Ready for Your Own Mission: Impossible? How to Become a Spy Like Ethan Hunt

You’ve seen the movies featuring the adventures of fictional intelligence officers Jason Bourne, James Bond, and Ethan Hunt (returning next year in Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One), but have you ever thought about applying to defend national security yourself? 

Counter-espionage organizations around the world have now embraced modern methods, so they can recruit a diverse workforce that fully reflects the nations they protect. We’ve come a long way since Ian Fleming’s day, when the author of Bond got “a tap on the shoulder” to serve(Opens in a new window) as an officer in the Royal Navy’s Naval Intelligence Department during WWII (Codename: “17F”) and liaise with the Secret Intelligence Service, more commonly known as MI6.  

Alex Younger(Opens in a new window), former head of MI6 (codename: “C”) told The Guardian(Opens in a new window) that he also received a tap on the shoulder while serving in the British Army, but “We [now] have to go to people that would not have thought of being recruited to MI6. We have to make a conscious effort. We need to reflect the society we live in.”

As a result, MI6(Opens in a new window) recruits British nationals online, as does its domestic counterpart MI5(Opens in a new window). In the US, even the highly secretive National Security Agency (NSA) has a careers portal(Opens in a new window). Stateside, the intelligence community(Opens in a new window) has 19 member agencies, including CIA, FBI, and NSA. What kind of roles are on offer? It’s not all “spooks.”

The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency(Opens in a new window), for example, recruits spectral imagery scientists and cartographers, while the Department of Energy’s Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence(Opens in a new window) deploys military applications of nuclear science. 

Countering threats to national security, terrorism, and espionage requires many different types of personnel, including core investigators, surveillance officers, foreign language and intelligence analysts, computer network forensic experts, electronic technicians—as well as all the back-office roles contained in corporations (drivers, administrators, project managers, and security guards).  

Even if you do become a “spook” you’ll probably be working “under diplomatic or consular cover,” which means when you go to dinner parties you’ll tell people you toil in the embassy or allocate H-1B visas for foreigners. You won’t tell them you’re running agents in Belarus. Or work as a real-life Q modding spectacles with biometric software.

How to Apply

Let’s start with the CIA. First, ensure your resume is ATS-compliant(Opens in a new window) as most Applicant Tracking Systems are powered by artificial intelligence, at least for the initial knock-out round. The CIA accepts job applications through the official CIA Application Portal(Opens in a new window), so ignore any phishing emails or intermediary employment sites that say otherwise.

Don’t bother applying if you’re away on vacation when the urge to defend your country strikes. They won’t accept any applications that come from non-US IP addresses (and don’t use a VPN). 

Check out the CIA Requirements(Opens in a new window) before you proceed. You’ll need to be squeaky clean (no felonies, drug busts, or even a habit of illegally downloading copyrighted content) to pass the background check and receive a Top Secret with access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) security clearance. You must be a US citizen over 18 years old and be willing to move to Washington, D.C. 

Sadly this counts me out, as I’m a Green Card (Permanent Resident) holder, which is a pity as I was exceedingly tempted by this Intelligence Scholar(Opens in a new window) role. 

Before you start indicating your new path in life by madly following all the intelligence services on social media, STOP. Read the small print on the CIA’s Requirements: “For your security, do not follow us on social media. This includes posting content, following or friending accounts, and liking or sharing content or commentary.” 

If you’re ready to apply, there’s a search function(Opens in a new window) on the CIA careers portal. A word to the wise: It’s a long process. It can take up to six months to get hired, and even the agency recommends applying for four jobs at the same time to maximize potential. 

Background Checks

If you make it through the first round, there will be a polygraph interview, plus a physical examination (including a urinalysis to detect illegal substances) and psychological evaluation to ensure your mental health remains intact and you didn’t lie on your application about anything

By the way, they don’t just take your word for it—all your family and friends will be interviewed, too. You’ll also have to tell them who you co-habitate with (romantically or otherwise), as they’ll need to be checked out to see if they have dubious links to foreign adversarial powers. 

