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When you think of intelligence agencies, you probably think of the FBI or the CIA. But the U.S. intelligence community comprises no fewer than 15 federal agencies, each with its own particular specialty.

And most of them need scientists--especially now, because the federal government is projected to lose 40-60% of its workforce over the next 10 years due to retirement. "That creates a lot of opportunities," says Scott Raye, chief of recruitment, classification, and staffing for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Multiple Intelligences

The U.S. intelligence community includes the two aforementioned glamour agencies, but each of the armed forces also has an intelligence component, along with the Coast Guard, the Department of Energy (DOE)--even the Department of Treasury has its Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. The DOE analyzes foreign nuclear weapons issues and energy security. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency analyzes images and measurements of the Earth's physical features, applying the resulting data to issues of national security. The uber-secret National Security Agency protects critical U.S. information security systems.

There is interesting work to be found for just about every field of science. Consider the CIA. It is seeking a clinical psychologist, a materials engineer, and a mechanical engineer, among a number of other positions. The National Security Agency is hot for mathematicians and computer scientists.

Defense Intelligence is Not an Oxymoron

Although most of the intelligence agencies provide career opportunities for scientists, we have chosen to focus on the Defense Intelligence Agency ( DIA) in order to provide a more detailed view of the scientific side of intelligence work.

The DIA's director provides intelligence support to the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The DIA has close ties to the military, but many of the agency's employees are civilians. Its primary concern is with nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) warfare; its scientists assess both the current and potential NBC capabilities of foreign governments and non-government entities.

The events of 9/11 changed things for DIA, but not as dramatically as you might think. "The scientific disciplines [that DIA employs] didn't change, but it broadened the focus of what we monitor. There are fewer things you can take for granted," says Raye. Yet even before 9/11, DIA's scientific needs ranged widely. Disciplines in demand, then and now, include biology, chemistry, computer science, microbiology, pharmacology, physics, toxicology, and engineering.

So what is the work like? There is no typical day, and the duties of intelligence officers range as widely as their scientific disciplines. Duties might include tracking and analyzing foreign weapons systems and capabilities; coding and maintaining weapon system simulations; C and C++ programming; keeping tabs on foreign threat capabilities against ground, naval, air, and space weapon systems; or maintaining contacts with counterparts elsewhere in the intelligence community and in government and industry.

In the real world of defense intelligence, scientific skills get applied to daunting challenges. "I'll give you an example," says Raye. "Everything has a signature--the vibration and noise from every jet aircraft, every missile. Let's say all of a sudden we start receiving a new signature from a country that we were unaware possessed a particular technology. An intelligence agent evaluates the components and materials that go into the technology, and they evaluate everything from a country's economic capabilities to its imports and exports. And then they try to determine what has changed."

Many DIA positions are based in the U.S., primarily at the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center and the Pentagon, both in the Washington, D.C. area, the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center in Frederick, Maryland, and the Missile and Space Intelligence Center in Huntsville, Alabama. But there are also opportunities to serve abroad. The unsuccessful search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, though headed by the CIA, nevertheless involved a number of DIA personnel. DIA intelligence analysts combed through industrial complexes and found some missiles that violated international treaty because they had too long a range. DIA agents also support combat commanders worldwide.

DIA has a unique promotional structure. Most government employees can only be promoted one 'grade scale' at a time, ranking from GS1 to GS15. At DIA, employees can leapfrog to any GS grade-level, as long as they meet the qualifications for the position. "Every promotional opportunity is advertised, and everyone within a particular specialty can compete for that position. It's all a merit promotion system," says Raye.

So you can move up, but you can also move over, into another of the 15 government agencies that conduct intelligence work. "Some folks find better opportunities for personal growth in other agencies. That's good for all of the intelligence community," says Raye.

Most who enter with a science background continue on the scientific side of intelligence, he says, because the challenges keep it interesting. Aside from the evolving technologies that intelligence officers must constantly track, changing political and even environmental conditions create new challenges. In defending U.S. soil, the DIA must consider ever-changing global threats and security conditions. "When an event like the tsunami hits, new diseases and new threats are created. Medical intelligence [officers] look at the new threats that it creates, even new substances that are washed into the sea. They don't become stagnant or bored," says Raye.

The agency also offers numerous opportunities for professional development and further education. Employees get free tuition at the Joint Military Intelligence College and can apply for various government and White House fellowships and intern programs, as well as career programs and leadership development opportunities.

Are U Intelligent?

As you might expect, working for an intelligence agency has a number of requirements beyond most civilian agencies. You need to be an American citizen, and you have to obtain clearance. In fact, working as a DIA analyst requires the highest level of security clearance. But that's not as hard to get as it sounds. Clean finances and lack of a criminal record help ease the clearance process. Even a few stains on your record won't necessarily disqualify you.

"The Department of Defense is under no illusion that anybody in the U.S. hasn't done anything wrong some time in the past," says DIA spokesman Mike Birmingham. "The point is, is it a one-time mistake or is there a pattern of misconduct? If you've shown that it was a single mistake, then you're going to be okay, especially if it's not in your more recent history."

The biggest problem with clearance is likely to be the time that it takes to be granted. Interim clearance can be had in as little as two weeks, but full approval could take months or even as long as a year, depending on how much legwork the agency needs to do. For example, if you lived or worked overseas, security clearances will take longer than for those applicants who have not.

But if you have the patience, a career in intelligence could be waiting for you. It may not be what you were thinking of when you made your choice to become a scientist, but there are plenty of political and security challenges in the years ahead to make intelligence work interesting for a long time to come.

Jim Kling is a freelance science and medical writer based in Bellingham, Washington.