The first time I saw it, it was stopping me on my trail.
It was over a decade ago and I had just landed at Reagan National Airport in Washington after a short trip home to Texas. The quick route from the arrival gates to the baggage claim area – the way back, the only setting of which was a couple of fast food stores and newsstands – was one I had done countless times, but the poster caught my eye when I took out the sharp hairpin secure area of the terminal. It was a recruitment ad for the CIA with the agency's unofficial motto: “The work of a nation. The center of intelligence. "
The display was elegant and at least irritating to me. I stopped to admire it as long as I registered that I had – in the middle of a busy area, no less. I was a CIA analyst at the time, and I was overly sensitive to allowing my gawps to suggest to others that I was connected to the institution that haggled the poster. Even as I went on, the poster and its slogan rattled because it held down why I applied to the agency and so many of my contemporaries and why did I join? We were the generation of CIA officers after September 11th, and it was this sense of mission – the nation's work – that forced us to Langley and motivated us to do the job.
Just this week, the CIA released a new recruitment advertising campaign designed for the first time for streaming services like YouTube and Hulu, aimed at the next generation of officials. It's slimmer and more dramatic than the agency's previous recruitment videos, with a narrative sheet that was developed for about 60 seconds.
What he lacks in truthfulness conveys the same sense of mission that impressed me on this poster all those years ago.
First, a little bit about the new ad. It begins – like most CIA careers – in orientation classes in an unknown location. The instructor narrates the ad, which includes scenes from the classroom, the CIA's Langley headquarters, and a general urban environment overseas. In addition to the orientation manager, the ad contains at least eight CIA officers with different roles – analysts, operations managers and even a translator. The minute-long video reaches a crescendo as officials gather and understand a piece of intelligence that appears to be important enough to alert the White House. We, the viewers, are not wiser about the details of this revelation.
Also a reference to the medium itself. There is still the impression that the recruitment process of the CIA is more targeted and discreet than the shotgun approach that streaming services offer. This may have been the case decades ago when the Hollywood portrayal of a grizzled recruiter approaching a promising student on a college campus or in a dark bar was more accurate, if not always commonplace. The agency continues to target targeted, highly qualified prospective officials, but today's CIA receives more unsolicited CVs – reportedly 10,000 a month – than it can plausibly check in detail. When I went through the process in the early 2000s, the message I heard from recruiters and CIA staff was consistent: applying through the website gave the best shot with a fair shake.
Is the ad so realistic? Nothing special. Even the premise of the ad – an intimate orientation session with about a dozen officers in a dimly lit room – is more cinematic than accurate. Unless these sessions have changed significantly since I left the agency in 2017, new officials are likely to be driven into a larger auditorium-style setting, where they talk about sublime and secular issues for weeks. In my case, orientation was the place where I learned my first official US government secrets and listened to CIA Greybeards – at least some of which looked like it – that told war stories about the operations that defined their careers. But it is also the place where you can learn more about the possibilities of federal health insurance and retirement provision, elements that I found much less fascinating at the time as a healthy 22-year-old. The ad shows the orientation as generally exciting, rather than what it is: a roller coaster whose steep – and often long – rises are occasionally rewarded with exciting revelations by bureaucrats.
The surgery at the heart of the ad also requires a high level of cinema license. The key scene takes place at the "overseas location". There, a CIA official – presumably in the role of a clerk whose ranks spend their careers recruiting and managing foreign agents or spies – does a "brush pass" with an official from the local State Department. The two officials, the clerk and her State Department, walk past each other in an abandoned stairwell, where she discreetly sticks a USB drive in her palm without interrupting the step.
That doesn't mean that brush passes are just fiction. You are not. But I'm skeptical that a clerk whose ranks are under intense surveillance worldwide would take such a risky approach to buying the drive. A dead drop – leaving information that is often disguised to blend in with the environment – would be safer. Alternatively, one could imagine any number of electronic transmission means. After the FBI arrested a ring of Russian sleep agents in 2010, who in many cases had no apparent connection to the Russian government, the FBI and court documents spoke of using secure and hidden Wi-Fi networks to communicate with their handlers. Such a tactic would likely have exposed the CIA officer and her assets to less risk of exposure and arrest, even if the portrayal had been less cinematic.
The ad also shows a version of the CIA that is more purposeful than accurate. Although the agency has made progress in diversity and inclusion in recent years, it still needs to make sure that its workforce – most of which past generations have been "white, male, and yale" – especially what today's America looks like in the higher ranks . The ad, on the other hand, offers a level of variety, especially regarding the breed that today's CIA could only dream of. It is precisely with the orientation that a CIA officer will encounter thrills and bureaucracy in the course of his career, and the commercial understandably puts the latter in the spotlight in favor of the former. An analyst will face the challenge of coordination – the process of ensuring that the CIA, and occasionally the entire intelligence community, speaks to political decision-makers with one voice, if possible, just like the local operations leaders are fighting against second guessing and bureaucracy from headquarters to theirs Proposals. While the ad contains none of this, the creators could be forgiven for omitting the everyday from a minute-long passage.
Then what does the ad do correctly? The handling of the message cycle – the process of identifying information gaps and gaps, collecting, analyzing, and packing this information for policy makers – takes approximately 60 seconds. The spot features an analyst, presumably based at headquarters, who identifies the missing information, her colleagues in an overseas CIA station planning an operation to collect, a clerk who does the mission, and – as a dramatic resolution – a senior Officials alert the political community, the White House in this sensational case, about the blockbuster analysis and the conclusions. Of course, the ad doesn't capture the nuances or details of a cycle that routinely takes months or years, but it accurately shows the essence of officials on the CIA's career paths who work together to accomplish the mission.
There's a broader essence there, too, and that's the most important thing. At the heart of the new ad is the same news that stopped me in my footsteps years ago. It shows the idea that the agency offers its officials an unprecedented responsibility, opportunity and mission. It is what continues to reward a career with the CIA. The plot implicitly captures this agent uro, but it becomes clear when, in the last few seconds, one of the officials breaks through the fourth wall and tells viewers, “Start a career with the CIA and do more for your country than you ever did for have held possible. ”
The message may not be that new and may even seem banal. But in a time of cynicism and scandal – and in the midst of the demonization of the so-called "deep state" by those at the head of power – it is comforting to know that mission and purpose for the next generation of CIA officers are as well are convincing as they were until the last. If this ad is to be effective, and I hope it will, it will send a signal that Americans generally recognize that a nation's work has never been so important.