It seems the intelligence community is more salient than ever these days. Almost every news channel has some story about the FBI or CIA each day. That’s not to mention the Mission Impossible and James Bond movies that end up on the silver screen with regularity.
But what does it take to be an intelligence officer in this rapidly changing world, which now encompasses the domains of cybersecurity and outer space?
“One of the critical characteristics, and this is universal, is the idea of finding young people that have a high degree of integrity,” said Executive Director of the International Spy Museum Chris Costa during our discussion, Building a Career in Today’s Intelligence Community. The retired U.S. Army colonel previously served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of Counterterrorism for the White House National Security Council.
Integrity isn’t the only characteristic that will give aspiring intelligence officials a leg up; Costa says humility is a key attribute.
“Recognizing that it takes a team and you fail and succeed based on the team. Life experience is certainly helpful if you have time overseas and you can pursue other languages and understand other cultures. I think importantly it’s crucial to understand you have to have an insatiable curiosity for the world around you,” Costa said in his interview with Federal News Radio.
Costa followed his intellectual curiosity in the 1990s when he worked on, and eventually received, his master’s in strategic intelligence from American Military University (AMU).
Costa said what he learned in school framed the world around him, especially when 9/11 rocked the United States.
Taking a class on terrorism “contextualized 9/11 for me. At the same time it allowed me to go much deeper, explore the literature and understand terrorism. All sides of terrorism, right-wing terrorism to the jihadist fight that was playing out live, literally,” Costa said. “Flash forward many years later I would be the special assistant to the president for counterterrorism. The learning that I did with AMU to finish that Master’s degree and understand terrorism took me into a policymaking realm. No one was better prepared, and I say that with humility, to understand terrorism.”
While understanding terrorism was important for the 2000s, warfare and intelligence domains have now found their way into to the cyber realm.
Costa says for those interested in the intelligence field, cybersecurity and cyber are great places to invest time and interest. But he also says there are characteristics and studies that are and always will be timeless to the intelligence community. Critical thinking and the integrity and humility Costa mentioned will forever be the most integral parts of what it takes to join the intelligence community.
Of course there’s always room for inspiration as well and Costa has just the trick to instill passion for intelligence in people of all ages.
As the Executive Director of the International Spy Museum, he brings the message of the intelligence community to people all over the world.
“What a great platform to walk through the museum and see the artifacts that speak to something that happened in intelligence history and then tie it to current events ongoing,” Costa said.
The International Spy Museum is moving to a new location in Washington with more room for exhibits. Costa says the new museum will tell the whole intelligence story from “covert action and propaganda” to “human intelligence and the relationship between spies and spymasters.”
Executive Director, International Spy Museum & American Military University Alumnus
Colonel Chris Costa (U.S. Army-Ret.) is the Executive Director of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC and an alumni member of American Military University. He served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of Counterterrorism for the White House National Security Council, and was responsible for coordinating counterterrorism policy and strategy as well as U.S. hostage recovery activities. With over 30 years of experience in national security, counterintelligence, counterterrorism, unconventional warfare, and human intelligence—Colonel Costa received two Bronze Stars for his intelligence work in Afghanistan and a Defense Superior Service Medal and the Legion of Merit. In May 2013, he was inducted into the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Commando Hall of Honor. In addition to achieving a bachelor of arts in criminal justice from Norwich University and a master of arts in national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College—Colonel Costa earned his master of arts in strategic intelligence from American Military University.
Scott Maucione is a defense reporter for Federal News Radio and has worked in journalism for over a decade. He previously covered the Pentagon for Inside Defense. His work has been published in The Washington Post, Random Nerds and a handful of other publications. He received his B.A. in journalism and political science from the University of Maryland and his Master’s from American University in applied politics.