent most of your time as an intelligence officer?
A:
Without a doubt, Afghanistan.  Afghanistan and Pakistan are at the very heart of the War on Terror and, as such, I have had to deploy over a dozen times to Afghanistan to conduct operations.

Q: What is the most exciting thing you have ever done in the intelligence community?
A:
I’ll respond to your question with a question. Do you really think I can answer that?  I will say, however, that I have been fortunate enough to be a part of some extremely sensitive units and thus involved in some very exciting operations.

Q: What is one of the funniest things you see portrayed in spy films?
A:
There are so many it’s hard to choose.  Because of this, I will do a specific post on dispelling or confirming certain things shown on screen at a later date, but for now I will say:  the gadgets.  Actors on screen have a gadget for everything, it seems.  While in real life our technology is superior to most and we are capable of doing things that I would have never imagined possible, the average officer on the street is usually armed with a pen, notepad, and—hopefully– a keen sense of awareness.  We don’t have belts or bags full of gadgets for every specific instance, rather a well-trained mind that can adapt to very specific situations.  This is where the Bourne series is stronger than most. Although most of the plot is, albeit entertaining, completely unrealistic, Bourne’s character seems to use his environment around him well.  However, I have yet to meet someone as well-rounded as Jason Bourne, sorry to disappoint.

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One Response to “An Intro to the World of Intelligence”

  1. Drew Berquist says:

    Isabelle,

    Thanks for reading. I think you have your eyes set on a very interesting and rewarding career, should you choose intelligence. Being an intelligence officer can be dangerous at times, but it really depends on your assignment and location. If you desire to work in the field, as most do, you will need to start by getting your foot in the door somewhere in the intelligence community. Getting your clearance is really the most important first step, so don’t be disappointed if the first agency you apply to says no. Just keep at it and then once in, wherever you start, develop a strong background in a specific region or target set and be persistent, good things will come.

    Be sure to grab a copy of The Maverick Experiment if you haven’t already at Amazon.com for just .99. The next book comes out this year.

    All the best!
    Drew

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