Spy agencies revel in flood of applicants

Jobs: The NSA and CIA can be picky as patriotism and economic uncertainty boost the ranks of job seekers.

February 13, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

For the nation's intelligence agencies, it's as though everyone and his cousin want to be 007.

Five months after Sept. 11, resumes are still deluging the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, three to four times as many as before the attacks.

Behind the trend are a tide of patriotism, the faltering high-tech economy and a likely boost in defense spending to fight terrorist threats.

Some experts say the attacks might rival World War II and the Cold War in driving the brightest job seekers to careers in espionage.

Spy agencies long eyed warily by many college students now draw long lines at career fairs. Computer whizzes who once looked down their noses at low-paying government jobs are turning in resumes by the hundreds.

And Americans - and some foreigners - are even offering themselves as volunteers, as if highly specialized cloak-and-dagger work were more or less on a par with the church bake sale.

"I would just like to congratulate and shake your hands for all the good work your agency carries out across the world," a resident of Great Britain wrote in a recent e-mail to the CIA, shared on condition that the writer's name be excluded. "If I can be of any assistance whatsoever in the fight against tyranny, please feel free to ask."

Agency recruiters have politely turned away such suitors, focusing most of their attention on the thousands of serious job hunters.

"Since September 11, we've seen a real surge in applications," says Harvey A. Davis, the recruitment director at NSA, the secretive code-breaking agency, which received about 30,000 applications since the attacks. "Some people say, `I want to work here, I'm patriotic and I'll do whatever you want.'"

The NSA, long so clandestine that it was half-jokingly called No Such Agency or Never Say Anything, has responded to the wave of new interest by openly advertising itself as a haven for patriots. It added a photo of a soaring eagle to its Web site and to ads in professional journals and in guides handed out at college job fairs.

The largest surge in applications came in the days just after Sept. 11. The CIA received some 1,100 in a single day, compared with 500 to 600 a week before the attacks. Applications to the NSA peaked at about 2,350 a week, four times its weekly average of 540 before the attacks.

Those numbers have fallen slightly - the CIA got nearly 1,900 in a recent week, the NSA 1,600. But interest from aspiring spies, code breakers and eavesdroppers remains high, and the agencies delight in their new popularity.

Even before the attacks, the CIA and NSA were trying to bulk up, after years of cutbacks. And now, with congressional probes likely to be called over their failure to foresee the events of Sept. 11, they are under keen pressure to prevent new attacks.

The Bush administration has reportedly proposed an 8 percent budget increase for U.S. intelligence agencies - the exact figure is classified. Some of that money will be used to acquire skills in step with the times.

The CIA, for instance, recently posted an opening on its Web site for a "Middle Eastern Language Specialist" proficient in Arabic, Dari and Pashto. The posting drew a flood of inquiries, and the agency has made multiple job offers.

Yet, the new interest in intelligence jobs has outpaced new openings, intensifying competition and making recruiters pickier.

The 30,000 applicants to NSA are vying for 600 to 800 openings over the next year. Of the 47,000 people who turned in resumes to the CIA since Sept. 11, just 10 percent will get an in-person interview and 2 percent a job, says CIA spokeswoman Anya Guilsher.

"Our standards have gotten tougher, because we have a lot of choice now, and we really want top-notch people with the kind of experience and education we're looking for," she said.

Applicants range from retired military personnel and newly graduated Ph.D.s in chemistry and mathematics to refugees from Wall Street. "Someone came to us from an accounting firm in New York to work on tracking illicit financial transactions," says Guilsher.

Others have written with no particular qualifications other than a desire to chip in.

The CIA and NSA have thanked such volunteers for their support. But they have had to explain that their stringent prerequisites - extensive background investigations, polygraph tests, psychological screens, not to mention U.S. citizenship - mean that volunteers should channel their charitable impulses elsewhere.

Of the inquiries from patriotic volunteers, an NSA spokesman said: "It was something we had not ever experienced before."

At a job fair last week at the Johns Hopkins University, students learned that the ABCs of job hunting don't always apply in the world of spy work. Even basic job descriptions can be hard to come by.

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