At a superhero extravaganza in Washington, comic book fans dressed the part. No matter which way you turned, middle-aged men were in Batman costumes.
Not exactly the place you’d expect a CIA discussion on recruiting foreign spies. And yet CIA staff historian Randy Burkett, wearing khakis and a polo shirt with the CIA logo, was doing exactly that.
“We came up with this game,” explained Burkett, who handed out copies of an actual letter Albert Einstein sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 warning about early Nazi efforts on an atomic bomb.
Einstein was already in the U.S. by this time. But for this game, the twist was to pretend he was still in Nazi Germany and figure out how to recruit him — without getting him arrested or killed.
A man dressed as the Joker explained: “Clearly a stable individual, forward thinking. It’s going to be difficult to get in and out of Germany.”
Presence on social media
This is just one quirky example of the agency’s new outreach to a broader base of potential recruits. For generations, the CIA recruited its workforce discreetly — by word of mouth, a tap on the shoulder, or through a friend of a friend.
But under Director Gina Haspel, the CIA is reaching out in very public ways it has never done before. The agency says it needs a wider range than ever of specialized skills — from linguists to scientists to cyber experts. It advertises positions on Twitter and Facebook. And it just joined Instagram.
In a recent speech at Auburn University, Haspel noted the change since she applied in the mid-1980s. “I wrote a letter to the CIA on my manual college typewriter. I mailed it to CIA with my résumé. I didn’t have an address. So I just put, ‘CIA. Washington, D.C.,’ ” said Haspel. “And here I am.”
Haspel’s two speeches since taking over as CIA director a year ago have both been delivered at universities and have come with explicit recruiting pitches.
The CIA doesn’t talk specifics, though broadly speaking, applications shot up after the 2001 al-Qaida attacks. They dipped in more recent years. But, Haspel says, “We just had our best recruiting year in a decade.”
There are still plenty of challenges. President Trump has been a persistent critic of the intelligence community. Haspel is linked to the post-Sept. 11 controversies involving waterboarding of suspected terrorists. She ran a CIA prison in Thailand in the early 2000s, which was the focus of her Senate confirmation hearing last year.
All this prompted a heckler at her Auburn speech: “Tell these young children, tell them who you tortured. You know their names. They’re still in Guantánamo Bay,” the heckler shouted before being escorted out of the hall by security.
Style or substance?
Another harsh critic, Edward Snowden, worked for the CIA before he became a contractor at the National Security Agency and disclosed some of that agency’s most sensitive surveillance programs in 2013. He sees the more public face of the CIA as a change in style, not substance.
“They get Twitter accounts, Instagram accounts with puppies and everything like that, because they want to be friendly. They want to be on your side,” said Snowden, speaking from Russia, where he has lived the past six years. He made his comments on the Motherboard podcast Cyber.
He said the intelligence community had trouble recruiting after his revelations and believes this explains the new approach. “They went: ‘Maybe the real story of 2013 isn’t that we got caught breaking the law. We got caught violating everybody’s rights, so we should pull back a little bit. Instead, what we really have here is a PR issue,’ ” he said.
A few hours after Haspel spoke at Auburn, several dozen Auburn students turned up for a CIA recruiting session in the evening.
“With every organization you go into, you have to think the ethical, and the implications of what they do, and what their real mission is, undercover, and what they say to the public,” said Sydney Kelsey, who is graduating this spring.
So is she going to apply?
“Oh, yes. Most definitely,” she said.
Greg Myre is NPR’s national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.