Seeking the spies among TV fans

NSA ad recruits `Lost,' `CSI' viewers

October 23, 2006|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Devoted followers of Lost and CSI have untapped spy potential.

At least, that's what the National Security Agency thinks.

The super-secret spy agency launched its first television recruitment campaign during local airings of the fall premieres of Lost and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in a drive to reach a new pool of potential recruits in the Baltimore-Washington area.

"It was the demographic we were looking for," said NSA spokesman Donny Weber, who said the commercial was aimed at college students and professionals in the region's high-tech corridor, where competition for the best and the brightest is fierce.

The ad prompted a surge in interest among would-be recruits, with nearly 4,000 visiting the NSA's Web site after seeing the commercial, John Taflan, the agency's director of human resources, said in a written statement.

The flashy, 30-second spot, geared for the iPod and PlayStation generation, launched Sept. 11 - which Weber said is a coincidence - and ran for five weeks.

As techno music blares and a radiant blue globe spins in the background, rapid-fire scenes flash on the screen, from a helicopter to a ship to a person with a red-and-white-checked scarf obscuring his face, presumably representing a terrorist.

A male narrator intones: "The world is a dangerous place. Every day, we are faced with new threats to our nation's security."

Troops in the desert inspect a vehicle that has just burst into flames.

"Our adversaries do their best to keep their plans a secret. At the National Security Agency, we uncover those secrets, and keep our own secrets safe," the narrator says.

The scene shifts to an assortment of workers conferring with colleagues, and a woman's voice says, "That's why NSA employs only the most intelligent people in the country." She asks viewers to "explore career options at NSA" by visiting the NSA's Web site.

The commercial was designed to appeal to a highly educated crowd that might not have considered the NSA as a career opportunity before, Weber said. He said he did not have information on how much the ad buy cost or who produced it.

Other arms of the nation's intelligence apparatus, including the CIA and FBI, have run recruiting commercials in recent years.

The CIA aired its first general recruiting ad during Washington Nationals baseball telecasts in 2005. They followed up this past summer with ads for the agency's science and operations division.

After the ads ran, the CIA saw a 20 percent increase in applicants, said spokesman Tom Crispell.

The FBI began an ad campaign during the last Super Bowl, seeking recruits for intelligence and language analyst positions. It produced three times the number of Web site hits and double the average number of applications during the time the ads were running, said Gwendolyn Hubbard, the FBI's chief of recruitment and testing.

Among some NSA veterans, the ad has raised questions about the agency's spending priorities. Others called it a smart move.

"The organization runs on people, so you have to have a way to get out and recruit," said Michael Jacobs, who spent three decades at the NSA. "If advertising is going to help draw in more recruits, then why not do it?"

The placement of the NSA commercial surprised some intelligence professionals. Describing Lost as a television variation on "Dungeons and Dragons," CIA veteran Ron Marks said its viewers are exactly the ones the NSA should be recruiting.

"What a wonderful way of reaching an audience that's interested in problem-solving and thinking differently," he said, noting that U.S. intelligence agencies have done little to reach out to the growing number of computer gamers and other teenage technophiles.

CSI, which plays off a series of murder mysteries, appeals to the viewer's inner forensic analyst, featuring high-tech gadgetry, analytic gymnastics and dazzling experiments as investigators piece together the unsolvable each week.

So good are the CSI investigators that some lawyers have complained that the program has raised expectations among potential jurors for the level of evidence that can be offered to prove guilt of a crime.

Marks said the popular television show Alias gave a considerable boost to the CIA's profile. But Hollywood has regularly depicted the NSA as a nefarious, underhanded agency in films such as Enemy of the State.

These types of outreach efforts help counter that image, Marks said, calling the commercial "bang on target for where they need to be in the 21st century."

The NSA's commercial appeared to have the intended effect on at least one Lost fan, who recently noted the unusual ad on the Black Rock Web site for Lost devotees.

"Did anyone else notice the fantastic National Security Agency commercial during the `Tale of Two Cities' episode?" asked one fan, who used the name "Dharma Button Pusher" and claimed to come from the "Betty Ford Center for Lost Addicts."

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