Four Ways to Start an Intelligence Career
By Erik Kleinsmith, Staff, Intelligence Studies, American Military University
“How do I get started in an intelligence career?” At some point during his or her career, those who have worked in intelligence have been asked this question. I remember asking it myself when I was still in high school. We had an older family friend who was in the U.S. Secret Service and I was intrigued to know more about his job. As he explained the sorts of things he did on the job, I knew I wanted to be involved in that world in some capacity. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand the difference between intelligence, national security, or federal law enforcement as careers, and I certainly didn’t have a complete grasp on the things I needed to do to become an intel operative or analyst.
Path to an Intelligence Career
What makes an intelligence career a daunting choice is that the paths are ill-defined and often downright confusing. Unlike careers in law enforcement where you attend a training academy, there is no ROTC-like program to bring intelligence professionals into the workforce.
After spending almost 30 years in various intelligence positions, I’ve learned that most people working in intelligence did not start their career in the field. While this may be evolving, it’s best to think of intelligence as an accession career; most people have to start from somewhere else.
So where do you start? Where does the intelligence profession get its people? Simple: We steal them. And we steal them from the following four major sources:
One of the most likely ways to end up in intelligence is to work in intelligence in the military. It seems like a paradoxical answer, but getting into military intelligence—while very competitive—is much more accessible and structured than virtually all the other parts of the intelligence profession.
Each military branch has intelligence schools designed to take raw recruits and give them a basic understanding of the job, equipment, and skills needed to perform work in intelligence. Once intel soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines get to their first assignment, their training continues both within the unit and through additional training programs and schools. Individuals with several years of military intelligence are highly skilled and knowledgeable about their part of the intelligence spectrum.
The intelligence community and business community know about this well-trained source of people and seek to steal these officers from the military. Why spend time and resources training your own intelligence experts when you can simply offer a higher salary to someone the military has already trained? This is why the U.S. military routinely has much higher attrition rates for intelligence personnel than other types of service members. And it’s not just the intel community that does this: Medical, technical, legal, aviation, and other professions also steal from the military just as aggressively.
Many police officers who gain experience in investigative work find that transitioning to an intelligence career is not much of a stretch. Where investigators learn and use analytical skills to determine who committed a crime, intelligence analysis requires a more predictive approach into who is going to commit a crime. There are numerous parallels between these two skillsets and police investigators often find themselves getting into the business of predictive analysis as a necessary part of their job.
Intelligence in support of law enforcement—while not nearly as well established as in the military—is growing. The two are starting to coexist with one another from national to state to local levels. As a result, many intelligence sections supporting police departments, state fusion centers, and investigative departments involve people who either worked in the military or law enforcement.
The intelligence community loves technology. We are currently awash in big data, collection platforms, and data-mining tools intended to help sift through the oceans of information we now collect. For a growing number of intelligence analysts, starting out as a software or network engineer has potential, albeit indirectly, to be a path to an intelligence career. This is especially true for IT folks who have experience and expertise (these are not the same thing) in specific tools or technologies. Who better to embed into an intelligence center than the guy or gal who knows how to make data and tools sing together? Demonstrating an ability to solve the frustrating problems of “bleeding edge” data mining tools will open many doors and working in the same environment as intelligence folks (and with the right clearances) will open up many others.
Colleges and Universities
Recruiting college students directly into the intelligence community is not as robust as it once was, but this too is changing as more and more schools are recognizing the need for academic programs for aspiring intel professionals. After all, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the CIA during and post-World War II owe their existence to people who jumped over from many of the Ivy League schools. American Military University is one of only a handful of colleges and universities that have both undergraduate and advanced degrees in intelligence, but as more schools recognize the need for intelligence studies in their curricula, this list will grow. Further, there are many areas of study that are attractive to the intelligence community—it all depends on who is looking for expertise in a given area, whether it’s mathematics, psychology, legal, accounting or other professions.
Understanding these and other avenues for recruitment into the intelligence arena can make the path clearer. While intelligence remains a pretty exclusive profession, there are a growing number of ways to enter the field. Determine which of these four viable and popular paths may work for you and take your first steps towards your end goal of finding a career in intelligence.
About the Author: Erik Kleinsmith is the Associate Vice President for Strategic Relationships in Intelligence, National & Homeland Security, and Cyber for American Military University. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and the former portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. Erik is one of the subjects of a book entitled The Watchers by Shane Harris, which covered his work on a program called Able Danger tracking Al Qaeda prior to 9/11. He currently resides in Virginia with his wife and two children.