The Real Poop
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Contrary to what you may believe, CIA does not stand for "Coolness In Action." That may be what Hollywood would like you to believe—there's pretty much nobody more badass than Jason Bourne. Although James Bond could certainly give him a gun-chased run for his money. And, of course, we can't forget Austin Powers' Felicity Shagwell. Okay, maybe we could have forgotten her.
The fact is that most CIA officers actually are pretty cool, but the job is not as glamorous as you see painted on the silver screen. First of all, we're going to focus here on CIA officers, who work out in the field (Source). A CIA agent does not actually work directly for the CIA but is usually a foreigner working with the CIA to help an officer obtain information. In fact, a large part of an officer's job is to seek out and recruit such agents, so they can act as informants, providing the officer with the information they are after. For example, if a CIA officer is tracking a foreign engineer whom they have discovered is at work on a new piece of military weaponry (read: Iranian nukes), and this individual's profile fits that of someone who is likely to hand over such secrets (maybe they are dissatisfied with the way their government is treating them, maybe they have a moral objection to the project, maybe they simply have a price for their betrayal), then the officer will approach them, earn their trust, and then persuade them to divulge sensitive information. If their methods of persuasion don't work, they may have to resort to tickle torture.
However, a vast majority of CIA officers perform job duties that are probably not the type of thing you had in mind when you came here. About 90% work in a field related to science, engineering, or language. Check out some of the available CIA positions here. As you can see by perusing this site, you're going to have a huge advantage when applying for the CIA if you have a military background, if you are fluent in Arabic, if you have top-notch analytical skills, etc. Also can't hurt if you're really good at Scattergories. Probably won't help much, but can't hurt.
CIA officers might spend a good portion of their day at a desk, not beating up on the bad guys, not going incognito behind enemy lines, not bedding supermodels. The agency's job as a whole is to collect information about foreign nations, and there are many different ways this can be accomplished. There are individuals who take information acquired by field officers and analyze it so that we know what to do and how to act on it, others who work as foreign language instructors, helping to improve the language and dialect skills of officers, and yet others who design and implement the latest in spy technology. There are many different pieces that all must work together to accomplish a single goal. Every piece is important, but most of these are not what you want to hear about. You want to hear about the guys and gals with guns—both the ones at their hips and the ones rippling beneath their sleeves. We shall oblige. However, be advised that we're going to give you a sense of what the real gig is—we're not going to sugar-coat or glamorize it—because that's what we aspire to be around here at Shmoop—real. If you want to be Jason Bourne, move to Hollywood.
It takes a unique type of individual to be a CIA field officer. You can't just be fit as a whip, you can't just be smart as a fiddle (we may have those backwards), you can't just have a squeaky clean past, or be a real people person, or exhibit exceptional strength of character, or be able to keep a secret, or be multilingual, or be willing to let your living habits be pretty transient. You really have to be all of those things. In other words, you have to be that person who is so sickeningly perfect that everyone else secretly (or openly) despises (or at least resents) them. You are going to be put through a barrage of tests that will gauge your trustworthiness (you'll have to pass lie detector tests, show that you aren't using drugs), your loyalty to America (you can't be so politically partisan to one party that they suspect you won't be able to follow orders if one of "the other guys" is in office), and your integrity (if you can be bought, they don't want you). You must believe so strongly in our country's ideals, such as justice and freedom for all and that whole thing, you are willing to die for them. The CIA is a place for great thinkers, but not necessarily for free ones. They don't want officers who are going to challenge authority or get their own ideas about how the agency should be run. They want intelligent, fiercely loyal fighting machines. If the concept of being a machine bothers you, this biz may not be for you. So put down the oil can and look elsewhere.
Whoa—back up here, Shmoop. If I'm going to sacrifice so much for this "company," I want to know a little more about them. What's their deal?
Good call. Because the CIA is all about being secretive and their actions are not widely publicized, many laymen are in the dark about what exactly it is that they do and how it came about. Here's the skinny, Minnie.
Created by Congress and signed into law by President Truman in 1947 (so shortly after World War II—the one with that Hitler character), the CIA came into being after our government determined that there needed to be a single, central agency that was directly supervised by the President. The problem was that many of the duties and activities that are today performed by the CIA were at that time split among the State and War departments, and it was difficult to exchange all available information without missing something and to effectively coordinate both departments' efforts. By making the CIA a one-stop shop for all foreign intelligence, things would run much more smoothly. And indeed they do.
The CIA has had some great victories over the years since (remember when they tracked down and took out Osama bin Laden?), but have also experienced some pretty awful failures (they sort of dropped the ball on anticipating 9/11). While they strive to recruit the best of the best, no CIA officer is perfect, and sometimes our enemies are unfortunately successful at withholding secret information that is of huge national importance to us. This is a powerful country we live in, but we are not all-powerful. That sort of terminology is generally reserved only for Superman. And Oprah.
You should see what she looks like before she steps into the phone booth.
Still want to know more about how the CIA works? Catch up on episodes of Homeland, the Showtime series—they do a good job of showing what it's like to be a CIA officer. Even if most of them don't look quite like Claire Danes.
There's a shorter word for a CIA Clandestine Services Operation Officer: Spy. That's right—all those cool toys you can pick up in your local spy shop…you get to use those as part of your job. And then some. But keep in mind that that "I" in CIA stands for "intelligence." First and foremost, it is your job to make other government agencies—the ones who create policies or make decisions about war, for example—cognizant of whatever international scenarios concern them. You may have to kick butt at some point, but mostly it's just a lot of creeping around and being sneaky.
Because you are performing a job that is so significant and well-respected, this can be an extremely rewarding career path. However, because it's so attractive, be prepared to face some stiff competition. As stiff as a CIA field officer's guns (biceps or weapons—take your pick). Remember—only about 3% of all CIA officers are field operatives. Most live all day long staring at computers or training fledgling officers. No guns required. (Or allowed, probably.)