To understand the recruiting process, check out the novel Breaking Cover(Opens in a new window). Yes, it’s fictional, but absolutely backed by insider knowledge as the author is Dame Stella Rimington(Opens in a new window), former Director General of MI5. 

In this spy tale, communications specialist Jasminder Kapoor undergoes a serious background investigation, and all her close friends are questioned about her political allegiances and views on civil liberties. Then, Kapoor’s bank accounts are scrutinized for evidence of corruption, and any indication she might be susceptible to blackmail, like a gambling habit, active addictions, or dark secrets worth turning double-agent to protect. 

Spy Skillset

What skills does it take to succeed in intelligence? A talent for languages—especially Russian, Mandarin, and Arabic—will stand applicants in good stead. When I interviewed professors at USC’s cybercrime school, they could neither confirm nor deny that many of their graduates went on to work for the FBI. However, they did say that those are extremely useful languages to learn, together with the latest cryptologic tools, and an ability to keep cool under pressure.

I combed through many job descriptions on several of the various agencies’ careers portals to see if there was consensus in useful keywords. I sourced information from the US Navy Intelligence Specialist Careers(Opens in a new window), IARPA(Opens in a new window), NSA Careers & Programs(Opens in a new window), and the Defense Intelligence Agency(Opens in a new window). The latter operates in over 140 facilities around the world “providing intelligence support and classified information systems from the Oval Office to deployed forces on the ground” as far afield as Molesworth, United Kingdom, Stuttgart, Germany (both part of US European Command), and Seoul, South Korea. 

The skills that came up across the board include awareness of US national security interests, foreign language capability, strong verbal presentation skills, demonstrated ability to write clear, concise text, research experience in international affairs, ability to work in a team environment, and strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills. 

One assumes an affable personality would also help, so you can recruit agents to deliver HUMINT (human intelligence, as opposed to SIGINT, or signals-based intelligence), and be worldly enough to handle oneself with grace, whether at the ambassador’s cocktail party or a dive bar in Bucharest looking for dissidents. 

Life After Intelligence Roles 

But if you get in, how cool would it be to say you work for the CIA? Oh, right, you can’t ever say that. Not until you’ve retired anyway. But once you’ve served your country, you can write a novel fictionalizing your experiences (within reason) and watch it get made into a $69 million movie starring Jennifer Lawrence.

I interviewed Jason Matthews before Red Sparrow opened in theaters, and he told me about joining the CIA after completing a Masters in Journalism from the University of Missouri. Despite there being plenty of action in his original source material, Matthews said he spent most of his time being deskbound, sadly. 

“A career in the CIA is mostly writing,” Matthews told PCMag. “It’s not all jumping from fast cars and burning buildings. It’s a lot of writing proposals, scenarios, and so on. Essentially it’s ‘advocacy journalism’  in that you’re always trying to convince the paymasters at HQ to approve budgets for an operation.”

If you’re still keen on working in intelligence, there are other options for a career afterwards—specifically in corporate espionage (or countering such nefarious deeds). That’s what Lisa Ruth does. She’s a former CIA intelligence officer who is now CEO of CTC International(Opens in a new window), a global business intelligence corporation that employs a number of espionage experts.

Ruth spoke to me when I covered Jack Ryan and told me how she joined the CIA. “I was recruited while at the University of Virginia, studying for my masters in international relations. The agency already knew me because my father, a nuclear physicist, was a CIA officer for 25 years. The agency then tapped me on the shoulder, and that was that.”

Ruth pointed out that people often get confused about the nomenclature of the intelligence services. She wasn’t a spy—she was a CIA intelligence officer who recruited people to spy by providing HUMINT. Ruth also confirmed that the CIA looks for very specific types of people to join its ranks.   

Recommended by Our Editors

“The agency pre-selects people with the right way of thinking,” Ruth said. “It’s innate; a way of seeing the world and interpreting it. One of my CIA instructors said, ‘We recruited you because you think in a certain way.’ When you’re recruited there’s a battery of testing, including a deep psychological assessment and training, before you get assigned to your first post.”

