How to Become an Intelligence Officer

Intelligence officers discuss data on a map.

Many careers can rightly be described as “challenging.” Some of them require the ability to convert information into valuable intelligence that decision-makers can use to anticipate, prepare for and respond to future events. Yet only a handful of these careers offer the opportunity to apply these high-powered intelligence analyses in ways that make the world a safer place.

One such career is that of the intelligence officer, who provides quality intelligence to support the decisions made by leaders in civilian and military agencies and in private businesses. Students wondering how to become an intelligence officer may find that their journey begins with an education focused on advanced research skills and data analytics techniques.

The Intelligence Community’s Role in National Security

There is no way to know exactly where the next threat to national security will come from, nor what form the threat may take. Yet an intelligence officer’s duty is to identify potential risks to the nation and its residents, thwarting any such attacks before they do any damage. To accomplish this, intelligence officers rely on the latest data collection and analytics techniques, reporting their results clearly and completely to decision-makers throughout the intelligence community.

Within the broad category of intelligence officer are more than a dozen career specialties and areas of focus. Among the specific intelligence skills highlighted on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s careers site are intelligence analysis, intelligence collection, computer and mathematical sciences, cyber defense and security and law enforcement. These and other intelligence topics are covered in the coursework that comprises Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (HSEP) degree program.

Below are some of the skills and areas of expertise that can help students become intelligence officers.

Geopolitical Risk Assessment

Preparing intelligence reports on specific nations, regions or security issues requires the ability to quickly sift through massive volumes of information to glean the insights that support thoughtful decision-making. In addition to data science and analysis, intelligence officers rely on their knowledge of history, geography, political science, the physical sciences and international affairs.

The courses in VCU’s HSEP program that address these areas include Risk Assessment, Survey of Terrorism, Research Methods for Government and Public Affairs, and Technology, Security and Preparedness. These and other components of the program provide students with a broad interdisciplinary background that combines theoretical and practical expertise. These skills can be applied in intelligence roles with public agencies and in the private sector. Students benefit from the program’s wide perspective on social, organizational, ethical, political and economic issues, as they learn ways to mitigate security threats and the impact of natural disasters.

Cyber Risk Assessment

The massive volumes of data generated by businesses and individuals is subject to the same analytical techniques that intelligence officers use to compensate for biases and uncertainties in standard text-based material. The difference is that the data analytics must be applied in near real time to glean only the meaningful elements. The resulting information is analyzed using algorithms designed to predict future events. These algorithms generate reports automatically, and they are used by intelligence officers to offer policy recommendations to decision-makers.

Staying abreast of the ever-increasing pace of data analytics has become a greater challenge with the arrival of the internet of things (IoT), which places data-collecting sensors throughout distribution networks and other digital and real-world pathways. Courses in the HSEP curriculum that help prepare students for future cyber security needs include Survey of Cyber Security, which covers the legal and policy aspects of attacks on computer networks.

Risks to Infrastructure, Public Health and the Private Sector

Becoming an intelligence officer entails understanding the threats posed to the public beyond the realms of geopolitics and cyber space. Many of the contributions of intelligence professionals come in the areas of public health, emergency response and private sector preparedness.

The HSEP program includes several courses that deal directly with the intelligence needs of public agencies, health services and private industry: Public Health Preparedness; Emergency Management: Response Planning and Incident Command; Government, Industry and Community Strategic Planning; Private Sector Issues in Security and Preparedness; and Institutional Challenges of Security Preparedness.

Intelligence Officer Careers with the Government

Intelligence officers are in demand among many federal agencies inside and outside of the military. Here are some tips for pursuing a career as an intelligence officer within various organizations.

Central Intelligence Agency

The skills the CIA seeks in candidates for analyst positions include problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration. Analysts must extract intelligence from incomplete, inconsistent and contradictory information. Among the 16 analyst positions listed by the CIA are counterintelligence threat analyst; intelligence collection analyst; cyber threat analyst; counterterrorism analyst; and science, technology and weapons analyst.

Federal Bureau of Investigation

The FBI describes its intelligence analysts as the heart of its intelligence operations. FBI intelligence analysts rely on their knowledge of history, culture, language and geography to collect and synthesize information from sources inside and outside of the Bureau. As with all intelligence analysis, the process begins with research intended to identify, understand and mitigate various threats. Analysts rely on networks of associates in all parts of the intelligence community, from local agencies to international organizations.

Department of Homeland Security Office of Intelligence and Analysis

Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis focuses on integrating intelligence throughout the department’s operations. The goal is to combine intelligence gathering and analysis for counterterrorism, counterintelligence, economic threats, cyber threats and all forms of international crime.

The Office of Intelligence and Analysis is the only agency in the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) that is required by statute to provide intelligence to state, local, private sector and other partners. Intelligence officers are among the field personnel the department assigns to its many fusion centers in cities and states across the country to coordinate activities that involve state and local agencies as well as private institutions. Also deployed to field offices are reports officers and regional directors.

Department of Defense: DIA, NSA, Military Service Branches

Under the umbrella of the Department of Defense (DOD) are the Defense Intelligence Agency; the National Security Agency; and the intelligence divisions of the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence describes several intelligence analyst positions within the IC:

  • Scientific and Technical — The analysts assess the capabilities, strengths and weaknesses of foreign weapons systems.
  • Imagery Intelligence, Geospatial Analysis and Photogrammetric Image Science — Extremely detailed image analysis provides intelligence with object shapes, sizes and other characteristics.
  • Cryptologic Cyber Planner — This position supports the cryptologic components of the DOD’s cyber operations requirements.
  • All Source Analyst — This position focuses on a specific geographic area or functional program, such as counterintelligence, cultural expertise, politics, science or technology.

The First Steps to Becoming an Intelligence Officer

There is no more rewarding way to apply data analytics skills than to ensure the safety of the nation’s families, neighbors and communities. The field of intelligence officer encompasses government agencies of all types and sizes, as well as industries and private businesses. VCU’s online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness program can serve as the foundation for a range of potential careers as an intelligence officer, whether with a public agency or in the private sector.

Association of Former Intelligence Officers, “Intelligence as a Career: Is It Right for You and Are You Right for It?”

Center for Internet Security, “What Is Cyber Threat Intelligence?”

Fortune, “A Former U.S. Intelligence Officer on How to Excel in a Male-Dominated Industry”

Operation Military Kids, Air Force Intelligence Officer: What They Do, Pay, Training, and More

Small Wars Journal, “Intelligence Officer Careers and How to Get One”

U.S. Air Force, Intelligence Officer

U.S. Army, Careers & Jobs: Military Intelligence Officer (35A)

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Careers & Internships

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Intelligence and Analysis

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Intelligence and Analysis: State and Major Urban Area Fusion Centers

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Intelligence Careers

U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Intelligence Branch

U.S. Navy, Military Intelligence Careers

U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Careers

U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “DIA Intelligence Officer: Helping to Shape Key Decisions and Support Military Operations”

U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “FBI Intelligence Analyst: Identifying and Mitigating Threats”

U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “ONI Intelligence Analyst: Office of Naval Intelligence”

Virginia Commonwealth University, Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness