Zero Dark Reality - Inglorious Amateurs

Zero Dark Reality

This piece originally appeared as a guest post on Blogs of War, 22 December 2012

For the country’s premier intelligence agency, the Central Intelligence Agency sure seems to be airing copious amounts of laundry (fresh and dirty alike) as of late. According to press reports it’s drones, Bin Laden movies, and DCIA affairs, Oh My!

As a former Officer of both the National Clandestine Service and Directorate of Science and Technology, I cringe every time I read an article about the Agency. Usually it’s for a variety of reasons, however, lately it is over minor easily corrected journalistic errors.

 (CIA Seal)

Employees of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service (formerly the Directorate of Operations or Human Intelligence side of the Agency) are Officers of one sort or another. They are not agents, or operatives. They can be Operations Officers (Core Collectors is another name), the main recruiters and handlers of the actual agents. In that category are a small number of Paramilitary Operations Officers (PMOO’s), Air Operations Officers (AOO’s) and likely a few others I’ve forgot now. Alongside the deployed OO’s there are Collection Management Officers (CMO’s), also called Reports Officers.

Within the NCS there are also another group, and I admit it becomes even more confusing as the Agency itself seems to change these names on an intermittent basis. This group is the Headquarters Based Officers (HBO’s), which break down into Staff Operations Officers (SOO’s),  to the variety of Specialized Skills Officers, Specialized Skills Officers – Targeting (Targeting Officers or Targeters) and headquarters based CMO’s.

While the above may seem confusing it would seem that journalists, who’s careers are based on detailed research and analysis should be able to avoid inaccuracies by looking at a few places online. First, the website provides career opportunities to include a description of each and how to apply.  A second option is any of the major beltway contractors that supply security clearance wielding talent to the Agency. In fact, I’ve seen more detailed descriptions of my previous positions on contractor websites than on the Agency itself (ah um).

Keep in mind that just covers a small section of the Agency. I haven’t touched on the DS&T who have Technical Operations Officers (now called Technical Intelligence Officers), Technical Targeting Officers, Engineers and a whole host of others and I won’t even begin with the Directorate of Intelligence.  I guess I could wing it like so many reporters but I am not an idiot so I won’t.

To learn more about the host of job titles, responsibilities and levels of management at the agency one simply needs to check out the infamous Ishmael Jones’ memoir “The Human Factor” for that fun bit of government service. Although I take a lot of it with a grain of salt, and am not overly fond of the manner in which it was published, Jones gives a depressingly accurate portrayal of the Rubix Cube that is Agency management. This would have been an excellent primer for reference in light of the recent coverage that I’ve been reading regarding a mysterious Agency heroine that seems to have had a major role in the final tracking and removing of Osama Bin Laden.

Washington Post contributor Greg Miller writes about this Agency officer (see, its so easy! I called her what she is, an Officer. You can too yah hacks, I mean journalists!) in a December 10, 2012 article on the upcoming Zero Dark Thirty film. The main thrust of Miller’s article is about a seemingly combative Officer who followed through on a hunch about Bin Laden’s courier network, leading to his ultimate face shooting by US forces on May 2nd, 2011. Along the way it appears other Agency Officers disagreed with her insistence on couriers being the in to Bin Laden.

First, after having worked in the same Agency I find it completely plausible that this Officer was blocked and sidelined by more senior (in pay grade and likely age) Officers. Secondly, but as important as the first, I find it extremely unlikely that she was the only person that thought tracking the communication networks was a good idea. I can recall, quite clearly, this theory being referenced during recruitment and training: Tracking communication networks just makes sense.

I can’t help but smile at the Targeting Officer’s response to seeing the others named on the mass internal email about their Agency awards. Like any other office environment, the “reply all” is a common equivalent to storming out of a meeting with middle fingers raised high. Nothing says, “shove it!” like blasting everyone and their Security Officer (another group of Officers I forgot! Directorate of Support/Office of Security and hey, the CIA does actually have Agents, of the protective variety. The CIA Office of Inspector General also has agents, except their agents are “special”) with a reply all on some of the most secure (and archived) intranet servers in the nation (nothing made me laugh more than calling out with a confused “What does Conficker mean?” every time I logged onto my computer) . I would have to intuit that this was also a response to her not receiving her GS-14 promotion.

