So are PMOO’s just trigger pullers?
Detailing the exact job description for PMOOs is problematic because of the sensitive nature around their work. That said (work with me here), if Case Officers are somewhat related to DoD HUMINT collectors then PMOOs would be similar with Special Forces officers, working very much the same kind of missions as they might work. Looking back at OSS operations in WWII you can see where both groups heritage learned to work in austere environments, with little support. OSS officers had to recruit their own sources for their own protection, gathering intelligence on various groups and Nazi sympathizers, building relationships with local fighting forces and providing mentorship and other support to their efforts. Just like their OSS predecessors, this has led far too many stars on the CIA Memorial Wall in the Original Headquarters Building lobby.
I detail all this in this way because some of the most frequent questions I get are from current or former military officers who are interested in the intelligence community and eventually work up to asking about SAD. They want to know if they’d rate, and if they’d have any shot at a PMOO position. I relate the odds this way: you are already focusing on a very very small target. Most people who apply to the Agency don’t even make it to a phone interview. Think about that for a second then realize you won’t get the interview without going for it. On top of that small target you have to be interested and comfortable with the idea of working as a case officer in austere and hostile locations. A PMOO will be running their assets related to counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, specific area offices and whatever specific collection requirements they have for the specific programs they are working on.
But why limit yourself to just a PMOO position? I can think of a number of other jobs I’d rather have within the Agency, right off the top of my head. The last 16 years haven’t seen PMOOs working too many other places (at least on PM tours) than war zones or conflict zones. I know it happens, but why further restrict an already small target?
As for if someone’s specific skill set will set them apart within the PMOO recruiting cycle, that’s a more difficult question to answer. Its important to realize that at this point in time, after those 16 years of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), there are an unsurprisingly large number of former military personnel with marketable skills to match positions within SAD, making it easier for SAD to be highly selective with whom they recruit. If the main goal of an operational SAD branch is to provide a service in support of a covert action program, obviously having a desire, ability and proven track record in providing similar skills from military experience would be the best fit and probably get someone noticed. That experience may not come from just Special Mission Unit (SMU) experience and plenty of people I met in my travels within the Division gained their experience in other parts of the military. As with anything, its also not entirely your experience but how you relate and explain that experience to others that matters. You could be the most trained and experienced SMU “operator” but if you can’t relate to people you will ultimately fail at one of the core missions of a PMOO, recruiting.
Looking at my time in the Division, my advice for someone interested in that area, but with no military experience, would be to just get your foot in the door at the Agency. Get in and then worry about all that later, and know that the more time on target the better the chance. What I mean is, if you do end up with an Agency job, make a great reputation for yourself, make as many connections in the office (goes the same for any office you are interested in) and be patient. You might find that the more exposure you have to some place like SAD, the less interested you will be in the long term. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Agency veteran stories about just accepting any job management thought you were right for and letting that decide your career path. I found it conflicted with their other lines about being your own “HR officer”. I had greater success by making connections with people. Showing an interest in them and explaining my interest in the office or job I wanted. Some might say it was sort of like “CO’ng” them (case officering - common term used among Agency officers when trying to manipulate another officer) but without the sleazy used car salesman approach.
When thinking about a career in someplace like SAD, keep in mind that a lot of us saw the deployment cycle wearing officers thin. I think there is also a psychological component to being less of a HUMINT collector and more of a service provider to other offices. Covert action can be a fickle thing. New administrations or a change in political climate often means a loss of money or priorities that adversely effect covert action programs (the life blood of SAD). There’s also something to be said for getting experience in other areas or centers to be more well rounded. Maybe its an older example, but you could look at people like Dick Holm as someone who came up through the paramilitary ranks during and proceeding the Vietnam war and covert action programs in Africa, and then transitioned into more ‘traditional’ intelligence work. To be fair, you can obviously work covert action in any other area or position. Jack Devine is a good example of someone who came up in the Agency working covert action (one of the largest CA programs in history, the Afghan effort against Russia) and working all levels of Agency operations without a paramilitary background. It shouldn’t be surprising that the most successful officers, in or out of SAD, are good at adapting.
I met a large number of SAD “bodies” who had rotated out of SAD into other areas. It was a common practice to have PMOO’s taking “traditional” case officer tours in other offices. Some left SAD and had no intention of coming back. Others left to get more experience before moving up the ranks into the front office of SAD. After being gone from the Agency now quite a few years, I wonder how many people actually stay within the Division. I can still see the deployment board for my office when I close my eyes. I can’t imagine keeping those TDY cycles up for a career. Rotating into another area office or center would seem like a welcome break from that life, but that’s just my view from my short time there.
To close out, my advice for anyone getting into this line of work is first, research as much as possible. With respect to the Agency and SAD, take what you read with a grain of salt. The popular memoirs (Hunting the Jackal by legendary Billy Waugh, Jawbreaker by Gary Berntsen, First In by Gary Schroen, The Craft We Chose by Dick Holm) will give you some good views of what a paramilitary life can be like. Information I have seen online, save for Sean’s posts here and here, come from people with less direct knowledge or none at all.
Remember the end goal of the Special Activities Division is to provide a service to other area offices and centers. They execute special programs, and as a service provider, are often the red headed stepchild of the CIA. Journalists like to paint a picture of direct action missions and Hollywood will always paint them as knuckle dragging gunslingers, but in reality, paramilitary operations officers are specialized operations officers with specific skills and abilities. They do amazing work for sure, and many of the stars on the Memorial Wall signify a sacrifice by one of these brave individuals.