Writers in the Storm

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March 6, 2023

Writing About Recruitment for the Intelligence Community

by Piper Bayard of Bayard & Holmes

Before our characters in the Intelligence Community can save the world, they have to be recruited. While we can accomplish this any number of ways in fiction, reality is a bit more limited.

It's not quite this easy...

In the Past

During World War II, intelligence organizations snatched up exceptionally bright, capable students at their time of graduation. As in, snatched up. One scientist my writing partner, Holmes, and I personally know came home from his graduation ceremony at MIT to find half of his belongings loaded up in a moving van. He was met by government officials at his house and swiftly relocated to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project.

Such strong-arm recruitment methods were specific to that time period, when Americans were consciously aware that their country was in great peril. Today, intelligence organizations have less forceful methods of recruiting, such as websites.

Web Sites

One way people join the Intelligence Community (“IC”) is to simply apply on a website. The IC websites provide extensive explanations about the experience and qualities they’re seeking in applicants, as well as job descriptions and application forms. If people do apply, it is best that they not tell anyone, as that would limit their opportunities.

College Campuses

It is also now common to see the CIA, NSA, FBI, etc., recruiting on college campuses from booths on Career Day.

It’s been known for some of these agencies to sit in on interviews students have with other agencies in order to spot or even poach potential talent. In that eventuality, the CIA recruiter would provide the interviewee with a business card and invite them to call.

The IC has Intelligence Community Centers at twenty-one universities across the nation. The IC has targeted these specific universities because of their high rates of student diversity. At these universities, students can apply to be IC Scholars. Also, the University of New Mexico became the first CIA Signature School in November of 2016. Students at UNM can apply to the National Security Scholars Program and earn a National Security and Strategic Analysis Certification.

Many agencies have college internships available, and some of them are well paid, including benefits and potential employment contracts for students with talent, ambition, and the confidence to apply. Desirable majors include everything from geography and languages to engineering and economics.

During the internship, the college student is given training in more than one area and exposure to the Intelligence Community culture. However, the student would not be sent on clandestine missions unless they had previous military experience, and likely not even then.

How the Intelligence Community Does Not Recruit on Campuses

Some folks may recall that a few years ago, a major New York publisher released an “autobiography” of a “covert operative” who claimed to be so brilliant and capable that the CIA pulled him out of college and gave him a mission before he had even completed his training. Yeah, no. Doesn’t happen. The guy is alleged far and wide to be a total fraud, but his book is still on the market. You’ll know it when you see it. (I don’t recommend it.)

That said, a slightly different scenario has been known to occur at college campuses on rare occasions. It is possible for college students with previous military training to be recruited by the CIA to serve in clandestine operations while they are attending college. If the operatives could talk about it, they would have very interesting “What I Did Last Summer” papers in English 101.

Other Roads to IC Employment

As in any enterprise, there is no formal structure for the informal structure. However, if someone has an excellent character and specific skills, the winding path could lead to the IC door.

For example, at times military personnel catch the attention of the CIA. On these rare occasions, the CIA will approach them at the end of their enlistment or contract time to discuss possible employment with them.

US Navy SEALs Image by Dept. of Defense, public domain

Word-of-mouth recommendations can also lead to employment. For example, if a clandestine operator is putting together a team and knows someone with a particular set of skills, that operator may take steps to bring the person into the fold.

Former employees are also a recruitment pool. If a mission involves a talent or ability that a former employee is known for, the CIA might approach that former employee and attempt to persuade them to work for them again, either as a returned employee or as a contractor.

The NSA in particular keeps its able ear to the ground to locate hackers who are suitable for employment, and that agency tries to snap them all up. However, the NSA doesn’t get them all. The CIA recruits hackers as well.

In summary, the IC is sometimes open-minded and versatile, and occasionally the personnel manual gets tossed out the window.

The Recruitment Process

If an applicant passes the first round and their application moves forward, the next step is a battery of tests online. These could include personality tests, intelligence tests, essay questions, or many other elements depending on the organization and the job that is in question.

The third round could include a phone interview, which could then progress to background checks, polygraphs, and face-to-face interviews in DC. The entire process can take well over a year to complete, and two years is not unusual.

This man just came out of his first polygraph and will soon be calling his mother.

Note that I said polygraphs plural. The vast majority of candidates must take more than one and sometimes up to three or four. For most employees, it is one of the most dreaded experiences in the IC. Polygraphers are very good at what they do, and it’s normal for people to cry and immediately call their parents to apologize at the first opportunity following the experience. It is rumored, however, that some old operations folks make it a sport to try and get their polygraphers to cry, and those venerated veterans are also very good at what they do.

Each organization has its own recruiting and intake process.

This means that if someone works for years at the NSA, for example, and they want to move over to the CIA, the CIA will conduct its own background checks, interviews, polygraphs, etc. This is because different organizations have different security requirements. Sometimes, things can be fast-tracked for someone who is urgently needed and already has a clearance, but the process is still the process.

The Self-Selection Downfall

Some people in the IC will not appreciate me saying this next bit. I say if they don’t like it, then push to change it.

The Intelligence Community, State Department, and all other government agencies and organizations are self-selecting for locals or people of means. This is not by any directed intelligent design, but because of a huge hole in the system. New government employees must live locally or have many thousands of dollars on hand to get set up in the DC area.

Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland are expensive places to live. Anyone moving from somewhere else must be able to front their moving expenses. Once they get there, they must buy a very expensive house or rent a very expensive apartment. Even if someone has roommates in a tiny space, it’s going to be expensive. There are also the utilities deposits, wardrobe purchases, expensive vehicle registration, and taxes, etc.

