Wednesday, August 03, 2005

MEMOIR: When the CIA wanted to hire me

The recent controversies over Central Intelligence Agency leaks to the press and the efficiency of its operations bring to mind the job offer the agency made to me in 1949.
A temporary summer job as a writer for the AFL-CIO Machinists Union's weekly newspaper had ended about a month earlier. Before the summer job, I had been "displaced" from a job as "information & editorial specialist (press & publications)"--civil service jargon for press agent--for the U.S. Department of the Interior's Fish & Wildlife Service. I had been employed there for a year following my college graduation in June 1948.
For a boy raised in the Bronx, it was a bizarre place to work, writing about trumpeter swans, whooping cranes, red-breasted mergansers, and other exotic wildlife. One of my colleagues was Rachel Carson, a spinsterish, then-unknown biologist-writer who later became a world-famed celebrity as a pioneer environmentalist.
I lost the job because the Civil Service Commission belatedly decided that I had been improperly hired. While still in college, I had placed a "situation wanted" ad in Editor & Publisher, the trade journal for the newspaper industry, seeking a job as a cub reporter. I received two responses. One was from a commercial printer in Moundsville, W.Va. who wanted me to invest $5,000 to start a weekly newspaper of which I would be editor-in-chief. I didn't have $5,000, and Moundsville, W. Va. was not exactly the big time.
The other response came from the Fish & Wildlife Service's Division of Information. The division's chief was an ex-newspaperman who had been Alaska's chief game warden and had been rewarded with a Washington sinecure by Harold Ickes, then the Secretary of Interior. He spotted my ad, invited me to Washington for an interview, and hired me to write press releases. The annual salary: $3397, impressive pay at that time for a newly-minted college graduate. Exuberant recommendations from two college professors who were faculty advisers for the New York University senior yearbook (I had been its editor-in-chief) helped me land the job.
Unfortunately, the former Alaska game warden was ignorant of civil service employment regulations and had not been fully authorized to hire me. The U.S. government doesn't hire people by answering "situations wanted" ads.
Seeking a new job after my summer job with the union would end, I noticed a want ad in the Washington Post for an editor-writer. The ad did not identify the employer and showed only a post office box number. I responded to the ad, enclosing copies of my Fish & Wildlife press releases and articles I had written for Army and college newspapers.
A couple of weeks later I received a strange letter inviting me for an interview. The envelope and the letterhead displayed no organizational name. I recall only an address in the 2000 block of E Street, N.W. in Washington and a phone number. I was instructed to call for an appointment.
I got to the E Street address, and found a large building that bore no identification. In those days anyone could walk into any Federal government building (including, as I recall, the Pentagon) unchallenged. But security in the E Street building was extraordinary. I had to go through a maze of reception desks manned by armed guards before I could get to an elevator that would take me to the office where I was supposed to go.
It was the most unusual job interview I have ever had. The scene was like something out of a Kafka story. I was instructed to fill out an application form outlining my educational, military and employment background in greater detail than I had already submitted. I was then told to wait in another room. I still had no idea who the potential employer might be. After about an hour, I was called into another room where two interviewers bombarded me with very personal questions for at least another hour.
Only during the interiew did I learn that I was sitting in the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. (The CIA's huge headquarters complex in Langley, Va. was not built until the mid-1950s.) But I was not given any details about the job, nor was I allowed to ask questions. All I knew about the agency was that it had been created a couple of years earlier as the successor to the wartime Office of Strategic Services.
I successfully survived the initial stage of the hiring process, for I was told to report back the following week at 8 a.m. to take a written exam. Having had a security clearance and taken a loyalty oath at the Fish & Wildlife Service (as required for all Federal employees during those days, thanks to Sen. Joe McCarthy), the CIA apparently considered me sufficiently kosher to qualify for the next stage.
The exam lasted all day. I was in a room alone except for a proctor. He accompanied me to the men's room when nature called and offered me a sandwich during a brief break.The exam was the most comprehensive that I have ever taken. It covered American and foreign history, current events, American and foreign literature, world geography, and general science. (As a lifetime mathphobe, I was delighted to encounter nothing mathematical.)
About half the exam was devoted to editing techniques. In college as a journalism major I had never been exposed to anything like the CIA test. Patches of information on varied subjects were presented, which I was required to assemble into a coherent piece of writing. I was also given a lengthy manuscript made unintelligible by grammatical and spelling errors and illogical transitions. This had to be rewritten and transformed into readable material. I was never aware that something as arcane as editing skills could be subjected to an examination.
About a month later, I was invited to return and was formally offered a job. I would be the editor in a three-man team monitoring radio broadcasts from Soviet bloc nations. The team would include a foreign language expert, a radio engineer and an editor to compile reports on the broadcasts. The CIA had such teams stationed in Europe and Asia surrounding the sprawling Soviet Union and its satellite nations.
Perhaps because of my World War II military service in the China-Burma-India Theater, I was offered a choice of three Asian assignments--Singapore, Hong Kong or Seoul, Korea. The salary was about double what I had earned at the Fish & Wildlife Service, plus an overseas living allowance.
The CIA personnel officer agreed to give me a few weeks to consider the offer. By nowI had successfully taken a government civil service exam (far simpler than the CIA's), which granted me regular civil service status. This made me eligible for a job offer I had received from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to be an editor and press relations officer. I had been recommended by the union newspaper's editor to the agency's director of information.
So there I was with two job offers. I was then a bachelor enjoying a highly satisfactory social life in Washington. I tried to imagine the kind of social life a guy like me would have in Seoul, Hong Kong, or Singapore. I figured it would tough to meet girls there who I would feel comfortable bringing home to my mother in the Bronx. My mother, of course, had been bugging me to settle down and get married.
The result: I passed up what would probably have been a very exciting job with the CIA and accepted what turned out to be a very dull job at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (I quit 14 months later to work for a new government agency created during the Korean War to control the nation's industrial production.)
I've always blamed my mother for preventing me from having a cloak-and-dagger career.


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Sunday, June 25, 2006 8:59:00 PM  

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