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Research Redux: the CIA by Marianna Jameson
This article first appeared in the February, 2010, edition of NINK, the newsletter for Novelists, Inc. (NINC)
We're writers. No, wait. We're fiction writers. It's our life's work to make stuff up and get paid for it. I ask you: Does life get any better than this?
Well, okay. I won't try to kid the kidders. We don't make everything up. We occasionally (incessantly, obsessively, fill in the adverb of your choice) research things. It's the R word and we all have a love-hate relationship with it.
We know all about research. We know all about deep research. And, if pressed, we'll admit to knowing a thing or two about the quick-and-dirty research we need to do when we want an answer, a description, or just a smidge of realism… now. As in on deadline. While the Internet has made all of the above easier, it is this last sort of research that the Internet has made really fun.
My purpose in writing this sporadic column is to bring that didn't-know-I-needed-it information that much closer to your fingertips. Painlessly. My topic this month:
The Central Intelligence Agency
This shadowy, secretive, clandestine, independent government agency has a veritable goldmine of information available on its website. The CIA we know and love to exploit today evolved from the historic and ground-breaking Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, which came into being in 1942. Today's CIA (or The Agency as we novelists like to call it) consists of four major components, called directorates: the National Clandestine Service, the Directorate of Intelligence, the Directorate of Science and Technology, and the Directorate of Support. These four units comprise the workings of "the intelligence cycle": the collection and analysis of information and its dissemination to the upper echelon of US government officials.
So that's the brain center, but, let's face it, no agency (or Agency) can operate without a nerve center-the administrative end of things; the functions filled by a whole other set of people who oversee the care and feeding of our spies. These nameless others make sure there is paper in the printer, book the plane tickets, and soothe ruffled congressional feathers. They provide counseling, produce documentation and graphics, provide medical care or legal assistance, and, well, you get the picture. There's more to the Agency than poison pens and more opportunities for character development than the now-cardboard, MacGyveristic super spy.
So if you need to know just where or for whom your agent (or case officer, as they are known in real life) or physician's assistant, legal eagle, or hapless admin assistant might work, what they might do in a day, or what they earn, then go here and put in the career of choice. The page will tell you what you need to know. Well, at least it will tell you about the mundane stuff-it's up to you to manufacture the Wow Factor. (See statement above re: making stuff up and getting paid for it.)
Want to know the government structure of modern Somalia? Whether Americans are allowed to travel freely to Cuba? What Tonga's major exports are? The World Factbook is your one-stop source for all the up-to-the-minute nuts-and-bolts information about any country. It's kept current and it's comprehensive. The site also offers a guide to current world leaders, and in a world in which a nation's leadership can unfortunately change at the speed of a bullet or a market failure, it's an invaluable resource. The information is listed alphabetically by nation, and each country's page provides the names and positions of those in the top several tiers of government. So if you need to know who heads up Denmark's Ministry of Refugees, Immigration, Integration, and Ecclesiastical Affairs (Birthe Ronn Hornbech) or who is Djibouti's Minister of Youth, Sports, Leisure, and Tourism (Akban Goita Moussa), you know where to go.
If you want to know who said what to whom when, the News and Information page can help you out. It provides links to interviews, congressional testimony, press releases, feature stories on issues and personnel (mostly historical), and timely updates in response to current world events.
If you need to know how America's intelligence community operated during the Revolutionary War or Civil War, there's an entire collection of articles at your disposal here and here respectively.
If you want to get a deeper understanding of the issues and challenges facing the intelligence community today, head over to the Center for the Study of Intelligence and prepare to read unclassified, academic articles from the journal Studies in Intelligence. Or head over to the site for the Kent Center Occasional Papers if your taste really runs to the academic. Whether the articles you find fire up your imagination to that stage where everything is crackling and there aren't enough hours in the day to write, or they numb your brain into something resembling day-old polenta, is between you and your synapses, but it's all there for the taking.
Want to know where to find information that falls outside the purview of CIA? (Yes, there are some things they don't want or need to know….) Then head over to the page that leads you to the other US intelligence agencies. This page contains links for the intelligence arms of each branch of the US military (We all know the joke, so let's just move on, shall we? ), as well as links to the FBI, DEA, NSA (National Security Agency or, as it used to be known, No Such Agency), and the intelligence arms of the departments of homeland security, energy, state (yes, really), and treasury. As if that wasn't enough, the page has links to the lesser known agencies, such as the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) (I only learned about that one two years ago…).
But one of the best pages on the website, in my opinion, is the Intelligence Literature page. It provides a pretty comprehensive bibliography of books written about the intelligence community, its operations, history, and personalities. The page provides a cross-referenced list of works about the agency and the industry, ranging from historical eras (for example, World War II and Before) to topics (for example, Terrorism or Espionage) to social divisions (Women in Intelligence) to biographies and memoirs of former intelligence personnel. The most interesting thing about this list, which is comprehensive, though not exhaustive, is that it's not a list of polished press releases. Not all the books are flattering to the Agency, and some the Agency tried to suppress.
Well, I'm running up against my word count, so I have to stop. But the point is that the wealth of information out there is a little staggering when you think of it. And when it's all at your fingertips, there's not a reason in the world not to take ten or twenty minutes to tiptoe through the tidbits to get the good stuff.