Q: Dear Molly,
What’s the weirdest job at CIA, one that no one would think exists? Graphic Designer? Hamster Wheel Cleaner?
~ Business as (Un)usual
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A: Dear Business as (Un)usual,
Great question, and one that I think a lot of people might be wondering as they practice social distancing with a few good spy flicks from the comfort of their living room. Popular culture and opinions of CIA may conjure up images of dark hallways filled with burly men in black suits. Hollywood movies and TV shows might have you believe that we’re all living a life of deceit, running secretive operations all over the world in a finely-tailored suit, complete with Bond-esque gadgetry and penchant for the dramatic. While some of that is true, the reality is a bit less dramatic and way more interesting.
To get to the root of your question, we need to first reframe how we think of our famously-secretive intelligence organization. Yes, our mission is to recruit assets, conduct all-source analysis and perform covert operations to protect the United States and its citizens. To do this, we hire staff officers and contractors with unique skills, many of which are portrayed—albeit dramatically—on the big screen. These are the types of jobs people think of when they think of CIA—the operations officer working on the ground to recruit assets or the analyst piecing together information to craft intelligence.
In reality, however, to carry out CIA’s important mission, we need a diverse workforce with a skillset and tradecraft to match it. When you’re dealing in the world of intelligence, creativity is your currency. At CIA, that creativity comes from our people by the truckload. So, to answer your question, yes, we have a number of ‘weird’ jobs—ones that bring the creative talents of our workforce to bear in truly exceptional ways. In preparing an appropriately researched response, I’ve had the chance to explore some of these ‘weird’ jobs, many of which I didn’t even know existed.
Without further ado, I present to you, ‘Molly’s list’ of creative jobs at CIA:
In 1952, at the request of then-Director of Central Intelligence Walter Bedell Smith, CIA opened its first official dining room. The dining room, which is separate from the larger employee cafeteria, was—and continues to be—a space for Agency officers to host visitors and conduct business. The Agency chef is responsible for curating the daily menu, managing the dining room staff and crafting special dishes for high-level delegations and visitors. This is a tall order given the amount of visitors CIA greets on a daily basis. And, speaking from experience, I can confirm that the food is first rate.
Working for CIA is all about building relationships, and often we’re building those relationships with foreign partners whose customs and traditions are unfamiliar to us here in the U.S. That’s where these officers come in. Protocol officers manage our official relationships with foreign partners and visiting delegations. It is their job to ensure we are respectful and courteous to the culture and traditions of our visitors. Our mission depends on these lasting relationships.
I know what you’re thinking: How is map-making unusual? Well, you may change your tune after learning a bit more about this unique group of officers. Cartography has a long and rich history at CIA, and cartographers remain some of CIA’s most valuable officers. Their mission, unchanged since the early days of CIA, is to provide the full range of maps and geographic analysis to the White House and senior policymakers. The way they accomplish this mission, however, has changed dramatically and embodies the creative spirit we value at CIA. From the pen, ink and acetate sheets of the 1940s to the big data and scientific workstations of today, cartographers are always looking on the horizon for the best ways to visualize the issues for our policymakers.
Red Cell Analysts
These folks have a cool job, one that requires outside-the-box thinking. Created in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, CIA’s Red Cell is charged with exploring alternative options to mainline analysis. Simply speaking, their job is to theorize “what-if” scenarios that might otherwise be considered “unlikely” or even “impossible” by others. It’s this sort of creative thinking that keeps us prepared for any situation.
Chief of Fitness Branch
Employee health and well-being is of utmost importance, and the chief of the Fitness Branch is responsible for ensuring our officers know this. This officer keeps the Agency moving by maintaining our onsite workout facilities, creating innovative fitness programming and encouraging employees to take a more active role in their own health and wellness. Our officers are extremely devoted to their work and sometimes need that push to focus on themselves: The chief of our Fitness Branch makes it happen.
These officers use their creative talents in CIA’s disguise division, where they think of innovative ways to obscure a person’s identity. They work hard to stay ahead of the curve, constantly crafting clever ways to keep assets and officers under cover.
This list barely scratches the surface. There are so many unique and interesting jobs at CIA, each one intended to maximize the creative tradecraft and ingenuity of our workforce. And with the challenges of intelligence gathering constantly changing, new opportunities are popping up all the time. While the future is uncertain, if we stay creative and just a little bit ‘weird,’ no wall is too high to climb. So, next time you watch a spy film or television show, consider how these creative jobs are being used behind-the-scenes to advance the main character’s mission.
Thanks for the great question!
P.S. Much to my chagrin, we have no hamster wheel cleaners in the building, but keep checking back, you never know where the future of intelligence might take us!