CIA case officers have an exciting job. Tradecraft, foreign language, and expertise in using breaking-edge technology are hallmarks of a CIA case officer, leading to assignments all over the world. But not much is known about the day-to-day lives of the men and women working for the Agency.
When you think of spy, you typically think of James Bond or someone or maybe Jason Bourne. But, the real spies are the case officers of the Agency, commonly called CIA agents in pop culture. But, the CIA only calls foreign recruits agents, so a case officer is not a ‘CIA agent.’ Because of the clandestine, sometimes covert nature of their work, they’re known simply as a ‘spook’ to many in the world of intelligence.
Doug Patteson worked for the CIA as a case officer for ten years. From high-risk to low-risk scenarios, Patteson told Task & Purpose that case officers work in a constantly changing environment and that how Hollywood has depicted them is not always accurate.
What is a case officer?
Patteson said ‘case officer’ is a blanket term and isn’t necessarily accurate anymore. The case officer term actually covers two different roles at the Agency: paramilitary operations officer and an operations officer.
A paramilitary operations officer will lead and manage the Agency’s covert action programs and collect foreign intelligence. The operations officer focuses primarily on the foreign intelligence collection effort.
Patteson said either role falls under case officer. The work they do is often critical to U.S. interests throughout the world.
“At the end of the day, the thing about being a case officer is that it’s about human interaction and human relationship building,” Patteson said. “Ultimately, to get somebody to steal secrets on our behalf to serve U.S. policymakers and their interests, particularly the president.”
Patteson said people who served in the U.S. military’s so-called tier-one units generally staff the paramilitary operations officer positions at the Agency, but it’s not impossible for someone outside of that background to land a job. He further explained that operations officers come from various backgrounds, and the Agency emphasizes recruiting for various life experiences.
Case officer hiring standards
A bachelor’s degree is the bare minimum standard for getting hired as a case officer. It doesn’t matter what the degree is, either. Patteson said diversity in backgrounds and degrees is valued because it helps the CIA’s mission.
“Don’t think you have to go get an intelligence studies degree. We need people with economics degrees. We need people with English degrees, history degrees, like all of that works,” Patteson said. “People tend to lock themselves in a box when pursuing intelligence-related degrees, and it’s not always the case.”
Patteson is an adjunct professor at the University of New Hampshire, teaching within the university’s intelligence studies program. He’s a perfect example of the type of person the Agency looks at as a potential case officer.
Patteson has an MBA in finance and entrepreneurial management and a BBA in finance and international business. But he’s also a certified firearms and ALICE active shooter prevention instructor.
In addition to a degree, candidates must agree to relocate to Washington, D.C., if hired, must be 18 or older, and must be able to pass an in-depth background check. Having some experience in intelligence, foreign language, or military service in special operations are examples of what can give you a better chance of getting hired.
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Fitness standards fall under ‘big boy rules.’ It’s not like the military, where physical training is mandatory every morning, but like the military, a certain fitness standard is necessary for paramilitary operations officers to uphold. The nature of the work can require solo freefall insertion into unfriendly countries, nighttime evasion, or even underwater insertion, so candidates need to be in top physical shape.
Once hired, the Agency incentivizes fitness through top-of-the-line fitness centers and paid time to workout.
“For the most part, it’s big boy rules. If you’re an analyst back at headquarters, there really aren’t any fitness requirements. But the agency has recognized that it’s important to have people stay in shape overall for their morale, etcetera,” Patteson said. “So, the agency provides paid time for fitness. You’re given a certain amount of hours per week to use for fitness, specifically to stay in shape.”
A day in the life of a CIA case officer
Hollywood has commonly depicted case officers immersed in treacherous warzones, constantly outsmarting foreign intelligence and military assets. Though that has happened, it’s not always the case.
“So it’s all about people skills, languages, cultural understanding, and being able to convince people to do things that may inherently be against their own self-interests,” Patteson said. “Which we believe supports U.S. policy goals and ostensibly makes for a better, safer world.”
So you may end up collecting human intelligence from a desk located in Washington, D.C., or be involved in a clandestine insertion into North Korea to find and turn key players in the North Korean government against their own country. The danger level fluctuates depending on your assignment.
“I would say it’s low to very low in general, but it all depends on where you are, the nature of the targets you’re working against, etc. So, if you’re a case officer working in Northern Europe, working on NATO-related things, the danger level is very low,” Patteson said. “If you’re a case officer who’s working in Pakistan, on al-Qaeda, it can be very high.”
Patteson cannot discuss his most dangerous mission but said he’s been in a few “high stakes” situations.
