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A Land of (Special) Opportunity: Attracting Top Intelligence Talent

If the United States is to maintain strategic advantage over its adversaries, it is critical that one of our most important policy tools - well-led and staffed intelligence agencies - be revitalised through fresh talent injection. A diverse range of skill sets would provide significant value, including consideration of language and cultural skills, as well as the unique abilities of female officers who possess these traits.

Cover Image for A Land of (Special) Opportunity: Attracting Top Intelligence Talent
Central Intelligence AgencyPhoto Credits: The Washington Post
Article byRule Johnstone
May 29, 2022

After listening to my friend Jasmeen - a Kashmiri Indian Muslim - call home, I was amazed to learn that she switched between five languages during her call; Kashmiri, Hindi, Urdu, English, and a bit of Arabic. As an NGO employee with an Ivy League masters degree seeking her American citizenship, Jasmeen’s high linguistic ability was not overly surprising. But her abilities indicated she’d excel in a different field; with her alabaster skin tone, dark brown almond eyes, elegant features, and high cultural awareness and linguistic skills, she could blend in almost anywhere. She would make an excellent spy.

Books written by former CIA officers repeatedly assert that even after decades of targeted personnel recruiting for traits such as native language ability and cultural awareness, the Agency is still vastly understaffed with critical personnel capable of blending into ethnically intermingled and culturally nuanced areas such as Afghanistan, Kashmir or the Pakistani FATA. As former CTC legend Hank Crumpton put it, "officers like us had severe limitations in the CT business. [CTC chief] Cofer and I were both white guys with limited ability to learn a hard foreign language, much less master it...CTC needed ethnic Arabs, Persians, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turks, and others with native language capability and a lifetime of cultural knowledge, particularly in or near enemy safe havens. We especially needed Muslims as CIA staff officers. They could engage in communities where officers like me had near-zero chance of success.[1]"

As Crumpton emphasizes, linguistic abilities and cultural characteristics are critical for intelligence operations in the field. Columbia University professor and veteran CIA analyst John A. Gentry puts a finer point on the operational advantages of such a practice: "the traditional reason for acquiring diversity is that carefully selected individual persons' different ethnic and educational backgrounds, international experiences, and outlooks improve operational performance by providing cultural or language expertise, imagination, initiative, or racial 'camouflage' relevant to foreign operational environments or the targets of intelligence activities.[2]” The entire point of foreign recruiting is achieving greater depth of talent and more effective operational capabilities.

The military already attempted a similar recruiting effort in a program called MAVNI. The MAVNI program offered American citizenship to its recruits, and while the DoD correctly identified language skills and cultural awareness as critical to national security,[3] it completely bungled the clearance and hiring process (as did the FBI,) largely due to predictable administrative obstacles embedded in the lumbering bureaucracy of the Pentagon. As one Jordanian-American recruit described investigators’ suspicions over family members still living abroad, “they're rejecting me for the same reasons they hired me…this is a disaster.[4]

Additionally, the DoD also failed to provide sufficient incentives for high-level talent to eschew other lucrative career opportunities. A lesson from the special operations community illuminates this fact: “if you want people to dedicate their talents to your company, you must offer them something equally valuable in return. Since talented people have high drive, they are just as interested in achievement and talent as money.[5]” There did not appear to be sufficient incentive for those possessing the desired language and cultural backgrounds to be lured away from more lucrative paths and professions. Many immigrants to the US understandably seek high-paying careers, often achieve them, and MAVNI failed to provide competitive or superior incentives. The opportunity was available; high financial compensation is not the sole source of motivation in career satisfaction, and intelligence careers can provide an “adventure” component like few others. The US intelligence community can succeed where the DoD failed by offering talented people “a sense of community, challenge, opportunities for professional and personal growth, and purpose.[6]” Recruiting talented foreign nationals with the allure of American citizenship and the IC’s high degree of esprit de corps could prove invaluable in maximizing the talent base of America’s spy services.

Counterintelligence concerns regarding foreign recruits in a fast-track visa program are legitimate, but there are mitigating factors which still assure the worthiness of such a program. First, the counterintelligence risks of foreign recruits would be similar or identical to those of American citizens with family members living abroad. Second, arguably the two worst spies in American history, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen, were both middle-aged white men who were primarily motivated by ego and money. Counterintelligence risks are pervasive in all corners of the intelligence business, and while vigilance must be maintained, the IC has built up a significant reservoir of experience in vetting personnel over the decades; the public should trust intelligence professionals to apply their hard-earned expertise.

