So You Want a Career in Intelligence: The Real Reading List

During my time with CIA, I did a short tour as a recruiter, visiting colleges and talking to interested students about careers with the Agency. It was one of my favorite jobs, mostly because it opened my eyes to what people outside the intelligence community thought of the work we did.

The mystique of intelligence work could sometimes work against you: some of the students and mid-career professionals I met had an idea of what the work was like, while a few stubbornly clung to fantasies more suitable for the movies. The Agency has a list of recommended reading for aspirants, but at the time I found it dry and lacking. Intelligence work has its own particular demands and a unique culture, and the stakes can be high if someone self-destructs on the job. I often thought aspirants would be better served if we could give them a taste of what the job was really like. So -- while not exhaustive -- here are my reading recommendations for anyone contemplating a career in intelligence:

An Ordinary Spy, by Joseph Weisberg. This novel came out while I was recruiting, and there were many times, as I sat across the table from an earnest candidate, that I wished I could've handed him a copy of this book. Some old hands will disagree, but I think Weisberger, who worked briefly at CIA, captures the pressures and insecurities of the early years in the career. Most books, particularly novels, center on the middle or the end of an officer's career, when he has years of experience to draw on. Recruits need to know that the early days are challenging and far from glamorous, and if you don't have at least one moral dilemma you probably aren't paying attention closely enough.

Class 11, by T.J. Waters. After 9/11, many Americans offered to join the intelligence service, and Tom Waters was one of the folks who made the cut, attending the first session post-9/11 training class for new operations officers. This book follows Waters through his decision to apply, acceptance and training. He offers great insight into the kind of training officers are given and also the emotional and personal challenges new hires are likely to face. He gives away no secrets, of course, but anyone intrigued by a career at the Agency should read this book.

Agents of Innocence, by David Ignatius. This book, first published in 1987, is such a classic in the field that it hardly needs mention here, but I think it's worth noting that it has held up well. The atmosphere of the overseas environment a case officer is likely to face still rings true. I'd like to say that the casual chauvinism and outright sexism of the 1970s would be out of place today, but a sad fact of the career field is that it's not, it's just disguised better, and women should be aware of that going in.