The following is adapted from a six-part series, titled, “The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking At Computers,” which is available in its entirety at alexzfinley.com.
The front line in any country’s national security is its intelligence service. Luckily for us, we’ve got sixteen different intelligence agencies and one Big Daddy agency to make sure all the intelligence kids play nicely with each other. If you measure our security by how big our security apparatus is, we are incredibly secure. But, “effectiveness” is a secondary concern, because it is really hard to fit in a metric.
But in true American fashion, everyone can and does contribute, just by participating. So let’s take a brief tour of some of the more interesting members of our Intelligence Community (IC).
If the IC were a school, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) would be the uncool principal. He makes sure all the kids play nicely together and to break up turf wars.
Sad to say, he has no authority over anyone. So if the math teacher (NSA) and history teacher (State Department) start fighting, he can’t fire either one of them. But he might ask them to write an essay about how they can work better together in the future.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the kid your mom invited to your birthday party even though you and your friends all think he’s a weenie, but mom is nonetheless trying to teach you a lesson after you pushed him down the slide last week. You and your friends still call him Mushroom Man behind his back.
At an IC meeting, the FBI representative is the one in the corner without a chair and who is happy just to be invited, not realizing he wasn’t invited but his boss caught wind of the meeting by chance, at the last second, and sent whoever wasn’t out getting coffee. That’s because the FBI didn’t used to do intelligence. Up until the 2004 reorganization, it was a law enforcement agency. In just a few years, it had to adjust from catching bad guys and building a case to put them in jail to watching bad guys just to see what they were up to. It’s been a very hard habit to break.
Thanks to Edward Snowden, you already know what NSA does, so I’ll skip them.
The CIA are the cool kids. Everyone wants to sit at their table, which means it’s really hard to find a spot to park yourself nearby, just like the parking lot at the Agency in real life.
But once you do hang out with them, you realize they eat their lunch just like everyone else in the cafeteria. Some of them probably even brought lunch from home, a sad little sandwich in a plastic bag that got squished on the way to school. They will be so normal that you will be disappointed they didn’t arrive in a remote-controlled invisible car like James Bond or assassinate someone right in front of you like Jason Bourne. But that won’t stop you from announcing to everyone else you know that it was the coolest hang out ever.
The main function of CIA is to collect and analyze intelligence. This requires a lot of people in different roles, but at its core, it comes down to two people: the case officer and the analyst.
Case officers are the people in the field. Without these people collecting information, no one else in the chain has a job. As a result, everyone tends to hate them.
Analysts analyze the information. They use phrases like “paradigm shift” in everyday conversation and hedge every declaration they make: “Homeland is the best show on television, except for any other show that might come along or maybe already exists, and I say that with 64 percent confidence.” A common joke in Agency hallways goes like this: How do you tell if an analyst is an introvert or an extrovert? The introvert looks at his shoes. The extrovert looks at someone else’s shoes.
Get it? Because apparently all analysts look at shoes.
Analysts find this joke very funny and occasionally even laugh at it. They are also some of the most intelligent people I have ever met, although paradoxically some of the least smart. I’d worry about offending them by saying that, but they are too busy looking at my shoes to read what I just wrote.
Analysts could tell you, off the top of their head and with great enthusiasm, the tensile strength of a single component of a plutonium bomb built in June 1949 at the Chelyabinsk-40 weapons plant in Russia (not to be confused with Chelyabinsk-70 plant, you moron), and that analyst will be bursting like a child in a candy store while recounting this information to you and offering to draw you a figure to help you understand. But put that same analyst in, oh, pick any foreign city, and they’ll say, “Hey, these shoes look different.”
Case officers, on the other hand, have no patience for footnotes and have probably already stopped reading this sentence. But a case officer can find a copy of Playboy’s November issue and a bottle of Johnnie Walker in the middle of a Middle Eastern country on a Friday.
These are but a few of the mighty intelligence agencies that keep the electronic paper flowing.
Oh, and that keep us safe. That too.
Alex Finley is a former officer of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, where she served in West Africa and Europe. She is the author of“Victor in the Rubble,” a satire of the CIA and the War on Terror. Follow her on Twitter: @alexzfinley