In addition to the overall recruitment effort described, let’s return to the example of Jasmeen, specifically regarding the unique attributes which female intelligence officers bring to the table. As a veteran CIA officer describes: “female operations officers are integral to the CIA. We cannot succeed without them. To me, as an operations manager in the Middle East, at times they were our secret weapon. Since in many Middle Eastern countries women still occupy a more traditional role, female operations officers were often more effective at handling our male Arab agents than were their male counterparts.[7]“ This gives context to the way in which cultural awareness is critical in field operations, and the unique value female officers bring to this arena.

Noor Inayat Khan,  a British special operator, worked with the French resistance against the Nazis.
Noor Inayat Khan, a British special operator, worked with the French resistance against the Nazis.

Israel's Mossad has long employed female officers to optimal operational effect.[8] Beyond notorious practices such as “honey trapping,” an attractive female officer can weaponize her physical appearance. Imagine a cocktail party filled with diplomats, politicians, business leaders, and other individuals possessing high intelligence value. A woman could build rapport and thereby gain access to certain individuals perhaps in a way that a man could not; charm and emotional intelligence can be far more effective than physical intimacy.[9] As former CIA operative Michele Rigby Assad describes OSS legend Virginia Hall’s methodology when men underestimated her: “you, the woman, hold all the cards..a woman can change the terms of the engagement by using all of her attributes, intelligence, and empathy to win the game before anyone realizes she's even playing.[10]” Additionally, married couples can operate in tandem, bringing a wider breadth of operational capabilities to intelligence collection.[11] The key is maximizing access to potential sources.

Yet potential foreign female recruits would not be limited to field operations if they preferred an analyst position; the same cultural awareness and language skills could be equally valuable in intelligence headquarters as in the field. Nor would choosing analysis over field work suggest any lack of intellectual tenacity. For example, one officer earned her nickname “Ruth,” short for “ruthless,” because outside of CIA headquarters, she was a regular minivan-driving mom, but inside the building “she was a relentless hunter of terrorists. She had an intuitive ability to conceive plans to accomplish our mission that few others could even dream up.[12]” Combined with critical language capabilities and cultural awareness, such officers are invaluable to US intelligence.

If the United States is to maintain strategic advantage over its adversaries, it is critical that one of our most important policy tools - well-led and staffed intelligence agencies - be revitalized through fresh talent injection. A diverse range of skill sets would provide significant value if a well-managed foreign talent recruiting program were to succeed in the IC. This includes consideration of language and cultural skills, but also the unique abilities of female officers who possess these traits. The multifaceted utility of this potential talent windfall is perhaps best encapsulated by a female Mossad officer describing her methodology: “in life you have two little bottles…one of them is full of perfume, the other with poison. You decide which one you choose.[13]” Additional operational dexterity is a welcome boon for any spymaster; perhaps a foreign recruiting program could enrich US intelligence with this additional finesse.

[1] Crumpton, Hank. The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. New York: Penguin, 2012. Pg. 135.

[2] Gentry, John A. Demographic Diversity in US Intelligence Personnel: Is it Functionally Useful? International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 0: 1-33, 2021. Pg. 8.

[3] Chishti, Muzaffar & Rose, Austin & Yale-Loehr, Stephen. Noncitizens in the US Military: Navigating National Security Concerns and Recruitment Needs. Ithaca, NY: Migration Policy Institute. Pg. 10.


[5] Sarraille, Mike & Randle, George. The Talent War: How Special Operations and Great Organizations Win on Talent. Columbia, SC: Lioncrest, 2020. Pg. 157.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Polymeropoulos, Marc. Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA. HarperCollins: 2021. Pg. xxi.

[8] Bar-Zohar, Michael & Mishal, Nissim. The Mossad Amazons: The Amazing Women in the Israeli Secret Service. Brooklyn, NY: Ktav Publishing, 2021. Pg. 127.

[9] Ibid., 132

[10] Assad, Michele Rigby. Breaking Cover: My Secret Life in the CIA and What it Taught Me about What’s Worth Fighting For. Tyndale Momentum, 2019. Audiobook version. Chapter 6, time location 1:40.

[11] Olson, James M. Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying. Potomac Books: 2006. Pg. 248.

[12] Prado, Ric. Black Ops: The Life of a CIA Shadow Warrior. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2022. Pg. 236.

[13] Bar-Zohar & Mishal, Pg. 125.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.