Out of the many clandestine jobs that people love to speculate about, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent is one of the most mysterious. Scores of films, television shows, and books have made the lives of these agents look like thrill-a-minute, globe-hopping adventures. This image of CIA agents was reified as recently as the summer 2016 blockbuster Jason Bourne, which depicts the CIA teaming up with a hugely successful tech company (a thinly veiled version of Facebook) to increase the reach of its surveillance.
Undoubtedly, the existence of the CIA and other agencies like it provide great fodder for authors like Robert Ludlum (of the Bourne series) and Tom Clancy, who have helped engender the perception of the agency as a cabal of stealthy spies and shadowy operatives. But Ludlum and Clancy are hardly known as literary realists, and when it comes to the CIA, the reality isn’t nearly as action-packed and blood-soaked as the Bourne movies let on. In asking questions about how CIA agents work — such as, “How much does a CIA agent make?” or “Where can CIA agents operate?” — it’s important to not leap to the most fanciful claims. This How Much Guide to the realities of a CIA agent won’t be as rip-roaring as a spy thriller, but it will have the benefit of accuracy.
What is a CIA Agent?
Before getting into the specifics of a CIA agent’s career, it’s helpful to first define terms. “CIA agent” does not mean one who goes out into the world, gun at the ready, looking to avert some potential international crisis in the style of the Bourne series. Perhaps there are some agents who come close to fitting that bill, but the CIA is a big institution, meaning that not every one of its employees can be gallivanting around the world looking for trouble. The CIA has many needs that need to be met, which requires them to fulfill a broad range of tasks — many, if not most of which don’t involve shoot ’em ups.
Frame from Jason Bourne (2016), starring Matt Damon as a rogue former CIA operative
In knowing what CIA agents do, one must first know the directive of the CIA itself. The Central Intelligence Agency’s name is apt, in that it is an agency that provides intelligence to the central command of the country — in this case, the Executive branch of the United States, which is led by the President. Whereas the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) focuses on domestic issues, the CIA gathers intelligence from all across the globe; though it does have some domestic operations, they are largely overshadowed by the international operations of the CIA.
In gathering intelligence from around the globe, the CIA has a few main aims:
Counterterrorism: This has become perhaps the biggest directive of not just the CIA but also the United States military, following the attacks on September 11th. One of the biggest challenges in responding to terrorism is learning to adapt to the new rules of war. It used to be that enemies at war followed certain rules of conduct, such as wearing clothing that clearly denotes one’s country and respecting prisoners of war. Terrorism, which involves non-state actors (that is, those who belong to no country) who answer to no one, completely thwarts the traditional rules of war. In order to effectively address this, agencies like the CIA need to collect data to figure out how countries like the US can fight wars where the definition of war is constantly changing.
Domestic Protection: Threats to the United States can come from anywhere, other countries included. This is where the intelligence that the CIA collects is valuable, for it allows the US government to better identify future threats.
An example that helps illustrate how the CIA approaches domestic protection comes from the world of airport security. Jeffrey Goldberg famously pointed out in The Atlantic that the Transport Security Administration (TSA) is deluding itself if it thinks that by erecting as many barriers as possible at airports, it will weed out any and all airport attacks. The real work that needs to be done, Goldberg argues, happens before would-be attackers enter the airport. If it has gotten to the point where an attacker feels comfortable even pulling up to the airport, then the security community has not done its job. Similarly, the CIA’s task is to protect the United States from potential foreign threats, but in doing so it must be proactive in its intelligence gathering. It does no good to build up walls if you know nothing of the agents that would threaten them.
Counterintelligence: While the CIA is an American institution, it should come as little surprise that other countries have their own equivalent of a CIA. In 2015, for example, France was the victim of attacks by individuals from countries foreign to itself; in halting future attacks, it needs to collect as much intelligence as it can.
France is an ally of the United States, but not all countries with central intelligence agencies will have such amiable relationships with the US. Then there is the growing matter of non-state actors, who in trying to harm the US will gather as much intelligence as they can. In order to combat espionage and other infiltrations into US intelligence, the CIA needs to ensure that unauthorized actors can’t breach the US’ security firewalls. This job has become increasingly difficult, as cyber-attacks and cyber espionage are replete in a digital world. Thanks to the existence of anonymity-protecting browsers like Tor and the seedy corners of the internet (known as “the dark net”), the US could be receiving threats from any and all corners of the world, which requires, to quote one famous Harry Potter character, “Constant vigilance!”
The three areas of focus for the CIA listed above, while broadly encompassing the agency’s MO, do not totally describe what goes on a day-to-day basis at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Take a look at this organizational chart of the CIA:
It doesn’t take long looking at this to get that there are undoubtedly agents working in many arenas of the CIA; there is no one archetypal CIA agent that does anything and everything for the agency. In order to effectively address the range of issues that the CIA focuses on, the agency must require that its agents specialize. Delegation is critical in maintaining a strong front against the threats faced by the United States.
How Much Do CIA Agents Make, Then?
Looking to all of the information above, it’s hard to say just how much a CIA agent makes in precise terms. One reason not mentioned thus far is secrecy: the CIA is notorious for being taciturn about its budget, which by extension includes the salaries of its employees.
But even beyond that secrecy, there’s the matter of the vagueness inherent to the appellation “CIA agent.” Agent of what? Does this refer to a field agent, the kind that movies and books have so popularized? Does this refer to someone with the specific title “agent,” or is the term “agent” a kind of catch-all?
It is probable, if not likely, that the asker of this question will end up not getting a precise answer, due mostly to the CIA’s own quietism on budgetary matters. But if one narrows this question down, s/he might find an answer close to the truth.
The CIA website has extensive career listings, spanning fields including legal, investigation, information technology, policing, and engineering. When you click on any of these job listings, you’ll find salaries listed alongside them. An Operations Officer for the Directorate of Operations — who will “clandestinely” identify non-US citizens for purposes of gathering US intelligence — will make between $55,215 – $84,044. Cyber Security Officers, who handle and analyze threats related to cyberintelligence and cyberterrorism, will take in a salary somewhere between $60,557 – $141,555 per annum.
The disparity in those two figures, especially the latter, is pretty significant. Several factors influence how much one will get paid along scales like those, including previous experience, education, and competition from other job offers. Those with a lot of previous experience or those who have competing offers from the private sector will be most likely to leverage a better paycheck out of their CIA job. In the job listing for the Operations Officer post, however, it is stipulated that all Directorate of Operations employees are hired at the entry level, and will receive extensive training.
To get a better idea of what one can expect to make at the CIA — remembering that the agency likes its secrecy, which means a lot of information will be hard if not impossible to find — it’s best to go to the CIA careers page and narrow your search to the fields you are interested in finding out about. “How much a CIA agent makes” is a wide category, encompassing those specializing in tech to those out in the world doing intensive translation work to better engage with the intelligence provided by foreign countries. Wherever you end up in your search for information about the CIA, just remember: the Bourne movies are works of fiction. Don’t expect a gun and a butt-kicking mission on day one.