Class 11, Inside the CIA’s First Pot 9-11 Spy Class by T.J. Waters

T.J. Waters is, to the best of my understanding, an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. He rushed to join the CIA in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Five years later, in 2006, he published a book about his training and education experiences as an aspiring spy, analyst, and staffer at the Agency. He was a rookie, one of many to comprise Class 11, trying to make the team.


Waters shows the reader the world of a person seeking to pass muster and join the Agency. You sit with him in his first general class meeting with CIA administrators and trainers. You follow him as he moves from stage to stage, from the first days of training and orientation to the culminating classroom and field education of “the Farm.” To the extent that he can in light of classified information, Waters pulls the curtain and reveals a temporary life of learning that only a handful of people have ever seen.


Waters writes in a breezy, youthful style, reminiscent of someone chatting with you in the break room. His writing expresses the “adult school yard” stories that characterize Class 11 as a book. He adds to the drama by sprinkling in anecdotes about his fiancé and wife, a relationship that wrestles with issues of separation and secrecy. As a writer, Waters impresses you as sincere, enthusiastic, and friendly. Despite an occasional lapse into tediousness, Waters’ ability as a writer is a boost to the book.


He depicts the class spirit of the group that sought to join the CIA the first year after 9/11. They have a self-identity of hearing a call on that day of horrors. Waters writes about the group being generally older, more professionally accomplished in business, than typical CIA recruiting classes. The identity they develop extends outside the boundaries of learning; the group frequently socializes together. Waters shares with pride that many CIA instructors comment on the uniqueness of Class 11.


The group learns the basics of work at the CIA. They conduct surveillance, “drops,” follow targets on foot and in vehicles, and in similar modes of transport attempt to evade those who would follow them. They learn how to define likely sources of human intelligence (HUMINT, in the jargon) which are crucial to gathering and analyzing raw national security information.


Waters is not afraid of criticizing CIA standards and procedures. Many of the regulations and customs in CIA training and education are outdated; for example, there’s almost no thought given to implications of the increase among recruits with spouses and children. At the same time, Waters is perhaps too eager to praise Class 11 for its gifts and abilities. The reader may predict that it won’t be very far in the future when Waters is defending the alumni of Class 11 for mistakes in the field. From there, it’s a short step to justifying yet another failure of Class 11’s CIA.


This raises a point. Every organization I know seeks to instill a sense of identity and defining unity among its employees, especially recruits. But I don’t know how many people stop and consider the disadvantages of hyper-identity—the blind loyalty to the group and stubborn refusal to change its behavior. There is a risk that in becoming so effective at forming a group or organizational identity we at the same time calcify it against new ideas and methods. The CIA is a powerful example of this.


The most intriguing element of the book to me was the phenomenon of a temporary life of learning. Most of us don’t experience an immersion of learning as Waters did in the preparatory year at the CIA. Similar in fashion to aspects of the US military, the preparatory year at the CIA is a mixture of education and training in an industry (national security intelligence gathering and analysis), a recognized entity with the industry (CIA), and a particular role in the entity (spy, analyst, and so forth). Throughout the three-layer mixture runs a pervasive sense of uniqueness and specialization.


In almost no other job, position, or career will a person have this type of temporary learning life. Though such professions as medicine share some aspects of it, they fall short in that students learn as individuals and not as potential colleagues in the same organization. Students of languages might participate in a different kind of “immersion” program, but again, they don’t have the organizational component of learning that you see with Waters and the CIA.


Interestingly, probably the closest example to the CIA’s preparatory year of learning would be other national government agencies and organizations, such as the Department of State, National Security Agency, and the various officer schools of the American military. The fact that only other national public organizations best resemble the CIA’s preparatory year of learning tells us about its uniqueness as an experience.


Waters discovers that training and education for hopeful CIA employees relies heavily on CIA veterans and subcontractors who have worked there in the past. Waters and the other students conduct hands-on training and do extensive role plays and scenarios that can last for days. These activities involve the students in unusual ways; they serve as contributors to each other’s learning as much as they participate in their own instruction. They also endure intense scrutiny and critical feedback from their instructors.


In reading about the preparatory year of learning at the CIA, three points startled me. As you will see, each point has importance both for emerging national security issues and for organizations that are re-examining their education and training programs.


One such point was the CIA’s reliance on veterans and subcontractors in the training staff (or faculty, if you prefer). These folks are excellent for passing on accepted wisdom to potential recruits and new hires. Procedure Q, as we’ll call it, is time-tested, reliable, and has been precisely crafted to meet our needs. Thus, people steeped in Procedure Q are exactly the ones you want imparting this information to eager, open minds. However, there is a looming disaster if Procedure Q is part of a flawed set of organizational principles, including its culture. New results and the methods and practices that produce them are not equivalent to a restating of Procedure Q. You don’t want instructors and trainers who are too heavily invested in Procedure Q (and the old ways) and yet are trying to stir a change in culture and overall reform of the organization’s activities. All you’ll get in that case is a weakly reheated version of Procedure Q and the same set of failures you’re seeking to reverse. Waters’ book suggests that fresh culture requires fresh trainers doing fresh training.


Too many veterans and subcontractors in the CIA’s training system threaten the Agency’s ability to revamp the worn-out conventions of national security intelligence. You’ll not be likely to avoid another bumbling pre-Iraq War assessment if you simply re-stir the old ingredients in the pot. The same hold true for any private or public organization, whether profit-based or not.


The second startling point was the role of training and education in perpetuating traditional ways. I don’t believe that organizations fully understand the connection between the desire and necessary of change and the link to training and education. The reader learns that the CIA is aware of needing to change and that this awareness has occasional expressions in the content and rhetoric of learning. In reality, though, this is only a fraction compared to the much greater contributions that training and education make to continuance of the CIA’s status quo. After reading the book, I assert that the CIA hopes for 90-100% change in its outcomes but pursues perhaps 10-30%change in how and what its employees learn in their first year. You need to ask the same hard question of your organization—what is the relationship between the percentage change in outcomes compared to those of learning?


The third point is the loneliness or singularity of the individual at the tip of the national security spear. Human intelligence is rightly regarded as possibly the most important type of national security information. You define it as a person—someone who becomes an informant that passes on important data to a CIA agent and hence up the chain of command. It takes a CIA agent to identify, develop, and recruit each informant. Person to person, one at a time, everything ultimately hinges on the individual. When you step back and think about it, that’s an enormous burden for each individual agent to carry.


One of the positive observations about the CIA which I gained from Waters’ book was the Agency’s appreciation of the psychological and motivational side of national security intelligence. The CIA has delved deeply into understanding the human dynamics at work in gathering and analyzing intelligence. That understanding has been translated into several components of the temporary year of learning. I encourage organizations to put more effort into comprehending the attitudinal side of their customers, internal operations, and overall employee performance. Some organizations are effective in addressing the latter but they have no sense of the former two.


T.J. Waters made a serious commitment to the CIA after one of this nation’s greatest tragedies. For that he is to be commended. In his earnestness Waters assumed readers would want to know more about people who made a similar commitment as well as the institution which they strove to enter. For that he is to be thanked. And in a way that perhaps he didn’t fully intend, Waters underscored the urgency of looking more clearly and honestly at the way we link a hope for change to the reality of learning. For that he is to be used.