Boot camp for defense intelligence analysts pops up in piedmont Virginia

December 11, 2011

In one room of the community college in rural central Virginia, students were practicing the basics of woodworking. In another, they were learning how to draw blood for medical tests. In Room 131, students were learning how to analyze national security threats.

“Jemaah Islamiyah, a terrorist group based in Indonesia, has been dormant for years, but recent bombings in April and May of this year indicate the resurgence of this group,” student Ana Buan said, giving a PowerPoint briefing to the class. “I say that with medium confidence.

“Of 70 convictions related to the 2002 Bali bombings,” she went on, “only 13 remain incarcerated. Now their estimated force is 300.”

Defense intelligence analyst boot camp started this fall at Piedmont Virginia Community College, in a rural area where recent military realignment has brought jobs that require expertise and security clearances. Students are hoping their $10,000 investment might pay off with a coveted top-secret career.

A variety of options are available for people hoping to study or do intelligence work or advance their careers, including the military and academic programs such as those at Georgetown or Johns Hopkins. There is extensive training within the federal agencies that do the work. The National Intelligence University, based in the Defense Intelligence Analysis Center at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, has been educating analysts and others working in the field for decades; students must have top-secret security clearance even to apply.

But this 10-week class on a small campus in the hills near Charlottesville has a twist, one that has brought together an unusual mix of students — from new graduates, to people with decades of military service, to people with intelligence experience, to relatives of those working in the field. The class includes a counselor of troubled kids, an optometrist, an architect, a saleswoman, a real estate agent, a beat cop turned stay-at-home dad and a contractor who spent a break in class barking exasperated directions into a phone. “No, left. Left! You’re looking for a BARN. You can’t miss it.”

The class is a partnership between the Ohio-based nonprofit corporation Advanced Technical Intelligence Center for Human Capital Development (better known, not surprisingly, by the nickname ATIC) and the community college. It’s an attempt to train local residents for an emerging employment market and to avoid a common catch-22 for people trying to enter the field, said John Donnelly, a vice president at the community college. Employers would prefer to hire someone who has a security clearance, he said, but an employee must be sponsored by an agency to go through the slow process.

This class offers students, most of whom have a bachelor’s degree, the opportunity to go through the clearance process as they study. They hope to enter the market with a valuable asset in hand.

One student said she heard about the class because her husband, who works in military intelligence in the area, learned about it from his boss. After quite a bit of research — she was nervous about plunking down so much money, especially because she just finished college — she thought it was her best shot. If you don’t have clearance, she said she has learned from potential employers, they’re just not interested.

Like many of the students in the class, she was hesitant to use her name for fear it would jeopardize her chances of a top-secret job.

Over the past year, the Defense Intelligence Agency moved about 800 jobs from the Washington area to Rivanna Station, a military facility north of Charlottesville. The agency has a robust internal training program, the Defense Intelligence Strategic Analysis Program, the spokesman said, which starts immediately and continues throughout an analyst’s career. Early course work is supplemented by on-the-job training that hones skills and areas of expertise.

The boot camp, he said, “is not in any way affiliated with DIA.”

Boot camp students are submitted for clearance investigations as consulting interns once they enter the program, said Hugh K. Bolton, president and chief executive of ATIC, which designed the boot camp. Their initial contracts were through Air Force organizations, he said, and now include other government agencies.

The class begins with an introduction to intelligence, how to think and brief like an analyst, and ways to gather unclassified information. As the class continues, the students (hopefully) get security clearances and can work with classified data on specialized topics.

In a recent class, students gave briefings and answered questions on topics such as the likelihood of China building a naval base in Pakistan, Libya’s weapons arsenal, North Korea’s offensive cyber capability, effects of the Arab Spring on Syria’s leaders, and Russia’s willingness to join the World Trade Organization.

Then they got snacks from vending machines outside the classroom and sat down to talk about job prospects and weekend plans.

Buan, who was about to give her briefing on the terrorist group in Indonesia, was checking her presentation to make sure the technical aspects went smoothly. A linguist with expertise in Tagalog and Cebuano, she recently returned from a deployment in the Middle East, where she was working with military forces, and is waiting to hear from a couple of agencies with jobs she thinks she would love.

She moved from New York to Charlottesville temporarily to take the class. It has been intense, she said, sometimes with all-night research. “It’s not for everyone,” she said, but for her, the program is a perfect fit (other than a little shock at how rural the area is.) She had been about to enroll in a master’s degree program for intelligence studies. “But this is faster. It’s only three months of my life.”

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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