Top Secret Desk Jockey
February 24, 2012 8:05 AM   Subscribe

What exactly does one do in a "desk job" for a covert organization?

In spy movies and novels, you often here mention of a field agent either being promoted or demoted to a "desk job" (examples: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Salt, even Hopscotch). But what does that really mean? Usually, the term "analyst" is thrown around, however that's still pretty vague. So...what are some actual "desk jobs" at these places?
posted by baronessa to Work & Money (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Political Analyst
Targeting Analyst
Intelligence Collection Analyst

I'm sure there's more.
posted by empyrean at 8:13 AM on February 24, 2012

Plus anything else that needs to happen in any organization: HR, office management, accounting, purchasing, contract management (they get their nifty gadgets from somewhere), etc. Maybe not what the hot shot field agents would get demoted to, but still boring desk jobs that need to happen to keep them moving.
posted by olinerd at 8:15 AM on February 24, 2012

I knew somebody who analyzed satellite photos for one of the agencies, and another someone who did computer purchasing. Neither of them particularly glamorous types of jobs.
posted by PussKillian at 8:17 AM on February 24, 2012

NOTE: I am not an intelligence analyst. But of course I'd say that, wouldn't I?

Unlike what you see in the movies, an individual field agent does not necessarily have access to the complete picture of information that the agency is building. There are important reasons for this -- sometimes, the mere fact that an agency is gathering information about something is itself a piece of valuable counter-intelligence, for instance.

Also, pushing information down into the field carries a lot of risks. When, in the movies, you see a field agent getting a big briefing about "what we know about General Alexandrovich" or whatever, they are doing that for the benefit of the audience, not for the benefit of the agent. In reality, a lot of that information never leaves the building, not even in the agent's head. In some cases, I suspect that a lot of that information is never even in the same room at the same time.

I have to suspect, too, that there is a lot of pretty sophisticated "versioning" of intelligence that goes on as well, in part to determine what information went into an analysis, and to determine the appropriate secrecy classification, and in part to silo out potential leaks and locate actual leaks.
posted by gauche at 8:23 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know nothing of real world examples of this. But in the movie "Get Smart" the main character was an analyst with a desk job before becoming a field agent later in the movie. They kinda gave you a glimpse into what his job entailed. It seemed to mostly be listening to intercepted radio chatter and decoded messages and then reporting to the other agents about what intelligence he was able to gather from them.

Of course, this movie is obviously portrays spying and covert operations in a very unrealistic way. But at least in this movie, that's one of the desk jobs that agents did.
posted by Vorteks at 8:36 AM on February 24, 2012

I knew somebody who analyzed satellite photos for one of the agencies, and another someone who did computer purchasing. Neither of them particularly glamorous types of jobs.

Like all bureacracies, there are also layers of middle management - I know someone in a similar role who supervised people who looked at the photos. By all accounts, it was fairly dull.
posted by jquinby at 8:39 AM on February 24, 2012

During or right after World War II, my Great-Aunt Adeline had a desk job for an intelligence agency (Office of Naval Intelligence, I believe). Her job was to study business and financial documents and mark certain names or companies. She wasn't allowed to talk about it, but before she died, she told my dad and me a tiny bit. She said it involved a ton of reading and gave her a headache because the type was real small.

When I was a kid, I always thought she was cool because I assumed she'd been a spy. She always had technology that nobody else I knew at that time did, like devices to bug phones and a tiny camera. I still have a little bakelite phone recording device. It didn't work when we tried it, and really messes up a cell phone signal. Fun artifact, though.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 9:01 AM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

For people doing intelligence work (rather than more generic large-organization jobs like HR or IT), I gather that there is a great deal of writing. You look at photos or intercepted messages or whatever, identify the important bits (and keep separate lists for the possibly-important bits, and the ambiguous-no-sure-what-we're-seeing-here-but-30%-chance-it's-important bits, and the this-rules-out-hypothesis-x bits), and then communicate all those nuances in a very precise, accurate, unambiguous written document.

I've heard one such person complain that from certain sub-units, the written reports are of better or worse quality. You can easily imagine how much tougher that makes things, when you have to base your own inferences on someone else's work that is not necessarily well-described.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:37 AM on February 24, 2012

Doing Human Resources or Purchasing at a spy agency must be so bizarre.

Getting benefit questions about health insurance while on undercover assignment, my spy-mate made an inappropriate comment to me while we were surveiling the target, how do I file a claim for the damage on the rental car I wrecked while outrunning the police, paying invoices for poison tip darts, Gulf Stream gas bills and bulk shackle purchases...
posted by lstanley at 10:11 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

What exactly does one do in a "desk job" for a covert organization?

In many cases, the desk job is a real desk job for real or fake organizations. For example, Valerie Plame used the fake organization Brewster, Jennings & Associates as cover for her work. She was an "energy consultant." At one point, it's been alleged, the Turkish government was going to actually hire Brewster, Jennings & Associates for what they thought would be real consultation work, which agents like Plame would use as in-roads for conducting their clandestine observations.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:05 PM on February 24, 2012

Someone in my family works for an intelligence agency in the US. This individual is an attorney with knowledge of Russia (lived there for several years and is fluent in the language) and an intensive knowledge of the oil industry. He spends his time analyzing news, data, information as it relates to his area of specialty and submitting reports to those who would find his opinions useful. He sometimes travels in relation to this, often for weeks at a time, often without being able to tell us where he is going or when he will return.
posted by HuronBob at 3:08 PM on February 24, 2012

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