Moving expenses are reimbursed up to a certain amount, but that takes time and paperwork. On top of that, new employees must be able to support themselves long enough to get to their first paycheck.

This incredibly expensive reality leaves a huge untapped pool of talent on the sidelines and favors those with the means to survive the transition to the DC area. This means that many genuinely culturally diverse people cannot find a place in the halls of the IC. Meanwhile, the self-selected, better-financed crowd continues self-selecting through a financially onerous process and wondering why they don’t have more diversity in the room.

Just saying.

Two Absolute Recruitment No-Nos

#1 - The Intelligence Community never blackmails anyone to work for them as an employee.

Never. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a hoot of a series and movie, but no. The IC doesn't do that. The organizations already have more applicants than positions. More importantly, someone who is being blackmailed can’t be trusted.

#2 - The IC never approaches minors to recruit them.

Sorry to disappoint, but Cody Banks isn’t real. The Intelligence Community is not allowed to discuss specific job opportunities with anyone under the age of eighteen.

I realize that Young Adult writers often want the CIA to approach individual brilliant or talented high school students to recruit them, but that would literally never happen. However, the CIA might have information at high schools advertising its college internship program.

Young Adult writers have two options:

First is the realistic option. The character can enlist in the military at seventeen and, through test scores and demonstrated abilities, be selected for a top-secret military intelligence program. With intense training, they could be in the field by the age of nineteen. This is extremely rare, but it is possible in the real world.

Second, YA is fiction, so writers can always just make something up. My only ask is that writers please respect the very real people who serve in the Intelligence Community in their portrayals.

Do you have questions about recruiting in the Intelligence Community? Have you written characters who are spies? If so, how did they get recruited?


We'd love it if you took a moment to tell us what military, intelligence, self-defense, or other topics you would like us to address in the future down in the comments. We want to serve your needs!

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About Piper

Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes of Bayard & Holmes are the authors of espionage tomes and international spy thrillers. Please visit Piper and Jay at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard, or at their email, BayardandHolmes@protonmail.com.

Though crafted with advice and specific tips for writers, SPYCRAFT: Essentials is for anyone who wants to learn more about the inner workings of the Shadow World.

“For any author, this is the new bible for crafting stories of espionage.”

~ James Rollins, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Demon Crown

Image Credits

All unidentified images are sourced from Canstock 2023

Top "Hiring" Photo by Eric Prouzet on Unsplash

11 comments on “Writing About Recruitment for the Intelligence Community”

  1. Thanks for this fascinating information, Piper. I have a family member who was approached by IC in college. He's never shared what agency or how far he got in the application process. The agency's restrictions on personal travel outside of the US led him to decide the IC wasn't for him. Perhaps in a future post you can discuss the impact of Intelligence Community policies on personal life choices.

    1. Some of the agencies can certainly have restrictive policies, from a great deal of paper work to some countries being strictly off limits.

      Thank you for the suggestion. That is an excellent topic, and we will address it in a future article.

  2. I would love to know the best way to defend yourself in the garage.

    Most people do their garage work with all the doors open and I've always wondered what is the best way to balance the safety aspect of being in the wide open like that, especially if you have kids.

    Do you booby trap the garage in advance?

    1. One thing I know is that you would likely not booby trap the garage, especially if you have kids. Kids have a way of finding these things. Also, booby-trapping tends to be illegal.

      That's a great topic. Thank you. I'll discuss it with Holmes and address it in a later post.

  3. Really interesting post, Piper!

    I hear you about the expensive DC and surrounding area. Many cannot just pick-up and go.

    New Mexico is full of surprises. I didn't know about the program at UNM. Two of our Las Cruces neighbors worked at the nearby NASA facility. I think most of it is underground.

    It's fascinating to learn how things were back in the day. I guess desperate times required desperate measures. Wow!

    I have a story in mind in which my protagonist is recruited by her brother's friend to gather information. It takes place just prior the the US joining in WWI.

    1. Interesting about an underground NASA facility in NM. Not surprised. I think the government discovered New Mexico during the Manhattan Project and decided for various reasons that it was a great place to hide things. Also not surprising. Being from NM, I can tell you that a substantial portion of the US population doesn't even know it is a state. Not joking. The New Mexico Magazine has a monthly spot called One of Our Fifty is Missing, and they never run out of "they didn't know New Mexico was a state" stories. I have a few of my own, in fact. The whole state is hidden so it's the perfect place for classified work.

      Sounds like an interesting story you've got going there. Makes me think of Aline Griffith, Countess of Romanones. She was recruited to the OSS early in WWII when a friend asked her to fill out a foursome for dinner. The extra man she went to accompany just happened to be Wild Bill Donovan. She writes of it in her autobiography, The Spy Wore Red. An excellent book. She was stationed in Madrid during the war, where she infiltrated the highest Spanish society and eventually fell in love and married the future Count of Romanones.

  4. Excellent post, Piper! I know what you mean about relocating. My Dad worked in construction so we moved every few years. I went to 6 different schools before the 7th grade. The kind of recruitment you're talking about could be very disruptive.
    I have a novella about a teenage girl in 1968 who is recruited to "keep an eye on" a radical student organization, so your post is especially interesting.
    Thanks again.

    1. So glad you enjoyed the post!

      I understand about all the schools. I only hit five schools by 7th grade, but they were three or four too many. Very disruptive, indeed.

      Sounds like a fun book! May your muse be generous.

  5. We live near the DMV, and several universities have internships with the federal agencies. Depending on the certifications received in high school, some kids can go work at one of the many bases out of high school, but they would have to earn the security clearances over time to do higher level work.

    1. Sounds like some terrific opportunities. Glad to hear that is happening. Thank you for your comment.

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