With all the high-tech investment inside the intelligence services, it’s also a route to Silicon Valley for many former officers. I interviewed Chris Hanson, Founder and Chairperson of the Aromyx(Opens in a new window) Corporation, which is digitizing taste and smell on computer chips for sensory AI. I contacted him recently to learn more about his background with the intelligence services. 

“I joined the US Army, and was trained as an intelligence officer at US Army Command Intelligence School at Fort Huachuca, then studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) before being assigned as a [HUMINT] intelligence specialist to Special Forces and Rangers units,” Hanson told PCMag. “After further linguist studies at Stanford, I was recruited by NSA as a computational linguist [SIGINT], switched to operations, and was then stationed at the US Embassy in Moscow.” 

During this period of his career, Hanson saw extensive operational experience, working on assignments with NSA, CIA, DIA, and US Naval Intelligence across the former Soviet Union region and the Middle East. 

“Obviously I cannot talk about anything classified from that time,” Hanson pointed out, “but I can say I acquired radar and missile guidance systems that posed a threat to US and NATO aviators, and got them back to the US for countermeasure development.”

Are those skills transferable to high-tech? “Definitely,” said Hanson. “I was detained and questioned for a day by the KGB, so after that, negotiating with Silicon Valley VCs seemed pretty easy.  And convincing foreign sources to provide their government’s closely guarded secrets was great sales training.

“Much of my intelligence community experience has come in very useful,” he added. “The ability to see the big picture, while also focusing on detail, knowing whom to trust (or not), convincing skeptical partners—it’s a great set of skills for thriving in Silicon Valley.”

Spies: The Backstory

If you do make it inside the intelligence services, you’ll become part of a distinguished lineage of covert operatives stretching back over 450 years. Spycraft has been part of maintaining civil society since the 16th century. 

The first known agents were called “The Watchers(Opens in a new window)” and their names were Francis Walsingham, William Cecil, (his son) Robert Cecil, and John Dee(Opens in a new window). As loyalists, they were paid by Elizabeth I to keep an eye on anyone (and everyone) deemed adversarial to the Crown. They did this by recruiting and paying a network of courtiers, intellectuals, and scientists to gather intelligence and keep Her Majesty informed. Which is pretty much what officers and agents do to this day. 

Here’s an excellent random factoid: Before delivering their missives to the Queen, the “Watchers” signed all their secret correspondence with two eyes (written as two “Os”) to indicate “For Your Eyes Only” and the number 7, which was considered auspicious.

This may, or may not, have influenced Ian Fleming when designating James Bond as 007. Stories differ on that account; some say it’s connected to other codes used by intelligence against Nazi Germany. 

Semper Occultus

Last piece of guidance: Remember that if you make it inside the intelligence community, your deeds will be governed by adhering to the Espionage Act(Opens in a new window). If you break this act, by stealing trade secrets and then sharing them, you’ll be looking at a prison sentence of 35 years, or more, or seeking residency in a foreign land, forever.  As MI6’s motto states: Semper Occultus. If your Latin is rusty, that means Always Secret. Or else. 

Tips & Tricks newsletter for expert advice to get the most out of your technology.”,”first_published_at”:”2021-09-30T21:23:24.000000Z”,”published_at”:”2022-08-31T18:37:00.000000Z”,”last_published_at”:”2022-08-31T18:36:55.000000Z”,”created_at”:null,”updated_at”:”2022-08-31T18:37:00.000000Z”})” x-show=”showEmailSignUp()” class=”rounded bg-gray-lightest text-center md:px-32 md:py-8 p-4 mt-8 container-xs” readability=”30.860215053763″>

Like What You’re Reading?

Sign up for Tips & Tricks newsletter for expert advice to get the most out of your technology.

This newsletter may contain advertising, deals, or affiliate links. Subscribing to a newsletter indicates your consent to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. You may unsubscribe from the newsletters at any time.

Facebook Comments Box

Hits: 0