Yes, promotions. This is a truly secretive and mysterious bit of Agency business. It is not too often that you’ll read about CIA salaries and pay grades. Why is that? This Targeting Officer was apparently passed over for her promotion panel, which would have bumped her from a GS-13 to a GS-14.  Though it seems like a minor detail, my time in the NCS showed me how an Officer’s promotion potential was directly attributed to the title next to their name. Most specifically, those Officers with anything other than OO (or CO) in their job description had one hell of a time busting through the GS-13 ceiling. According to another “Inglorious Amateur”, this ceiling is doubly vexing if the Officer is female. Suzanne Kelly of CNN did an interesting article related to the challenges female Officers face, serving in the Intelligence Community. This issue seems to be heating up even more in the news, thanks to a new-found interest, positive or negative, in Agency based fiction.

As an example, shortly before leaving the NCS I took part in a specialty certification course which entailed a lot of writing, reporting, guiding, spooky agency stuff and practicing lock picking while listening to lectures in a conference room (it was either the lock picking or play with the toys they had on the tables to keep from dozing off) for hours. It just so happens that a 2 to 4 hour block (seemed like an eternity) of instruction on the promotion potential of a Headquarters Based Officer career track took place shortly before graduation. According to the instructor, the Director of NCS (D/NCS) detailed him to conduct a study of how many SOO’s the Agency had, and how they were being promoted through the NCS. Needless to say, the results were hysterically abysmal so much so that I distinctly remember wondering why the D/NCS would actually let this Officer give a lecture based on his findings. From the looks on my groups’ faces, it was definitely not good for moral.

Basically, the results of the study seemed to indicate that NCS SOO’s (one could extrapolate that it could incorporate all HBO’s) seemed to top out at the GS-13 level. Most reached this level after 5 to 7 years on the job, which the vast majority hanging out in the GS-12, which was reached at 2 to 3 years after onboarding. Of course the female officers seemed to have a bit of a harder time promoting to that same ceiling.

The Officer told us that the best it seemed we could hope for would be to aspire to become a Deputy Branch Chief. It is hard to express exactly what this means without going into detail on the structure of the Divisions and Centers in the NCS, but let’s just say it’s a bit like telling Dwight Schrute (of The Office TV show) that he will never move past his position of Assistant to the Branch Chief (hell its almost the same thing, actually!).

We also learned that no HBO’s had made Group Chief, Chief of Station, and there were no HBO’s represented in the Senior Intelligence Service (SIS, executive level employees, or, the Mandarins that Ishmael Jones refers to in his book).

The NCS is an organization run primarily by Operations Officers. It’s apparent, from day one that OO’s are held in higher regard. If for no other reason than the vast majority of those running the NCS are OO’s, or some other Officer that has been through “The Farm” or otherwise “Ops Certified”. They hold themselves in higher regard because of their title; it seems, regardless of their production or work product under said title. The NCS has also created the HBO type positions based on an antiquated need to find jobs for Operations Officers who would not or could not return to the field. These HBO positions appear to have also come into being because of a need to find jobs for Agency spouses. There were at least two spouses turned Targeting Officers in my orientation class when I started. I also got a nice lecture from an Agency spouse turned HRS (or Human Resources) Officer about finding my wife a suitable job doing administrative work when I went looking for advice on how to make our recent move to DC work. Pay no mind to the fact that my wife had a very successful job in the tech industry, making more money than I did as an Agency HBO!

All that said, I give a big thumbs up to this Targeting Officer. A big thumbs down to lazy journalists and film directors (yes, I’m talking to you Katheryn Bigelow! I saw the preview for the movie referring to the heroine as an Analyst). I find it sad that so much is made over this movie when, as Agency Officers we drudge on knowing we face a disingenuous society and a media that shows nothing but contempt for those that attempt to ensure their right to free speech. At least care enough to get our job titles right when you are trying to expose our identities and drag our patriotism through the mud.

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