“I would meet with very high priority targets that were actively working against our interests but who had agreed clandestinely to support us,” Patteson said. “To know that I’ve been able to get somebody to agree to do that with the risk of — in these cases — death. They would face death if we were caught. It was a big holy crap moment.”
Temporary duty travel, commonly known as TDY, and 2 to 4-year-long permanent change of station (PCS) assignments are all a part of the job. Patteson had three PCS tours with a lot of time spent in East Asia, but would often travel to other parts of the world to meet potential sources.
So, if you are stationed in Germany, there’s a chance you may be sent on a TDY to China to recruit a source, or you may end up in Afghanistan chasing down leads. A commonality of case officers’ work is that many “it depends” situations arise, so there’s no clear-cut template for a case officer’s day-to-day life.
Traveling while working and post-retirement
Working against foreign countries’ interests can lead to suspicion and spying accusations or, even worse, getting nabbed by said country’s foreign intelligence and used in a geopolitical game of chess against the U.S.
While Patteson worked for the Agency, he didn’t worry about too many countries while traveling internationally. But, he said certain countries are inherently dangerous to travel to as a case officer.
“I would not travel to Russia right now because I believe most former CIA officers would be afraid of getting harassed or hustled their entire time there,” Patteson said. “Or even getting arrested on trumped-up charges to be used as a pawn in a broader game.”
The same rules apply to Patteson in retirement. He’d be comfortable traveling to almost all the countries he’s worked in but wouldn’t risk entering Russia or North Korea. Generally speaking, the countries that are unsafe for current or former case officers are generally unsafe for the average American.
Family life as a case officer
Patteson has a unique take on family life while working for the CIA. Though it didn’t start this way, Patteson’s wife worked as a staff operations officer and one of his kids worked as an analyst. But, for those without that unique arrangement, Patteson said divorce rates are high for case officers because they often can’t tell their spouse what they do. Even more difficult is finding a date in the first place.
“It’s challenging to meet people,” Patteson said. “If you are working for the agency and you’re undercover, every relationship you have starts off with that lie.”
Case officers will often have cover stories with connected cover jobs they work in tandem with their job as case officers. So when you first meet someone, you can’t tell them what you really do or who you actually are. But, before Patteson’s wife started working for the Agency, the two experienced issues due to the nature of his work.
“I had a cover job that I was able to tell her about, and then eventually, as we were falling in love, realized that I needed to tell her what I really did,” Patteson said. “Which led to the ‘what else are you lying about’ question.”
Patteson said that even beyond that, the nature of the work can be problematic and lead to poor choices. Case officers often have to meet “sleazy people in sleazier places” and when you tell your spouse you have to go out for the night, they don’t get to ask what you’re going out to do or who you are meeting with. That can erode trust in a relationship and is a prime culprit of why marriages struggle.
But, when your spouse starts working for the Agency, it helps with the understanding part, Patteson said. Still, Patteson and his wife have experiences and nuggets of knowledge they can’t tell each other. Even more interesting, one of their kids also worked for the Agency. So, the three of them may have a lot in common, but they are not allowed to discuss much about their work with each other.
Rank, pay, and bonuses
Your starting pay in the CIA is like anywhere else. It depends on a multitude of factors and your previous experience. The Agency lists the starting salary of a case officer as a range from $67,122 to $102,166.
Patteson said the deciding factors that play into a starting salary depend on your skills and previous experience like foreign language as an example of what can get your salary bumped up as a new hire.
Hazardous duty pay is a factor but is related to the location of and the nature of a case officer’s assignments. But there are exceptional performance awards, which can come with cash awards ranging from high hundreds to low thousands of dollars.
But, Patteson said the Agency’s more prestigious awards, like the Intelligence Star, can come with even bigger cash rewards.
The rank system falls under the GS employee scale. The hierarchy of the CIA breaks down into four branches: intelligence, national clandestine service, science and technology, and support. Like most things with the Agency, your initial GS pay grade depends on your skills and previous experience.
A GS-15 is the highest middle management pay grade someone can obtain, but it’s not the highest pay in the agency. Patteson explained that flag-rank officers rank higher and are a part of the Senior Intelligence Service, which is similar to the federal government’s Senior Executive Service.
And once you are in and deployed, you will gain access to overtime pay. There is a lot of “it depends” when it comes to overtime, so just know it’s a potential option for bumping up your total compensation.
The job of a case officer, or more specifically, a paramilitary operations officer or operations officer, can lead to beefy paychecks but working for the CIA purely for money will likely keep you from landing a job.
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