Intel

Why CIA analysts are often sent into combat zones

In the first season of Amazon's Jack Ryan, the eponymous character begins as a low-level financial analyst within the CIA. The series is, essentially, one big prequel, connecting to what will ultimately become Tom Clancy's Ryanverse, a fictional reality that's the basis for many great films, like The Hunt for Red October and The Sum of All Fears.

At the series' start, Ryan is just a lowly desk-jockey, reluctant to embrace danger — he begins the series complaining about being sent into a combat zone. Now, it's not necessarily a plot hole, but a CIA analyst being reluctant to get into the mix is a lot like a young private complaining that they're being sent to Afghanistan: It happens so often that they should kind of expect their number to be called.


CIA analysts often provide the Department of Defense with the actionable intelligence they need to conduct their missions. That being said, the life of a CIA analyst isn't the fun, high-stakes adventure that films often make it out to be. Since information about specific events is rarely released to the public, we often only hear about their missions well after the fact, or in some broad, vague way.

Each analyst is specifically trained in a given field and is sent to a specific region to learn one specific thing. This is fairly well represented in the show — Ryan is sent to Yemen to learn about terrorist spending habits there. Actual analysts would be given more mundane tasks, yes, but their missions would be along those lines.

Even if it's a tad unrealistic, upping the ante makes for a great show.

For the most part, analysts often only report local happenings to their higher ups. Sure, a deep-undercover operative sent to Afghanistan in 2000 may have been doing all that secret-squirrel stuff and agents sent to Berlin in the 70s could have been living it up like James Bond — but analysts might be sent anywhere for any reason, like to get a feel of the trends in the Kazakh media.

The whole spy world gets demystified when you realize that it's actually kinda boring. Take the often-misunderstood CIA cyber analysts, for example. Moments where you can flex your super-hacker muscles like they do in the movies probably exists, but you're mostly just gathering intelligence via social media analysis.

Hacking in the real world is more like using software to crack passwords than improvising lines of written code, just to demystify that one, too.

Then there're the analysts that get embedded with the troops. On one extreme, they're working hand-in-hand with the special operations community to collect as much information as possible about any given threat, like on the Abbottabad Compound where Osama Bin Laden hid. Or they could be working with conventional forces to gather whatever the troops learn while deployed.

Everything just comes down to the second word in the CIA's name — intelligence — and learning what they can from anywhere and everyone.

Don't get that twisted, though. They're still going to be involved with the cool moments you see in spy films — just not very often.

Hamid Karzai with Special Forces and CIA Paramilitary in late 2001.