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The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) may have won the Cold War, but it remains to be seen whether it can win the "War for Talent."
CIA. For some, those three letters immediately conjure images of James Bond swerving in his flashy BMW, chasing perpetrators of evil who threaten the lives of millions worldwide. Amidst this glorified picture drawn by Hollywood, we must take a step back and scrutinize our nation's premier spy agency. You see, with the Agency's current recruiting practices and fierce competition from the private sector, chances are good that our friend Mr. Bond may well rather be "Bond, Investment Banker Bond," or better yet, "Bond, CEO, JamesBond.Com."
Since its inception in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency has had a rocky history due to a combination of Presidential distrust and operational embarrassments. However, for most of its existence, the CIA managed to attract some of the best and the brightest--people lured to the idea of defending democracy, collecting and analyzing intelligence that could prevent the next World War or preempting a Soviet maneuver that could upset the delicate power balance of the Cold War. Now, in this post-Cold War era, the CIA has another war to wage. This time its adversary is on its own soil and it looks quite different from Dr. Evil or Mr. No.
For the CIA, the pressure is mounting to attract top candidates as international problems become more complex and world order more unstable. Threats from "rogue states" such as North Korea and independent terrorists like Osama bin Ladin are becoming harder to predict and contain. And with the explosion of the Information Age there is unprecedented access to sensitive information that could pose dire consequences to national security.
Today, the CIA will begin recruiting on the Harvard campus. But a simple informational meeting might not be enough. "The War for Talent," a recent study released by McKinsey and Co. at the request of the State Department, found that competition for intelligent, talented and internationally oriented recruits will be fierce over the next two decades. Many of the brightest are not entering the workforce with hopes of becoming Bond but rather Gates or Soros. Is it the money? Partly, but not completely.
Many attribute the cause to the CIA's recruitment process, which to some recruits is a mystifying puzzle defying reason and sense. The candidate first receives a "conditional offer" of employment which, ironically, is the easy part. According to a personnel officer, he or she is then subjected to an elaborate security clearance process that can take between three months and several "years." Beginning with a polygraph test and a thorough medical and psychiatric examination, the CIA invests a whole lot of resources into investigating the recruits.
Many who have been through the process have expressed frustration and disillusionment, citing lack of transparency and unreasonable length as main reasons for dissatisfaction. Because it is difficult to predict how long the clearance process may take for a particular recruit, the candidate is reduced to being a powerless bystander, unable to plan a personal life and career, waiting indefinitely for a thumbs-up from the Agency. For those currently holding jobs and looking for a career change into the Agency the hope for a quiet job search is blown as the investigators require interviews from the candidate's current employer.
Another dilemma for the Agency is that the better qualified the candidate, the lengthier the clearance process becomes. It would be easy to clear Andy Taylor or Barney Fife, as they spent most of their lives in Mayberry. But for the well-traveled, internationally-connected and ultimately more valuable candidate, the CIA has to devote greater time and resources to scrutinizing the past for possible complications. Moreover, with the Aldrich Ames betrayal to the KGB and allegations of espionage by nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, the CIA may be pressured to conduct even more comprehensive checks on potential employees.
However justified, the lengthy process is not attractive to many Harvard students who want to hit the ground running--whether it is for a summer internship or a permanent job. With promises of international travel and lucrative compensation, the likes of Goldman Sachs and McKinsey overshadow the CIA in terms of commercial appeal. Two things that the CIA relied on to stay competitive--the recruit's commitment to public service and ambition to impact the world--are eroding fast as disillusionment with the recruiting process fills the void.
According to Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, this is the Agency's "biggest recruiting drive since the end of the Cold War." Thus, it would serve the CIA well to review its practice of the polygraph (a 30-year CIA veteran expressed to me his dismay over its use) and find ways to efficiently conduct the security clearance process (a new recruit even had to postpone his wedding due to uncertain timeline).
It would be pity to let procedural hurdles discourage Harvard students from what could be an exciting career--whether it be under the Directorate of Intelligence (the analytical arm of the CIA) or Operations (clandestine services). Unlike other intelligence organizations under departmental bias, the CIA prides itself on being an independent agency free to provide accurate analysis and intelligence to policymakers. It has a mission unlike any other organization in the world and many in the Agency are indeed top talents, sharing a deep sense of camaraderie and pride.
The future of any organization is largely based on the talent it can attract. If helping to prevent a nuclear crisis or stabilizing a new democracy sounds attractive for a day's work, Harvard students may help themselves and the rest of the free world by finding out whether there's something they can do for the CIA.
Steve Woo-Sung Chung '01 is a government and East Asian Studies concentrator in Kirkland House. He is currently working as a foreign affairs intern for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in Washington, D.C.
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