I have always been more of a jack of all trades, master of none type of person. While this approach to technical problems is appreciated in the tech ops community, I found that sometimes the reliance on many other offices to do a piece of the operation I was working on was a bit frustrating. I wanted to get my hands into everything, not just do one small piece. I wasn’t sure how to tackle being boxed in and wondered how long I’d last in any one office, that was, until I found out about TOPS officers.
TOPS officers are tech ops officers that PCS (permanent change of station) to a station and are considered the subject matter experts in all things DST. They receive training and familiarization on many pieces of the DST pie, and handle most of the technical needs in the station’s AOR (area of responsibility). They also call in other specific TOO’s to cover things that are either too involved or complicated for them to handle in the field. In my view, being a TOPS officer would be the pinnacle of technical operations at the CIA.
The amazing thing about DST is that it’s full of some of the smartest and most creative nerds you could imagine. At the same time, there are officers throughout its history that have touched every major event the Agency has been involved in since its inception. There were OSS officers involved in R&D that went to work as the CIA when it was formed, establishing a clear lineage for US technical innovation in the greater intelligence community. “Spycraft" by former Director of OTS Robert Wallace is firmly planted as one of my favorite CIA related books of all time. If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and get started. Wallace not only details the history around the formation of the Directorate and OTS, but also some of its most infamous and legendary officers. From Pat Jameson, a TSD and OTS technical operations officer who was a key character in Laotian/Vietnam covert action and many findings after that time, to the brave TOOs that deployed with the Jawbreaker teams to Afghanistan after September 2001 and the TOOs that utilized groundbreaking DST engineering creations to find and track Al Qaeda operatives and others in the decade since. I’m not doing these officers justice, but the amount of history there is staggering.
I began my Agency time forging ahead with the Targeting Officer route I came in on, not exactly sure if I wanted to angle for a TOO spot, or even how to get started. Throughout my first new officer training course the instructor cadre pushed the idea of building contacts throughout the Agency, finding personal and informal mentors and connecting with the HR representatives within each office we were interested in being home-based (permanently assigned) in. All new Directorate of Operations officers go through a series of interim assignments before their “final” position specific training cycle. They usually run between 3 to 4 months in length and for the most part consist of sink or swim type of work on as desk somewhere. I can think of quite a few fellow officers who worked as “acting” deputy branch chiefs (which isn’t saying much, but for some of these people right out of college, it was a healthy dose of real responsibility), I don’t remember ever having that role, but sure do remember the sink or swim nature of some assignments. I was lucky enough to cultivate a good contact within the Special Activities Division and land a rare interim spot in an ops shop of one of the SAD branches.
Along the way I lucked into some minor operational work and got to know the Paramilitary officers in the branch. Almost to a tee they all questioned why in the world I would have given up working as an ICE special agent to be a Targeting Officer, sitting behind a desk and sending leads off to never hear of them again. At one point during an operational task an officer got in a car with me, small talk ensued about where I use to work. Hearing about my previous special agent career he turned and looked at me, shook his head and said “you’re a fucking idiot….” My only response was nervous laughter, until more people got in the car and he told them what an idiot I was and then everyone laughed at me. At first I brushed it all off, then started to realize the real message being imparted was I was on the wrong track, at least within the targeting position in the Agency as a whole. There are certain offices where Targeting Officers do more, and are more involved. There are some slots that will PCS you (permanent change of station, i.e. - deploy you overseas, to you know, do on the ground intel work, like I had imagined) and even some targeters that went through Ops Certification at the Farm. The truth being that as you followed the thread down, the target got more and more narrow, and my likelihood of actually doing the work how I had imagined it much more difficult. If Targeting Officer was my primary, I needed on alternative plan, and needed it quickly.
My interim in SAD gave me a very unique look into the Agency, one that even other agency officers I met along the way had never had. In this role I happened into DST positions once again. The TOOs that worked with SAD were all going through the same courses, doing the same deployments and pretty much working the same tip of the spear as SAD. I started chatting with TOOs on Sametime messenger pretty much daily. I saved extra training slots for them and met them for coffee to get “facetime”. I had found my niche, and just needed to find the actual position that would get me in the door.
Wallace’s “Spycraft” book is great in many ways, though one of my favorite bits of information is how he details what the technical operations officers were actually like. If the Operations Officers were the white collar people working the diplomatic circuit, playing tennis and schmoozing it up, the TOOs were the blue collar folks. This resonates strongly with me because it relates to another part of my previous work experience. I originally wanted to work for the US Customs Service because I saw them as the blue collar agents, and the FBI as the white collar ones. I guess I just see myself as the blue collar type, or flannel collar, or just not the suit type. I would guess I only wore a suit 3 times while working as a TOO. Once for my first day in my new office and two other times for coordination meetings with DO offices. It doesn’t seem like it should be an important thing, but I think it speaks more to the overall cultural differences.
In “Spycraft” Wallace tells how TOOs were always seen as the cheapest officers around. Cheap or frugal, depending on how you look at it. They would often stay in the rattiest hotels on deployments, eating the cheapest food and drinking the cheapest beer just to save up per diem. They also got more done with nothing than anyone else around. I think of most TOOs as the ultimate problem solvers. I’m terribly biased, I know. That said, I’ve seen other TOOs have technical problems that stopped forward progress, and they all just rolled up their sleeves and figured out how to fix their issue, work around it or find another solution all together. This is something I try to emulate to this day.
After finding that the Targeting Officer route was not looking like the correct fit for me, along with it looking like my time in DC was possibly going to come up short due to approaching family concerns requiring frequent trips back to California, I had to make a quick decision about what position I wanted to certify in. I was ultimately hired as a Headquarters Based Officer. This encompasses Targeting Officers, Content Management Officers (reports officers based at Hqs) and Staff Operations Officers. None of this was told to my EOD class (entrance on duty) until our first day at Langley. We had all been hired under an individual role, but were changed to HBO’s once we started our first day. There was no way I wanted to be a reports officer, I have a hard enough time editing my own cables. I ended up choosing the Staff Operations Officer (SOO) route because quite honestly it had the closest certification course date compared to targeting. I had also been courting SAD heavily and was confident I would be home-based back there once I completed my course.
When I look back on my time at the Agency I am reminded of a circus juggler, or plate spinner. I feel like I had so many things going at once it was hard to feel settled. Close to the end of my SOO certification it became clear I would have to get back to California in some capacity, and likely not return to DC. My family had already made the move, and now with a 2nd child added to the mix, it was much too difficult to be a geographical bachelor/husband/father. I guess it says something about my networking abilities that my efforts to be home-based in SAD seemed to have paid off. Fearing I would get there and then have to leave, I took an offer with OTS instead and embarked on becoming a TOO with the remaining time I had at the Agency. I also felt like I had a better shot at finding some sort of way to be based out of the West Coast within DST, because it certainly wasn’t working out with connections I had made within the DO. Getting a domestic PCS, even when I had a home still in California and could save the Agency a lot of money, was pretty much impossible.
OTS was a welcome change to my every day experience at Hqs. My first week I was already training officers for deployments, and learning how our technical tools worked. It really was hitting the ground running. I had been given a surprising level of autonomy in previous assignments, but this new position felt more natural, maybe it was more autonomy coupled with less persistent demands from managers. We scheduled our own meetings with DO officers, and they wanted to meet us to get their training and equipment. It set a different tone.
Months into my new assignment my looming family responsibilities and stress from trying to maintain a bi-coastal family life started to become a bit too much. I had set a drop dead date for departing DC life, but hadn’t yet figured out where I’d land for work. I also found out that I’d be coming up for PCS possibilities, but would first have to do a year long war zone rotation. Looking back on it, that might have not been too difficult, as I’d been away from my family pretty consistently for over a year, but I ultimately made the decision to move back to California. I ultimately ended up back in Federal law enforcement. I’ve found since that the experience and training I received while in the DO and DST forever changed my perspective on how I approach professional endeavors. If I’m honest with myself, I wanted to be a TOO the second I heard about them, but with so many opportunities it was hard to focus on what to pursue.
My entire time at the Agency seemed like a big networking session trying to find out where I’d land once I realized that recruiting had sold me what appeared to be a bag of goods. It was a whole life’s worth of lessons tangled into an intricate mess that I’m frankly still sorting through. Being a tech ops officer is all about problem solving. In my experience, that includes pulling from the experience of others, working with any tech or tool necessary and sometimes yanking the ripcord and coming in for as soft a landing as possible. So far I think I’ve done alright. I might not be a tech ops officer still, but I’m finally able to be more of a generalist with what I’m doing. And I still don’t have to wear a tie.